Category: Montana

Day 9: Catching a Break

September 11, 2002
Priest River, ID to Near Noxon, MT
60 Miles Google Map

My knees were sore and my stomach was complaining from last night’s spicy taco salad…what a fragile body I have. The auspicious beginning meant another “slog day” was at hand.

My mood temporarily brightened once I made the turn at Sand Point and later headed south. I guess it was the symbolism of having reached the northernmost point of the ride combined with the stunning beauty of the Idaho panhandle. But the ironically named towns of Hope and East Hope did not have restaurants near the highway, and I wasn’t in the mood to climb any of the hills in search of lunch. So I cycled on and ended up eating at Clark Fork. 

After that, things got a bit weird.

I crossed the state line into Montana, planning to stay at a place called Heron. According to the f*cking map, it was just off the main road.

Yeah, right. I turned off the highway in accordance with a sign I’d passed only to find myself aimlessly cycling over meadows and through woods with no hint of a town. (Or, for that matter, grandma’s house.) Soon, after crossing a narrow, patched bridge, I decided there was little chance of coming across any place to spend the night and turned around, having wasted over a half hour’s worth of valuable energy. 

To the best of my knowledge Heron, like Area 51, may or may not exist.

This little misadventure put me in a bad spot. The next town shown on the map (Noxon) appeared too small to offer anything in the way of accommodations — assuming of course that it was even there. Still, I had to stay somewhere so I began mentally preparing myself for a final, dramatic eighteen mile push. Strangely enough, my left leg, which had been complaining off an on most of the afternoon, completely stopped aching. Perhaps my new resolve had made it decide there was little chance of getting my attention.

Then, just as the day’s heat seemed to peak, my luck turned around. The fellow at a grocery place I stopped at informed me there was a small hotel a mere four miles down the road. Out in the middle of nowhere.

I was saved!

It turned out to be a plain, four unit building connected to an Exxon service station, but to me it appeared almost majestic. The price was also reasonable, though in my near-hysterical relief I would have paid almost anything they asked. 

I’m now doing my writing sitting outside my room as evening falls. With its quiet isolation, hemmed in by steep hills topped with evergreens, this place is a lovely getaway. It’s almost spooky how easily silence comes to these parts. Perhaps because they are not yet completely tamed.

A bit later…
While drawing my bath (which sounds vaguely aristocratic), I watched through the window as the nearly first quarter moon set behind the hills. I then used my newfound serenity to casually swat about a dozen pesky mosquitos that had gotten in and were buzzing about the bed light.

    Today:       60 Miles
    To Date:  429 Miles / 690 Kilometers

Day 10: The Heat Goes On

September 12, 2002
Near Noxon to Plains
71 Miles Google Map

This day started out pleasantly enough. I’d gotten in a full morning of cycling and had had the “Maidrite Special” for lunch in the Thompson Falls Boomtown Cafe. Feeling pretty good with no body complaints (for a change). The score was thirty-five miles done, maybe thirty-two to go. But what’s that number up on the bank display? Yes, it’s eighty-four. As in degrees. As in “You’ve got a tough, hot ride coming up”.

Leaving Thompson Falls, the heat hit me immediately. Worse, there was really no roadside shade to pull over and hide under for temporary relief. Just the occasional group of straggling pines or junipers in the distance which looked to be in worse shape than I.

Then there was another map mystery: a phantom rest area supposedly located somewhere between Thompson Falls and Plains. Spent the entire afternoon on the lookout for a picnic table, or least a place I could stop and comfortably stretch my legs, but it was all in vain.

Towards Plains, the road had recently been asphalted in stylish black. It already felt like I’d been cycling under a heat lamp; now there was a skillet underneath. If I fell off the bike, I’d sprawl on the road and fry like an egg.

I pushed on. Fortunately there were no large hills to climb or headwinds to contend with. Just the heat. Off to the right were occasional glimpses of the refreshing and inviting Clark Fork River. I made up my mind that in the event some semi truck accidentally came too close while we were crossing a bridge, to avoid a collision I’d deliberately go over the edge and into the water. It would almost be worth a broken leg to be immersed in its coolness.

