Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith
Mention Gillette, Wyoming, to most people and you'll get a blank stare. Motorcyclists may show a glimmer of recognition and a puzzled frown. When you add "90 miles west of Sturgis," the lights come on. Western-based bikers frequently stop for gas here, northeast Wyoming's last major town en route to the annual Black Hills Motorcycle Rally.
It's mid-September and I'm riding I-25 north to Gillette on a 2004 Electra Glide from Eaglerider's Denver rental fleet. Late summer is unusually cool, and I'm leaving Colorado's high passes before a forecasted early dump of the white stuff comes true. I ride through Denver's dormitory towns in sunshine, but ahead is a steel-gray canopy flowing down from Canada.
Beyond Cheyenne, communities drift farther apart, until I wonder if I'll see another turnoff. I gas up in tiny Chugwater and fight the galloping prairie wind over rolling hills to Douglas where I turn north on 59. The Glide's tank shows less than half, and I plan to gas up in the town of Bill, 20 miles ahead. I'm reminded that Wyoming is the least densely populated state of the lower 48, with two-thirds the landmass of California and fewer than half a million people. Bill consists of a weather-beaten clapboard general store the size of a garden shed and one non-functional vintage gas pump. The nearest gas? "Wright: 40 miles up the road."
Running on fumes, the Glide rumbles into a shopping mall-sized truck stop in Wright. The bronzed, tufted-grass prairie is dotted with nodding oil donkeys, and as I roll on toward Gillette, the conveyors and earthmovers of massive open-pit coalmines line the road. A caravan of mile-long trains, spaced only hundreds of yards apart, thunders south, each car piled high with coal. It's an impressive sight against the empty plains and the big sky.
Day one: Black Hills
Thanks to my local contact, Rex Brown, I have a riding "buddy" for each of my four one-day excursions. Lawyer Stan Wolfe meets me at my hotel, the Wingate, at 8:00 the next morning. It's a cool, gray Sunday, so we have the business route that parallels I-90 east to Moorcroft to ourselves. Stan, also riding a Glide, suggests we cover as many of the local sights as we can while the weather holds. First stop, the Devil's Tower, north on 14.
Though unspectacular, the rolling plains we ride are pleasantly pastoral: cattle graze calmly and a flock of wild turkeys shuffles from the roadside as we pass. The Tower is the largest landmark for miles, and its familiar shape soon pops up on the horizon. Though now 1,267-feet high, the tower was once at ground level: erosion stripped soil away from around it. And in spite of its sinister appellation, the Tower is an important monument in Plains Indian culture, known as the "Bear's house," and it figures prominently in many Indian legends. It certainly has impressive bulk at close quarters, a giant's thimble thrusting from the surrounding plain; and like Australia's Ayers Rock, it has an eerie supernatural presence.
We're quietly appreciating the Tower's ambience when a gang of tough-looking biker dudes pulls into the parking lot, all leather vests, bandanas and dark glasses. But they're just buddies of Stan's out for a Sunday ride - including two bankers and the Gillette courthouse security officer!
We cruise toward Hulett, home during each Sturgis of the Ham and Jam Rally, when the Rodeo Bar & Grill dispenses half a ton of "the other white meat" to bikers who "jam" the main street for the day. Out of rally season, Hulett is a charming one-street town of refurbished western storefronts and boardwalks. The surrounding towns, some fifty miles or so distant, hold many of the events that cater to the 300,000 visitors to the Sturgis rally each year. Our next stop is Cheyenne Crossing, a barn-size biker bar with an overflowing parking lot - and this on a regular September Sunday. "Could be the last riding weekend of the season," explains Stan.
Highway 14A runs south through Spearfish Canyon. Stark, mustard-colored bluffs line the road, patched with early fall colors, lemon yellows and golds. The perfect relaxing Sunday ride: dozens of other riders obviously think so, too.
We detour west to Lead (pronounced Leed), where Stan shows me a worked-out goldmine, a vast round pit like an inverted beehive. As in many parts of the U.S., the lure of the yellow metal built Lead and its near neighbor, Deadwood City. The establishment of the gold towns in the Black Hills - sacred to the Sioux - precipitated the Indian wars of 1876. Deadwood declined with the mining industry, but revived after gambling was legalized in 1989. Now a major gaming destination and tourist stop, the influx of cash financed a makeover for the city's heritage buildings.
