Don't use a car, use a bicycle, use poetry, use a surprise. Today I am gonna meet one of my childhood snapshots that I kept with me forever.
After yesterday's long day this morning I am afraid I won't be able to get up early. I am wrong. My mind tells me to get up early to get a head start on the wind and the heat outside and my heavy legs simply tell me to sleep. That's all it takes to win the argument. I lay in bed listening to motel sounds and feeling totally alive with the excitement that comes with being in a far-away place where nobody knows you. I find all the answers in the cracked high ceiling. My legs with the perfect tan lines just above the knees, the calloused hands, the freckles that run across my nose from hours in the sun, the smelly clothes. Little things surround me, rich things, rich life, lots of images, lots of energy.
I dream about my ride across the country feeling like a hero and then footsteps from outside remind me that I am just another human being. Time to get real again. I get out of bed at 7.15 after what has probably been the best night since I left DC. As usual, I do my best at breakfast to demolish the food on offer and spoil the party for everyone else but today I stop at three biscuits and two peanut butter sandwiches. I ride out of Sundance with a strong headwind but I won't complain. It is the first real full on headwind that I have encountered on the trip. Previous gales have been blowing either from the south or from the west but thanks to the direction I traveled I did not succumb to them for too long. As the weather forecast warned last night, the wind would come from the west. So today as soon as I step outside I raise my eyes to the flag towering over the motel and I see it flapping frantically in the wind. I cycle through the empty downtown streets of Sundance and the road out of town begins to ascend. I climb most of the 20 miles that will take me to junction 14 with a unexpected spring in my step. The road out of Sundance is a long 5 mile steady climb directly into the wind. When I reach the top the road winds around hills then up then down and then up again until I reach a big sweeping descent from where I can make out the Black Hills stretching west. Despite the wind I still enjoy the ride, the scenery is beautiful and while vegetation is not as dramatic as in South Dakota, a sparsely thick forest still covers most of the land.
I crest one more hill and I see something "out of place", an outcropping, a rocky formation far off in the distance. I know what that is. I squint my eyes and the upthrust comes into focus. Another milestone for me, another little jewel of my ride: Devils Tower. When I catch sight of the Tower my heart beats a little faster and adrenaline explodes once more in my bloodstream. I let rip down the hill and onto the 7 mile road from the junction to the entrance to the national monument park.
This is another seminal moment of my trip. My long detour up north was charted out just for this: Devils Tower. As I ride up the highway the flat-topped 867 foot cone comes well into focus and I can distinguish its sinewy sides. It is quite an extraordinary sight. You would expect other cones, or buttes or some funny anomalies stick out of the earth but the Tower is alone, standing tall among a rolling prairie, it is weird. Spielberg is a freaking genius; he chose the perfect spot for the alien landing and the obsessive score. I cannot find any explanation in my mind as to why this lump of rock shot of out of the earth sits right here. I am keen to get closer and I ride fast to take a good look at this incredible piece of nature. I pay the 5 dollar entrance to the Monument and ride as close to it as the road allows me. I am right at the base of it. It is really an unusual sight and a most singular one among many that I have seen on my ride so far. In 1906, this became the first national monument in America. I know that I have much road to cover today most of it into a headwind but I can’t seem to be able to unglue my eyes from this rock. It is literally hypnotizing and the longer I delay my departure the more I want to explore it. I take a walk around the base of the Tower and I wonder how cool it would be to climb it. It is actually possible but you need permits, papers, etc. I wonder whether this is the last remnant of a mystical world. It was considered sacred by the Indians. Legend has it that the first recorded sighting tells of people running away from it in total panic.
When I leave the Tower the sun beats down and with the road continuing to climb, my ride slows down considerably. I travel west and the scenery begins to change, desert environment is coming up, the air is dry, the miles start to bleed together as I continue the long charge up the hills and then slightly down onto the plains of Wyoming. Over the course of the next hour I see the tree-covered, lush and green hilly area of the Black Hills give way to a wide and more barren land. I round the final hill and before me the whole sweeping vista of the plain opens up dramatically.
The wind is still blowing strong and with clenched teeth I stick the front wheel well inside the debris-filled shoulder. Passing motorhomes, RVs and cars, mostly tourists from Devils Tower, don't give two shits about this crazy cyclist who is riding across America. Unexpectedly, the most respectful drivers turn out to be the truck drivers and every time they leave plenty of room when the pass me I stick my hand out to thank them.
When I reach Moorcroft I feel like I have stepped back in time by almost 50 years. The village has two empty motels with broken neon signs and dusty parking lots where tumbleweeds are being kicked off in circles by the wind. There is a grocery store run by two old ladies and the other costumer beside me is a tall, skinny man wearing an old cowboy hat and jeans at least two sizes too large. I buy two bottles of Powerade and I gulp them down standing next to old soda machine which looks like has been gathering dust for the past thirty years. The dead silence unsettles me and I decide to get back on the bike, temperatures begin to push well past 90 degrees. I leave the dusty trading post of Moorcroft and to my surprise the wind has gone. I ride against a gentle breeze that hardly blows at all. I eat up 28 miles on route 51, which, similar to the old highway 14 yesterday, runs parallel to Interstate 90. I never have problems with the heat, I actually don't mind riding in high temperatures. When I finally hit Gillette before 4PM the clock reads 104F, I am not surprised at all. I check out the uninviting Main st and double back for two miles to the bike shop to assess the chain and the tires. The bike looks good. The chain can take on the Rockies. I exit the store and check the GPS on my phone. Unfortunately there is no debate as to whether I will continue west or stay in town tonight. The next motel is in Sheridan, more than 90 miles farther west. With at least another three hours of daylight I would been happy to push on. But this is the problem with the West, it is more difficult for me to go for the long hauls of 140 miles like I did in the East as towns are far and few in between. Despite the morning headwind and the tough climb out of the Black Hills, my body feels fine and I am slightly sorry that I am cutting my day short. But I will take this opportunity to rest and eat. As I zone in on a motel near the bike shop I check the odometer, 100 miles sharp.
Sundance, Main st
The Black Hills west of Sundance
My first sighting of the Tower
I made it! But no aliens in sight
The wind-swept Wyoming prairie
This is the last ridge before the prairie
Moorcroft, Main st
The bank in moorcroft on Main st
The open prairie about 10 miles east of Gillette