A pretty close to last minute super drive to Wyoming and back was an adventure to be sure. I left Friday morning, April 22nd, from Seattle and returned Tuesday afternoon. Not too shabby to do 2,500 miles of driving, a 6 mile hike… and almost being lost forever on the top of a ridge surrounded by snow hours from anywhere… all in less than five days!
The reason for the trip is still a little top secret at the moment. Let’s just say that I had to take some pictures of opals for a PowerPoint presentation I have to give to some very important people, and I didn’t have any good photographs. The last time I had been to my claim I was too excited finding stones to stop, take a breath, and then take the camera out of my pocket.
I left Seattle under gray skies and the gray continued through to Montana, but it was warm. 60s and 70s the entire way. Idaho and Montana were especially in the bloom of spring. Everything was so lush and green. Leaves popping, grass growing as fast as it can…. This time of year the Rockies look like Seattle does most of the time!
I stayed at a Motel 6 in Missoula. What a rip off. Someone hot boxed the entire third floor (my floor) and about the time I was climbing into my rock-hard bed the police we raiding my neighbor’s room. Montana does not share Washington State’s marijuana laws to be sure.
I woke early, made my way to the Cracker Barrel next door for breakfast because I had never been to one before. For those of you left coast, latte-sipping, Volvo-driving, diploma-having, elites, let me paint a picture as to what Cracker Barrel is for you: It’s Pier 1 Imports for people with aesthetically questionable taste who also happen to like NASCAR… with a Denny’s inside. Rather than name their breakfasts things like “French Toast” they will call it “Uncle Earl’s Morning Favorite” or something. The food was OK, at least they gave me real maple syrup, but the inside of their restaurant smelled like a potpourri of a thousand scented candles. Not really my thing.
I had another 600 miles of driving ahead of me so it was road time. Earlier when I stated that Montana was so lush and green, this is not true. All of Montana is so lush and green except for Butte. Butte is brown and depressing. It is brown and depressing in August, it is probably brown and depressing all winter, and it is brown and depressing at the height of spring. I blasted passed the Berkeley Pit, over the Continental Divide for the umpteenth time, through thunder showers in Bozeman, passed Livingston (without stopping; so sorry, Josh and Jennie!), and through the most ironically named Montana town “Big Timber” which is in the grasslands of the plains and has about five trees all shorter than any of the houses in the area. Finally I made it to Laurel, Montana where I left I-90 and turned South onto US310, this took me through some farming country and tiny little towns like Bridger and Fromberg (which I assume is named this because this is where people come ‘from’ but do not move ‘to’). I peeled off US310 onto state highway 72 which quickly become Wyoming State Highway 296 (ominously named the “Black and White Road” whatever that means) complete with thunder showers galore.
I reached Cody, Wyoming for the first time since I was a child, it seems to have boomed quite a bit since then. The town still plays up the Buffalo Bill Cody theme and has built civic centers and museums all over the place to celebrate the cowboy way of life. Every time I am on one of these trips I wish I could stop and smell the roses and visit a little more with each little burg I come to, but alas, I am on a schedule. On my way out of Cody I noticed that the entire Southern portion of the town is build around four circular/oval lakes. Each of these little lakes was full of birds and reeds, but also had what looked like to be white salt deposits on the shore lines and no substantially sized trees surrounding the lakes. Interesting… I decided that I would have to investigate this further at a later date as this could means billions of dollars to the people of Cody, and drove on.
At the lakes I turned South onto State Highway 120 and that takes me over lots of broken and cracked hills exposing many of layers of rock; as I drove further South past the little town of Meeteese these scarps started to reveal thin bands of coal seams. The bands are not thick enough for anyone to commercially exploit, but evidence none-the-less that Wyoming is rich in everything.
The tan rocks and bands of coal began to give way to red rocks and what looked to be layers of gray/green ash resting atop of it. If I had been blindfolded and dropped here I would have though that I had appeared in Southern Utah. The landscape looks almost identical to the Red Navajo Sandstone and gray/green ash of the Monitor Butte formation of the area (with my brother Loch we made an awesome discovery of metallic petrified wood in this layer just outside of Boulder, Utah). In the heart of the red rocks is Thermopolis, Wyoming. Supposedly home to the largest mineral hot spring in the world. It’s dinosaur museum is also home to the only archaeopteryx fossil outside of Europe. I really need to take my time through here someday… Stupid schedules!
