Home, James

Wyoming - Montana

How I spent my summer vacation (Yellowstone Park) 
Biking the Continental Divide
Canoeing the Continental Divide 
The first tale of three cities (Bannack)
Big Wise River Hole
Fleecer Ridge
A description of what happens on the "scenic overlooks" in a National Park
On the Continental Divide Route, you meet an interesting assortment of bicycle tourists.
I ride over a section of Continetal Divide Route that seems to stick in everybody's memory, Fleecer Ridge

How I spent my summer vacation (Yellowstone Park)

The continental Divide bike route, publicized by Montana's Adventure Cycling organization, goes through Teton National Park, but not Yellowstone. The route accomplishes this little trick by sneaking through a narrow stretch of National Forest land between the two parks, on a dirt road called Warm Lakes road. Where dirt meets pavement sits the Flagg D Ranch resort, sometimes described as an industrial strength resort in guidebooks. It fits. RVs circled the parking lot in search for good parking spots. While circling, several stopped directly in front of the entrance, to drop off the lady of the house, so she wouldn't have to walk so far to the entrance. Then it was the man's job to circle back into the parking lot to park the rig.  It is the same behavior that can be observed at any supermarket back home in the city, minimize the walking distance, maximize the gasoline consumption. None of the women dropped off at the entrance seemed to have any physical disabilities, so I wondered why they felt so adverse to walking.

But all of these RVs have to go from Yellowstone into Teton Park, or vice versa. The Warm Lakes road is too rough for them. In what seems like an attempt to compensate for the overcommercialized Flagg D Ranch, there are some of the best organized National Forest campsites along the Warm Lakes road, just a couple of miles from the industrial strength resort, and they're free too.

I had planned to pick up the continental divide route at this point. I was looking forward to meeting some other cyclists along this famous bike route. There were lots of bicycles so far, more bicycles than I could ever count, bicycles moving down the road as part of an endless caravan. They passed at fast speeds, but not under their own power. They hung at right angles, like some kind of hunting trophy on display, resembling a jumble of  metal antlers, often in groups of 3 or 4, at the end of huge RVs. You could see there was one bike for every family member. This way, if any of them would ever feel an urge to ride, each one of them could actually do it on their very own bicycle. But I had the suspicion they all sat inside peering out at me, wondering why anybody would want to ride a bicycle in so much traffic.

I rode down Warm River road, and was now officially on the Continental Divide route, and away from the RV parade. To my surprise, I only saw one other cyclist that day. She was like the few other Wyoming bicyclists I had encountered on this trip. A woman rolled along at a leisurely pace, taking a dog for well deserved exercise. Apparently many Wyomingites think of the bicycle as a clever invention that lets you walk the dog more efficiently. She could coast just fast enough so that Fido would break into a loose gallop with his tongue hanging out. However the poor dog couldn't run fast enough to make the bikerider do the same.

I camped another night on National Forest land at the end of Warm river road. The scene was dominated by the massive forest fires that burned here several years ago. The sun broke through the clouds just as it was about to set, creating very close to a point source of light. Most of what we see during the day is really reflected light. Light from a point source has much darker shadows, more saturated colors and defined outlines. I ran outside to capture this unique light condition, tripping over myself with every excited step. Often I think that interesting photography is just having a camera ready at the right time. I thought that this was a very right time. It doesn't look as good as a projected slide, but here's a couple of hundred pixels worth anyway.

Next morning rain was puttering on the windshield of my van. But after two hours it let up. I didn't want to go play in the mud further up the Warm River road. But the weather was great for a hardtop workout into Yellowstone. And so I rode into Yellowstone Park. Yellowstone does not get very favorable reviews for bicycling, judging from what you read. There is too much traffic and too little shoulder, and that's exactly how the ride started out. But after a few hours the traffic situation started to improve. It was getting close to noon. Ah, just like downhill skiing, I thought. Liftlines always disappear around lunch time, when everybody is standing in line inside, to get their 8 dollar hamburger. The best time for downhill skiing, and bicycling Yellowstone, is lunch time. Actually, even during afternoon, the traffic never got as bad as during the morning. So I had to come up with another theory to explain traffic behavior. Now my theory was this. In the morning, the cars were all out on the move, while chances were still good for hunting down one of the sought after campsites inside the park. By afternoon, RVers have either found a place to camp and are busy making the place their home, or many of them have given up.

As I was saying, I saw lots of bicycles up to this point, just very few bicyclists. Even in Jackson, fashionable sporting resort with astronomical housing prices, I saw only one bona fide racing attire outfitted shadow sprinting down the road. So when I saw two fully packed bicycles in West Thumb inside Yellowstone Park,  I was surprised. This was a good reason to stop for half an hour. They were repacking. It was a young British couple on a circle from Billings through Yellowstone and the Tetons. They rode unsuspended mountain bikes, also my favorite vehicle for loaded touring. The art of self supported bicycle touring for them also included carrying a full sized tripod and a fishing rod. The conversation circled in on RVs pretty fast. "You don't have one of them standing at home in your garage, do you ? - Before we start tearing them down" said the woman with an enchanting British accent, several sentences into the conversation. - Actually I do have one, it's just a little smaller. It's a VW van. So start tearing, and I'll join right in. "Back in England they just wouldn't work, because they simple don't fit into the streets" she told me. Actually they only fit on a fraction of the roads here too. So far I have camped every night on a road on which one of these giants would not fit. After an hour of talking we said goodbye.