Entering Plains was confusing. There’s a real estate office, a couple more businesses, then suddenly you find yourself out in the country again. It was only the advertisement of a malt and burger place further on that made me realize civilization had not entirely abandoned me.

After a cherry malt and maybe a gallon of cold water, I decided to call it quits some seven miles short of my original destination. Stepping out of the restaurant was like entering an oven. Following some directions I’d received, I cycled through the remainder of the town and found a run-down motel on the outskirts. Aside from a short food run, I’ve since been lying on the bed, semi-comatose. Even going to the bathroom requires an inordinate amount of energy.

In the same manner as Icarus, I’ve cycled too close to the sun.

Will hit the trail again tomorrow.

    Today:       71 Miles
    To Date:  500 Miles / 804 Kilometers

Roadside Break

Day 11: Reaching the Interstate

September 13, 2002
Plains to Missoula
76 Miles Google Map

Technically, I’m about three miles short of Missoula, but this was such a pleasant day of cycling I’m crediting myself with the extra distance.

By the way, it was a very good idea yesterday to pull up and spend the night in Plains. The next town up the road (ironically named Paradise) did not have much of anything; certainly no hotel. I’d have ended up furtively camping out in someone’s back meadow.

This morning I got out of the gate early, a little after seven o’clock. The sun was just coming up, the air was cool and the traffic scarce. There were no steep hills to tackle and plenty of straightaways, allowing me to simply put my head down and pedal. Despite my sore left leg, I pumped out the miles: forty-one by mid-morning.

The hamlet of Dixon turned out to be yet another wide spot, so I had brunch at a restaurant some seven miles further on in Ravalli. Along the way I encountered the first gusts of wind which would bedevil me much of the rest of the day. I also picked up a brief traveling companion in a frisky dog who harmlessly chased me for a few hundred yards.

After finishing my usual eggs and potatoes (and casting nervous glances out the window at the swaying trees), I struggled out of town on a narrow highway then, to my surprise, suddenly put in ten strong miles. The contrary “breezes” had died down; the shoulder of the road got wider; and the food must have kicked in.

Then the wind returned with a vengeance and I found myself struggling up a long hill. But at the top, like a crown jewel, was a Conoco Station and convenience store that provided me with a much-needed Gatorade break. Beyond that gift was an even better one: a downhill slope that seemed to extend for miles. I was able to coast to almost within shouting distance of Interstate 90, my goal for the day. (A second, less pleasant dog took after me partway down and I was fortunate not to be run over when I did a knee-jerk swerve away from the shoulder — and into traffic — to avoid it.)

At this point the Montana Department of Transportation — which would become my travel nemesis — got in the way, tarring the last stretch of road leading to I-90. This closed off one lane, which left me bailing out when trucks inched past on the remaining narrowed one. A few times, after running over one of the tar streaks, I had to stop and scrape off sticky bits of gravel that had adhered to my tires. But eventually I got through the blackness and emerged onto the wide and forgiving Interstate. For the next six miles, I cruised and watched Missoula unfold around me.

My Motel 6 (how I love motels with numbers in their names) is as far removed from last night’s depressing dump as the Earth is from the moon. The furniture is newer and more comfortable, and the desk doesn’t look like it’s about to collapse. There is even a laundry facility that allowed me to skip the washing-by-hand ritual for tonight.

Dinner was a couple of McDonald’s burgers and a vanilla shake mixed with Cherry Pepsi. It all tasted near heavenly, I’m embarrassed to admit.

    Today:       76 Miles
    To Date:  576 Miles / 927 Kilometers

Day 12: A New TV Program

September 14, 2002
Missoula to Deer Lodge
83 Miles Google Map

Hello boys and girls. It’s time once again for your all-time favorite show: Sideswipe The Cyclist.

Brought to you by the Montana Department of Transportation.

