Now we are into the heart of the story. This passage comes from day five of the tour...
For those of you keeping up with this story, I have built a table of contents where every link to the story will be posted. This table of contents will be updated as new sections of the story are posted here on FanNation...
There are huge expanses of desolation which are largely forgotten for much of the year in Wyoming. The campground at Fontenelle Reservoir is one of these places. Hell, for that matter, much of the state we had seen to this point seemed deserted in time, suspended in an alternate era. The day was winding down as we pedaled southward down Highway 189 from La Barge. We hadn't seen a single automobile in hours.
Zeke stopped suddenly, pulling his bike needlessly to the edge of the road. His bike lurched to a halt, the recoil bouncing Wiley around in his trailer behind. Reaching down into the dirt, Zeke scooped up what I later learned was a brand-new pack of rolling papers. Those would come in handy later. Now, though, our stop had stunted our single-minded focus and left us with decisions to make.
Nestled at the edge of the reservoir on a peninsula in the shadow of a climb toward the high-plains plateau, Fontenelle Reservoir came up to our left. The campground, which in summertime would yield a waiting list just to set up a tent, was bare of any human presence. The sun was getting low on the horizon. We could either continue on up the hill to try to find refuge further on, or we could take advantage of fate and have a pleasant evening. We chose the latter, riding past the various sites until choosing a plot right near the water's edge.
Zeke set about gathering firewood, giddy as a child at Christmastime. He had been touring the country on his bicycle for years now, and had never managed to have a fire once on his travels. Rare are the opportunities when an abandoned campground and plentiful stores of fallen timber tumble into your lap. There was no way Zeke was going to miss this chance; with his bundle growing with each trip, we would have wood enough for several nights even though we'd only be here until the morning. He got the fire roaring, and we tried in vain to get something on the transistor radio. Instead of a faraway voice, we were left with the popping of the fire and the sheer silence coming from all angles and creeping up on our campsite.
Dinner consisted of protein powder in our coffee, beef jerky and dried fruits. Ravenously hungry yet lacking any appetite for what we had, I forced myself to choke down the calories. It had been a tough ride, and I would need every gram of food I could cram down my gullet to continue on tomorrow. We were now just over sixty miles outside Green River, which we had agreed before starting this journey would be the first point where we would splurge and split a hotel room. Thoughts of what it would take to reach our destination tomorrow swirled around each of our minds as we silently chewed and stared into the flames.
The stars in this part of the world radiated the ground below, illuminating the night sky with their celestial glow. We pulled out a map, ragged at the edges from constant folding and unfolding and creasing, studying the route. Hopefully there would be something on the route to Green River; water was starting to run low. There was a point on the map, just southeast of where we sat, marked "Fontenelle". Hopefully there would be some kind of store there in town. If not, tomorrow would become one long parched death march.
Our situation instantaneously comfortable and discomforting, we threw a tarp over our two bicycles, tamped out the fire and repacked our panniers. The wind picked up just after we put out the fire for the evening. With sand whipping through the air, we both sojourned for what slumber we could snag prior to breaking camp and starting anew in the morning. The air whistled along the outer shell of the tent with increasing force as the night advanced. I sat awake, eyes closed, listening to the hum and drone of the weather outside. In a trancelike state, meditating to the gusts, I finally dozed off into a fitful excuse for rest.
The wind had dissipated by morning. There wasn't a single cloud in the sky, sunlight piercing through as I opened the door to the tent. The sunshine was deceiving, and I went straight for my bags to find a fleece. After bundling up, I wandered around the campground to survey our surroundings. The hill would be bothersome to get up out of this cleft in the plateau, but once we summited we should have relatively flat sailing the rest of the day.
I grabbed a bagel from the food bag and started smearing peanut butter across the surface of each half as water heated up for morning coffee -- coffee that again, as always, would be spiked with protein powder and hot cocoa mix to boost its caloric quantity. Zeke rumbled up himself, announcing his presence with a deep coughing spell and Wiley popping his canine head out through the opened zipper.
We started pulling down our tents and packing our bicycles. Zeke debated for a moment about starting another fire, but quickly cast aside any such aspersions. We would need every minute of today we could get if we were to make it to Green River before it got too late, and a fire would only serve to fuel desires to linger behind. So we packed, weighing down our rigs with the detritus of self-supported living.
