Don't look back, a new day is breakin'
It's been too long since I felt this way
I don't mind where I get taken
The road is callin', today is the day.
Don't Look Back, Tom Scholtz (1978)
All right. Already. Let's do this again. Today the Cloud Peak 500 takes us 46 miles primarily uphill on shadeless, dusty roads to gain 5,800 feet and then drops a whopping 2 miles to a primitive camp site along a creek. That sounds much like the last two days, but without the big downhill finish and without the luxurious place to stay. We start early to climb as high as possible before that sun starts cooking.
Before pedaling, however, we look hard at the big picture of this trip. After 5 days of riding, we're sitting at Mile 251 of the Cloud Peak 500 route. At that pace of 50 miles a day, we would finish at 10 days. However, we don't have 10 days. Paul planned a total of 8 days of riding, maximum, before starting the trip back to work in Nebraska. I planned 7 days, maybe 8, before driving to Denver to help a daughter move. We have 3 days left to ride, at most.
So, to finish the Cloud Peak 500 route, we need to ride about 250 miles in 3 days, or about 83 miles a day. That distance would leave us dry camping in the hot sagebrush the next two nights. To reach a town each night for water, one would have to ride 105 miles to Kaycee today, then 77 miles to Buffalo tomorrow, and then a victory lap of 56 miles to Sheridan the following day. As Rocco from The Godfather II would say, "Difficult. Not impossible."
However, I am reluctant to dramatically change my Cloud Peak 500 experience by riding deep into the night for Day 6 and maybe Day 7, especially since I have not ridden all of the official route, anyhow. I'm more inclined to continue riding as I have until the clock runs out. On the other hand, I want Paul to have every opportunity to finish this thing. Paul is torn. He doesn't want to take off solo and leave me behind. However, he's prepared for months, ridden the entire route so far, and is eager to find a way to finish it.
Here's our plan. Ride the 48 miles and 5,800 feet of elevation gain to the Middle Fork Powder River Campground, re-supply water, eat, and decide the next step. If time, bike and body allow, continue riding into the night another 57 miles of desolate drylands to Kaycee. If not, stay at the primitive campground. Either way, assess again in the morning.
I leave Ten Sleep early, as Paul waits for the U.S. Post Office to open at 7:00 am. The route rolls briskly south on paved road 434 along Nowood River. That's right. There is no wood around these parts, although the river provides some water to support an occasional ranch.
Soon I veer left onto Spring Creek Road, a good gravel road serving a few large ranches and hunting resorts along this valley. The road actually shows some signs of traffic and maintenance, unlike much of our recent roads. Indeed, for the next 10 miles or so, this gravel road is hard packed, lightly graveled and fast, even when sloping up. Relatively speaking, this gravel road is fast.
I feel good. Smooth, Strong. Steady. Comfortable. This is the warmup stretch to set the stage for a run at Kaycee tonight. I know that I can maintain this level of exertion all day, but don't know if it will be enough to cover 105 miles with almost 9,000 feet of climbing ahead. Balancing level of effort and length of time, I believe this pace gives me a chance.
Paul catches up to ride alongside me, looking energized and moving quickly. He picked up some food and shipped some stuff home, overall dropping significant weight off the bike. All I know is that his Salsa Cutthroat drop bar bike, with high rolling 2.2 inch tires, is built for this type of road and surface. And so is he.
I realize this is a Cutthroat day. He needs to take off now to make a serious run at Kaycee. Right now.
Paul hesitates. I know he doesn't feel right leaving me behind. But I don't feel right holding him back and jeopardizing his completing the Cloud Peak 500 route. We discuss some realities and a few contingencies. He needs to go for it, now. Finally, Paul relents, shifts to a higher gear and pulls away.
While Paul kicks into gear, I kick back. I realize that I've been pushing harder than normal this morning to try to make it all the way to Kaycee today. But just because I can do something, doesn't mean I should. That's not how I want to ride this ride. That's not how I've been riding this ride. I return to riding my ride my way.
Paul disappears over a ridge. Before long, the relatively moderate gradients of Spring Creek Road end at the intersection of Dry Farm Road (85). The big climb starts now. This next dusty dirt road climbs 2,800 feet over the next 10 miles up an arid mountain in the heat of late morning August. There is no shade. There is no water. There is no development of any kind. There is virtually no traffic. I'm on my own again.
