home, James


-"Big Sky Country" and "Big Shoulder Country"
-The allure of Cowface Road
-Livingston, Bozeman and the passes connecting them
-Through the Gallatin Valley to Helena
-Helena - advantages of the city
-The parting of the cows
-Rocky Mountain fronts
-The National Public Radio route along the mountains
-Marias Pass - hide and seek passage through the northern rockies
-Polite Canada

- Biking the Montana basins gives plenty of opportunity to obsess about the road shoulder.
- Bozeman seems like a great place to live
- more bicycle encounters with cows and their keepers
- the northernmost area fronting the rockies is pretty isolated by US standards
- the history of two busy northern rockies gateway passes

"Big Sky Country" and "Big Shoulder Country"

"Leaving Wyoming" said the sign, followed by another one stating "Welcome to Montana, Big Sky Country". While the sky appeared to be the same size in both states, there was a significant difference in the size of the shoulder. Montana may be "Big Sky Country". But Wyoming is "Big Shoulder Country". Sure, Wyoming has rumblestrips just about everywhere to keep sleeping drivers on the road. But even on the right of the rumble strip there's generally enough room to have a whole party on bicycles. Since I was alone, I had plenty of room to swerve in whatever direction the wind battered my front wheel. The Wyoming shoulder exists out of principle, not out of necessity. The only Wyoming road with perceptible traffic lead into Cody, and that was Memorial Day weekend.

It doesn't happen the second you cross the state border into Montana. But it happens eventually. The shoulders disappear completely. Route 78, southwest of Red Lodge, Montana is a rollercoaster over flowing verdant green hills. It's also a narrow strip of asphalt. Traffic was heavier than any road I had cycled in Wyoming. It's not that Montana has no road shoulders. It's just that they are completely unpredictable. Take the route between Three Forks and Helena for example. The road between Townsend and Helena deserves a "great shoulder award", while a "dangerous worst shoulder" warning applies to the same road between I15 and Toston.  Later came Route 278 along the Montana Rocky Mountain Front Range, a road whose width in most places cannot accommodate two cars and a bicycle, even if the cars are subcompacts and  all the vehicles would touch one another. Since traffic is very light on Rte 278, this is usually not a problem. Still, around here you always have to worry about the people whose behavior is not confined to well within the statistical bell shaped curve of normality.

In this part of Montana, if you find a stretch of road with a good shoulder, it feels like you got lucky. You're tempted to ride it several times back and forth. Montana roads also have the highest rate of accidents in the country on a per mile driven by driver basis. Since these are rural roads, they obviously don't have as many accidents as city roads, but if you base the statistics on the miles driven by a vehicle, rather than on the distance of the road, the picture changes. Still, it is not dangerous to ride a bicycle in Montana. It's still better than Mexico. The large distances and absence of cultural distractions just allow you to focus more attention on it.

But I just rode across the state border. My cycling routes followed along the foot of the plateaus that surround the Yellowstone Plateau. Heading out of Red Lodge directions Absaroka, the Beartooth range turns from a rounded escarpment into white granite gates, from which emerge gently meandering streams with names like Rosebud, Stillwater and Boulder. The Beartooth range in the distance looks like the backdrop of a model railroad display, but without railroads. Behind the pastoral hills the landscape seemed terminated by a painted backdrop, a flat, painted image of sweeping white mountains under a perfect blue sky.

The wildlife also changed. The only wild animals I had seen so far on the Wyoming high plateaus were antelopes, rabbits and  rattle snakes, and lots of them. The most memorable image of a rattle snake was a rather big creature, just within a few feet of the rear entrance of my camper. The wind blew so hard, it was partly obscured by blowing sand, as it slowly slithered its way through the sandy hummocks of grass to the next gopher hole. The first night I camped in Montana I was invited for a truck ride to watch elk and deer emerging from the forests and crest the hills at dawn.

The allure of Cowface Road

Gone were the days when I traced out rectangular outlines on the plains on dirt roads with names like FR32, L17 and N.9 . Here the dirt roads had names, names like Grove Creek Road, Stockade Road, Cowface Road. So you don't think that Cowface Road sounds that great either ? Let me try to explain the allure of Cowface Road. The location is the valley of the Stillwater River west of the small settlement Absaroka. To the north the Beartooth Plateau forms a wall crowned by white. The landscape in the valley consists of hills clad in short brilliant green grass, prime ranching country. The combination of Stockade and Cowface road just may be the tour of the most stunningly scenic farms in the US. With a name like Cowface road, you would expect to see cows, and you do, but not close up. The cows are tiny imperceptible dots, like bread crumbs on a green carpet. Stockade and Cow Face road climb a modest treeless hill of maybe 1000 feet over 15 miles. Nestled in the verdant green folds of the earth beneath are farms that have survived the dust bowl and the various boom and bust cycles, and remnants of those that didn't. From this vantage point, they are just big enough so that you can make out the roof, the porch and a few piles of hay. The backdrop is what makes the scene, the most ragged part of the Beartooth Range to the north, dominated by the highest peak in Montana, Granite Mountain; to the southwest the jagged line of the Crazy Mountains, 50 miles away, but shining through the atmosphere like the moon on a clear night.

Now the bad news, Cow Face Road was being "improved" just as I rode over it. You already know what that means. It means sand and a coating of rocks, some the size of billiard balls. But hopefully the improvements will wear off pretty soon. If reservoirs can get silted in, roads can return to their original state of hard smooth clay, perfect for biking, like the first 25 miles of this route.

In order to make a circle out of the ride, I descended into the valley of the Yellowstone, route of Lewis and Clark, today's I15, and the main corridor of traffic. Down in the valley, you never even get a hint of the panoramas that wait just a couple of hundred feet higher. It's the kind of ride that makes me want to yell to a truck driver who has driven this road a hundred times. Hey, guess what I saw from my mountain bike, just 10 miles from here.


