Lines of barbed-wire fence gleam in the moonlight, that low-slung orb of light casting taut shadows off fence posts and my bicycle wheels. The silence is sharp, punctured by the occasional rustle of sagebrush in a breeze or the vocal ruminations from adjacent cows.
On the far horizon, a dull orange smear is the last remnant of a particularly indulgent sunset, wispy clouds also illuminate in front of what’s left of a deeply blue sky. All is calm. I’ve indulged myself with a mug of hot chocolate and a buttery croissant from the last town to brace against the cooling night.
All day long the sun warmed as wind chafed already too-dry lips and face. The sound of an under-oiled chain making music with the variable cadence of my legs, and the smooth sound of mountain bike tires on tarmac or the crunch of gravel. All good experiences for the daytime. But now that day has turned to night, it felt good to sit down, my mind beginning to slow. Nighttime stillness is a particularly potent salve for the body and the mind. The hot chocolate helps, too.
As the keen reader may note, my favorite mornings often rely on the availability of a good breakfast. This morning was no different. The “rancher’s delight” at the Horse Prairie Stage Stop restaurant was billed, unapologetically, as a pile of food. Two biscuits, hash browns, gravy, over easy eggs, and four slices of bacon in one pile of mush. Here was an ode to the calorie, in all its greasy, fatty, carb-loaded glory. Armed with just a fork knife, and some hot sauce, I finished all but a morsel of biscuit and a slice of bacon.
My riding companions at the moment, Zach and Josh, were perhaps put off by this display of zeal. It was either that or the fact that I had way too much coffee, but at around 9:00, they left me to my glutton’s nap for the open road - I can’t blame them. That said, the laid-back morning is thoroughly enjoyable, as long as it does not become a habit. And so, I was not terribly upset when, at 11:30, I finally set off.
It was particularly hazy this morning, but I was in a great mood. The first five or so miles of riding were on rural interstate. I didn’t see more than one or two cars headed the opposite direction. Wide open spaces and the thrill of the road elicited a grin. That, and I had a particularly strong music set to open the day: Muswell Hillbilly, Losing My Religion, and some Kurt Vile. However, underpinning this elation was a tinge of melancholy, as I had read this morning that the U.S. recently surpassed 200,000 COVID deaths. In that light, the smokey haze could easily be construed to have more of a post-apocalyptic atmosphere, surrounded by dry earth. As my friend remarked yesterday, the wide open spaces out here are the kind of place the government would do nuclear bomb testing. I felt a subtle guilt when the thought arrived that while I was enjoying so much so many were enjoying so little. I did not linger on this idea.
The day’s remainder of the ride: 50 miles of gravel scenic byway, a very gentle 3,000ft climb over the first 30 miles, a 2,000ft descent for the back 20. Turning away from the expanses of the highway, I saw no mountains, confused about the elevation profile. Soon that confusion vanished, as an ethereal landscape of smoke covered shapes poked out from the horizon. The green and yellow from the thick brush on either side of the road popped in the relatively low light, and particularly against the arid, sandy soil of the region. There was pasture aplenty, too, as I reveled at my luck to be moving.
The real fun came, however, during the descent. The road carved through steep, craggy canyons, close enough not be obscured by smoke. Plunging down this road, a full river materialized, the flora becoming noticeably better developed. With just a few more days of riding in Montana, today must have been one of the scenic highlights. The rocky outcroppings and sheer cliffs are without peer for the first two and a half weeks.
A late departure begets a late arrival, which I was alright with. 6:00 saw me rolling into the Deadwood Gulch BLM campsite, just a few miles from I-15, and another diner breakfast tomorrow. I had time to shoot the breeze with Zach and Josh, go for an icy bath in the confidently moving waters of Big Sheep Creek, and set up my tent in a good fashion. Tomorrow morning may hold the promise of a two diner breakfast, but I will be sure to set off earlier, as the road never grows tired of those who travel upon it.
The day started auspiciously enough, my WarmShowers host, John, in Butte prepared pancakes, bacon, and eggs to send me on my way. The night before we’d roasted coffee beans, those also made an appearance in my never empty morning mug.
What I had initially mistook for clouds out the window turned out to be smoke from the wildfires. The haze had finally outrun me. On the one hand, breathing felt more difficult. The sun became an orange sphere that could never quite burst through the thick layer of gray. As such, it never got all that warm, and the sun only rarely hit my skin in a meaningfully uncomfortable way.
