Sage Land Behind Us, Mountains Ahead

200 miles of sagebrush, pronghorn antelope and frost numbed fingers are behind us. The mules and I have completed the leg from Casper, Wyoming to Pinedale.

Thawing out: this is the scene 4 days ago inside my tent. It’s 5:15 am and 25 degrees outside. The mules and I are at just under 8,000 feet at the base of Little Prospect Mountain 60 miles east of Atlantic City, Wyoming. That’s not a hat on my head. It’s a dish rag my wife Julia gave me. I’m telling you, I was chilly. Two hours later…
…things looked a lot different at 30 degrees.

Through the Land of Sage and Antelopes

This past week, the mules and I crossed 100 miles of sage rolling out against a back drop of snow covered peaks. We followed the Lander Cut Off route for much of the way but also rode many miles on the Oregon Trail. Yes, it’s possible to ride considerable distances on the Oregon, California and Lander Trails.

But what struck me most is the dryness of the land. This is the part of America you don’t enter with your mules without plenty of water for yourself and a plan to find enough for your mules as you go. I set off with 4 gallons – 2 gallons on Brick and 2 gallons on Cracker. Water is heavy. Those 4 gallons added 32 pounds to our gear. To reduce friction on Cracker’s back, I mostly walked him.

Here’s how the land looks from above.

The dry land we’re passing through. The red marker at 10 o’clock is Pinedale, Wyoming, where we’re currently camped. We left for her from Casper, at about 2 o’clock, 2 weeks ago. (Google Maps)

Days, walking across the open land, we leaned in to the ever present head wind. It tore at my eyes and nostrils and ears and made every hole in my head ache. The mules got the same treatment. Most days, aside for the occasional passing pickup, our only companions were ants and antelopes.

Two pronghorn antelopes watch our passing.

When the wind wasn’t blowing, it was raining. Nothing feels as chilly as a 35-degree rain. Blech.

A soggy way to start the day. Normally, I wouldn’t leave camp in such rainy weather. But in the middle of the Great Wide Open, with the days getting shorter and so many miles ahead of us, I saddled up and set forth.
Top hat, saddle leather and freezing rain
Cracker, tail to the nasty weather, is not amused.
Not thick enough to skate on but thick enough to make you feel winter’s coming soon.

The good news is that every day wasn’t rainy.

Here, an impromptou picnic on Jess and Mike Ruby’s tractor trailer. That’s not me eating the sandwich. That’s Sven Eckhard. He’s traveling on his bike from Alaska to Argentina.
Sven
Sven’s rig and my rig. Like so many folks I met along the way, Sven merits a whole post dedicated to his journey.
A message from Sven.

The past few weeks, “where will I find water for Brick and Cracker to drink?” has become The Question. This land was no exception. The good news was that much of the route I took followed 2 rivers – the Sweetwater, and the Sandy. The mules never went 24 hours without drinking.

Beautiful but dry: we’ve crossed almost 200 miles of land like this lately.
Water is scarce in these parts. Here, a padlocked gate that prevents access to the Sandy River at Buckskin Crossing, east of Boulder, Wyoming. Not cool when your mules are thirsty. Luckily, we could scoop up a bucket of water from the bridge just downstream.
One upside to all this cold, wet weather is it gives the mules more places to drink. Here, a muddy puddle which they found tasted delicious after a night of browsing on cheat grass.
Friendly faces: Betty and Susie and their husbands George and John put Cracker, Brick and me up after our trek through the sage covered expanses. Grain, a bed and a wood stove. What a luxury!
Tonight’s lodging: Cracker samples the grass at the Pinedale Roping Arena.

On to Alpine

From Pinedale, the mules and I head toward Alpine. The next 85 miles see us climbing from the tiny community of Daniel up to McDougal Gap. From there, we follow the Grey Rivers down hill toward Alpine.

The biggest issue going in to these mountains is weather. While the South and East Coast may be baking in a late September heat wave, there’s already snow on the mountains out here. My route takes me in to the white stuff. The good news is that this early in the year, it’s unlikely we encounter heavy snow. Still, it’s wise to check the forecast before heading in to these hills.

The latest forecast looks as promising as one can expect at this time of year up hear. 4 days of fair skies followed by 4 days of rain and snow. I hope, by then, to be on the other side of the hill.

Thanks

No post from these parts is complete without a list of thank yous. It’s simple. I can’t get through these remote parts of Wyoming without the help of folks I meet along the way. From gasoline to hay to health certificates, new friends have stepped up and provided me with what I needed. There’s simply no way I can carry all that’s required on a trip like this on my mules. I’m constantly in awe of folks’ generosity…and make a point to pass it on.

Thanks for the gas for my cook stove Jason! (Atlantic City, Wyoming)

Thanks also to:

  • Susie and John Blaha: mule lodgings, salt, chili and the health certificates needed to get the mules in to Idaho. I promise I won’t almost pass out next time I help pull porcupines guys!
  • George and Betty: the bed in a camper, pork rinds, use of the washing machine and coffee, coffee, coffee
  • Mike and Tess: the honkin’ sandwich, energy drink and proscuitto
  • Mike and the Pinedale Rodeo Arena: a place to overnight the mules in Pinedale

13 Responses to Sage Land Behind Us, Mountains Ahead

  • I was worried right from the start of your trip that you would be into cold weather by Wyoming. Snows sometime in September can be heavy & wet. I’ll keep my . fingers crossed for you. Kate

    • Hi Kate. Sounds like you understand Wyoming weather! The good news is the mules and I made it over McDougal Pass (8,000 ft) the day before the rain and snow moved in. Right now we’re hunkered down at the Forest Service corrals outside Alpine. It may be cold and wet but at least we’re not snowed in. Cool, sunny weather is forecast for next week. I get that is a bonus at this time of year in these parts. From here, we head toward Hailey, Idaho.

