As the vertical fluting of that great mass of volcanic rock, Devil’s Tower, loomed into view, closer, closer, I could “smell the barn”, so I hammered up the final hill toward the KOA campground where friends, family and our tour guide, Tom Sheehan were waiting patiently.
What a great way to end a week-long, cross state tour of Wyoming, flying at 45 mph downhill for over a mile to the waiting showers, but I’m way ahead of myself here…
We actually started the tour at a little town in southwestern Wyoming named Farson (pop. 151) after a day-long, 450 mile van trip from Devil’s Tower. There were twelve of us in the party, nine riders and three support folks (my wife at the time Judy, daughter Jessie and Tom). The riders were Minnesota Jerry, Kentucky Jerry, Jim and John from California, Robin and John from Long Island, NY, Dick from Fargo, ND and Mike from Sioux City, IA. Tom the guide hailed from Jackson, WY, headquarters for his touring enterprise, CyclEvents. Usually Tom’s partner Mike was along, but he was under strict orders to finish building his new house and, since Judy was along to help and the group was small, he was not present.
I had heard of this bunch through several Kansas City Bike Club members who had participated in various CyclEvents tours, Dr. Joe Ketcherside, brothers Gordy and Larry Stevenson and Mr. Mac McAllister from Parkville. Tom told me the KCBC had the honor of sending the most riders his way than any other locale.
Most multi-day tours I have been on have been nice, but this one was outstanding, due to several factors, mostly the laid-back yet professional demeanor of Tom. He really had it all together, the food was always great and plentiful, the beer cooler was well stocked and the camping facilities just got better and better as we progressed across the state. Add in the spectacular scenery and the gregarious personalities of my fellow riders and you had a trip that was challenging physically but easy on the psyche.
The weather was mostly hot and dry, conditions, while not perfect, were bearable. The only foul weather we encountered was on our trip over Powder River Pass (elv. 9666 ft., a constant, unrelenting climb of 29.6 miles) where we ran into lightning, rain, hail and temps that had dropped from 70 degrees to somewhere around 40 for the trip downhill. At that point, six of the nine (including me) decided to pack it in and ride in the van down the hill.
We were also able to observe the annual Perseid meteor shower, one of the biggest throughout the year. You can’t imagine more ideal conditions, high altitude, no city lights and cloudless skies. I’ve seen my share of meteors, but this was truly spectacular.
Cool temperatures prevailed in the evenings, due to the higher elevations we were at most of the time (around 4500-5000 feet). That made for brisk, cool starts in the morning, usually at 8-8:30, but it quickly warmed up into the 80’s. Our hottest days were the final two, when it got into the low 90’s, but the low humidity made it very tolerable. However, you did have to drink a lot of water due to the arid conditions.
We did have some exciting weather one afternoon at our camp in Ten Sleep (so named by the Indians because it took ten sleeps for them to traverse to the Yellowstone area from there). The crew was busily preparing dinner when, all of a sudden, the wind whipped up out of nowhere to about 50 mph, blowing tents, cookware, everything everywhere. The wind lasted about half an hour before finally subsiding. When it was over, we had only sustained one bent tent pole and the loss of a couple of dollars out of the beer money that had flown away. But the dirt it had stirred up! We were all fairly black with it, gritty teeth, the whole nine yards. But then, that’s what God invented showers for.
One day, I was about 50 miles into a 77 mile day when I heard the call of nature. As you might expect in sparsely populated Wyoming, there are a dearth of restroom facilities along the way, therefore, you just pull off and relieve yourself as discreetly as you can along the side of the road. I pulled off at a cattle crossing, far enough off the road that the occasional motorist wouldn’t see me. I propped my bike against the end post of the fence astride the cattle guard, hopped across and proceeded to enjoy a little al fresco relief when I heard an ominous hissing noise behind me. Fearing the worst (a rattlesnake, perhaps), I stepped away from the guard, turned to look, but saw nothing. I cautiously approached the cattle guard and peered down into the ditch below. There was a creature (I think it was a badger), teeth bared, hissing at me, crouched as if prepared to spring forth and take a bite out of my backside. And there sat my bike, right over him. I had obviously intruded on his afternoon reverie there in the ditch and he was letting me know of his displeasure. How to retrieve my bike without being attacked? I gingerly stepped forward toward the bike but was rebuffed with more intense hissing and teeth-baring. Finally, I picked up two rocks. Tossing one into the guard the creature flinched but held his ground. The second rock caused him to withdraw a bit and I seized this opportunity to grab my bike and escape around the other end of the gate. I thought to myself, “Man, this is all I need, to have some crummy cretin take a bite out of my calf here in this wasteland”. But a clean getaway was effected and the ride proceeded without further incident.
