Once in Wyoming the 450 took us through the Thunder Basin National Grassland where we saw our first buffalo roaming the landscape.
I was captivated by these creatures immense size and the gentleness with which they carried themselves.
The “scenic route” definitely lived up to its label as we passed by meadows, creeks, and rolling hills. We saw small herds of deer, wild donkeys, and dozens more buffalo wandering about.
It felt like we were the only people on the planet and that we had discovered some sacred sanctuary. It was hard to believe that just a day before we were stuck in traffic outside of Chicago.
It was even harder to believe that there was a point in history in which Chicago looked like this.
We continued on.
The newness of the grasslands slowly began to fade. Every hilltop seemed to reveal another vast distance of nothingness. No mountains, no cities, no real landmarks, just an open road disappearing into the horizon.
We finally came upon a small town—if you could even call it that. My mind recalls it just being just a gas station at the intersection of two roads. We drove right through this “town” making a turn at the intersection. Turning onto a new road felt like we were finally making progress and getting somewhere! But after a minute or two we realized it was just miles and miles more of the same thing. The road stretched out as far as I could see like a great red and white serpent.
“We better go back to that gas station,” someone suggested.
We weren’t sure how long it would be until we saw another one. We turned back, topped off the tank, bought some ice cream, and kept driving.
Eventually we pulled over to switch drivers and noticed a small little valley of sandy cliffs and dried river beds. This seemed like a great place to take a group photo and take a little stretch break. We climbed through the barbed wire fence to take a look around.
I remember being intrigued by small cactus that I found—the first time I saw a wild cactus in it’s native environment.
“So this is your home, huh?” I thought.
Someone, Andy I think, discovered and old cattle skull which ended up getting mounted to the front of Big Blue.
Big Blue’s exhaust problem seemed to be amplifying—or maybe the sound was just becoming more tedious. We resolved to get this fixed in the next town.
We found an auto parts store in Casper, WY where we bought a clamp kit that seemed like it would work to rectify the exhaust pipe problem. I can’t recall why but it wasn’t until Shoshoni, WY (current population 655) that we pulled over to do the actual maintenance. We couldn’t even attempt to make the repair until the exhaust pipe had time to cool down to where we could actually touch it. While we waited, we took a stroll through the somewhat eerie and dilapidated town. Things seemed unkept. A scraggly scarecrow sat on someone’s porch (it was May).
The central gas station was the only real hub of activity. There some guy told Steve and I that we looked like, “A bunch of tree-hugging hippies from the east in that 70’s van.”
After a couple hours we were back on the road again. Nathan and I were feeling proud of our repair job. We were all thankful that we could hear ourselves think once again.
The open meadows and grasslands were coming to an end. The snow-peaked mountains appeared for a short time before disappearing again into the veil of the night. We were slowly ascending into the Rockies.
I was driving for a good portion of this stretch. Our goal was to find a campground where we could set up our tents for the night (we had only slept on and off in the van at this point).
The night was so incredibly dark. A sense of nervousness started creeping up as I noticed the sides of the road covered with deep snow.
We hadn’t planned for snow.
We stopped for gas and I found myself shivering while waiting for the tank to fill. Did I even have warm enough clothes for this?
The darkness, snow, and conifer trees continued for miles. It felt like we were driving deeper and deeper into mystery.
Finally, we saw the universal tent sign indicating a campground ahead. After dropping $14 in the self-registration box, Signal Mountain Campground would be our haven for the night. We were all tired, cold, and anxious to rest. For the sake of efficiency and warmth we just set up one of the four-person tents and all eight of us piled in like sardines.
Deep in the forest, veiled by darkness, the mystery of where we were captivated my imagination as I drifted off to sleep.
Little did I know, the next day would be full of surprise, discovery, awe, and fright.
Yes. Even fright.
Next – A Day of Surprises
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