If I didn't ride up onto the Beartooth Plateau, at least I could hike up it. After the Cowface circle I needed a day off the bike. What better way to recover from cycling aches than hiking ? Just a few miles west from my campspot on the West Rosebud river, a hiking trail paralleled Mystic Lake,  appearing not quite as mystic since the building of a damn and a hydroelectric project. From the lake the trail climbed a wooded slope between dark massive granite mountains. After several miles of steep climbing I arrived on a rolling plain of snowy tundra. The scene is dominated by cliffs, falling off like a stiff tablecloth hanging over a table. This is not a square table, but ragged edged surfaces likes a slice of huge tree would make. Up here on this high plateau, snow covered rounded hills wait to give you an even better view of the highest group of peaks in the state, the group around Granite Peak. I couldn't resist.

Now for the return trip. The top part through the snow was easy. I followed my tracks back. The snow ended at the edge of the plateau. The problem was, standing on a table, folds in the table cloth below look very similar. It was hard to tell exactly where I had climbed onto the plateau. Going down I let myself be guided by cairns, which lead to a different route than I came up. This led to an area where the trail crossed steep snow fields in a sun sheltered area. An ice ax would have been necessary to cross it. So straight down the mountain I went, hoping I won't end up on some cliff far above the lake. Deer trails are the best choice in a situation like this. I've never seen a dead deer at the bottom of a cliff. Deer are great trailblazers. They have pioneered millions of miles of trail untouched by our species. The last cliff I had to negotiate took about an hour. Game trails snaked along the ragged wooded edge, probing every crevasse for a downward path, then returning a little higher to where the bushwhacking was at least still possible. At the end of that long hour I had worked myself back to where the trail left  Mystic Lake. Next time I climb a plateau I'm going to take a mental picture of the spot where I reach the edge and the route back down, I promised myself..

Now that I had recovered from my cycling aches by superimposing hiking aches on top of them, I needed a day off the bike and the feet. Even after that a few nice quiet rides on the service route of an Interstate were just what the doctor ordered. The prescription called for quiet riding along I15 to Big Timber and Bozeman. I was perfectly happy, riding along this historic artery of the Yellowstone River, recalling the famous footsteps I followed. When Lewis and Clarke came back with news of just what it was that President Jefferson had bought with his 11,250,000 dollars from the French in the Louisiana Purchase, they split up and Clarke descended on the Yellowstone. When roads were forged to the fields of the Montana goldrush, miners tracked up this part of the Yellowstone. When transcontinental railroad fever hit the nation a second time, the Northern Pacific railroad built up the Yellowstone. Now it was my turn to pedal along the wide Yellowstone. On the second day I improved on the service road along the Interstate with a dirt road along the flanks of Sheep Mountain. This route follows the Bozeman trail of the miners more closely.

Livingston, Bozeman and the passes connecting them

Livingston and Bozeman get my vote for the two most attractive Montana towns I have visited. We'll start with Livingston. Downtown houses were built with the idea that every house should look a bit different than its neighbor. Each one is brick ornamented just a bit differently, and most have been lovingly restored. They house bars, art galleries, hardware stores and everything in between, including one bicycle store. Paradise Valley stretches north, lined by the southernmost extension of the Absaroka range, looking extremely alplike in this location. A ride up sideroad 540 into Paradise valley is the prettiest road ride around. To the north the Crazy Mountains gleam in splendid isolation, beckoning to be explored.

Livingston the oldest of the Yellowstone gateway towns. The Yellowstone River arrives here from the south, from the park whose name it carries. After the Northern Pacific finished laying rails to town, Yellowstone tourists would transfer to a stage to travel to the park. The station still stands, forming the central building of town and is said to be modeled after an Italian villa. The Italian villa model similarities may be a bit far fetched. But if this were Cody, a flashing sign over it would say "We are Italy". Still, this passenger railroad station is extraordinary. The reason, passenger trains still arrive at the station to this very day ! I saw it with my own eyes. Four old smoky Montana Rail Link diesels pulled a dozen passenger cars, four of which were old observation cars. Everybody got out, mostly people old enough to remember regular rail traffic. They toured the station, which is also a railroad museum. It was a railfan excursion train, and that is the only occasion you can observe people climbing out of railcars here these days.

Livingston and Bozeman are connected by a pass. At the summit an arrow on a sign points sidewards stating "Bridger Range". Thank you for that little piece of information, with the emphasis on little. Why the adjoining hills should deserve a special label is not explained. Bozeman Pass is scenically not interesting. The higher peaks of the Bridger Range and Absarokas are hidden from view. Usually there's a shoulder on the road, but not always. At one point the rumble strip is situated in such a way, that the cyclist has a foot between him and the guard rail, unless he wants to ride on the Interstate. Instead Bozeman Pass is an important historical gateway to western Montana. The redeeming value of  Bozeman Pass is that it leads straight into downtown Bozeman. But first a little more on "the other pass", Bridger Pass.

We last met Jim Bridger at an elaborate out house facility in Central Wyoming, named Bridger Crossing. He was guiding miners to Wyoming on his Bridger Road. After the discovery of gold in Montana the traveling miner seeking to exploit them had a choice, the Bridger road or the Bozeman road. The Bozeman Trail crossed the pass bearing its name. But Jim Bridger had other ideas. He preferred another route, yet another Bridger Pass. Cyclists are bound to agree with Jim Bridger. Bridger thought Bozeman Pass was already overgrazed. Cyclists would say it's overdriven.

