Ever since the torturous two days from Polaris MT to Island Park ID I had not felt very good. A mixture of general fatigue and a calorie deficit made every afternoon a struggle to keep moving forward. While we sat in our motel room in Pinedale I looked at what we would have to cover over the next couple days. It was about 70-80 miles to Atlantic City and then we had another 130 windswept and barren miles to Rawlins. Between Atlantic City and Rawlins we had to cross the infamous Great Divide Basin. The Great Divide Basin is so named because all the rain, of which there is very little, does not run into either the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans, but drains into small streams and reservoirs then evaporates. This is also one of the flattest portions of the whole route with no major climbs over all of its 130 miles. Almost every book or article I read portrayed the Great Divide Basin as soul-crushing in its monotony as well as downright dangerous if entered into without adequate preparation. I was tired as well as intimidated by the Basin so I decided it would be best if we entered it rested up and ready to “sprint” across it in one day. With this in mind we decided to camp just outside of Atlantic City and to then get up early and try to cover as much ground as possible before the legendary winds brought us to a standstill.
On the morning of day 15 we slept in since we didn’t need to cover but 40 miles to get to our campsite for the night on the Sweetwater River. We leisurely packed up and hit the road by around 8:30. As we slowly climbed toward our first Continental Divide crossing of the day even the sagebrush disappeared till almost all we saw was blue sky bordered by smoky haze and a brown ribbon of dirt stretching to the horizon.
Eventually we reached the historic South Pass and turned left on pavement toward South Pass City pop. about 5. South Pass will sound familiar to anyone who has played the Oregon Trail video game. South Pass was one of the most important passes through the Rocky Mountains and has been traversed by Indians, miners, the Pony Express as well as the Oregon Trail. It was amazing to be at an area that has been so important to the settlement of the West. Maybe I was imagining things but I could almost hear the bawling of cattle and the squeak of ungreased wheels as a long line of Conestoga wagons struggled to reach the promised land of Oregon.
Shaking myself out of my daydreaming we then dropped steeply down to South Pass City. Over a hundred years ago South Pass City was a booming gold mining town with around 3,000 residents. As it often happens in these communities the gold vein dried up and everyone moved away to find work. Now, here in 2012, there are around 5 permanent residents. We stopped at a small store filled with tourist nick-knacks but most importantly cold Gatorade! We down one each then rode the 5 miles to Atlantic City. Once again this place was a city only in name although more like 50 people live there. By this time we were getting very hungry so we stopped at a bar/restaurant. We got some of the best burgers on the entire trip then bid the last trees we would see for days goodbye as we climbed steeply out of Atlantic City. The landscape very abruptly changed from gullies, valleys, and scrubby trees to desolate vastness and ankle high brush; we had just entered the dreaded Basin.
We were planning on riding about 20 miles out of Atlantic City then camping for the night. By doing this we would put in a short day so we would be fresh the next day plus we would already have ridden a few miles into the Basin so we would not have as far to ride the next day. When we reached the Sweetwater River at around 2 pm we had a short conference and then decided to push on. Joseph and I both felt pretty good and we really didn’t want to sit around for hours with nothing to do. There was a small reservoir about halfway through the Basin were we could get water and could even camp at if we could not make it all the way across. If things went well we would be able to make it to Rawlins at around midnight. We stopped at a place called Diagnus Wells which was just a little pipe sticking out of the ground with water spilling out where we filled up our water bottles. This was the last place to get water until the A&M Reservoir almost 80 miles away. Knowing we had many miles to go before we could sleep we didn’t spend much time there. The first thing that strikes you about the Basin is how vast it is. I would never say it was flat since you were either climbing up a short rise or coasting down the other side but when you looked around all you could see was sagebrush stretching toward the horizon like waves in the ocean. In fact the only other place I have been where you could see the actual curvature of the earth was at the beach. After an hour or so of riding we stopped to take a short break. The most infamous feature of the Basin is its wind and it was quickly apparent why. Luckily we had the wind to our backs for the time being but if we would have had to fight against it all day it would have been completely psychologically crippling. No wonder the wives of settlers would often go mad from the incessant wind and overwhelming vastness of the western plains. By around 6 pm the fact we had ridden around 90 miles so far that day was readily becoming apparent. Because of the heat I was finding it hard to eat anything but even so I tried to cram something down my throat every hour. Before this trip I didn’t know you could simultaneously feel like you were on the edge of starvation while at the same time having no appetite. To say I felt bad is a serious understatement. I felt weak from lack of food, my water was now past lukewarm to almost hot, I was just generally exhausted, and by now my recurring saddle sores were making themselves known. Looking back I think when I was riding into Lima MT I felt worse but if these two days had been competing to see which was worse it would have been a photo finish. We were finally nearing the reservoir and I told Joseph we should really stop for the night. Even if we were able to make it all the way into Rawlins that night we would be lucky to make it earlier than 1 am and we had already ridden about 120 miles. Joseph wasn’t feeling much better than I was so we decided to stop while we were still able to remain upright. We went a mile or so off route to the reservoir and we set up camp while Joseph struggled to set up the tent in the wind I purified some water and fixed our meal of honey buns and dehydrated noodles. As we were scarfing down what little food we had left Joseph observed that there seemed to be squiggly things in our water. I looked into my water bottle, and sure enough, I could see something that looked like threads but they seemed to be moving. I looked at the water questioningly, dumped in some more iodine solution, and then drank it anyway. A few minutes after we had finished eating I finally had enough energy to plod to the top of a small rise. The setting sun shone through the few clouds left in the sky and bathed my aching body in warmth and light. As I set there with the wind blowing through my hair and an incredible vista spread out like a vast artist’s canvas before me, it was suddenly all worth it.