Day 93: Saratoga, WY to Jeffrey City, WY - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

July 14, 2011

Day 93: Saratoga, WY to Jeffrey City, WY

The wind blows all night. Nothing as bad as the storm, but enough to keep the rain fly flapping constantly and wake me up every half hour. I'm still half asleep as the bike shakes over the whump-whump-whump of the cattle guard, bounces some more on the ride back to the highway, and then shakes over the even rougher whump-whump-whump of a second cattle guard. As soon as I turn north the wind picks me up and carries me along at better than 20 miles per hour on the flats. Powered by leftover pizza I pedal like a mad man and try to make the most of the help, speeding along on terribly rough roads with a huge smile on my face and a few shouts of joy in a world full of sagebrush and cows and mountains. I don't see a single building in the 20-mile stretch between Saratoga and Walcott.

Mike, Laurie, Michael, and Diana.
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West of Walcott lies exactly one paved road: Interstate 80. It's not the most peaceful or scenic way to see Wyoming, but it turns out to be not as awful as it would seem. The shoulder runs ten feet wide in most places, there isn't much traffic because it's still Wyoming, and with the help of the wind I dominate the 13-mile stretch in less than an hour. Just before I reach the exit I see a white and green billboard that proudly announces, "Approaching the West's most modern refinery." Exciting!

The refinery is owned by the Sinclair Oil Corporation and looms over the former company town called, of all things, Sinclair. It's everything that the countryside of the last few hours isn't: a tangled network of above-ground pipes, round and cylindrical holding tanks, rusted metal towers with flames shooting out the top, plumes of steam, parked railroad cars, the rumble of semi truck engines, the strong smell of diesel, and a constant low-level hissing sound. With a backdrop of dark thunderstorm clouds it would look absolutely sinister and dystopian, but on a bright and sunny morning it only seems horribly out of place.

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On a sad section of road that parallels the Interstate I look over at mile after mile of billboards advertising motels, Thai restaurants, truck stops, liquor stores, and places that sell fireworks year-round. It's a preview of what's to come in Rawlins, which at 9,000 people is practically New York City compared to the places I've been in the last week.

I ride in half an hour later on a road lined with gas stations and fast food places, where the parking lots sit filled with cars from Oregon, Texas, Illinois, Colorado, and Nebraska, every one of them stopping in for 20 minutes so that the driver can eat a burger, enter a new destination in the GPS, and then get the hell out of town. I follow their lead, clogging the pipes with three greasy tacos before escaping to the north, guided by a clean, crisp, brand new Adventure Cycling Association map that will guide me all the way to Montana.

A hundred puffy white patches of cloud appear in front of me and a strong wind gives me a push from the left-rear as I climb gently but steadily out of Rawlins and cross the Continental Divide for the third time. Wyoming continues to amaze me with its ability to fill so much space with absolutely nothing at all, such as the range land that I pass where each cow has at least a hundred acres of land all to itself. Farther on I crest a rise and see the Great Basin spread out before me. It's an enormous swath of land that runs completely flat from one end to the other, backed on its edges by rocky ridges with peaks that angle gently up toward the sky. For several minutes all I can do is stand and stare with my mouth hanging open a little and my head nodding, completely in awe of the raw but beautiful landscape I'm about to dive into.

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It's a thrilling 35 mile per hour dive down to the bottom, but that's where the fun ends. The wide shoulder soon turns narrow, which means traffic flies by at better than 70 miles per hour as close as six feet away. All I can think about is the motorhome I saw half an hour earlier—the one that sped past with one of its right-side cargo doors left wide open, sticking out three feet wide and four feet high, parallel to the ground, ready to decapitate a bike rider if the driver swerved slightly toward the shoulder line.

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Eventually the smooth surface turns rough—not quite as bad as a cobblestone street, but not far off either. Then the wind shifts and blows on the side. It's stressful riding, because I know that one lapse of concentration could send me flying into the dirt and weeds and terrified prairie dogs at the road's edge.

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The backside of my fourth Continental Divide crossing drops me off at Muddy Gap, a place that's something between a town and an intersection. For a few minutes I consider stopping, but I know that would leave me with a long, hot, windy day to reach Lander tomorrow. It's an even worse prospect than a night in Muddy Gap, so with a deep breath and a sigh that rattles my lips I strike out to the west, determined but intimidated by the windy 22 miles that lie ahead.

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I distract myself by looking out at the shapes and colors and textures of scenery that's so breathtaking it's difficult to process. I also growl at the wind blasts from passing trucks, sing Elton John's "Rocket Man" at least two dozen times, and feel sorry for the little brown cow who looks at me with a mix of fear and sadness as he finds himself on the highway side of the barbed wire fence, separated from his mother possibly forever. I inadvertently upset a skinny deer, who stares at me after I loudly curse the torn-up road surface that's been crunching my junk for the last seven miles.

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America's loneliest stop sign.
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The mafia send a clear message to the antelope: start paying on time, or else.
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I'm excited when I reach Jeffrey City—partly because it means I don't have to ride anymore, but mostly because it's the most divisive town on the TransAm. Back in 1957, the Western Nuclear Corporation opened a uranium mine in the area, which brought thousands of workers into Jeffrey City to fill high-paying mining jobs. All kinds of businesses and services soon cropped up to support the growing community: a library, churches, medical clinics, a Sheriff's office, dozens of shops, a youth hostel, and even a high school with an Olympic-sized swimming pool. The area thrived out in the middle of the Wyoming prairie for 25 years, until a mine shutdown in 1982 took away its only industry. Within just four years, more than 95 percent of Jeffrey City's residents had left town. Today, a quarter of the bike riders who pass through come away loving the character of the place, and many call it one of their favorite stops on the trail. The other three-quarters think of Jeffrey City as a bleak, run-down ghost town of about a hundred people with nothing more to offer than a single restaurant and a bunch of empty buildings and broken-down cars.