Bridger Pass is a more attractive road ride. Leaving the town of Bozeman towards the northwest, you first get a tour of affluent Montanan's lifestyle, basically the same huge garage with attached house lifestyle that is spread over all upscale US communities. Then the pass scrapes up next to the Bridger Range, snowy peaks crowning a linear ridge resembling a very large hogback. Bridger Pass doesn't cross this enourmus wall, but traces up its edge. It doesn't have to cross it, and around here roads only do the things they have to.

During the initial promotion of their respective roads to the gold fields, Bridger and Bozeman raced their wagon trains over their respective passes. Bridger won, even though his route was longer. But in the long run the Bridger road was not a historical success. His route was not only longer, but more importantly drier, making it harder to keep the animals grazed and watered. Instead travelers took their chances with the Indians on the Bozeman trail.

Where Bridger's road turns back to eventually join the Bozeman Trail on its east end, another paved pass leads yet higher into the forest, Battle Ridge Pass. On top of this pass is an idyllic free forest campground, a few sites loosely spaced throughout the pines. There I waited out another weird weather event, which have become not so weird in recent years. Bozeman reported an inch and a half of rain, the highest precipitation for any June day in 30 years. The Bridger Ridge wore a white new June coat. I had planned to look for yet another gap in these mountains, Flathead Pass. But roads leading there, carrying names like "Muddy", and demonstrating how they got their name failed to peak my enthusiasm.

Of all the passes in the area, Bozeman Pass became the most important crossing. Even the railroad used it. The Northern Pacific was envisioned to become the dominant railroad of the north, a Union Pacific of the north of sorts. Since 1869, on paper it crossed Cadotte pass (Rogers pass area), Dear Lodge pass, Pipestone Pass or Mullan pass and Bozeman pass. The only notable name absent from that list of entrances into the Northern Rockies is the lowest and most logical of them all, Marias pass, more about it later. When paper plans finally turned into solid steel rails, they ran over and under Bozeman pass and Mullan pass at roughly the same time. When biking past the western entrance of the Bozeman pass rail tunnel, you wouldn't suspect that tunnel construction cost more than much more spectacular constructions. It cost more than the "Denver and South Park's" Alpine Tunnel in Colorado for example. The problem on Bozeman pass was not the creation of vertigo defying rock shelves, but the digging of gopher trenches. The muddy clay would cave in continuously. The first trains across the pass ran over the top of the pass on a temporary rail bed with excessive grade. When the tunnel was finished it still was the highest point on the Northern Pacific line. These rails are still a busy mainline. Today trains are pulled by antiquated Montana Rail Link engines, discards from the larger railroads, some of them with a smart new blue paint job, which would make them look new if they weren't smoking oil from every crevasse.

As already mentioned, for today's cyclist the redeeming feature of Bozeman Pass is that it leads directly into its attractive old downtown, its main street, its variety of historic brick facades, selling things other than tourist trinkets. Downtown stores carry actual, normally priced, useful merchandise. This is worth mentioning because it is a rarity for any old downtown on the path of the Yellowstone tourist. The Yellowstone tourist is assumed to be easily relieved of his money, eager to spend it on souvenir plates, Christmas ornaments and a whole world of unlikely objects. But downtown Bozeman does not exist at the mercy of fringed leather jacket sales or geyser cookoo clocks. Here they sell hardware, outdoor equipment, clothes, war surplus, bicycles and assorted parts - actual useful things. At least 4 bike stores are within one block of the main street. My favorite was the Sports Chalet. I bought 2 cables with  housing, and they offered to install them for me. When was the last time that happened to you ? I also purchased a new rear rim, rather than watch the bulge in the old one get yet bigger. Bozeman ranks number 1 in living standard in Montana, if it's measured as a function of quality of used book stores, quantity of bicycle stores, and attractive, yet useful old downtown businesses.

Through the Gallatin Valley to Helena

For me the best way to experience the Gallatin Valley was route 290 leaving Bozeman. It climbs up just high enough that the massive surrounding white lined rims can be appreciated on a clear day, the Tobacco Root mountains in the west, the Gallatin Range leading up to the Absaroka Plateau to the north, the wavy ridge of the Bridger Range immediately above to the west. It was a day perfect for cycling, a clear day with fresh snow on all the surrounding ranges, a day that finally answered the question "Where are all those cyclists that support the 4 well stocked bicycle stores in Bozeman ?" Today they all seemed to be riding in the Gallatin Valley. As compensation for this experience, the return route into Bozeman was the worst way to experience the Gallatin valley. Approaching Bozeman, paralleling I15 through Belgrade showed the modern side of this town, suburban sprawl, redneck trucks, SUVs unlimited without the comfort of a suburban shoulder.

The Gallatin flows into the Missouri at Three Forks, as noted by Lewis and Clarke. To the north the Missouri enters an interesting combination of badlands, cliffs and farmland, while the mainroad Rte 287 stays on easier territory. Here The massive Tobacco Root walls in the distance are replaced by rounded hills that are layered into the background like a watercolor painting. I already mentioned the poor quality of the shoulder on this stretch. South of Toston, a good mountain bike alternative is River Road leading to Townsend. An added bonus is a historic Lewis and Clarke overlook.

Helena - advantages of the city

Helena was a change of scene, a chance to eat different food, a chance to absorb a bit of culture, to obsess about something other than the size of the shoulder for a change. Yes - the historical museum of Montana also contains the obligatory old dentist's chair. I don't think people ever dispose of them. They all end up in museums. There was another one back in the Three Forks Museum - next to a most amazing display of an award winning collection of 791 types of barbed wire. Finally the Helena museum contained more than old dentist chairs and barbed wire.