Inadvertently I had formed a two prong attack heading North. So now I had to decide on which route I wanted to continue. The choice was between peaceful continental divide trail, and RV choked hard top through Yellowstone National Park. I thought back of lunch yesterday along the Warm River road. I was sitting next to an expansive blue lake, surrounded by gently rolling forest. A hundred yards away a couple was sitting next to their truck camper, fishing, gazing out onto the lake, immobile, peace personified. Their son was at a safe distance, doing likewise. Otherwise the scene was devoid of people. Then I thought of Yellowstone, traffic and RVs, tourists stopping at tourist pullouts. And then I decided on Yellowstone. The truth was, I enjoyed the scenic pullouts. They were not only scenic, they were also entertaining. Besides, all the cyclists I had met so far had made the choice for Yellowstone, both of them.

"I could write a book about teaching grade school and all the stuff school kids do" said a leisurely dressed woman to a couple. The scene had been the first National Park pullout of the entire trip on the Southern end of Teton National Park. Apparently the incredible sight of mountains piercing the sky had set off an unstoppable urge to talk about - well - not mountains piercing the sky, but her own life experience, her life as a school teacher in this case. This little parking lot had started a desire to put down on paper her experiences as a school teacher, and the life with children. Mountains make us do great things. Some people climb them, others find their own personal mountains to climb. However sadly, as soon as we loose sight of the magnificence, often the urgency disappears. So maybe this woman should sit down right here in the parking lot, pull out a folding chair, set up a picnic table, and just start writing. Maybe she could write a book about teaching grade school and all the stuff school kids do, right here at this scenic pullout overlooking the Tetons. It certainly sounded very interesting here.

At another scenic pullout, this one in Yellowstone, I spoke to a Coloradan. He turned out to be not far from my own old home, Denver. There the largest forest fire in Colorado history, the Hayman fire,  was still raging out of control. Yet this man was already wearing a Hayman fire T shirt. The shirt featured a list of all the evacuated communities, in the same manner that other T shirts feature a list of the highest mountains climbed, or the highest passes bicycled. It may have been a bit early for this. The shirt may have to be amended. The fire was still burning. There may be more evacuations to come.

Near Lewis Falls overlook an MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) researcher complemented me on my Klein Mantra bicycle. Then he said that he had built an automatic gear shift mechanism for a bicycle. I could tell he was from MIT. When I launched into an explanation of the benefits of the high pivot point of the rear suspension, he waved me off. He already knew all about it. He didn't need an explanation. On the other hand, it took me about two weeks to convince myself of how exactly this pivot point stuff works. I could also tell he was from MIT because he wore an MIT t shirt. This automatic gear shifting mechanism sounded interesting. Still, I prefer shifting my own gears. But the fact that people actually spend valuable time and brain power to invent such a gadget is fascinating.

I thought I had made a good decision going through Yellowstone Park. The scenery was fantastic, the parking lots entertaining, and I hadn't even reached any of the geyser areas yet. I had crossed the Continental Divide twice inside the park, both times over broad wooded ridges that are part of the high Yellowstone plateau. These divide crossings were just as interesting for the importance that people attached to them, as for their actual importance. Once the sign was obscured by teenagers. Their parents had lined them up in front of the sign. They were shooting for the family photo album. A bus had just stopped at the other divide crossing. Now bus tourists were streaming towards the sign, vying for the first picture of the sign.

I observed more interesting sign behavior. A group of four cars with South Dakota license plates stopped at the trailhead to Shoshone Lake. Everybody got out of the cars. It was a group of teenagers in sweat shirts and unlaced sneakers, and the two accompanying adults. "When we got here they all split" observed one of the teenagers in a sly voice. They all grouped around the sign saying "Shoshone Lake" and had group pictures taken. It seemed like any sign would have done the job. This one just happened to say "Shoshone Lake". They just needed an anchor, something to group around, an explanation why they were here, even if the explanation made no sense. This particular sign said "Shoshone Lake". But it could have said "Continental Divide", or "Wyoming", or "Lomgh Uigbaagh". As soon as the pictures were taken they got back into their cars and sped off.  Many people will recount their happy experiences posing in front of signs with curious inscriptions later during the school year, in essays entitled "how I spent my summer vacation".

Later in their lives, some will return to Yellowstone, remembering the happy experiences of their youth. Now they carry a detailed guidebook describing the peculiarities of each separate geyser. Now they know how frequently each geyser erupts, the connections between the water temperature, the acidity of the water and the colors. Some of them become familiar with every detail of geyser behavior, and expert enough to put a park ranger to shame. I met a man like that at a scenic Yellowstone pullout also.