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The cafe half of the Split Rock Cafe & Bar is totally empty, so I walk into the bar instead. Country music blasts from the jukebox in the corner as I step over a Pug that sits in the doorway. Animals skulls and deer heads share space with cowboy hats and neon beer signs on the walls. The local customers—all five of them—sit at the bar and smoke cigarettes and drink Budweiser from both bottles and American flag-themed cans. Behind them, spread out in the middle of the floor, lays a 14-year-old Australian Cattle Dog with arthritis named Willis. A sign next to the bathroom gently reminds guys to shut the door when the toilet's in use.

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I grab a spot at a big table next to two other westbound riders. Greg looks to be in his early 30s. He's from San Francisco and has been on the TransAm for only three days. He originally rode the entire route back in 2004, and is now taking three weeks to once again pedal through his favorite section. Kurt's about ten years older and comes from a suburb of Oklahoma City. He started riding from home and plans to make it all the way to the coast of Oregon. As I drink water from a wide-mouthed mason jar and look at the menu, Kurt mentions that I can order anything I want, even from the list of breakfast items. His advice sets in motion one of the most memorable evenings of the trip.

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The drunk husband of the woman running the bar takes my order.

"I'll have a full stack of pancakes, please," I say.

"Ok," he tells me, "But they're huge, man. I hope you're hungry."

I just rode 110 miles across Wyoming. Of course I'm hungry.

A few minutes later the bar maid, a big and tough-looking woman who's also the cook, walks over to the table.

"You're sure you want the full stack?" she asks me. "Because they're huge. Most people can't finish the whole thing."

I feel a little intimidated, but also starving, so I tell her that I definitely still want the full stack of pancakes.

The tension builds over the next 20 minutes. First the drunk guy comes to the table to drop off some silverware and a napkin.

"Whoo-whee!" he says. "We're gonna have us a Wild West Man vs. Food thing goin' on here soon!"

Not long after, Kurt heads to the bathroom, which takes him past the kitchen. He comes back laughing, with a huge smile on his face.

"Oh man," he laughs, "One pancake takes up the entire grill. She's going through a whole box of pancake mix back there!"

I grow more nervous and less certain of my choice with every passing minute.

Then they arrive. Despite the huge build-up I'm still floored. Each of the three stretches fully a foot wide, with the edges drooping toward the table in such a way that I can't see the plate below. A giant dollop of butter sits in the middle, slowly melting and congealing in a pale yellow pool. I just stare at the starchy mass in front of me for a few minutes, because that's all my instincts will let me do.

Look at the size of the fork.
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I start around the edges and use my fingers because there's no plate to push down on. At first they're crispy and buttery and delicious, exactly what I wanted when I ordered pancakes in the first place. The bar maid tells me that 7:48 p.m. is my start time—and that only two bike riders have successfully eaten all three by themselves. Each of them took 90 minutes to do it. I don't really expect to set the record, but it seems like I have a chance of finishing. I'm super hungry, after all.

The first half of the top pancake goes quickly, and the second half a little slower.

Before I start on the next I dive into the bathroom to clear some extra space. It buys me a few minutes worth of eating, and then I hit a wall.

"Are heart palpitations normal?" I ask Greg.

My stomach stretches. My side aches slightly. More and more time passes between bites. My eyes start to glaze over.

With a pancake and a half left to go I throw in the towel without hesitating at all. I won't be joining the exclusive club and I have no problem with that, because it feels like finishing could literally kill me. I stack my fork, knife, napkin, and tub of butter on top of the remaining pile of food in defeat.

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I ride across the street to what used to be a park but is now just a tree and a patch of grass next to a white garage that houses a pottery shop. It's not fancy, but I don't need fancy. I feel good about the night ahead until one important fact reveals itself: Jeffrey City is hell on Earth.

Mosquitoes swarm the instant I stop. Not a dozen, like a few days ago along the Colorado River, but a hundred or more—aggressive, determined, and absolutely everywhere. In a flurry of profanity I rifle through the bags to try and find the rain pants I haven't worn since Virginia. Once my legs are covered I pull out the rain jacket and cover my arms and lower neck. Both of them help, but my face and head and hands stay exposed and find themselves attacked from all angles. I work madly at piecing together the tent for ten seconds, stop, let out a quick blast of angry swearing, furiously wipe the little black assholes off of me in mid-bite, and then repeat the process—over and over again for what seems like an eternity but is actually more like seven minutes.

Almost 50 of the little shits come along with me when I dive inside the tent. I spend almost an hour killing them all, leaving both the mesh and my hands dotted with blood and various mosquito parts. The air hums on the other side of the netting.

The sky burns a deep orange before giving way to a still, moonlit, perfectly clear night. I'm a hundred feet from the highway, but it's such an isolated part of the country that cars pass no more than once every ten minutes. With the buzz of a nearby air conditioner as background music I laugh at the fact that two hours in Jeffrey City have made me forget all about the 110 miles of riding it took me to get there. I'll leave town tomorrow with both love and hate for the place, which seems so appropriate.

Today's ride: 110 miles (177 km)
Total: 4,704 miles (7,570 km)

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