Crossing Wyoming and Airmail History

I awoke after a good night’s sleep at the Round Up Motel in Cheyenne, WY to find that everything that had been soaked during the previous evening’s thunderstorm had dried. I went about the business of pulling myself together for a crossing of Wyoming to visit friends in Blackfoot, ID. This day wouldn’t need to be the 798mi (1284 km) marathon that I rode yesterday but rather a relatively full 500+ mile (800+ km) day.


My abode at the Round Up Motel
My abode at the Round Up Motel

Showered and dressed, I emerged to pack the Bike and get my butt on the road. Since I had a snack so late the previous night, I dispensed with breakfast for me. I did, however, serve the Vector some breakfast (premium as usual) and pointed the handlebars west down I80.

A lot of people groan about the I80 crossing of Wyoming. Most of it is arid and windy; hilly, but not overly scenic. Personally, I’m rather fond of the stretch from Cheyenne to Laramie. You go through a few low passes, the landscape is a bit greener than the rest of southern Wyoming, and while the mountains aren’t overly grand they do provide a scenic ride. I guess I like it because this is where I finally get the feeling that I’m really getting to the Rockies. Along this stretch is where I get my first look at snow-capped mountains off in the distance. As a bonus for this trip, I saw a small herd of pronghorn antelope just east of Laramie. Welcome to the high plains.

During this ride I was reminded how truckers seem to be more kind to motorcyclists in the western states. For example:

  • Just before a long stretch of one-lane construction west of Cheyenne, a trucker slowed down to let me by so I wouldn’t be stuck behind him for the next seven miles (11 km) of mostly uphill highway.
  • In an especially windy stretch west of Rawlins, a trucker saw me approaching to pass and moved way over onto the right shoulder. I initially assumed he was falling asleep and hung back but he waved me through. I the realized that the he was trying to reduce the impact of his rig’s wake on my passing.
  • On the two-lane US30 later in the day, I noticed that some oncoming trucks would move halfway to the shoulder when we met, again, to reduce the blast of wind at the point of our meet, which can be substantial when we’re both going 80 mph (130 kph).

By the time I got to Rawlins (sounds like a country song), it was warming up and I had to open the vents on my jacket. I was pleased that I had gotten this far without the heat getting too taxing. I gassed up at the Flying J and continued west (always west…).

One feature of I80 in Wyoming is that, for the most part, it parallels a Union Pacific main line. Somewhere along this stretch between Rawlins and Rock Springs, I saw the railroading equivelant of a traffic jam. I saw not one or two but three trains all going very slowing in the same direction over a four mile stretch. A few miles later, I saw the reason why: a long intermodal train (lots of container stacks and tractor trailers, which are usually high priority) with five powered units on the head and two helpers on the rear, blasting up the hill to meet the three waiting trains.

Several years ago, when I was traveling this same stretch of road, I had a serendipitous encounter with a couple in a VW camper that led me to visit a largely forgotten piece of American history. Since I was making good time, I elected to visit this location again this day.

In the early days of air flight, the US Postal Service established an Airmail service to provide coast-to-coast mail service that was much faster than the railroad-based service. One challenge was that the early planes didn’t have todays GPS and navigation features; they had their eyes and a compass. To help these pilots find there way, the US Postal Service installed large yellow-painted arrows along several flight routes so these pilots could take bearings off the arrows and find their way to the next airport to refuel.

There are several of these arrows still in (relatively) good shape scattered around the wilderness of the US western states. This one is just northwest of Exit 122 on I80 in Wyoming. Take the first left-hand two-track up the hill north of the exit and follow it to a (kindof) T intersection at another two-track. Turn left here and follow the track up the hill past the cell tower and on to where you see typical Park Service display stands around a nondescript bunch of sagebrush. Look closer and you’ll see the arrow.

I almost didn’t make the visit since the two-track was badly rutted and rocky as hell. I found myself wishing I had my friend Chuck’s GS (a BMW all-terrain motorcycle) to get down this road (road?).