I stopped at the Old Faithful Lodge. Old Faithful Lodge is a grand old natural wood building. It has a fascinating huge interior space surrounded by natural logs. A tour was about to start, so I joined in. Here I got a whole other picture of tourist behavior, a picture from long ago, around 1903. Back then, a trip to Old Faithful Lodge was a sign to the world that you had arrived and could afford such an undertaking. The dedicated Yellowstone tourist would start with a train trip to Gardner. Then he would take a two day stagecoach trip. Finally he arrived at the sight he had heard so much about, old Faithful Geyser. We were standing in the dark interior of the lodge, overlooking the dining room. Back in 1903, dinner was included in the price of the room. People also attached more importance to the ceremony of the dinner. A huge clock was the official time keeper of when dinner started. Its weights could keep the clock running for several days and traveled the height of several stories. About 15 minutes before dinner a gong would sound. It could be heard throughout the hotel and the geyser basin surrounding it.  The dinner announcement on loud speakers would compete with the hissing of thermal features, as the tourists sauntered between geysers and hot pools.  In order to enter the dining room, men had to wear tuxedos, and women formal dresses. If they didn't comply they were served dinner in tents outside. Now the days of aristocracy are over. Now you can spend 3.75$ on a Yellowstone Memorial Coke cup instead, if that's more your style. As for me I sat outside and ate a bagel that had its origins back in Jackson.  Some things changed dramatically, but the original old faithful ceremony still lives. People still file out on the balcony to watch the water spout, just like they did back then. The building is practically organized around the balcony, which is chosen for its picture perfect position to watch Old Faithful erupt. In the early days of the hotel, geothermal energy of the basin was used to produce steam for the hotel. But they stopped that real fast. It must have been a really wise man who made this decision. It would have been a shame, having to explain why old Faithful isn't so faithful anymore. That could be very embarrassing.

There is another very interesting building next to the Old Faithful Lodge. It houses long benches with people sitting on them. As I stepped inside, I sensed an atmosphere of waiting. People checked their watches and gave curious gazes outside. Is it time yet ? The scene resembled a waiting room in a train station. Conductors, - I mean - park rangers - were behind the desk to answer questions. Above them was a sign

Castle - within 1 hour of 1 pm
Grand - within 2 hours of 8 pm
Daisy - within 30 minutes of 2:50 pm
Riverside ...
Great Fortune ...

 It sounded like an Amtrak schedule. Castle Express and Grand Express were trains running coast to coast. Daisy was the nick name for a little commuter train. However, Amtrak has never been able to post honest schedules like this. Amtrak posts times exact to the minute, about when their trains arrive, even if the term "within 2 hours" would be an appropriate addition. But Castle and Grand were not express trains. They were geysers visible from the hotel and within short walking distance. In this waiting room, people were waiting for them as if they were important trains, as if they were trains that brought back some long lost relative from the other end of the country. Clearly, Old Faithful Lodge is a place for people who like to have their life well organized in advance. They don't want to hang around for geysers that aren't going erupt. They want to know what they get, and they want to know when they get it.

As for me, I took my chances with geyser eruptions and rode down Firehole Basin road. Now I even had a spacious shoulder to ride on. It was a Sunday afternoon promenade ride along the boardwalks, and the cars were promenading as leisurely as the walkers. We were the ones who where taking our chances with the eruptions, a spurt here, a rainbow colored spring there. You have to come to Yellowstone to see all the other colors that nature can produce, besides blue and green. A group of bacteria called thermophiles have taken it onto themselves to produce these colors. There are orange algae, blue bubbling from large underground caves, mysterious bulging black bubbles.

That evening I camped on National Forest land near West Yellowstone. During the next morning I backtracked to my last turnaround point along the Firehole River. As I rode back, I witnessed a classic Yellowstone traffic tie up, a picture of man attempting to deal with nature. Cars were stopped to let several buffalo pass. My direction of travel had virtually no traffic, while the other lane was a standing parking lot. The majority of cars in the other lane must have been day visitors entering from the town of West Yellowstone after a leisurely breakfast in town. That lane of traffic was more than slow. It was dead. People got out of their cars to let the dogs out. Others passed time by talking on cellphones. I rode along the stopped traffic. After the first turns, people started calling questions to me, wanting to know what the traffic hangup was all about. I yelled "there is a buffalo on the road". The people doing the cell phone calls obviously weren't talking to one another. Then they would known what was happening. After a mile the situation did not improve. That was one heck of a way to start your Yellowstone experience, with a 45 minute traffic jam, and you never even saw the buffalo that was causing the jam. On a slight downhill, I could now ride a little faster. Drivers now tried to communicate with me using gestures.  Arms emerged from car windows in wild questioning shrugs, from about every fourth car. Others yelled questions at me, "what's the hangup".  I yelled in response "buffalo on road, buffalo on road, buffalo on road". Some answered with puzzled looks. Others responded with looks saying "off course, I should have known".  The amazing traffic jam had almost worked itself all the way back to Madison Junction, a distance of about 3.5 miles. Here a good decent led me back down between the black lava cliffs to the Madison river. People were still calling and gesturing to me. As I zoomed down the hill at 26 mph, I yelled "bufflerbufflerbufflerbuffler" as loud as I could. So that's a picture of man trying to harmonize with nature in Yellowstone Park.

I spent the rest of the day riding to and exploring Norris Geyser Basin, the most changeable of the geyser basins. Each geyser, mudhole and fumarole here has its own private life. They hiss and sputter, and sometimes they erupt. Rangers are well acquainted with their personalities, and they give behavior descriptions that could be mistaken for psychological profiles. "That one is very unpredictable. But when it blows up we are all going to know it". Others sound like descriptions of toddler behavior. "This one, after it erupts, it gurgles a while as if someone is flushing a toilet", or "This one spurts in different directions every few minutes". Yellowstone can be whatever you want it to be. You can look at thermal features as objects of scientific inquiry. You can enjoy them as pieces of art created by nature, and interplay of color and water and steam, each one distinct and original, and far more elaborate than anything man could come up with. You can also look at these geysers as whimsical playthings that squirt and make toilet noises. They are like good art. They talk to you on every level. They talk to you on your level.

