Montana

So, as we came to terms with the impassable Montana road that stretched for miles downhill, and I use the term hill only because of the precedent set by common compound words, we decided, bikes in hand and rocks the size of softballs underfoot, that our best option was to scale down the mountain.

 

We were somewhere high between Wisdom and Hamilton on a road our map labeled as an “alternate route”. We decided to take the alternate because it was a more gradual climb, a shorter distance and only included one peak, whereas the “main route”, I begrudgingly detail, was a longer, steeper, more enduring climb.

 

As we took the turn off the main route and onto the alternate, the surface of the road turned from pavement into compacted sand and, intermittently, rocks that people would put on a gravel driveway. Grant stopped and turned around about a mile in and asked if this was really the route we should be taking. I suppose, in retrospect, we should have listened to whatever warning had popped up in his head… I suppose.

 

Anyway, we continued on, rough patches mixed with smooth rides all the way to the top of the pass. And, despite road conditions, we biked through a completely serene and unperturbed trail; a solitary hour’s ride with only the greatest connotations of the word implied. We were completely disconnected from civilization for 30 miles, butterflies were, in unclichéd recollection, exploding from the ground as we rode by and absolutely no construction, or rather, deconstruction, had been exercised by humans. The trail winded through lush woods of pine and cedar, through very green prairies and ultimately, to the top of a seldom traversed mountain.

 

But when we reached the summit, usually a wonderful moment for us, it seemed to be a Disney classic moment: riding through rich green fields amongst the harmless wildlife, smiles abounding, until we were met with the gravely sights of burnt, petrified, charcoaled trees and a bouldered, unkempt trail we were suddenly expected to traverse.

 

We gave it a shot, though. We clutched our breaks down the “road” that was no larger than a one lane city alley and was sided on the right by a cut away wall of rock. On the left side was an abrupt 2000 foot drop. We would be Plinko pieces amongst the pegs of dead trees if we were to hit an unfortunately placed rock and fall over. The road was covered in broken pieces of mountain. After two flat tires and some advice from a friendly couple from Ohio passing by in an S.U.V., (even they were scared to be driving up the pass) we had a decision to make: walk 10 miles down the road, as biking it was impossible, and change our schedule because we would not be able to get to our final destination by day’s end or climb down the mountain to the main route which we could see from these great heights— a dwarfed grey sliver cutting through the harrowing brown mountains on which we found ourselves marooned.

 

We walked down the trail until we found an acceptable route off the mountain. Steep as it was, the route we decided on was more like a large hill with unannounced steep declines, covered in long yellow grass and an unthinkable amount of ticks. Standing at the top, we looked down to the pine tree toothpicks, took a deep breath and started downhill.

 

Running sideways, with my bike in my right hand, rolling it alongside as I picked up speed, I began to descend from the top. Grant performed similarly and we got into a rhythm, taking breaks every 100 feet or so. Occasionally we would lose control of our bodies, due to the sharp decline in elevation, and we would be leaping like antelope in an effort to catch up to the uncomfortable speed gravity mandated. Little cliffs that would surely prompt a broken ankle would appear in a split second and we had to stop ourselves before these obstacles would make us think twice about our decision. The frightening part was not knowing whether or not the mountain would drop off entirely. Our legs burned, more than cycling had ever induced, to tell you the truth, but we reached the bottom… sort of.

 

Although we could see the main route only a hundred feet ahead, we had to tread through a painful, knee-high prickerbush forest and take another dirt road a mile backwards to escape the possibility of having to jump over a barbed wire fence with our bikes.  But we got to the main route, this bizarre detour behind us, and a newfound respect for people who want to take “the main route”.

 

*

 

After leaving Yellowstone National Park, we crossed into Montana and took a day off in a town befittingly named, West Yellowstone. The town, frankly, smelled wonderful, like meats seasoned and cooked to the local idea of perfection. It was mainly a tourist town, with shops selling area goods, (ie. animal hides, Indian rugs, knives, you know), and cooking local meals. We saw an oversized documentary about the park and about bears at an IMAX theatre in town before we headed back out into the park to see some real wildlife.

 

We left the next day towards Ennis (pronounced, crucially, ehn-iss), parting ways with my dad, who had come to out to visit, and with the park. Montana, as would be the case throughout our travel through the southwestern region of the state, is beautiful. The forests are unroofed, open air warehouses for ecological and geological feats of aesthetic. Our ride that day brought us from that vast green to a trip beside Earthquake Lake, where those bare, burnt trees stood populating an endlessly blue lake, waterfalls rushing from the right side of the road, underneath the pavement under our feet and into the lake on the left. It all makes climbing a mountain so much easier.

 

We got to Ennis just as a storm rolled in, and checked in at a lodge for the night. It was a quick, uneventful stay, I’m sorry to say, but I had a “Kong Burger” at dinner which was exactly how much meat you think would be on a burger with that name. I say this only to highlight how we could eat whatever and however much food we desired on this trip and it did us no harm. That attitude did not fly come trip’s end, unfortunately.

 

 

After breakfast burritos, we got a late start on our trip to Dillon the day after and didn’t arrive until 8:30 which is much later than we like to end. We ordered some pizzas at a restaurant turned casino because everything in Montana is a casino. Gas stations, restaurants, schools, churches, who cares, there’s always a casino involved. We gambled a bit ourselves at a campground to remain nameless where, under the cover of darkness, we were able to sleep in the corner of the property and get out in the morning having been completely unapproached for an agreeable compensation. 

