Day 26- Atlantic City, WY to
The Great Basin Desert by Erin Garvin
Well rested, we rushed for a cozy cup of coffee from the steak house cafe now so conveniently close to our campsite. Fully decked out in tight blue jeans, a Western-design embroidered button-down blouse, and a feathered cowboy hat, our waitress Connie extended neighbourly good will by preparing a container of first aid lotion for my blistered back. We savored the last hot breakfast we'd have for a few days. Today, we would ride into the Great Basin, the most feared section of the trail.
One of the four North American deserts, the gigantic bowl of sand proved far too harsh and unforgiving for any permanent residents, and followed its own set of rules. Roughly 50 miles long and 100 miles wide, any snow-melt or precipitation drained internally within the basin rather than flowing east toward the Atlantic or west toward the Pacific like the rest of the Continental Divide.
After bidding farewell to civilization, we rode 10 miles in the dry heat to a stream that would serve as our last water source for 69 miles. Mesmerized by the lonely landscape, I noticed a distinct stretch of stunted, fragile brush within the othewise uniform, healthy sage.
It was here where the Pony Express mail route and the Oregon, Morman Trail merged. Years ago, hopeful pioneers packed full in creaking wooden wagons forged faithfully through the primitive path in search of a better life in Utah or Oregon. Known as the "longest graveyard in America," the Oregon, Morman Trail was the site of the deaths of 67 Mormons caught in a severe October snowstorm while en route to Utah. As if forever scarred by their memory, the trail refused to nourish new sage over nostalgic tracks.
Soon after entering the desert, we passed a patrolling sheriff who stopped to caution us of the remoteness of our chosen route. "Ya'll aren't gonna ride through this old road alone are ya?" he asked behind dark sunglasses from inside his airconditioned truck.
"Yes," we explained, "but we have maps, and enough water to make it to the reservoir 70 miles away.
While explaining our situation, I watched the long, loose flap of turkey skin sway back and forth inches below his neck.
"Ya'll gat a cell phone?" he asked as he placed his leathery, densely freckled arm on his open window. Sneaking out from under his khaki rolled-up sleeve was part of a dark brown and green badge-like tattoo of some sort. Immediately, my gaze went back to the turkey flap undulating in the wind, hypnotizing me like the methodic arc of the chained, golden watch of a skilled magician.
"No," we replied to the man as if he were our kindergarten teacher, "but we'll be real careful and stick together.
"You know," he tried to dissuade us again, "it's at least a six or seven hour drive to the next sign of a town. I won't be comin' back here for another three days. Every now and then, I check on some cattle on the other side of the desert to make sure the fences aren't broken."
He spoke with lament as if his duties had been misassigned, and that he'd be better placed in a position to crack a really big mafia scam. "Nothin' too bad really happens out here so I just check on the animals now and then.
Waking from his reverie, he started again. "Well, good luck to ya," he bid as he tipped his dark brown hat to us. "Like I say, I'll be back in a few days so, if any of ya get hurt, make sure to stay by the road and don't let the vultures get ya so bad I can't recognize ya after they peck your eyes out. Huh, huh!"
Reflecting on our new Sheriff friend, I realized how seriously accumulated exposure to the Wyoming heat had warped the residents' sense of humor. I wondered how long before its oppressive effects would begin disrupt to our senses. Despite the sheriff's eerie warning, we continued our journey, careful not to take any unnecessary risks.
Embraced by the dry hug of sage along the lonely desert path, we finally reached the Great Basin. As if scooped out of the otherwise rolling terrain, an incredibly immense, gorgeous green depression lay, bordered with mountains wrinkled like the face of a baby bulldog. Feeling the scratchy grass on the back of our legs, we rested on the hillside while light winds whispered gently in our ears, encouraging us to use all our senses to slowly absorb all the finer strokes of the picture around us. Like a mountain creek swollen with melting snow in early Spring, a white sky flowed quickly overhead reminding us of its capricious nature.
