Friday, July 31, 2009

Lusk and Douglas

After I left Dick and Joyce, I tried to find my way back to where I pitched my tent, but it was too dark for me to see anything. I followed the road for a bit, adjusting my course when I walked off onto grass, then looked up at the stars and realized I had been turned around completely and was heading eastward (I knew my tent was somewhere to the southwest). After following the stars westward for a bit, I found a gravel road leading in what seemed to be the right direction, but as I began walking down it, I heard a growl. I stopped and growled back, but I couldn't see the animal and I didn't want to get much louder so as not to wake anyone at the nearby campground.

I backed up a bit without turning around, but, realizing I had nowhere else to go, walked forward again. And again I heard the growl. I needed to see my opponent. With a growl of my own, I turned on the cell phone. It didn't give much light, but it was better than nothing. As soon as the screen lit up, I heard a rustle, and whatever was growling was gone. I guess the key is to be as unfamiliar as possible.

I lit up my boots as I walked and soon came to the first stream over the road. I recalled a wooden plank across it a bit upstream, so I walked up into the grass, found it, and, teetering a bit in the blackness, crossed to the other side. The next stream I forded, but the water never went above the top of my boots. I walked across the grass and finally, the phone illuminated my tent. I got in, unrolled the sleeping bag and lay down.

If I looked directly east, all I saw was pitch darkness, but I knew what was there: a barbed-wire fence, and beyond it, the pale gravestones of soldiers killed here by Indians a century and a half ago.


I woke up in the middle of the night to rain pounding the tent, with flashes of lightning and thunder, first in rumbles, then in claps. One thing about Nebraska is that, it being mostly grass, wherever you are in a thunderstorm, it's difficult not to be the tallest object around. At least there wasn't anyone out there explicitly trying to kill me. With every lightning strike, I calculated the distance. The closest strike still came nearly a mile away, and then they started getting farther. I went back to sleep.

I slept in until about 7, which is late when I'm in the tent. And just as I got out and started packing up, I came to regret it. Ominous clouds formed in the western sky and a new storm came in. I put on a rain coat, but as the water started coming down in buckets, it got miserable very quickly. I realized my bungee cords had disappeared, and started wondering how I was going to transport my luggage, even if I did manage to pack it now that it was getting soaked. Then I realized my pump was missing. I must have forgotten it in Chadron.

So on top of packing up in miserable rain, I now had a bad tire, flimsy patch kit and no pump, and 150 miles to go to a bike shop.

Oh, please, I thought. Couldn't something go right?

Then I drew my breath and kept packing.

Next thing I knew, a large pickup pulled up and Dick jumped out. Instantly getting soaked, he jumped back in, then came out with a towel over his head.

"Need any help?"

"If you have any bungee cords, I'll gladly buy them off of you."

Dick nodded and produced a pair of bungee cords. He wouldn't take any money. Then he silently helped me pack.

"Did you manage to pack your own stuff before the storm came?"

He shook his head. "Nah, it's still out there. We'll get a room at the lodge and pack it up when the storm passes."

With some difficulty, we managed to pack all my stuff. I was already more content. It had been soaked before, and I knew it dries well.

"You want to get in the pickup for a bit? It's dry in there, and I've got the heat on."

It sounded good.

"In fact, toss all your stuff in the back, we'll take you over to the lodge and get some breakfast."

We went over to the lodge, and Dick reserved a room.

"Eat as much as you want, it's on me."

"I appreciate it," I said, "but you really don't have to. My money situation is OK."

Dick looked insulted. "We feel blessed to be able to help a member of God's chosen people. Don't take that blessing away from us."

I really didn't have a proper response.


"I heard it's going to rain all day," said Dick, "so here is the plan. We're going to get you a room here at the lodge, and you can leave tomorrow."

"I'd love to take you up on that, but I really need to get to Casper as soon as possible. The earlier I get there, the more likelihood that they'll have what I need in stock and I don't have to wait until the next order."

Dick frowned. "Well, all right. Then I'll go cancel the room I reserved for you."

They said they'll pray for me and insisted on me taking $20. That's another $20 I intend to donate to some good cause on the west coast. Meanwhile, I have more cash in my wallet.

I insisted on helping them pack everything of their own and carrying it all upstairs for them.


Nebraska was never flat, but it had changed now. Instead of hills, I was starting to see buttes.

There were also more trees, though this turned out to be a very temporary thing (they later all but disappeared). Pretty soon, I was looking back at Nebraska and bidding it farewell.

Before I knew it, I was in Wyoming, and in the city of Lusk. I turned on my phone to check the weather, and found, to my dismay, that there was no signal. I saw what looked like a cheap food place and walked up. A girl opened the window.

"Can I help you?"

I smiled. "First off, do you know what the weather is going to be like?"

She gave me an impatient look. I couldn't understand why; there were no other customers. "Rain."

"Figures. What about tomorrow?"


I looked at the menu boards. "Not great ice cream weather. You guys sell anything else?"

She looked even more impatient. "Just what's on the menu."

I looked around a bit more and realized that far in the back, there were more menu boards with normal food items; I wished she'd pointed them out. When I don't like the personnel, it makes me really not want to buy.

I smiled at her again. "Long day?"

She didn't answer.

"....or are you always this unfriendly?"

"....can I help you?"

That was it. "I'm all good, thanks." I got my bike and went over to Subway across the street.