Leaving the Black Hills, we cruise southwest on 85, meandering over the 6,900 ft. O'Neill Pass through stands of evergreens, before we turn north on 585 to Sundance. Pennsylvania native Harry Longabaugh spent 18 months in the Crook County Jail here in 1887 for horse theft, acquiring the name "Sundance Kid..."
It's here that the weather finally breaks. A blustery wind heralds heavy showers. Stan and I pull under a bridge to scramble into raingear before braving I-90. The Glide handles the buffeting gusts well, maintaining a solid line through the sluicing water; but the strong headwind cuts its top speed to under 80 mph, and I struggle to keep pace with the thundering semi-trailers. Stan heads for home and I retreat to the Wingate to dry out.
Day two: Black Gold and King Coal
It's cold and drizzling steadily when my riding companions for day two, Drue and Jeaneen Dryden, arrive at the Wingate at 7:50 A.M. But ride we must, and we set off south on 59. The low cloud and rain emphasize the bleakness of the plains, reminding me of England's desolate North Yorkshire moors - except with cattle instead of sheep. We're crossing the Thunder Basin National Grassland.
East on 450, the landscape turns industrial: a bridge carries us over the railroad with its continual line of coal trains. An open pit mine stretches away under the gloomy sky, and the giant earthmovers look like toys left behind in a sandbox.
We rumble on - Drue and Jeaneen on their Road King, me on the Glide - across the rambling grassland, shades of gray under the heavy sky, in a persistent drizzle. Photography is out of the question, so my mind wanders...
I've named the Glide "Mary Rose" after Henry VIII's battleship. So top heavy with superstructure and armament, it capsized and sank on its maiden voyage. At speed, the Glide is easy to handle and keeps me snug behind its huge windshield, but it's a handful at a walking pace. It carries plenty of weight - the shield with its built-in stereo and the huge trunk - high up, and keeping it upright sometimes requires muscle.
The shivering sensation I experience every time I get off isn't fear or adrenalin - it's vibration. In spite of rubber mounting, the engine's shuddering is always evident. It's what motorcycle journalists call "visceral."
We turn north on 116 toward Upton, and I'm jolted from my reverie when out of the gloom an antelope appears, standing in the middle of the road. Drue hits the horn, and the startled animal catapults away, cavorting and weaving its zigzag dance, leaping easily over a barbed wire fence.
Though bleak in the gray light, the rambling grassland rolls pleasantly away on either side with 116 stretched out, die-straight, to the horizon. Upton appears as a welcome cluster of stone buildings. We've been riding in the chill mist and rain for a couple of hours, and as none of us has had breakfast yet, we stop at Rene's Café to take on body fuel. Drue and Jeaneen order biscuits and gravy, and I opt for the sausage omelet, with hot coffee to sluice everything down. It's all excellent, fresh and hot.
North of Upton, more trees, mostly birches, appear in clusters by the roadside. In Sundance, we take 14 north toward Devil's Tower, and Drue pulls onto an overlook offering great views across the distant tower - but its top is in the clouds. Fourteen takes us back toward the freeway, though we turn east on 113 to Pine Haven and stop at Logan's bar for another thawing mug of coffee. I ask Drue about all the cattle we've seen: "I guess this is beef country." Jeaneen agrees. "Don't see too many chicken ranches round here..."
It's still cold, although the rain has left off. Drue's hands are freezing. His Harley-Davidson wool gloves are soaked, so I lend him some over-mitts for the ride back to Gillette. We turn for home under leaden, though thankfully drier, skies.
Day three: My Powder River Home
I must be on my best behavior today: my companion is Gillette's Detective-Sergeant of Police, Steve Rozier. We decide on a late start because the weather is still suspect, so Steve arrives on his blue Electra Glide around mid-day. We leave town on the "old highway," 14 northwest toward Buffalo. The day has improved, the grassland is freshly greened from the rain, and the sun struggles to push through high cloud.
