The Road To The West, Part Two
Into The Great Wyoming
Something happens to me as soon as we leave the Black Hills and cross over that invisible line into Wyoming. It's like a switch gets flicked, and all my anxiety disappears. Home feels just miles away instead of worlds away. I can never properly explain it, though with my wife, I don't need to. Monik understands it like nobody I've ever known. That's why we do this trip every year. It really is our home away from home. I had been to Wyoming before I met Monik. I had ridden my old Harley FXR to Yellowstone, and spent a week camping in the grandad of all National Parks. It changed me forever, and started a sort of love and infatuation that hasn't left me since. But now I have a family to share it with, and I think that Monik and the dogs love it every bit as much as I do.
Back in 2015, I was working with Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead, on his first solo record in 30 years, called 'Blue Mountain'. He was out in NY at my studio, with my good friend Josh Kaufman and I, and then we were slated to go out to his neck of the woods in Marin County, and do some more work at the end of the summer. I made a last minute decision to drive across the country for the sessions, with my dog Trotsky, who was just a wee pup at the time. I figured it would be a nice vacation, and it dawned on me to find a remote cabin to rent, somewhere in Wyoming, just to spend a week writing, taking photos, and just existing. So I set out and found a small ranch to rent, about an hour and a half south of Jackson, near a small town called Pinedale. As it turns out, this is the exact town Bob lived in back in his teens, when he was kicking around and ranching, before the Grateful Dead, and before rock stardom. All the songs we were working on originated from this place, and the accidental serendipity couldn't have been more magical.
Bob Weir & the Campfire Band, with my Wyoming films in the background (photo by Chris Sobick)
After becoming friends with the ranch's owner Jim, Monik and I went out together in 2016 to make films for Bob's tour. We traveled all around Wyoming making films that eventually were played behind the band on a giant screen, as they performed the record we had made, alongside some classic Grateful Dead songs. Fast forward to 2020, and we still go out and stay at the very same ranch, enjoying Jim's little slice of heaven every year, before heading north into Montana for the second half of our trip.
The Bighorns & A Hot Soak
Picking up our adventure after leaving the Badlands, the sun was setting over the Black Hills as we sped past the scattered lights of Rapid City and up toward Sturgis. At this point in the day, Monik was exhausted from her marathon drive the day before, so she stretched out and promptly drifted off to dreams, as the sky blackened around us. The dogs comfortably in the back of the Jeep, I queued up my favorite podcasts, and settled in for the easy drive to Buffalo, where we'd enjoy the luxury of a cheap chain hotel for the night. And so we did.
The Bighorns calling (Monik Geisel)
The next morning, we woke and packed back into the Jeep, excited for the day. It was a lovely and bright day 70 degrees, not a cloud in sight. We set out into downtown Buffalo, and onward onto Rt. 16, through the Bighorn Mountains. This is just a stunning road that I highly recommend everyone should take. The wide open hills turn into pine lined tarmac as the mountains heighten, and the rock faces eventually open into a stunning canyon that weaves its way through and into the arid desert beyond. You notice as the road climbs, that the asphalt below is in near perfect condition, unlike the East Coast, where the roads are cratered and falling away from the use of road salt and snow plows. Ah, the simple pleasures.
After the staggering drive through the Bighorns, we came back down several thousand feet, and into the high desert, where Rt. 16 rolls casually into Worland, and onto Rt. 789 to Thermopolis. We've made a new habit of stopping in Thermopolis, simply to hop into the public hot springs for a few minutes. With the stink of sulphur and the warmth of 100 plus degree water around you, there's little quite like it.
After Thermopolis, we're basically in the last leg of the trip to Pinedale. We both start to get excited and antsy, and I'm convinced that the dogs recognize where we are at that point. Rt. 789 snakes down through arid high country, alongside the Bighorn River Canyon, which eventually spills into the massive Boysen Reservoir and toward the skyline of the beautiful Wind River Mountains. From here, it's about 90 minutes to Pinedale, along the south edge of the mountains, and just north of the Red Desert. it's one of the most geographically interesting parts of the state, where you can see nothing but pine topped hillsides to the north and orange sands and sage brush to the south. We zipped along the highway and then onto the long stretch of unpaved road through an area called Big Sandy. Not long thereafter, we arrived at the ranch with just enough time to settle in before sundown. 2100 miles in less than 3 days. It was perfect.
We always go up the Green River Lakes first. I don't know why exactly, but it's become a bit of a tradition on our first day at the ranch. To be honest, this is likely one of the most beautiful places on earth. When you reach the nondescript front entrance to this area, which is part of the greater Bridger National Forest, there's not a real sense of where you'll be headed. But as you weave your way along the graded dirt road, winding alongside the gentle Green River, the valley narrows and opens back up 20 miles later, into one of the most glorious landscapes one could imagine. The Green River Lakes sit vast and quiet in the shadows of the stunning Squaretop Mountain, a genuine sight to behold.
