The desert. As has been reported, it is a windy, waterless, desolate place. It is stunning and dangerous: the road traverses stabilized sand dunes and can have treacherously soft sand that sink the tires, the road is often heavily washboarded, or studded with large angular rocks that deflect the bike tires. The wind is hard and relentless, and makes my nostrils cake and bleed and causes an ache in my sinuses that spreads into my cheekbones and up to my brow. The wind demands your attention by whipping your clothes about on your body and by rushing across your skin. It is a relentless assault on the senses, violently filling any bit of space on or near your body that you aren’t currently using. It passes the ear canal like a shreiking suicide jumper, always in a hurry, panicked and tormented. Being in the wind means getting no rest; it is like constantly getting shoved, little persistent and annoying shoves, over and over. It is that frustrating. In the desert, water is the most precious resource, and since there was hardly any on this stretch (and the sources that might exist were reportedly unreliable), I carried seven liters of water on my bike, which caused the rear tire to sink ever deeper into those soft sand roadways. And it is empty, which can at times cause a sense of disquiet, and strange sadness. Like the hardest parts of solitude, unforgiving and taking no excuses. Even so, it is stunning in it’s austerity; the stark contrast between a brown baren earth and a blue empty sky; the way it open to your eyes, inviting your gaze as far as you care to take it while still hiding a bounty of surprises.

On the first day out from Pinedale, the landscape changed quickly to scrubby desert, where sage brush rolled out like a pungent carpet in all directions and round boulders filled the inbetween spaces. You can sometimes mark the passing of places by the roadkill found along the highways, and as I had a bit of pavement to ride before getting back on dirt, I was able to observe. Instead of deer and chipmunks, rabbits and pronghorns littered the roadsides in varying states of gore. The landscape undulated, sweeping up to meet the Wind Rivers to the north, and otherwise forming sculpted plateus and bluffs. I was riding sort of in tandem with Diederik, Tom, and Sarah (all from previous posts), and we converged on our one water source of that first day, the Big Sandy River at a crossing used by hundreds of thousands of emigrants in the the 1800s. Precious to us as well, we got water to drink, and then went for an afternoon swim.

Cyclists resting after an afternoon swim. (Lazy cyclists.)

Diederik with the Wind River mountains behind him.

 The route traced portions of the Pony Express Trail, the Oregon Trail, the California Trail, and the Mormon Trail, even crossing South Pass, which was a critically important passageway through the Rocky Mountains for travelers headed west. This terrain is largely unchanged from what is was like when emigrants will still coming through, though I had the advantage of a well and a reservoir to get water, not to mention some better weather than some fared.

Lolita at the intersection of the Pony Express Trail and the Oregon Trail

 After the first day, the trail left the foothills of the Wind Rivers long behind and plunged headlong into the desert proper, toying with the Continental Divide along the way. The next several days were largely the same terrain, and could almost, callously, be called monotonous. But in truth, though the desert is hot and windy and exposed, it is also exceptionally beautiful, but not even remotely disarming. To the contrary, it is a beauty of bared teeth and ferocity. And so you go in bringing the same. You go in teeth bared. You go in fierce.

The animals out there are rich and varied. At night, cayotes yip and mice scurry around and eat your granola bars. During the day, almost every rise and turn brings startled pronghorns into veiw, and then they turn and race away. And those pronghorns move fast, too fast to get a picture of (they are hunted, and so wary; even if one doesn’t bolt as far away as possible at the sight of you, they do as soon as you point something at them, even if it is only a camera). The pronghorns are dainty, often travel in large herds to you see many at once prancing across the desert on their thin, delicate legs. They also have very very white behinds, which seems an unfair disadvantage to them in hunting season, since long after their tan coats blend into the scraggly dun terrain, their brilliant white behinds shimmer in the sun like a target. Also abundant are wild horses, multi-colored and proud.

Wild horses racing across the desert alongside me.

 It was a beautiful and hard stretch, and I enjoyed it immensely. From Rawlins, I now will climb back into the mountains, windless and wet. And it looks like rain is forcast, so at least everything will feel familiar. I cross into Colorado very soon, and again the character of the trail will change dramatically. I’ve never been to Colorado, and I’m not sure what to expect other than high elevation – days and days above 9000 feet. Wyoming has been enchanting and surprising, from the jagged theater of the grand Tetons to the vast, folding desert of the Great Basin. What have you got Colorado? What have you got for me?

Desert sunset behind Lolita.

Advertisements