Day 24: Douglas, WY to Harrison, NE — 100 miles

Some days it is fun to ride a bike, then there are days like today.

I’ve had such wonderful weather for my trip so far (minus the heat) that I was bound to have a weather-related stinker. It is just unfortunate that it happened to come on the longest ride of my trip (to date).

Of course, it wasn’t supposed to be the longest day. According to the weather forecast, there would be some showers overnight, and they might linger in to the morning hours. After that, I figured, the rain would clear away and I would have good (if cool) weather for the rest of the day.

The wet weather certainly held true to form. When I got underway at 8:30 AM or so, it wasn’t raining hard, but it was alternating between misting and lightly showering. This is certainly not my favorite weather, and the droplets on my glasses and on my rear-view mirror made it hard to see. Luckily, once again, I had a wide shoulder away from traffic, so I didn’t have to rely on perfect eyesight to stay safe. Besides, the road I was on was virtually empty.

After seven miles, however, to my surprise and dismay, the paved road ended and the dirt road began! This sort of thing has happened to me before, and I have worked out a way to double-check Google Maps to see if they might be sending me down a dirt road. You can simply switch to a satellite view, then zoom in to the road in question, and you can see immediately if it is a paved road or not.

This little trick has saved me on a couple of occasions, and I used it here as well. I zoomed in on this road (Antelope Road, and indeed I saw a Pronghorn Antelope crossing the road at one point) and it was paved. I followed it for several miles; all paved. I figured that was enough, but clearly I was wrong. Mark that as a lesson learned: check the entire length of the road in the future.

Once I saw that the road in question was not paved, I immediately turned around and went back to Douglas, the closest point that I could start an alternate route. In the past, I have had some hesitation: Just how far do I think the dirt road might continue? How many miles on the dirt road would be worth not having to back-track the number of miles to the alternate route?

In this case, the answer was ‘None’. Because of the rainy, wet weather, the dirt had become this gloppy, sticky mess that obviously would be difficult to bike on, and in addition would quickly become caked all over my bike and my pannier packs. No thank you! 14 miles is clearly worth not having to deal with that!

The non-paved, muddy road that made me immediately turn back

So before my day even started, really, I had 14 “oops miles” and I was completely soaked from biking in the mist and rain. It was a good thing I was wearing my swim trunks! Luckily, by the time I returned to Douglas and started on the alterenate route, it was only 10:30 AM, so essentially it was just a late start for me. On the plus side, the alternate route went trough Orin, Wyoming, where there was a truck stop and I could get a bite to eat.

Which I did, and after the truck stop, it seemed that the weather was actually starting to clear a bit. This was short-lived, however, as the more I ascended, the worse the weather got. Back in the rain, then out of it, then back in, rinse and repeat. When there was a break in the rain/mist, I stopped to take an occasional picture, but for the most part I just kept moving. I passed a number of small towns: Shawnee, Lost Spring (population: 4), Keeline, Manville.

Finally I made it to Lusk, which was a sizable town, with lodging options and restaurants. With my oops miles, by the time I got to Lusk I had already biked 68 miles, and I needed to decide if I wanted to stay there for the night, or push on to my original destination of Harrison, Nebraska.

Because I had stopped so infrequently, it was only 3:30 PM at that point. On previous days, that would mean that it was hot enough to stop for the day, but because of the overcast skies and the rain ushering in some new weather patterns, it was only 62 degrees — a BIG change.

I decided that it was early enough, and I felt good enough, to push on. However, I stopped to get an early dinner, and at that time I changed to my second set of biking clothes, which, thankfully, were still dry. The rain and mist had stopped hours ago, but I was still wearing soaking wet clothes, and that combined with the cooler temperatures were enough to make me distinctly uncomfortable. Once I changed into the dry clothes, I immediately felt better, and then some hot soup and a warm sandwich sealed the deal.

Once I got back on my bike, I discovered a new problem — after Lusk, the 65 mph road I was on ceased to have a shoulder. As I said earlier, the roads in Wyoming have been very impressive, with all of them that I have been on having nice, wide shoulders (and often rumble strips) keeping bikers safely set apart from cars. But now, with just 20 miles left in Wyoming, I had to deal with my first non-shouldered road!

Luckily the road was not heavily traveled, and all the vehicles passing me seemed willing to pass me like I was any other motorized vehicle, crossing in to the other lane to get around me. Some even used their blinkers to signal it!

Beautiful white cliffs at a little town named Van Tassell (population: 15) just before the Nebraska border. Note that the sun has come out at this point.