-Trotsky at Green River Lakes
This whole stretch of the Bridger Forest is prime camping land, no doubt. We've never done it, but I always imagine the joy of camping in such a beautiful place, waking to fish for trout, and hiking into the Wind River wilderness. And there is plenty of off-road opportunity here, including places that we probably shouldn't have ever attempted a go with the Jeep. Lo and behold, we've never gotten stuck once, and we've been into some interesting pickles around here.
After spending the day poking around here though, we did have one of our more memorable experiences with the Jeep. As the sun started to fall, rapidly approaching the horizon, we started back toward the ranch. Just a few miles into the long and winding dirt road, the tire pressure sensors in the Jeep all went dead at once. Fearing the worst, I stopped to check all the tires. Of course they were fine, but when I got back in to restart the engine, there was nothing. Not a click, not a noise, not a flicker of a dash light. "That's not right", I thought. Of course it wasn't right. I checked the battery, and tried again. Same thing. Nothing. There we were, absolutely no hope of cell service, not a soul around for miles, and 30 minutes from pitch black darkness, without anything to get us through the night in comfort. This is when a film director would cue the sounds of howling wolves. And he did. My hand on my heart, a pack of wolves began to howl, just to our left, hidden in the pine groves. Windows rolled down almost fully, Trotsky and Tickles both folded their ears back, and slunked down into the seat. They knew the score, and I have never seen either of them that terrified. We started talking about exactly how we were going to deal with being stuck here all night, and how we were going to get even just the windows rolled up, when I decided to just give it another shot. As if it was laughing at us, the Jeep started up as if nothing had happened, and Monik and I just looked at each other and started laughing hysterically. It was truly ridiculous, and something we will never forget. Needless to say, we headed back to the ranch without incident, and our lovely and memorable day ended as it had begun, in the gentle glow of the Wyoming sun.
One of the many views from the ranch, at sunset
The Red Desert & Boar's Tusk
Like Green River Lakes, the Red Desert is a yearly favorite of ours. It's such a vast expanse that one or two trips can only cover a tiny portion of it. This year, we decided to head into it to see Boar's Tusk again. A strange and dark figure jutting out of the red sands without any obvious purpose or reason, Boar's Tusk looms tall over the massive dunes of the desert. As you enter the desert just north of Rock Springs, the distant monolith becomes clearer with each mile, as it grows taller and more imposing. We rolled the Jeep in and out of large gullies and over rocks and sage brush, eventually winding up at the base of this impressive spectacle, imagining what the earliest settlers would've thought as this giant alien looked down upon them.
After a short hike, we piled back in and climbed the Jeep into the dunes. It was now the height of the midday sun, beating down on us and evaporating the last remaining water in our bodies. But it was time for a photoshoot amongst the impressive peaks and valleys of the windswept sand. When you're there, it's easy to forget that you're not far from the lush green valleys of the Green River. The vastness of the desert surrounds you and becomes all that you can see for miles upon miles. It's so overwhelming that the dogs eventually tired of the sand being thrown into their faces, so they went back to the car, as Monik and I finished up our photoshoot. We were soon back at the Jeep, readying to spin the wheels through the sand and back down to some normal off-roading. Once again, the Jeep handled itself with aplomb, even through massive walls of loose sand. I just threw the Selec terrain dial to 'Sand' and let her rip. There is nothing quite like spinning the back end out, throttle deep to the floor, through hills of sand. If you ever get the chance, do yourself a favor and don't hesitate. I'm sure a four wheeler or a baja vehicle is quite a bit more exhilarating, but the Jeep, with all due respect, was no slouch.
The Red Desert (D. James Goodwin)
After cruising around the desert some more, we came out of the west side of it near the massive Jim Bridger power plant, and stopped to take some photos of abandoned machines on the side of the road. While I prepared my camera, Monik spotted a herd of wild horses approaching, and begged me to shut the hell up, which I promptly did. You see, wild horses are a bit of an obsession for both of us, but especially Monik. Her dream has always been to photograph wild horses in their native environment. Back in 2016, we happened upon a herd near this same area, and in my haste, I tossed my drone up into the air before Monik could even get out of the car, and I scared them away. My drone footage was spectacular, but as Monik walked back to the car, I could see in her face that I had completely ruined her moment. I never quite lived that one down, but this year I was determined to find them again, and here they were by complete accident, as is so often the case.
Monik, in her dream state, photographing the great wild horse
As we came back through Rock Springs and headed back toward the ranch, we decided to take an unmarked dirt road up into the hills just northeast of the desert. The sun was starting to relax, the dogs were well conked out in the back of the Jeep, and something just compelled us to head into the unknown. A few miles into the dust trail, Monik spotted a distant object that seemed to be moving. As we approached, we realized that there was far more than one object, and in fact, it was yet another herd of wild horses. In all our years of coming out here, we'd seen only two herds, and both of them too far away to get more than drone footage or a distant glimpse. But on this day alone, to see two gorgeous herds within hours of each other seemed impossibly magical. So we stopped, and Monik snuck out of the car with her camera, and did a ninja walk into the scattered sage brush. We spent the better part of an hour, taking photos of these glorious beasts, and if I'm being honest, I think it was Monik's best work ever, full stop.