Our first stop is Spotted Horse (pop. 2), and its bar, named, not surprisingly, the Spotted Horse. Owners Colleen Eisele and Jerome Schantz claim "the coldest beer and best burgers in town." What town? The bar is a popular destination for Sturgis-bound bikers, and the eclectic memorabilia filling the bar's corners provides the perfect atmosphere. Colleen also fashions biker-babe halter-tops from men's Y-fronts. All of them "brand new, never been worn," she assures me.
In the bright afternoon light, I now appreciate the beauty of the magnificent sweeping plains, crisscrossed with narrow creeks and gulches. By contrast, the broad, shallow basin of the Powder River, little more than a trickle this time of year, cuts a wide muddy swath through the grassland.
The old highway takes us into Buffalo. Steve also teaches flying out of Buffalo's airfield. We climb out of the town to a narrow plateau where a tarmac strip peels away into the distance. Parked by the runway are three Lockheed PV-2 Harpoon aircraft of 1940's vintage, two the worse for having been stripped for parts. But they make a magnificent sight against the rambling backdrop of the Bighorn Mountains.
We tour some of Buffalo's attractions, including a wonderfully ornate vintage carousel, before pointing the Glides east toward Gillette. But where the Powder crosses the interstate, there's a dusty truck-stop café, its interior crammed with hunting trophies: bears, antelope, cougars, deer. It's a veritable stuffed menagerie.
I bid Steve farewell under patchy cloud and a glorious crimson prairie sky.
Day four: Biscuits and Gravy
Another day, another detective. I'm loading my gear into the Glide's capacious trunk when Detective Steve Wagerman rolls into the Wingate's parking lot on his R1150R. Clear skies overnight have left a crisp, white coating on the Glide's seat, and though the sun is streaming in from the east, the air is frigid. Not for the first time am I happy to be behind the Glide's enormous fairing as we pull onto I-90 for the 50-mile haul to Buffalo. Steve has promised me "the best biscuits and gravy west of the Missouri."
Against deep blue sky in the clear air, the Bighorn Mountains are a ragged white border on the horizon. Though the sun streams behind us, the chill is penetrating, and we're both relieved to pull into Buffalo. We park under the Main Street Diner's 1950's neon sign, settle into a vinyl-lined booth and huddle over mugs of hot coffee while the cook, working behind the nearby counter, is vociferously abusing the regulars with his opinions. It doesn't take long for us to thaw out in the steamy fug of the diner. And the signature dish - one that often shows up as a sloppy continuum of tasteless slime - really is excellent: fluffy biscuits and savory gravy.
Leaving Buffalo, we ride south on the Bozeman Trail, which supplied gold prospectors' needs in the 1860s, crossing traditional Sioux hunting grounds, further antagonizing the indigenous people and fueling their grievances. We ride cautiously over the undulating grassland, wary of the nervous antelope crowding the roadside. Turning east on 192 at Kaycee, we drift through tiny ranching communities and past hillocks that thrust up as oddly as the Devil's Tower from the rolling plain.
Our route joins 387, a truckers' shortcut between I-25 in Casper and I-90 in Gillette. In the distance we can see cars pulled over and a dark smudge by the roadside. Closer, and there's a semi-trailer on its side in the ditch. The driver is obviously OK and there's no sign of fire, but Steve stops to check anyway. It crosses my mind I could sell a photograph to the local newspaper: but I never take road accident pictures for reward. Bad karma.
At Reno Junction on 59, we turn south, then east again on 450. Steve steers us left onto Hilight Road, which runs through the seemingly endless coalfields. A left onto Haight Road takes us back to 59 for the last 20 miles into Gillette.
It's been a surprising four days. Maps belie the beauty of the open prairie, and omit its subtle features. And, of course, they say nothing about the people...
Thanks to Rex Brown of Cam-Plex, Stan Wolfe, Drue and Jeaneen Dryden, Steve Rozier and Steve Wagerman for making this a memorable trip!
"It's the people!"