  • Just love people that find great joy getting up at dawn, eating dust all day and putting up with Mother Nature’s moods. I traveled the Mormon trail from Nauvoo, IL to Salt Lake City with my mule, wagon and 2 granddaughters. A trip I will never forget.
    Keep Trailing!!

    • Howdy Bee. Wow, what a great wagon ramble you took! My hat’s off to you.
      I like how you understand the need to understand Mom Nature’s moods. And travel accordingly. Today and tomorrow it’s supposed to rain and snow and get down to 20 degrees in Alpine, Wy. So the mules and I hunker down. Tuesday, the sun’s supposed to re-appear and we’ll sally forth. That’s a give and take missing from our mechanized lives (of which, I must say, I’m very much a part of when I’m not on the trail). Thanks for the lovely comment. Bernie

  • OK, this is my new favorite post for the trip. Truly amazing. That self-portrait, one of the best you’ve ever done (and I know how many of those you have done over the years!). It inspires, awe, tenderness, and also concern, in me. I know – the worried older brother… I also recognize exactly the lighting “technique” and shooting arrangement, and I’m really impressed with that too. Soon, we’ll be able to do a nice Q&A live and in person!

    One last thing – about that wind: yesterday I spend less than ONE day on the Atlantic coast, freezing, looking for shelter until the sun warmed my up toward noon. It felt like an existential threat (admittedly, shorts and sandals were not really the right choice of accoutrement for the occasion). Now I imagine, WEEKS of cold, incessant wind (like other trips btw) plus cold rain, sleet, and soon, snow, thrown in for good measure. The chilly image this conjures up in my mind is too much – I run and grab my hoodie, before I start shivering and can’t type on my keyboard!

    C

    • I’m like most everyone else. In my day to day life back home in NC – on the farm with Julia – we spend lots of time outdoors but come inside to sleep. That changes on trips like this one because you don’t come inside to sleep any more.
      Big departure from “normal” life.
      Initially that takes a bit of getting used to. I’ve got a lot of practice treading the line between life in doors and life out doors. And yet, the first few times I sleep under the stars in my bivy, I feel exposed. Exposed to the stars, the night breeze, the animal sounds in the night. But mostly, the HUGENESS of life outside.
      Then the seasons get cooler and you wake with dew, then frost, on your bedding. And the first few times it freezes your hands and they don’t work quite right. A preview of what it’s like to get old. And you’re alone, miles from anyone. But by now you’ve weaned yourself off communication with the outside world and you’re fine not having walls around you.
      Of course, traveling light as I do, the first few cold snaps you don’t have enough warm clothes. You shiver to stay warm. But you look at your mules who are also underdressed this early in the year and you notice them shivering a bit so you feel like you’re in this together.
      Eventually the sun comes up and the tremors in man and mule stop and you feel a radiant appreciation for the simple gift of warmth.
      And so it goes as the weather get cooler. The winds grow stronger. You learn to tune out the shivering and cold feet knowing that if you can get through the next 2 hours, the sun will warm you. Or you’ll be in your sleeping bag. Or maybe you’ll still be cold but that’s just the way it is.
      But those first weeks of freezing weather always take getting used to. It’s like jumping in to the Aare. Once you’re in – and breathing again – it’s a rush.
      Hope this rambling musing sheds some light on why I was looking so….cold and alone?…in that photo.
      Keep yer mind warm and yer hoodie clamped on tight.
      B

  • Oh, and one more thing: what is this “pulling porcupines” that you mention? Is it like pulling porks? Reading between the lines (or is it … spines?) I imagine a rather prickly affair… Enlighten us when you get a chance!

    C

    • Let’s say this:
      Image one: when a Chow chows on a porcupine, there’s only one winner and it’s never the fastest sled dog in the Iditarod.
      Image two: when your little brother sees blood, he gets seasick and has to sit down and study his toes.
      The rest you’ll have to read between the spines (thanks. I stole that from you. Nice!)
      B

  • Hey Bernie,

    You are now travelling roads I went down on my fourth journey. Buy some extra groceries in Alpine and take a day off on Palisades Reservoir. The whole north side of the lake is National Forest and is beautiful with plenty of good grass.

    Bob

    • Hey Bob. That’s just the way we plan to head out of Alpine. Sounds lovely. Right now, though, it’s rainy and 38 degrees. The mules have 2 more days of this to get through. Blech. But then the sun will come back out and we’ll ease up Palisades Reservoir toward Atomic City and Hailey.
      I’ll be sure to get a few extra groceries for that reservoir picnic! Big howdy from Out Here!

  • I thought the photo of the “Chicken Slat Guy” was my favorite, but you in the tent with the coffee and frost scared the shit outta me! I’m turning around and heading back to the pickle raft!!!
    Good luck brother!

    • Pete. I saw that photo and thought, “sheesh. Who’s that Arctic ship wreck looking dude with the head injury? My next thought was, “could I use that for my driver’s license photo?” You can tell I’ve been away from the Pickle Raft a little too long… Sure looking forward to drifting and spinning the time way. Just gotta get that damn tree off our pole-axed vessel. Big howdy to all.

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