A little west of Devils Tower in northern Wyoming is a little city named Gillette. I spent a few days there as I needed to restock supplies, take care of a few errands, and use the library’s internet to do some trip planning.
The local history museum was holding a free Homestead Heritage Festival that weekend, which was a nice perk and I enjoyed watching the traditional Basque dancers, trying my hand at wool carding, and tasting samples of Dutch oven style cooking. There were lots of demonstrations and kids activities around homesteading chores and skills like soap making and threshing.
The announcer shared that traditionally in the Basque community, a man wasn’t considered a man unless he could also dance well. That sentiment is common in many traditional cultures around the world, and I appreciate how that perspective honors men as whole people with a broad range of talents, intense emotions, and multiple roles in the community. Much of our modern society seems to be heading in the opposite direction, defining masculinity more and more narrowly.
The trip in to the city was necessary, yet after just a couple days, I was happy to get back out in nature. An interesting thing has happened recently in that regard. I reported in my one year summary post that I’ve spent a lot more time overnighting in Walmart parking lots than I’d like, because finding dispersed camping options has been difficult and has taken a lot of work.
Well, shortly after that one year mark, all of a sudden it didn’t seem like such a big deal anymore. Nothing actually changed about the process, it just didn’t seem daunting all of a sudden and I’m amazed that it ever did. My best guess is just that the whole upending-my-life and moving-into-a-van and changing-how-I-do-every-single-thing-in-my-day was a bit much to tolerate anything more.
Now that I’m much more comfortable with my new routines and have the mental and emotional space to process more, suddenly other things, like dispersed camping and sun oven cooking, are starting to click into place as well.
So I spent several days dispersed camping in the Bighorn National Forest. I wasn’t the only one. It was the height of summer camping season, and this appears to be a popular spot. It wasn’t crowded, but there were plenty of other campers in sight and several came or went every day.
The only wildlife I saw were a few squirrels and not as many birds as I would have expected given the size of the flying insect population. Maybe all the noise from trucks, RVs, and vans has driven them away. I’ve read that can happen.
The weather was an adventure in extremes, ranging from hot one hour to cold and rainy the next. On one fairly clear day I went for a hike around a beautiful lake and had walked almost half way around before the footpath became impassable.
Soon after I turned back it started drizzling and by the time I was about 100 feet away from the van, a sudden, intense hail storm pelted me with marble to golf ball sized hail shards slamming down so hard they bounced three or four feet up off the gravel. The noise on the roof of the van was deafening and I was afraid for my solar panels and windshield, but they made it through just fine. I love the resiliency of these solar panels. This wasn’t the first hail storm they’ve been through, but it was definitely the worst. It only lasted about half an hour though at the time it felt like two hours.
There were also lots of opportunities for cloud watching. It rained on and off the whole time I was there, though that didn’t bother me. I like rain.
Twice I climbed a couple of big rock outcroppings in the area, some of which were as tall as the trees, and was rewarded with a great view at the top.
The second day, as I got back to the van after rock climbing, I discovered that my keys were missing. They must have fallen out of my pocket somewhere in the field of grass I had walked through or possibly on or around the rocks.
I retraced my path as best as possible, but there wasn’t a trail to follow so I wasn’t sure if I was walking the same route, and the grass was so thick that I would have to be practically on top of them to find the keys. I was getting a little scared and trying to remain calm and just look for the keys, but after four roundtrips between the van and the rocks and walking all around the base of the rocks, I was not doing such a great job of remaining level headed. This could go on for hours, just walking the field in a search grid, trying to find that single key and lanyard in a dense field of grass as high as my knees.
To my immense relief, after only half an hour I spotted them and was so happy I started crying.
Things I’ve Learned About Van Life #16: keep a set of keys securely on you whenever you leave the van, even if you just step out for a quick minute. If you lock yourself out of the van in the middle of nowhere, or the middle of the night, any kind of rescue or help will be difficult and probably very expensive to come by. Especially if your phone is now locked inside the van. And while you’re waiting, it will probably rain. Just because.
