Friday, 21 September 2012

U turn to Utah

Last time I wrote the blog we were in Rawlings, Wyoming. We were heading north to the mountains. We heard more and more stories of bears eating - ready to hibernate and we experienced a couple of nights of mountain cold. And boy, it gets cold at 8000 feet.

So we decided to change direction. To head south from where we were to cross the Nevada desert and to face the other horror stories about the lack of water. Hopefully a good lesson for life. If you have made a decision, you are not glued to it. You can change your mind and do something different.

Before any of you ask though, this cycling round the world crazy idea is full steam ahead - at the moment anyway.

At first it seemed like a bad choice. Heading west meant staying on the interstate. A 30 mile an hour head wind and trucks whizzing past at goodness knows what speed made it amongst the worst rides of my life. To top it off, the sky was grey and we could see rain in the distance. Destination - Warmsutter - a natural gas boom town.

Natural Gas has become a big thing in America in the last 15 years. Gas is seen as cleaner than coal because of its lower carbon dioxide omissions.
And there are large quantities of gas in and around Warmsutter. BP has increased extraction and created hundred of jobs. It has built roads, living quarters for workers and has paid for a day centre for the town. There is another side to gas extraction - more of that later.

Back to us in the rain. Fortunately the town has also recently acquired a Subway restaurant which was our oasis from the interstate and the oncoming rain. No place for a tent. I called a few motels and whilst I waited for one to call me back, looked up reviews. One described an angry lady and a mouse in a trap behind the TV. We had little choice - more like none.

On first inspection, the room seemed cleanish. There was only one cigarette hole in the sheets and the TV worked. I settled down to tapping away on my iPad and enjoying the not pedalling. I popped to the loo and flushed. Then the water slowly rose. But it did not go down, in fact it came over the top and flooded the Lino floor. Really not a great thing to have happened.

The lady came with a plunger and used the white towels to mop the floor. There was no mention of disinfectant. She brought us some clean towels and the next morning I went down to ask for some of our money back. After some fierce negotiating from me I secured a 10 dollar refund. Roger Cook eat your heart out.

We left Warmsutter as soon as we could. We crossed the old Oregan trail that took settlers west. We were promsised nothing on the road until Baggs. Nothing except bouncing antelope - I didn't even know they existed in the US - as well as the occasional reek of dead skunk - a unique smell I will never forget. The red desert was stunning in its bleakness. We also passed a guy with three horses, riding one of them. Phillipe is riding 10,000 miles on horseback from Canada to Brazil. A lifelong dream passed down from his father and inspired by Aime Tschiffelly’s 1925 ride from Argentina to Washington. Now that is a journey.

At Baggs we followed the rule. Find the bar, talk to folk, go from there. Scott and his family had recently taken over the place and transformed it. We stayed there all night chatting to locals many of whom work in Warmsutter. They very kindly bought us beer after beer - Fat Tyre of course. James was on the Obama campaign trail sensing a Republican stronghold.

'What's wrong with Obama?' he asked one woman.
She raised her eyebrows dramatically. 'He's Muslim.'

This is in one sense is a clever retort. A response protesting he is not Muslim suggests there is something wrong with being Muslim.

'He's not, but if he was, so what?'

Another gas worker said he didn't see why he should have to pay food stamps for a guy swinging on his porch in Tennessee. He promptly offered to buy the well deserving, unemployed James another beer.

Scott, the landlord was a quiet, unassuming cowboy. Basket ball coach to the local school team he had been brought up on a ranch. His father had featured in a 70s documentary called Cowboy and featured in Life magazine. Scott remembered having breakfast surrounded by cameras and lights. His father was also in the military. He had died of cancer in his 50s caused by exposure to radiation from an atomic test.

The United States conducted over 1000 tests of nuclear weapons between 1945 and 1992. The first tests were on the US mainland and troops watched from trenches as the mushroom cloud blasted in front of them. Compensation is available for troops who developed cancers - $75,000 for service men, $50,000 for 'downwinders'. I asked Scott if his family had any compensation. He said 'The government is broke. I'm not going to take their money.' Later tests were conducted on overseas territories in the Pacific. Britain did the same, opting for the Australian outback. Less likely to have people complain.

His answer to the question 'If you could teach the world one thing what would it be? Was 'Don't get upset about the small things. Only get upset abut what really matters.' Good advice.

It is hardly surprising that Wyoming is a Republican stronghold. It is a rich state - rich from coal and gas and one of the very few states with neither personal nor corporate income tax. Wyoming's schools have been well funded as a result. Recently because of a glut in the natural gas market, prices have dropped and Wyoming has chosen to make budget cuts rather than introduce taxes.

As we headed west and crossed into Utah the landscape became lunar. We stayed in the aptly named Dinosaur named after the significant fossil finds in the area.

In Vernal, Utah we met KP who ran the bike shop and who said he had hosted other cross country cyclists before. Too good an offer to pass up. We cut our day short and before long we were camped in the back yard drinking beers and throwing wood into a big pit fire. KP said it was the best kind of therapy. One of their friends James who works for the Bureau of Land Management really got me thinking about America and the land. Utah's rivers, he said, are the most polluted and interfered with in the country.