But first things first. The primary destination of the first Helena ride was a Chinese Buffet Restaurant. After that primal urge had been stilled I could concentrate on a mental attraction for the second ride, the Museum of the Historical Society of Montana. The main attraction was the large collection of Charles Russell paintings and illustrations. Russell paintings usually center around lean mustached cowboys, wild Indians, bucking horses throwing off more mustached cowboys, placed in a wide open landscape. A peculiar glow radiates from each figure. The figures are painted in detailed hard light while the landscape around them fades into a suggestion. Charles Russell was from Missouri, but wanted to be a cowboy in Montana. His scenes (not the paintings themselves) date from around the early 18 hundreds. They portray the romance of being a cowboy before the advent of herding cows by ATV. But the most insightful pieces in the display are letters that he wrote to friends, complete with illustrations. One letter contained a sketch named "the way I was", showing old Charlie straddling a crate like a horse in front of an old wood chair, ladling down his soup. The next illustration is named "the way I am", showing Charlie sitting at a smartly decked table, attired in suit and tie with a smile on his face, being served dinner by an attractive woman in a luxurious living room. Other exhibits outline the fact that Charlie was indeed happily married to a friend who became a business partner.

This museum does a great job outlining the story of Montana. It tells the story of the Indians, accompanied by a display of fancy beadwork. It tells the story of the railroads with black and white photographs, the story of farmers and the droughts that drove them away, the story of federal resettlement programs with great black and white photographs done under the WPA program, the story of many other topics that I would have read more closely if I didn't have another 20 miles to bike, with a full backpack of dinner supplies from Wal Mart.


North of Helena a part of the Belt Mountains ooze onto the landscape. They are like a fat pancake in front of the mountains, or if you prefer, a nonviscuous lava dome between the plains and the real Rockies. I had a choice to ride through them to Great Falls, or over them north towards Choteau. For a description of the Great Falls option see the return trip. Riding over them, the route leaves the Missouri river and gently climbs onto a strange landscape of low grassy ridges. The continental divide to the west is a ridge that seems barely higher, like a large foam crowned wave behind other smaller waves whipped up by a storm. It seems barely higher, if it wasn't for the fact that it's snow covered.

The parting of the cows

West of Augusta route 435 seduces the cyclist with views of the Rock Range. No healthy, sane skinny tire cyclist could resist the temptation. The road has to be cycled. It's not with mind boggling height and sharp peaks that these mountains call the tourist. They seem to just rise above the trees on the skyline. They are just the backdrop behind the old farmhouses, the wall behind the fields. But what a contrast they make to the bucolic farmland. It's a regular series of walls, today sprayed white with snow and ice, contrasting with black lines of the rock formation boundaries. Maybe it was just the fact that I hadn't seen real mountains for so long, a good two weeks. The crumbling shoulder of the road, leading straight towards them, only added to the appeal. They indicated that this is not a major tourist route. The deduction was right. I didn't see a single car between here and the junction with Route 200.

After about 10 miles the hard top gave way to a good rideable dirt surface, exactly the reason why I rode my mountain bike. Had I been on a skinny tire bike, I would have had to turn back. Another 4 miles and the dirt turned to two ruts in moderately firm mud, still nothing that would make any mountain biker think twice. I also noticed peculiar usage signs, hoof prints, a herd of some sort. Dark reddish brown splotches began to appear on the tracks, looking suspiciously like cowpies. Actually the whole area had a certain cowpie aroma to it, I now realized.  It wasn't long before the whole herd came into view. They must have been several hundred, traveling on the road and the adjoining 20 feet of space between the fences. The cows were accompanied by real cowboys, even on real horses this time.

"Can I get through here ?" I asked the man on the horse, up there at a height of two bicycles above me. "Are you in a hurry ?" he asked. "Well, yes I am". I took the fact that he didn't answer to mean that it was up to me. Cowboys are men of few words, if you believe the Hollywood stereotypes. The parting of the cows was not a pretty sight, and neither was I when I emerged from the herd, bespeckled with the stuff that was so fresh on the road. I tried to comfort myself with the thought that these were happy cows, eating grass instead of corn, turning grass into protein with the unique digestion system that nature had given them. They might be on their way to feedlots, where they are pumped full of corn and steroids that makes them market ready, yet sick and filled with chemicals. But at least they were happy until now. Now I had a clean road ahead of me and the mountains were still shining in all their splendor. But of greater immediate significance was this :  My own splendor was somewhat damaged. I had to figure out how to clean myself up.

I still think that Route 435 makes a more scenic alternative to the hardtopped route 287 between Bowman corners and Augusta, even if my experience was marred by a cowpie incident. Hardtopped route 287 has no shoulder whatsoever and is very narrow. In my case traffic was light. You have to hope for either light automobile traffic on Route 435 or light cow traffic on route 287.

Rocky Mountain Fronts

It was a bicycle trail of some kind. Or at least you could ride a bicycle on it. A raised levy followed every twist of a canal whenever possible. But it wasn't always possible. Sometimes the canal made its way trough a tunnel, to emerge after a quarter mile at a wild whirlpool that would make a perfect place for murderers to dispose of their bodies. In cities these locations would be made inaccessible by high fences. But not along Pishkun canal and its bikepath. Well - it wasn't exactly a bikepath either. There were cars on it too, cars in both directions - even though the canal isn't even wide enough to let a car and a bicycle pass one another, let alone two cars. Needless to say the cars were few, almost as few as cyclists. Every car occupant waved hello. I stopped one farmer to ask for directions and he took ample time to tell  me about his back and legs, and how they keep him from riding his bicycle. After a while we were holding up dam traffic. But people don't seem to let themselves be bothered by little things like that around here.

The ride along the Pishkun canal was part of an 85 mile circle ride connecting Choteau, Augusta, the mouth of the Sun River canyon and a great little camping spot on Willow Creek Reservoir. It was another circle in front of the mountains, rather than in them. The only throughgoing paved road, Route 287, stays far away from the edge into the sky, the Rocky Mountain Front Range.

