Category: Montana-Plains

Day 21: Another Day, Another Battlefield

September 23, 2002
Little Big Horn
No Miles  No Map

Part of my vacation day was spent on the bluffs a few miles to the south of Custer’s famous Last Stand, where the general’s surviving troops retreated and regrouped in order to hold off the final Indian onslaught. This last part of the Battle of Little Big Horn could have easily gone the other way, with the soldiers getting overrun and suffering the same fate as their commander. It was only the departure of the Indians the next morning which spared them.

The Reno-Benteen Battlefield, as it is now known, doesn’t really have anything much to see. But it was nevertheless a relaxing, light bike ride and I had pleasant picnic, taking advantage of the lovely weather. 

Afterwards, I cycled back to the visitor’s center for another stroll through the museum. With so much to take in yesterday, I’d hurried through this and wanted to give it a second look. The National Cemetery also received another gander. This time around I went through noting the dates and war services etched onto the tombstones.

It was the kind of day where a fellow just had to be outdoors.

Dinner was courtesy of The Colonel. In keeping with the local theme, this KFC has pictures of the main Indian chiefs who fought Custer. To my surprise, one of those turned out to be the only known photo of Crazy Horse (though never authenticated). I had seen this for the first time this past summer in the Seattle library. The man in it stands stiffly, obviously posing. But still there is a certain dignity and self-assuredness that makes you look again. I’d like to think it’s the famous Oglala Warrior.

Since I love to read, and have an interest in this mysterious, charismatic Sioux, it would be appropriate to purchase a book about him. But the ones I’ve seen in the museum are too heavy to be lugging for the remainder of the trip. Like everything else, my reading material needs to be light.

    Today:     None — Rest Day
    To Date:  987 Miles / 1,588 Kilometers

Day 20: History Tour

September 22, 2002
Hardin to Little Big Horn
15 Miles Google Map

A pleasant hour and twenty minute ride on a November-like morning brought me to a modest motel, which is part of the so-called “Little Bighorn Camp”. The accommodations are simpler and more rustic than where I’ve been staying, but in their own way just as comfortable. For example, the room is not particularly well-heated, but there are plenty of colorful blankets to snuggle under. And I’m using the lone coat hanger in the closet for my Big Bird rain jacket. I require little more.

The entertainment this evening is a PBS rerun of The Civil War by Ken Burns. For munchies, I scooted down to the front desk (which doubles as a kind of snack bar) for a bag of freshly-popped popcorn and a large root beer float. (I tipped the lady extra.) As I then returned to the room and settled in to watch the program, a train rumbled by close enough to make the walls shake. It turns out the tracks are only a few yards away. Guess there’s no need for any vibrating beds in this place! Accompanying the surprise visitor was a brisk north wind. Any warmth this time of the year here seems ready to flee at a moment’s notice. But I am quite content within my cosy little confines. More so in fact than I’ve been in a long while.

This was the day for the big battlefield tour: Custer verses the Native Americans. The Super Bowl of the Indian Wars. To mosey over there, I lightened my bike by removing the four panniers & camping equipment, then cycled across the Interstate and up the hill to the Little Bighorn. Along the way I passed a KFC. The general may have fallen, but The Colonel continues to rein triumphant. (Maybe if Sitting Bull and his warriors had sampled one of those extra-crispy meals, they wouldn’t have been so intransigent.) 

I packed a lunch and spent most of the afternoon exploring, making sure I covered all the points of interest: ambling about the Custer National Cemetery; touring the museum, where I heard an entertaining lecture by one of the park employees; viewing the mass grave of the troops at the top of the hill; and walking through the famous ravine Crazy Horse reportedly rode through on his way up to fight the soldiers. There were neat little paths leading out every which way, making the battlefield stroll an enjoyable hike. Provided, of course, that one heeds the “Warning! This is rattlesnake country!” sign. 

The U.S. Department of the Interior is now adding a memorial for the Indians, which will be near the troops’ grave. One of the purposes (aside from assuaging the feelings of Native Americans) will be to emphasize the inevitable conflict between two completely different cultures — an interesting approach that can add important perspectives to what is already a very thought-provoking National Park.

Another aspect of the project will be the portrayal of the plains tribe’s diversities along with the message of “Peace Thru Unity”. Sounds like something the Seattle Touchy-Feelies would get into. Despite this, I’d recommend anyone driving through the area to make a visit to this place. One can still feel the history.