Biking the Continental Divide

Soon after West Yellowstone I finally started incorporating Adventure Cycling's Continental Divide Bicycle route into my circle rides. I was curious to meet cyclists along this famous route, having read about them and the trailers they pull along, in some detail in Michael McCoy's guidebook. I first aproached the route in Island Park. I stopped into the single small market in town and asked if any cyclists had stopped in lately. An old bearded man stood near the cash register. Behind him hung a big picture, depicting the store almost disappearing in snow, and snowmobiles. Twenty of them were parked around the store in a traffic jam as overwhelming as the snow storm itself. "Winter of 98" read the caption. "I haven't seen any cyclists this year" was his answer. "Some groups come through later in the year".

Even if this is the premier mountain bike touring route in the the United States, the bicycle is still a minority form of transportation here. Obviously this is not Holland, where bicycles outnumber people. It seemed like ATVers and snowmobilers outnumber cyclists by infinity to one. The mountain biker has to rely on infrastructure created for them. A maze of paths crisscross the forest around Island Park for this purpose. Most of the dirttracks I rode on for two days from West Yellowstone had speedlimits for snowmobiles posted on them. In another nearby store, cyclists were known as "the people who buy bananas". This would make snowmobilers and ATVers the "people who buy gasoline". With this distinction, I am rather proud to be a banana eater, since gasoline doesn't grow on trees. Also, sofar noone has ever found it necessary to invade a country for its bananas. This is ecspecially pertinenent at the time I write this, during the fall of 2002, when Dubeyah Bush and his cronies of ex oil company executives in the cabinet, are getting ready to invade Iraq for its oil, in the name of freedom and all of us.

I was now on the continental divide route for two days, and was still eagerly awaiting the first encounter with a continental divide cyclist. I stopped into a campground store west of Red Rock Pass. As I walked into the little A frame building, I realized that  3 out of 4 walls and the entire ceiling were covered with 12x14 photographs. Every single picture contained happy proud people, smiling gleefully, holding up dead fish to the camera. Fishing was at least as popular as snowmobiling here. This place was a regular Cistene Chapel of fishing. As people walked into this little store, they acted the same way as when they first walked into the mighty interior of Old Faithful Lodge. Their head tilted backwards and they gazed up at the ceiling, lost in wonder. The store owner watched with satisfaction, and after the wonder had passed, asked "can I help you ?". I bought some juice and then asked about cyclist sightings. "Oh, we see a few later in the year, but not as many as before 2000. - That was when all the dot comers had those long vacations". Actually I never knew any dot comer who took any vacation. But I wasn't about to point that out. What was called for here was a good fishing story. But I didn't know any. So I rode on.

The continental divide route descended Red Rock Pass and entered a long isolated valley. To the North the mighty Centennial Range now looked like a very well built 5000 foot wall up to a plateau. Towards the South a large lake slowly became distinguishable in the haze. The temperature was around 90 degrees. But the snow on the Centennial Range only seemed to be a few hundred feet higher. In the heat of that afternoon I met the first continental divide cyclist.  He wore long pants and a long sleeved gray shirt. He was from Tucson and clearly knew how to deal with the heat. The fabric of his clothing had an SP factor of 35, and it was called "alumbra"  he informed me. It let air flow freely but stopped the sunlight. "I'm not even tanned underneath" he reported proudly, and showed me a patch of white skin. I on the other hand had been burning to a crisp for some time. Under his helmet he wore a large cap with white clothing hanging down onto his shirt. It shielded the sun laterally and gave him a certain Arab flare, also a people well equipped to deal with global warming. With all this protection the Tucson cyclist also looked a little like a beekeeper on a bicycle. But his trailer was not loaded with honey, but with everything that's needed on a long biketour. He had started in Tucson and then rode south east to Antelope Wells, NM, starting point of the Continental Divide route. From there he followed the route north. As it turned out, he was the only cyclist I met on the entire tour, who rode the whole Continental Divide route South to North, instead of the opposite direction. The Continental Divide route guide book advises riding the route from North to South, because the high points of the route in Colorado may still be snow covered during the spring. However, this year that was not a problem.

The recommended CDR (continental divide route) campground is a beautiful strip of green next to the lake, called "upper lake campground". A more descriptive name would be "flying syringe campground". It's a great place to watch birds, that eat mosquitoes, that eat people. The guidebook promises rare views of trumpeter swans, but they're viewed best from the safe confines of a VW van, or some other bugproof enclosure. I didn't see any. They must be out of season. I did watch a couple set up a tent. The man was waving a blanket violently in front, while she was transporting airmatress and sleeping bag into the tent, opening the tent flap only for a quick skillfully executed entry and exit maneuver.

Riding along the western edge of the Centennial Valley is an opportunity to see and photograph old decaying homesteads and farms. They date back to before the Great Depression and the drought from that period. Only a few farms survived that ordeal.

I was on the CDR for only two days, and already I wanted to improve on it. A sign stated "Monida Ridge road". Reading between the lines, the word ridge always has a special promise. It promises to be higher than the surroundings, and hence offered great views onto the Beaverhead range. The plan was good. But the execution was lacking. After a little knoll the path lead me to the shores of Lima reservoir. There I pushed the bike along its sandy  and gravely shores for a couple of hours. At that time I finally saw a large flock of trumpeter swans with their curly necks, which were advertised to hang out at flying syringe campground. Later, I carried my bike across a damn that is less than 30 feet long and holds back squaremiles of water. Damnbuilders got an extraordinary large result for relatively little work here. Then I and rejoined the CDR. The best views of the Beaverhead Range finally came into view right on a much maligned gravel road leading into Lima, much better than what I had found on the socalled Monida Ridge road.
looking for views on the Beaverhead Range from Monida Ridge Road and finding them on the damn Lima Dam road


Canoeing the Continental Divide

I was approaching the Lewis and Clark trail. It was right about here where Lewis and Clark had to take their boats out of the water for an extended period. They were looking for the most distant headwaters of the Missouri and thought they found them right about here. Here they would cash goods for the return trip, and start portaging the boats over the divide.

