Monday, August 17, 2009

North Along the Mountain Range

Circumstances in Wyoming kept forcing me to splurge. As I arrived in Thermopolis, it became clear that there was yet another hail storm headed my way. It had now been over a week of getting at least one storm every single day. I got a motel room. The towels in the bathroom hung on antlers. The bed was made of crooked wood, with a gun tossed in.

Just outside the room was a man bandaging his leg. I walked over.

"How are you?"

He looked up. "How're you doing?"

"What did you do to yourself?"

"Went roller-blading."

"Wow. Rough sport."

"Yeah, I was going down that street over there, and there's this sharp downhill. And I just started roller-blading, you know? And braking is really tough on roller-blades, you have to put this foot this way and this foot sideways like this. So I was going pretty fast. And this pickup truck. I don't think he even noticed me, he was making a left turn and looking at oncoming traffic. So I had to jump into the middle of the street to dodge him, and I fell on this wrist, and then on this leg. Man, I'm used to it though. I hurt myself all the time. Once, when I was younger, I tried to chainsaw these wooden beams that were lying around awkwardly, and apparently when I sawed one of them, the end jumped out and jolted the one I was standing on. Anyway, next thing I know, I wake up and my face is all bloody and I can taste diesel fuel. Turned out I'd stepped into a puddle of diesel, and then my foot got kicked up and into my face when I was thrown back. Wasn't feeling good after that for a while."

"You're a logger?"

"That's what I am. Run my own truck. Used to go 1,000 miles a day, but I couldn't take it anymore. Not to mention it's illegal. So now I don't live at home, I stay at this place, that way I only have to do 750 miles a day. It saves me a good bit of money, and I feel better. We've had a lot of work lately. They've been having forest fires around Jackson, so in the last few years, the Sierra club has had a complete turn-around, they now want to pay us to cut down trees to prevent more fire. For decades they did everything they could to prevent fire AND to prevent logging, and now they're getting it, and they're starting to see their mistake. Don't know how it'll be with this new administration though. They don't like us entrepreneurs. We think for ourselves. They want us to get in line for the dole like everybody else, and that's just not in us."

"I haven't heard of any new policies on logging."

He was about to respond, but a woman walked by with her dog, and his dog jumped up and ran at her, and he had to go manage the situation.


The next day I rode to Meeteetse. There was not a soul on the road, and no sign of civilization save for an unmanned rest area and a ghost town.

I saw yet another storm heading toward me (not a surprise—like I said, at least one a day), but there was nothing I could do about it, so I helplessly pedaled onward. Strong headwinds prevented me from pedaling past and away from it, so I let it pass ahead of me. Part of me was glad I hadn't tried to go faster, because when I passed the section of the road it crossed, the brush around it was torn up to a point where I was glad I hadn't been there to see it.

I started climbing to higher and higher passes, and the wind on the passes was strong enough that once I'd cross, I would have to pedal in low gear to go downward. It was only 52 miles to Meeteetse, but I was worn out when I got there.

Unlike in prior small towns, I didn't get any particular welcome here. I was getting too close to Yellowstone. In one section where the breakdown lane had debris that I was afraid might puncture the tire, I swung into the street for a bit, and a car going in the opposite direction, on the opposite side of the road, started honking at me. This drives me crazy in tourist-heavy places. You try to avoid a flat, you get honked at. You ride on the street, drivers yell at you to go on the sidewalk. You ride on the sidewalk, pedestrians yell at you to go in the street. You exist, you get honked at.

I had no phone signal out there, so I stopped by a gas station, got an egg salad sandwich, and asked what the forecast was.

"More storms moving in. I wouldn't be surprised to see big hailstones. You can try pitching your tent, but I wouldn't do it."

A destroyed tent would be more costly than a motel room. I got a motel room. And since I'd gotten one, I decided to make use of it. I took a shower, changed my clothes, headed to the bar.

"You guys get a lot of tourists passing through here?"

I got an emphatic nod. "Lots of foreign people. Lots of French this year, for some reason."

I noticed a flag that looked like an American flag on the wall. It had only three stripes. In the blue section, there was a circle of seven stars.

"What's that flag?" I asked.

"Looks like an old American flag."

"Can't be. There are only seven stars, and there were 13 original colonies."

"Hm. D__n. Let me ask the big man."

Pretty soon, a bald, white-bearded, bespectacled man sitting at a table turned around. "That's the original confederate flag. I got it for this bar last year. The stars are the seven original states that seceded from the Union. When they say stars and bars, this flag is what they mean. People think of the one with the blue X, but that's not it." He turned back to the people at the table. "So anyway, as I was saying. We bring the cannon into this bar. And I put his ashes in the cannon, and she runs home and brings some of her mother's ashes and we put them in the cannon. And she's saying 'this is the most excitement ma ever had, when she was alive she never got to be on top.' And so we load in the ashes and light the fuse, and everyone gets the hell out of the bar. Except me, because I'm an idiot and I'm trying to take a picture. And that thing goes off. It's a tiny cannon, yay high. But man, those things are POWERFUL. All those cans fell off the wall, and the thing rolled back and through the doorway. And it was a few minutes before I could hear again."


