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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.

Days off the bike are harder than you would imagine. I took 4 days off in Yellowstone, and during that magical time, my knees started to flare up. Some of you may know, or remember, I have a strange, undiagnosed inflammatory condition that affects my knees and occasionally my hips, and it isn’t a problem all the time. But when it is, I’m so affected by it that I can’t go up and down stairs without using a kind of shuffling-hop to prevent my knees from bearing too much weight, and I can’t sit down on a toilet without setting my hand on the seat behind me and easing my weight down onto the bones of my arm. I wonder if resting so long started to destabalize my joints, which had come into equilibrium without the work of biking every day. At any rate, my knees were in terrible shape when I left, popping every rotation of the pedals and radiating pain eventually up to my groin and into my feet. In order to make time up for what I had spent lounging around fumaroles and other steamy things, I rode a very long day over several passes on those weak knees. They’ve been getting better, but when I have opportunity to use a public restroom, I roll up on my bike then go straight to the handicapped stall so I can use the bars to support myself on and off the toilet. I am a walking, rolling contradiction.

I rode in Yellowstone’s west entrance and out the south entrance, shortly after which I caught up to Tom and Sarah (from an earlier post). We camped together that night, then took a bit of a detour south along the eastern edge of the Grand Tetons (or the Grand Breasts, as we might roughly translate the name, since the mountains were originally named Les Trois Tetons, or the three breasts, by a French party of fur traders). The Tetons loom, and it is this feature which makes them so very striking: jagged, bereft, and hard, they tower over the plains that surround them.

Lolita being loomed over by the Tetons.

We rode to the town of Moose, WY after camping at Jenny Lake, then turned around and headed to north to pick up the route again. It was a lovely detour, all of it spent in the cradle of the spectacular Tetons. It also was entirely paved. In fact, much of the route has been paved lately, which is a necessary feature of riding through such a dense concentration of national parks and wilderness areas. The pavement is a nice change because the miles fly by with realtively little effort, and after so many days of climbing pass after pass on rough, bumpy dirt roads, a little flying of miles is well-received. However, pavement doesn’t last forever, at least not on this route. Before long, we were climbing another dirt road over yet another pass, and then another. But I tell you, the veiws from some of the little forgotten places we set our feet on during this ride are incredible. Take, for example, this sunset behind the Tetons from a high camp near Togwotee Pass:

Incredible Wyoming sunset behind Grand Teton.

Overlooking the eroded cliffs in central Wyoming.

Wyoming has a different character than Montana. The mountains are bigger, and tend to expose their sheeer, rocky flanks more. The entire route is higher, actually. I’ve been to about 10,000 feet already near Uinion Pass, and for several nights I was camped at 9,000 feet and traveling at roughly that elevation.

At 9,000 feet, the nights are cold. I get sense of what a frozen rock this planet would be without the daily infusion of sunlight, because as soon as the sun goes down, the temperature drops to below freezing fairly quickly. I wake up to the dampness on the sleeping bag from breath frozen into an intricately patterned, flaky crust of ice. To avoid having to thaw out the solid sheet of ice on my tarp in the mornings, if the weather is clear I find a little spot under some trees and sleep without pitching the tarp at all. In the morning, I wake up, shake the earwigs out of my shoes, and brush the pineneedles from my hat.

I am now in Pinedale, which is a great cowboy town. What I mean by this is people have spurs attached to the heels of their boots. They wear cowboy hats. They deal with cows. The town has everything I need before I get ready to ride through the Great Basin Desert, which is a part of the Continental Divide, though less straightforward. It’s a big basin where the waters drain to nowhere, simply evaporating out of the temporary, alkiline lakes they form. Never having been there myself, I can’t say, but I hear these things about this stretch: no water, fierce headwinds, desolate and empty. For the next four days I’ll roughly trace this difficult part of the Oregon Trail (or the Mormom Trail, or the Pony Express, or whathaveyou), though statistcally speaking, my odds of making it are much much higher.

Speaking of cows, I dreamed about cows last night. I dreamed that my good friend Rob and I were on some kind of a trip, perhaps on bicycle but perhaps not, and we decided to stop travelling, buy a herd of cows, and graze them on the piece of public land we stopped on. A weatherworn man in a cowboy hat showed us the long, angular wooden fenceline climbing into the forrested hillside that would keep our cows in. “You’ll just have to figure out how to get them cows over that cattle guard,” he said, and gestured to the iron bars laid across the road. I tell you this so you’ll understand how thoroughly I’m in a world of mountains, cows, fences, and cattleguards.

Lolita, barb wire fence, and the Wind River mountains in the distance.

The weather, while cold at night, is sunny and dry during the day. What a great relief to me. As I am about to head into desert, I don’t expect more rain for a little while. This is good, since I can now work on my tan. Until Rawlins, my dear co-conspirators!

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