Day 34: Independence Day

I am currently in Coalville, Utah, having made it out of Wyoming after more than two weeks (since June 20) in that state. Seems like longer in some ways. Tomorrow is the last day of my ride, but I will be in Salt Lake City through the weekend, so I hope to get everything up to date by then.


July 4, 2021
Granger, WY to Lyman, WY
31.6 miles/1,125 feet
High 70s/winds light/cloudy

Post office, Granger, WY

I woke early in Granger, probably to the sound of a train. I packed everything up, pushed the button to make the coffee Ed had set up the night before, then wrote a postcard and wandered down the street to find the post office. It was not where GMaps said it would be, but I found it anyway: a trailer with a flag planted out front. As I was just about back to Antelope Crossing, Jessica pulled up.

She went about making a breakfast burrito in her quiet way. She was talking on the phone while she worked, so I used the time to pump tires, lube the chain, etc. It was very comfortable, somehow, the way she went about doing her thing and I mine. 

When she was done, she presented me with a burrito I could never eat in one sitting. I don’t know how many eggs it had, or veggies, but it was packed. I dug into it and we talked—mostly she talked while I nodded, I think, because somehow I managed to eat that entire thing and that could not have left a lot of time between bites. While we talked and I ate she went about making me a veggie/hummus sandwich to go. Now, we had arranged all of this a month ahead of time. She’d asked what I wanted and I’d said, well, dinner for sure, breakfast if possible, and something to go if if wouldn’t be too much to ask. So this was all part of the deal, but to have her there talking and making it all fresh made it more than a deal. Again, I had that sense that someone was was going out of their way to take care of me. And more than once Jessica sort of tsked at the idea that the only veggie thing I could get was a grilled cheese. As if she felt she needed to give me the veggies my body needed. As if it were her duty.

At length, I finished and got ready to go, and she said I guess you’re ready for the bill. We’d never discussed price. Somehow it seemed indelicate. But she was very forthright about it. And very reasonable. I added another 25%, to which she didn’t object.

Then she became very serious and said you have my number, call if you need anything. This wasn’t an empty offer. She said as a mother she’d hate to know her son was out on the road without any support, so she was offering hers. She made a point of making eye contact and getting me to promise I would call if I needed help.

The evening before I’d told Jessica I wanted to be on the road by nine. I left her and Granger at 8:57. How could she have timed breakfast so well?

Site of the Church Buttes Pony Express Station, which must make those Church Buttes?

The later start was fine because I’d planned a short ride that day; only thirty-five miles to Lyman. It turned out to go faster than I had planned. There was nothing particularly scenic or special along the way. I passed some interesting rock formations by the unmarked spot of the Church Buttes Pony Express Station, and it struck me how often the stations were set at some natural landmark, something obvious for a rider to steer toward. This formation, probably called Church Buttes because the rocks kind of puddled in columns making them look something like sandcastle spires, would be such a place.

I crossed under I-80 and took a break in the shade of the eastbound overpass. The freeway was like a boundary, and now that I had crossed it again after so long (I left it in Sidney, seventeen days earlier), I felt I was out of the Wyoming wilderness, the section of the trail that was the most remote of the trip. I would still be alone in the high desert further down the road, but not quite as alone, not quite as far from help.

Soon after, the dirt turned to pavement and I was coming into Lyman. This was my second choice of stay. My first choice had been Fort Bridger, six miles further. But I couldn’t get in touch with the motel there, by phone or email, so I took a place in Lyman instead. I knew I would want to see Fort Bridger—that was one of the reasons for planning a short day—so I rode through Lyman and kept going. But not before noticing it had a laundromat and a self-serve car wash, two services I needed.

Welcome to Lyman. I find those figures on the posts to be a little creepy.

Last time I washed my bike, back in Kearney, NE, I was talking to Lisa about loud motel neighbors. These tend to be guys on construction crews who leave their families and homes for weeks during the summer months for a job in some small town. I told her that when they get away from the family it’s like Guys Gone Wild the way they party. She compared me to them: when I get time off I go wash things. She said she loved that about me, and maybe it’s a good thing. But I did feel my manhood wither ever so slightly.

