Via the Middle of Nowhere
Friday, December 10, 2010 at 7:33AM
where the wild horses roam

The Great Divide Basin is a curious piece of geography. Unlike anywhere else in the country precipitation does not drain either west towards the Pacific and Gulf of California or east to the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. Rain-water simply evaporates or drains internally into small lakes. The term basin seems a misnomer as it is in fact desert with a very limited supply of water. This piece of desert sits within an already arid and vast expanse of landscape. Thus, the adventure cyclist not only has to contend with heat and thirst but with a lonely landscape too that offers absolutely no distraction. For the solo bike-tourer this is a stern test.

I bid adieu to Pinedale after a hearty breakfast and I caned it on a nice long stretch of asphalt out of town. Smooth roads are my thing and the Great Divide route has precious few of them. If I'm on a good surface I make the most of it. I was both nervous and excited about the ride ahead. It felt like I was heading out to a bike-race. I knew I was going to enjoy it but there is always a certain amount of apprehension when you know you are going to have to hit your limits. The adrenaline was flowing making me feel very alert and switched on. The day-off in Pinedale meant my legs were fresher than usual and with the kilometres of asphalt rapidly passing underneath me things were going well. I was attempting to ride to the junction town of Rawlins in three days. I wasn't sure how feasible this was but whenever I'm up against desolate scenery I tend to ride long and hard. With nothing to look at it is better to medicate yourself with exhaustion so that you don't ever really have to deal with the boring landscape. The work provides the distraction rather than the scenery itself.

The problem with wandering into the desert is that nobody knows you are there. If anything were to go wrong it would be very stressful getting out in one piece but you can't think like that. I have already biked through really remote scenery and I have always encountered at least one other soul. It's bizarre the places you find people.

The road turned to gravel and soon I was in very barren country. This was a bit of a surprise as I still had about a hundred clicks before I would enter the basin proper. However, the sun was shining and the legs were strong so it was just a case of taking it one stretch of gravel at a time. I was making my way to South Pass, where I would cross back onto the eastern side of the continental divide. South Pass is a wide open pass with a very gentle grade. It was a key way-point on the route to the west for the pioneers of old. This was the pass they used as the lack of a steep grade made it passable for wagons. Indeed, pioneers often crossed the pass before they realised they were on it, creeks with waters rushing westwards would have been the give-away. This was often a disappointment to them; spending months on the road would have led them to conjure images of something much more dramatic considering the Rockies had always been the barrier to what lay out west.

The Great Divide Basin was one of the harshest pieces of landscape the fur-trappers, Mormon Pioneers and gold-rushers encountered on their journey west. This route is considered the longest graveyard in America due to the amount of people that died from temperature extremes, violent storms, malnutrition, bad water, fighting and disease. Successful passage was dependent on travelling at the right time of year but the vagaries of the weather made the walk of two thousand miles fraught with risk.

In the early 1800s fur-trappers followed the network of Indian footpaths to Oregon due to the demand in Europe for stylish hats made of beaver fur. They discovered that it would be possible for an ox-drawn wagon to make it over South Pass making this the gateway to the west. While the supply of beaver dried up by the 1830s the economic depression of 1837 and 1841 caused a lot of desperate businessmen and farmers to seek better opportunity. Politicians also urged people to go west so as to wrest disputed land from British control. Based on the reports of fertile lands by missionaries the Mormons soon followed the route of existing trails to flee the persecution they were suffering. They left the town of Nauvoo in Illinois to settle in the valley of the Great Salt Lake. To maintain their cultural and religious identity it was necessary to find an isolated area where they could settle and practice their religion in peace. This was a movement of an entire religion and its people. Between 1846 and 1869 more than 70,000 Mormon Pioneers made the journey to the Great Salt Lake. The biggest exodus of people however, was the quarter of a million prospectors during the California Gold Rush. Trail guides and promoters had managed to paint a picture of paradise and the lure of gold caused many men to head west to make their fortune. Some planned to stay but a lot planned to return to their families back east in a year or so once they had struck it rich. Up to the period of the Gold Rush the Indians had been tolerant of the trail-blazers helping them with provisions, searching for their lost cattle and even guiding them through difficult stretches. The favours were typically returned, however, the quantity of people and livestock now travelling the trail caused severe damage to Indian food sources. Relations broke down and tensions mounted. The emigrants saw the land as theirs for the taking but the west had been the tribal home of the Indians for 10,000 years. In 1845 John O'Sullivan coined the phrase 'Manifest Destiny' to capture the government's thirst for expansion. The phrase refers to the concept that it was God's will and the right of Americans to expand to the Pacific. Of course, western settlement led to loss of land for Indians, broken treaties and the destruction of their way of life. In 1869 rail-tracks were connected from east to west making it possible to reach California in days rather than in months by foot. Soon the foot-traffic stopped.

Riding through the Great Divide Basin it's almost impossible to fathom how central this piece of landscape is to both American history and culture. It is arguable that the pioneers and trail-blazers remain in the psyche of Americans such is the degree of transcience that occurs in the States. The landscape is so lost that it is difficult to conceive that it was once thick with men, women, children, wagons, oxen, mules, horses and cattle on the biggest adventure of their lives. My trip may be an adventure but it is nothing like theirs was. While there wasn't a sinner in sight, the souls of thousands rest here.

The ride itself was difficult. I was carrying my full capacity of 12 litres of water as there was little chance of a refill in the basin. This was a serious drag. The heat and the arid air meant that my mouth was permanently parched. I couldn't indulge on the water as I had to ration it in case of emergency. The road surface was heavy and included one bone-crunching 10k section towards the start which seriously dented morale. I was fearful that this 10k section was representative of what was to come but it was in fact the hardest bit. The road surface remained rough and the first day seemed to be be a series of undulating drags on a gently rising incline. I eventually came upon a small gas-field with a couple of workers on site. This was nice. It is hard to describe how difficult it is to ride through such nothingness. Lots of adventure cyclists find it too desolate. They inevitably take an exit road to bike the long-way round on the highway. It takes a lot of concentration to keep with it. Some love it and some people just can't handle it at all. I was happy to experience the crazy landscape. It is funny finding yourself in the middle of a self-inflicted game of mental torture. It is hard to call the scenery beautiful but to experience it was beautiful. It was the closest I have come to riding on the moon. It took me 28 hours to ride through the actual basin itself. This was pretty good going making the trip less torturous on me than on somebody who might not be able to bike as long. However, I personally would not have wanted to be in there any longer. I had used my full quota of water and I was still dehydrated. While it was unfortunate to have suffered such high temperatures I was lucky that the wind had been calm. A head-wind would have made the ride particularly stressful. It was a crazy experience but it was one of those great camping moments where you wake up wondering where the hell you are. I had pitched my tent off the road across from a distant uranium mine with nothing but a naked flame from a nearby gas-pipe for company. Magic is the only word that describes it. Perhaps the photos in the gallery might give you a better idea.

Mind how you go


Article originally appeared on (
See website for complete article licensing information.