    Today:       15 Miles
    To Date:  987 Miles / 1,588 Kilometers

Little Bighorn Cemetery

Day 19: A Fellow Traveler

September 21, 2002
Billings to Hardin
46 Miles Google Map

Nothing like waking up and starting the day changing a flat tire, my first one of the trip. This was a slow seepage that no doubt began around the end of yesterday’s ride and continued through the night as I slept blissfully unaware. Fortunately this happened on the front tire, which is far simpler to fix. It took only a minute or two to detach the wheel, then a little more time to pry loose the tire. Once I got that done, instead of messing around trying to locate where the leak is and patch it, I simply replaced the entire inner tube. Less risk. And doing this inside a hotel room is far preferable to being out on the road under a blazing sun with large vehicles whizzing by.

My day’s maintenance work hopefully out of the way, I strolled the seven or so blocks to the Golden Arches for breakfast. While eating what felt like my twentieth Sausage & Egg McMuffin of the trip, it began to rain outside, making my return to the hotel a brisk, wet walk.

In my room, I flicked on the almighty Weather Channel. Since they had by some minor miracle detected the rain in Billings, I kept watching. The “local radar” seemed to indicate that the annoying precipitation would be moving out of the area shortly.

So I settled down to wait. Glancing at my bike, I noticed that after fixing the flat, I had reattached the front tire with the tread facing the wrong way. (A favorite screwup of mine.) Not only that, but the morons in the bike shop back in Seattle (where I’d taken the Sequoia to get it checked over) had made the same mistake with the rear one! I had cycled almost a thousand miles with the tire tread biting into the road in the opposite manner from what it was designed to do. It’s a wonder I had not suffered a dozen flats by this point. 

With its sprockets and greasy chain, the back tire is no fun to deal with, so I’m leaving it alone for now. Obviously the reversed treading has not been a serious problem. 

By mid-morning I had finished packing up the bike. Not trusting the Weather Channel any further than I could spit, I once again encased the panniers within the kitchen-sized garbage bags (my rain gear). It’s never a bad idea to prepare for a wet ride. But then when I poked my head outside — wonder of wonders — the rain had stopped and the clouds had miraculously parted! Clearly God was telling me it was time to get my butt on the road.

I was checked out and back on the Interstate within a half hour. A late start compared to my usual routine, but far better than sitting around an extra day in Billings, which the early morning’s rain had had me briefly contemplating.

I-90 out of the city had a series of unusually long hills the first fifteen miles. The weather was weird too. I’d nearly melt like the Wicked Witch of the West during the extended climbs, then freeze in the breeze going down the backside.

At Exit 469, I noticed a cafe off on the left, about three hundred meters from the road. I took the exit and cycled over in anticipation of a warm meal. But it was closed and deserted. However, I’d brought a sandwich along so I enjoyed an impromptu picnic next to the chained doors. Gazing out over the empty countryside with no trace of modern civilization, it was easy to imagine a group of Sioux Warriors roaming the gentle hills in search of game. Or perhaps General Custer.

Merging back onto I-90, I was startled to hear a voice saying hello. For a brief moment, I wondered if perhaps all this lonely biking had caused me to start cracking up. Instead, to my amazement, I found myself sharing the road with another cyclist! Out here in the middle of nowhere. 

His name was John Cruise (no relation to Tom) and by a truly bizarre coincidence was also on his way from Seattle to Iowa (Iowa City, to be exact). Riding with next to no gear or extra clothing, he was tooling along at probably twice my plodding pace. Since I’d slow him down if we rode together, after a quick chat we made plans to meet at the Super 8 that night in Hardin (my usual abode) and compare traveling notes over dinner. My brief companion then effortlessly speeded up and was soon out of sight.

John turned out to be an amiable, retired lawyer who loves telling stories. We spent close to two and a half hours at the local Pizza Hut discussing biking, family, work and whatever else came to mind. I was impressed with his “Travel Light” philosophy and the century days he regularly puts in. I was also surprised at the similar values we seem to share such as saving money; seeing work as a means rather than an end; even motel etiquette (e.g. using just one bar of soap and one set of towels during a stay). It was a real delight swapping stories and getting to know a bit about him. Too bad he’s traveling so much faster; it would be nice to see him again. 

The temperature has dropped in the past twenty-four hours. I had had a helpful but chilly wind at my back today, which along with a major elevation drop sped me into Hardin but left me feeling cold as a corpse. I’d like to deploy my camping gear again sometime but maybe the season for that has passed. 

