The highs and lows of bicycle travel can be truly schizophrenic, changing rapidly from one extreme to the other in short order. And situations that you (or a more sane person) might otherwise find discomfiting are "THE BEST THING EVER" in the moment and cannot be reasonably explained. If you're telling a story and your listener's eyebrows keep arching up and up or they look queasy like there may be immediate need of a trashcan, you wrap it up with the quintessential storyteller's line: "You had to be there." In a period of 24 hours in southern Montana, Pam and I had one such experience.
July 14th, 2015
At some point during the day, Pam's odometer read 900 miles of cycling so far on the trip. We had been riding now for one month exactly. The route had thrown plenty at us thus far, but today's ride just slowly sapped our strength. 45 miles of rolling hills gained us 2000' of elevation gain from our starting point, but with all of the ups and downs, we actually climbed considerably more. A note from my journal reads, "good gravel turned to hard dirt to shitty, rocky washboard, and eventually it just turned into rutted mud". Additionally, the last mile of climbing to top of the watershed divide was considerably steeper, nothing that a topographical relief map does justice. We just pushed the bikes up the last half mile of mud and loose rocks to be greeted by whipping winds and what appeared to be a building storm.
No chance to appreciate the view from the top of the divide crossing, we rode two or three more miles to our planned camp. Essentially, Pam and I found ourselves in a several mile wide grassy river valley. Much of it is private ranch land that you can travel through by road, but not camp on legally. To camp, we needed to figure out what was public land. It turned out public land was 1/4 mile up a rocky path, through a gate in one of the ubiquitous barbed wire fences, and in a grassy field that looked identical to the hundreds of square miles surrounding us. Our water source for the night was another 1/4 mile away: a "stream" no wider than my hand, hidden below the aforementioned grass and so full of sediment and cow shit that it clogged our water filter to a standstill.
We slept pretty soundly that night.
July 15, 2015
The day dawned clear and sunny and cool amongst the grass and sagebrush. Both of us were looking forward to riding into Lima (pronounced LIE-muh like the bean not LEE-muh like Peru) which was about 35 mostly downhill miles away. We didn't know much about the town beyond the fact that there was an Exxon station there which spawned our rallying cry of "DR. PEPPERS! AND GATORADES! AT THE EXXON GAS STATION!!" that carried us through the day. Come to think of it, that became our rallying cry for the rest of the trip. All packed up, we descended through the river valley on ever improving dirt roads. After a bit, the valley abruptly narrowed to a tight canyon. Neither the guidebook nor other travelers had given us any expectation of this. The next ten miles were some of our favorite of the trip. The road paralleled a beautiful trout stream. High, soaring rock walls hemmed us in. The road squiggled back and forth like a mess of spaghetti. And tucked here and there amongst the rocks were small, ruggedly built cabins, any of which Pam and I would have gladly adopted. At some point we stopped at a small BLM campground in the canyon for lunch.
|The storm is moving left to right. Fortunately/unfortunately, we are about to turn right in a mile or two.|
We have only ridden for several minutes after lunch when the canyon starts widening a bit to where we can see more of the sky. It's turning grey and there is a bit of wind picking up. The distinctive smell of rain greets my nostrils. Both of us don our rain jackets expecting just a little passing shower like what we've ridden in previously on the trip.
|I believe Pam was saying something to the effect of "Bicycle touring is so stupid. And I love it!"|
The canyon finally gave out entirely and we could see for miles and miles out in front of us. What greeted us was a wall of black clouds dropping sheets of rain and sprouting occasional lightning bolts to the north and moving south at a fast clip. There is nowhere to take shelter for miles and we have to travel ten more miles south to get to Lima. Shit. This clearly feels like one of those scenarios in a wilderness first aid class or outdoor leadership course where you analyze what people did wrong. The storm catches us right as we reach a paved frontage road that parallels Interstate 15 into town. We've got 8 miles to go.
|Pretty soon we get waaaaaay apart from one another.|
At first it's just a steady rain. But the storm clouds behind us are increasingly darker and angrier. And they're catching up. Pam shouts to me that it's best if we ride 50-100 feet apart from one another. Why? If one of us gets struck by lightning, hopefully the other will be out of range and can administer to the other. Hey, if you're gonna be dumb and ride around in thunderstorms, you better be smart about it! The two of us are biking about as fast as we can maintain comfortably, knowing that we have about 8 miles left. And that's when the hail starts.
It begins as pea sized hail, just lightly here and there. The hail gains intensity. Pam is laughing at the ridiculousness of our situation. There's not much else we can do at this point as we haven't seen any form of shelter for miles. This goes on for many minutes. Then the storm rapidly gains strength and the hail falls even faster. The spheres of ice increase to about an inch in diameter. Both of us instinctively attempt to make our entire bodies shrink beneath our bike helmets, the only source of protection. The problem is, one still needs to have a hand on the handlebars of the bike. I can still hear Pam laughing interspersed with a surprise yelp as another big hail chunk hits the back of her unprotected hands. It sounds like someone is dumping buckets of marbles onto the road from great height whilst someone else is throwing gravel at you. Over the din, we communicate that we must find some shelter and at long last spot an abandoned feed shed off the side of the frontage road.
|Hail and cowshit.|
We try as fast as we can to get off of the road, find a break in the fence and navigate a yard of tall grass, haphazard coils of barbed wire and indistinguishable abandoned metal parts in order to take refuge under the sheet metal shed. It only affords us about a four foot overhang and hail is still blowing up under, but it's much better that being out in the midst of the storm. The clanging of the ice falling on the sheet metal roof is a dull roar. And after ten minutes of waiting, the storm moves on and the hail and the rain and the winds let up.
|Snow in July?|
Pam and I drag our bike out from under the feed barn and pedal back to the frontage road. We have only about 4 miles of riding left to Lima. As we ride through actual snowdrifts of hail collected on the road, we can help but smile and laugh and appreciate what an odd and beautiful day it has been. We roll into Lima which is no more than a motel, a restaurant and a gas station offering an exit to motorists on I-15. To us it is a bonanza. We rent a room at the Mountain View Motel and immediately take hot showers and put on what dry clothes we have left. Next stop is Jan's Cafe where we get cowboy burgers (beef patty with ham, bacon and cheddar on top) with fries and a side of gravy. Over our sumptuous meal, Pam and I rejoice over the highs and lows of the past day. It has felt like a whirlwind.
Then we go to Ralph's Exxon station and get our Dr. Peppers and Gatorades.