I also had the distinct pleasure of participating in a real Wild West style cattle drive on a hundred mile day. As I came riding up the highway, I could see a bunch of cows maneuvering toward the road, being herded out of a gate by cowhands on horseback. By the time I got pretty close, they had spilled out onto the highway and were proceeding up the road, about 250 strong (I estimated) and loping along at a cow’s pace, which ain’t all that fast for you city slickers. I, being cautious and certainly not wanting to cause a stampede, hung back a safe distance to the rear of the moving herd. I talked with one of the cowboys, exchanging pleasantries and information. He told me they were headed about a mile and a half up the road to a different pasture. He said if I wanted, he’d have one of the boys lead me up through the herd. I thanked him but said that wasn’t necessary, that I’d just hang back. I did get right in behind them, though, effectively helping the cowpunchers with their herding duties. Yes, there was a vast quantity of bovine excrement of varying consistencies being spewed out onto the road, but I managed to miss most of it. And, fortunately, the piles I did have to ride through, I was going at a slow enough pace that none sprayed up on me or my “mare of steel”. I think the cowboys thought my appearance was a real hoot. I know I did.
After about twenty minutes, the herd split down the middle as the road crossed a bridge. I saw my opportunity and made a break for it up through the parting sea of cows and was soon on my merry, solo way again.
My riding partners were pretty evenly matched, as far as cycling abilities were concerned. Robin and John from New York were the animals, both being club racers on a team back home. Robin (who is female, by the way) was insane. I paced with them on two occasions for a short bit. John is tall and lanky and Robin is short and muscular. When John or I were at the front, the speed was about the same. But when Robin led out, the speed immediately shot up a couple of mph’s. I could only hang on so long, and when we hit some hills, I quickly dropped off the back, much to John’s chagrin, as he was enjoying the fact that he could actually catch a draft off me.
Jim from California was also tall and lanky, a good spinner and magnificent in the hills. We rode together much of the last day, talking about music (he was a bluegrass picker) and “life on the road”.
His buddy John was probably the least experienced cyclist in the group, having never done a century until we had our 100 mile day. But he performed with excellence. He was also quite a joker, had a million of ‘em and nearly as many voices to tell ‘em in. Jessie loved him. We celebrated his 40th birthday while on the tour.
Both Jerrys were strong, experienced riders, although their pace was a tad slower than mine, so I really didn’t get to ride that much with either of them, except at the beginning of the day’s ride. Same with Mike and Dick. Mike had been on a tour a few years earlier that had used nearly the same exact route. He would always let us know what was ahead, to the best of his recollection, but without spoiling any surprises or scaring us to death. An added plus was that he was a blues fan, a past president of the Mississippi Valley Blues Society in the quad Cities area of Iowa. It gave us common ground to converse. Mike is a strong rider who could’ve blown me away at any time (did, one day!) but seemed to prefer to take it easy and hang back with some of the slower cats.
The scenery is spectacular in many areas, while desert high prairie is the rule in others. In addition to the two bona fide mountain passes we went over, we rode through the Wind River Canyon, which features canyon walls well over 1000 feet in most places and, of course, Devil’s Tower in NE Wyoming (you know this place from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, filmed partially on location there).
Jessie and I climbed (scrambled, actually) clear to the base where it goes vertical. There is a boulder field to cross, then trees and brush to climb through. To climb above the boulder field you were supposed to get a permit, which we did not. We met some Germans who had scaled the 800 vertical feet and were on their way down. We could observe climbers with ropes and gear inching up the vertical face of this most impressive hunk of volcanic rock. After we returned, Judy joined us on a 1.5 mile trail hike around the entire base of the tower, where we could see climbers on all sides. A very popular climbing place, I‘d say!
Along with side trips unrelated to the bike tour to Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse and the Badlands in South Dakota, this was a most satisfying vacation.
It was the first of many tours I went on with Tom Sheehan and his bunch. I always had a great time, a great workout and, let me tell you, there is nothing that can compare with seeing the great sights of our wonderful west than doing it on a bicycle.
Sadly, Tom ceased operations in the US several years ago. He still operates tours in Thailand, New Zealand, Europe and actually still has a tour or two in Alaska every summer. Some day soon, now that I’m retiring, I shall sign up for the Great Alaska Highway tour. It lasts a whole month, over 1500 miles! That ought to satisfy my cycling wanderlust for a while!