A Pass and a Mishap

Reporting in from Thermopolis, WY, named for its hot springs in the adjacent state park. I’ll make a quick visit tomorrow.

This morning I enjoyed the fruits of my hard push yesterday and this morning, up to Powder River Pass on US 16 over the Bighorn Mountains. I started the climb from Buffalo, a small town which was selling itself really hard for its fame as the filming location for a tv show called “Longmire.” It’s apparently about some crime-solving ex-sheriff in Wyoming, and based on a series of novels by an author in the nearby town of Ucross, which I rode through. I’d never heard of the show, but it seems to be famous enough that the town has a festival about it this whole weekend. Everyone was talking about how big the crowds were; the place was about as densely packed as the Clark Park farmers’ market on a sunny Saturday. Luckily I got into town in time to get my shifter fixed (just in time to make sure my lowest gear was available for the haul up the Bighorns) and then sample some local beer and ice cream. There was also a bluegrass jam in the Occidental Saloon, but this being a festival weekend, by the time I got there it was already standing room only, and I was at no energy level for standing. The saloon and the connected Occidental Hotel were the sort of historic, overpriced building I’d really enjoy staying in if the guilt of dumping out so much money wouldn’t outweigh the fun.

I picked up a Wyoming cycling map near the border, and it illustrated the relevant section of US 16 with an elevation profile and notations of the steepest sustained grade. The longest it listed was 7%, up the initial few miles, but there were some 8% pieces that were evidently not long enough for the map to bother with. These grades don’t sound all that bad, but when you stack up almost 30 miles of climbing, you really notice every extra percentage point in the slope. Anything more than around 5% gets to be really brutal. The ascent to elevation probably didn’t help either; I’ve never been breathing as heavily or had my heart going as fast on this trip.

I took a lot of breaks and averaged around 6mph while moving. By the time I reached the campsite I would stay at, it was 3pm. I had started riding at 8:30 and had covered 31.2 miles. My elevation was around 8200, and the pass was 9666. A steady 5% grade, according to the map, would bring me to the top. Shouldn’t be too bad.

I got into the campsite to find that apparently every spot was full of reserved. The campsite host was nowhere to be found. My backup plan in case of this had been to take advantage of the fact that national forest land, which covers all of the mountain, is free for camping. The problem was that every inch of the road, and every dirt road I had seen, was fenced off. Not very conducive to hauling a loaded road bike into the woods. I started inspecting the immediate surroundings of the campsite for flat ground and tree branches I could use for a bear bag. Both appeared to be nonexistent. I spotted a moose browsing some aspen trees, thkugh, so there was that. 

Luckily the campground host returned and, on hearing of my predocament, offered to let me put my tent up in some extra space on the campsite, before I could even ask. Then he took me on the scenic drive to the other campground he managed, and fed me both dinner and breakfast. Among other things, I learned that there are Hutterites and conservative Mennonites nearby in Montana. I had no idea they ventured this far into the Rockies. 

The remaining 8 miles to the pass were challenging, but with frequent breathers I made it. After guzzling granola bars I began the much-awaited downhill to Ten Sleep. It was great. You haven’t ridden a bike until you’ve coasted 20 miles down an incredible canyon, dropping 5000 vertical feet – having hauled yourself up to the top of the pass too, of course. 

I got ambitious and decided to push all the way to Thermopolis, for a 97-mile day. The wind changed direction every 20 minutes or so, and occasionally got strong enough to throw me off balance. Storm clouds drifted above in patches, never intersecting my path, but adding a a layer of drama to the already weirdening landscape. Drier than ever, the Bighorn Basin rolled and rolled, the distant blue shape of the Absarokas showing the end of it. I turned south through landscapes that looked increasingly like the bare beige limestone of the Negev which I know so well. 

Exhausted and hungry I rolled into Thermopolis. I had booked the cheapest hotel I could find with cursory research, having not slept in a bed for a week and feeling  disgusting, what with my shirt being stiff from all the salt I’d sweated out. About a half mile from the motel, my rear tube exploded, powerfully enough to take the tire with it – a section of the sidewall and bead was ripped apart. I have no idea what caused a sudden explosion of such violence. No point speculating – this is one of those too-rare-to-plan-for disasters that leave you paralyzed. 

Before I could begin to formulate a plan, a great guy named Vic scooped me up in his pickup truck and dropped me at the motel. My instinctive horror at using any motorized transport other than compulsory ferries was allayed by the fact that I can easily ride back to the point of the explosion and complete the distance to satisfy my purist credentials. Vic’s wife was a cyclist and he showed up again soon after with the best their garage had to offer – a 700×23 tire. Not quite the 700×32 I had been using, but despite my somewhat wide rims I thought it had a decent chance of working. 

As of now it seems to be. A quick unloaded ride around the motel and the feel is certainly harsher as would be expected from such skinny tires, but I think I have a good chance of surviving a few days on this. I am worried about the effect that adding a bunch o fextra weight will have on this skinny racing tire which looks to have been sitting around for quite a while, but I saw little point in testing it loaded – if this tire fails, it will probably be after a fair number of miles, out on the open road many miles from anywhere. Besides, I was totally exhausted. 

I should be able to get a new Gatorskin shipped ahead to Jackson. If I can make it that far then I’ll be back in action on trustworthy wheels. If I don’t…well, then I’ll have to depend on my thumb. At least they’re are so many pickup trucks on the road here that the odds of someone in one taking pity on me. Are much better than they would be back east. 

Pictures now. Typing is taking forever so not much in the way of captions. 

The mountains getting closer and more majestic. 

First view of the high summits in the Cloud Peak Wilderness. It’s now on my list of places to go backpacking. 

Powder River Pass, elev. 9666. 

View from the pass. 


Nice but artificial lake. The natural ones are all up among those snowy peaks. 

Ten Sleep Canyon was everything I was promised. 

The rest of the shots are from crossing the Bighorn Basin, down to Thermopolis. 

Hot Springs State Park. 

Well, crap. 


2 thoughts on “A Pass and a Mishap”

  1. Hope you had a chance to enjoy the Thermopolis hot springs after you hard work and bad luck. Here’s hoping you get your tire replaced.


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