Well satisfied that we had enjoyed a pretty full day, we decided to part ways with our new friends and head home for a well deserved steak dinner and deep rest. The dogs were toast and frankly, we weren't far behind.
The Pronghorn That Didn't Get Away
We spend a lot of our time in Wyoming taking random roads that head to nowhere in particular. In keeping with that tradition, we took the next few days to do exactly that. We usually spend the most time near the Wind River Mountains, but we decided to take some trips near the Wyoming Mountain range this year, winding through thousands upon thousands of acres of untouched arid land, dotted with gas and oil facilities. We took a ride down to the Fontenelle Reservoir, and back up onto Rt. 189 which runs alongside the southern banks of the Green River. These roads are not only beautiful, but the speeds you can travel are the best part. Now, I'm not advocating breaking the law per se, but suffice it to say, at the right time of day, you can really juice up your motor and test out the manufacturer's stated 'top speed'. That's sort of a problem for me when I get back to NY. I get used to ripping through Wyoming at liberal speeds, with very few officers of the law around, and even less fate tempting wildlife to test my heart rate and my brakes.
Somewhere atop a steep hill
The funny thing about out there is that even though there are thousands of animals at any moment, both large and small, unfettered by human sprawl and development, they seem to rarely come into the road, and if they do, they get out of it quickly. Thousands of miles I've driven through Wyoming, and never once have I even had a close call with one of these creatures - that is, until this year.
Wide open Western Wyoming
It was dusk, of course. We had just had another full day romping around back roads and steep rock faces with the ever willing Jeep. The dogs were chilling in the back, as usual, and we had just gone to the grocery store for our dinner supplies. We were listening to The Eagles 'Take It Easy', and just about a mile from the ranch, in the fading light, two rogue Pronghorn decided to take their chances. One of them got away. One of them most certainly did not. I didn't even see them until it was far too late. Cruising at no less than 70 mph, we met him almost head on, brakes squealing, back end wiggling. There was no way out of it for either of us. That pronghorn took his chances, and he lost the full pot, but not without giving the Jeep a healthy smack. Both the dogs flew forward, and I saw huge pieces of animal and plastic fly into the air in the rearview mirror.
We skidded to a halt, and when we got out of the Jeep, hands shaking and anxious, it became immediately clear that the pronghorn was as dead as a doornail on the side of the road, and the front left of the Jeep was torn to pieces. The headlight bucket was hanging free, fluid flowing like a river onto the tarmac, and the entire driver's side front facade had busted apart, leaving the front of the engine bay exposed and naked. "Goddamnit", I thought. I had never had an accident like this in all my 27 years of driving. I prided myself on being a hyper-aware and responsive driver. So much for my record. We gathered up whatever pieces we could find and limped the Jeep back to the ranch. Thankfully, we were less than a mile from pulling in the driveway. At this point, it was too dark to do much of a postmortem, but I was able to deduce that the coolant was okay, which of course was the primary concern. That and the front driver's side suspension had managed not to get damaged. I was supremely pissed off at not only the pronghorn, but myself. But so it was, and I spent the rest of the night plotting how I could fix it.
I woke up bright and early the next morning, and after the rude reminder that the previous evening had not been a bad dream, I was determined to figure out a way to make the Jeep driveable. There were minimal tools at the ranch, but enough that I could at least make a go of it. So I did a bit of inventory, and began putting the pieces back together. The front grille had broken apart in several places, so I decided to stitch things together using metal wire ties and duct tape. Like an expert surgeon, I drilled a maze of holes and weaved ties in and out of all the bits, making a frankenstein of the front end. As I was doing all this, I realized exactly how well the Jeep had been designed for exactly this type of thing. it truly is remarkable that it busted apart in the way it did, and without any significant structural or engine damage. If this had been one of our old classic cars, no doubt we'd have been dead in the water. But not the Jeep. It protected not only itself, but its loyal passengers.
After a few hours of faffing about, I finally zipped up the last wire tie and tucked the last bit of duct tape onto the headlight housing mount. I have to admit, I was quite proud of my handiwork. Rather than calling the rest of the trip off and somehow getting back to NY, defeated and worn out, we were undeterred. Our plan was intact, and we spent the rest of the day traveling in and around Jackson, shopping, eating, and hitting some back roads around the Bridger-Teton Forest. It seemed that aside from a lack of wiper fluid, our repairs were holding up well, and we were Montana bound the next day, for the second half of our adventure.
Somewhere in the Bridger-Teton National Forest (Monik Geisel)
(select photos by Monik Geisel / www.monikgeisel.com)