What a ride, what a ride.

I’m currently in West Yellowstone MT, which is not really on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, but it is near to it. Near enough that I decided to take four days off to see Yellowstone. Never having been here before, I couldn’t pass so close and yet not visit. And I finally have access to internet; I can hardly even remember the last time I posted. I believe it was from Butte MT. Let me catch you up then.

Butte Montana is home to the Berkeley Pit, a hole nearly as large as the city itself left behind from an open pit mine of the ‘Richest Hill On Earth’, as it once was called. It’s now filling in with toxic water, and has been ever since operations ceased there in the eighties. It’s hard to view Butte without the barren, scarred sides of the pit filling the entire background. I rolled into the city only minutes before a storm, and sitting outside of the Safeway, as I stuffed food into my bags, every single person who walked into the store would comment: There’s a storm coming. or This is no day for riding a bicycle. or You know it might snow, right? I could see, as I hunched down near my dirty bike tires, a great wall of black clouds, blotting out the landscape as it moved towards Butte, and me. I stayed in town that night, because I wanted to avoid such inclement weather when I crossed the Continental Divide just outside of Butte, after a climb of several thousand feet to reach an elevation of over 7,000′. However, if someone was meant to avoid foul weather, it certainly wasn’t me. The next day, it was cold, windy, and rainy. I huddled under the overhang of a pit toilet at the pass wearing every layer I had with me and watched the fat snowflakes blow through the air, the fat little flakes which weren’t visible until the trees or the the clumps of brown grass were behind them because they were the same color as the low-hanging, heavy clouds dragging along the ground. As I stood there, a few guys rolled by in a truck, then turned around and came back. They offered me a ride, saying they had come up from the city to see the spectacle of snow falling in August, and they were headed back down to Butte. No thanks, I tell them, I’m headed the other way. Well, one replies, I sure hope you have some chains for your bike tires. They go on to add, as I have been told so many times, that it’s usually not like this, snow this time of year. As they drive off, I try to warm myself with that thought. It doesn’t work.

Descending the pass after Butte.

Later that day, with frozen bricks on the end of my legs pushing my pedals in little circles, low thunderclouds came in and unleashed such a hail storm, I can’t even describe it. I had to run for the trees and cower from the painful stones, and I watched as the ground and even the flat places on my bike mounded with piles of glistening, hard-edged hail stones. I woke up the next morning and everything was frozen, but at least the rain had become less certain about what it was doing. Between gusts of rain, I made my way into Wise River, at the confluence of the Big Hole River and the Wisdom River, resupplied, and then traveled south into the Pioneer Mountains. More rain that night, more rain the next day. And wind, a strong wind blowing from the south-southwest, driving the rain from the west side of the Rockies to east side where I rode. Nonetheless, I made it out of the Pioneer mountains into a broad, grassy valley of ranch lands to Bannack State Park.

Bannack is a very interesting place. It was the first territorial capitol of Montana, meaning it was capitol before Montana was fully the state that it is now. Bannack grew out the first major gold find in Montana in the 1860s, and the population quickly swelled to several thousand. As happened with many mining towns, as the resource declined, so did the population until eventually there was nobody left to dig, to run down the boardwalks, to pour drinks in the saloon or slam the doors. Bannack became a bona fide ghost town. Some people became interested in preserving it as such, and now you can tour the place, wander through some of the buildings, most from the 1860s, and learn all about the history behind the walls of the leaning, sagging homes and stores. The wind blew tumbleweed down the empty streets the day I was there, and the sun shown weakly through the leaded window panes. I read about betrayals, murders, and hangings, not to mention disease quarantines and hauntings. It was a great stop.

The ghost town of Bannack.

After Bannack, the route climbed up another pass to a high elevation desert in the rain shadow of the mountains:

Cresting a pass in a high altitude desert. This was over 8,000' in elevation.

From there, it descended through dry canyons to the town of Lima. And as ever, heading southward meant I had headwind. After Lima, the route turned directly east up through the Centennial Valley, past the Red Rocks National Wildlife Refuge, and then practically to Yellowstone’s door.

Red Rocks Wildlife Refuge. This place was breathtaking.

I thought that the day I left Lima and headed east would be my day: I would finally, finally, get a good tail wind. What happens as soon as I start riding? If I am the protagonist, the plucky hero, who is the antagonist in my tale? The wind, that mover of all things. The wind, which was stiffly blowing from the east as soon as I left Lima. And it blew, and blew, and blew all day long. There is nowhere to escape, when the wind blows like that, rushing in your ears, stinging your face with dust, filling the crevices of your teeth with grit. I was so upset, I yelled. I screamed. I cried. I kicked a sage bush. And then I did the only thing I could, which was get back on Lolita, put my head down, and ride patiently, because I certainly wasn’t going anywhere fast. The next day, as I crossed into Idaho, the wind blew up so much dust from somewhere nearby, visibility was reduced to less than a quarter mile everywhere. This wind is a fierce thing to contend with.

