Red Desert: A Place to get lost, or find yourself
June 24, 2017
A fiery moon rose steadily over the horizon of the Red Desert, spreading a hazy glow over prairie and bluffs.
Between our tents on the side of Steamboat Mountain and that spot where the moon grew ever larger was a vast expanse of nothing. No buildings, stop lights, cell towers or power lines. No restaurants, gas stations or paved roads.
Some call it the Big Empty. And it is -- a vast expanse of wind-carved barrenness.
But as the sun rose the next morning in mid-June, its gentle rays igniting the desert floor, life appeared. Lavender-colored wild iris nestled near a stream. Pink sand dock grew scattered along a dirt road. A hawk circled above, gliding in the rising air currents. A meadowlark’s high trill cut through the wind.
It is the desert in the spring. Viewed from above, it’s still a rainbow of reds, whites and browns, but observed from inside, on the seat of a bicycle, the Red Desert is much more a series of greens with bursts of desert flowers.
When a friend of mine and I decided to spend two days pedaling nearly 70 miles from Oregon Buttes in the northern Red Desert to Boar’s Tusk, we sought a combination of isolation and adventure. We wanted someplace we could get away from cell service, computers and other people. Everyone who goes to the desert is looking for something.
“When you’re 50 miles from the nearest paved road in any direction, you got to make peace with the voices in your head,” said Walt Gasson, a multi-generational Wyomingite whose great-grandparents settled in southeast Wyoming. “The Big Empty is good at helping you come to terms with yourself.”
His dad retreated to the desert when he came back from World War II with PTSD.
“He was a wreck when he came back from the war, but he found peace and solace in the solitude of his own home country out there,” he said.
Our mission wasn’t so critical. We weren’t fighting demons. We weren’t hiding stolen horses like the mythical Jack Marrow, looking for gold like early prospectors or pushing bison off a cliff like early peoples.
But we did find the isolation we sought. In the first full day of riding, we saw only three other vehicles. Instead of waiting for cars or checking our phones, we raced curious pronghorn and faced off with wild horses unsure of two-wheeled invaders.
As with every brief inhabitant that came before us, we discovered our own Red Desert – a feeling of insignificance in the midst of vast prairie.
We joined the wildflowers, wind, sand, and elk as one small element to be swallowed in the desert’s openness.