Eventually I crossed into my fourth state, Nebraska, and immediately the shoulder returned. Hooray! And just before that, at 5:30 PM, the sun FINALLY broke through the clouds! I may have had only about an hour of biking remaining, but this was the way I initially envisioned the day going: I had dry clothes, the early morning fog and mist had burned off, and I was in Nebraska.

When I finally pulled up to the Harrison House Bed & Breakfast, my bicycle computer read 100 miles exactly. A new longest day for me, and while it started out in a miserable fashion and continued that way for much of the day, I finished strong and happy. I had made the correct decision to continue, and the kind proprietor of the B&B even let me dry off my still-wet clothes for tomorrow’s ride.

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From the Mailbag: Elevation

Today’s question comes from my mother: “Have you noticed any affects of being at a higher altitude yet… breathing, muscle strength, etc?”

Douglas, where I am now, is at about 5000 feet of elevation, and I’ll be descending over the next few days, so I won’t be at elevation much longer.

In Oregon, I started at the ocean, so I was at sea level, of course (and I’ll end up at sea level in Massachusetts when I finish). But the initial climbing was gradual enough that I think my body had time to acclimate to the thinner atmosphere. I never experienced any labored breathing, other than what I thought was normal when climbing. I did not notice any difference in ability to catch my breath when I was several thousand feet high versus back home in Boston.

This view took my breath away, but it had nothing to do with the altitude

The only possible difference I noticed was in the intensity of the sun. It certainly seemed to me that on a clear, cloudless, sunny day, the sun seemed to beat down with a strength that surprised me. Even with plenty of sunscreen on, my skin would quickly get warm to the touch, and the black parts of my bike would become too hot to touch if left out in the sun.

I cannot say with certainty that the sun was stronger at elevation, but I have to think that if there was another mile of atmosphere for the suns rays to pass through, they would have been softened somewhat.

The highest point of my trip. I was gulping for air when I got there, but it was from the 20 mile climb. I recovered quickly.

Other than that, however, I didn’t notice any significant change due to the elevation. But then, years ago I ran a half marathon at 9000+ feet in Colorado, and I didn’t really notice any difference there, either. Maybe the altitude changes just don’t impact me very much.

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Day 23: Glenrock, WY to Douglas, WY — 37 miles

For the first time since I started back on June 10, the weather forecast for today showed rain. That’s a remarkable string of sunny days, with a few partly cloudy days mixed in. There has been a passing shower or two in that time, but nothing major. Today, however, there were thunderstorms predicted, and while I might be willing to bike in the rain, I want to avoid biking in thunderstorms if I can avoid it.

Luckily the storms were not supposed to develop until the afternoon, which allowed me to get some biking done in the morning. A 37 mile day is short, it’s true, but the short day actually allowed me to get back on track. I had modified my route through central Wyoming to have some reasonably-placed stops along the way, but that meant that the towns I was stopping in were not the ones on my original plan. Douglas was one of those original towns, and I was relatively certain I could cover the shorter distance by noon or so, well before the storms hit.

When I first got on the road from Glenrock, it was immediately clear that the weather was in transition. There was a hard, steady wind blowing at about 20 miles per hour, with gusts up to 30 miles per hour. The wind was coming from the north, and my route for the day had me going north and east out of town.

When I was pointed mostly east, the gusty breeze was mostly a cross wind, which was essentially irrelevent to my efforts. However, when the road would turn more north, the wind became a difficult headwind. Most of the path was east, not north, so that was lucky for me, but there were times I was going almost directly north, into the wind.

Those times were a real slog. There was one stretch where I found myself descending a pretty steep slope, and I found I had to pedal as hard as I could, in a lower gear, just to keep above 10 mph. It was one of the windiest days I remember biking in.

Another wind farm. Perfect on this windy day! There were more turbines than I could count.

At some point, however, I turned from going mostly north to mostly south, so I went from a headwind to a tailwind, and that was liberating. From that point on, my path was mostly southeast, with the steady wind pushing me along.

I have mentioned before what a difference a tailwind makes, and it was never more clear than today. Once I turned to the south, my speed immediately shot up, and even climbing seemed realtively effortless. Every time I checked my spedometer, I was traveling at speeds greater than 20 mph, more than 30 mph going downhill, with minimal effort on my part.

I only stopped a handful of times to take pictures or to towel off, and when I did stop, I found it difficult to keep my bike from moving forward without me, the wind was blowing so strongly. In all, the 37 mile trip took me just a little more than two hours.

You can see the road stretching out miles and miles to the horizon. Also note the haze in the air, signaling the oncoming storms.

