Week Three Completed — Ahead of Schedule and all’s well
In the third week of my big bike adventure, I covered another 464k, from Missoula to West Yellowstone. As I write this at my campsite picnic table, the sun is shining, the sky is a brilliant blue and the temperature is going up to 80 degrees. Life doesn’t get much better!
In terms of size, Montana is the fourth-largest state in the US, but in terms of population, I think it is the smallest. I am certain there are more cattle than people! And definitely more pick-up drivers than cyclists. In the last four days of riding, I’ve only seen six other riders, and they were heading east to west, looking pretty haggard. I wonder if that’s what I’ll look like in another six weeks! Once again, I had many hours of solitude in the saddle. I felt like I was riding along the bottom of a scooped-out bowl of whipped cream dessert. In every direction, the snow-capped mountains towered over me, protecting the broad valleys, where the cattle and the mule deer grazed. Five different ranges accompanied me on my way south — the Bitterroots (Montanans pronounce them “Bidderuts”), the Beaverhead, the Madison, Ruby and Gallatin ranges. I don’t know if I’m getting stronger or if the passes between them are less steep, but I easily climbed the Chief Joseph Pass, the Big Hole and the Bridger.
Myrna and I are getting into a great rhythm. I am setting out earlier and earlier each day, usually starting with an uphill climb. Myrna catches up to me around 11 a.m. and we find a place to stop for lunch. Darby, Wisdom, Dillon and Twin Bridges are all great little western towns, and though they are on the TransAm route, I think most people still have a hard time believing someone would actually ride their bike across the country. “Where you headed?” one old guy at the store in Twin Bridges asks me. “Virginia,” I say. “Whoa! I wasn’t expecting you to say that. I thought maybe Sheridan (a small town just 20k up the road).” Now when someone asks me, I tell them my destination for the end of that day.
The Wild West is Alive and Well in Montana
Montana remains a throwback to the old, wild west. People dress like real cowboys (probably because they are!), including chaps and spurs. The towns all look like the sets of the western movies we grew up watching — The Rifleman, Maverick, Bonanza, and my favorite, Gunsmoke, starring James Arness as Matt Dillon, the handsome marshall, along with Doc, Kitty and Festus.
The gold rush in the 1860s brought thousands of people to the valleys of western Montana, along with the rough-and-tumble lawlessness and disorder that such finds attract. Riding through the Ruby Valley (so named because of the stones they found — they were actually garnet. The gold found in the value, in today’s dollars, was worth $40 billion. Huge dredging operations basically turned every stream inside out, leaving great piles of rocks where little will grow. Sad, really, that reclamation was not a mandatory part of the mining operation. A total of 12 bustling towns sprang up in the area and two remain — preserved and restored much the way they were — Nevada City and Virginia City. People still live Virginia City, in fact, and it is a great place to poke around in. Don, you will remember the ice cream they make there, touted as “the best in Montana.” We stayed at a campground just outside Virginia City, where the manager asked us if we were there for “Brothel Days” coming up on the weekend. “People dress up, and there are bed races,” she said. “I’ve got a lot of people coming in with Irish-sounding names.” Don’t ask me — she’s the one who mentioned it!
This cafe in Ennis is typical of a main street business in western Montana.
The route I cycled is nicknamed “Vigilante Road,” after the citizens who took it into their own hands to bring order to the territory and swift justice to the thieves, murderers and scoundrels who pretty much terrorized the valley. An interesting fact I learned (I learn a lot from roadside signs!) was that the profits from this gold find funded Harvard University in the early 20th Century.
New Friends and Old
As I mentioned, I have not come across many fellow cyclists in Montana. I did meet up with Mai and Kent from San Francisco. She’s an internet entrepreneur who can run her business from anywhere — even from the seat of a bike, apparently, and her husband is between jobs. So they’re taking a slow and leisurely approach to the journey. I rode with them for quite a while, talking US politics (Montana is a very conservative state, so we had to speak softly. They love their guns here.)