Like many towns in the Pacific Northwest, Gillette owes its existence to the railroad. A surveyor for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, Edward Gillette decided the rails should run through the area then known as Donkey Town, and the settlement was re-named in his honor. Gillette remained a prairie railroad town until the energy crisis of the seventies, when soaring oil prices made extracting Gillette's rich oil deposits economical. Oil wells and their characteristic nodding "donkeys" sprang up on the surrounding grasslands.
Energy prices retreated, and the Wyoming oil business slumped, though the many entrepreneurs who moved to Gillette to make their fortunes in the '70s never left. The idea had been to get rich quick and get out, but most stayed. The oil boom passed, but not before Gillette's new energy industry discovered an even more valuable asset: vast surface-level deposits of low-sulfur coal.
Now known as the "Energy Capital of the Nation," the area around Gillette supplies as much as 30 percent of U.S. energy coal requirements. Wyoming coal is particularly prized because it's very low in sulfur, making it cleaner burning than coal from other sources. Power stations burning Wyoming coal produce cleaner emissions, thereby saving money normally spent on exhaust "scrubbing" equipment. In many states, the proportion of Wyoming coal used is controlled to keep it from displacing the local source - even though it's cleaner and cheaper.
A new energy source with even more promising potential is also being explored: coal-bed methane. This is the "natural gas" found alongside coal in coal-bed deposits. Pumping water into the mine displaces the gas, which can be collected and distributed with regular natural gas.
Gillette is an energetic place in more ways than one. Rex Brown, Marketing Manager for Cam-Plex, Campbell County's complex of multi-event facilities, is an enthusiastic promoter of the town and all it has to offer. "It's the people!" she told me when I asked her what makes Gillette special.
With more than 1,100 acres of buildings and outdoor recreation sites, Cam-Plex can provide every imaginable resource for conventions, rallies, conferences and exhibitions. There's a performing arts theater, a convention/exhibit hall, two large multi-purpose pavilions, rodeo grounds, RV campgrounds, a horse racetrack and a 21-acre park and picnic area. Cam-Plex has hosted rodeos, horse shows, RV rallies, camper rallies, motocross, hotrod racing, as well as major exhibitions. The number, size and variety of the facilities mean almost any size of event can be handled, often a number of them at the same time.
Cam-Plex events include: RV & boat shows, tractor pulls, banquets, dog trials, auctions, trade shows, flat-track racing, car sales, symphony concerts, demolition derbies and receptions for clients as diverse as Gillette High School, 4-H, Duck's Unlimited, Jehovah's Witnesses and RVing Women!
In the center of a vast plain between the Black Hills and the Bighorn Mountains, Gillette would be easy to overlook. But my four-day tour of the area revealed a fascinating landscape of undulating grasslands and gentle hills sliced by gullies and creeks. The friendliness and hospitality of the people stands out, and the "big sky" of the prairie is a unique experience.
How to Get There
I-90 connects Gillette with the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest, while Highway 59 connects with I-25 south to Denver. United Express flies into Gillette Airport (CCG) and connects five times daily with Denver International Airport.
I stayed at the newly-built and business-oriented Wingate Hotel near downtown Gillette. My room was spacious and comfortable and included a free high-speed internet connection, a real bonus when traveling. There's a breakfast buffet, pool, spa and exercise room.
Phone 307-685-2700 or
Roads & Biking
Though not technically challenging, the roads around Gillette have one distinct advantage: very little traffic. It's perfect cruising country; relax, explore, go with the flow. But remember to check for gas stations! If you're flying in and need a bike, Deluxe Harley-Davidson (1-888-339-HAWG, http://gillette.deluxehd.com) will rent you a Harley, and, if you arrange a tour through the company, they'll pick you up at the airport!
Sightseeing & Shopping
The area is rich in natural features and wildlife, including the Devil's Tower, of course, and the many birds and animals that inhabit the region: deer, antelope, bison. The all-too-common antelope are not true antelope at all, but Pronghorn Deer. Deadwood City is worth visiting for its history, but many of the buildings are either refurbished or rebuilt.
Books & Maps
- Get into a Wyoming frame of mind
with Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2,
by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Annie
Proulx. Scribner (November 2004),
ISBN: 0743257995, $ 16.50.
Addresses & Phone Numbers