Days 72-75: Things Get Gritty When the Big Sky Opens Up
10/4 Day 72: West Yellowstone, MT to Ennis, MT 73 miles (3563 miles)
|Earthquake Lake in the rain. You can see the trees that once|
populated the valley sticking up above water.
|The sun breaks through.|
|Rainbow by the mountains.|
Ennis is a very picturesque little town, and their welcome sign says "Home of 800 people and 11 million trout," due to the fact that there is a national trout hatchery run within the town limits. There are also tons of little fly fishing shops and guides available; this, combined with the abundance of game animals running around in the huge ranches we've seen, really make Montana a sportsman's dream- even if it isn't always a cyclist's dream. We made camp just outside of town in a small fishing access area where camping is cheap (and free if you don't pay) and built up a little fire with some wood that we found. As the fire burned down, the clouds continued to threaten but thankfully held off and granted us a reprieve while we cooked and dried out our soggy clothes by the small blaze. We went to bed knowing the forecast was grim for the next few days, but optimistic- still- that the rain would hold off and the wind would die down.
10/5 Day 73: Ennis, MT to Twin Bridges, MT 51 miles (3614 miles)
|The mountains stand by and watch as we climb.|
After hugging Mindy and bidding her goodbye, we made our way over the rest of the pass and pulled into Virginia City where Ben and Mandi were waiting. We made a quick lunch of coffee, snacks, chili, and pastries and got on our way. We had ridden down the gorgeous Madison River Valley the previous day, and after cresting the ridge leading to Virginia City we made our way down-hill to Twin Bridges, Montana which lies right on the Beaverhead River. At Twin Bridges, we needed to turn southwest to skirt a mountain range that lay directly west of town, but the wind was already fiercely blowing in from that direction. We examined our options for a detour, but decided that the prescribed route was the best and that we would try to make it the 26 miles southwest to Dillon before nightfall despite the bad conditions. As we rode out of town, things looked O.K. but it wasn't long before the situation got grim. The road, it turns out, is a big trucking route to bring potatoes ("spuds" as the locals call them) from the surrounding area down to Dillon, which lays on Interstate 15. This, we learned, is spud digging season and the trucks were screaming by and giving us nary an inch on a road that already was completely devoid of a shoulder when the wind picked up to a gusty 30 miles an hour or so. The wind shortly brought on a driving, stinging rain, and the traffic just kept coming. We had already gone 5 or 6 miles, but the combination of factors, including the cold and diminishing light, made the situation not only unpleasant, but very unsafe.
|Barn, Sweet Barn.|
Our disappointment mostly assuaged, we turned the heater on and left our gear in its blast to dry out, and then adjourned to town where the laundromat sat conveniently just across the street from the bar. We cleaned our things and had a few pints while we waited, then headed back to the barn to cook some dinner and get a nice warm, dry sleep indoors.
10/6 Day 74: Twin Bridges, MT to Jackson, MT 75 miles (3689 miles)
The sun hadn't even risen yet outside when we squirmed out of our sleeping bags to start the morning routine. We had a breakfast of bagels and peanut butter, threw our things together, and were just about to get a nice, early start when we realized I had somehow gotten flat tires 13 and 14- both front and back were fully deflated. I hastily changed the tubes out, not wanting to deal with doing the job right since we were in a rush. The day ahead represented something of a logistical challenge, since we had intended to start from Dillon. After Dillon there was a stretch of 48 miles between any kind of services and camping that also held two mountain passes: Badger Pass at 6,700 ft. and Big Hole Pass at around 7,400. So, we had to either go 26 miles or 74, no in-betweens, and we weren't going to stop at 26. Fresh tubes in my tires, we set out on Hwy. 41 that had so unceremoniously dumped us back in Twin Bridges the night before. The road was still a shoulderless fiasco, but thankfully the traffic was significantly lighter in the early morning and we had an easy go of it on the flat road to Dillon. But, my carelessness came back to bite me about 13 miles in: my front tire was going flat. After a couple hopeless bouts of reinflation in an attempt to make it to Dillon before changing the flat properly, I gave in and we stopped to scour the tire for the root o the problem. Shortly thereafter, Erin came up with the culprit, a small piece of wire from the tread of an automobile tire. This has been the cause of the majority of my flats, for sure. I properly patched the tube and we moved on, more precious time and sanity wasted.