As we all know, the U.S. Interstate Highway system usually features two lanes for traffic headed in each direction, plus a generous shoulder. It is this shoulder area where bicycle riders can be found and where drivers must focus their assault. The goal is to swiftly and stealthily approach from the rear (ideally in an SUV or Mac Truck), then abruptly swerve towards the cyclist, forcing him onto the embankment. Points are awarded depending on how far the mark has been forced off the road. A special bonus if the rider falls over.

Kind of like Roller Derby.

To improve the motorists’ chances, the Montana DOT has thoughtfully done the following work on the stretch of I-90 north of Deer Lodge:

— Red cones have been placed in the middle of the road, directing traffic onto the right lane. This squeezes the motorists and cyclists into close proximity, guaranteeing plenty of hair-raising encounters. 

— The shoulder asphalt has been scrapped, leaving a bewildering surface of etched waves and diagonals, not unlike a Picasso painting. These serve the purpose of slowing down and confusing the bicycle riders, making them easier targets. 

So start your engines, and happy hunting!

Despite the above anxieties, it was a well executed, record distance day. In the absence of those traffic-clogging cones, I-90 was actually a very pleasant ride, so much so that I decided to stay on and head towards Butte rather than following the original plan of getting off at the Helena exit. Of course there’s going to be plenty of traffic to contend with on a main thoroughfare, but the shoulder is wide and generally free of pebbles and glass. One can focus exclusively on pedaling. Which I did very well outside of the DOT interruption. 

Although I’m wiped out from it, today’s effort nevertheless put me in a good position. It’s now a short and hopefully not-too-demanding ride into Butte tomorrow where I’ll be taking a day off before going up and over the Continental Divide. 

Today’s accommodations are again courtesy of Super 8 Motels. My long, hot day got me into town a bit later than planned and I ended up with the last single room — a smoking one. I probably could have gotten a better deal elsewhere, but with a McDonalds nearby I lacked the will power to search any further.

    Today:       83 Miles
    To Date:  659 Miles / 1,061 Kilometers

Day 13: Winds of Change

September 15, 2002
Deer Lodge to Butte
37 Miles Google Map

Eventually, the elements catch up with you.

It was supposed to be a short, half-day meander down I-90 to Butte. I was in no hurry to get up and out on the road. Which was a mistake. Just before ten, the morning’s light, almost playful breeze began increasing in strength. It seemed like someone was revving up a giant, invisible fan. Cutting across my path, the gusts gradually became strong enough that at times I struggled to maintain my balance. Things then got worse as the highway inexorably turned southeast, directly into the miniature gale.

It was two and a half hours of frustration leading to exhaustion. All those long stretches of what should be easy, level grade stretching out ahead, and here I am peddling in my lowest gears, hunkered down and barely moving. It was a good thing I did the extra mileage the day before or I’d have had to endure another hour (or more) of punishment.

But all bad things must come to an end. I-90 began to mercifully turn back east, away from the teeth of my tormentor. Soon Butte billboards began sprouting up and I knew the worst was behind me.

Once in town, I elected to check out the budget hotels first. These were mostly located in the “Historic Uptown” of Butte. The first one I stopped at had no one but a large floppy-eared dog manning the office. It being Sunday afternoon, I didn’t necessarily expect anyone to be waiting at the counter. However, the animal got me thinking that perhaps this was not my kind of accommodation. I went further up the street.

Hotel number two looked charming. However, there was broken glass all around the front steps — not a feature to warm the heart of a bike rider. Through the window, I saw a sign saying that there was an extra charge for pets. Not the kind of company I wanted to have around in the middle of the night. Losing what marginal interest I had in the area, I returned to I-90 and shortly came across some modern motels situated around the ubiquitous fast food joints. 

Home again, home again. It’s another Super 8 to spend what will be a couple of nights and since I arrived early in the day, I was rewarded with an agreeable, non-smoking room conveniently located on the first floor (which makes it easier to get the bike in and out of). As I’m coming to find out, not all motel rooms are created equal and this one, with its easy chair and sleek, unscratched furniture, is a step above most others. Perfect for spending my day off tomorrow.