The highway ends and becomes US20 and then the drive gets awesome. A hop over the Bighorn River which instantly becomes the Wind River the moment you enter one of the coolest canyons in the world. Wind River Canyon isn’t just beautiful, but it is also a mind fuck. As you travel up hill you have the feeling as though you are continually going downhill. Your brain cannot accept the fact that the water is flowing in the wrong direction the entire time. This comes from the way the entire Owl Creek Mountains have been uplifted. Coming from the North the block of sandstone slopes up gently from Thermopolis, so as you enter the canyon you have the feeling of going deeper into it as the cliffs grow larger and larger off in the distance making for the illusion that you are traveling down hill. It will wrinkle your brain.
The canyon is fairly unique in that the river is much older than mountains are. The river was there first, the Owl Creeks formed after. So as the rock began to slowly uplift millions of years ago the river would slowly and steadily cut through the rising hills leaving the scar of the canyon. At one point the cliffs are over 2,500 feet tall to either side of the river with giant boulders the size of homes strewn about the canyon floor. If you look up you can see above you where the near-perfect cubes of rock broke out of the cliffs and came crashing down to the canyon floor below. It must be stupefying to witness such a cataclysmic avalanche of rock.
Towards the head waters of the canyon you get a treat: some of the oldest rock visible on Earth, some 2.9 billion year old precambrian metamorphic rock, makes an impressive display. This black stone is twisted and gnarled and provides for some dramatic scenery as both the highway, and the train tracks on the other side of the river, cut through antiquated, dripping black tunnels in the jagged cliffs. As the Owl Creeks uplifted they finally cracked and pulled up this most ancient rock exposing it for the first time in billions of years. If there are any minerals to be found here, this well cooked rock would be the place as it is seeping rust of all colors, and cross cut with countless quartz veins.
At the beginning of the canyon you will find the Boysen Dam and the Boysen Reservoir which is as alien a landscape as any. The first town south of the canyon is Shoshone. Sad to say, it’s a shithole in the middle of a desert. The only nice building in the town is the school, everything else is collapsing and in disrepair, including the numerous motels all named “The Desert Inn” or some facsimile there-of (sometimes I wonder about people from these towns and if they will ever stumble upon my blog and think, “Screw that guy, I’m from Shoshone and it’s really nice there!”… and then I realize they would have to have the Internet to do that. Zing!). The highway gives another weird mental funk as the road makes you feel like you are descending into Riverton (my destination) when, in fact, you re gaining elevation as you reach Riverton. It’s weird out here. It’s as if physics doesn’t exist.
I rolled into Riverton about 8pm and headed for the Wind River Casino to get a room. It was Saturday night and they were booked. So, I settled on the Days Inn. It was cheap, and the rooms were new. I dropped off my belongings and sought out “The Bull”. The concierge (can you call the desk person at a Days Inn that?) said that it was the best restaurant in town and it was only a block away. Sweet.
Inside “The Bull” on one side of the room resided stragglers from a wedding party in pink chiffon gowns and in tuxes with pink chiffon vests, on the other side of the room were dozens of high schoolers dressed to the nines because it was obviously some fancy school dance that evening. Word. If high school boys are trying to impress girls by spending their meager earnings on this strip mall restaurant then I came to the right place! I ordered a ribeye, split pea soup, mashed potatoes, steamed veggies, and anything else I could fit in me. It was OK at best, bummer. At least I was in the Rockies so I was able to gorge myself for like $20.
I went back to the motel and turned in for the night. There were two other cars in the parking lot and I think those were my two neighbors. The neighbor to the right was playing Adel’s “Hello” on repeat on some tinny stereo. The neighbors to the left were going at it like pigs in heat. Paper thin walls, oh joy. When the sex couple was done, the man did give Mel Gibson’s speech from “Braveheart” word for world in a terrible Scottish accent: “…just one chance to come back here and tell our enemies, they may take our lives, but they’ll never take… Our Freedom!!”
Coitus and Braveheart I can understand. Adel on and endless loop I cannot. I cranked the air conditioner and was able to drown her out and shivered myself to sleep. Sunday was the big day!
I awoke, filled myself with continental breakfast, and drove into the hills. On the drive out my hear sank. For a week each day I would check the forecast and it would say repeatedly that it was going to be 70 degrees and sunny on Sunday, April 24th. Well, it snowed. Riverton was in the 40s and raining, and I could see the huge escarpment rising off in the distance with its fresh dusting of snow. Gah!
