2004 Bike Trip: Montana

Leif Johnson — 12 Jul 2004, 16:07

it's hard to believe that a week has passed already ! in the past few days i've ridden along through eastern and central montana, making it from belle fourche (pronounced “bel foosh") to great falls along some really flat, really beautiful, and really expansive terrain.

hailstorms, or just wind ?

on the second day after belle fourche, i rolled up into the custer national forest and then descended through a light wind to ashland, montana, where i angled my bike to the shady sidewalk along the front of the grocery store in town. the bank display across the street from me read 37 degrees celsius (100 fahrenheit !), so i sat there and relaxed for a bit in the hopes that things might cool down a bit.

but, as i talked with folks coming and going, it became apparent that a storm was rolling up, rumored to carry “some real pounders” (hailstones, associated with a fist-sized gesture from this fellow that i met in broadus earlier that day ; he'd ridden his bike from neah bay, washington to kitty hawk, north carolina in 50 days in 1993).

hail is definitely not something i want to encounter on a bicycle, so i debated the merits of finding shelter from the storm—not yet present—and staying in shelter from the heat—ever-present—and making a bit more distance for the day—it was only 4 in the afternoon. but i found out about a shortcut up to colstrip, where i might be able to find a place to camp, so i headed out. the road quickly turned to dirt outside of town, and the next 15 miles or so were accompanied by a bone-jarring, brain-shaking washboard-and-gravel road surface that climbed up to a really pretty alpine valley, then descended to a creek (pronounced “crick” since somewhere in nebraska). the only thought i entertained most of the time was to wonder how mountain biking became popular before shocks were put on bikes ...

a bit desperate by this point, and really tired (my odometer read 145 km for the day), i turned up a wee side road and knocked on a ranch house door to ask directions. the woman knew exactly which way to point me, and then asked me in for burgers (this is one reason why i'm not a total vegetarian). as soon as i'd gotten inside the house, a wind whipped up unlike many i've seen—it almost blew the trees sideways for about half an hour while i sat and talked with dick and kay, a strip mine recovery worker (he replants trees and such once the mine is done with a piece of land) and retired teacher, respectively. i ended up staying the night on the couch in their camper trailer, a real blessing from yet another really nice family.

sights, not buildings

at any rate, the hail has threatened a couple of times here in montana, but it has thankfully never come through ... just like carrying more than enough water for those lonely forty-mile stretches of buildingless roads, it's important to be extra cautious about finding shelter out here when things are starting to look a little dodgy.

one day i rode for about two hours from forsyth up to ingomar, a stretch of us route 12 that passes through several ranches but contains no signs of human involvement other than the road and the fences lining both sides of it. i asked a ranch worker in ingomar (famous for its bean soup, for some reason) how big his ranch was, and he replied with an answer not in acres but parcels—a parcel is a square mile of land, about 350 acres or so. this fellow's ranch is somewhere around 150 parcels, if i remember right.

that night i got to sleep in a teepee in the ingomar town park, a very quality place to spend a night. the next day i topped 100 miles on the ride west to roundup and then north to grass range, and the next i met a nice fellow fixing up his haying machine as i pondered where to hide out from several oncoming storm clouds. (one of the benefits of being on the plains is the view : these clouds were probably 15 miles off, but you could see them just as though they were overhead—without the rain of course.)

the tailwinds peter out

yesterday i made it as far as belt, montana, before the road climbed up to a plateau with wheat growing as far as the eye could see ... and there the wind shifted around on me, coming in from the side on a small, shoulderless two-lane road carrying traffic from two national routes (87 and 89) and two state routes (3 and 200). the 25 miles of road from that point to great falls were a bit dicey at times, especially because the wind changes directions drastically when a truck-with-rv passes you. but i finally rolled into town, after several stops for food and to let my hatred for motor vehicles evaporate a bit onto the 30 mph gusts.

riding to the divide

well, sorry if this got a little rambling, but it's just so easy to wax poetic in a land that's so beautiful. it really is true that montana is big sky country (unlike kentucky, which isn't really that friendly), and i'm really pleased to be here riding my bike through some of it.

the next few days i'll be riding north, parallel to the continental divide, until i get to st. mary and the going to the sun road through glacier national park. then it's all downhill from logan pass---at least except for that little bump in the cascades. :)