Snowy Pass

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WORDS: Daniel Wakefield Pasley | PHOTOS: Daniel Wakefield Pasley

On our left, riding our way into the foothills outside Laramie, Wyoming, is a deep depression that seems to have been formed by centuries of wind erosion that stretches for miles and miles. On our right, ranch-lands are covered in tall, blowing grass, and we are doused in a downpour of rain. It’s a short wall of rain and soon we ride past it and the black is behind us and the Medicine Bows begin to be revealed. It’s no longer a windy, rainy, questionable day; it’s sunny and partly cloudy. It’s magnificent and sixty-five degrees.

Outside Centennial the sign reads population 100, elevation 8076′ above sea level. Appraising a pocket of homes scattered across the hillside in a dirt-road neighborhood we stop at an abandoned restaurant to take stock before our next big push over the mountains.

We climb through deep, dense pine forests on a two-lane scenic byway with a generous shoulder. The lower section twists and switches back in a wide and wandering fashion. As we ascend, the mountains gather into fewer and fewer folds and as we come in and out of the forest the clearings are occupied with brightly colored wild flowers, high grass, moose, alpine lakes, gnarled trees, exposed hillsides and leaky snow drifts well past their expiration date. Near the top, we leave pavement for a narrow forest road, with hard-packed dirt and the occasional rim-banging, pinch-flatting rocks that protrude like the tops of icebergs.

The sun is low now and casts streaking, flaring light and long, melodic, mountain-top shadows from what could be the Swiss Alps on our way up the dirt.

We come to an impassable three-foot snow drift wider than the road and 300 yards long. Before the van turns around to meet us on the far side, and before we cyclocross our way beyond it, we take turns attempting to ride across the snow. Kansas, in a cowboy hat for juju and style points hits it with speed. Seconds later and maybe a foot into it he flips over his bars in slow motion. Hat askew, Kansas is a good sport and laughs with us from between his tangled bike and the snow. Like a tractor pull contest, we each take a pass struggling with traction and the lack of momentum from a time-trial start in a patch of sunlight on the high-side of the drift. Sharp, cold and dirty snow flies about in rooster tails and snowballs and we stay on the snow for longer than we should.

After some more dirt and a stretch of paved road we come to the top of the pass and the end of our climbing day. We watch the sun sink behind the Snowy River Range, the largest amphitheater in the world, before dropping into the western side of the Medicine Bows. In the dusk the temperature drops while we plummet downhill for the better part of an hour.

Clear of the mountains we find another dirt road for the last 20 miles across the rolling hills outside Saratoga and the last 20 minutes of daylight. During the dust streaked pink, red and orange sunset we begin to separate. There are flats, there are beer-hand-ups, two-wheel drifts, there is everything about being alone and pumped with endorphins to ride downhill-dirt due west into the last of a long and wonderful day.

It’s 8:30 in the evening and the town of Saratoga is closed for food. Nothing. No pizza, no sandwiches, no fast-food, nothing except a mini mart that doesn’t sell hotdogs or pump cheese and chips, just candy bars and 84oz sodas and coffee at a time. Our host, PJ, and his girlfriend who’d been waiting for five hours for us to ride into town, convince a bar into opening the kitchen. We have two options – grilled cheese or prime rib sandwiches.

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