When I left them with the universal good-bye greeting, “Happy Trails,” I was passed by a couple of young women riding very fast. I caught up to them at the next corner. Rachel and Zoe are from Bozeman and were heading there from Missoula.
“You guys are fast!” I said. “Yeah, but we make a lot of stops,” they laughed.A dollop of sunscreen and they sped off again. “Happy Trails!”
The Joy of Camping
We have been lucky in that we have (almost) always gotten a camp spot at the end of the day. However, the fees charged seem to bear no relation to the services offered at the campground. We have paid $10 a site for electricity and water in a beautiful, forested campground; and as much as $50 a night for a gravel spot with a picnic table at the back of someone’s homestead. I love the US Forest Service sites the best — they are basic but gorgeous — and usually reasonably priced. State park rates vary widely from one spot to another. A remote spot with no services can cost $28 a night, while a privately-operated campground, with a huge site, big trees, a pond or stream PLUS electricity and hot showers –$16.50 a night. Go figure. That is what we found at Sula, a gorgeous little spot after a long, hot day of riding. And who should roll up right behind us? Dave and Twyla from Reno, whom we first met in Dayville, Oregon! We pulled out our folding chairs and umbrella, and shared a beer and biking war stories, while the steak and potatoes cooked on our little barbecue grill. Is this heaven or what?? Our arrival at the campground probably increased the population of Sula by about 25%. I regret that I didn’t get Dave and Twyla’s picture, because I don’t think we’ll meet up with them again. I put the hammer down and I’m probably two days ahead of them now.
Thursday night we camped at the Beaver Creek USFS campsite. Gorgeus! Our spot was high on a hill overlooking the Gallatin Mountains. We were only 39k from West Yellowstone, but it had been a day of fierce headwinds that really took a lot out of me. So strong were the winds that at times, even though I was going downhill, it seemed the wind was blowing me back up! We agreed to get a fresh start in the morning, and spend the day exploring Yellowstone Park.
The area around Hebgen Lake, a huge lake in the Madison Valley, was the scene of a horrific earthquake in 1959 that broke off a huge portion of Mount Hegben. The rocks dammed the river, cut off the highway and pummelled a campground. It was 11:30 at night, and most campers were asleep in their tents when the rockfall hit them. In all 28 people died. The rest scrambled to higher ground. Many were injured, others were soaking wet and all were very frightened. They huddled together at what is now called Refuge Point and waited for help to arrive. Parachuted storm jumpers arrived from Bozeman at noon the next day and began the rescue operation. I learned that Montana is one of the most seismologically active regions in North America — that there is an earthquake here almost every day (though most are so small, they are hardly noticed). I asked our campground host if we would be safe for the night. She laughed and said I should be more concerned about the resident bull moose, or the bears that like the smell of our burritos!
Yellowstone National Park
We arrived at West Yellowstone Friday morning, secured a spot for the night and set out to explore the park. First off, let me say that it is HUGE. It is also extremely busy. We are only at the beginning of June, and already the roads are crowded and every site is packed with people. Maybe my expectations of this place were too high, but I found the place to be quite underwhelming. I would tell anyone that our own Banff, Jasper and Waterton-Glacier National Parks outclass this park by any measure. I remember last year when our Golder group was cycling into Lake Louise, and there was a grizzly right on the outskirts of the townsite. Here, there was one tiny black bear and the road was jammed for miles with people trying to get a photo. The only thing they have here, of course, are the natural hot pools and geysers, and they are interesting, but to see them you follow a hundred tourists along a wooden boardwalk. Maybe I’m just an old curmudgeon, but in my opinion, the sites I see from the road are far more magnificent and interesting — and there are no crowds.
On to Wyoming!
After a rest day in West Yellowstone, we head in to Wyoming tomorrow. We’ll go through Grand Teton National Park, cross the Continental Divide and finish the week in Rawlins, Wyoming — 350 miles away.
A big Happy Birthday to my sweet, lovable, handsome grandson, TJ, who turns 11 today. TJ, you are the light of my life. I love you to bits. Have a great day today, and maybe one day you’ll want to “hit the road” with your Grammy.
Til next week, Happy Trails, everyone!