After four days in the lower Bighorn Forest area, I headed north to explore more of the area.
At the western edge of the mountains, I passed through a town called Tensleep. This is the kind of town name that sounds like there’s a good story behind it, though I never found out what it was. Turning north, I drove up the very little used route 54; mostly deserted and also gorgeous. The landscape changed dramatically several times in the 30 or so miles to my next campsite, all of it beautiful.
The landscape keeps changing…
Can you believe this is all in just around 30 miles?
At the end of route 54, I arrived at the Renner Wild Habitat Management Area and a dispersed camping spot by some gorgeous rock outcroppings.
The Wild Habitat Management Area provides a quality winter range for a number of local species that migrate down from the higher elevations in the Bighorn Mountains, as well as year-round species such as sage grouse, chukars, and cottontail rabbits. Excerpted from a sign at the road entrance:
“Winter is often the most stressful time of year for many animals and the key to their survival is quality habitat. For mule deer this means the availability of shrubs such as sagebrush and mountain mahogany that remain accessible for browsing even in heavy snow years. Elk depend upon grassy slopes which are kept relatively snow free by wind or the warmth of the sun. Both animals require protection from adverse weather afforded by stands of timber or topographic features such as rock outcrops.”
I’m glad that this place exists, providing a habitat with very little human interference. I didn’t see another person for miles, yet there were LOTS of swallows and enough mosquitos to fatten them all.
Encamped by a rock face, I stared at the rocks for hours as the light slowly faded and the colors became at once more subtle and intense. When it was too dark to see, I stared up at the stars. I’m still waiting for that lesson from the stars, but for once am not trying to rush it or force it or anything. I’m just waiting patiently for the right time. For me to be ready. Trying to follow Ralph Waldo Emerson’s advice, “Adopt the pace of nature…her secret is patience.”
In the morning I took a walk and found a red and black feather from one of the red winged blackbirds that are all over this part of Wyoming. The colors in the rock also stood out more brilliantly in the midday light. The crevices and holes in the rock are all occupied by swallows and pigeons. Real, wild, non-city pigeons!
On the road back up into the Bighorn Mountains the next morning, I drove past a mother deer with her baby crossing the road. The mom hopped the wire fence on the side of the road, while the baby flattened itself and squeezed to fit in between the middle wires. I didn’t know they could do that. Impressive.
I spent another several days in the area, but I’ll just take you to one more stop in the Bighorn National Forest. By the way, this part of the mountains has long stretches of windy road with up to 12 degree grades and hairpin turns. Fun. Not.
This is Shell Falls. The 75 foot falls puts out an average of 3,600 gallons per second. Per second. That is the equivalent of 48 baths, 144 showers, 360 sinks of dishes, or 1,200 toilet flushes. And it is loud.
This is one of the things I like about my leisurely, no-pressure, no-schedule, no-commitments journey. I can make lunch and bring it down to the falls (or wherever pretty place) and sit and take in the landscape long enough to get to really see it, to notice the details. And the more I slow down, the more I want to slow down.
Please don’t interpret from that last sentence that I’m actually good at this yet. It is still a work in progress. Letting go of years of my efficiency mindset and productivity habits, as described when I was in the Pennsylvania forest, is an ongoing process. I’m getting better. Like this day.
And the more I slow down, the more I want to slow down. I’ve been staying in national forests and on BLM land where there are often 14 or 16 day stay limits, and I’m staying one to three nights, and feeling like I want to stay longer but I don’t because I have plans, I need to go to the next place, to go somewhere or do something or visit someone and I told them I was coming so I feel like I have to keep promises. And I do want to visit them, but I’m also feeling the need to have fewer commitments, or at least more fluid timelines for visiting.
My plans have already changed many times, mostly for the better (and slower). I joke sometimes that my plans are so fluid that sometimes they go down the drain.