59.0 mi / 11.8 mph / 2561 ft. climbing
Home: Jeffrey City Community Church
The only US state with a lower population density than Wyoming is Alaska. So between Lander and Rawlins lies 125 miles of nothing. Even though we’ve been setting records like crazy, we aren’t crazy enough to try for a 125-mile record, especially since our two days of descent are behind us and Rawlins sits 1300 feet higher than Lander, with the route adding 3000 extra feet of climbing on top of that.
Well, saying that there is “nothing” between Lander and Rawlins is unkind to the few people hanging on in the ghost town of Jeffrey City. There is little there for the average traveler, but for bike tourers riding the TransAmerica route, it is a critical oasis. The (former?) Jeffrey City Community Church lets our kind take shelter inside its walls, so that is our destination for tonight.
Another important characteristic of this part of Wyoming is the wind. For the next couple of days it will be tearing across the sagebrush with a mighty force. Part of our reason for taking a day off in Lander was to time the wind as best we could. If we had left yesterday we would have had no wind the first day, and then strong crosswinds for the second day into Rawlins. By waiting a day, we’ll still have that rough second day, but we’ll hopefully get some tailwinds pushing us today to make the next day easier.
We weren’t in a super-hurry to get going, because those pushing winds would be stronger later in the day, so we treated ourselves to a McDonald’s breakfast (after last night’s McDonald’s dinner…hey, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen a McDonald’s!)
One more concern was the 9-mile construction zone starting our day. Luckily, most of the paving was done, so we only had to ride a few miles on the milled surface, and otherwise had smooth new asphalt to roll over.
About 25 miles in we began an ill-timed 1100 ft. climb. The road hooked southward to go up the hill (and even slightly back west for a stretch), which put us more into the face of the day’s southwest winds. Thus began the perfect storm: our position (the winds get stronger south of Lander, seemingly as we leave the protection of the Wind River Range to our west), combined with the time of day (by late morning the velocity was expected to pick up), combined with our 4mph hill-climbing speed, meant that maintaining balance against the suddenly-fierce blasts was nearly impossible. Rett was blown to a halt, and restarting, even with her still-excellent confidence and skill, was a no-go. So we were now walking up the hill, but even then it was a challenge to make progress when you need to use most of your strength and body weight to hold the bike upright against the 40-mph force coming from the side.
I did a bit of bike ferrying (riding ahead and then running back down to collect Rett’s bike so she could just concentrate on walking herself up the hill). But eventually we hit a relatively flat section that also had a hillside to our right as a wind-blocker, and she was able to get riding again. Any time we hit another gap though, the accelerated wind passing through the topographical funnel would require a foot to be put down to prevent literally being blown over. Even when we were able to ride, the shoves from the side had us weaving dramatically in an effort to maintain control, and we needed every bit of the 8-foot shoulder (and sometimes even more!) If we didn’t have that wide Wyoming shoulder, it would have literally been impossible to ride in these conditions.
After a load of fear and despair, and strength and guts, we finally made it to the top. Luckily there wasn’t a downhill on the other side (because descending at speed in those winds would have been super-dangerous), and the road turned into a direction where the wind was pretty much straight from the right, and more predictable across the open landscape, so we were able to maintain a straighter line more easily (though one with our bikes constantly leaning to the right).
So my wind-plan was pretty much a complete failure by this point. At mile 40, we stopped at Sweetwater Station, and another highway department rest stop. You can tell that insane winds are normal in this area because every picnic table outside is under a brick wind-blocking structure. But even with that protection it was still a challenge to find a spot where we felt sheltered (we even thought of eating lunch indoors in the common area of the bathroom building). As I was parking my bike I knocked the sleeve on top of my handlebar bag and all the papers that I keep up there were gone in an instant. Luckily I didn’t have anything important stored there, and I was able to recover most of them 50 yards away where they got caught by the tall grass. Eating involved staying as close to the wall as possible, and placing any loose items down on the ground directly against the wall.
Looking at the US and Wyoming state flags nearly being torn off their poles, the wind must have been a steady 40 mph at this point, with gusts even higher. We had finally reached the point where the road went almost straight east for our last 20 miles, the point where I expected that we’d have it easy, but I was beginning to worry that with the wind this strong, the crossing component would still make it feel scary to ride through it, even if most of the force was pushing us forward. A friendly our-age couple driving from Colorado came over to chat (they ride a tandem and want to take up touring), and them saying what an inspiration we were to them gave us the inspiration to get back out there and see what we could do.
It turned out that once we got up to speed, things felt stable and safe, so we were able to cruise easily at 25mph, and even with a few ups and downs, were able to cover the 20 miles in a about an hour. The crossing component of the wind was still pretty brutal though. It felt like someone was shooting a blow dryer straight into my nostrils, so I rode the whole way with my scarf pulled up over my nose and mouth to prevent myself from turning into a desiccated husk by the time we got to Jeffrey City.
The low white church sits isolated outside of the edge of town. The gravel road to get to it sent us straight south again, so while I was able to force my way through it to scout ahead, Rett walked until the road made its final turn east. I opened the door on the back of the church, stepped inside to the large open gymnasium area, and felt immediate relief. Even though I could still hear the sound of the wind howling over the roof, simply knowing that I didn’t need to brace myself against its force any longer allowed me to release a tension I hadn’t even realized I’d been holding.