A steep climb on pavement right outside of Butte made way to gravel, as it always does, and some forested vistas formed off of the roadway. The more interesting part of the day, however, was after punching through the forest. Dry, slightly desert-like pasture with cows everywhere. With little tree cover, and fewer trees, the terrain felt more like a high elevation tundra than anything else, even though the elevation was not severe. The road consisted of a for the most part hard-packed sand with some rutting, perhaps evidence of the sloppy conditions when wet.
The day turned out not to be all that long, about 36 miles, but with about 3,200 feet of elevation gain. I met up with two other riders today as well, Zach and Josh. I had made contact with the both of them earlier in the summer, and we are finally united. 36 miles made for an earlier day into camp, for which I was grateful. Rolling in to the Beaver Dam USFS campground at a little after 3:00, my mind was immediately on making some ramen. The smog was thick in the valley of the campground, clinging eerily to the trees at 6,500 feet of elevation, the sun creating a dry haze behind the curtain of smoke.
The nightly fee here is $5 and well worth it. My campsite has a picnic table and a fire ring, adjacent to what I can just make out to be a small stream tucked behind thick brush. Also proximal: pit toilet, water pump, garbage, and bear storage bins, which are quite the luxury!
I made good on the potential that an early arrival brings. After lunch I “bathed” under the water pump, just trying to get the greasy, dusty accumulation off of my calves and the sunscreen off my face. I took plenty of time airing out my tent and sleeping bag, enjoying freeze dried sweet and sour chicken, and organizing the picnic table for the morning.
Now, the light is fading and I can only just make out my keyboard while savoring a hot chocolate. Looking around, the smoke seems permanent, the horizon murky with the shadow of pine trees interspersed with a sea of gray. The lazy rush of the stream will be my white noise for the night. I’m camping with just my ground tarp, forgoing the rest of the tent since it’s relatively warm. I’ll have a great view of the sky. Unfortunately, there will be no stars.
I am writing you from the small town of Lincoln, MT, population 1,000, a would-be layover town for hunters and outdoorspeople to access the surrounding wilderness. Comfortably ensconced in my 70 degree motel room, a 40-degree wintery mix on the other side of the window pane descends onto the damp tarmac. Good to be indoors on a day like this. Today marks day 9 of riding the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, and I am tired. A kind of tired spurred on by the climate-controlled luxuries of the motel, my sharpened outdoors-metabolism dulling when the heater kicks over. On tap for tonight: a cheeseburger and fries, salad, too, and perhaps a movie!
That said, it’s been a great week of riding. I’m already feeling ready for tomorrow - a day of climbing which will see a max elevation of 6,800 feet and the first crossing of the continental divide. It should be nicer, too, sunny with a high of 50. The riding so far has been almost exclusively on gravel and rock-bed Forest Service roads, with short stretches of pavement only to connect through small towns like Lincoln. Camping: state parks, unimproved USFS sites, and informal roadside patches in National Forest land, some even have fire pits.
Riding gravel is a slow affair, I’m averaging 7-10MPH. With a fully loaded mountain bike, several days worth of food, and no lack of gumption, I have learned to enjoy it. In the age of COVID, I can go several days without seeing another person in the forest. I’ve been moving with a couple of other riders, although as we’ve all found our own rhythm I find myself separated by a day in each direction, from the other two. That’s no bother, as I have more time to write.
The scenery so far has been excellent if not predictable. Much of the time at lower elevation is spent in piney, forested forest service tracts. Beautiful in their own right, yes, but making the high mountain pass views all the more rewarding. Passes of which there are many, as the GDMBR is self-described as the most circuitous, wandering way possible. For the first time, yesterday I encountered desert-like terrain. Descending from the Lolo National Forest, a valley of golden crop field, cactus, and sand bore witness to a repressive sun and pure blue sky. In the middle of it all, I devoured three hot dogs, a danish, and a cup of coffee from a small outpost in Ovando, MT, population “around 50”. I’ve included the town’s sign below - it’s amusing.
The next couple days will see me drop into Helena, MT I am supposed to be staying at a llama farm tomorrow night. It’s listed on the official map - “call Barbara Nye for more information”. I’ll be sure to take pictures. From there, ever further south. I’m starting to like the off-road touring deal, as I haven’t done much in the past. Pandemic or not, it’s nice to feel the dirty crunch below the tires, and be able to hunker down just about anywhere (one perk of riding through state and national forests). Enjoy pictures below, and be sure to check my facebook for more frequent updates. Please reach out if you would like a map link to chart my progress.