Days 16 & 17: Tailwind To Helena

Day 16: Up The Blackfoot River
The rain let up enough for us to leave Seeley Lake around 1:30pm, with 55 miles to go to Lincoln. This was a big Pacific storm, and it was not done with us yet. Dark gray clouds scudded across the sky from west to east, pushed by a crosswind strong and gusty enough to throw the bike sideways. We held on tight. We rode through the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area, which looked like a great place to see a bear or an elk, but we had no luck. Fifteen miles down the road we reached the intersection with Montana Route 200, which had an ordinary gas station with an extraordinary fiberglass steer out front. We turned left and started heading east.

When we turned, the wind became our friend – not a kind and gentle friend, but a fun, wild friend who might make you do things you shouldn’t do. Jim’s bike computer shows that our average speed on this trip so far has been about 5 to 8 miles an hour on uphills and 13 mph on flat ground. With the tailwind, we were doing uphills at 15 mph and level ground at speeds well above 20 mph. It was kind of like piloting a motorcycle; fun, but requiring quicker reflexes and more intense concentration. We did the 40 miles to Lincoln in about two and a half hours.

Our roadside companion was the Blackfoot River, which flowed broad and shallow through rolling hills. After a while we turned into a canyon and the river got smaller and faster. When trout anglers fantasize, this is what they see. The wind gusts in the canyon became more erratic and sometimes the wind turned on us, which was shocking. ONe tends to take a tailwind for granted after a while.  Four miles from Lincoln, the rain finally came – horizontal sheets of rain blowing sideways from out of a side canyon, with nasty wind gusts. Shouting and cursing, we rode through it and met Sara and the camper at a private RV park on the edge of the village. Before long we were in full recovery mode, with a good hot shower, wireless internet, and a great meal at the Moose Joose Saloon. I pitched my tent next to a small stream that gurgled softly all night long, and slept ten hours.

Al’s Hat at The Great Divide

We started out on Thursday the 28th, Day 17 of the trip, at 8:30 am. We were bound for
Helena,where we would pick up Paul, Jim’s younger brother, to ride with us through Yellowstone Park. We were going over the Continental Divide today at Flesher Pass, elevation 6,200, a gain of about 2,000 feet. We rode through Lincoln, which seemed to be mostly a strip of bars with slot machines, and when we got to the end of town we were delighted to find that the tailwind was still there. Traffic was light, and the clouds were higher with no threat of rain. It was cold, but otherwise perfect weather for a ride. We quickly ate up ten miles and turned onto state route 279, the road to Flesher Pass.

Asphalt trucks. Road Work Next 20 Miles. Expect Delays. In a car these would be frustrating developments, but to a bicyclist they are a ticket to a private road. All the way up to the top, we had long stretches with no traffic in either direction on a road that was paved yesterday. Then a slow-moving truck with a flashing light on top would pass us, followed by a line of slow-moving cars. Then we’d have another two miles of complete solitude. It was perfect. By 10:30 am we were at the Continental Divide. Flesher Pass isn’t much to look at – it’s below timberline, does not have a stunning 100-mile view, and on the day we passed through it was the parking lot for the construction crew. “This isn’t any worse than the climb from Naples to Branchport,” said Jim. But it WAS the Great Divide. We took out Al’s hat for the Official Photo and, hurried along by the wind, started down.

The “front range” is what you call the wall of the Rocky Mountains that faces the Great Plains. Our downhill run was long, gradual, and glorious, but we weren’t at the Plains yet. It was more like the Montana Steppes – high and arid, with sagebrush and Ponderosa pines. We rode past irrigated alfalfa fields, lonely ranch houses, and hunting cabins. At one point a turkey vulture circled directly over our heads for a while, apparently checking out whether we might be good to eat. It was real Big Sky Country, and it was so wide open that it was spooky. It was a relief to find the Canyon Creek Country Store, where Sara caught up to us. This was a combination convenience store, gas station, post office, and antique store, with an outhouse for a bathroom. “It looks like we’re out in the middle of nowhere, but there are really a lot of people living within ten miles of here,” said the woman behind the counter. “The summers are nice, and hunting season is our busiest time. Winters kind of stink.”

We headed out for the last 15 miles of the day and saw a clear sign that we had crested the Rockies: lenticular clouds, which hug the updraft of the mountains and can run along the front range for hundreds of miles. Lenticular clouds often have dramatic, aerodynamic shapes. The one we rode under today was like a wedge that ran from the northern horizon to the southern horizon.

The road flattened out and just like that, we were in the northern sprawl of Helena. We rode through it and met Sara at White Sandy, a Bureau of Land Management campground on an artificial lake. After we set up, Jim and I ran to get Paul’s bike and meet him at the airport.  We also had time to run a few errands in Helena, which was the biggest city we had seen since we left Seattle.