Anyway, whizzing past the laundromat and the car wash, I rode on to Fort Bridger. The sky was clouding up, and it was looking more and more likely that I might not make it back without getting rained on. But I wanted to see the fort.

Why? Because Fort Bridger is probably the most important area in this part of the west. Jim Bridger and his partner, Luis Vasquez, started the fort sometime in the early 1840s. [Legal aside: There is a dispute as to whether Bridger ever had title to the land from the Mexican government; one author states he did; on the other hand, Bridger later sued the US Government for taking his land, but could never prove title, and he died before the case was resolved. So I mean, who cares, right? I just find tidbits like that interesting. Anyway . . .] 

[T]his establishment of Fort Bridger in ’43 may be considered symbolic of new conditions. Jim Bridger was one of the most famous of the mountain-men. He realized, however, that the old days were over, that trapping no longer paid much, and that the emigrant trains offered a new source of income. So, with Louis Vásquez as a partner, he built himself a little stockaded post in a pleasant meadow where Black’s Fork split into several small channels. This was in the country of the Snakes, who were friendly. There was good hunting roundabout. Horses and cattle could pasture on the meadowland.

George R. Stewart, The California Trail, p. 43

And Irene Paden . . .

The majority of the migration arrived at Fort Bridger in the month of July.  . . . The valley of Blacks Fork is beautiful out of all reason, like a charming but improbable stage setting, for which the snow-topped Uinta Mountains provide a magnificent backdrop. Apparently from sheer altruism the river divides near the head of the valley and sends its cool waters through this lovely flat land in several clear-flowing channels which unite again some miles below, forming a group of islands. On the westernmost of these we found the fort.

When, in the early forties, Jim Bridger built his first rude cabins at this garden spot and fenced them in with a stockade of small logs, he executed quite a stroke of business. . . .

There is evidence that he had completed something in the way of building by the summer of 1842, because an eccentric minister, Williams by name, returning from Oregon, passed on July 3rd of that year and made mention of reaching Bridger’s fort. . . .

Dirty little log outposts of civilization such as this, chinked with mud and roofed with sod, were the first exponents of a new type of business, the emigrant trade, which rolled merrily along throughout all the years of the migration, amassing fortunes for those who embraced its opportunities. Fort Bridger was the first trading post west of the Missouri built especially to cater to this business . . .

Irene D. Paden, The Wake of the Prairie Schooner, p. 246-247

Everyone came to Fort Bridger in the early years of the emigration. That is, until 1844 when two men created the Sublette Cutoff. This is the road that branched off to Oregon at the Parting of the Ways, east of Farson.

The Sublette-Greenwood Cutoff was opened in 1844 by the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy Party led by mountain men Caleb Greenwood and Isaac Hitchcock. Hitchcock, an old trapper and one of the first of his kind to have been in California in 1832, recommended that the wagon trail go due west from the Little Sandy and cross 40 miles (64 km) of desert territory to the Green River and from there cross the ridge into the Bear River Valley, completely bypassing Fort Bridger and the crossing of Bear River Ridge. The route shaved about 85 miles (137 km) and 7 days off the main route, but the decision to cross nearly 45 waterless miles before reaching the Green River was not one to be taken lightly. Settlers had to decide between time and the health of their livestock.

The opening of the Sublette Cutoff cut down on traffic and transactions at Fort Bridger. It was just like twentieth-century road building: Businesses on Route 66 went belly up because traffic moves over to the new interstate. What to do?

In the summer of 1849 Bridger’s partner, Louis Vasquez, with a retinue of Indians camped at South Pass, trading with the emigrants and trying to persuade them to go by way of Fort Bridger.

Irene D. Paden, The Wake of the Prairie Schooner, p. 247

I included that little vignette because having ridden the area, I now have some appreciation for the forces at work here.

