59.5 mi / 11.2 mph / 1808 ft. climbing
Home: Lazy Acres Campground
Five miles of riding empty I-80 frontage roads brought us to Sinclair, a company town named after the oil company (whose iconic green dinosaur may be completely unfamiliar to my readers east of the Mississippi). The town has an impressive (if empty-feeling) Spanish-style center, with buildings whose stature seems too large for its 500-person population. But the dominating feature is the oil refinery on the east side of town. It’s a real shame (and failure of science communication) that Jeffrey City (a uranium company town) died out 40 years ago while Sinclair (an oil company town) still pumps away.
The amount of bike touring I’ve done over 20 years objectively makes me much more-experienced than the majority of other bike tourers we meet out here, but it’s surprising how rarely I feel that experience-difference when interacting with other tourers; everyone just seems like a veteran most of the time, and I often feel like the newbie in their presence. And this certainly isn’t a culture where seniority plays any role. But this section of the TransAmerica route puts us on the Interstate for 10 miles, and it was funny how ten different accounts (from strangers and new friends) all described their reaction identically: “What?!? Are we really supposed to get on the Interstate?! That’s what the map says, but is that right? Is it legal? How are we not going to get killed?!”, immediately followed by “oh, it turns out it was totally fine, and actually sort of nice.” Like, duh! But until you actually do it, of course it’s going to seem a bit crazy. And it turns out this section of I-80 is an ideal one for newbies, because there are no exit/entrance ramps to cross, which are the scariest bits in Interstate riding. Well, still not as scary as the shoulderless bridges we had to bust across on I-90 a few weeks ago, but I’ll let the newbies build up to that one!
We got off at the first exit and turned straight south towards Colorado. This again put the winds quartering into us from the right, but the good news was that we were leaving the heart of the Wyoming wind basin today, and the further south we went, the lighter the winds should be.
So even with the winds, we covered the 40 miles to Saratoga by 11am. Initially I had thought of spending the night here, particularly since there is another church that puts up cyclists for free (in a much nicer place in a much more alive town than Jeffrey City), but that would have left a long day tomorrow. So instead we used our early arrival to take a mid-ride soak in the hot springs!
Neither Rett nor I had ever done such a thing, though all the hot springs at Yellowstone made us interested in the idea. And Saratoga is quite rare in that their hot spring pools are public and free! Like most (non-Yellowstone) hot springs, a bunch of infrastructure has been built around the actual “hot water coming out of the ground” source, mainly concrete pools to collect it into volumes large enough to allow humans to immerse themselves in it. That infrastructure makes it a bit difficult to mentally connect the current pools to their natural form (“I bet they just have a gas furnace in that shed heating up this water!”), but closer inspection made the insane reality (that it’s actually hot magma driving it) obvious: the bottom of the pools was still rough stone, and through cracks in the rock you could see bubbles of gas streaming up.
We were welcomed by friendly regulars, including a guy who had broken his back a few years ago and essentially needed the relief of the springs to help him survive without the use of opioids, and a guy who gave a helpful warning to not stay in too long, or you might lose your ability to stand as your muscles simply decide to stop working.
Overall the effect wasn’t much different from a hot tub (though there was more smell of sulfur, so I’m sure there were other interesting chemicals in the water too). More fun for me was descending the bank of the river that flows just steps away from the pools, and collects the outflow (since the spring is constantly pumping new hot water into the pools). There, you could sit in the river and feel hot water shooting into your back while cold water flowed across your legs. A wild combination!
Feeling all relaxed and rubbery, we ate our packed lunches at a nearby picnic table. And then were very rudely greeted by a hill on the way out of town; our muscles were splayed out and snoring, and quite objected to this blaring alarm forcing them awake again. But they slapped themselves into activity, and twenty more miles up the North Platte River (and then Encampment River) brought us to the small community of Riverside.
Earlier in the morning, I had suddenly realized that while the private campground we were headed for advertised hiker/biker rates ($15/person), it didn’t say anything about set-aside hiker/biker sites (or a no-turn-away policy like the national/state park hiker/biker sites we’re used to). And it was the Saturday of Labor Day weekend! So I had called ahead from the roadside, and while the host said she’d have room for us, she made it clear that it would be tight; she already had 6 through-hikers reserved, and more folks could show up unannounced. We skipped getting groceries for dinner because we figured we might be fighting for space to cook on a picnic table.
So it was a surprise when there was more than enough room for everyone; we could barely even see the hikers from the area where we were set up (which admittedly was along the fence steps away from the highway, but still a perfectly nice spot). So I’m not sure why we were given the scare-warning, but we’re grateful for yet another place that makes it possible for people like us to leap from sanctuary to sanctuary across this part of Wyoming. Dinner at the Bear Trap Cafe was better than anything we could have cooked anyhow!
As the sun went down, it got cool enough that we needed to break out our down jackets for the first time since we left the Tetons. My first thought was “wow, we’ve gone a week without wearing our jackets, what an abnormally long streak of warm weather we must have had!” My second thought was then “Wait, it’s summer. The fact that we’ve needed to wear our down jackets at all over the last three months is the abnormal thing!” My third thought was then synthesis: “Summer in the mountains, while unfamiliar to us, is apparently a world where daily jacket-wear is normal; being able to go a week without them is the abnormal thing after all!”