 

We had a quick ride to Wisdom the next day and Lauren, Grant and I were able to explore the town, also known as this one street with seven buildings. Fortunately, we arrived during happy hour and we decided to wet our dry whistles at a participating bar. Although there were no houses in town and, seriously, only seven buildings, the bar had a great turnout that Wednesday night and a surprising amount of college students made it out, including our bartender, a Connecticut native studying at NYU and spending his summer working in Wisdom, MT as a bartender. There was a softball game we were invited to join but we decided to rest our legs a bit and enjoy the friendly confines of our new favorite bar we’ll never see again. When we went to set up a camp several hours later, in spite of agonizingly ferocious and impossibly microscopic mosquitoes, Grant and I were very clearly, positively and rightly jovial.

 

After yet another cold night at altitude, mind you we’d been a mile high since our third day in Colorado, we got up and rode a much, much longer ride, mostly due to our mountain faux pas, to Hamilton than we originally had thought. We climbed up two very steep passes, flanked by fields of brush and small wildlife. Retractable “wildlife crossing” signs posted the highway, elevating our hopes to see a moose or bison, but seeing an endlessly rising road ahead occupied our minds enough. We stopped in a town of 32 people for lunch. But after arriving in a comparatively well-developed town, we enjoyed a meal at a friendly dive and shared a campsite at the Black Bunny RV Park with our friends Mike and Carlin.

 

Mike and Carlin are a young couple, finishing up impressive and advanced degrees, who decided to bike across the country as well. We first met them, actually, in Walden, CO when they came over and introduced themselves after seeing us out on the road a couple times, but we didn’t really get to know them until Montana. Mike had invaluable knowledge about how to quickly fix a flat tire, knowledge that made us feel well and stupid, until he told us his about his former job at a bike shop. Anyway, the campsite had a bunch of rabbits running around and a curious, yet obsessively skittish dog kept making visits until we feel asleep. We would head to Missoula in the morning, a town about which Grant, Lauren and I had heard good things.

 

The ride was essentially a bike trail which was a nice change of pace from riding in sometimes indeterminable shoulders. Going to Missoula, however, requires a 10 mile ride each way off the main route in order to stop in and say hello to the producers of our map, the Adventure Cycling Association (ACA). The ACA is also a sponsor of Planting America and we have thanked them before and I spare nothing in thanking them again for donating maps, subscriptions and advice for our trip. We appreciate the help.

 

Missoula had way too much traffic, but an absolutely stellar campground at the local K.O.A. (Kampground of America) affiliate. I showered in a full bathroom and we enjoyed a pancake buffet in the two mornings we spent there. The facilities were clean and the tent sites were, for the most part, spacious and we once again shared our plot with Mike and Carlin. After Grant and I, believe it or not, got stood up by another cyclo-enviro-entreprenuer interested in producing a benefit ride, we all (Mike, Carlin, Lauren, Grant and I) went to the movies and, afterwards, talked over local beer and a makeshift fire at the campground. With bowls of lantern cooked pasta, the couple chided each other, as couples do, about trip gaffes and we offered equal and similar stories from our trip. We would say goodbye, though, to our friends the next day as they took a different route up to Portland, OR, but we enjoyed their company and we all wish them the absolute and most sincere best.

 

We planned on only staying a day in Missoula, but as we went out in the morning and an incurable lethargy, or perhaps an unwillingness to exercise, that not even biking, which Grant and I have grown quite fond of, could shake us of set in, we decided to spend another day.

 

And yes, am I ever glad we did. We went to the mall and spent a large portion of time playing with a beagle puppy we would name “Gunner” if given the opportunity. We then stumbled upon a store that prints custom t-shirts for pretty cheap, although the shirts Grant and I made defy the petty manufactured value of money. Grant now has a light blue shirt reading “put that on ice” with “that” emphasized in royal blue. Clearly that may mean, and really shouldn’t mean, anything to you but we created the saying “Put that on ice” earlier in the summer. Lauren loved when we said it. My shirt promoted a certain fictional Jamaican bobsled team.

 

Coming into Missoula the route brought us to the intersection of Briggs Rd. and Garrett Rd. This immediately spawned the idea of Grant and I becoming Agents Briggs and Garrett and all we say is “Damn it, Briggs” and “Goddamnit, Garrett” in deep voices. They hang out at the Montana Club, a restaurant we went to that night, with our new shirts on, and the theme music is a track entitled “Down 2 Business” found exclusively on Grant’s phone. Expect high-budget films to be made shortly featuring “Briggs and Garrett” busting some low-life punks.

 

But as fun as Missoula ended up being, we departed the next day, filled with KOA pancakes to a resort town called Lolo Hot Springs. We left early and arrived midday. Lauren enjoyed a day of relaxation by the pool, left unbothered by Grant and I (hilarious), while we enjoyed the fruits of the bar. It was a nice afternoon of getting a lot of work done that we had had to leave behind and the people working the resort made us feel right at home, even though we were clearly in the middle of absolute nowhere.

 

As Grant filtered through receipts from Charlottesville, VA to Wisdom, MT, we remembered all the waiters, restaurants, stores and towns we had encountered on the trip so far. It was the reciprocal of the moments in Virginia where the trip had felt so painstakingly long. Now over 3,000 miles away we ran through the personal catalogs of our experiences and we became aware of the trip, every memory as fresh as the next one, each town as intimately close as the one we were in.

 

The trip was so stirring because, save for a few large cities, we visited towns no one would set out to visit. We met the people you would never meet unless you came to them. Our trip proved a conduit for conversation with the people in the towns we’d never heard of and never will again. We were modern day samanas, wandering ascetics learning America through conversations with locals, as foreigners, and privately experiencing every crack, bump and rock in the road from sea to sky to sea.

 

Now the sky that night, on the border of Montana and Idaho, high in the northern mountains, was as bright as a sky could be. The Milky Way, bittersweet in its magnificent yet seldom appearance, had a humbling, obvious presence. Counting the stars, we fell asleep and the trip neared it’s twilight as we entered Idaho in the morning.

 

 

 

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