Resuming our ride, PigPen and I summited a hill finding two wild black horses retreating from an obscure cave in nearby rocks. As if controlled by the strong hands of a skillful marionette, the shiny, tar-black steeds moved perfectiy in sync with each other. What one would do, the other would mimic exactly. With the arrival of each new rider at our hill's crest, however, the leary animals backed further and further away from our unfamiliar presence. Finally, acting upon their cautious instinct, the twin stallions galloped gallantly away in harmonic unison, ending our glimpse into raw, untamed nature.
As we continued through the barren wasteland, bitter black cloud swirls stampeded shrewdly towards us, quickly dimming the high desert. A low-pitch rumble pulsed through the quivering earth as chilling rain poured from the angry sky. Like the stinging whip of a demanding cattle driver, ferocious lightning cracked coercively behind our herd of riders as we fought to outrun the storm's power. Raucous thunder immediately followed the lethal lightning as the rain changed to painful walnut-size hail. To avoid the aggressive plucks on our tender faces, we burrowed our chins down lower in our jackets, exposing just enough to see the obscured path ahead. With no shelter in sight, we biked nowhere fast.
Ginger, usually the happy-go-lucky one in the group, tended to be the most leery during storm situations. Frantically he cried out his concerns to me, "THIS IS NOT GOOD! WE SHOULD NOT BE CLlPPED IN METAL BlKES IN THE MlDDLE OF A LlGHTNlNG STORM!"
Underlying his hysteria was the raw truth that we were totally disregarding any effort towards rational precautions. Although I knew to find low ground, get far away from my bike, and crouch low on the balls of my feet, I continued sprinting, as if I could somehow outrun the inevitable danger.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a gorgeous deep-black wild stallion began sprinting beside me. He was so close, I could actually count the hairs on his back. Through the sheen of his tar-black coat, I watched the striations of his muscles surge with raw strength. I was mesmerized by his untamed power. For a moment, his unusually close presence distracted me from the danger behind. Noticing the wild dance in his eyes, however, I quickly remembered.
We've gotta get out of this storm, I thought. It's too big, too dangerous.
Despite the sudden drop in temperature, my chest grew hot. Inside, my heart fluttered like tissue in the wind from the risk of our exposure. We were all alone in this high desert storm. There was no shelter, no 9-1-1, nobody.
My eyes followed the beast. Where do animals hide in risky weather?
Perhaps the stallion knew where to go. if only I could keep up with his spirited gait. I sprinted hard, falling in only slightly behind his side. My will and legs felt superhuman, but my rational self questioned where we were going so fast and what we would do once we got there.
Shouldn't we have a plan? No time for plans; just run-fast.
Like a flash of lightning, the stallion bolted across my path and raced even faster. Again I followed, although sure this time I would lose to his incredible pace.
Following the sudden change of direction, I spotted an old, abandoned cow barn at the bottom of the hill. Unbelievable. We haven't seen a thing for over 45 miles and now there's a shelter right in front of us.
I rushed toward the blurry building, carelessly throwing my bike under the rickety old boards of the sunken ceiling. I ran back to the old barn door and waved the last of our riders to safety. I scanned the area for our deliverer.
Where could you have gone? Having completed its mission, the horse was nowhere to be found.
Sitting on dusty old bags of concrete mix, we waited out the storm in the comforts of the dilapidated shed. No one spoke a word. We knew how close we had been to fatal danger. The beating, whipping, and pounding of the violent storm on the fragile boards of our rudimentary shelter rendered us humble, listening intently to its power. Our silence let me reflect on earlier events.
The stallion had guided me to safety only because I had followed. The others had followed me only because I happened to be leading at the time and they trusted my lead. Had we continued straight where the horse crossed in front of us, his presence would have been but a minor, superfluous detail with an uncertain ending. Receiving the graces of our sanctuary had required that we be open to the possibility of its existence. To make ourselves available to that salvation, we had to listen, watch, and feel for the sometimes-obscure signs of help. Developing this awareness, allowed the privelege to a progression of opportunities that may have otherwise remained untouched.
To read more about Erin's mountain bike adventure, click