I was looking forward to having some extra time to explore Douglas, as some marketing banners lining the downtown streets declared it to be “One of the 100 best small cities”. However, I had the misfortune to arrive on the Sunday afternoon of a holiday weekend, and almost everything was closed. I had to walk about a mile to find an open restaurant, and then I was stunned to find it was a smoking restaurant. I sat in the three-table non-smoking section, about 10 feet from a smoking table. Cough cough cough.

I have also heard that Douglas is a fracking town, and the vehicles that passed me on the road seemed to bear that out. There was very little traffic on back roads on a Sunday morning, but at least half of what passed me seemed to be natural gas tankers.

The storms this afternoon/evening are supposed to usher in some cooler air, offering a break from the record heat. The high temperature for tomorrow is supposed to be just 66 degrees, after the steady string of 90s and 100s for the last two weeks. I think I’ll wear my biking shoes (as opposed to my biking sandals) for the first time on the entire trip, which will be a nice change of pace. I may even wear a jacket!

The storms also seem to usher in a more unstable weather pattern, with rain and thunderstorms appearing throughout the week. That’s new for me, since the only weather I have had to be worried about so far has been heat. We’ll see how I handle this new challenge.

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Day 22: Alcova, WY to Glenrock, WY — 55 miles

Today was a great day! Just about everything that could go right, did. I got an early start, I made good time, the weather was good, I got to see Casper, and I got to my destintion before I overheated.

It was another hot day, and even though I was on the road by 8 AM, it already felt warm under the sun. I feel like it didn’t cool down much overnight. The cabin in Alcova was very nice, with a complete kitchen — stove, full-size refrigerator, sink with garbage disposal, etc. — and the kitchen was fully furnished, with plates, glasses, flatware, and even appliances like a toaster and pots and pans for cooking. I wished I could have taken advantage of it, but with my light load, there wasn’t much I could do.

Even though the route was mostly downhill, there were still some hills to deal with

Once I got on the road, I found yet another wrinkle on the shoulder situation. I have been very impressed in general with the Wyoming roads, which have a nice, wide shoulder most of the time. Which is good, because the posted speed limit on these roads is 65 mph, so having enough space between you and speeding trucks is of utmost importance.

Earlier, I talked about the rumble strip, and many of the Wyoming roads have used the rumble strip to effectively delineate the shoulder from the main part of the road. For the most part, they are well positioned at the left edge of the shoulder, so I haven’t really had any reason to complain.

Today, however, brought a new problem. The pavement was often made of a material that would have cracks, and those cracks would be filled in occasionally with tar. Normally this would not be an issue, but at the temperatures of the last few days, tar gets very soft indeed, and if there is a crack that runs in parallel with your motion, it is easy to get stuck in that rut and the melting tar sticks to the bicycle wheels, slowing you down. 

This happened for dozens of miles during today’s ride. Not only did I need to be careful about staying to the right of the rumble strips and to the left of the end of the pavement, I needed to avoid any cracks, most of which ran right down the middle of the shoulder! So I had to pay very close attention to where I was riding, and if there was a vehicle behind me, since sometimes the only way to avoid these cracks was to ride into the lane of traffic.

Luckily, traffic was very light in general, with not many cars and trucks on the road. I assume most traffic takes the nearby Interstate, leaving these state roads nearly empty. At least, that has been my experience.

Anyway, I knew that Casper was just 30 miles from where I started, and those 30 miles flew by. I think my muscles are getting stronger, because as long as I do not have a climb or a headwind (or anything else that might artificially slow me down) I can keep the bike rolling along at higher and higher rates of speed. The inertia of the bike, more massive from all the weight, definitely helps in this regard.

I was eager to see Casper, but unfortunately because I arrived on the 4th of July, almost everything downtown was closed for the holiday. There was a parade scheduled for 4:00 PM, but I wasn’t going to stick around long enough to attend that.

A section of the Casper Rail Trail system. It ran for about a mile or so, then became an unpaved path. It was nice while it lasted!

Eventually, I found a nice little place to have lunch, called Jacqui’s Bistro, an upscale eatery in the downtown area. Even though most stores were closed, dozens of people filled the streets, making chalk drawings on the sidewalk in anticipation of the parade later that afternoon. It was neat to see the various designs people created!

Proof that I am not exaggerating these temps!

After lunch, I finished the trip to Glenrock, population 2500, and I arrived right at 2 PM. As I rode into town, I saw one of those electronic signs that displays the time and temperature, and it read 100 degrees even. A local passing by told me that it tends to run a little high so it probably wasn’t quite that hot, but upper 90s is still plenty warm. My bicycle thermometer read 103 degrees.