First there’s the decision to be made of whether to stick to the rivers or to cross forty miles of desert. I rode thirty miles of desert from just beyond South Pass to Farson on a bike in about three hours with enough water (and the promise of ice cream at the finish) to sustain me. The idea of doing that at a pace of one to two miles per hour over the course of days is terrifying. It is not a choice I would make lightly, in 1844 or now.

Second, there’s this notion of entrepreneurship. Talk about a lousy job. Sitting half the summer at South Pass trying to persuade emigrants to go the longer way to Fort Bridger; sure, it was the safer path, but it added a week or more to the trip. I can’t imagine camping out in that desolate pass being a human billboard, the kind of thing you zoom by at 70 mph, coaxing you to take this road to Fort Bridger, only 90 miles ahead, for whatever you may need. “Whatever” included the opportunity to switch out your draft animals, because by this point, whatever oxen hadn’t died didn’t have much life left. Places like Fort Bridger would exchange animals, two tired ones for a fresh one, or would sell the recruited oxen they’d received from an earlier trade at a premium.

[Lexical note: all of the writing about this period uses the word “recruit” for “renew” or “revive” as applied to draft animals, as in rest and relaxation. I’d never heard that usage before, but it seems the word comes from Latin for “grow again.”]

In any case, as I was saying, everyone came to Fort Bridger in the early days. You may recall that Jim Bridger met with Brigham Young near Farson and told him Salt Lake would be a fine place to live. Brigham and the Mormons would have passed by Bridger’s fort (no word on whether he sold them any used oxen) on their way to the Great Salt Lake. From there they continued down the route we know as Hasting’s Cutoff, which had been blazed by the Donner Party just the year before. Because, yes, the Donners went by Fort Bridger. But the Mormons made a better way through the wilderness:

The Mormons were the first after the Donner party to take the [Hastings] cutoff route from Fort Bridger, but their experiences were quite different. Beyond the Weber River Canyon they found that the panicked Donner party had hacked its way blindly. Camp was pitched, and a thorough survey of the mountains made, in which the route that is now Highway 30S was discovered. The entire battalion set to work, and within less than a week had opened a clear passage to Salt Lake.

Ralph Moody, The Old Trails West, p. 286

The Donner-Reed party was suckered in a way similar to how someone with ample resources to take the Sublette Cutoff might be suckered by Vasquez at South Pass, tempting them to go to Fort Bridger instead. But Vasquez, at least, knew what he was talking about. In the Donner-Reed case, the billboard was a booklet put out by Langford Hastings, who had no idea what he was selling.

The experienced mountain man Jim Clyman tried to persuade the party to stick to the longer, proven route.

Yes. But Jim has just traveled that route, and if they would save their skins, they will not take it, they will go by way of Fort Hall. “I . . . told him about the great desert and the roughness of the Sierras, and that a straight route might turn out to be impracticable.” Told him about the glare of the salt plain under sun and without water. Told him about the Diggers lurking outside the camps to kill the stock. Told him about the chaos of the Wasatch canyons which Jim Clyman and Lansford Hastings, who were on horseback and had no wagons and so no need of a road, had barely got through.

Bernard De Voto, The Year of Decision, 1846, p. 184-185

There is another parallel, this one between the disasters of the Donner-Reed party and the Mormon Handcart Pioneers, which is this: it was not any one large event that caused each tragedy, but a series of delays, each seemingly minor, that kept them from passing safely rather than being hit by early winter storms. In the Donner-Reed case, the slowness of blindly hacking a wagon trail through the Wasatch, after leaving Fort Bridger, was one such delay.

You may recall that the Mormons burned Fort Bridger in 1857 to deny the US Army a place of shelter for the winter. What I failed to mention, was that the Mormons had owned Fort Bridger since 1853. Remember the earlier discussion about Mormons occupying strategic passes into the Great Basin? The passage through the Wasatch was probably the most important, as the fact that the US Army intended to use it to invade Salt Lake City suggests. It’s not surprising at all that the Mormons would want to control it. What’s funny, or not funny, I don’t know, is that they didn’t buy it from Jim Bridger so much as present him with an offer he couldn’t refuse.