Once the rigs were loaded and the coffee was drained from our cups, we saddled up and left our little high-desert oasis. The road ribboned up the hill at a steep pitch; despite the chill in the mid-morning October air, we were both soon sweating with our exertions. Wiley jumped out of the trailer, leashed up to offer his assistance in helping to pull the weight up the grade. I stood on the pedals, both quadriceps burning with each turn of the cranks. Soon, though, the road leveled onto a wide expanse of sagebrush, mountains off to the west.
Zeke unclipped Wiley's leash, reloading the dog into the trailer, as we started the long push toward honest-to-God beds -- a tantalizing mirage toward which we directed each pedal stroke. Ranchland stretched out across the vast acreage, large swaths of uninhabited land in every direction. We cruised along toward our turn off this highway, looking around as the scenery passed by. Looking off to our right, prancing through the sagebrush, we could make out a herd of antelope.
Wiley, untethered in his chariot, had noticed the herd as well. Bounding from his perch, a heat-guided meat-seeking missile, the heeler set out in hopes of a fresh kill. Both Zeke and I slammed on the brakes, calling for the dog, but he was already fading into the terrain as he chased his prey. We were stopped cold, unable to continue what was already a tight schedule, as our least productive member of the trio set about on his futile hunt.
Ten minutes passed, then twenty, our voices growing hoarse as we hollered for Wiley. Zeke, growing ever more despondent about the presumed loss of his best friend, continued bellowing for his dog in a voice quivering increasingly with fright. Then, nearly a half-hour after he had bolted off, we caught a glimpse of blue-grey fur wandering back eastward toward the highway. The third member of our party returned, shackled back into his seat to prevent further delays, and we continued on our path.
There hadn't been a vehicle near us in nearly twenty-four hours; yet there ahead, could it really be? Yes... there was a construction crew, working on the road surface right where our turn onto State Highway 372 was located. We tried to wrap our minds around the logic behind repairing this desolate stretch at the same time that the construction crew pondered the absurd appearance of two dusty bearded travelers on bicycles. We went by without stopping, taking a wide coasting turn off the highway and onto the side road.
I took the point position, setting pace down the center stripe of the abandoned asphalt. The same wooden fences we had been seeing for mile after endless mile ran alongside even this road, carving the wide plots of land. The morning was warming up slowly... or perhaps it was only my muscles responding the the cyclical motion of getting myself down the road. Somewhere up the road, only a few miles ahead, there should be a town coming up. But Wyoming towns are a deceptive breed.
In my own childhood town of Moran, the place where our address was physically marked and I first attended school, there was nothing more than a post office, elementary school, a fire house for the volunteer department, and four Park Service houses. We could be pinning our hopes on a ghost town, for all we knew. If there was no store in the town where our map had us pointed, we would have no way of supplementing our food supply or topping off our water for another fifty miles. Both Zeke and I were on edge by this point -- we were already behind in our schedule, our water supplies were dwindling, and only the vague hope of salvation kept us from retreating into despondency.
We coasted down a gradual slope toward an intersection. There on the left was a faded Phillips 66 sign. A couple of rusted cars sat behind the old gas station. I pulled into the parking lot, Zeke following behind with Wiley in the caboose position, and rested my bicycle against an antique telephone booth which had seen better decades. There was light coming from inside; our silent prayers had been answered.
Zeke unclipped his shoes from his pedals, parking alongside my bike and making sure Wiley was securely tied up. I opened the door, the dim flourescence of the lights temporarily leaving me blind as we retreated from the sunlit exterior. Blitzing down the aisles, everything looked spectacular. We purchased candy and jerky and Red Bulls galore, piling the checkout counter with a mound of calories. Calories, more and more -- there were pretzels and chips, cashews and peanuts, burritos and milk and ice cream. There was a display case with ephedrine at the counter. We each bought a bottle of two-hundred, a shady supplement to remain alert on our quest for Green River and beyond.
