Birthday on the Top of the World: Part Two

Don Giannatti
11 min readMay 23

Wyoming is my favorite place in the world. A perfect birthday experience.

Big sky country. My heart belongs here. Photo by Don Giannatti

Part One is here. | Part Three is here.

Craig was fairly cool when I left. It was really early in the morning, and the roads were empty. I let the bike rip a bit on some of the open road going north from Colorado into Wyoming.

The sound of those Cobra pipes has become a sound that is now woven into my life on the road. My wife wants me to get a quieter exhaust, but these growlers are just right for me. Not as loud as a Fatboy, but not the whisper of a Beemer.

I make sure to not be a total asshat when it is a quiet space.

This wasn’t a quiet space that morning, so I let ‘er rip.

I could see the I-80 freeway on the horizon for miles. The terrain gives you a sense that you can see forever. There was a town on the map, but I didn’t see one off in the distance.

All I could see was a big yellow box.

Creston, Wyoming. Good times. Photo by Don Giannatti

I had to get on the freeway for a few miles. Headed east to Rawlins, and then turned north again. I do not like freeways, but this one wasn’t too bad. Great pavement, and a wide open road.

Seems it was me and eleven hundred trucks all going east that morning. I was doing 75, and they were doing — well, they were exceeding my speed by a wide margin. I just hugged the right side as they blew by.

After a few miles, I looked down at the speedometer and realized I had crept up to about the same speed as they were going. Fast. Rawlins came up on the horizon, and I backed off on the throttle a bit.

It warmed up pretty fast. Like Arizona, the high desert goes from a cool night to a toasty day quickly in the first hour or so of sunlight. I was able to switch from a cold-weather jacket to my riding jacket just before getting to Muddy Gap.

Whatever you’re expecting from a town named “Muddy Gap”, you will be disappointed. There’s no mud, and it is situated on a hill.

And it is tiny. Really, really small.

Like, it’s a gas station, folks.

Welcome to Muddy Gap (Three Forks), Wyoming. Cold soda, snacks, and four very busy gas pumps. Photo by Don Giannatti

It does have four gas pumps, though. And there were approximately 12 motorcyclists pulling in to gas up as I finished. Sturgis bound, they were taking advantage of every pump along the way. There’s a lot of road between pumps in western Wyoming.

I got my turn and chatted with a guy from Tucson who was making his first Sturgis run and he seemed somewhat taken aback when I said I was not on the way to Sturgis but was going to Montana.

I am not a Sturgis biker kinda guy. That is not meant to cast disparaging words toward those who are. I am a loner, all by myself, get the hell away from crowds kinda guy, and Sturgis is not that. Not that in spades.

He had heard of Red Lodge and thought he might change his homeward plans to include that ride. We said our goodbyes, and they all headed east. I took that long, lonely road north toward Lander and Thermopolis, WY.

It was a lot of open space. Like this.

It was hot. I stopped several times along the way just to drink some water. For at least 130 miles there was virtually no shade. Photo by Don Giannatti

Miles and miles of straight roads, and as a bit of a change from Colorado, these are remarkably good roads. Literally in the middle of nowhere, and the roads are nearly flawless.

Maybe that’s due to superior craftsmanship, or maybe because there are so damn few vehicles pounding out those miles. Whatever, it was amazing to ride on such a great tarmac.

When I say lonely, I mean lonely.

Several times I was able to just park in the lane and take a photo from the saddle. No cars visible for miles behind me, and nothing on the upcoming road as well.

Occasionally I would come up on a wide spot in the road and something interesting would catch my eye. Or, I would use that excuse to get out of the saddle for a few minutes and rest my… legs.

In the middle of nowhere, Wyoming. Photo by Don Giannatti

Kind of eerie, but I have felt that sense of an eerie quiet before on these rides. Super quiet, and peacefully distraction-free.

It’s one of the reasons I ride alone. I am not interested in conversation when I am doing this type of therapeutic road work. I don’t want small talk or braggadocious storytelling. I don’t want to stop for someone else’s needs or linger where I no longer want to be.

I want to listen to me. To my thoughts. Just me and the cruiser.

And the million ideas I have along the way. Field Notes to the rescue.

If someone else had been on this ride, they may have commented on the traffic, or the intense blue sky with puffy clouds, or stop for a burger when I want to ride — and I didn’t need that at all, I just want to look at it, be in it for a few days.

