We had planned to be starting the day in Buffalo, Wyoming. Instead, wildfires near Cody sent us to Riverton, which is hundreds of miles from where we had planned to be. We hoped that getting an early start (by our standards) would help us get caught up.
We went to one of the “drive-thru espresso” places that seem to be springing up all over the west. This place in Riverton had four employees waiting on two customers, but it still took 15 minutes to get our coffee. So much for our early start.
Our morning drive began in the Wind River valley of central Wyoming. We saw regions that looked as barren as the Moon, even though at midday they were emitting all the colors of the sunset. As we passed through a narrow canyon we saw signs by the road cuts that identified the geologic era of the newly exposed rock as well as its age. Many layers were billions of years old.
We stopped in Thermopolis, home of the world’s largest mineral hot spring. To get in the hot water requires either booking a room at the expensive hotel or spending a few bucks at one of the bath house/water parks that have sprung up in the area.
Fortunately, this place is far enough off the beaten path that the water parks are fairly low-key. Also, it was a very hot day (around 100° and dry), so bathing in hot springs was not an agenda item for many other people.
We went to a place called Hellies Teepee Bath House. For eight bucks each we had the place mostly to ourselves: 3-4 levels of hot pools, steam room, sauna, showers, and waterslide – and that was all indoors. Outdoors, there were more hot and cold pools and an even bigger waterslide.
Today, we finally learned the appeal of the big waterslides that are popping up all over the place. After a couple of hours of romping around the hot water park, it was time to get back on the road.
Stopping for gas, we checked the transmission fluid and found that it was almost completely gone. Whatever was done to the truck at West Yellowstone didn’t fix it.
Our route followed the Big Horn River, which flows due north into Montana and eventually feeds the Missouri. We followed the river and the railroad to Worland before we turned to cross the Big Horn Mountains on the way to Buffalo and the Black Hills well beyond.
The western slope of that route is known as Ten Sleep Canyon, and it was a scenic last hurrah to the Rocky Mountains. Some badly-needed thunderstorms cooled things off as we embarked across our last big ridge.
The traffic level had picked up quite a bit, and we were especially seeing a lot more motorcycles. We had no problem with the bikers, but we did have a problem with rudely slow drivers who wouldn’t use turnouts. They frustrated our efforts to navigate mountain roads with a finicky transmission.
We drive slowly a lot ourselves, but in many mountain regions it is illegal not to use turnouts if you are holding other traffic below the speed limit. There are good reasons for this, mainly that if people can’t pass when it’s safe, they’ll try to pass when it’s unsafe.
Most people that try to catch fish have stories about “the one that got away.” Photographers have their own versions of these stories. At Powder River Pass, just before the climbing turned to coasting, we saw an enormous bull elk with a rack of antlers that looked as wide as our little truck is long. He looked as if he could lift our truck with that rack of antlers. (All right, perhaps he wasn’t that big, but we have as much right to exaggeration and embellishment as anybody else) Our analog cameras were out of film, and our digital camera had been shut off and put away. By the time it could be unpacked and activated, the elk disappeared into the trees.
By late afternoon we had arrived in Buffalo. The first food place we saw there looked interesting and had lots of bikes parked around it (bikes as in big motorcycles … Sturgis is much closer now). We made a note of it and decided to take a look around the rest of the town.
We sat down in a place in downtown Buffalo – kinda homey but quiet – and a little kid came to our table with menus. It was basic cattle country fare, though maybe a tad pricey. Then we noticed if you had a few extra bucks you could order venison or buffalo, and for still more you could order elk … or moose … or bear. We got up and left.
As we got outside we asked each other that if there are enough bears to shoot and serve in restaurants, how come we never saw any? We went back to the place where all the bikers were. It was a very homey place called the Stagecoach Inn. The had an Old West look but they didn’t “buy” the look. Chairs were mismatched, old sewing machines were converted to tables… they made do with what they had around. The dinners were good, portions were generous and it ended up as one of our favorite places.
The sun was setting as we left Buffalo. We were seeing vacancy signs on motels, but it felt too early to stop, especially since we wanted to have the Black Hills close at hand Wednesday morning. We pressed on along I-90 to Gillette, which seemed to have thousands of motel rooms. But every one of them was full. We are now close enough to Sturgis for vacancies to be scarce.
We ended up in the tiny dusty town of Upton, on the prairie about 30 miles off the Interstate. We found a vacancy sign on the town’s only motel and paid $60 (no credit cards) for a room. The room was like a hunting cabin. The beds sagged like hammocks and we had to swat flies for an hour before we could go to sleep. The people who ran the place were nice people. Like most other motel keepers in the area, they took advantage of the high demand to crank up their rates.
They literally said to us, “Sturgis is the only time that we can make any money.” Next time we’re on the road in early August, we’re gonna avoid going anywhere within 500 miles of Sturgis.