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.