Day 18: Canyon Ferry Lake & Townsend, MT

We woke up before dawn, packed the camper, and Sara rolled out with us at 8:30 am. Our campsite was three miles down a dirt road, and I had broken a spoke the last time I rode on a washboard surface. I didn’t want to risk it again. Our riding partner for the next eight days would be Jim’s younger brother Paul, a consultant who lives with his wife and three of their four children in Atlanta. Paul had been training hard on his new Schwinn Peloton racing bike, but he still seemed anxious, having never done this before. “It’s like having a summer job outdoors,” I told him. “You get up early and work hard until mid-afternoon. At the end of the day you’re tired and you need a shower. You sleep well and you want to go to bed as soon as it’s dark.”

During the shipping Paul’s bike developed a mechanical problem we couldn’t fix, so he and Sara drove into Helena while Jim and I started out. We rode 16 miles, first south then east, to Canyon Ferry Dam, another wad of concrete 225 feet high and1,000 feet long that holds back two million acre-feet of the Missouri River. This was near the headwaters of the Missouri, where Meriweather Lewis and his band of soldiers met up with William Clark in the summer of 1805. Lewis’s journal says that progress up the Missouri was hard – the Corps of Exploration averaged only about 18 miles a day on this stretch – and that a 16-mile canyon with sheer walls 1,200 feet high made it impossible to camp until after nightfall. The canyon was drowned 53 years ago by the dam Jim and I were crossing. Another dam just downstream had created the artificial lake where we stayed last night.

The question that always pops up in my mind when I see these dams is whether or not they are really necessary. On this ride, I’ve come to understand that this is the wrong question. Fifty-year-old people in Helena have never known a time when there wasn’t a dam, and Helena depends on its water and power. It’s sad to think that the beautiful wild river Lewis and Clark saw is gone forever, along with most of the salmon population and countless other species. But there is an endless list of sad thoughts you can have about things that are over and done with, and if you go that route all you’ve done is wallow in self-pity. The important question is how well we are doing with the West we have created.  We should focus on saving the natural places that escaped the dam-builders, dismantling the dams that are not needed, and restoring the landscapes that can be restored.

It didn’t look like Helena had made up its mind yet on this question. The ride to the dam was through rolling hills with lots of farms and pasture, and there were also lots of scattershot housing developments with trees less than two years old. A lot of the open land had Realtor signs on it, either “For Sale” or some developer’s come-on. It was sad to see Helena going the route of low-density sprawl that started in Los Angeles and reached its smoggy apotheosis in Denver. On the other hand, there is a land trust here, and there is an open space bond issue on the ballot. Whether it passes will depend on who works harder (Editing note:  the bond issue passed, barely).

We rode across the dam and gawked at the electrical station at its base. Then we continued south on state route 284, climbing and dropping in a series of steep hills that were small but tough. About 20 miles into the ride Sara passed us with Paul and his bike, now fixed. Shortly after he joined us, the road straightened out and flattened. It was 30 miles to Townsend. The Belt Mountains rose to the east; we will cross them tomorrow. To the west, across the big flat lake, were the Elkhorn Mountains of the Helena National Forest.

This is a big, open landscape that looks a little bit like a central California valley, although the mountains are more heavily forested. Huge wheat and alfalfa farms sprawled away on either side of us, mile after mile. Unfortunately, the wind kicked up from the south and blew directly in our faces at 10 to 20 miles an hour. We formed a peolton and struggled through it, but we were drained when we pulled into Townsend.  Jim later said that this was the hardest day of the trip for him.  One reason was that h had a slow leak in his front tire, which wasn’t apparent until it showed up flat the next morning.

We set up camp at the community park in the center of town. A friendly woman at the local Chamber of Commerce gave us a key to the bathroom, and we got electricity from a power pole. They didn’t charge us anything. When the schools let out, three little girls rode by the park on their Huffy bikes with 12-inch wheels. One of them had streamers on her handlebars. Go girls, go!

Jim, Sara, and Paul went to the Mint casino for mid-afternoon milkshakes. I went to the Community Library, which was also full of after-school children since it is attached to the public school complex. I could see high school football practice out the window. One of the sweet regrets of this trip was seeing so many places like Townsend, which seem vital and interesting and full of stories, but having only an hour or so to be part of them before it was time for the next thing. I guess I have to come back.

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.

Jim on Day 21: Unexpected Tea

While Brad went off with Sara to Bozeman to have his bike looked at, and to later hitch up with Tania, Paul and I biked from Livingston to Emigrant on the east side of the Yellowstone River and up against the Absaroka Range. It was a RARE sunny afternoon and we soaked it up with a wind to our back for the first hour. The wind later did a 180º and we had to beat a path into it. I made a note to tell Paul’s concerned wife, Annette, that there was no traffic.