Because tomorrow will be a super-light biking day, I’m staying up late watching the University of Washington football team beat up on hapless Wyoming, which has lost eleven (soon to be twelve) straight games. I feel sorry for the Cowboys, going up against an established program and its million-dollar-a-year coach.

    Today:       46 Miles
    To Date:  972 Miles / 1,564 Kilometers

Day 18: Slogging Along

September 20, 2002
Columbus to Billings
42 Miles Google Map

More wind, but this time in my face for the whole ride — over four hours of toil. The confusing part was that this was out of the east on a dry, sunny day. My father once explained to me that an east wind is the harbinger of precipitation — not that I was yearning to get rained on, mind you.

The first couple hours were the most difficult: an endless series of hills with that refreshing “breeze” in coming at me. I then took a brunch break in Park City to regroup and try to wait out the conditions. Once I was back on the road an hour later the wind had slackened off, though it never got easy. Sometimes you just have to play out the hand you are dealt. Besides the weather, I also had to endure a runny nose, sore legs, and a watery left eye.

Almost as challenging was getting to the Rimrock Mall once I’d arrived in Billings and had found a hotel for the night. First there was a narrow highway to navigate infested with trucks. Then one of the streets leading into the massive parking lot was so busy I ended up walking the bike on the sidewalk.

Once in the mall, I went to a bike shop I’d found in the Yellow Pages. There I had a pleasant talk with a fellow named Lyle, who provided some valuable advice about cycling through “Custer Country” — apparently, this can still be rather unfriendly. The main decision this weekend (today being Friday) will be whether to continue on I-90 or go off on a tempting shortcut. Most likely I’ll stay on the Interstate.

Lyle had some interesting travel stories of his own such as a trip he’d taken up through North Dakota, then down into Oklahoma. It makes me realize I’m but a novice at this cross country cycling game.

Experienced an epiphany walking out of the mall. The day had turned into one of those crisp, sunny, early autumn afternoons and I suddenly envisioned an Asian girlfriend (but not my old Korean advisary) heading towards me through the tree-lined parking lot. A beautiful Friday afternoon and a beautiful someone to share it with.

Losing my focus here…

Billings represents a milestone. Making it this far means I’ve tackled the Cascades, the Rockies, the Montana High Country and am entering the Great Plains. This removes some of the original uncertainty and anxiety.

    Today:       42 Miles
    To Date:  926 Miles / 1,490 Kilometers

Day 17: Full Sails

September 19, 2002
Livingston to Columbus
75 Miles Google Map

After discouraging headwinds, drizzle and rain over much of the past few days, the bike gods finally smiled on me today.

Soon after hitting the road, I found myself cycling mile after mile in my highest gear (my Sequoia Touring Bike — circa 1991 — has eighteen). It didn’t take me long to realize I had a little help. Actually more than a little: a twenty to twenty-five mile an hour monster wind from the south-southwest. I made the halfway point — the second turnoff to Big Timber — in exactly two hours. Since that turnoff is thirty-six miles away, I was cranking away at an eighteen miles-per-hour clip!

The pace slowed beyond Big Timber as the interstate changed direction and the wind started blowing across my bow, making it harder to stay in my lane (meaning the shoulder of the road). However, after a roadside area rest stop (featuring additional Lewis & Clark history), the highway curved slightly back, providing me with some more easy miles. At one point, the gusts were so strong I could begin coasting from a standing start without even pushing off — the wind just took hold of me.

What fun it was watching the treeless fields and hills flow effortlessly by! It was more than just cycling; I felt like the world’s fastest runner speeding over the land. But soon my blustery friend left. Rather abruptly, in fact. I went over a small rise and down into a small river valley, then suddenly found myself having to slog away once more. It was similar to stepping off a moving sidewalk and being on your own power again.

It was around this time that my fantasy of a century ride (one hundred miles) into Billings began to fade. And a long climb out of that valley put the finishing touches on it. I saw the day for what was — a wind-aided, seventy-plus mile effort. But not too shabby! I arrived in Columbus about an hour and a half early, got a room at a you-know-what hotel, then used the extra time to write a couple postcards and buy some camera film. 

[Editor’s Note: A decade later on, this guy remains clueless about digital photography.] 

It’s now a hop, skip and a jump into Billings. There, I’ll need to get some directions on how to best cross Southeast Montana. I hope to do a better job than General Custer.

    Today:       75 Miles
    To Date:  884 Miles / 1,422 Kilometers