"Sal, we gotta go and never stop going 'till we get there". "Where we going man?" "I don't know but we gotta go" - Jack Kerouac, On the Road -

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Day 19: The Bighorn Mountains

Sheridan, Wy - Lovell, Wy: 103 miles. Total: 2309 miles

I beat my alarm to it when my fast finger flicks it off five minutes before it was supposed to go off: 5.45. I drift in and out of sleep all night probably bugged by the thought and the excitement of the impending climb. This utterly uninviting motel does not offer any breakfast (which is just as well) so I immediately put my gear on, sunscreen all over my exposed body parts and with heavy eyelids and sleep which slows down my movements I step outside in the chilly air. I ride to the Main st where I stop at the gas station to have some food. Three muffins and two chocolate bars should keep me going for a while. 

I am on the road way before sunrise. The sky is dark blue with a purple glow coming from the east and I am little concerned that it is still not bright enough for vehicles to see me. However, during the breakfast stop it dawns quickly and between muffins I cast my eyes on the beautiful sunrise that is cresting over the hills. What a unique moment. The sunrise is probably the best part of the day. A sense of utter peace infused by this incredible combination of colors is quickly dislodged by my restlessness to get going. I am on the bike even before I can swallow the last piece of chocolate. I ride out of Sheridan  surrounded by a sleepy town and silent buildings: the first 20 miles are easy peasy, flat and fast. This is the warm up spin, from Sheridan to Drayton. At Drayton things get serious. Drayton is located right at the base of the slopes of the Big Horn range, the little town is fast asleep as I fast ride its main st which leads directly into the first hills. The only evidence of human activity comes from the only gas station in town. An old couple exits the store just when I ride by. I wave at them as if I am saying my goodbye to the human race before venturing into the unknown. The small backpack is weighted down by two bottles of water, is it too much? Better safe than sorry I am thinking. The ride through the mountains should be at least 85 miles and I know that there are two Lodges somewhere which offer food but don't know where and how far. I'd rather be self-reliant, which is the whole point of cycling I suppose. I have enough water and food on my back to last the whole I figure.

