Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Wide open Wyoming

Many hundreds of miles to go

Into wide open Wyoming After two nights of Saratoga’s raucous bars carousing into the early hours, I had no qualms about an early goodbye. At 5:30 a.m. I sped off into first light on the Wyoming prairie. 

I must mention the Wolf Hotel – staff were friendly and responsive, the lobby and saloon full of animal heads were an easy draw. Between the hotel, the only grocery for 40 miles and the outfitter, Saratoga had more taxidermied animal heads per capita than anywhere else I’d visited. 

An old landmark

In a few miles, I forgot all about Saratoga. The road to the interstate was quiet, as was the interstate to Sinclair, home to a giant oil refinery and a company town, then Rawlins, where I intended to turn north. I gassed the car just to ensure I would not run out short of Riverton. 

Outside the city, the road turned sparse. I only stopped at the old sign for a restaurant and truckstop that had not operated in several decades. But I needed a picture of the weathered sign with the doe-eye antelope. 

The first city I crossed was Jeffrey City, a certified ghost town. The former uranium mining town had risen and fallen in a few decades. Jeffrey City became just a place you sped through on the way to somewhere else. This was a route that led to Grand Teton, so it was not hard to imagine a day when traffic could have filled cafes in a humming Jeffrey City. But that was decades past. 

I never felt fully alone on the edge of the Red Desert. Hundreds of pronghorns, spread out in groups from one to dozens, grazed across the treeless expanse. For most of the drive from Rawlins to Riverton, there was little but buttes and crumbling mountain chains. After the highway split off for Lander and I went north for Riverton, every band of rock in western mountain ranges glowed red in the morning light. 

The scenery greened at Riverton, a clear band of the Wind River and its tree-lined path cutting through town. Farmland along the river receded back into desert terrains. Turning at the Boysen Reservoir, there were few trees to note. The Wind River headed east and the road followed. The road circles the Boysen Reservoir then comes out near its namesake dam. As the road took me around, I wondered where I could cut through the Owl Creek Mountains, the soaring, treeless mass of rock blocking the horizon. 

Until I was about to enter the Wind River Canyon, nothing tipped off its existence.. At the dam, the Wind River descended deeply and majestically. In a few miles I drove 2,000 feet below the cliffs of the canyon, some of the rocks half as old as the earth itself. I wish I spent more time below the canyon walls before I was spit out into the tourist town of Thermopolis. 

The giant mineral spring in Thermopolis


But I knew those walls would be there no matter how soon I returned (spoiler – I passed back in less than 24 hours). After the canyon, the Wind River becomes the Bighorn at Thermopolis for reasons I don’t quite understand. Known as the Wedding of the Waters, the name just changes, with the Bighorn running the rest of the way to the Yellowstone. 

Overlooks along the Bighorn River provide glimpses of the giant hot spring giving Thermopolis its name. The state park that surrounds it also includes a bison herd. People ran across the giant formation of travertine rising along the Bighorn River. With the park already seeming crowded, I pressed through a series of towns cut from the same brick followed – Walford, Greybull – until I reached the end of Lovell, and one of Wyoming’s undervisited spectacles. 

Before its conversion to a national recreation area, Bighorn Canyon was a place to avoid, a sudden but stunningly deep canyon on the Bighorn River. While the rivers no longer flow freely, the Bighorn is no less jaw-dropping. The sharpened cliffs rise more than 1,000 feet above the greenish waters, made more dramatic by the frequency with which the Bighorn bends. 

Bighorn Canyon majesty

Even more majesty
Last time I visited, the winds were staggering at the Devil’s Overlook railing. Not even the lightest breeze blew this morning. A few boats cruised the waters hundreds of feet below the rim. I took on a few short hikes. The canyon has desert vegetation and the trails were almost completely exposed. One took me down a short trail that ended in views of an awe-striking cave below the massive fins of rock that formed the river’s bends through the canyon. 

 Heading back up the park road, I spotted some horses from the Pryor Wild Horse Range grazing closer to the road. another herd stood far in the distance. A trailer pulled up, then its occupants began photographing the same horses. “It wasn’t even worth it to drive back here.”

Wild horses stare back

 All sorts of comments ran through my head. Fortunately for those folks, they stayed there. I could have laughed. I watched the horses and didn’t acknowledge them, because I couldn’t without shredding that foolish comment. 

They couldn’t have heard me as they lumbered away, not in their trailer large enough to make Lucy and Desi jealous (yes, a reference to The Long, Long Trailer.)

Back from Billings (see next post), I was antsy. Lovell had an interesting main drag. I wanted a twilight walk to photograph its murals and vintage buildings. 

But my interest would fade after the first round of stings on my legs. Mosquitoes hit me in clumps. I swatted them, smashing them against my legs and seconds later a new generation began to take their place. Not even Chincoteague mosquitoes could compete with these vicious buggers. 

Bighorn Mountain morning

I retreated to the motor court room, ready for the morning , where the first two episodes of Lovecraft Country ferried me out of the day. The red swirled across the eastern horizon. 

Sunrise against the Bighorns made the early drive worth my time. The sun wasn’t really a factor till I left the Wind River Canyon, then began the 100-mile sprint to Casper. 

Stops were easily avoided till I passed an old motor court/lounge on the Wyoming plains, its wide-bottomed neon mascot a clear mockery of similar signs down in Texas. 

Decades had passed since anyone stayed the night or tasted a steak off the griddle. It felt comfortable even as the prairie winds slowly picked it apart. I wished the lounge could have held on. I didn’t need a steak at 9 a.m., but the allure of a pre-interstate roadhouse would have been a solid draw, at least to me. 

Another abandoned roadhouse

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