Riverton sits at just about 5000ft elevation, my claim is at 7,200 feet. Lame. The moment I got above 6,500ft there was snow everywhere. Where I turned off the highway is a dirt road at about 7,000ft. It was covered in snow. Not much, maybe four inches, but I knew that the dirt underneath was going to be slick and awful. I paused there and had a thought. It was time to weigh the risk and reward: the amount of time and money this trip cost me, and wondering when I would be able to repeat this long-ass drive again; verses the time-frame I need to get the PowerPoint made and impress some investors before the mining season is in full swing in the Summer; verses being trapped in the snow-covered high desert mountains… alone… until I die…
Fuck it, if my previous adventures are any indicator, I am indestructible apparently. I drove on. Holy cow was this road slippery! When I had driven in the past I just remember a rather long, flat drive along this plateau out to the oil fields where the opals were. Well, snow makes you realize how many hills there actually are in a place. Each time I was at the base of hill I hoped the truck could make it up to the top. Each time I was at the top of hill I would hope that I wouldn’t come spinning down like a hockey puck across the ice. Among this list of hopes (as hope and over-imagined confidence is all one has in the wild) was that my truck’s tires would find some good ruts and stay in them. Ruts are like train tracks. As is the case with trains, they are fine so long as it stays on the rails.
Huge waves of mud would wash over my truck as it kersplunked into a deep hidden puddle. My wipers were going like mad as I crawled along at 5-10 mph for then next hour. What had been fresh, white snow in front of me had become a poopy brown swath of destruction behind me. I finally reached a point I recognized where a cattle pen was but I could no longer see the road. The oil wells of my intended goal were still miles away off in the distance and I was not prepared for a snow hike. I did a lot of cussing. I had to cut my losses and drive back and regroup… Well, as much as one man alone in the wild can “regroup”.
The drive back was now just a mud mess. Down the teensiest little hill my tires broke with the trusty ruts and I did a donut. I’ll admit, this scared the piss out of me… or almost did. When I righted the truck, I got out and took a piss so as not to accidentally do so in the cab on the next 360 spin. I felt better and made it back to the highway without further trouble. I used some of my emergency water to wash off my headlights, and windows because I could not see a thing! My thinking at the highway was this: I’ll hire a helicopter. It will fly me right there for a few hundred bucks, I’ll snap a few photos and then fly back.
I hauled ass back to town, parked in the lot of the Days Inn for their free Internet, searched for a helicopter service, and then drove to the airport. When I walked in the person behind the Great Lakes Airlines counter looked at me like I did not belong there and asked how they could help me. I replied, “I need to hire a helicopter.” She looked at the security guard/TSA guy and and he said, “Darrel went out of business last summer.” Well, shit.
I drove back to the Days Inn and sat again using their internet. I located a phone number for helicopter charter and the friendly fellow on the other end of the line said that they would have to fly a chopper in 300 miles from Jackson that that it would only cost me $5,500 for three hours of flight time. Well, fuck that idea. I can sacrifice another 2000 F150 for much less.
I drove to the sports store, geared up for a snow hike, and then went to the Wind Rivers Casino Hotel and this time was able to get a room. It was sublime! It was about 1:30pm, and I decided that I would do the drive and hike the next morning… until I checked the weather forecast: Snow in frustrating quantities was expected by 10pm. Welp, It was 2pm, sunset was at 8:07pm, I had six hours to photograph some opals and get out. Let’s do this!
I put on my new long-johns and wool socks, threw on a new nit cap, pulled on my Oakley Special Forces combat boots, and jumped back into my muddy beast. When I reached the summit with the turnoff to the oil fields I was pleased to see that my mud tracks from earlier had managed to melt all the snow! I settled the track back into the ruts and began run number two. After about 45 minutes this time I reached the cattle pen and the snow had melted enough here that I could see the road out to the oil fields where my claim is.
This part of the road was a clay-filled nightmare. There really wasn’t much in the way of ruts for my tires to follow as it is my guess that no one had been out here since before the winter. It’s hard to grip a steering wheel and cross your fingers at the same time. I made it to the first oil wells and the road dropped maybe a hundred feet off the mesa. This was covered in snow. I could drive no further.
I figured I was about a mile from my claim at this point (turns out it was more like two to three miles… Amazing how a lack of trees makes distances seem shorter). I made for a quick pace, almost running. I wanted to get to the opals, snap some photos, and be back to the truck by 7pm at the latest so that I could get out of this god-forsaken place before sunset and before the snow showers began again. By about 4:45 I had made it to the far oil wells where the boulders live. I poked around, snapped some photos and high tailed it back to the truck. Round trip I was back to the truck by about 5:30. I was beat. I basically ran miles and miles over hills, post holing in the snow much of the way in about two hours. The War Rig and I did a celebratory donut in the muddy parking lot of the oil field and headed back out.