The road out of Drayton starts climbing immediately, 4% slope, then 6% and then 8%. I look up and see RVs and cars snaking their way up and it doesn't do me any good as it just reminds me of the long winding road that awaits. As the slope gets steeper, I get into lower gears until I finally shift into the small ringer and I stay there for the reminder of the climb. It is tough going but fortunately there is no wind and the sky is totally overcast so no threat from an overbearing sunlight. From the dry air down in the valley as I gain elevation I notice the increasing crispness and sharpness of the mountain air. I coast switchback after switchback as my mind rumbles through a million things. This morning has been the earliest start, will I see a bear in Yellowstone, will the big fire force road closures, what is that? a deer? watch out for that rock! I hope I don't get a puncture right here, this is beautiful, look at the scenery, I want to traverse the big horn mountain range as soon as possible and get on with the west, I wish I were on the Pacific Coast already, when are U2 going to make another album? Boy my right knee hurts, how come am I not sweating? Don't look at the odometer, just enjoy the ride, I am gonna have a full jar of nutella tonight, what day is this?  the 19th or the 20th? You'll never make it to LA, I know that! These are sound bytes of my thoughts during the steep climb. The mind sweeps the full spectrum of possible thoughts, the body is busy pedaling. This range is a 200-mile extension of the Rocky Mountains. The Bighorns were uplifted beginning approximately 70 million years ago.  At many points along the route I can see 2.9 billion year old Precambrian rocks - some of the oldest rocks on earth. There is even a glacier on the east slope of Cloud Peak but I won't be going that direction. I only stop once on the 13-mile climb to the first pass of 8300 ft. The wind picks up at the top, which is more of a clearing among trees than a proper mountain top. I can't tell which way the wind blows but at this height and with dark clouds to my left, I am slightly cold. I hope that the descent won't drop me too much as I know that the higher pass is way ahead so I wouldn't want to climb again. The downhill lasts maybe two miles and I begin to shiver. I should have put my rain jacket but in the haste I forgot. At the end of the shortish descent I spot the Lodge and I stop at the bar where I drink a tasty hot chocolate. The warmth quickly radiates into my limbs and I am ready for more climbing. After two miles the slope flattens slightly and on a plateau I come to the highway 14 and 14A Burgess Junction, which seems like a nice place for a rest stop or picnic. I rest for a minute to check which way the wind is blowing. It is a headwind of course and swapping the noise of Harleys and RVs for chirping birds, swishing blades of grass, and the crunch of small pebbles beneath the tires I begin a dreaded ride into a gusty wind. I take the less-traveled by 14A which goes west. The road begins to rise steadily at first but after 5 miles it shoots me up on a 8% climb which requires all my attention. I am cycling straight into the wind now and it is a slow grind. The scenery takes the sting off the ride. The mountainsides enveloping the road are extremely pretty, lush and steep, covered with trees and high grass. I notice many creeks come down from the rocky peaks above and produce a gentle if rustic sound. I push hard without stopping at all for 12 miles all the way up the pass, at 9400ft. I reach it without much exuberance, more of matter of fact: okay-done-what's-next type of emotion but the view is pretty awesome, I have the whole Bighorn basin below and the hazy air makes the whole place look like a whole new world difficult to define but easy to imagine. As soon as I crest the pass I decide to wear my rain cover because the wind is really strong and the chilly air makes shiver once again. The top that I see is a large mound devoid of trees and offers wide open views of the Basin. I begin to heed the signs that warn about the descent. As I prepare to go down I decide to take extra caution because those signs scare the shit out of me (check out the pictures!). One particular sign warns that the road will drop me 3600ft in less than 10 miles. That's reassuring. I check out my brake pads and tighten my helmet. Let's do it. I go very slow on the way down and never pass 35mph. I hit the breaks all the way and stop several times to take pictures and give the breaks and the fuming rims a chance to cool off. Yesterday night I was picturing myself just fly down the other side of the mountain but with intense crosswinds and the rough road surface my cool head prevails. Luckily, traffic isn't too bad on the way down and only a handful of cars and motorbikes pass me, which they do pretty safely. The road literally hangs by the rocky side of Big Horn Mountain an I wonder how the hell they built it. It is quite a cliffhanger of a road for several miles and the continuos switchbacks offer sweeping vista of the whole Basin. The Big Horn divides the two different types of scenery. On one side it is green and mountainous and the other side of the mountain looks surreal. I was expecting a Wyoming type of scenery but the land is as arid and flat as anywhere else, where am I? In Arizona? In the Nevada desert? The sky is completely clear on the other side and fits right in with the barren and desolate land. The dry heat is a crazy rebuff to the cool air of the mountains just a few miles back. The rain cover comes off, I unzip my jersey all the way down and I ride the last 20 miles into Lovell incredulous in this ridiculous desert and almost gasping for air. The bank clock reads 104 F and it feels even hotter.  

The odometer read 101 miles as I enter the town limits. Lovell is a mosquitoes-infested, desolate, decadent desert town with a sorry population of 2000 people, mostly elderly citizens from what I can see. There is absolutely nothing going on. Everything evolves around main st and what catches my eyes are the 50s and 70s neon signs and the architecture of several buildings that still stand, albeit vacant. Many neon signs are fascinating and I hope I have captured some of their uniqueness in my pictures. With the 6.30am start, my day ends early in Lovell, 4pm. The next hotel is 65 miles west and with so much climbing in my legs I decide to take it easy. I spot a motel at the east side of town and won't be too picky about it. 
 I feel like I am back to where I was yesterday. Back in the valley with a wall of rock 50 miles ahead that I have to climb. That's the route I chose for my ride anyway, I knew it would take several ascends and descends before I could hit the Rockies. Despite the strain on my body and the time that it takes to cross this part of the country, I am fascinated by the geology and the rock formations that spring up all around me. As the sun sets, I walk to the local supermarket where I buy sandwiches and chocolate. I eat my dinner on the bed while I study the route for tomorrow.

Tomorrow I make my way north and then west to reach Red Lodge, which is the 'base camp' for my long-awaited ride up the Beartooth Highway and the climb to its highest point, the 10900ft pass. From there the descend will take me right into Yellowstone. All in good time my boy. All in good time.


  1. "Don't look at the odometer, just enjoy the ride." Sante parole. Non pensi di rallentare, di rilassarti un po'?
    Però sei bravo!

  2. Amazing pics as always!

  3. Bravissimo, bellissime foto, come al solito leggerti è un vero grande piacere ma quella storia dei cerchioni che fumano am fè pora