Before hitting the hay, I went outside to do some star gazing and view the famous “Our Lady of the Rockies” statue situated on the Continental Divide east of the city. This likeness of Mother Mary is illuminated by floodlights and looks like an angel suspended in the sky. As for my twinkling friends, I couldn’t see much due to the low clouds, which appeared close enough to touch. (At that point it hit me at I was over a mile above sea level.) It felt like I could almost burst through them and into the darkness beyond.

    Today:       37 Miles
    To Date:  696 Miles / 1,120 Kilometers

Day 14: R & R

September 16, 2002
No Miles  No Map

When I get my own apartment again someday, I really must purchase one of these La-z-Boy recliners. This is what’s been missing in my life.

Today I made a second call to the parents. I had spoken with them last night to let them know I’m still alive but had a couple of follow-up items. Since dad is tracking my progress on a U.S. Road Atlas, I want to try and keep him better informed.

Thus far, the big events of my stay in Butte have been an afternoon nap and buying deodorant at K-Mart. And let’s not forget that chicken lunch at the Colonel’s place. He’s now offering A & W Root Beer, so I had the best of all possible meals. Finished it in near-record time, too. (Though I’m resting, my appetite is not taking the day off!)

I believe the Best Western Hotel across the street is the same one I stayed at way back in 1984 when I was doing the move from Iowa to Seattle to start work at a company called Airborne Express (now defunct). United Van Lines was handling my furniture, so it was just me and my trusty Ford Pinto making the long drive. A young man going west to seek his fortune; his whole life in front of him. 

Were I to somehow magically cross paths with that twenty-something fellow, I’d offer him two pieces of advice: First, to find and follow his passions such as I’m doing now. The second would be to invest in Microsoft the minute they go public.

Went to a mall cinema tonight for a real movie as opposed to the commercial-infested ones offered on cable TV. Mel Gibson in Signs. I liked the sometimes entertaining, surreal plot and the way the aliens were woven into the story line instead of just popping up and saying Boo!  Before the movie, I took a few moments in the parking lot for another gander at the majestic Rockies. Felt a real sense of accomplishment at having come this far.

    Today:     None — Rest Day
    To Date:  696 Miles / 1,120 Kilometers

Day 15: Over the Top: The Rockies

September 17, 2002
Butte to Belgrade
76 Miles Google Map

It says something about a man if he can bike through the chilly morning rain, up over the Continental Divide, then onward for another sixty miles. I mean, the guy is either very tough or perhaps should be on some kind of medication.

In my case, it was a combination of guts plus good planning. Yesterday, to get some information, I had stopped in at a Butte bike shop where one of the employees recommended going over the Divide using Highway #2 south of the city, which has a far gentler incline. (I-90, on the other hand, practically goes vertical to get over the peaks.) This was excellent advice. There was still a thousand-foot elevation rise over some seven miles, but that proved to be no problem. The crossing itself was anticlimactic: a half hour of semi-serious climbing at which point I came to a slight rise at the top of which was a small weatherbeaten sign announcing the big accomplishment. I didn’t bother to stop and celebrate, continuing on with an hour of vigorous downhill pedaling accompanied by a friendly breeze that hurried me along. I just wish the annoying rain would have stopped. It kept drizzling the entire day with only a couple of brief respites.

After my early victory, I consumed some pancakes at a restaurant just off the Interstate and made a reservation at another Motel 8, this one fifty miles away. It was ambitious of me, but I figured having taken yesterday off combined with the cool weather would get me there without my legs giving out. Along the way, I did have to cycle up a killer hill, but a soup break halfway into the mini journey helped keep me going.

Arriving at the motel I checked in, then had to spend some time out on the sheltered patio to dry things off and clean up the bike. This still left it a bit messy-looking to be taking into my room, but the lady at the front desk was very understanding. I suspect she felt some sympathy for the long, wet ride I’d had.

It was one of the most rewarding days of my trip.