Back on the CDR in Lima, I met another CDR biker. Like most CDR bikers, Jarred was traveling with bike and trailer. But this was no trailer a la Bob. This was carrying the trailer idea to the extreme. The trailer contained a large jug of water and several, one foot diameter, plastic drums. In those drums were groceries, tent, and also rope and GPS gear. The trailer had two little tiny wheels that only allowed travel on excellent pavement. Between the trailer and the drums was another major piece of equipment, a canoe. Obviously Jarred was not here to ride the continental divide trail. Riding to him was like walking for Lewis and Clark. Bicycling was his way of doing a portage, even if the portage was pretty long. This last portage had crossed the continental divide, a route of a couple of hundred miles from Idaho. He was looking for the Beaverhead river, which was the final part of his journey back home to Kansas city. He was planning to follow the same route that Lewis and Clark had followed. This was not necessarily to retrace their steps, but, if you are traveling from California by canoe, it's just the logical way to go. This way you only have to pull your canoe on a bike once for several hundred miles. We were right at the point where Lewis and Clark built camp Fortunate, cashed goods and started a major portage heading west. At this point Jarred planned to put his canoe into river, the bike into the boat, and float home, down the Beaverhead, to the Missouri, to Kansas City.

We camped at the shores of Clark reservoir, and I learned a little more about him and his journey. Jarred wore a banged crushed felt hat that showed he had his own priorities mapped out for him. He was 28, a strong 200 lbs and generally talked in a square stance, with both hands on his hips, his pose underlining what he said. His eyes hinted at a goodnatured soft touch, which contrasted with his other macho theater gestures in an interesting way. Jarred was born in the midwest, but spent most of his time growing up in Mississippi, which explained his heavy southern drawl. He and his buddy Robert, an ex navy man and a marine, started out canoeing towards the Ozarks, and then down the Mississippi. "Rahdn that Mississippi with its whirlpools and flows is like rahdn a dragon". He added an appropriate amount of sound effects and hand motions to make the whole thing easy to picture. Then came the first 100 mile portage. They put the canoe on their custom made trailers and started pulling them along the interstate on foot, west through the Arizona dessert, direction California. Dragging the canoes across Arizona like that, they hit upon an idea. Why not use bicycles to pull the canoes across the portage ? That was a year and a half ago. In the meantime they had completed a grand circle of canoeing and portaging around the western states. Meanwhile they had split up, and were now following separate paths back to Kansas.

Jarred's favorite stories involved crocodiles, turning over the canoe, and getting shot at in Mississippi. Getting shot at seemed to be part of the American experience for him. It happened on two separate occasions, and he recounted them in great detail with relish. His favorite people were river people. His soul was in the South, partying on the river with strange boaters, and getting invited to Cajun Gumbo cooking parties. He had put together a photo album of his trip, canoeing into caves in the Ozarks, gators in Florida, Rio Grande Canyons, pollution bubbles looking like icebergs in Southern California.

As the evening wore on, the philosophy became more questionable. We compared bikers to boaters. Kayakers were similar to racers, we decided. They tend to be more on a ego trip. Ocean boaters had something in common with climbers. They have to be more equipment oriented out of necessity. Canoers and bicycle tourers, on the other hand, shared more of a low key approach, combining social aspects with tourism and physical satisfaction through workouts, in short, the best of everything. Jarred's highways were rivers. So he knew all about them, their geography and history. He also knew all the technical details of his boat. When it came to his bike, on the other hand, his expertise was born out of necessity. He admitted his seat was too low. Actually he had bought the bike at Kmart for 60$. Before that he had a more expensive used GT. But when the chain started skipping, he decided that a cheap bike couldn't really be any worse. It's true that GT lacks a "GT Portage" model in their catalog. A bike for that application just hasn't been designed yet. Just as GT still has to learn about portaging, Jarred was still learning about bicycling. When he met somebody who trued the rear wheel for him he responded with "wow, I didn't know you could do that". But that didn't stop him from dragging his 350 to 400 lb tailer around with him for 2000 miles, typically in stages of 15 to 20 miles. I tried it out and was fascinated that it really does move. It's like bicycling a semi truck.

As the evening got later the subject unfortunately turned to religion. Jarred adamantly declared that he did not believe in Darvin's theory of evolution. "Ah doant beleeave ah cayam from uh baacterior. Dorwin knew heeya was wroang befoare hee dahd". Somehow that sentence sounded familiar. I tried to figure out where I heard it before. Almost every evening so far I had spent some time twirling through the short wave bands on my radio, in search for some credible news station, like BBC or DW radio. In this search I usually had to tune over 5 to 10 screeming preacher stations, always yelling in a heavy southern accent from studios in Alabama or Mississippi. No other type of radio station is more quickly recognizable. Usually I would get past them in less than a sentence. But this sentence sounded like the sort of sentence yelled by one of those Southern Baptist radio preachers gone insane in front of a microphone. The next step would have been to figure out if Darwin's theory actually stated that "Jarred came from a bacteria". It seemed more productive to talk about getting shot at, gators and other animals.