I didn’t have a problem overheating as I did the previous day, luckily, and my body cooled right down. I’m off now to have dinner, and I hear there will be a fireworks display once the sun goes down. I’ll have to check it out!

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Day 21: Jeffrey City, WY to Alcova, WY — 69 miles

From the tiny town of Jeffrey City, I knew I would be going to Alcova, where I could camp if necessary, or possibly stretching on to Casper at 100 miles. So I got an early start (although each other patron of the church camping in Jeffrey City got an earlier start than I did) to allow myself every opportunity.

Split Rock, in the mists of morning

I am traveling through a pretty desolate part of Wyoming, the middle. The western part, with Jackson, the Tetons, and Yellowstone, seems famous and well-visited. Many of the larger towns seem to be on the eastern side, like Casper, Cheyenne, Laramie, and Douglas. But in the middle part of the state the small towns seem spread out, with little between them.

This has made planning a bike ride tricky. You don’t want to be caught in the middle of nowhere and run out of food and/or water. And yet, “middle of nowhere” seems to be a pretty good description of some of the areas I have biked through over the last couple of days.

Devil’s Gate, cut from rock by the Sweetwater River

Today wasn’t much different than yesterday, or the day before that. The terrain seemed very similar. About a third of the way into the day’s ride, there was a gas station, which thankfully had wi-fi so I was able to get online briefly. Roughly two-thirds in I came upon a rest area which had restrooms and water, which was nice. And toward the end of the ride the clouds disappeared and the heat rose precipitously.

I got to Alcova by three o’clock, with Casper another 30 miles, or roughly two hours, away. The ride had gone smoothly, I was feeling good, and it was relatively early. But the heat.

With about an hour to go to Alcova, the heat really started to build. Directly in the sun, my bicycle computer’s thermometer read 110 degrees. Once I got to Alcova, I simply could not cool down. I found a convenience shop and had some ice cream, and a cool drink, and I tried sitting in the shade, but my body was still overheating. I knew there was no way I could continue on to Casper in that heat.

In fact, it even made camping a problem. Even if I put up my tent, either I would leave the fly off to get some air, and be subjected to the sun, or put the fly on to escape the sun but trap the heat in and be stuffy. I couldn’t imagine a scenario where I could be comfortable.

So I asked about availability at the only hotel in town. I got the last cabin — it seems this is the busiest weekend of the year. There is a nearby lake, and everyone wants to be out doing watersports on the 4th, I guess.

Alcova Lake, as seen coming into my destination for the day, Alcova

But not me. I took a cold shower, and after that I took a cold bath. I finally got my core temperature down to a reasonable level, had dinner, and went to bed. I would have liked to check out the area a bit more, as the views coming into town were spectacular. Oh well. Maybe I’ll get to see some more on my way out tomorrow morning — bright and early, before it gets too hot.

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Day 20: Lander, WY to Jeffrey City, WY — 59 miles

Knowing that there wasn’t much — or really, anything — between my start and end points today, I did some grocery shopping before I left Lander. I could tell I had added about 10 pounds in food and beverages to my weight as I left Lander and pulled on to the open road.

I tried to buy food that would be healthy, and that would not spoil quickly from being in the heat. I got a bunch of fruit — three bananas, a couple of apples, a couple of plums, and some grapes. Fruit is great because it has water and sugar, two key ingredients for a successful ride. I also got a box of granola bars, and for the main meal I bought some summer sausage and a block of cheese, for the protein, salt, and fat. I also got some Gatorade and some non-refrigerated orange juice to have the next morning (and possibly the next as well).

Knowing the ride was about 60 miles, I tried to stop and eat roughly every 15 miles, even if it was just a snack.

The road stretches on for miles in this area. Note the nice, wide shoulder.

About halfway through the ride, there was the one major climb of the day, about 1000 feet over 6 miles, about a 6% grade. Steep, but I have done many climbs that tough or tougher on this trip.

After the climb, I got to Sweetwater Station, a rest area by the side of the highway. There was a bathroom, and a nice cold water fountain where I refilled the water I had already consumed for the day. In fact, I poured one of my bottles filled with warm water all over my jersey and shorts, so that would cool me down as I rode, and then refilled that bottle with cold water from the fountain.

Miles and miles of unused land.

Luckily, it was not as hot as yesterday, and I wasn’t as tired when I pulled in to Jeffrey City. Jeffrey City is an interesting ghost town. It was one of the largest cities in Sweetwater County back in the 1980s, when there was uranium mining happening here. But once that mining stopped, nearly everyone moved away, except for a couple of dozen people who either loved the area or hated other people.