There are two Rocky Mountain Fronts in America. One stands watch over an urban corridor, cities, suburbs and shopping malls. That's the Colorado Rocky Mountain Front. And then there is the Montana Rocky Mountain Front. It stands watch over rangeland and prairies, happy cows, reservoirs alive with screaming birds, and a few other things. The Rocky Mountains in the Montana Rocky Mountain Front are not labeled any more specifically on the map, just plain "Rocky Mountains, or Rock Mountains on some maps". The huge wilderness area that covers both sides of the continental divide is the Bob Marshall Wilderness, or just plain "the Bob", as in "Hey Joe - let's go for a hike in the Bob". The mountains in the Bob don't stand as high above the plains as their counterparts in Colorado do. But the escarpment is sharper. Limestone cliffs point out into the plains like the hull of a Titanic that's about to go down. In clear weather the snow on the peaks looks like you could touch it. During more typical June weather like I was experiencing, they peer mysteriously out of the haze, only hinting at their magnitude. These cliffs are especially impressive from Willow Creek reservoir near Augusta and from west of Dupuyer.

The towns along the Montana Rocky Mountain front are Wall-Mart free. Many are actually devoid of department stores all together. If there is a business, it's somewhere on the main drag next to the cattle feed store, in between the false front buildings with the closed signs and the dusty old empty store shelves in the windows. Instead of Wal-Marts the area attracts the kind of business that needs isolation and lots of space. Weather it's the paved 287 between Choteau and Augusta or any of the dirt road circles I had cycled, I passed an average of 4 Minuteman missile silos a day. The other economic specialty of the area are fundamentalist religious colonies. like the Rockport Colony the New Rockport Colony and others.

I did not get very close to missile silos or religious colonies. But I did speak to one member of the Rockport Colony while parked a little stretch of land adjacent to theirs. A grand total of 2 cars passed all day and night. "What is it that holds your colony together ?" I asked him. "The bible" he said clad in suspenders looking like somebody from "little house on the prairie". "So that would be Christian fundamentalism ?". "The bible" he said. I never got a chance to ask him if the world was indeed created in seven days.

Saying that the Montana Rocky Mountain Front area has a rural feel to it is like saying that the eastern plains have a flat feel to them. Local AM radio in Chouteou (that's not pronounced Kootow or Show-Toe but Show-Doe, as in show me your doe) has an interesting local side to it. The Sunday morning show features police officials calling in from the various towns and reading off all the reported crimes in the last 24 hours. Then the local car salesman comes in to plug his cars : "And we've got a used Mustang that we're gonna blow on out of here for 16000 dollars". - "Wow, a Mustang for 16000 dollars, that's pretty cheap" answered the DJ as impressed as a squeezed lemon. Apparently, if you can believe what you hear on your radio, cars with a name like Mustang enjoy a special esteem here. After all, this is ranching country, in addition to religious colony and interballistic missile country.  It was close to July 4th and call in listeners were recalling the fun they had last July 4th, when their relatives visited camping out in their RVs in the driveway, just to see the local parade. So much for interesting local radio.

For me the friendliest town along the Montana Front Range was Dupuyer. A large part of the town is a "public park" which makes a great camping area. But you have to ask for it to find it. Its two entrances are hidden between private driveways and parked trailers. But when I asked about the whereabouts of the park that goes with the sign, the post master delighted in extolling the camping virtues of the area. Two distinct sections, connected by a little pedestrian bridge, well kept wooded campsites, and if I needed water, there was a faucet at his house across the street.

In Dupuyer I also met four cyclists. Funny how this always happens when you have finally become completely convinced that the entire nation consists of 4 wheel truck drivers, hauling ATVs to the sound of blaring country music for kicks. They were actual, real cyclists. But they weren't cycling any more. Instead they were eating large sandwiches at the table in the grocery store, doubling as deli, hardware store and tourist advisory board. Yesterday was the premature end of a 18 day ride from the state of Washington. Now they were being "rescued", as they termed it, by their son in law, who came to pick them up in the car. The couple was cycling with their two grand children. Apparently they have seen it as a responsibility to bring other cyclists into the world. In 86 they rode across the US with their daughter. Now it's the grandchildren's turn. I just missed them in the Dupuyer camping park. Too bad.

Dupuyer is also the last legally free camping spot in the US, when heading north. Immediately after leaving Dupuyer, Route 287 enters the Blackfoot reservation, which extends to the Canadian border to the north, and to Glacier national Park to the west. Paradoxically, now Route 287 becomes a highway with a wide shoulder, perfect for bicycling, just at the point where it enters the reservation. If even a car passing every 20 minutes or so on a spacious highway is too much excitement, there are different options. A hardtopped sideroad leads to the Blackfoot town, Heart Butte. Now the shoulder is practically Wyoming sized, and the traffic so sparse that you hope you don't break down and need to be rescued. The center of Heart Butte has a six sided ceremonial lodge and a covered series of picnic tables, with an amazing amount of garbage strewn around it. Where else would you find not just the usual paper trash, beer and soda cans, shreds of plastic, but a rusty typewriter lying about ? The town contains a collection of old car wrecks. Each one has a smashed in windshield.  The Moon Montana handbook describes Heart Butte as a "traditional Blackfoot town". On a practical note, the trading post sells frozen burritos and has a microwave. Otherwise there are no public places to further shed light on Blackfoot traditions.

The National Public Radio Route along the mountains

My route along the front of the mountains had another benefit. The benefit is public (noncommercial) radio. The reception was often difficult. Sometimes it seemed that tuning in public radio required more diligence than knitting a sweater. But I could receive local public radio stations along much of the route, starting in Denver as far as Dupuyer, Montana. On the other side of the mountains, the route described in the tour 2 years earlier, the reception is much more difficult. PBS's "all things considered" is the only thing resembling an "in depth radio news program" left on the airwaves in this area, that I could find. Currently it was - and still is - especially interesting to follow news stories. It is a special time, the only time in my life that the country I am in, is in the grip of a true moron, George Dubiyah Bush.