We had great close up views of the Absarokas. It was an ideal valley setting with the mountains on one edge and the Yellowstone River on the other. In fact we saw many ideal settings for residential development in Montana. Apparently so did the developers.

We saw many entry gates to potential subdivisions. Some were elaborate with fighting bronze elks, ponds, and gate houses to keep wanderers like us out. What was missing was houses. We saw only one house being built in more than a dozen empty subdivisions. I did envy their access to large rocks, logs, and loads of “housing boom” money.

Our stay that night after a 60+ mile ride was in a very upscale RV Park along the Yellowstone River that did not allow tents. However, they thought the bike trip so novel they allowed brother Paul to set up his tent under the pull out of the camper.

We try to avoid these RV Parks. They make us look and feel like poor country mice with our pop up camper. They do, however, have wireless internet connections and great showers to help offset the $30-$40 cost. It started raining that night (again). We had to take down and stow wet gear (again). This is not our favorite chore. It makes us lust for a “real RV”.

The next day Brad and Tania were still soaking at Chico Hot Springs. Paul and I donned wet gear and took to the road in a 42º drizzle, but we did have a good tail wind from the north. A drizzle is survivable on a bike at 15-20 mph. It does help keep the feet clean.

The clouds ahead seemed to indicate that more than a drizzle was in the future. Right again: we ran into a downpour that pooled water on the road and soaked us to the bone, especially when the occasional car passed us. Paul’s bike developed a wobble and soon a flat rear tire. We dashed back a quarter-mile to a US Forest Service Campground, where he tried to find shelter behind a “vault toilet” (aka “outhouse” or “pit toilet”). It did not occur to use to seek shelter inside, where the odor would actually have been less intense than it was standing next to the vent pipe on the back of the structure. We didn’t know it then, but we were acting confused and hypothermia was setting in.

Out of nowhere a young woman appeared and walked into the toilet.
What was she thinking when she saw two men hiding behind the toilet tearing into their bike bags for tools? Such composure she had. We did not. Pedaling had kept us minimally warm in that cold rain, but as soon as we stopped the cold sunk in. A minute later a voice asked, “Would you like some tea? Earl Gray or Black?” Out of the rain appeared Jared Moore from Bozeman with a mug of hot water and a choice of teabags. We learned that he was from Blue Earth, Minnesota. Paul and I were born and raised in Jackson, Minnesota. I played sports against Blue Earth. What a small world, and what a good soul Jared was.

In spite of being soaked and cold, we were hoping to ride to the gates of Yellowstone, but in my panic to get us back on the road we made a simple error and the new rear tire went flat within 100 feet of the fancy outhouse. What might that error have been? Contact me for the answer.

Sara came to our rescue and we rode through the gates of Yellowstone near Mammoth Hot Springs. I made a mental note to look up Jared’s dad when we rode through Blue Earth.




Day 21: Chico Hot Springs

The Corps split on Labor Day. Jim and Paul rode bravely through a cold rain to the gates of Yellowstone. I held back and spent a rest day at Chico Hot Springs. Tania and I saluted Jim and Paul’s bravery by raising cold cans of Olympia while soaking in the 105 degree water.

Chico Hot Springs is in the Yellowstone River Valley at the base of Mount Emigrant (elevation 10,900 ft). The Montana WPA Guide relates a legend that the explorer Jim Bridger spent the winter of 1844-45 here, uneasily co-existing with Crow Indians. Gold was discovered in Emigrant Gulch in 1862. In 1864, a team of settlers arrived, and according to the Guide “their attention was drawn to a lone pine with 18 to 20 elk horns around its base, so strongly embedded that they could not be removed. In December of that year Jim Bridger and one of the settlers met at a primitive hotel near Bozeman. When, during the swapping of stories, the ring of elk horns was mentioned, Bridger asserted that he had placed them there 25 years before.”

Miners built crude vats to bathe and wash their clothes in the hot springs. In 1876, one of them tapped the 112-degree water and ran it under a greenhouse so he could grow vegetables. Percie and Bill Knowles built the original hotel in 1900; Teddy Roosevelt and Charlie Russell were among the guests ferried in by car from the train station at Emigrant. In 1910, Percie and her son Radbourne re-opened the hotel as a sanitorium under the direction of Dr. George Townsend. By the 1940s the Hot Springs was more of a dude ranch and gambling hall.

The present owners have restored the 1900s-style architecture and Craftsman furnishings, and what we saw is a beautiful example of an early 20th century health resort. It’s affordable; a room with shared bath can be had for as little as $49. The restaurant is not cheap but it’s sophisticated, friendly, and has an excellent chef. You can get a massage and ride a horse if you want to, but all we wanted to do was lie around. I will make the ride tomorrow, hopefully after this storm blows through, and Tania will chase me in her rental car; we will all meet at Canyon on Tuesday afternoon.