In Dillon, we regrouped at a McDonald's to chow down on some high calorie, low cost grub and plan our attack on the mountains ahead. We knew that these two passes and the one after it- Chief Joseph Pass at 7,200 feet- represented some of the final hurdles in our gambit to find our way to lower elevations and escape wintry weather once and for all. We filled up our water reserves in case we had to make camp somewhere because of untenable riding conditions, and set off under gray skies and a cold drizzle. The drizzle didn't last too long, but our climb came upon us quickly. We had no trouble making our way up Badger Pass, since the grade was fairly slight, and the clouds rewarded us with a good, soaking misty rain on our descent rom the top down through Bannack State Forest. The temperatures were still hovering in the 40s and we hadn't seen the sun in days, so this seemed par for the course at the time. At the bottom of our small descent, we found ourselves in another small valley. This one was a bit brighter, with a hair of sun peeking out from behind the clouds here and there, but things were not improved for us in the slightest; where the wind had been mostly in our faces from Twin Bridges to Dillon, and mostly at our backs to the top of Badger Pass, it somehow transformed into a ripping headwind in this new valley leading up to Big Hole Pass. We only had about 14 miles to go from the top of Badger to Big Hole, but, thanks to the wind, we were putting a lot of effort to the pedals, but only averaging about 4 or 5 miles and hour on flat ground.
We fought the wind for a while until we were about 7 miles from the top, and took a break next to a side road for a short snack. The day was wearing on, but we had no option but to give the top of the pass our best shot, because we had nowhere else to stay. We rode on into the grueling wind for another hour and some change until we were roughly 2 miles away from the top of the pass. As we rode, a silver pickup pulled up in front of us about 200 yards away and waited. When we finally made it up to the vehicle, a man named Russ, who runs a summer hostel for bicyclists running a mountain biking trail nearby, hopped out to offer us a lift to the top of the pass. We did not turn him down. He took us and our gear the two miles up the road, dropped us off and wished us well. Our destination, the Jackson Hot Springs Lodge, was only 11 miles away and down hill. Those 11 miles seemed to stretch out and take hours as we descended into Big Hole Valley, a valley beautifully framed by high mountains, but colder than a polar bear's ass. On our way up the Big Hole Pass, we noticed that mountains which had once been plain brown and green were now snowcapped all around us. The clouds and rain that were dogging us the last few days were snow at the higher elevations, and the snow was sticking. This didn't necessarily bode well for our mountain pass traverse the next day, but for now it was all about keeping extremities from going too numb to operate a bicycle and getting to the lodge.
|The snow-capped peaks around us.|
10/7 Day 75: Jackson, MT to Sula, MT 57 miles (3746 miles)
The prospect of riding our bikes anywhere when we could stay indoors in a nice, warm sleeper cabin did not appeal, to say the least, when we awoke to a light snow falling just outside our windows this morning. However, we dressed inside, packed our things quickly, and knocked the snow off our rides... then wheeled them to the general store across the street. We ate some muffins with coffee and hoped it would be enough to ward off the chill (they did sell beaver pelts there we could have bought, which may have worked better) before setting out to Wisdom. It was 35 degrees when we set out, and cold, but quick riding to get there. At first, our fingers and toes numbed, despite our warm weather gear, but after 10 miles or so, things started to regain feeling and we warmed up a little bit. The clouds around us hung low on the now mostly snow covered mountains that surrounded us. The snow in the valley stopped shortly after our departure from Jackson, but where the moisture sodden clouds hung about the surrounding peaks like halos, one could see that snow still fell as we rode. We made it to Wisdom, feeling pretty good about what the rest of the day held for us, since we had thus far successfully braved the near-freezing temperatures. We checked out the gas station and outfitter in Wisdom briefly, and I bought a hatchet to carry with us so we could have a fire for the chilly nights in camp that would follow as long as we were at elevation. Ryan and Michelle were still abed when we left Jackson, and we saw no sign of their friend, Sarah, in Wisdom, so we rolled on toward Chief Joseph Pass, which was about 30 or 40 miles away uphill.
|Snow + bikes = fun|
|Action shot as Ben tries to flee his bicycle.|
We made the numbing descent a mile or two at a time, and stopped when our hands became too numb to brake properly. We tried using sunglasses to keep the snow from blinding us, but they quickly became useless as they fogged up or became frozen over. Things were getting bad, and we needed to get down out of the cloud that enveloped the mountain before we had to stop and heat up water or take some other measure to get warm. Stop by stop we got closer to the bottom, and I had myself, Erin, and Mandi doing jumping jacks by the roadside to get our hearts pumping and core temperature high enough to warm our extremities. We laughed at ourselves, even as our teeth chattered and muscles shivered uncontrollably, because of the ridiculousness of the scene we made for passing cars with plastic bags or socks on our hands flailing about on the roadside. Eventually, slowly, finally, we made it down to where the road levelled off and we could take stock of our position: we were cold, wet, and it was 33 degrees outside now. We made our way as quickly as we could to the first place we saw on the roadside, which turned out to be a gas station and campground combination of sorts. We had hot chocolate and after short deliberation, decided to make camp there.
|Nice campground for a gas station, and no snow. Bonus.|