Maybe it makes me a jerk, or maybe it makes me not having to end up being a jerk, but I ride solo.

Just peace and quiet — well, I guess there is the roar from the Cobras, but they don’t count. Photo by Don Giannatti

Thermopolis was nice, and I took a shortcut toward Cody. The Wind River Reservation is simply awesome, and riding through the Wind River Canyon was the highlight of the day. Spectacular.

There is so much to say about this area that I may save it for another story. For now, let’s get into Cody for the night.

Cody, Wyoming.

What do you say about a town built on the exploits and adventures of one hell of a man? That was a life well lived. Adventurer, entrepreneur, and showman. Incredible individual.

I arrived at dusk and headed toward my hotel. Cheap hotels are hard to find in Cody in the summer. But I just need a place to let the bike rest and crash, so I found a ‘budget’ that was less expensive than the chains.

I choose cheap motels, the ones with no frills. I don’t watch TV, and I don’t need a hairdryer. I just need it to be clean. And this one was nice enough. Not ‘bring my wife back and stay there’ nice, but for someone who was dead tired, it worked out fine.

Saturday morning came, and I grabbed my birthday breakfast (diet Pepsi, and one of those cherry pies that come in a box) and headed for Red Lodge.

OK, we’ll stop right there and remind you not to judge my birthday breakfast. This is the only day of the year I can eat whatever the hell I want, and I wanted a sugary, terrible fruit pie. I’m good with that decision and will probably make it again.

Lost in eastern Wyoming. Absolutely beautiful, but the gas gauge started adding additional, unneeded stress. Photo by Don Giannatti

Wyoming saves a lot of money by not making very large directions signs, or clearly understood ones, or even any signage at all. When I left Cody, Google Maps said it was 1 hour and 6 minutes to Red Lodge. That seemed right.

An hour and a half later I am running low on fuel, there is nothing that even remotely looks like a town anywhere, and no cell service to check a map.

Wyoming. I’m good with it.

I must have missed every turn possible and ended up on an extended tour of the hills of northeastern Wyoming as I desperately searched for some signal to check out where the heck I was.

Finally found a signal, and I was so far off course that I was now 1 hour and 8 minutes from Red Lodge. This after already being on the road for an hour and a half. Heh.

Oh well, that’s one of the reasons I ride a motorcycle… Even when you are lost, it is still a hell of a lot of fun.

I guess you could feel lonely out here. I don’t. I love it. Photo by Don Giannatti

I finally got to Red Lodge, and it is beautiful. About 74 degrees with perfect skies and billowing clouds. I hate skies without clouds; I want that texture in my photographs.

Tacos for lunch, a top-off at Circle 17 (when you go, you’ll know), and up the Beartooth I went.

Tacos for lunch and dinner. It’s a ride tradition. And really, who needs anything else? Photo by Don Giannatti

I will not presume to describe that ride. It would be highly presumptuous of me, and really, you MUST simply experience this incredible road.

Starting out west, I traveled along a creek that offered ample opportunities to stop and kick back. I found a nice turnout and had a bottle of water before heading to the twisty roads up the side of a mountain out in the distance.

The road twists and turn as it snakes up the side of the mountain. And this is a real mountain, a Rocky Mountain size mountain. Exhilarating. Photo by Don Giannatti

I will say that after you twist and turn, stop and stare, and gasp and occasionally shed a tear you will get to the top. You will get there after thinking you are there about a half dozen times.

There are plenty of places to stop along the way from the bottom to the top, and I took every one of them. I had never been here before and I wanted to experience every mile and every view.

And the poignant sting of regret. How had I lived 70 years and never seen this before? It literally made no sense to me. (Wait till you’re 70, you will know what I mean.)

Once again I was shocked by the lack of traffic. August is supreme vacation time, so maybe that was it. Or the batfuckflu. Whatever, it was nearly a solitary experience.

Another view of the road winding serpentine up the side of the large and very steep mountain. Photo by Don Giannatti

I would stop and make photos of the rocks, the road, the mountain tops that I was now looking down upon, and the tops that I was slowly traversing toward.

Lots of riders either taking a break from the Sturgis ride or — like me — loving being away from the crowds. Photo by Don Giannatti

“Wow, this must be the top… can’t go higher than this… oh, wait”…

This happens time and time again as you get to the higher elevations. You think you have arrived, but a gentle curve reveals more climbing to do.