It is interesting to recall the process that lead to this "poverty of radio news programming". Two decades ago you could tune in to any network and listen to a whole hour of what was going on in the state, country and world. Radio stations were required by law to broadcast a certain amount of news. Then former president Reagan eliminated this "unnecessary regulation", so that corporate broadcasters could have more time to achieve bigger profits. With that, a law requiring equal time for opposite viewpoints to political statements was also eliminated.

As a result what do we have today ? There is an AM band full of loud mouthed, apparently mentally handicapped, right wing screamers. The FM band contains occasional 5 minute news blitzes. But NPR and "all things considered" still exists, usually on the extreme lower side of the FM band. But you have to tune your radio carefully. Socalled "religious" stations also occupy the lower side of the FM band. And what do "religious" stations broadcast ? Right wing politics of course. In Nebraska, my lower band FM station told me that I need to be thankful to Mister Bush for creating a "national day of prayer". The same Nebraska "religious" station told me, and I quote  "pictures of more naked arabs stacked on top of one another have surfaced". It sounded like a school prank, not a war crime violating the Geneva convention. Right after that, the same people informed me that tomorrow was "Nebraska Beef Day", and that it was my duty to eat Nebraska beef tomorrow. I think that last statement was a "commercial announcement", but you couldn't tell where "the news" ended and Nebraska beef day advocacy began within the single breath statement of the announcer. After 5 minutes of religious Nebraska radio I was already confused about reality. I can only speculate what listening to this radio station on a regular basis would do. Was Bush the head of a church ? the leader of the American fundamentalist Bible Belt church ? Is Nebraska Beef day a Christian holiday ? Is it okay to torture arabs because they aren't Christians ?

I quickly tuned back to PBS to get my bearings straight. PBS let the politicians say it in their own words. Take the day when George Tennant, director of the FBI resigned for example. George Bush blessed the man. He uttered "I bless George Tennant and his family. They are good people." - He did not say "God bless George Tennant", but "I bless George Tennant". I thought only saints and other religious leaders are "authorized" to give blessings. Maybe George Bush really is some kind of religious leader. This made an upcoming event more interesting. Dubiyah visited the pope. This was a momentous moment. The head of American Christians met the head of the Catholics. Would they bless each other ? Who would bless who first ? PBS had the answer. Apparently neither man blessed the other. But Dubiyah gave the pope a metal. I'm sure the pope will cherish his "George Dubiyah Bush" momento.

Unfortunately, while I was biking around Bozeman, Ronald Reagan, former president of the US, and eliminator of fair radio broadcasting in the US, died. Every US news broadcast, including PBS, went on a nonstop live broadcasts of funeral celebrations, eulogies and personal testimonies of every aspect of greatness attributed to Mr. Reagan.  All Americans had such fond memories of President Regain. Take for example when he said "A tree is a tree. Just how many trees do you have to look at ?" The timber industry liked that one especially.

I admit it is too idealistic to require completely "fair and balanced" radio programming. Let's face it. Most of what we hear is propaganda, and we know it. I don't mean political propaganda. Most voices on the radio try to convince us to buy something. These are the socalled "commercial announcements". Everybody knows they are propaganda and nobody disputes it. Imagine what a world would be like requiring equal time for opposing opinions. The commercial touting the benefits of the latest prescription drug would be followed by a litany of the medical problems and financial havoc it caused. The 15 second spot of the latest engineered snack craze would be followed by pictures of impoverished fat slobs, lounging in front of the TV, stuffing their faces and scratching Lotto tickets. The new Cadillac Escalade commercial would be succeeded by comparing the US thirst for oil with that of the rest of the world, maybe even followed by a report on global warming. But global warming is really of no concern, unless you happen to have children.

With "completely fair and balanced" programing the entire economy might collapse. Nobody would consume anything in fear of the consequences. The point is - we are affected by propaganda, even when we know it's propaganda. We buy the useless junk when our TV tells us to. We think we need the drugs when our TV tells us. And that is the reason why I fear American commercial radio. I'm scared of it. I'm constantly told to consume things I don't want, like life insurance, horrible beer,  SUVs. I'm scared I would be unhappy until I have everything that my radio tells me I need. I' scared I could wake up, suddenly believing that global warming is something manufactured by "environmentalists". Maybe someday I would develop an unexplained desire to drive a Hummer through wilderness areas.

Worst of all, I'm scared I could become a Bush supporter. More books have been written about this administration than about any other. Still the man is "popular with the people". Could propaganda be the reason ? I'm horrified I could wake up one morning, actually believing that it's this administration's aim to bring democracy to Iraq, or to believe that "a little war for oil is worthwhile", as one Bushist at my last place of employment has stated. Staying on an path of National Public Radio stations, I was reasonably sure that I would not wake up one terrible morning, converted to a brainwashed Bushist.

Until we have a "Radio Free America", NPR is the only imperfect game in town. There is an added benefit to NPR radio stations, some play great music. Take for example, KCWC in Riverton, an eclectic mix of sounds that defy categorization. It still exists in a world of corporate blandness, headed by Clearchannel Communications and other corporate devils. Bicycling Wyoming, the distances are large. For me good radio on a portable device are an essential ingredient for a successful Wyoming endurance workout.


Now that I'm reliving my bikerides a couple of months later, it's surprising to find out that Mister Dubiyah Bush was just reelected to a second term as US president. This time he was not elected because of the antiquated US electoral college system - that is - if you assume that there was no vote fraud in 2000, of which many southern states have a long illustrious history. No - this time he was elected by a wide margin of the popular vote. London's Daily Mirror broke the news to the people with the headline "how can 57 Million people be so dumb ?"