Between the Utah mountains are fertile basins. These were the areas where different Native American tribes moved to where the food was with the seasons. Once again it was about land.

The Ute reservation was established by Abraham Lincoln in 1861. Then more Native Amerrican groups were moved in from Colorado. You can probably guess what happened next. In 1901 once again the US government decided that actually the area was not 'reserved' for the Native Americans after all. Lots were drawn and the area - or rather the potentially fertile basin area was 'settled'. Duchesne and Vernal were homesteaded and lots were drawn to see who would get each plot. From 1887 to 1934, 90 million acres of Indian reservation land were transferred to non-Indian ownership and control.

James, cycling buddy, and I sat in a bar in Duchesne and worked out that our route to Nevada avoiding highways meant mountains. After coming south to avoid them we realised you can't. We set off suitably late and headed up. We passed Indian reservation land with drilling machines along the climb. The peak was at 9000 feet. On the other side of the mountain we found landscape more like Afghan desert. No communities here. We stayed in a 'ghost town' at 8000 feet. One house. We knocked the door. We asked if we could stay on the land. Thankfully the owners said yes but left us to it. A bleak, cold and Supanoodle night.

The next day we headed further into the mountains. We got to Scofield - a beautiful lake created by a dam, full of holiday properties . We stopped in the only store/gas station/build your own hamburger joint/campground in town for food and a shower. Jim, the owner told us that many people pass through to visit the cemetery. A mining disaster in 1900 had killed at least 200 people. A dust explosion followed by a lack of oxygen caused the disaster. One man, Richard Evans had experienced the horror of a similar mining disaster in Abercarn, Wales 50 years earlier in which he had lost two brothers. Unlucky or lucky depending on which way you look at it.

As we left the town we climbed another huge mountain. Between the beautiful fall colours emerged a coal mine. And then it finally it struck me.

Beautiful American mountains. Air conditioning, polystyrene cups and drinks fountains have a price.

I did some research into gas extraction in the US and feeling like Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich - oh for her legs -found out about a process called Fracking. This is how most natural gas is extracted in the US. Millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are injected, under high pressure, into a well usually around 8000 feet underground. And, here's the shocking bit - natural gas extraction is exempt from the law that says energy companies have to make sure that they don't affect drinking water. A bill to reverse the so called 'Halliburton loop hole' - passed under Bush and Cheney - has yet to be passed by Congress. Check out a film called Gasland which includes footage of people lighting their drinking water contaminated by gas. The process has been banned in France but is about to receive full government approval in the UK.*

Sitting in my air conditioned motel room in Delta, Utah, watching TV, typing on my Ipad having enjoyed a pizza that was delivered to my door I am mindful about any lectures. But having cycled 2800 miles across country and having met so many wonderful people, surely America, now is the time to look after the whole of the country - whichever state you live in. Every little bit matters. Every light switch, every piece of packaging, every car trip.

My questions as a visitor are :

How about drying some washing on a line rather than in the dryer?
Maybe sometimes turn the air con off and open the windows?
Recycling is done in some towns in the US. Why not everywhere?
Does every park in the States need to water the grass over night?
Could you take a walk or cycle around town or buy a more fuel efficient car?

And although it took me a cycle up a beautiful mountain past a coal mine and a visit to the not so beautiful town of Warmsutter to make me realise the connection you don't have to do that. It is not too late to learn from the Native Americans who lived along with nature rather than against her. Each of us is more connected to the land than we think. We just can't always see it.

It is much easier to say I don't know enough about that or I haven't got the time to find out. This only means that those with the information are those with the power. Each of us does have a voice and an influence it's just whether we choose to use it.

The world really does belong to all of us - or rather none of us. Take care of it, wherever you are on the planet. - the guy riding from Canada to Brazil on horseback.



  1. Glad to finally hear something from you two. I've been wondering where you might be since Riverside WY. I'm not too surprised that you decided to head south. We were a bit concerned when you talked about heading Northwest.
    I left a comment at the end of the 'Having Bulls in Colorado and Wyoming' blog. Can't tell you how much we enjoyed that evening.
    Don and I rode to Baggs on Monday, the day you headed North out of Riverside. Glad to see you're still forging on.
    James, how's the beard growing? Can't wait to see it in full mountain man mode.

  2. Thanks Mark. Was a fun night. We have had a couple of quiet ones taking advantage of a motel in Delta, Utah. Preparing ourselves for the desert. James is ready with his Robinson Crusoe desert island beach look.

    Thanks for following. Was great to meet you and sorry we didn't get to say goodbye. How did Don's photo turn out?


    1. Don's photos were great. I've posted them and others on Facebook and included your blog address. My friends have taken notice.

      I'm studying this 'U turn to Utah' post to get an idea of your route into Utah. Some of your photos show some very interesting highway that I would love to ride some day. If and when you have time I'd appreciate some highway route information on your trip into Utah. I've put on many miles motorcycling in Utah the last two years and I'm always looking for new routes.

      What route are you planning in Nevada, if that's still your goal?