I left Lincoln smiling and smelling of laundry detergent. I was well-fed, well-rested, it was sunny, and even though a strong wind was blowin and I had an extremely steep climb of several thousand feet to cross the Continental Divide near Stemple Pass, I felt good. Little did I know Stemple Pass was on fire.  I noticed as I climbed into the hills that a column of smoke billowed in roughly the direction I was headed, but I assumed it didn’t affect my route, as there were no road closure signs posted. At one point early on, I was passed by a truck full of USFS personnel, all of whom waved, but they didn’t suggest I halt my progress on account of any activity in the pass. So up I climb, and not too long after turning onto an unruly jeep track, I crashed my bike and got my freshly laundered clothes covered in mud.

Muddy tragedy.

 One of my saddle bags was slightly open at the top to accomodate a crown of broccoli I had stashed for later, and the bag filled up with muddy water. I had to stop and dry all my things before I could move on, significantly dirtier than I had been before. I was aware of the need to hurry, in case the wind changed or the fire was near my road, but the muddy water couldn’t wait to be dealt with. I even soaked the granola bar I was planning to eat on the pass. As I climbed I noted the smoke was to the north of where I was intending to cross the mountains, but I couldn’t be sure how far to the north.

The smoke over the trees, somewhere up above me.

As I came up close to the top, it became clear the fire was very near indeed to my road. The road up to the pass was so steep, much of it I couldn’t ride, so I half-ran, half-walked my bike for several extremely arduous miles to try to outrun the fire over the pass. The wind was blowing from the south, so the fire in general was moving away from me, but by the time I reached the top, a full fleet of helicopters and planes were fighting the conflagration, which burned on the ridge just to my left and above me. I reached the top, got a few pictures, and then rode as fast as I could down the other side.

The fire in the pass.

I’ve since heard that the pass was closed only shortly after I went through, and it probably should have been closed before I went through. This means that for the people travelling behind me (Tom and Sarah!), a detour has to be found, I think.

I descended from the pass in a great hurry, so I didn’t take time to stop and fill up on water. By the time I reached the valley floor on the other side, it was hot and windy, I was out of water, and I was exhausted from racing up the pass to outrun the fire. I can ride all day at a moderate pace, but working my edge of exertion for hours in a stressful situation takes everything I’ve got. Feeling a mild kind of heat-exhaustion, I teetered along until I could access a stream, though all the streams in the area are like a weakly-steeped cow-pile tea. Nonethelss, I filtered some water, then rode along until I found a campsite several miles up the next pass. This campsite had the distinguishment of the most moths I have ever seen in one place. They covered my removed shoes and socks until you could barely see the fabric anymore; it was grotesque and beautiful and bug-like. The wind was still gusting strongly, and then, the storms started. Some of the most violent electrical storms I have ever been in. The lightning would come in low, right over head in my little valley, and I couldn’t help but think of the eight rams that just died on Wildhorse Island in Flathead Lake when lightning struck the tree they were congregated under. And every brilliant, blinding flash illuminated the hundreds  of moths clinging tenaciously all over the outside of my tarp. The wind blew fiercely, and the rain, which only fell sometimes during the storm, soaked the ground and my tarp stakes loosened, then would be torn free in violent gusts of wind. I slept very little that night. And I so desperately needed the sleep after my run over Stemple Pass.

In summary: crash in mudpuddle, outrun fire over steep hill, heat exhaustion, attack of the moths, violent thunderstorms, wind, no sleep. A banner day in Montana.

The next day, I got up very early and started riding, intending to head for Helena. I had two more passes to cross before I could get there, though, and I was tired. I rode slowly, blown about the wind. The terrain through the area wasn’t especially inspiring; the mountains around Helena show evidence of resource extraction everywhere, from clearcuts to mine after mine after mine, both very old shafts and new, active mines. The mountains are criscrossed with a complex web of roads of every sort, and it takes a bit of attention to keep from getting lost, as nothing is signed. I made it to Helena that day, but Helena had nowhere to stay. I got a burrito then headed back out to the trail, riding a few more miles before stopping in a campground that was closed, so it was quiet and peaceful (no barking dogs, no generators running on RVs) and I slept very well.

The campground was closed because of pine beetle-infested trees. This is probably why Stemple Pass burned so wildly also. I talked with a Butte resident who told me that pine beetles have a natural kind of anti-freeze in their little bug bodies, and so can live through short, minor freezes in the winter. But Montana used to have long, several-week long, deep freezes every winter which would kill off the majority of the beetles and essentially clear away the clutter for the next season, a sort of winter cleaning if you will. In recent years, though, Montana hasn’t had freezes like that. In recent years, Montana has been warming up. So the forests are infested with beetles and the trees are dying in mass numbers. Standing on a ridge, looking out across vast forests, there is more red than green; more dead trees than live ones.

Look for red trees.

Dead tree on hillside.

As far as one can see in the forests, this is true. I think the state is starting to undertake removal in some forests, but I wonder how effective it will be. If they don’t so something, all of Montana will burn and there won’t be any forests left- just clearcut scars and endless stands of burned sticks.

The ride from Helena to Butte has been much much better than from Lincoln to Helena. The trail went through what was described on the map as the hardest section on the entire route. The Lava Mountain Trail is sort of a single track trail that is more rock and tree root than dirt. I enjoyed it, but I had to walk much of it because it was impossible to ride a loaded bike over.

The boulder-strewn Lava Mountain Trail.

From there, the trail dropped through a creek canyon to the small town of Basin, home to the Merry Widow Health Mine (an old mine that people now use for helath purposes; they bask in the ambient radon gas, believing it to stimulate the pituitary gland). Shortly after Basin, I was overtaken by three men riding motorocycles along as much of the route as they can. I’d heard that people sometimes ride motorcycles on the Great Divide Route, and now I’d finally met a few. We ended up camping together, and it was lovely to have company again. They are only riding to Colorado, but they go so much faster than me it’s kind of weird to contemplate. I plan to get to Yellowstone a week from tomorrow. They plan to get there tonight. It almost feels like getting left behind, when they are doing what I’m doing but much much faster. But then, I can ride parts they can’t (The Lava Mountain Trail, for example), and becasue I go so much slower, I soak in my surroundings in a more complete way.  The internet-user in me has an appetite for the quick processing of information, the fast experience. I could drive the whole route on a motorcycle in two weeks, be done with it, and get on with my life. But here I am, slowing way way down, travelling 35 or 40 miles a day (on dirt, this is a respectable number, as opposed to pavement, where 60 or 70 or 80 miles is more typical in a day). The land rolls by almost sleepily. It is my respite from the fast-moving world we all normally inhabit.

I’m in Butte now, and headed back out soon. It’s another one of those really cold, rainy August days in Montana. The rain has been good in keeping the dust down on the roads, keeping them from gettting too washboarded, and keeping wild fires at bay, but it has made my trip, obviously, colder and wetter. And it looks like Wise River, my next resupply stop, may have some snow. Here is my route for the next stretch:

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