It was an interesting US election. You could sum it up like this. Bush voters said they preferred their man because of higher morals and because they prefer sharing a beer with him rather than Kerry. US journalists picked up on the idea, offering their opinion on who they would like to share beers with. Then everybody was encouraged to vote - because every vote counts - maybe - and some votes count more than others. Mister Dubiyah Bush emerged as the favorite morally superior, beer drinking candidate of the American people. After the election Karl Rove was congratulated for delivering the vote and declared a political genius.

The mainstream corporate media never raised the question "Are there better qualifications for president of the US, than being a pleasant beer drinking partner" ? Also should you really be encouraged to vote with this as the main criteria ? You are if you live in the US. After the election came in depth analysis of the political genius of Carl Rove. How could he turn Bush into a moral superior, in spite of torture, deception, lying, and deceiving his country into a war.

But there was another factor in this election, the factor expressed by the headline of the Daily Mirror. It would never have been possible without the stupidity of the US Bush supporter. How can 57 Million people be so stupid ? Would you put your favorite bar companion in charge of your country ? Do you think torturing political prisoners disregarding the Geneva convention is a morally superior thing to do ? Are you positive your vote counted as much as Mister Cheney's ? Do you think invading Iraq will strengthen the US in any way ? If you live in the US and voted for Bush, apparently the answer is a statistically averaged out "yes".

The next question one might ask is "how did 57 million US voters achieve this level of stupidity ?". The answer may be the right wing media that has emerged in that country after Reagan did away with requirements for opposing viewpoints, media outlets such as AM talk radio and right wing "religious" radio. City dwellers barely listen to AM radio. Here on the dirtroads of Wyoming and western Nebraska it is often the only signal you can get. Public radio's "all thing's considered" never had a chance. The PBS signal is too weak to reach many of these isolated communities. The groundwork in brainwashing has already been laid by generations of boundless advertising. There is no other country in the world that bombards its people with so many messages to buy.  Now all you had to do was change the message from "Buy this useless crap" to "vote for this morally superior criminal". Well - maybe it really does take a political genius to achieve that.

Corporations have long realized that buying politicians in a socalled democracy is not enough. Politicians can be voted out of office. Corporations have long realized that it's in their interest to control what people think. They have been practicing for generations using advertising. With large corporations in control of the airwaves, corporations such as Rupert Murdoch's media outlets, the FOX news channel, AM radio in general and Clearchannel communications, it has just gotten a lot easier for them to get their message across. The message is "buy now, pay later and vote Republican".

But the question implied by the Daily Mirror still remains "How did 57 million people become so stupid ?" Maybe the answer is this : Corporations like their consumers dumb. Dumb consumers don't ask "if to consume", they just ask when and how much. Without all that mindless consumption the entire economy might collapse. After all, where else are they going to sell all that crap ? The trade deficit shows that they can't sell it to other countries. We probably all have our own examples of dumb television shows. Mine is the "local news", a show seemingly produced by the mentally handicapped for the completely retarded. Maybe Karl Rove is a political genius. But it would never have been possible without the stupidity of the Bush voter, or the system that made them that way.

On the Nebraska and Wyoming airwaves you get a demonstration of the process. The two states I had been riding through are firm Bush territory. Cheney is from Wyoming and every 2nd truck in the dessert seems to have the name Haliburton painted on it. Listening to radio other than PBS can make you understand how Bush country became Bush country.

That did probably not have very much to do with the practicalities of bicycling, unless you like to ride with a portable audio device, which is a great mental aid for an endurance workout. Back to more pleasant thoughts.


Marias Pass - hide and seek passage through the northern Rockies

Northern Montana has one overshadowing attraction for the touring cyclist, Logan Pass, also referred to by "going to the sun highway". But conditions to ride the pass were just not in my favor- again. All along the route passes seemed to be closing down in anticipation of my arrival. While I was on a hike to Triple Divide Pass in the national park, it rained so hard that 4 separate mud slides closed down "going to the sun highway". A ride over Logan Pass is further complicated by bicycling restrictions, showing again that if Montana is great cycling country, it's not because of anything anybody planned, but in spite of it. I can comfort myself with the fact that at least I rode over this magnificent road once before.

On this ride I rode up to the false summit of an entity called Marias Pass instead. This pass is really a valley defining the southern end of Glacier National Park. There is fine scenery to the north, especially if you like trains in the foreground of your scenery. But the main interest of this pass is its history. It does not only define the southern end of the park. It is the historical reason the national park was established.

Marias Pass is the lowest crossing of the continental divide in the US, north of New Mexico. It was scouted as early as any northern Rocky Mountain pass, by the Lewis and Clarke expedition. It has been marked on every map since 1810. Every cyclist who has cycled west from Browning can tell its general direction on the southern edge of the sawblade teeth of the Livingston Range. Finding the pass again after 1810 presented more difficulties that one would imagine. The area east of the pass was and still is Blackfoot territory. In the 1830s a smallpox epidemic had killed many Blackfeet, and since then the valley was inhabited by bad spirits.

In 1853 Isaac Ingals Stevens managed to become the governor of the new "Washington Territory", containing about 4000 people. If Stevens' territory was to grow and prosper it needed a railroad, the Northern Pacific, and before you can build a railroad you need a railroad survey of the possible passes. The assortment of passes explored by this group of 240 men includes Mullan, Cadotte, Lewis and Clarke Pass, Monida, in total 9 passes across the continental divide and 5 across the Bitterroots. But the lowest continental divide crossing, Marias, was not among them.