There is one pub in town that serves food, and the owners also operate the only motel in town, a collection of ramshackle rooms that will house you but not much else but are better than nothing.

However, better than that, at least for me, was the fact that the local church has free camping for bicycle tourists during the spring and summer months. Services here at the church are held just once a month, but every day you will find some bicyclists staying overnight on their way east or west. The night I stayed, there were six people here with me, and I was the only one not doing the TransAmerica Trail headed to Virginia. One of the other guests was my friend Claudia from Italy, who I shared a WarmShowers.org stay with back in Oregon.

A young antelope appeared outside the church

We had use of the church’s showers and kitchen, so someone made a big pot of pasta and we all ate and shared stories from our trips. It was a fun, communal time, with the other five agreeing to meet up before camping tomorrow night down south in Rawlins, while I will split off and head north to Alcova (66 miles) or possibly even Casper (100 miles) if I am feeling energetic enough. Since I am splitting off from the TransAmerica Trail tomorrow, I suspect the number of cyclists I will see will drop dramatically from here on.

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Day 19: Dubois, WY to Lander, WY — 76 miles

This day was split up into three distinct rides.

The first ride, for about 30 miles, was great. A couple of passing clouds kept the temperature down, no discernable wind made biking pleasant, and I was cruising along, the miles flying by. After 30 miles, my average speed was a remarkable 18 miles per hour.

When I picked my route, I didn’t go through Arizona, New Mexico, or Nevada because I didn’t want to bike through desert. Little did I know!

By the time I got to Crowheart, about a third of the distance of the day, I could feel my energy dipping a little, and decided it was time to get something to eat. I spotted a gas station, and pulled in to ask a local for advice. “Where’s the nearest place to get something to eat?” I asked. She laughed, “45 miles!”

Well, I knew I couldn’t bike 45 more miles with nothing to eat, so I cobbled together lunch from the convenience store — some chocolate milk, some yougurt, a banana, a bottle of gatorade, some gorp, and a package of “Lunchables” — crackers, meat and cheese. Not the lunch I would have preferred, but it was what was available to me.

By the time I got back on my bike around noon, weather conditions had changed. The clouds disappeared, and the sun beat down with the temperature shooting up. At one point my bicycle computer’s thermometer (which tends to run higher than the actual temperature) read 104 degrees. More significantly, the wind picked up, and I had my first significant head wind of the trip. My average speed plummeted, and I was forced to work harder in the searing heat. Not a good combination.

My initial plan was to bike to Riverton for the day, and the next day make my way to Jeffrey City. The other option was to go to Lander first instead of Riverton, and then on to Jeffrey City. Lander was a few miles closer to Dubois, but Jeffrey City was a few miles closer to Riverton.

During one of my breaks, I looked at a map, and I didn’t see any major road connecting Riverton and Jeffrey City. With the bad experiences I have been having with Google Maps lately, I decided that for all I knew, I would be biking down some back roads, with more hills or maybe even unpaved roads! The way to Jeffrey City through Lander was the recommended route of the Adventure Cycling TransAmerica path, so I figured if it was good enough for them, it would be good enough for me. The fact that the distance to Lander was a few miles shorter was a bonus.

I spent most of the day biking through the Wind River Indian Reservation. There was a stroefront displaying Native American-made objects and aftifacts, but cameras were not allowed. So I took this picture of a tepee next door.

With that in mind, I made my way towards Lander. With about 15 miles still remaining I finally found somewhere to eat, in a small town called Fort Washakie. After I finished with my late lunch, the weather conditions had changed again. This time, some ominous-looking clouds were just downwind from me, and I thought I might get rained on for the first time of my trip. Luck held though, and I only got a couple of sprinkles. The clouds, though, blocked the sun and the temperatures were much cooler than they had been.

Rain clouds right next to me. Remarkably, all I got were a couple of sprinkles.

I’m not sure if it was the threat of rain, the wind from the rain serving as a tail wind, or my rejuvenated energy from my late lunch, but I was able to finish the day to Lander quickly. I didn’t have any lodging planned, but I was able to find a hotel with a vacancy, with both a hot tub and a restaurant next door! After my long, exhausting day, I needed a little comfort.

The next couple of days in Wyoming are through some very small towns with minimal services, so before I start to Jeffrey City I am going to stop at one of Lander’s grocery stores and stock up on some non-perishable food for meals. It will mean more to carry, but I know I can’t count on finding conveniently-placed restaurants for the next hundred miles or so. I saw some bicycle tourists on the road yesterday carrying an extra gallon of water on the back of their bikes. I might have to try that. Luckily, the high temperature is not supposed to be too bad today, in the 80s.

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