And it wasn’t only the physical strength of the walls that allowed me to breathe deep. Those walls are also covered in signatures, messages, and artwork left by years of cyclists just as grateful as us. Here at this outpost on the edge of the world, hundreds of cyclists every summer find shelter. Some arrive in worse shape than us, some in better (pitching our tent would have been impossible today!), but we all needed this sanctuary. I had seen photos so I had some idea what to expect, but the spirit of the place still hit me deep. Even though we were the only people here tonight, my footsteps were not the only things echoing off the cavernous walls. The echoes of all our unmet brethren, all on some variety of an epic quest (because there is no way to reach Jeffrey City, Wyoming without it being part of an epic quest) rang warm and loud in my soul. And I echoed their thankfulness to the few citizens of Jeffrey City for maintaining this shelter for all of these people, despite knowing them even less than we do.
We picked one of the ~5 rooms (one with a bunk bed, but we slept on the floor), scouted the well-stocked kitchen (fridge, oven, microwave, some food items, and a stock of random useful supplies left by other cyclists), and took warm showers in this mega-WarmShowers establishment. Then we walked back out to the main highway to get dinner at the Split Rock Cafe, one of the only businesses in town. The wind had died down a bit, but Rett still walked behind me as we headed west so that I could block it for her.
Inside the Split Rock we found two big ol’ boys at the bar, along with a long out-to-pasture cowboy having a cigarette with his whiskey. We navigated between the various bits of dusty junk filling the dining room to sit on torn-vinyl chairs at a round table. Several dogs were roaming inside, and will become more interested in us as our food is delivered. We both ordered the pork chop dinner, and the fanciest beer they have (Busch). “What kinda dressing you want on your salad” barks the unfriendly waitress/bartender/owner. We settle on ranch. “Oh, my ranch is a little unusual, I make it spicy, and I used goat’s milk this time, you still want it?”
Wait, what?! You make your own dressing?! That’s the last thing we expected in a place like this! And yes, that sounds awesome! “Hey”, she yells at the guys at the bar, “you better tell me what more you want to drink now, because I have to go cook for these folks.” Yes, that’s how it apparently works when one person runs the entire restaurant, and just like the church (seemingly managed by even less than one person), we’re grateful that these places are open and running at all. Jeffrey City rules!
The pork chops were really good, the salad dressing was great, and the mashed potatoes were just ok, but still good enough that one of the dogs had his head rested on my leg hoping for scraps. By the time we settled up, the owner’s husband(?) had joined her behind the bar, everyone else had cleared out, and we had a really nice chat with both of them, learning about the multi-generational canine family amongst other things. By this point the owner has warmed up to us considerably, and as she was talking about her goats (hence the goat’s milk) she offhandedly mentioned the 4 that had been born two days ago. “You wanna meet ’em?”
Rett nearly blew down the walls like the wind, trying to get out to their pen. We learned the names of every one of the 20-some goats bouncing around the pen, and they were all some combination of cute, clever, and funny. And then our amazing host just started piling newborn baby goats into Rett’s arms. I’m sure glad that I’d already left a nice tip on our dinner, because seeing the joy on Rett’s face (especially after this challenging day) was worth a couple hundred dollars, easy!
On our sunset walk back to our “home” across the golden grass, I felt incredibly thankful for this day, for this place, and for this life that we’re living. It’s only because we’re riding bicycles that we stopped in this place, and could have experiences like this. It’s still difficult to believe it’s even real. “You mean we can just walk into this church out here in the middle of nowhere, not even talk to anyone, and spend the night?” How is that even possible?
Jeffrey City was a uranium boom-and-bust town, and newspaper clippings displayed in the kitchen reveal that the (first coat of) paint on this church’s walls was barely even dry before the mine closed down and the town emptied out. It currently has about 50 residents spread out across its mostly-abandoned or torn-down buildings, and 2 students in its elementary school. In its brief peak in the 1970s/80s, it apparently had two grocery stores! And a bank! And a bowling alley! And now it’s not even a “ghost town” in the sense that it sells t-shirts to curious tourists; it’s simply a place that everybody left behind.
There was a guestbook, and a note encouraged us to sign it in order to keep the doors open for next year, which makes me wonder if Adventure Cycling pays something to the town/caretakers to keep it open (since otherwise their flagship TransAmerica route would be near-impossible to ride)? But more interesting was paging back through the years. While the walls are filled with the color of the people who have stayed here, the guestbook contains their data. It seems that if we were here on July 4th, we’d be likely to be sharing the space with 4-8 others. Whereas most people here at the end of August (or beginning of June) are likely on their own, like us. We’d talked with Karrie and Fred about how it feels like we’re “late” to be at this point on the TransAmerica route, even though to all of us it seems like the perfect time for west-to-easters (as long as you can make it down out of the Rockies by September, why not enjoy the plains and mid-south in the cooler autumn?) So it was cool to have that feeling confirmed by the hard data of the guestbook.
We went to sleep with the full moon shining in our bedroom’s small window, the breeze still creaking the walls. We were completely alone in this large building, far on the edge of a nearly-empty town, and in a state whose population could be outweighed by a handful of metro suburbs. And yet we feel more-surrounded and warmly-sheltered than we have in a long time.