The scene of my favorite Jarred story is an overnight kanu camp in the Ozarks. But it could just as well be a bicycle tourer's camp, or a backpacker's camp. The starring role in the story is played by one of those lovable little furry creatures, a racoon. The story starts like many racoon stories. All night long he could hear the rustling noises. He got up to check what it was. A little later the noises came back. In the morning he discoverd the racoon had taste tested absolutely everything in his his food bag, the bread, the cereal, the rice, the beans. Only two items were missing completly, a jug of water, and a jar of instant coffee and a spoon. Consequently he knew that somewhere in a tree up there, was sitting a racoon stirring himself a cup of instant coffee.

The first tale of three cities (Bannack)
Distance Total Climbing Surface attraction
83 miles with extension to Dell 4100 feet  60 % pavement, 40 % smooth dirt old mining town of Bannack

The next morning was one of those rare days when a cold front made for a perfectly cool day of biking. While Jarred was eager to hit the river, I was just as eager to hit the road. As a matter of fact, Clark Canyon was the perfect starting point for two circle rides that covered one of the most scenic stretches of the CDR East of the continental divide in Montana. The ride to the South gradually climbed up to Medicine Lodge Big Sheep divide. The mountains here are large bare sweeping green landforms with a hint of rocky ridge on top. Even if the temperature would not have been perfect, I would have enjoyed this ride. Even if the wind did not change direction to stay at my back during the entire day,  I would have great memories of this ride. Even if I wouldn't have run into another interesting CD cyclist along the way, this would have been a great day. But all of these things happened, and that certainly didn't hurt. I was racing down the Southern decent of the Medicine Lodge Big Sheep divide, racing but hardly pedalling or using my brakes. When I reached I15, I detoured back to Lima in order to look for a pocket knife that I thought I left there during lunch the previous day. On the dirttrack next to the interstate I recogniced the outline of a bicycle rider in front of me. As I got close I recogniced the outlines of heavy panniers instead of a trailer. I thought that this pointed towards a European origin. All of the Americans I had met sofar, toured with trailers, 50% of them with kanus for trailers. As I got closer I recogniced bent handlebars and skinny rims on the bike - more European signs. This person wore a short shirt and wore no sun protection - must be Northern Europe. Global warming in Europe has manifested itself by enourmous rainstorms. You don't need sunscreen to protect yourself against them. In the Western US on the other hand, the sun has taken on a fiercer edge that wasn't there 20 years ago. I was right. Lenny was from Britain. He had the kind of build that would easily let him sprint over a pass without any extra weight holding him back. He had started his ride in Missoulla and was planning to ride the CDR it to its southern end. He was Irish but had worked in London for the last 9 years - at least that part of the nine years when he wasn't touring through China, Laos, Vietnam or France. His most interesting stories involved sleeping in a hammock, mosquito netting and rigged up rain protection in Laos.

This 98 mile circle went through two named places on the map. You could call them towns. They had houses, and people lived in many of them. Lima even had a gas station that also sold food. I made the mistake of buying a roll of frozen hamburger there. When I tried to cook it, I discovered it was black like a roadkill carcus. It must have been there since the last ice age. Dell's store was not operational. A hotel there was closed. One establishment did serve overpriced hamburgers at irregular hours. Even though there are two names on the map that refer to something other than a valley or a peak along this route, it's best to carry all you want to eat along, if possible.

The circle to the North of Clarke reservoir lead through two more named places, Dillon and Bannack. Dillon was a real town, a town with great old building facades and a single supermarket on the outskirts of town, perfect for stocking up depleted supplies. Riding through the other town was a kind of cultural event, and that's pretty rare in this part of the country. It's a ghost town, the most common cultural encounter in this part of the country. As I rode into Bannack, a tour was just about to start. So I joined it.

Like almost all western US ghost towns, Bannack is an old mining town. Nature decides where to put a mining town. That place is usually not the straight forward utilitarian crossroads where man decides to put his commercially viable trading towns.  Not that Bannack lies that high up in the mountains. But today it's remote enough to give a good picture of what life was like back then.  The gold along Grasshopper creek leads up from the main route of traffic, that has been used by everybody form Lewis and Clarke to todays I15 traffic. Bannack's main street shelters in a cozy tree lined gulch near a pass between the Pioneer and Tendoy mountains. A row of old wooden buildings line the old main street in a state of arrested decay.

Prospectors, who had gone bust in Colorado, found gold here in 1862. Soon after that, Bannack became the territorial capital of Montana. The local celebrity whose name kept cropping up during the tour is Henry Plummer, along with his "gang of Innocents". Old Henry was the sheriff of the town for a short time. He used his time in office to rob and killed over a 100 men. The gallows from which he and 24 of his men were hanged (actually a reconstruction of the gallows) played a prominent part in the tour. But apparently there were also many good religous people living here during this time. It only took a day for the church to be built, according to the story that is told in the tour. The occasion was the winter when Chief Joseph and his Indians where hunted North by the American govenment. It only took the thread of a tribe of Indians fleeing through town to provoke all that religeous fervor.

Just two years after the initial find, richer gold diggings in Alder Gulch lured away much of the population. Little was left of Bannack by 1890. The territorial capitol followed the gold as well, and was moved to Virginia City. Bannack never had a chance to grow old. It was caught up in a fevor to grow rich, but it never built the rich mansions. It died as an adolescent, and today we can admire it in that state of arrested decay. As I rode north, I came through other towns that were preserved in successively later stages of arrested decay. Two of them were capitols of Montana, each in its time. More later.

