Thereâ€™s always a chance of precipitation in the forecast; this much weâ€™ve come to accept in setting out on our days rideâ€¦ When we were fed and dressed and ready to escape the small town of Pinedale, Wyoming tiny amounts of snow sprinkled from the sky, providing a merry farewell. Just two miles outside the town, a mild sunshine prevailed over the flurries, obliging us to pull over to the shoulder and remove our rain gear. We were entering the flats of Wyoming, a very mind-numbing expanse of high dessert, much of it dusted with snow. One tends to be consumed with inner dialogue or with attempts at reciting the entirety of a rock album rather than stare blankly across the sprawling monotony. We pass a little four-by-four trail intersecting the highway marked with a little wood sign: â€˜Historic Mormon Trailâ€™. The thought of driving brutish pack animals and a wooden wagon filled with a family of undernourished children and consumptive wives through this basin didnâ€™t appeal to my sensibility. My reverie was suddenly interrupted by a large pickup truck screeched to an abrupt stop in the left lane, the driver rolled the window down and shouted at me; â€œYou want me to fix your bikeâ€�. I recognized the bearded face as that belonging to a welder acquaintance I made in Pinedale. Goat and I had accompanied Annie â€“reporter for the Pinedale Roundup- on her quest to taste the perfect burger. Annie required just a bite or two of each burger from eight different restraints to complete her journalistic review, and so hired us to finish off the balance of the meal. Will, one of Annieâ€™s friends had just gotten off his job working as a welder in the oil fields, and joined us for a beer at the All American Diner. I told him I would need his services before I left Pinedale, fearing the large rusty crack in my xtracycle frame would quickly turn into a full blown fissure. Here on the road our paths crossed once again, but I was too spaced out to realize the convenience of the situation.
â€œUhâ€¦ Iâ€™ll probably be able to get the job done in the next townâ€�, I muttered.
â€œSuit yourselfâ€�, Will fired back, and without hesitation sped off down the highway.
Just as his truck was out of sight, the realization dawned on me that Will kept his Welding rig in the back of his truck. Welding the crack in my frame could have been easily completed on the side of the road. I shook my feeble fist in rage and would have hit myself square on my incompetent noggin had not my hand bounced harmlessly off my helmet.
Endless spools of barbwire held by splintering posts and huge wooden wind disrupters contained the flat highway as a channel for human transportation apart from the bleak expanses of desert. Goat had just overtaken me in the lead, and was pulling over to the left side of the highway to inspect a small valley for a suitable camping sight. A small road began from the shoulder of the highway, down toward a half frozen stream. We still had at least an hour left of sunlight to ride, yet this road presented the first break in the fencing in over an hour of riding; we decided to camp.
Late at night the winds kicked up, the snow began to fall and our tent, haphazardly staked to the ground, seemed ready to lift off its anchors and begin its own solo tour south. Snow blew in the gap between the tent floor and roof caking our sleeping bags and accumulating in small mounds beside our heads. The next morning we awoke to yet another white out, our bikes were white, the ground white, and the sky presented an eerie kind of ghostly grey. Long stretches of the highway shoulder were glazed in frosty ice causing minor annoyance when speeding cars wavered too close for cycling comfort. We did however enjoy a steady tail wind the entire day, allowing us to virtually fly through eighty miles of flat land on our way to Rock Springs. In a small truck stop town on the 191 south I gazed down the turnoff for an east bound highway that led toward the Great Divide Basin â€“where we would be headed if we were still following the Great Divide Trail. A road condition warning sign flashed the message in orange luminescence that the road was currently subject to heavy blizzards and dissuading any unnecessary travel. I imagined us attempting to decipher the correct route through the maze of snowy trails â€“the amount of crisscrossing dirt roads portrayed on the Divide map looked confusing enough. I could picture us arguing about the meaning of the different signs one inevitably encounters along the way that give completely different information then any and all maps one manages to acquire.
By sundown that day we had come within ten miles of the city of Rock Springs. Possessing little in the means of sustenance we pressed ahead toward the city limits knowing all to well what grim challenges urban landscapes pose to free camping. At the beginning of a steady downhill section I noticed a man outside his pickup truck, locking up the gate to a chain link fence.
