Day 17: Loneliness On The Howling Plains Of Nowhere

Sep 16, 2020
Originally published on September 22, 2020 1:39 pm

Nate Hegyi, rural reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, is embarking on a 900-mile cycling trip crisscrossing the continental divide in August and September, interviewing and listening to Americans ahead of the 2020 election. You can follow along on social media, an online blog and this "Where Is He Now?" map.

September 12: Muddy Gap to Rawlins, 43 miles

An important note here: These are my first-glance takeaways. Think of this as a reporter's notebook. A mosaic of voices over the next few weeks, cycling 900 miles across four states and dozens of small towns.

In the early morning light, this part of Wyoming is beautiful.

The dry, desert mountains look orange and sharp. The foothills splay out like shadowed fingers digging into the flat, brown mud. A chorus of coyotes announce the sun’s arrival and I watch as the light creeps closer and closer to my tent.

I heat up some water for instant coffee and eat a Clif bar. I’ve been out in this country for three days now and I’ve seen more pronghorn antelope than people. My left knee, which I injured years ago running a marathon, is sore from climbing up and down long, slow hills.

Now there’s more riding through empty country – I don’t anticipate seeing anyone to interview today because there’s hardly anyone living out here.

By midday the land is washed out with sunlight. It becomes tan, angry and unpronounced. It feels desolate. I miss my partner, my dogs and my home. I miss my bed. I miss sitting on a couch. I miss having conversations that aren’t interviews about America, growth, affordability and political divisions. My editor, upon reading this, says, “Aren’t we all?”

I have about 40 hard miles ahead of me to reach Rawlins, including crossing the continental divide twice. This is one of the only places in the United States where the divide splits into two and creates a basin – a place where water doesn’t flow either east or west, but instead into a bowl, where it dries up under the sun or freezes in the winter.

There’s a metaphor here – about, how in the absence of a divide, all ideas flow into one great, dry basin and mingle with each other.

But my patience for metaphors is running thin.

I can only focus on the smells and sights of the Great Divide Basin – dry, chalky earth with clumps of yellow grass and gray, dust-covered sagebrush. Mountains erupt from the ground and disappear just as quickly as I ride south. Then there’s the relentless roar of traffic. At this point, I can recognize each vehicle by its sound. The wind-shattering howl of a lifted pickup towing all-terrain vehicles or horses. The low, menacing groan of a semi-truck, its slipstream pulling me away from the shoulder and dangerously close to the highway. The zip of a sedan flying past. My mind is becoming a narrow strip – land, cars, road, sun. My knee hurts. I’m tired of talking to myself. I hate this trip.

But glorious feeling can sometimes only launch from the depths of frustration – it’s one of the things I love about bicycle touring. And when I finally climb out of the basin, hours later – days later, it feels – I spot the sign saying “continental divide” and the song Gypsy by Fleetwood Mac starts playing from my phone. The relentless, tick-tock drums, the up-down piano melody, Stevie Nicks belting out, “lightning strikes, maybe once, maybe twice, and oh it lights up the night …”

I hit euphoria.

I’m dancing on my bike, snapping my fingers, howling out the lyrics. I pull over, hop off and yell at the sky, the traffic screaming past. These are the moments you hope for. Physical exhaustion burning away depression.

I yip like a coyote and glide down the hill towards Rawlins. I’ve pushed and peddled this hulking, heavy, steel bike and trailer more than 500 miles. I’m in southern Wyoming. I started in Missoula more than two weeks ago. A flat tire, a snowstorm, heat and avoiding wildfires … it’s all left behind on the road. Now it’s only the future, a week more to Colorado and eventually, back home.

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