    Today:       76 Miles
    To Date:  772 Miles / 1,242 Kilometers

Day 16: Aggravations

September 18, 2002
Belgrade to Livingston
37 Miles Google Map

Some days it doesn’t pay to get out of bed, much less get on a bike.

Having lost all confidence in the Weather Channel for its non-reporting of the morning rain back in Butte, I’d started relying on the local papers. The Bozeman — which my Belgrade hotel sold — had precipitation in the early a.m., then clearing. I waited until nine, then shoved off.

The first tentative drops made their appearance about a half hour later. I stopped and rummaged through my bags to retrieve my dazzling yellow rain jacket (which makes me look much like Sesame Street’s Big Bird). Soon the heavier stuff began coming down. This forced a second stop in order for me to break out the garbage bags to be used as covers around the panniers (it requires removing the pannier, inserting it into the bag, then reattaching it through the thin plastic). This was a halfway effort as I did not want to take the sleeping roll, tent and sleeping bag off the bike in order to get at the back panniers; I just encased the front pair since they contained my clothes.

As lunchtime approached, I received a second drenching, this time while navigating a tight, gravelly shoulder. My patience began to crumble. A mile or so up the road, just beyond a chaining area for trucks, I stopped and adjusted one of the garbage bags. When the pannier it was protecting would not then reattach, I let loose with a torrent of heartfelt invectives. Though it remained disconnected, the brief tirade made me feel a little better.

Bozeman Pass, which had loomed large on the day’s to-do list, turned out to be but a gentle three hundred yard incline. At the top was some info about how part of the Lewis & Clark Expedition had passed through here almost two centuries ago. Kind of inspiring to think I was following the path of history, though I doubt they had to worry about panniers that would not fasten. 

The sun finally appeared and a brisk wind blew with me as I sailed down from the top of the pass. Later I stopped at another historical site with more about the L & C story. It began to seem like things were looking up. In fact, I was within sight of the first turnoff to Livingston (the day’s destination) when my pedals froze. 

Back when the rain had appeared unrelenting, I had forced myself to stop and grudgingly enclose the back panniers in plastic garbage bags in the same manner as the front. Now a corner of one of those had somehow gotten caught between the chain and the teeth of the back sprocket and become hopelessly entangled, which is another way of saying I had a true mess to deal with. 

How to free the bag? Being more than a little frustrated, I began with the simplest solution: just grab hold and yank it out, but this only caused the plastic to stretch and tear, leaving me with a nice long strip still firmly entwined. Deciding to think for a change, I reversed the chain direction that loosened things up enough to where I untangle the plastic. But the accident had also caused the chain to slip off. I had to re-thread it through the front chainring, then get it back on the rear sprocket. By the time I was done, my hands looked like I’d spent the afternoon trying to change someone’s oil filter. I used some spit and the water from one of my bottles to clean off the worst of the grime, then rode the rest of the way trying to touch as few things as possible.

Finally arriving in Livingston, I stopped in at the Pizza Hut where I got some directions plus my money’s worth at the buffet. Since this had been such a rough day, I wasn’t keen on trying my luck at an unknown hotel and instead opted for the familiar and reliable local Super 8.

A curious thing happened when I checked in. For some reason, I made a comment to the manager about computers. Well, it turns out this fellow (Terry) was once in the computer communications business and had lost his job after putting in over two decades at the same company. Just two years short of retirement, he was forced out with no retaining benefits. A target of massive cost cutting which, according to him at least, targeted older workers. A cautionary tale for people like myself who are still employed (sort of) in the IT field.

We, or I should say he, spoke for about twenty minutes. Later when he got off work, he chatted some more with me out in front of the hotel as I cleaned my bike. It was here he confided that he’d considered working for one of the local manufacturing companies (which offer better pay than the hotel), but didn’t feel they properly looked after their employee’s health and safety. Finishing his cigarette, he went to his car and drove off. 

I felt sorry for the guy. Not because he was spending his retirement years working at a Livingston, Montana Super 8, but because there seemed to be so little meaning to his life.

    Today:       37 Miles
    To Date:  809 Miles / 1,302 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

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