Monday, October 10, 2011

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.
          Powered up from our days indoors, we rose and ravaged the free breakfast- then walked away with as much as our pockets could carry. We said our goodbyes to Ray (Good Luck on the rest of your trip, Ray!) and he sped off to Red Lodge, MT where his next day of brewery work is lined up. The day outside looked very unencouraging: gray clouds and rain ringed the town, threatening from all sides. We knew this day would come, when the weather would finally turn against us, and we set out with grim determination and our raingear to protect us. The sun's rays didn't reach us for the first 20 miles at all as the cloud shrouded mountains glowered down at us, and we soggily spun our way through the light, but very cold rainfall that started just as we left West Yellowstone. We meandered north, then west around Earthquake Lake, which was formed in 1959 when a 7.5 magnitude quake caused a massive landslide, damming the Madison River and creating a 120 foot deep, four mile long lake that consumed 3 miles of the highway, an entire campsite, and several human lives. All the while bands of rain rolled over us off and on as the winds drove the weather north ahead of us. Our goal, Ennis, was an achievable one, we knew, because we were due to lose about 1,700 feet of elevation on our day's course. Nonetheless, it was a trying day for our morale as the rain came and went, then came again, sometimes with driving winds up to 25 miles an hour that whipped the water into us and made what was already a 50 degree day seem that much colder.
The sun breaks through.
Rainbow by the mountains.
           Despite the wet weather, the scenery was fantastic. Montana's mountains are truly something fresh out of a wilderness catalog, and between the rain showers, we saw at least four rainbows vibrantly peeking through the drear, scores of antelope grazing and lively magpies flitting about in the gold grass fields, and were the beneficiaries of a blustering tail-wind for the last 30 miles or so of the ride. We definitely paid the price of admission for the show, though, and by the time we took our first break at a rest stop about 35 miles in, our socks and gloves were more wet than dry and a chill had certainly found its way into our bones. We waited out one last ripping sheet of rain under a shoddily built shelter at the rest stop while we devoured a package of dollar store cookies and then nearly flew the rest of the way to Ennis. From the rest stop, we stayed mostly dry while averaging nearly 20 miles an hour to town and arrived there at about 5 o clock. Even though the day had been challenging earlier, we still made 70 miles in the fastest time we ever have, and then found a bar with $1 tacos to cap it all off. Erin and I ordered 8 tacos and a pair of beers, scarfed them in short order, and relaxed. We were also happy in the knowledge that if we could keep up the pace of 70 miles a day, we would be on the Pacific in less than two weeks and out of the elements for good.
           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.
          The morning started with a cold drizzle that quickly faded, but the wet chill that had been present the day before stayed on. We didn't want to cook and eat out in the damp, so we ducked into the coffee shop in town for a quick cup of joe and a muffin. From there it was  into the cold and on toward the next stop: Virginia City. Virginia City was once the territorial capital of Montana, and at one time had a population in the thousands. Predictably, when the gold was spent, the town started to die off and when the rail lines were built in the area, Virginia City was passed over, exacerbating its decline. Nowadays, Virginia City is mostly a historic preservation project that is on top of a very long, steep hill- about 2,000 feet over ten miles from Ennis. The forecast had called for rain, but the showers all seemed to pass us over as we began our ascent. The hill was steep, and after about an hour and a half of climbing we had only made it about 8 miles up the beast. Erin and I pulled over at a scenic overlook or a picture and a short break when I realized I had left my wallet at the coffee shop. Now, I've lost things on the trip already: bike gloves, a multi-tool, and other various pieces of gear, but the wallet is one of those 'have to go back and get' items. However, I really, really, really didn't want to commit to the three hours out of my day a roundtrip ride would take- so in desperation I called the shop. Thankfully, Mindy, the cheery coffee shop worker, had found my wallet and was in possession of an F-150 and a charitable spirit. Mindy had my wallet up to me in 10 minutes, which was an amazing stroke of luck and another huge underscore on just how damn fast cars are.
          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.
            We stood in the wind and rain, miserably considering our options, and decided, for the first time in thousands of miles, to turn back. We dejectedly sped back along the road we'd left town on, and by the time we made it back, we were all pretty bummed. It was our first real defeat in months, and, to top it off, the cyclist only shelter that the town boasted as free lodging was closed for the winter. It was more than closed, really, it was impregnable- the doors and windows had all been boarded shut and screwed closed. So, we investigated the fairgrounds directly across the street to see if we could find a spot to stash tents for the night. Two folks were out in the flowerbeds talking, so we asked them if they knew anything about the shelters that had been closed, or camping at the fairgrounds. As luck would have it, one of these two was a man who worked for the town- he had actually nailed the shelter shut himself- and the woman was the fairground manager. Her name was Dana, and she (along with many others we've seen in the last few days) thought we were totally out of our minds for riding anywhere on our bikes this time of year in the first place, but her fears for our sanity were enough for her to decide to open one of the event halls just for us to sleep in. The "barn," as she called it, had two ovens, two refrigerators, some picnic table, tons and tons of floor space, and two industrial sized heaters. She told us to just please sweep up before we left, and lock the door behind us.
            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.
         When we arrived, the sun was just setting on the small town of Jackson, and we were once again the strange folks in spandex (and mittens and hats and leg and arm warmers) walking in to the building. We decided that since it was supposed to snow down in the valley that night, we would opt to sleep in a pair of the lodge's "European sleepers," which were small rooms with double beds and heaters. The room price also included access to the lodge's hot spring fed pool, which we jumped right into after having a meal at the bar. The pool area was open to the cold night air, but the water was (almost) hot enough for us to forget about the impending snows gathering around us, and the cold, wet nights that threatened to stick with us for what could be the rest of our trip now that the weather had turned. We laughed and swam and had a few beers in the hot pool while we soaked our bodies and retold stories from the trip to each other, enjoying ourselves in the frigid night. After we had dried off, we made ready to return to our rooms, but not before another surprise: two other cross-country cyclists were staying at the lodge. Ryan and Michelle started in Yorktown, Virginia sometime in early June and had taken the day off at the lodge rather than brave the nasty weather we'd somehow forced our way 75 miles through. They were a very pleasant couple and told us when we did hit the road again to look out for their riding companion, Sarah, who had decided to forge on to the next town, Wisdom, only 18 miles down the road rather than fork over the cash for another night in the lodge. We chatted with them and found that we had camped at many of the same places and that the kindling and wood we'd used at the campground in Ennis had been gathered by Sarah to feed their campfire two nights before we used it for ours. We bid them goodnight after a long conversation, and found our way to another warm and comfortable sleep.

