Gary Gardner (grgardner) wrote,
Gary Gardner

Respect the Weather

Out here in the West people live and die by the weather -- literally.  Farmers watch the skies for rain or tornadoes, travelers watch for snow or blizzards or winds.  If you aren't careful the weather can kill you.  It changes suddenly and without warning sometimes.  It can be brutally hot, or sub-arctic cold.  It can blow like a Florida hurricane, or be so still as to suffocate you.  Growing up out here you learn to respect the weather.   Which is why I settled into a hotel in Laramie, Wyoming last night, and spent half the night looking at weather forecasts and deciding whether or not to hit the road or not today.   Signs were that it was going to be bad, and I had sort of set myeslf to stay for a while.  But when I got up, it was sunny, 65 and no breeze at all.  I checked all the web sites, called the parents in Salt Lake, and decided to head out.
It felt very strange to not take my atlas with me to breakfast and plot out my ride.  These roads are part of my DNA.  Like a salmon heading up stream, if I'm in the West, I know how to get home, and I've driven it before countless times. There is a section of old US-30 still left in Wyoming -- it runs from Laramie where I was, about 100 miles to just outside of Rawlins.  It winds through the high plains of Wyoming, skirts some mountains, and follows the Union Pacific's original transcontinental mainline.   The sign above shows you how serious they take the weather here -- all the roads have these gates, including I-80.  One's heart must sink when if they are a traveler sees these lights flash and the gates down -- or race with worry about "what do I do now?"  You turn back to Laramie (or Rawlins, or Rock Springs, or any other town the other way.)

This stretch of the old road was as idyllic as could be today, and in no danger of being closed for weather. I didn't see a car for miles, and saw lots of abandoned homesteads and ranches, and even towns and schools.  The railroad was always in view with a few trains every now and then.  Temperatures were  in the 70s, with clear blue endless skies that are characteristic of this vast empty part of the West.   I was roasting in full leather, and I'd be glad later that I had it on.
These wooden fences above the railroad tracks?  They are a common sight in Wyoming and Utah along the roads, and something I grew up seeing everywhere we roamed the West as a family in our old camper.  It's something that tells me I'm "home". They are to me, in a way, iconic of the high plains of Wyoming and Utah.  They are built in places where the wind blows steadily and in the winter, snow would naturally drift deep.  These fences are designed to catch the snow before it fills in a depression like along a highway or a railroad in this case, and they can run for miles and miles.   However, they are now iconic for something else.  Something much more barbaric.   It was to a fence similar to this that Mathew Sheppard was tied and beaten by two thugs, simply because he dared to be gay in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998.   As I watched them along the highway leading from Laramie, I couldn't help but wish they were still iconic for what they are intended for, rather than what they were used for in 1998.

The high plains of Wyoming are ranching country -- Brokeback Mountain country. I know those guys -- those towns.  I grew up with them it seems like.  That movie is truer than one might think.  Indeed, Riverton, WY where Enis DelMar (Heath Ledger) lived in the movie, is but a few (by Wyoming standards) miles from here.    The distances in the West are so great that driving 100 miles is rather routine -- and getting the mail involves a drive to the "town" Post Office, sometimes 30 miles away. Trees are scarce and the vistas are grand (especially if there happens to be a train going by.)
Herds of cattle dotted the sagebrush, and abandoned ranches and towns are scattered about.   It takes a hard type of person to live and work out here -- and alcohol is easy to come by, or was in this case.   Cowboys no longer drive up in their beat up pick-ups and get a bottle of Jack, or uses the ancient privy out back.  They must hit the Wal Mart in the bigger towns along I-80.  It's not Wal Mart that killed the small business -- it's the Interstate.

This last stretch of US-30  in Wyoming merges with Interstate 80 in a non-descript junction about 25 miles East of Rawlins, Wyoming.  It just meanders up a hill and turns into a freeway on-ramp.   But just before it does there is an old faded Shell station and a large gravel lot, and an old, now closed cafe.   The lot is used, I imagine by truckers when the freeway shuts down and they need a place to park to wait out the weather.  There are two pumps, and a small store that are still open.  One other thing one learns growing up out here is that gas stops can be far between so always top off when you can.  I need a bit of a break before hitting the freeway and topped off the bike and used the restroom. 

When I came out, the grizzled old guy with his oxygen tubes who was behind the counter asked "What part of Seattle are you from?", having seen the patch for the Seattle Chapter of HOG on my jacket I'm assuming.  I asked if he knew Seattle and he said he once lived there.  I answered "West Seattle", and he said, he knew it, "I used to work for Huling Brothers there selling cars."   Huling Brothers closed nearly 10 years ago, and I asked him  how he came to be in this rather remote spot.  "Real estate is cheap" he said, and "I bought me a huge house for less than $30,000 -- I have no mortgage too."   I wanted to say, "yeah but you live in a place like this", but I didn't.   I asked him if he missed Seattle.  "Not the traffic" was his answer.  I laughed.  "So now you watch the traffic out there on I-80 all day" and he said "yeah, I have my disability check and I work here 3 mornings a week for a change of pace."   I don't think he gets a lot of conversation -- I was the only one there for half an hour.   I looked out the window at the gravel lot, leading to the "cafe", and the Interstate behind it, with its endless stream of trucks grinding up the hill and realized I was in a version of hell -- at least for me anyway.

I bade him goodbye, and he said "watch the winds, it's gusty up aways", and I said I would.  I threw my leg over the bike and eased out of the gravel lot and up the ramp onto Westbound I-80/US-30.  I wish they wouldn't pretend that it was US-30.  It's not.  It's an Interstate Highway.

The ride West  on 80 wasn't bad for a while -- endless miles of sagebrush and trucks, and the occasional billboard for "Little America" - an entirely manufactured "town" with what at one time was the worlds largest truck stop.  it shows up on the maps.  As a kid traveling the West, they advertised all over in Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho -- much like Wall Drug used to for South Dakota.   "100 Pumps!" they billboards would advertise, with their little penguin mascot.  Now they advertise "Free Wi-Fi" and ".50 cent Ice Cream Cones".  I had hoped to stop for a spell, but it wasn't to be today.

The winds picked up shortly after Rawlins just as the old man in the store said, and the clouds rolled in too.   Battling a 50mph head wind on a motorcycle with freeway traffic is an exercise for the upper body.  I managed the 120 miles from Rawlins to Rock Springs and pulled off for a break and to check the weather ahead.  What I found was a shock.  A sold wall of storms just to the West of Evanston, stretching all the way to Salt Lake City, with snow reported outside of Evanston.  I had a message from my folks saying it was pouring rain too. 

I decided to camp out in Rock Springs although it was only 3pm, and Salt Lake was only 150 more miles and easily done since it was I-80 the whole way.  The weather has taken a nasty turn since then and I watched a dust/rain storm roll in that I surely would have hit on the bike.  Two people in my hotel traveling West turned around about 20 miles outside of Rock Springs and came back after watching a truck jack-knife after being hit with a 50mph gust of wind.  I'm utterly convinced that trying to get to Utah on a motorcycle anytime in May (or into June for that matter) is futile.   In 2008 I was turned back at about this exact longitude a few hundred miles South in Utah in May as well, with a two day blizzard.  Methinks I won't be planning any more rides to Utah in May.

Tomorrow is supposed to be as bad as today, but Monday is predicted to be sunny and nice.  So I may just enjoy a lazy Sunday in Rock Springs doing nothing, but wishing I was back on the road and headed for home. 


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