â€œAre you the last oneâ€�, He called out to me.
â€œNo, Thereâ€™s still one more guy behind me.â€� So focused was I on arriving in the city before unbearable cold set into my limbs that I couldnâ€™t fathom a reason for this manâ€™s curiosity in our numbers.
â€œWell then, Iâ€™ll be picking him upâ€�. I managed to hear the guy swear before I drifted out of hearing distance. I wanted to shout back, â€œWell good luck trying to convince Jacob that he needs a ride!â€�
A few miles outside of town Jacob caught up with me. â€œDo you realize we have our own private escort following behind us?â€� Looking back I could see the headlights of that same pickup truck blazing fifty feet away. The same man that had yelled to me from the side of the road was rolling slowly along the shoulder taking great care to ensure our safety. Once inside the city, we all pulled over to the edge of a shopping center to ponder our fate. Our shoulder guarding angle stepped out of his truck wearing a garage mechanics jumpsuit; a small patch on his chest read â€˜Mikeâ€™.
â€œYeah, Just wanted to make sure you guys donâ€™t get splattered all over the pavement back there.â€� Mike began, â€œIts sort of truckerâ€™s rush hour right now, theyâ€™re all hauling extra quick to get off the highway, and itâ€™s likely that they just wonâ€™t see you.â€�
Mike asked the usual questions we hear from people unacquainted with the customs of the bike nomads. After we assured him that we were not insane, and that there was no telling where we would set up camp that night he invited us to pitch our tent outside his modest trailer dwelling on the other side of town. Cold, tired, and starving for calories, we followed his benevolent pace through town, biking up small but grueling hills till we came to the trailer park.
Mikeâ€™s wife Trish seemed a little shy about greeting us outside, what with not having groomed her hair appropriately, but their two dogs were riled up and ready to tear at our throats in ferocious embrace. It took a good fifteen minutes for the smaller dog â€“a Chihuahua- to calm down. The larger dog that had the features and meanness of a Chow but wasnâ€™t a Chow held us in the same contemptuous glare for the rest of the evening, letting us know that dire consequences awaited any one of us who stepped out of line. Mike raked a section of his snowy lawn clean for us to pitch our tent. Eventually we were invited inside the trailer to throw back a few Budweisers and devour the remains of Mikeâ€™s dinner; â€œTrish always ends up cooking enough for four people anywayâ€� we were assured. While eating dinner the glowing boob tube weaved its hypnotic spell over our weary continence. Any will power with which I usually manage to pry myself from the screen must have been depleted long before the last hill leading into town. Besides who could possibly resist watching Emit Smith paired with a voluptuous Latin beauty battle an especially dexterous young stud from â€˜Saved By the Bellâ€™ in a ballroom dance competition. Mike supplemented the T.V. entertainment with tales of his Navy service, descriptions of the beauty of Flaming Gorge (where we would be headed in the morning), and talk of the methamphetamine use afflicting his part of town.
â€œEven our next door neighbors indulgeâ€�, Mike admitted. Proving his assertions, we would hear the high-pitched voices of the neighboring couple arguing and rambling to themselves all through the night.
Being an early morning riser Mike managed to escape before we could thank him for the hospitality. Instead we spent an hour drinking coffee and watching the â€˜Jerry Springerâ€™ show with Trish. Amidst shouts and squeals of heavy set women bitch-slapping each other and pinning one another to the ground, Trish showed us pictures of her Chow dog straddling the seat of her Harley Davidson.
â€œThe only time that dog changes its expression is when it feels the rumble of the engines between its legs, but it hates it when we dress it up.â€�
â€œDress it up?â€�
â€œThis last Halloween, Mike dressed up like the dog, and dressed the dog up like himself. Mike even made a scene screaming after his tail got stuck in the door of his favorite biker bar.â€�
We eventually made our way out of the trailer park and wandered into the heart of the city to buy supplies for the next four days of touring. Outside the supermarket, while dividing the grocery weight three ways, a trucker walked up to us, shaking his head in disbelief.