Along the way I have met some very interesting people. In Wise River, a man struck up a conversation with me. He said he had been put in my path by God hisself to warn me that a mountain lion was going to try to kill me, and he very graphically described the manner with elaborate hand gestures. He then told me to get a knife, and held up his hands about eight inches apart. With a blade this big, he said, thrusting his hands towards my face, and with a really sharp point. He said the point need to be sharp and straight, so that I might stick the cat in the neck. Okay, I said, I’ll think about it. I smiled. He smiled. What more needed to be said?

In Bannack I met a couple who happened to be from Seattle. They gave me food, shared a fire with me, and even gave me a stick, a marshmallow, and all the accoutrement required for the finest of all foods, the s’more. What’s more, Jon kept a cup of Makers Mark in my hand for most of the evening. When I woke up early to the next frost-covered morning, my pee smelled like bourbon, but I slept better that night than I had in weeks.

The next night, as I was pitching my tent in the gathering dusk on a barren, windswept prairie, what should I here in the distance but a bear bell jingling on a bicycle. Diedrich, a guy from Amsterdam, came riding up and camped with me. He’s taking a year before starting college to ride all over the U.S. and part of Latin America. Starting in Seattle, he rode across Washington and had a great time, but Montana had become a little lonelier for him. We rode together the next day, and he talked of how lucky we in the U.S. are to have such beautiful land right out our doorsteps. Indeed, Diedrich. If only more of us knew it, but I’m out here trying to learn.

At Red Rocks National Wildlife Refuge, as I was puttering around setting up camp in the setting sun, a couple from Bozeman Montana arrived with a canoe strapped to the top of their vehicle. They took me out on a sunset canoe ride on the lake, where we drank wine, listened to honking of Trumpeter swans, and watched the last of the oranges fade to inky blues on the western horizon. We listened in awe as hundreds of ducks from all over the lake took flight at once, a vibrating, splashing sound of water and air driving in all directions across the wetlands.

Sunset at Red Rocks National Wildlife Refuge

And not everybody is so gracious. In Butte, for example, I was honked at, swerved at, and called a faggot from a passing car window. In general, people respond to me in funny ways. Usually women say ‘Are you doing this alone? You must be very brave.’ In contrast, I’ve had more than enough men say ‘Are you doing this alone? You are way too pretty to be out here by yourself.’ Wow, is that creepy. This, I assure you, is absolutely the last thing I want to hear from a man who is leering at me and my bicycle. Yes, I say to the women, I am brave, because there are some weird people in the world, and I seem to run into most of them.

I’ve been having mediocre luck with food. Before West Yellowstone, Butte was the last time I found a well-stocked grocery. Lately it’s all been gas station food, though in Wise River I bought a frozen package of pre-cooked spinach and microwaved it at the store. It was gloopy and generally unappetizing, but it was vegetables, which I am in such desperate need of. It’s good to remember that most of the world does not live in the richness that we in Seattle do, with fresh produce coming from farmer’s markets in practically every neighborhood of the city. In both rural and inner city areas of the U.S., people often eat out of convenience stores, where everything comes in at least two layers of packaging. I thought about this as I dipped my Keebler Eleve’s Fudge Sticks cookies into my Frito Lay Spicy Bean Dip in camp a couple nights ago, the life lived on entirely processed foods. How can a good life balance on mountain dew and pork rinds?

The ride has so far been beautiful at times, devastating at others, even occasionally dull. It has largely been on roads, of which I can say there are far too many in the woods. They go everywhere, these roads, and even though I am using them, I have to wonder what we’ve done, filling the back country with so many roads we don’t even know them all. And cows. My goodness, there are cows everywhere.

Cows in the road. Oh my.

Every last scrap of land is being ranched, presumably to fill the insatiable need of our people for beef. I have seen the travesty that wild lands are becoming under the tender ministrations of these simple creatures, so I have to ask all of you out there: must you really eat that much beef? I pass hundreds of cows every day on this trip, and they have destroyed most of the water the sources I filter from. Sadly, they haven’t a clue what is in store for them. Run!, I yelled to a group of shiny black ones the other day. Run! Organize! Revolt! Do something for god’s sake! But alas, they just stared. And pooed. And stared more.

The nights are starting to get colder, and I feel winter coming on in my bones. I hope I can get through the high country in Colorado before snow starts accumulating, but I have the entire state of Wyoming, including the Great Basin Desert, before I can even begin to discover Colorado’s high country. The undeniably good news is that when I crossed the Continental Divide heading east from Red Rocks Wildlife Refuge, I crossed from Montana into Idaho and from the east side of the Rockies to the west side (in a little geographical brain twister). West Yellowstone does happen to be in Montana, but it sits perched right on the edge. Other than this little detour, I am done with Montana. I have ridden over 1,000 miles in 27 days so far, and have well over a thousand left to go, but Montana, this beautiful state of treasures, is now behind me. Yay.

I have a rhythm under me now, a kind of beating of the blood in my body that moves me along, over hill and under freeway. Some days, it is true that I am tired or frustrated, but many days I feel I am doing no less than saving my own soul out here. There is a magic kind of medicine when you go out into the world and meet it on it’s terms. I rise in the morning and I sleep at night, just like at home, but out here, there is a steady sort of continuity, a line of miles and sweat and breath that unfolds behind me, and I feel tethered and yet free.

Here is the map of where I go next:

Island Park, ID to around South Pass City, WY

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