Monday, July 9, 2012

Bike America Day 20: A Gravel Adventure

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Day's distance: 65.15 miles
Average speed: 10.8  mph
Max speed: 30.1 mph
Overall distance: 1,231 miles

With temperatures expected to be over 100 degrees on Tuesday, we continued our kick to get up and hit the road as early as possible. We left our campsite at 7:30AM. Logistically, we had a complicated day ahead of us because of the deserted landscape we'd be heading into. It was 112 miles from Sheridan to Gillette, WY which was our next option for lodging. Because of the heat, we never even considered riding the full distance in one day. We would ride 75 miles to the spotted horse cafe, one of the only things between the two towns, and drive from there to beds in Gillette. Little did we know when we left that the logistics of our day would turn out to be even more complicated than we'd imagined.

We rode a few miles through town and then headed out of it on a county road. We came to the point where our google directions told us to turn right but the road we were supposed to take was gravel. A pick up truck pulled up to the intersection and my dad asked if the road became paved at any point. He told us that it was all gravel but that we could stay on the county road and we'd still be going in the right direction. The county road would eventually turn to gravel, too, he told us. That should have been our immediate cue to head back to town and search for another route. But we just weren't that smart.

The scenery on this road was lovely. The sun was still low in the sky and there were mountains in the distance. There were wheat fields and railroad tracks and the traffic was minimal. At mile 14, we saw a warning sign that read PAVEMENT ENDS. Crap. We came to a fork in the road and our directions told us to go left. We followed the gravel for two miles and came to another fork. We stayed left again, still on gravel. If not for the fear that our tires would pop at any moment, riding such a rough road wouldn't have been so bad. It was hilly and there were times we thought we might topple over because our tires couldn't grip the ground as easily. And we had to move at a very slow pace with our eyes constantly on the road. But I thought about how much fun this might have been if I'd had a mountain bike with tires that were four times as fat.

Four miles into the gravel, at mile eighteen for the day, we came to a house with a covered wagon out front. We could see that our road went on forever and worried that this course would be impossible for us. My mom hadn't caught up to us in the car and we both tried to call her but our service wasn't sufficient to get through. Less than half a mile later, my dad's tire popped and we decided we couldn't go on. Our service was a little better so we called me mom who thought she was lost. She'd come within a mile of us but decided there was no way we could have ridden so far on gravel so she'd turned around. We told her to come back and shuttle us to a safer, smoother route.

US Highway 14/16 runs the full 112 miles from Sheridan to Gillette but we'd gone with this alternate route to avoid the few miles we'd have had to ride on I90 had we followed that route. The plan when my mom retrieved us was to cut across from our gravel road to hook back up with US14 without driving all the way back to Sheridan. I was imagining that this would only require a few miles in the car and it seemed like a fair alternative to riding another 30 miles on gravel.

When it took us 22 miles of driving a different gravel road (Highway 42) to get down to US14, though, I was really upset. It seemed like big-time cheating and I couldn't, in good conscious, get on my bike and resume from there, with no clue how many miles I'd cut off from my day. So we pulled out all kinds of GPS technology, maps, and directions to figure out a plan. On our original route, our day would consist of about 65 miles. We subtracted the 18 we'd already ridden and the 34 we had left to ride from that 65. That put us at a 13 mile loss so we turned right and drove 13 miles in the wrong direction. So, though we did some taxiing and mixing of routes, we'd still ride all the miles it would have taken to get to our destination on our original route.

My mom and I set out to begin the ride on US14/16 and traffic wasn't so bad after all. I was frustrated that it was after 11 and we'd only gone 18 miles, having lost so many cooler morning hours in the car. My mom said, "That's what makes this an adventure, not a vacation." True story.

About ten miles later, we stopped and had lunch in the shade with my dad and the parked car. He was in the midst of replacing his tube when we pulled up. I had a few bites of leftover quesadilla from the night before and a peanut butter/banana sandwich. Another 15 miles later and my parents switched back. We were 24 miles from the Spotted Horse Cafe and, again, it was dangerously hot. The thermometer on my bike computer, which gets extra hot in the sun from the black metal handlebars, read 111 degrees. Weather reports on our phone were closer to 102. Still nothing to take lightly.

Wyoming was turning out to be pretty, no matter how desolate. While Montana and Washington were full of beautiful mountains, the peaks in the northeast corner of this "forever west state" were different somehow. Smaller and more brown, they often looked like they'd been part of canyons or ranges that had washed away over time. In places, they were much pointier and stood out from the rest.

The final miles were hilly and I left my dad a few times. The heat rash on my legs had been flaring for the last 20 miles and it brought down my spirits a lot. It was really just no fun to be on the bike when I feared making  my skin worse. When the skin swelled, it made it painful to pedal because each time I'd bend and straighten my knees, the skin on my things would wrinkle and burn. So I'd cruise down as many hills as I could and pedal minimally. We stopped for water at the top of a hill and told my dad that, according to my calculations, we had only three miles to go. He said, "I'm thinking 3 too but I'm prepared for 4." I wasn't.

Luckily, it was only three miles. The last was a long uphill and we noted that they really make us work for the air conditioning and snacks we'd been waiting for. Inside, I ran to the bathroom to strip off the capris I'd been wearing to protect my skin from the sun and rubbed cold water on my legs. They were not in a good place. We sat at the bar eating ice cream sandwiches and drinking water. We learned from the owner that people who live on that stretch have to make whole day trips into Sheridan or Gillette to by groceries and they do so only once a month. They do have cable and most of them have dial-up internet. Bumper stickers in the bar read: "Very Rightwing" and "Want more gun control? Practice daily."

We got in the car and I dozed on our 30 mile drive south. In our motel, I laid on the bed feeling, as I put it so eloquently in a text message to Josh, like "a pile of cow poop". The sun and the dry heat had really beat me down. I finally showered, rubbed my legs with Chamois Butter, and ate dinner that my mom had generously picked up for us all from the Quizno's across the street. I had a mediteranean salad and chicken pesto sandwich. This wasn't like one of those you pick two, half and half sort of deals. It was a full sandwich and full salad and I ate them both with room in my stomach to spare. You'll notice in many of the motel pictures that my dinner table is the bedside table with the alarm clock. If you're wondering, that does mean that I'm eating while sitting in bed. It is quite the luxury.

One more day and we'd begin our long-awaited five day break from bike riding.

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