â€œYouâ€™re those crazy bastards whoâ€™re riding the Rockies in the middle of winter. I heard about you guys over the radio this morning.â€�
We were sure Mike was responsible for informing the radio station of our arrival in Rock Springs. We felt a little disappointed at having been subjected to the likes of Jerry Springer during the hour of the announcement. It would have been one hell of a wake up call to hear about our bike tour over public radio.
Just outside of Rock Springs, behind a Flying J truck stop, in a muddy ditch offering a small time landfill and a view of the freight tracks, I set to work cooking our breakfast. Jacob was feeling ill, and was scrunched up in a ball in his sleeping bag. Having witnessed Jacob spontaneously passing out on the side of the road many times before, I had hardly given any notice, until I heard footsteps two feet behind me and a loud firm voice that triggered my paranoia prone hand nerves to retract and pocket my five inch knife.
â€œHey there, is your buddy alright there, looks like he might be dyingâ€�. A man in a sheriffâ€™s uniform questions me, his face complete sincerity.
The same paranoid nerves at work in my hands just a moment ago now restrain a stupid grin from spreading across my face. â€œNo, heâ€™s doing alright, heâ€™s just having a bit of a belly ache. Jacob!â€� I yell at Jacob, nearly throwing my cooking spoon to wake him up. Luckily he sits upright, rubs his eyes, and gasps at the sight of the sheriff beaming down upon him with a sardonic maternal impersonation that expressed Rise-and-shine you grungy bum.
The Sheriff had his assistant collect our Drivers licenses whereupon he conducted background checks on the in-car laptop computer. We spoke at length about how we were just on our way out of his fair city yet we; could not hope to be persuasive enough to convince this sturdy authority of our intentions.
â€œI suggest you boys hop on them bicycles as soon as possible and ride southâ€¦ fast.â€� It was obvious that the sheriff had us pegged as vagabond hippy moochers. â€œThereâ€™s a huge storm thatâ€™s going to be coming over this area as soon as tomorrow afternoon.â€�
â€œYeah, thatâ€™s no news to us,â€� Jacob retaliated â€œThe big stormâ€™s always following me; Iâ€™m a magnet for poor weather.â€�
The Sheriff set his big toothy jaw in motion to a hideous rendition of Goofyâ€™s cartoon laugh. He then restated his previous warning; â€œyeah, the big ones coming around fast, best get south as quick as you canâ€�. After we had entertained the sheriffs â€˜subtleâ€™ attempts to drive us far from his jurisdiction, he allowed his assistant to return our I.D. cards; apparently we werenâ€™t on any wanted lists yet. I can only imagine that the Sheriff was just too busy to be bothered with the local news radio and hadnâ€™t heard the flattering remarks about us Goodâ€™ole American Boys made earlier that morning.
The next day we experienced the tremendous good fortune of exiting the state of Wyoming. Scenic byway 191 leads along a ridge affording breathtaking views of red rock crusted valleys. Chilly Wyoming winds whipped us into submissive snails crawl paces up and over the hills, until we were exactly two miles past the Utah border. Suddenly, as if the Mormons themselves had willed it, the bitter winds ceased to batter our raw faces and the air began to feel considerably warmer. Upon the landscapes before us lay oily hues of orange, red and brown sand stones unadulterated with the familiar white fluff that had for so long been our companion. So ecstatic was I with the dramatic climate transformation that I nearly jumped into a crystal clear lake in the Flaming Gorge National park.
Goat and I waited around for Jacob at the Dutch John Trading post located just a mile away from the Flaming Gorge Dam. Jacob crept up to the storefront looking a bit haggard, and without saying anything went inside to buy Gatorade and Imodium ad. While checking out at the register, Jacob attempted some light conversation with the female store clerk.
â€œItâ€™s a good ways up hill to Vernal, Right?â€� He pondered. â€œLot of climbing?â€�
â€œWell, no, actually its mostly downhill.â€� The store clerk replied completely unaware of the absurdity of her statement.