The Airmail arrow near exit 122 off I80 in Wyoming.
The Airmail arrow near exit 122 off I80 in Wyoming.


I don’t know who put up the placards but they’re nicely done with history of the Airmail service, the arrow system, a local airmail crash on nearby White Mountain, and a story about a cross-country air race that also used the arrows for navigation.

The Airmail arrow and the Vector near exit 122 off I80 in Wyoming.
The Airmail arrow and the Vector near exit 122 off I80 in Wyoming.


After taking a few photos, I noticed a curtain of light rain (visible in the photo above) falling on the mountain across the valley and it seemed like it was heading in my direction. I knew that I would be comletely screwed if I had to ride the Vector down that two-track in even slightly muddy conditions, so I took a few last photos and got my ass back down the mountain.

The view east from the Airmail arrow near exit 122 off I80 in Wyoming.
The view east from the Airmail arrow near exit 122 off I80 in Wyoming.


The view west from the Airmail arrow near exit 122 off I80 in Wyoming.
The view west from the Airmail arrow near exit 122 off I80 in Wyoming.


For more background on the Airmail Service arrow and beacon system, start at this link.

There is no gas (or any services) at the intersection of I80 and US30, which is were I was leaving I80 and heading northwest towards I15 in Idaho. Luckily, there is an enormous truck-stop-and-tourist-exploitation-factory just two miles east of the US30 interchange. I’m talking about Little America. This is Wyoming’s answer to Wall Drug in South Dakota. You see signs for it for 50 miles (75-cent ice cream cones, woo-hoo!). Alas, it is a handy gas stop so I dropped in for fuel and a quick bite. Suspecting that my friends would be feeding me well this evening, I went ahead and had a nutritious lunch of a bottle of PowerAde and a Payday bar.

The day got a bit warmer after I got on US30. I finally had to unzip my sleeves and do the occassional ram-air technique to cool down the inside of my jacket. There was very little traffic on the highway, and I was able to make good time, except for the asshole pickup driver. He pulled out off of a side road and was maintaining a good enough pace (about 15 over the speed limit) that I was tempted not to pass him. Unfortunately, as soon as he saw any oncoming traffic, he slammed on the brakes. Yeesh. I passed him only to find that now he was content to follow me, recklessly passing the cars/trucks I was passing in an effort to keep up. At least he wasn’t following too close to my ass. I was about to pull off and let him by for five minutes or so when he turned off at a junction. Alas, the world is full of characters.

After a gas and hydration stop in Montpelier, ID, I continued west on US30 and the temperatures were now in the high 80s. The partly cloudy day had opened up to full-on blue sky and the lack of occassional shade was cooking me pretty well in my Leathers. Sometimes it sucks being safe.

By the time I got to I15, the temperature was 92º (33º C) and I was beginning to melt. I was sucking the Camelback bota dry, but I knew that I had less than 50 miles to go so I pushed through, arriving in my friend’s driveway around 6:30pm (plenty of time to be social). The final tally for the day was 527 miles (848 km). This leaves me with approximately 800 miles (1287 km) to get to Tacoma, WA on Thursday evening. Plenty of time to starte letting the route get a bit scenic.

An evening of Mexican food, conversation, and blessed air conditioning ensued.

And there was much rejoicing.

Oh, I’m missing an exahust heat shield bolt on the Vector. Arrgh! These things are the bane of Harley V-rod ownership.

2 thoughts on “Crossing Wyoming and Airmail History”

  1. It was great to have you as always! I’m NOT a fan of most of I-80 as I’ve been on it way too many times and always in high winds. The trains remind me of an Incident that Darcy and I had on that stretch one year back from MITM where we saw fright train with three engines where the last train was spewing huge spout of flame out of the rear circular vent on the top of the engine. Not sure they’d figured it out yet as they were chugging away without any apparent concern. Another time on the way back from MITM by myself a car load of four coeds thought it would be cool to flash the biker as they went by in their convertible. Probably the best ride on that route ever. 🙂

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