The next morning, I went to the gas station to get another egg salad sandwich for breakfast, and found a little blonde girl stocking the refrigerated shelves.

"You got an egg salad sandwich for me?"

She looked around and smiled. "Sure." She started getting it out and the sliding door went off the track.

"So you're the one who breaks everything around here?"

She laughed. "I always break stuff."

I stood around and talked to her for a while. Why couldn't she have been there last night? I bet she would have offered a couch. I went to the guy at the counter, trying to recall whether the woman last night had mentioned who will be working in the morning; she had.

"Hey, Vince."

He looked up, trying in vain to figure out where he knew me from.

"Mind if I grab some water?"

He still looked confused. "Go ahead..."

I filled up a couple of water bottles. "How's the road to Cody, is it all downhill?"

"You'll have about three miles of some pretty bad uphill first. Then, yeah."

I laughed. "Well, that sounds a little better than the road here from Thermop." I'd realized none of the locals say the entire mouthful of "Thermopolis."

"Oh, no, definitely nothing like that. Geez, I can't even remember where you're from. Getting older faster than I thought I would. Here, have some candy for the road."


It was a quick ride, besides the fact that I got into two involved conversations with construction workers and then another involved conversation with the people making my sandwich at the Subway on the outskirts of Cody.

I then swooped down into the city.

"You know the forecast for tonight?"

"Boy, what do you think?"


"You got that d__n right!"

Cody was not only the "gateway to Yellowstone," but a tourist attraction in its own right, devoted to Buffalo Bill Cody. As such, it had tourist-style prices. I started calling motels. Most simply had no rooms available. The EconoLodge was $200 a night. (No, that's not an extra 0.) I went to a campground.

"What's the forecast for tonight?"

"Storms. Pitch at your own risk."

"OK. How much will it run me?"


"$20 to pitch my tent in a storm?"

"Feel free to just use the parking spot and sleep in your vehicle."

"I'm on a bicycle."




I felt a little depressed that night. Not only did I not like being in my tent during a storm (that was the least of it—it held up like a trooper), but I didn't like being in places overrun by tourists. Suddenly, no one was particularly friendly, beyond smiling and rattling off all the local attractions. Suddenly, no one really wanted to talk to me. I didn't have phone signal either, so I just lay there, with no communication from the outside world, trying to sleep.

My phone's alarm woke me up at 5 AM. I hopped out of the tent, got on my bike, and zipped across the dark town to Mentock Park. I noticed several pickups with trailers like Neil's, and went over there. There was a large group of people standing around.

"Pieball!" someone yelled and let go of a small helium balloon. It went up, up, up into the air, blown slightly west by the wind.

"How are you doing?" I said.

"Good, how are you?"

"Beautiful morning! My name is Greg."

"I'm Jim."

"You think you'll need any help, Jim?"

"Oh, nice. Yeah, I definitely will."

Suddenly, I had a circle of people around me asking where I came from and what I was doing.

"Neil's a good friend," said one guy. "No matter what happens, we'll have a job for you here."

That very morning, I took a balloon up into the air for an inspection flight.


The one thing that happened that I hadn't particularly wanted was that my story was passed on to reporters covering the balloon festival, and a story about me was written up for the Cody Enterprise. But I couldn't complain. Staff from the Enterprise took me to the Irma (originally Buffalo Bill's hotel, named after his daughter) to eat. The next day, the reporter who was writing my story invited me out for a trip through the mountains with her and a friend who was visiting. People started inviting me to stay at their places so I don't have to stay in my tent (I accepted one of these invitations). I was invited to every party that was being held. When I walked into the tent where Dave was selling shirts, pins, and other balloon festival memorabilia, he immediately picked out a bunch and simply handed it to me. "This is to thank you for coming to Cody."

I expressed interest in the rodeo, and was immediately not only taken there, but also put on a horse. Borderline ridiculous photographs of me appeared (props to Sara the photographer, though!).

I still think it ruins my experiment to be covered by the press. Before the article ever comes out, the situation suddenly becomes wholly unnatural. I feel like I should be investigating what kinds of things I myself, as a normal person and not any sort of celebrity, can achieve. However, the balloon job is one thing I can safely say I achieved simply by arriving at the scene.

Photos from that job can be found here.

1 comment:

  1. That photo is borderline ridiculous :) It was probably worth it for the balloon ride though, that's a pretty special experience.