The CD route I had ridden sofar stayed east of the continental divide. The continental divide forms a sharp weather divide, and it's generally obvious which side you are on. The general rule is this. East of  the divide the weather is dry. You ride through large expanses of treeless meadows and mountains. West of the divide the climate is wetter, and you ride through a dense canopy of needle trees. South of Bannack the CD route is so far east of the divide, it's not even on the same mountain range. Consequently I had been riding through dry carpets of range land, rolling out towards the horizon until it would loose itself in the summer haze, or bump into a mountain range. The Continental divide follows the Idaho Montana border here. A whole other valley, the Big Hole valley, separates the CD route through the Pioneer range from the divide in the Beaverhead range. Yet, crossing through the Pioneer range gives the same sensation as crossing the continental divide from West to East. One minute you are riding in the vast open spaces of the West. The next minute you are swallowed up by a dense forrest.


Big Wise River Hole

I spent two days riding through the Pioneer mountains and its unexpected forrests east of the divide. I had spent two weeks eating mostly sardines, cheese, tomatoes and bread for lunch. It had been since the town of Jackson since I had sighted a Chinese restaurant. By now I was looking forward to having lunch in a civiliced restaurant for a change. North of the the Pioneer range, in the small town of Wise River, I hoped to act out these plans. Here in the upper valley of the Big Hole River, I was still on the tracks of Lewis and Clark. Wise River is still a leftover of Lewis and Clark's naming attempts. They named the three forks of the Jefferson river. They called them the Wisdom, the Philanthropy and the Philosophy rivers. Apparently these names rolled a little heavy off the tongues of tobacco chewing trappers that followed. The trappers called them the "Big Hole", Beaverhead and Ruby rivers. The town of "Wise River" retains its name from when it was on a tributary of the Wisdom. If the town had been renamed along with the river, I would have been looking for a restaurant in the town of "Big Hole". Somehow "Wise River Cafe" sounds so much more inviting than "Big Hole Cafe".

Feeling very hungry from 45 miles of aerobic hardtop cycling, I chose one of the two cafes. I made my way by a camper filled with three hostile barking dogs in the parking lot, and picked one of the three tables inside to sit down. I got a hold of the menu, laminated in heavy duty plastic, ready to withstand extra heavy abuse. The menu read like this

Hamburger 5.25
Double Hamburger 6.25
Cheezeburger 5.50
Double Cheezeburger 6.50
Bacon Cheezeburger 6.80
Jalapeno Cheezeburger 6.90
Mushroom Swissburger 7.50
Cajun Burger 7.90
Montana Burger 8.00
Teriyaki Burger 8.50

Anybody in the mood for a burger ? If not, the remaining 5 items on the menu all featured the words "chicken steak". With a little imagination you can come up with a hole menu, all centered around "burgers". I would have named the town "Imagination" instead of Wisdom or Big Hole. Coming up with a whole menu based on the hamburger showed more than a little imagination. Also, a name like "mushroom swiss burger" is very descriptive. You know what you are going to get. It is much more descriptive than the kinds of names, uttered by teenagers in uniform, working for corporate fast food burger joints, names like "Big Whopper" and "Big Mac". I never could get myself to say "I'd like a big whopper, please". It sounds like you are asking for abuse, like somebody is going to hit you over the head with something. If I am hungry enough, I could picture myself saying "a Cajun Burger please".

While I was studying the menu in order to make this decision, one other family in the little cafe was eating their variety of burgers. They must have liked them, because they ordered three more. The new orders were for the barking dogs outside in the camper, the dogs I had to get by before entering this establishment. Apparently they were taste testing the burgers first to see if they were good enough for the dogs. "Mostly they eat dog food", said the man slightly apologetically, when I asked him about his dogs eating habbits. The waitress/cook/owner of the cafe thought this was all very funny. She went outside with a chuckle, to ask the dogs if they would like their burgers rare, medium or well done. It's like the billboard says "Beef, it's what's for dinner", for man and dog alike. It's a dog eat cow world out there. Maybe "Big Hole" wouldn't be such a bad name after all for this little town. Actually it's a peaceful little town surrounded by lush hills and an idyllic river. But I had to face up to the fact that vegetables just aren't fashionable here. The burrito with its nutritious beans, rice, lettuce, sour cream and salsa has not yet migrated this far North, and it is doubtful that it ever will. The waitress/cook/owner was very friendly and accomodating and handed me the breakfast menu when asked.

Okay, so this was a ride trough a beautiful unspoiled forrest, crisp clear mornings becoming hot blue afternoons, miles in the shadows of big trees, another isolated ghost town sheltering under enormous granite walls, and all I really talked about was lunch. What can I say ? I became very hungry and food became very important. After all this time the choice of a restaurant became a special event, the way it only can when you're on a bike ride.