â€œBut thereâ€™s a giant mountain before us,â€� I cried out,â€� If I just step outside this store I can see some of the switchbacks.â€�
â€œWell, I just live here.â€� She pleaded trying to preserve her innocence.
We left the poor woman alone to restock the pitiful gas station food section and hurried up the hill to find a camp spot.
Even the evening air was warm around the Flaming Gorge. It was one of the first nights in over two weeks that it was warm enough for me to pluck my guitar for more than five minutes.
The next days ride was as had been expected, a grueling twenty-mile climb up a mountain range, followed by a fifteen-mile stretch of downhill. The downhill section consisted of sixteen switchbacks all graded from six to ten percent. Long lines of truckers roared down the hill on low gears; it was irritating for a biker to be stuck behind such giant monstrosities for so long a downhill stretch. All of us at some point ended up passing large double tankers in the left lane, taking thirty-five mile and hour plunges around the curves of the switchbacks. Terraced sections of distant hills revealed large-scale strip mine operations, and to the south we caught our first glimpses of giant red rock edifices jetting out from the desert floor. The sun was setting, it seemed prudent to save the grand entrance into our first Utah town for the pure light of morning, and so Goat and I stopped by a day-use hiking trail and waited for Jacob. A man in a cowboy hat trailing a horse trailer behind his grey 4*4 pickup smiled and rolled down his window to ask about our unique bike frames. After Goat gave his explanation of the xtracycle, I enthusiastically praised the raw beauty inherent in the wilderness. The man took the comment straight to heart without chaser; â€œwhy thank you, I live right down the road, thatâ€™s my property line down there!â€�
Unfortunately, as we would come to understand the next morning, the serene desert setting lost all appeal just beyond the city limits of Vernal. The city itself consisted of flat sprawling suburbia, complete with a surplus of identical shopping centers. A small cafÃ© near the town bike shop offered pints of Polygamy Porter among few other beer options â€“Utah beer cannot have alcohol contents higher than 4% by volume. Naturally, after having had to patch the same stubborn flat tire three different times I settled down to sample a few of Utahâ€™s finest, only to feel a lingering dissatisfaction of the taste buds â€“like someone suffering low blood sugar desperately chugging diet pop to get a fix.
After a bite to eat, we all gathered inside the town library till our welcome wore as thin as our withered break pads. I had noticed as early as noon that day a short stocky girl sporting a red sweatshirt with gold letters spelling out â€˜Coca-Colaâ€™. She appeared to be moving aimlessly among the grass lawn and rock garden in front of the city civic center with the determination of a runner training for a marathon.
I saw the same girl walking the same rounds nearly three hours later, after Goat and I had finished shopping for supplies. I had been searching for Jacob, and found him passed out under the shade of a tree bearing rotting apples. He asserted that he had felt light headed and ready to faint after enduring a miserable episode of liquid shits among the spotless porcelain bowls of Seven- Eleven. I am about to lay down upon the grassy knoll and feign illness as well, when the devoted pedestrian girl skews slightly from her route and comes to stand before me, her eyes begging to make my acquaintance.
â€œHow long youâ€™ve been riding?â€� she asks.
â€œBeen on the road for four months nowâ€�. Trying hard to rap this one up quick.
â€œI used to bikeâ€� her eyes were burrowing into my own, perhaps searching for evidence of the same callous reservation lining the pupils of every other stranger like a three story retaining wall. I get the fear that Iâ€™m being distant and unfriendly for no good reason.
â€œMy father took the bike away with him, so now I just walk around here.â€� She waves her hand over her precious domain. â€œDo you know, Iâ€™m twenty one and I already smoke?â€� The girl exclaims not without a touch of pride. â€œI donâ€™t know what brand I like, I just smoke whatever I can find over there.â€� She points her stubby finger to an ashtray.
â€œAh, re-friesâ€�. I respond, wanting to wretch in disgust instead. There ensued a bit of awkward silence between us, yet the girl presses ahead, determined as ever to reach new heights in the delicate art of conversation.
â€œI saw a man from the prison put up these Christmas lights.â€� She points to the haphazardly draped roll of burnt out bulbs tacked on the rot-bearing trunk. I smile and devote all my attention to a careful study of the handiwork.