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.
             As we rode, and warmed back up, we passed the Big Hole Battlefield, where early pioneers had massacred local Indians in a surprise just after making a peace agreement with the tribe. The grade uphill was slight, and we made very good time up into the hills. The terrain in Montana is certainly breathtaking, and while riding we could smell the rich, green scent of pines to complement our mountain views. As we went up, a light rain began to fall intermittently, so we stopped for a quick bite just before the final push to the top. A peanut butter and honey sandwich later, we were back on the road and found Sarah rolling along with her trailer in tow. Ryan and Michelle had told us she moved slowly, so we had expected to catch her up. We said hello and introduced ourselves, but hurried on, since the side of a winding mountain road isn't exactly the safest place for a meet and greet. As we rode higher and higher, the rain turned to snow, and the snow turned into thicker snow. By the time we reached the top, we were in the middle of a full blown snow storm. We were warm from the climb, so didn't think much of the snow, and were quite comfortable as we climbed- it was really quite a beautiful and surreal scene. I never would have imagined as we sweated our way through Kentucky that I'd be riding in a snow storm a month and a half later. The ascent was a comfortable affair, but the downhill was a nightmare. The road we merged with, SR 93, was more heavily traveled than the one we climbed up, and the snow made visibility a real problem. To make matters much worse, all our gear was soaked through from a long day of cold, wet weather and we didn't have anything else to put on that would be warm enough to withstand the temperatures.
           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.
            As we warmed and changed out of our wet clothes, Sarah pulled in to the parking lot. She's a Minnesotan who rode Ragbrai this year, and was on her way to Arizona when she decided to link up with Ryan and Michelle. Ryan and Michelle were probably not going to make it over today, so she decided to camp out with us that evening. We threw some of our wet gear in the dryer and got our things together in camp while I went off into the woods to try out my new hatchet. I found a small, dead pine and hacked (and kicked) it down, then Ben and I dragged it across the road to camp where we made short work of sectioning it into logs. We set up the fire and had a few beers around the table, chatting with our new companion, while we warmed up and let the enormity of our day's work sink in. We made dinner, polished off the beers, and it was once again tent time. That descent was the coldest I've ever been in my life, and probably the closest I've ever been to hypothermia. I can honestly say I'm very glad we won't be going that high again on this trip, since our next highest pass is the Lolo Pass at 5,200 feet and it's even further down from there.

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