[The Mormon vanguard was] closely followed by the great Mormon migratory caravan, who took careful note of the trading post just east of the passage leading through the Wasach Range. It must be confessed that they also took note of the histrionic Mr. Bridger and recorded him tersely as a man who did not tell the truth.

There he was, however, firmly ensconced in the best piece of pasture land between Salt Lake City and Horseshoe Station, and so situated that whatever the Mormons required from civilization, whether mail, freight, or converts, must pass within a mile or two of his door. The setup was far from satisfactory to Brigham Young. . . .

Distrust and dissension prevailed between Mormon and gentile, aggravated by lack of definite information and the growing gossip concerning polygamy, then an intrinsic part of the Mormon religious custom. The colonists had once been forced, if they wished to continue its practice, to leave their homes, and they felt that their freedom of action was again threatened. Any gentile settlement near them was unwelcome.

The facts and issues are clouded by the passage of many years, but the two conflicting stories are somewhat as follows: Jim Bridger contended that the Mormon leaders had no particular grievance against him but simply coveted his property; that they sent a group of their ‘avenging angels’ to do him bodily harm; that he barely escaped into the willows and, with the aid of his Indian wife, was able to get away, abandoning everything to the Mormons. The Mormons claimed that Bridger was furnishing guns to the dangerous Utes, with whom they were at war. Both are nice healthy arguments and are not at all incompatible. This happened in 1853. The Mormons took over Fort Bridger . . . [which] became a Mormon outpost.

Irene D. Paden, The Wake of the Prairie Schooner, p. 248-249

You may recall that I passed Horseshoe Station on June 22, twelve days earlier. If Irene is right, that’s a lot of inferior pasture land between Horseshoe and Fort Bridger.

Finally, as a follow up to Simpson’s Hollow, I think the following passage illustrates the effectiveness of the Mormon’s bloodless defensive maneuver of burning wagons and provisions against the Army:

When [Colonel Albert S.] Johnson at last joined the army [at Camp Winfield in November], he saw immediately that its present location would not suffice for winter quarters. Its only hope, he realized, was Fort Bridger, thirty-five miles away.

On November 6 [1857] began the desperate race for that sheltered valley before the animals failed completely. Intense cold froze the feet of the Dragoons on patrol and congealed the grease on the caissons axles. . . .The stock . . . died in such great numbers along the road that a soldier who followed the trail of the army in the summer of 1858 found carcasses of mules and oxen at every hundred steps. . . .

As Johnson suffered through this last stage of the 1857 campaign, his methodical nature caused him to investigate the army’s recent losses in order to ascertain its position. Three trains with 300,000 pounds of food, he knew, had been burned by the Mormons a month earlier. He learned also that the daring Porter Rockwell had stolen some 800 head of cattle belonging to Russell, Majors & Waddell in the third week of October, and that another 300 animals had been run off by the Mormons just before the army left Ham’s Fork . . . [D]uring Alexander’s futile advance up Ham’s Fork and the final march to Fort Bridger, at least 3,000 head of cattle perished of starvation and cold. The military effectiveness of his force was badly impaired, too, for both batteries had only half their requisite number of horses and almost two-thirds of the Dragoons had no mounts at all.

Norman F. Furniss, The Mormon Conflict, 1850-1859, p. 113-116

I probably could have taken a lot of pictures of Fort Bridger, but nothing really inspired me there.

So, yes, I wanted to check out Fort Bridger. But once I arrived, I felt as though walking around and seeing some old buildings and reconstructed ones wouldn’t be all that satisfying after all. The importance of Fort Bridger was its location, both strategic (as a waypoint on the emigrant trails and as a gateway to the Wasatch) and agricultural (“The best piece of pasture land between Salt Lake City and Horseshoe Station,” according to Irene Paden), as well as the panoply of historical figures who’d passed through there. With the land subdivided, plowed, and occupied, I could get no sense of what it was like by walking the grounds. With so much development (not so much by some standards, of course—the town of Fort Bridger is not Los Angeles), I couldn’t easily find the islands created by the divided stream.

