Days 19 & 20: Belt Mountains to Livingston

On Saturday of Labor Day Weekend we woke up in the city park in Townsend and were rolling by 8am. It was Paul’s first full day on the trip, and it would turn out to be the longest day on a bike he’d ever had. We rolled through the sleeping town, up a small hill, and back onto the plateau. The early morning wind was lighter, but still there. In an hour or so we started up Deep Creek Canyon to cross the Belt Mountains.

Deep Creek turned out to be a perfect travel companion. Stream corridors in arid environments can be magical places, with an explosive diversity of plant life, small fish wiggling in the pools, lots of bird songs, and the promise of animal sightings at dawn and dusk. Water evaporates quickly here so there are also a lot more smells – they reminded me of eucalyptus, wet earth, sweet alder, and sage. But the best thing Deep Creek gave us was a gradual climb. We went up 2,200 feet in 16 miles and barely knew we were climbing.

About halfway through we saw a big-ass Montana pickup pulled over on the left side of the road, and a regular-looking guy filling his water bottle from a pipe spring stuck in the road bank. We needed a fill-up too, so I asked him if the water was good. “A lot of people been drinking this, and none of them are dead yet,” he said. Then his wife leaned over from the passenger side and said, “He gets a quart every time we go over the pass.” Then their dog barked. Good enough.

The Belt Mountains have grazing allotments, so there were several broke-down pastures with horse ramps and a cow every so often. Near the top the trees thinned out and we could see long distances; at the top, elevation 6,200, was a slope that still had some snow. The pass had no name because it wasn’t really a pass. We left the National Forest and continued across a plateau that, incredibly, had some realtor signs and a couple of second homes that obviously had not seen many winters up here. It was over 20 miles to the nearest convenience store. The houses had long driveways; a few even had lawns. When historians write about the Era of Cheap Oil, they will marvel that houses like these ever existed.

The plateau buckled and we had a wonderful swooping downhill run through open pasture with 30-mile view to the north and south. It was privately owned range land with a good solid fence — maybe Ted Turner’s? – and it took us into the huge, treeless Smith River Valley. We turned to the south on U.S. Route 89 with the day’s mileage counter at 30 miles. It was 35 more miles to the next town, Wilsall. We did not know what we’d find there and hoped for water, showers, electricity, and Internet.

The wind was immediate and hard. It came from west to east and so was usually a crosswind, and it quickly intensified as the day heated up. It felt like a 10 mph wind at its constant minimum, but there were gusts of 40 mph or higher that pushed the bike sideways. Any slight change in direction had a big effect. When the road bore east it was more like a tailwind, to the west it became a headwind. But the biggest effect was the constant noise and grit, which quickly fried our brains. It became clear to me, after about 20 miles of this, why the heroes in Westerns don’t talk much and squint all the time. Spend the day outdoors in a dry wind and it’s hard to put two words together.

We rode through a hamlet called Ringling. Yes, it is named for the Ringling Brothers, who once owned most of the valley as an investment. Square mile upon square mile here was planted with dry-land wheat that was ripening and rolling in the wind. At the side of a small cluster of plain, blasted buildings was a handsome church built in 1914, with a new roof and windows. It wasn’t being used for anything but storage, but obviously someone still cared about it.

High mountain peaks were in the distance to the east and west . The western ranges were the Bridger and Absaroka Mountains, which are at the northern end of Yellowstone. To the east were the Crazy Mountains (more about them below). The straightaways were so long and the wind so constant that I began playing mental games to cope. First I tried to figure out how many roadside reflectors there were between mile markers (it varied). Then I daydreamed about various things. Then I broke a rear tire spoke, Paul got a slow leak in his rear tire, and the wind picked up. With eight miles to go we pumped up Paul’s tire, disconnected my rear brake, and pushed on, slightly more tense – always alert for a rock on the edge of the pavement, or for the rear rider’s call of “car back.” Thankfully, there wasn’t much traffic. How could there be? There wasn’t much of anything.

Around 4pm we limped into Wilsall, having done 67 miles, or 17 more than Paul had ever done before. At the edge of town, overlooking the Shields River, was a statue of a mountain man that the town’s first-grade class had named “Thunder Jack.” The river was named by William Clark when he passed through here in 1806 on his way to check out Yellowstone. Jim Bridger lead settlers through here in the 1860s, and lots of hard-bit fellers did all kinds of things up in the hills while they looked for beaver pelts. Their exploits have become our folk heritage, although they were all without a doubt made crazy as loons by the loneliness and the wind.

Sara found us a mom-and-pop motel and RV park where we could pitch our camp and get a hot shower. A friendly guy named John was renting a room there. He explained that the mountains are called Crazy because of an early settler family – mom, dad, and a child. Hostile Indians killed the man and child while mom was out, and when she returned she discovered their bodies. She became grimly efficient at hunting down and killing any Indians she found, said John, and the Indians were so afraid of her that they called her domain the Crazy Woman Mountains. It’s a great story. Who cares if it’s true?