â€œMy fatherâ€™s in prison and Iâ€™m going to get to see him just before Christmas. Heâ€™s been locked up for over a year since he was caught running a drug lab.â€�
â€œHow was he caught?â€� Jacobâ€™s has finally found a point of entry into the conversation.
â€œWell, they usually catch you when youâ€™re based out of a van or trailer.â€� She explains.
I nod and grind my teeth.
â€œI have a boyfriend, and weâ€™re planning on beginning a life together.â€� She quickly inserts, still probing my face for some human characteristic. Perhaps she was experimenting to see if the mention of being engaged would provoke some jealousy.
â€œHeâ€™s getting a job that pays twenty five dollars an hour, so that we can save up for a house.â€�
â€œThatâ€™s uhâ€¦â€� I choke in the process of forming a reply. â€œI mean what kind of job is he getting?â€�
â€œOh, I donâ€™t know, all he tells me is that heâ€™s been hired. Heâ€™s been fired from plenty of jobs; jobs at the oil fields, retailing jobsâ€¦â€�
Suddenly some young yuppie wearing a tattered beanie shouts something unintelligible in our direction and then darts down an alleyway.
Jacob, in his divine haggardness musters the strength to make his second comment. â€œHe a friend of yours?â€�
â€œOh no,â€� she replies objects. â€œThe only way anybody would know me at all would be through knowing my boyfriend.â€� Her gay expression revealed absolutely no awareness of the tragedy she was imparting.
Sometime, much too late in the day I found my savior in the form of a Goat riding a bike down the street. He had finished up some phone calls and appeared as ready as Jacob and I to make a quick exit out of mind numbing Vernal. We had a real challenging ride ahead us; it would be ten miles of narrow highway riding before we would encounter non-private property suitable for camping. Those ten miles turned out to be some of the most dangerous of the whole trip. Deadly wide loaded tankers screamed down the shoulderless road. At one point the edge of the road crumbled into a cliff of dried mud upon which both Goat and I slid off of while avoiding impact with the rush of traffic. On the left side of the murderous motorway there appeared a parting in the barbwire fence. It felt too good to pronounce the word â€˜homeâ€™, after surviving such a frightful ride â€“and for that matter such a terrifying town. The ground bellow us was grossly barren, naked as the moon and mysteriously full of humps and ridges.
â€œThis looks like an off-road vehicles paradiseâ€�, Goat remarked.
We found a flat spot to pitch the tent, laid down our bedrolls, made a brief attempt to read but quickly extinguished our head torches in favor of the silent darkness.
Twenty minutes later the sound of a powerful engine drowned out the early whispers of blissful dreamscapes.
After at least ten minutes of the engineâ€™s sustained roar Goat speaks up: â€œthat has to be a generator, nobody lets their off-road bikes stay idle that longâ€�.
â€œItâ€™s a motorbike,â€� I predict, â€œthereâ€™s more than one rider standing side by side passing a bottle of cheap booze among themselves. Weâ€™ll hear a crash of glass and then boomâ€¦â€� It was after all a clear starry Saturday night, what the hell else were rebellious Mormon youths going to do in Vernal for fun.
Soon we hear the bikers kick the accelerators to their machines, and then our flamboyantly colored circus tent got caught in the line of blinding headlights. Our late night off-roading visitors wasted no time pondering the odd site of our bike camp, they zoomed right alongside our tent shouting out loud with jovial spirits.
I suddenly felt like an old man whoâ€™s only recourse was to strut out the tent door completely naked, slowly unlatch the bindings to my rifle case, and fake out the delinquents with my Martin guitar.
We heard a girl screaming with delight and then the sound of a bike slowly approaching our tent, the rider calling back to his friends, â€œyou think theyâ€™re asleep in there?â€�
The brave young souls remain content to torment us for another half hour, while we lay impotently in our grease bags. As we heard the drone of the bike engines fade for a final time into the distance I heaved a sigh of relief, realizing that the weather was still mild and bearable.
â€œBest campsite ever!â€� Jacob mutters dreamily.