"What's up with not having phone signal in your town?"

At least here the girl behind the counter was smiling. "I don't know what the deal is here! I can get signal in Casper, but here, it's dead. A lot of stupid things like that about this town. I really want to leave Wyoming. I mean....I do love it here, it's beautiful, the land of big open spaces and all that, but you have to deal with this crap day in and day out."


I left Lusk in the morning and first got a real feel for the fact that I was in Wyoming.

Deer and antelope scuttled away from me as I rode.

("They get a bit spooked near the highway," Bruce had said. "Some people around here will just shoot them. Not even for food, just for fun. If you ask me, that's just mean. Though I have nothing against hunting and eating them. I hunt them myself with a bow and arrow. I made a helmet with antlers. I just lie down near somewhere where there's water and move my head the way they do when they're lying down. They walk right over, and I shoot them. It's going to be hard this season, though. It's been raining so much, there's water everywhere, you can't just lie down at the watering hole.")

Among the road kill, I started noticing wolves. Among the debris in the breakdown lane, I started noticing gun holsters. I rounded a bend and suddenly saw the Rocky Mountains, misty in the distance.

There were towns along the route on the map, but those that didn't have a population of 1 were abandoned completely. There would be a couple of streets with a few houses that now had gaping holes instead of windows, and maybe, somewhere deep in the grass, an RV without an engine or headlights. Sometimes you'd find a beautiful specimen of something that would have been razed long ago if people still lived in the area, like this schoolhouse with a bell tower in Shawnee:

I noticed that the landscape had changed again, and now looked like a desert. If I had been dropped here and not told my location, I may well have assumed eastern California, or New Mexico.

Except for the grass. But the grass was now shorter and brown, almost resembling the sand of the desert.


I arrived in Douglas early in the afternoon. Despite my thin tire, I had mercifully not gotten any flats. (If I had, I wouldn't have been able to fix them without a pump, and, all the towns being ghost towns with no gas stations, there were no pumps anywhere to speak of.) I was liking that thick tube I had gotten in Chadron. I made a mental note to get a couple of spare thick tubes when I got my armored tire.

Toward evening, I met Jay. Born in Utah, and having lived in Connecticut for a while, he moved back to Utah for college and now lived in Douglas doing IT for a hospital. We went out for Mexican food ("the only decent restaurant around here," Jay said), and he insisted on paying for me. I guess I'll just enjoy and appreciate it while it's happening and pay it forward later. After we finished eating, we just sat at the table and talked for a while.

"So," said Jay, "you'd probably want to check out the Douglas bar scene?"

"Sure, I'd go for that."

He rattled off a list of bars with short descriptions, I picked one, and we went. Jay quickly bumped into a bunch of people he knew, and we hung out and talked for a long time.

Jay let me sleep on a giant bean bag in his apartment.


The next morning, Jay went to work, and I walked around looking for a place to finally get a haircut. Jay had suggested one, but I wandered around that intersection and was apparently blind. Lunchtime came around and I still hadn't found it, so I met up with Jay at the hospital, where he was eating in the cafeteria because it was free employee lunch day.

"You can be an employee for the day," I was told with a smile.

"Works for me," I said.

After lunch with Jay and his boss, I finally found the barbershop Jay had suggested. It turned out to be a relatively large salon—certainly larger than anything I'd have expected in a place like Douglas, WY—and they were all booked up for the day. Now that was impressive.

I rode to the place Jay had suggested for buying bear spray. It looked like a small garage painted bright yellow.

"Can I help you with anything?"

"Yeah, do you carry bear spray?"

"Nope. Bears really aren't an issue here. You'd have to go up to Casper to get that stuff."

"Oh, that works, that's the way I'm headed."

"Well, then you can try Sportsman's Warehouse, that's right as you come into Casper. Rocky Mountain Sports probably has it too, but that's clear on the other end of town."

"Sportsman's Warehouse and Rocky Mountain Sports. That's perfect, thank you very much."

"You're welcome, and good luck."

"Oh, totally unrelated question. Do you know of a place where I could get a haircut in this town?"

He looked surprised for a second. "Go back out onto Yellowstone Highway and take a right. It goes over the bridge, zig-zags and takes you downtown. At the first light, there's a barbershop on the left there. And if you go up to the second light, on the right, there's another one. You can walk in and ask for Mary-Ellen. That's where my family and I always go."

I stopped by the first one, and since the barber there readily cut my hair, I didn't end up getting to ask for Mary-Ellen. Instead, having overheard some conversation, I sat down and started out with

"Did you say you caught seven fish, the smallest of which was 18 pounds?"

"That's what I said! It was a nice day."

"Where'd you find fish like that?"

"Flaming Gorge."

"Is that nearby here?"

"Wish it were closer. It's about five hours away."

"Oh, yeah?"

"In the southwestern corner. Part of the lake is in Wyoming, part in Utah."

"Oh, must be way up in the mountains."

"What are you talking about? It's all grass. Where are you from, anyway?"

After the haircut, I thanked him, paid him, walked out, then walked right back in.

"Completely unrelated question. Do you know where I could find a grocery store around here?"

"One block up, two blocks over."

And so I bounced around Douglas, again enjoying a bike with no luggage, getting everything I needed and, at each stop, getting directions to the next place.

No comments:

Post a Comment