Fleecer Ridge
Distance Total Climbing Surface attraction
45 miles, including getting lost 4300 feet 50 % paved, 40 % dirt, 10 % meadow none, other than the route itself

We are all a little braver when we are closer to home. The continental divide route is no different.  It's home is not far form here, in Missoula, Montana. The organization that mapped the route, Adventure Cycling, is headquartered there. While most of the time the route cruises along dirt roads which are well suited for long distance touring, here the route changes in character. It becomes an exercise in route finding, bicycle carrying, weed wacking, and other disciplines. Today I was going to tackle the famous, the infamous, the dreaded Fleecer ridge. The care of preparation for today's ride was only exceeded by my enthusiasm to get going. Consequently I forgot to take my "cycling the CD book" along.  I had to rely on the copies of my Gazeteer maps that I carried along. This added to the experience by providing me with several unplanned scenic detours, as well as more challenging route finding problems, or at least that's the way it seems, looking at it through rose colered glasses in hazy hindsight.

The first part of the workout was a cool ride through heavy forrest, providing heavy duty shade for heavy duty fourth of July heat. After a satisfying workout I reached a meadow of wild flowers. From here on the objective to today's ride seemed to become clear. Several parallel tracks, resembling grown over historical tracks of the Oregon trail, pointed up Mount Fleecer. I knew I was going up Mount Fleecer, and these tracks fitted what I remembered from the description in the book. With each climb I completed, a new climb came into sight. Soon I was mostly walking, just because I could enjoy the views more that way. I felt a connection with the human race, just through knowing that other CD cyclists had dragged their bikes up here, and have found it an interesting thing to do. Over the years I have been in hundreds of spots like this, mostly in Colorado, mostly by accident in various stages of being lost. Like all those times, I was asking myself if a bicycle really was the best way to travel up this mountain. I always had a strong suspicion that it really was the best way, but this suspicion was usually not corroborated by any evidence that other members of the human race felt the same. That is to say, there was no evidence of other cyclists. Yet here, in this surprememly scenic spot, divide tourers were taking it even one step further, a big step further. They dragged heavy trailers up faint tire tracks through mountain meadows. Even if I didn't see them, I could imagine them. It gave me a feeling of a shared experience with other members of the bicycling community. I imagine this is similar to the feeling of identification of a football/basketball/hockey fan watching a sporting event in a stadium, with four thousand of his closest screeming compatriots, while the home team scored a goal/touchdown/basket, an event I could never identify with in any other way, no matter how hard I tried.

And then the trail ended.  Apparently the CD route didn't go up here after all. It was a magnificent spot anyway. An old tree reached out into the landscape with its arms. It seemed like a momument to mark this scenic spot, placed there by God. Still I had to ask myself again, "are you sure this is the best way to travel up the side of this mountain ?" I was alone up here, at least as far as cyclists were concerned. Any visions of other cycle tourists up here were completely out of place. Instead I had the usual company. I had met several ATVers coming up the hill. They were scoping out the area for a fall elk hunting ATV trip. Soon they came back down too, not having found an alternate route off Fleecer mountain. I retraced my way back down to the cattle gate where the tracks up Mount Fleecer started. I had the feeling that this isolated cattle gate in a meadow of blooming mountain flowers, was a decisive crossroads. This meadow was to Fleecer ridge, what Times Square is to New York. Another faint spur of a trail started at this point, leading to a decending edge of forrest.  It took it.  Like so many times in my life, I ended up in a confused mooing heard of cows. Cows living in isolation like this are much more aware of things happening around them. They moo and carry on, line up as if they're going to charge you, or at least they fake that maneuver. They seem to have a little bit more of the wild animal instinct in them, instead of just providing the steering mechanism for what's going to become an abused corn fed steroid doped frame for mechanized hamburger production. The trail ended at the cows. But the detour, out to this spit of land overlooking the Big Hole valley, proved to be useful after all. From there I spotted a road on the lower west flank of Mount Fleecer. The route now became clear as Montanans like to think their water is. While going up Mount Fleecer I had to veer off the track to the right, and head down a meadow to connect with this road. There was no turn off where I had to turn off. But there must have been one sometime in the past, because soon after I started walking across the meadow, I found myself on a track heading for a downhill slope. The route was now getting progressively steeper downhill. I was heading for the road I had spotted from the herd of cows.

As I held back my bike, trying to keep it from skidding down under its own force, I felt that kinship with all those other bikers again, just like at the treeline of Mount Fleecer. But this time I was sure I was on the actual CD route. Dragging a trailer all the way up to the treeline along Mount Fleecer would really have been crazy anyway. Carrying it down this steep mountain meadow was enough crazyness for one tour. How they got those trailers down this steep pitch is truely amazing. I had a hard time picturing it.

It was still only 1 pm when I reached hard top into Wise River. After this stretch of wild cows and carrying the bike, a good hard top workout was just what the doctor ordered. I rode back on the route that is described as the alternate route to the Fleecer ridge climb. For people on a tight schedule, it might be necessary to take the alternate route during days of bad weather. Ironically, it was on this stretch and not the infamous Fleecer ridge, that I met two more CD cyclists. Two men were on a tour from Sealy Lake to Wyoming. They had gotten their fill of dragging their bike over steep rocks during the stretch south of Lava Mountain (several hundred miles to the North), and decided to take the alternate route around Fleecer ridge.

You could ask if it's worth it, dragging your bike over Fleecer ridge. I think it is. Here's the reason. The route over Fleecer ridge adds a lot of spice and variety to the route. South of here the CDR passes through a long stretch of hard top through the Pioneer mountains. Just one day North from here, the CDR passes through its largest city, Butte Montana. Much of the joy of cycling is experiencing the great variety of terrain traversible with this form of transportation, and going from a hard top road through the Pioneer mountains, over Fleecer ridge, onwards to Butte, is going form one extreme to the other to the next.



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