There are no more trees, we are way too high for them to grow, so the fascination with the rocks, so ancient and rough-hewn is inevitable.

I thought I was on top when I stopped to take this photo. Looking across at the very peaks of the Rockies was astounding. Little did I know that I had much more altitude to gain. Photo by Don Giannatti

There are places you will want to pull over and just breathe it all in. These are places where you may also want to be wearing a warm jacket. My bike thermometer thing said 40.

On August 8.

Beartooth Pass has recorded snow on every calendar day at some point.

Primeval is the word of the day when you see this kind of formation. Rock, lichen, and very small and hardy plants. Photo by Don Giannatti

On this day, the wind was really brutal. That led to wind chill and an occasional surprise gust capable of moving my 900-pound cruiser across the lane. This was not a good thing.

On one side of the road there may be an oncoming vehicle, and on the other side… well, there really isn’t anything on the other side but a lot of air and an eventual thud.


“Keep speed in check and be prepared for the wind.”

Occasionally I talk to myself. It’s a thing.

I was on a wide and gently sloping prairie. A prairie that was about 9,700 feet in elevation. Lakes and mountains on the south side, a huge canyon, and the Beartooth Range on the north side.

The wind had begun to diminish a bit, and the clouds seemed to be even more spectacular.

This is what the top of the mountains look like. The only way to these vistas is to hike in most areas. But they decided to create a beautiful byway way back in 1931. Photo by Don Giannatti

Here is a brief history of the Beartooth Highway:

The Beartooth Highway was built as a Civilian Conservation Corps project. The work began in 1931 and was completed in 1936. The effort was part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program, designed to provide employment during the Great Depression while also investing in the nation’s infrastructure.

The project was a considerable challenge due to the rough terrain, harsh weather conditions, and the high altitude of the route. The man who is often credited with the highway’s construction is the engineer Robert E. “Bob” Fletcher, who worked on the project for the Bureau of Public Roads.

Despite the challenges, the construction crews succeeded in building a highway that not only served practical transportation purposes but also became known as one of the most scenic drives in the United States. The Beartooth Highway was eventually designated a National Scenic Byways All-American Road in 2002 due to its unique scenery and recreational opportunities.

From the top, it is one of those vistas that seem out of this world. I could sit here for days. I should remind you that this was taken on August 8. Photo by Don Giannatti

In the image above, the lake is being fed by melting snow below me, and on the left side behind the little ridge. This is truly a spectacular place. Each lake before you feeds into another lake down the mountain until it becomes that creek along the road I started out on.

I got to the top, at 1:46 on my 71st birthday.

On the top. The real top. Photo by Don Giannatti

The wind was stiff from the west, and it was cold. I took a shot of my road buddy, ate my Hostess Cupcakes, and was thankful that I am still able to ride a motorcycle and see places like this.

I wandered around a bit and was reminded of how little air there is at 10,976 feet above sea level. The road you see here has been closed off. You can park, but as of a year ago, you could only walk to the very top of the point. It’s worth it.

I don’t have any words for this one. Photo by Don Giannatti

Life. It’s good.

I took the Chief Joseph Highway back down to Cody, and that was one beautiful experience as well.

It reminded me of “A River Runs Through It”, Robert Redford country. Incredible rivers, sweeping vistas, and enough twisties to make it a blast to ride.

I recommend it.

(By the way, if you go, go from east to west. If you come into Beartooth from the west, you will see the vistas, of course, but you will do nothing but ride your brakes for two hours.)

A fellow biker took my photo looking out over the vista. What a great birthday. Photo of the author by a great guy named Paul who was from Belgium and riding a BMW.

I hit Cody in time to meet up with one of my students and her husband, who are real-life cattle ranchers. We had a grand time and some grand BBQ.

By nine, I was dead tired.

Still, I had to take a few moments to touch up my bike, get some of the dirt we acquired over the last couple of days off, and let some good ol’ McGuires do its thing.

The next morning, I would have to decide.

Yellowstone or no Yellowstone.

I’ll let you know the decision in a future post.

(I am planning (hoping) to have my birthday on the top of Beartooth this year. Hostess Cupcakes, Diet Pepsi, and maybe a balloon or two.)

I am Don Giannatti. A photographer, designer, writer, and educator. You can find more of my work on my website and on Substack.

Don Giannatti

Designer. Photographer. Author. Entrepreneur: Loving life at 100MPH. I love designing, making photographs and writing.