There was also a café serving good food, and after bike repairs and grime removal we strolled over. The joint was jumping, the beer was cold, the fresh Walleye and steaks delicious – although, to be honest, pieces of wet cardboard covered with ketchup would probably have tasted good to me, too. The manager of the café was a fellow named Greg. “Wilsall is a strange place, but I love it here because you don’t ever have to wait at a traffic light,” he said. “There’s great skiing at Bridger, 20 minutes away, and the people are fantastic.” He also allowed that there’s a rail bed, abandoned four years ago, running all the way from Livingston to Ringling. “Wouldn’t that make a great rail trail?”, he said.

Greg is originally from New Jersey. Maybe five years from now, Wilsall will look different. I hope they keep the old grain elevator.

Day 20: Wilsall to Livingston
After ten hours of sleep we rolled south starting at 9am, before the wind got going. It was a great 25-mile ride into Livingston. John and Greg had both told us how to avoid city traffic, and on the side road north of town we got our first glimpse of the Yellowstone River, which we’ll follow over the next few days into the Park. I did a ten-minute interview with Tracey Craig on the “Nonesuch” program on WVBR-FM, a station in Ithaca. Then I broke another damn rear spoke. Clearly, professional attention was needed. I disconnected the rear brake again and we made it to Livingston, where we found that the one bike shop in town was closed. Sara cheerfully volunteered to drive me 25 miles into Bozeman, where I connected with a knowledgeable mechanic named Joby at Owenhouse Ace Hardware and Sports. Paul and I have begun calling Sara “Sacajawea.” Like the woman who guided Lewis and CLark, she saves the expedition over and over again and doesn’t get enough credit for working so hard.

Joby immediately saw that the stock spokes that came with my bike were not up to the strain. He fixed and trued the wheel, but said that a permanent fix would only be possible by buying a new, stronger rear wheel. We devised a plan to call ahead and have the wheel delivered to a shop in Cody, Wyoming. I will pick them up next week when we pass through.

My visit to Bozeman felt kind of like being the High Plains Drifter, except I have a bike instead of a horse and a credit card instead of a gun. Meanwhile, Jim and Paul continued the day’s ride, down the west face of the Absarokas to a RV park near Chico Hot Springs.

I waited at a painfully hip coffee shop in Bozeman that is full of Montana State University students. Tania’s plane landed at 4:30 pm. She pickd me and the bike up and drove us to Chico for two nights, and then to Yellowstone National Park for three nights. Four days of rest, hot springs, and a reunion with my wonderful wife. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.

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bradedmondson

Writing about social change and how it happens.

13 thoughts on “Days 19 & 20: Belt Mountains to Livingston”

  1. Loved hearing you today on Nonesuch! What a wonderful surprise. I did a Ride for Life training ride yesterday, a full lap around Cayuga lake. It was a beautiful day, and I didn’t have to suffer the high straight-line winds that you are encountering. Enjoy Wyoming, and stay safe!
    best,
    Armin

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  2. I have called all immediate family and given them both your websites so they could visit it with regularity. That would be Melissa, Nancy, Johnny, and I might make sure Tod has it,also. Good stuff.. Enjoyable comments.. Very glad you made the chance to do this possible. Love from dogs, cats, and Dad

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  3. Jim, I am following your trip with pleasure, appreciation, and not a little nostalgic jealousy. I enjoyed our day together along the Erie Canal last summer despite my “wrong way Corrigan” start. I am delighted to know that you are more than following through on last summer’s dreams – I am sure it will be the experience of a lifetime. Good luck and Godspeed to you and your companions! Carl

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  4. carl…hey it is great to hear from you. We have been experiencing some great small town culture by going to cafes where the milkshakes are served in the stainless steel containers and are triple the normal size and lumpy with real hard ice cream. Huckleberry is the buzz word this time of year. Not that ice cream is all that small towns have to offer. We camped free in one park. We have had some “real” western beef. I think you had all those experiences as well. People are warm and generous.
    Brad and I have talked about “credit card” touring as you did, self-supported and then our supported method. We have WAY WAY to much STUFF. We spend at least an hour a day going thru stuff. We should have prepared “as if” we were going to have to carry everything.
    The riding is the best part of the day…just put one pedal in front of the other.
    We have 4 days in Yellowstone and it will be great to stay put. SNOW in the forecast. We swapped our campsite for a rustic room.
    Do you have enough free time in your life to ponder a second trip yet?
    Jim

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  5. Hi Jane Luyben….. Hope NC dodges those hurricanes.
    I miss Emma and Alison. There was a 1 1/2 year old at the cafe last night and I tried to play peek a boo but she was too shy. I asked Rachel to save me a piece of Emma’s B’day cake.
    We passed the 1000 mile mark today. And Sara and I have been on the road now for 5 weeks. Last I checked we were still married.
    Jim

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  6. Hi Jim.
    Joe and I are stilling following your adventures. You will love the ride along the Yellowstone River. Joe and I were there two years ago on the MC. There is a lovely road side park where you might want to stop and have a picnic lunch and just enjoy the wonderful water and view. Sounds like Sara is a real trooper.
    Thanks to Brad for his continuous sharing of stories and pictures.