This drive was a lot of me cursing at the mud and the truck. “Stay in the ruts, you SOB!” and such. I had to stay in the ruts because the road had a ditch to either side. If I popped out of said ruts I would lose all control of the direction the truck traveled and was subject to the whims of hydroplaning, mud-filled tires. So, of course, my tires popped out of the ruts and I spun into the ditch. At first just the driver’s side tires were in the ditch and I was too far leaned over to try and steer back up onto the road surface, thus I concluded that the expansive desert was my best option. Before I could make my attempt the truck spun and all of a sudden my rear tires were in the ditch and my front tires were almost out of it. It’s a wide ditch. The truck would go no where.
I couldn’t back out because the trailer hitch would dig into the road, and I couldn’t go forward because, well, the mud wouldn’t let me. The tires just spun. I beat the steering wheel and cursed, as one is prone to do in such a situation. I had achieved my goal, and now I was stuck in the middle of nowhere, 10-15 miles from a paved road, with darkness and snow on the way. If I didn’t get out of this ditch life was going to suuuuuuuuck.
I stepped out and took out a shovel and the 128 feet of 2×2 claim stakes that live in the back of my truck. I first tried to dig out the road behind my trailer hitch and then wedge the stakes under the wheels to see if I could back out. Nope. I then spent the next hour digging under the tires and wedging the claim stakes under them so that I could drive out and into the desert. This method go me about two feet of success and my front tires were now out of the ditch and my back tires were no longer at the bottom of the ditch. Another 45 minutes and I was still stuck like this.
My brain decided on one last feat of engineering; I spun the tires deep into the mud (sounds stupid, but hear me out). I then dug out a little behind each tire with my pick and shovel and back the truck up about 6 inches. This gave me a deep little channel in front of each tire. I started laying claim stakes across the ditch and jumping on them breaking them in two. I then laid these stakes perpendicular to the front of the tires about 1-2 inches apart and build little ladders of wood for the tires to climb.
Once my contraption was built I hopped into the truck and gunned it. With the greatest of ease the truck climbed out of the ditch like it was never stuck. Asshole.
The entire cab of the War Rig was now caked in mud. I decided that the road could suck it, I drove the most of the rest of the way back next to the road using sage brush for traction. I made it to the highway at 7:59pm. I had beaten sunset by 8 minutes!
I washed off the windows and headlights again, drove back to the casino, took a shower, and then went to the restaurant labeled “fancy dining” and ordered a filet mignon. It was the size of a baby and could be cut with a spoon. “The Bull” had nothing on this lonely 10pm steak. I have never had a filet that big. This must have come from some freak GMO cow and it was amazing!
My room was comfy, the bed sublime, the soaps and shampoos to steal from the bathroom were top-notch. Wind Rivers Casino Hotel, you have earned yourself 4 stars! I checked out at about 9 am, went to the Wagon Wheel Family Restaurant, sat at the bar and ate an omelet, and then reversed my road trip.
My original plan had been to be out of Riverton by noon on Sunday and then take the leisurely drive back through Utah and Nevada, go back to the scene of my rollover to see if I could find any more of my belongings in the desert and then hit some hots springs. The snow ruined these plans. So the reversal of my original drive out had to be done; back through the canyon, and back to Cody. I used this opportunity to stop at the lakes at the South of Cody and walked to theshore of one of them and poured some hydrochloric acid solution on the “salts” and just as I suspected the “salt” bubbled and hissed. Cody is built on a giant kimberlite formation. After reviewing satellite photos I can see at least three kimberlite pipes in and around Cody. Several more may be obscured by farming activity.
Wyoming always perplexes me. They will gladly chew up their countryside for coal. Destroy their ground water via fracking for oil and gas, but won’t do a thing when gemstones worth more than any of their dirty fuel sources are more easily obtainable and less damaging to the environment. It boggles the mind. Literally trillions of dollars of gems are in Wyoming: diamonds, rubies, sapphires, opal, emeralds, aquamarine, iolite, peridot, etc… and no one digs for them. Instead they spend all this energy on oil and coal and dirty everything up in the process.
I blew through Livingston again (Sorry for not stopping again, Josh and Jennie!), through Bozeman, through Butte (it still sucks) and stayed the night again in Missoula at the Best Western. The room they gave me smelled like someone cleaned a fish in there, had no wifi signal, and was across from the elevators and next to the ice machine. Lucky me. I asked for a new room and they gladly complied. Slept hard, and was back on the road to Seattle by 9am and in Seattle by 4pm. Got home, washed the truck, washed my Subaru, and washed my roommate’s car, ate a salmon enchilada, watched the Mariners crush the Astros on TV and went to bed. A productive day!