So I had a snack and a drink, then went into the visitors’ center to find a bathroom so I could get back to Lyman and do my laundry and clean my bike.

The center is in an original building that housed the subtler’s store when the Army took over the fort (by a lease which they never paid Bridger for) in 1857. The woman working there showed me where the restrooms were and we got to talking about July 4th crowds and giving tours to school children during Covid (when, apparently, some of the smaller rural Utah towns very quietly still sent their kids out on field trips). She told me how unruly the kids were, a trait she attributed to being locked up and lacking socialization. Then she told me about how the area pretty much ignored Covid until there was a local outbreak, at which point the Fort Bridgerians started wearing masks . . . That is, until a local store put up a sign requiring masks inside, at which point the masks came off.

I couldn’t help but seeing a parallel between the unsocialized children and the adults, defending their right to act like, well, unsocialized children. In a twisted way it seemed an appropriate thought for Independence Day.

And it reminded me of a guy I knew a long time ago who would say as a joke, “After me, everyone else comes first.” Then if anyone reacted, he would explain how everyone feels that way whether they admit it or not. I don’t necessarily agree, but there is something of that in the anti-mask, anti-vaccination attitude: My discomfort (physical or political) comes first, regardless of whether I infect you. 

In any case, quick side trip over, I raced back (uphill) to Lyman, went straight to the laundromat, and washed every piece of clothing I could. It was about that time that I noticed my motel (which was right behind the laundromat, by the way) had a 5pm check in time. It was only 2pm. I called and to ask about early check in and spoke to a woman who was consoling a crying baby who agreed to let me in whenever I was ready; she’d just have to make the short drive over. 

Feeling guilty now, I decided to wait until my wash was done at least so maybe the kid could get a chance to calm down and the mom could get a little break. When all was done, I called back, she met me (the kid was fine by then), and I was in. Cool. I started to empty the trailer so I could take it and my bike to the car wash, and it was only then, two days after the fact, that I remembered I had run water over the gunwales, as it were, back at Burnt Ranch, and had soaked the bottom of the trailer. Disgusting. Nearly everything at that level was sealed, and so remained dry. But I had a spare disc brake rotor which had picked up some brown rust-coloration (like The Dude’s car in The Big Lebowski) and a pair of rain overshoe slip-ons were still wet and a little funky (so into the trash they went).

No disaster. But still, it bothered me that I had not taken better care of my gear.

So, down to the car wash to clean it all up. That done, it was time to start thinking about eating. But guess what? Lyman is a Mormon town (or so the woman at Fort Bridger had informed me). This being Sunday, nearly all businesses were closed. Even Taco Time. Here I was, all cleaned up and nowhere to go. I ended up boiling water in the room’s coffee maker and eating one of my dehydrated dinners, which worked fine. Watched an old Robert Redford movie on Criterion (The Hot Rock, very funny), then went to bed.

Only to be woken up by partying Forth of Julyers returning to the room right above me around midnight. I turned the air conditioner on for the white noise, and when that wasn’t enough, inserted earplugs (a lesson learned from being kept up until 5am last summer) and was able to get to sleep eventually. But I had to wonder . . . Is it that hard not to be loud? Why couldn’t I be downstairs from the guys who do laundry when they get away from home instead of going all Guys Gone Wild?

[Note: No photo gallery for this day: I took too few pictures.]



This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Lisa (MTTN)

    Congratulations on reaching Utah!!! Hope you have a great ride into Salt Lake City today.

    1. Scott Alumbaugh

      Thx! It was a tough one. Lots of climbing and traffic once in town was crazy. But the mountains were pretty spectacular.

  2. Anonymous

    I’m so grateful to Jessica for giving you so many veggies!!! (lily)

  3. Lisa (MTTN)

    After reading the history of Fort Bridger, I’m with the Utes. By the way, your focus on cleaning might just be evidence that you are a nut. I do love a nut.

  4. D (SOTN)

    I can’t believe you are almost done. What the heck? Now what am I going to read at bedtime?

    1. Scott Alumbaugh

      I’ve got a feed left to fill in yet.

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