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  7. July 1975 I was dropped off, by a friend driving home for a break from studies, at Lake Village on Yellowstone Lake and rode that evening to West Thumb.

    It was wet, cold rainy evening and I imagined I had never felt worse on a ride. I camped under a little shelter that housed some tourist information (just a roof).

    The next morning I found about three inches of snow on the ground, but decided I had to ride out. During the ride to the south entrance my gears became clogged with snow and I could not shift.

    By the time I reached the South Entrance I was sure that my feet were frozen and I sat down on a log, put my feet in my sleeping bag and began to rub. One of the gate keepers insisted that I get into a heated booth, which I did.

    The feet were not frozen and I headed south, cycling to Afton to sleep under a park bench. No snow after the south entrance, but it froze that night.

    One more day and I was in Logan, Utah in my modest but wonderfully warm apartment.

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  8. Lloyd..you were HARD CORE as a 20 something in 1975. It is 7 AM and in the low 40’s at 4000 ft 35 miles north of Yellowstone on Rt 89. And raining. The forecast is for snow in the Park. I am pondering how far to ride at age 62.
    Jim

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  9. WOW I see there is another Jane out there. I’ve been leaving comments on your site since you started out, but only signing them Jane. Will have to designate Jane Dreessen so you know which Jane.
    What a great adventure!! Jane Dreessen

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  10. hi Jane Dreesen..yes I did know it was you..and I finally feel like I have a tad of breathing room to take advantage of wi fi at this posh RV campground. Remind me of your coast to coast trip…was it the Lewis and Clark route or northern tier or one you created yourself?
    We have been very happy with the 2 weeks of ACA “NT” route thru Washington to Glacier. And the route I picked from Glacier to Yellowstone with a lot of input from the “touring phred” listserve has been great. Not much traffic and exceptional scenery. 99.99% of the traffic moves to the opposite lane and gives us most of the lane to ourselves.
    Did you go thru Yellowstone? They do not encourage biking on the main roads, but do not bar it. We don’t feel “required” to ride thru the Park as part of our trip obligation but will if the traffic looks ok. We should be able to at least do the outside perimeter to get from Mammoth to the east exit to Cody. Depends a bit on how crummy it will be if it is 30’s and snow or rain or sleet. (oh boy)
    I have said this before.. the riding part is not hard. But the weather has been a major distraction. We have had a minimum of “average” temps..either way above ave. or way below… but as remind ourseleves.. we are hard core!
    I don’t know if I could do this carrying all my gear…not so much that it means a slower pace but packing up and setting up in the rain etc must have been hard for you. I did read some journals at CGOAB where people rode the whole 3000-4000 miles and NEVER had it rain. WOW.
    The 42º and rain awaits me and Paul this AM and I guess I should suck it up huh?

    Jim K

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  11. Hi Jim
    Yes we went through Yellowstone and had snow and mild hypotermia. We stayed in the old faithful cabins. We got there before school got out so traffic wasn’t bad. I did have to stop once as a herd of buffalo crossed in front, behind and all around me. It was quite scary. The ranger said if this happend to get off and walk the bike which I did. Dora and I stayed 3 days in Yellowstone looking around and ate dinner at the Old Faithful Inn. Yellowstone was Dora’s favorite place. In hindsight if someone had told me when I stood on the west coast “you are going to make it – don’t worry”, I would have stayed even longer in some of the places out west.
    We started on the coast of Oregon, crossed the Casacades, and in Idaho decided rather than follow maps we would pick our own way across. We went through Yellowstone (stayed 3 days, Tetons and Jackson Hole, Wyoming to Fort Collins Colorado, Rocky Mtn. National Park, and then on to Boulder Color where my son lived. Then across Colorado to Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, corner of PA., home across route 20, and then on to Plymouth Rock Massachusetts.
    Like you we had heat exhaustion in Arco Idaho, hypothermia in Yellowstone, and a tornado in Otis, Colorado. That’s what makes it fun, interesting and a challenge. That’s what makes it an adventure and these challenges are what you will remember. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it (big smile).
    You go Jim!!! You are in some of the prettiest country on the whole trip, sit back, pedal and enjoy the ride. Soon the mountains and their gorgeous scenery will be gone and you will be in the rolling hills – with some level land – in the midwest.
    Take care and hi to Sara. Jane Dreessen

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  12. Hi Jim and Sara: Your blog journal has been wonderful and your progress commendable. It appears you have the written basis for a fine presentation and maybe even a book when you are finished. Has Sara had to back up the camper yet? We spent the night with the Delaneys in Peterborough, N.H., and enjoyed seeing their fine new home and beautiful forest “neighborhood”. The last three days we have been in a really great B&B in Kennebunkport, Maine, with just gorgeous weather. Tomorrow it is on to Saddleback Lake for a couple of weeks of reading, hiking, reading, canoeing, reading, and hiking. Maine has had extensive rain this summer, and people have been pulling off of the AT because of deplorable trail conditions, so it will be interesting to see what the hiking will be like. During that time we may not be able to access your blog to follow your progress, unless the library has the computers available. I hope your progress remains good, the wind stays at your back, and you all stay safe. David Marsh, and Linda too.

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