After paying for the items and filling our bottles in the bathroom, Zeke and I stepped back outside. We devoured the most perishable of our purchases as I pulled long drags from a Camel. Even though I had spent the past summer riding longer and longer distances and getting in the best shape of my life, I was still stuck in a nicotine fix that I continued to satisfy even as I sucked for air during my aerobic efforts. Zeke, to his credit, didn't cajole or ridicule me for my vice -- which, to be honest, would've been hard to do through his dip-packed lips.
Southward we continued, the wind beginning to favor our endeavor as we picked up speed rapidly. Perhaps Green River wasn't a pipe dream after all. The miles melted behind us, rubber gripping asphalt in a rhythmic rotation and pacing us ever closer to our goal. We could taste a hot meal already, lingering hallucinatory aromas hovering around our nostrils. There would be a legitimate place to sleep rather than whatever ditch or fortuitous campground happened to turn up, a chance at perhaps more than a few hours of disjointed slumber piquing our sleep-deprived interest.
We stopped shortly for lunch after a couple of hours of riding, pulling off the road down toward the gate marking one of the ubiquitous ranches dotting the landscape. Zeke poured some water for Wiley and then started the denatured-alcohol stove to start coffee. I pulled out a couple of Clif Bars and tossed one across to Zeke. He had pulled out his pocketknife, smearing a bagel with peanut butter before passing a half back to me. We ate, leaning against the weathered gateposts and watching the few wispy clouds trace their fluff across the sky.
Green River came into focus when we crested the bluffs overlooking the town just as dusk was settling in. Zeke and I skirted Interstate 80 along back roads to eventually arrive at the front door of the Super 8 Motel. We had been on the road for five days now. Zeke dismounted and went inside to procure a room while I sat outside. Wiley scratched about the small plot of grass on the side of the urban lodging; I flopped down exhaustedly, sixty-five miles behind us since we had started the day. I listened to the traffic pass by, the first consistent automobile sounds I had heard in what seemed like eons.
Zeke came out with the keys after a few minutes. We pushed our rigs to the rear of the motel. Panniers came off the front and rear racks and were hauled up to the second-floor room, one person moving his gear as the other waited below with the bicycles. Once the excess weight had been shed, we hefted the bikes themselves to the room.
Zeke jumped straight for the shower while I set about finding a number for some pizza. I had absolutely no motivation to ride anywhere else that evening. Food would be brought to me for a change, a rarity when living in such a spread-out locale as Wyoming tends to be. After ordering a large pie for each of us, I started looking over the bicycle -- checking the tension of wires, the alignment of the wheels, the treads of the tires for any wear or thorns, lubing the drivetrain and generally priming the bicycle for the journey still ahead. We had covered over two-hundred miles in the past five days, but there were still hundreds more ahead. Tomorrow we would be heading into the windswept terrain of Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. The bicycle needed to be ready, as would I.
I turned on the television to nestle back and lounge on the mattress. As I propped pillows behind my fatigued back, the shower head finally stopped its drumming. Simultaneously, there was a knock at the door. I went to the entrance, hollering to Zeke to stay in the bathroom as I opened the door. It was the delivery guy, there with hot refreshment. I handed the guy a couple of bills, and went back to my bed. I set Zeke's pizza on his bed and started into my own.
I know I've had better quality pizza in my life than the Domino's guy could possibly offer; even though I was well attuned to this fact as a chef, it nonetheless was perhaps the most decadent meal I have ever had. The simple pleasure of hot food, after endless hours of energy bars and protein powders and dried fruit and meat, was elevated to the highest planes of existence. I sat in the artificial glow of the television screen and licked grease from my fingertips, the doughy mess inside the cardboard vanishing rapidly down my maw to be converted to fuel to replenish depleted stores.
We had had little experience with clocks in the past five days, living instead by the cadence of nature and a shower of headlamp lumination whenever we needed to go beyond nightfall. But on that night, looking at the alarm clock in the room and feeling waves of catatonia sweep over me before the hour hit nine, even a knowledge of what other humans called the "time" hardly swayed my perceptions of how the daily cycle really worked. Ruminations of how life should really be lived swirled through my cranium as the images flickered across the screen before me, incomprehensible through eyes unassisted by the corrective lenses set on the nightstand. Canned laughter pealed softly from the screen, my eyelids drooping, as a food coma delivered its knockout punch...