This climb is nasty. Every foot is uphill. Some stretches get steeper, and others steeper still. As I crawl up this climb, the road surface softens to a powdery dirt. Between the steep pitch and the soft surface, traction and pace drop. Even with my lowest mountain bike gears and 3.25 inch tires, I can't ride everything. When I walk, the powder puffs up around my legs like Pigpen from the Peanuts.
This climb is brutal. It's also hot, with zero shade. At least my regular consumption of water lowers the weight of my bike, not that I can tell. Pace plummets. Breaks lengthen. I repeatedly check the odometer, wondering how it could possibly move so slowly. I measure progress in tenths of a mile. These 10 miles feel every bit of a hundred.
Eventually, like all good things, the climb ends. Even the road ends. Where Dry Farm Road T-bones into Hazleton Road, I spot a solitary wooden sign pointing to the direction of a highway, two other roads and a reservoir, all in the opposite direction of the Cloud Peak 500 route. It looks like we're going even more remote and even further away from the forested highlands of the Big Horn Mountains.
Not yet. I spot a sliver of a shadow, cast by that wooden sign. At 2:30 pm, that is the first shade I've found all day. I remove my helmet and grab a bottle of FIZZ electrolyte drink, a protein bar and some beef jerky. I plop down in that shade for a long break. Within a few minutes, I fall asleep. Some time later, after the shade moves away, the burning sun awakens me.
Dry Farm Road wore me down, but not out. I battled that beast over 4 hours to cross those 11 miles, not including the nap. No matter. I recover enough to continue toward the Middle Fork Powder River Campground, still 14 miles and 1,400 feet of climbing ahead.
I'm relieved to be free of the steep gradients of Dry Farm Road, although it's not like Hazleton Road is downhill, or even flat. For the next 12 miles, I climb 1,400 feet up a series of long, steady hills, each followed by a shorter, steady descent. Thankfully, the road surface is firmer and the miles pass faster. I pedal on cruise control, maintaining a steady effort to reach that campground.
Hazleton Road gradually ascends from about 7,400 feet to over 8,000 feet along a high pasture ridge line atop an arid mountain. This land supports no trees and carries no surface water. And it is hot, although not as hot as the valley thousands of feet below. Even under these conditions and with no resupply opportunities, I still carry sufficient water in mid afternoon, thanks to starting with 5 liters.
As I make my way through this vast, high altitude pasture, an ATV rumbles up. It's George, a weathered cowhand checking on a herd of cattle he thinks may be over that next ridge. I tell him that I haven't seen any cattle all day. He nods, turns off the ATV, sits back in the seat, and scans the horizon. Then he turns to me, asks me if I'd like some cold water, and starts talking up a storm, in boisterous and colorful language. We laugh and share some stories over drinks of that cold water, both of us enjoying a little company in the midst of a long solitary day.
After more than a few minutes, George fires up his ATV in search of his cattle and I remount by bike in pursuit of my campground. That was nice. It's good to connect with others, especially those of different backgrounds. It was also a nice reminder that we all are more alike than different.
As the afternoon wanes, I crest a small rise and abruptly drop down a loose, steep, newly graded switchback. Not expecting that. For over a mile, I swerve all over that messy downhill just to stay upright. At the bottom, the road surface just as abruptly changes back. Well, how about that.
No matter. I'm at the Middle Fork Powder River Campground. It's about 5 pm. And I'm done for the day.
Oh, I could take a break, eat dinner, replenish water supplies, even take a short nap, and still head for Kaycee. But I'm not going to ride deep into the night. Not today. Not this trip.
Instead, I strip down to socks and lay down in the middle of the swift, cool waters of Rock Creek. Ahhh. A Wyoming spa. Refreshing only begins to describe how good that feels. Sun-dried within minutes, I drink a full liter of FIZZ, set up camp, cook dinner, and absorb the moment. This primitive camp is a little piece of heaven in the midst of a vast, harsh, unforgiving country. What an amazing end to a hard day.
Somewhere out there on the road ahead, Paul is pedaling into the night alone. Even without cell communication, I know he's doing well and will power into Kaycee sometime late tonight. I'll just have to wait to hear his stories. Those, too, will be amazing.