Day 36: Crossing the Bighorn Mountains — Five Springs Canyon Campground, WY to Sheridan, WY. June 13

Daily miles 80. Total miles 2081.
Last night the heat really got to me and I felt lousy. I think I suffered from some heat exhaustion and was worried a bit about the climb today. We knew we were going to be heading up around 10% grade for more than 6 more miles. We anticipated climbing around 4000 feet in 13 miles, and more after that! Matt gave us a lift back to the turnoff from the main road where he fetched us last night. It turns out, there was a spot right by the road with water where we probably would have camped had “Papa Duck” not been there, but it was so much nicer to spend the night in the nice and totally empty campground off the road rather than right next to the road.

The terrain on the west side of the Bighorns is familiar to me both from childhood family vacations (including seeing a semi truck have to back up and try one of the steep sections of today’s climb!) and from caving section of my NOLS course. The great limestone cliffs dominating the scenery are the same ones I looked at waiting for the NOLS bus after the section was over and both reading letters and opening a package from Chandra. We had just met – it was spring 1992 – and the intensity of my feelings was probably enhanced by the surroundings. Now, here we were together in the same place. It was like the coming to fruition of years of Chandra and these mountains, living together in my head, but never all of us meeting up together. Awesome.

We started the climb early enough that the day had not heated up and parts of it were even in the shade. We plodded along – often in granny only going 3 mph – and to our surprise, we really enjoyed the climb! Some WYDOT trucks passed us with enthusiastic waves, a couple motorcycling couples turned around and pulled into a rest stop to photograph us. We didn’t stop, but exchanged jokes about the climb and they were nice and enthusiastic. The climb to the first false summit probably took about 3 hours. Matt and Lori passed us after about 1.5 or 2 hours en route to scoping out the summit. They came back down but we asked them not to give us beta – we wanted to keep grinding in our little zone and didn’t want to know how far we had to go. A little below the false summit, after the most dramatic switchbacks were finished, we asked for info and they told us we had 3 miles to go, still some 9% grade in it, and then some short rolling miles to the real summit. We agreed to push for the real summit and regroup for lunch. Matt and Lori were so awesome! They took tons of photos of us riding along on the plateau and were loaded up with food and water in case we needed it. We stuck with only Hammer Gel and trail food throughout the climb, but hit the summit around noon ready for a legit lunch!

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Between the false and true summits, we ran into a flag man who had been in one of the trucks passing us on the way up. He said he was impressed we made such good time and we told him we had ridden over Beartooth Pass two days before and covered the ground between yesterday. His reply, in good Wyoming cowboy accent was “What’s wrong with you?”. Classic. The other nice line of the day came from a rancher we saw while he was walking his fence. He just said “That’s the only way to travel”.

At the top of the climb is Medicine Mountain – just under 10,000 feet in elevation. On a plateau on this mountain is the Medicine Wheel – a Native American site dating back 10,000 years and having significance to over 80 tribes. Interpretations about it’s intended use and design range from teepee construction to astronomical prediction. It is a spoked wheel made of stones that is now surrounded by a rope fence covered with offerings. We wanted to see it – I had not been there in 20 years and none of the others had been there – so we locked the bike to a fence at the summit, put all the bags in the “Black Stallion” and rode in the SUV back to the parking lot to make the 1.5 mile hike to the Medicine Wheel.

One quotation at the site tells of a man going to the mountain to talk to the creator at Medicine Wheel. Matt felt like this was as likely place as any to give a good listen to what the creator might have to say. He spent some time reflecting at the wheel, and offered a prayer both for Chandra and I to have a safe journey, and for Lori’s sister. He left his blue bandana as an offering. I have climbed several mountains with Matt and have never seen him in the backcountry without his blue and orange bandanas. Leaving this as an offering was heartfelt and, regardless of what the creator might feel, or anyone else, I was deeply touched by the gesture. We had a nice picnic on a cliff overlooking the 5 springs canyon where we had spent last night and finally returned to the summit around 2pm to start the traverse of the range and finally the epic 4000 foot descent into Sheridan.

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We flatted out early after the summit – a rock had been embedded in the front tire probably since the Cooke City, MT road construction section – and changed to the spare tire. After that, the descent to the long plateau was gorgeous! Matt drove back to us and said he and Lori were going to get some photos and hopefully a video at a good spot on the descent. They also told us about a four mile climb we would have to make first. We got over that climb and started dropping down toward Sheridan. The eastern side is way less steep, but very curvey and fun! At a cattle guard, we got the drag brake stuck again and realized it was heating up immensely, so we decided we needed to give it the chance to cool periodically. No big deal. We finally ran into Matt at a curve. He was spotting up above with his binoculars, then ran around a corner to signal Lori to start videotaping. He tried for some still shots as we passed and Lori got a great video of us cornering right in front of her. So cool. We passed them and stopped a final time to cool the brakes and they joined us for a snack and to hang a bit.

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Once the brakes were cool enough, we all headed down and they bolted ahead to work out hotel details for the evening and scope Sheridan for good eats.

We motored down the much straighter final section of the descent, hitting 45 mph for the first time since the Eel River in California over a month ago. It felt good, and the last 10 miles into town were tiring, but we were reeling from the excitement of the climb and of traversing an entire range in a day. Tomorrow will be a much-needed rest day. Tonight will be festive Mexican food, champagne, and our last evening to hang with Matt and Lori. Too much fun.

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We always planned to do this trip unsupported, and we still have. But, the addition of Matt and Lori not only brought a great connection with people we love, a fun shared experience in a beautiful setting, but also a safety net in the most difficult and potentially dangerous section of the trip. Over the Bighorns, we put our food in the car with the reasoning that we would have lightened the load somehow else were they not there. We also accepted the ride to the campground reasoning that we would have camped right by the road, but it was so much nicer to get to a beautiful spot, and we still biked every inch of the climb. But the moral support, camaraderie, and shared appreciation for both what we are doing and were we are was the best part of all, and we enjoyed getting to share this experience firsthand with people who understand us, even as we share through this blog with many people as well. In the end, our time together in the mountains will be a great memory. While we are psyched to keep on trucking as the Mike and Chandra and Talula show, we will miss Matt and Lori and thank them for a great adventure!

2 thoughts on “Day 36: Crossing the Bighorn Mountains — Five Springs Canyon Campground, WY to Sheridan, WY. June 13

  1. Little birds. You are moving through your present and our past. Who would have dreamed you two would connect and connect the past and present on a tandom bike . You are so lucky. There is more to come so we can’t wait to hear about it and see you both. Your tubes and gloves are on the way. Love Mother G

  2. Hey, tandem riders….The Big Horns were my first experience with mountain camping. I was a high school student. The BHs are not only the mountains closest to Wisconsin, they are also gorgeous by any standard! I remember hiking in June and having to break trail through thigh-high snow. It was much higher for Randy, Nancy, and Jeff, but they followed cheerfully in the trail broken alternately by Sterling and me. So, the Big Horns have a connection to the Miller side of your tandem as well.

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