When Colonel Lander, a member of the survey group, tried to find it, he couldn't. When Stevens himself tried, Blackfeet guides refused to take him. Stevens sent a friend in search of the pass, Abel W Tinkham. Abel hiked up into today's Glacier National Park instead, and reported Marias pass containing glacial cirques, not exactly perfect for a railroad crossing. A railroad employee employee below Tinkham, named Doty, knew better what Marias pass really looked like. But the tensions brought on by the Civil War put an end to the rail surveys of 1853.

20 years later, after the civil war, a new railroad needed a way to cross the northern Rockies, the Great Northern. That railroad was a financially more successful railroad than the Northern Pacific. But their attempt to survey Marias Pass ran into the same problems as its predecessor 20 years earlier. John F Stevens ( no relation to governor Stevens above ) could not find any Blackfeet guides to lead him to the entrance of the canyon either. It was still guarded by bad spirits, and the guides did not want to die yet. Finally Stevens hired an outcast half-breed who took him to the foot of the pass on a snowy December day in 1889. From there Stevens hiked up into the valley and came back with an official report that the pass does indeed exist, just like the maps have been reporting for the last 75 years.

Talk about the original hide and seek pass. It took three quarters of a century to find it. Well, that's not right. It took three quarters of a century to find it again. The railroad later exploited the heroic efforts of John F Stevens and his unprecedented success in hiring a guide to actually find the lost pass for all its worth. There is a nice statue of him on top of the pass.

Now that it had a rail line, the Great Northern started promoting the natural virtues of the area. The touristic center piece on the east side of the park was East Glacier Lodge, built between 1910 and 1913. I stumbled into the East Glacier Lodge on a ride over Heart Butte Cutoff. The outside looks inconspicuously office building like. But the inside gives the impression of a greek temple - a temple with an american touch, built from natural logs instead of white marble. About a dozen natural logs, 36 to 42 inches in diameter, regularly spaced through the interior, define the interior space. Where log meets roof a wooden frieze has been added, a decoration reminiscent of an old greek ionic column. These douglas fir columns were 500 to 800 years old when cut, and there are probably no trees of that type and size in existence today.  The logs were so large that they were shipped with bark, each one on two railroad flat cars. A rail spur was built to the hotel and the logs were hoisted into place with a system of leverage pulleys. Today this magical space and its verandahs seems to attract a large number of single women reading books. The railway depot is in plain sight a hundred yards away. It's a heck of a place to wait for your train, gazing out from in between those Greek columns made from wood with the nearly 100 year old bark still on them.


However, my mode of transportation was the bicycle. It was late June. Three days ago the Dupuyer Postmaster prophesied the days would become warmer and warmer, until they would finally become hot - that is too warm for bicycling. In Montana the 80s qualify as being hot. But again a magic atmospheric disturbance made its way down from Canada, dressing the mountains in a cloak of clouds,  keeping the temperatures perfect for a cycling workout.  The best part of Rtes 49 and 89, heading north fro East Glacier, are a number of vantage points onto the "Two Medicine Lakes area" in Glacier Park, a climb of a little over a 1000 feet. It was fun to have an altimeter again.

Maybe people really are basically good. After all - give them a bicycle route and they will ride it. Apparently I crossed another route publicized by the "Adventure Cycling" organization, the Northern Tier route. She rode an orderly packed touring bike, and was on her way from the state of Washington to Maine. It was her second time over the same route. The first time was 10 years earlier with her son. Then it was a fund raising ride. Now it was a fun raising ride, she told me. Wearing very dark glasses, she was very worried about the weather, speaking of a "bodacious tailwind", and "hail the size of perl Tapioca". From my point of view, without the dark sunglasses, it didn't look nearly quite as bad. Sometimes you forget you wear the darn things that make the sky look so dark. She said farewell with the words "good luck and pray for me and my riding", or was it "pray for me and my writing ?" It was the latter. I should have know right away from the inspired descriptions of bodacious tailwinds and hail the size of perl Tapioca.

Polite Canada

Canada is basically a polite country. Maybe that's even an understatement. Some road signs start with the word "sorry", as in "Sorry, but this road is closed from December 1st to June 30th". It makes you want to talk back to the sign : "Oh - that's okay - I understand. It snows a lot around here. It's probably not economically feasible to keep the road open all year". Besides, I can always carry my bicycle around the sign and ride the road anyway.

Crossing the border into polite, friendly Canada has always been trivial. In the past I needed nothing more than a driver's license. I should have known that things have changed since the New York World Trade Center event. Riding across the border with just a driver's license was no problem. After 10 minutes I was off rolling to Waterton National Park. The problem came when I moved my house, my camper, across. Over a period of four hours Canadian custom officials disassembled all its contents. In retrospect I realize my mistakes. One needs to act indifferent and bored when they stick their nose into all the things you organized in meticulous detail. The reason they finally found to turn me back was the driver's license. You may have a chance to cross the US Canadian border with a driver's license if you are a US citizen, which I am. But the "department of the fatherland" - or whatever - on the US side was unable to confirm this from my driver's license back to the Canadian border officials, because of their wonderful computerized system. So back I went to the US side. They welcomed me with the words "This isn't Canada anymore. We don't wear kid gloves over here. All the 911 terrorists entered the US with just a diver's license." Well, yes. But I wasn't really entering the US. As a matter of fact I was trying to get out of it. But I couldn't because of your computers." The fact that I am not American by birth certainly did not help the situation. They finally released me back into the US. The cold war is alive and well. Now it's just being fought on the Canadian border.

After I had my passboard sent to me, I had none of these problems. It took barely 15 minutes to cross. The same goes for the return trip. The only conclusion I can draw from the experience above is: If you don't want to be labeled a potential terrorist by the department of the fatherland or motherland or whatever, you need a passboard on the border, including the Canadian border. Later I also heard news reports of Canadian border work slowdowns because of a wage dispute. Anyway, it took a while before I could get my enthusiasm for a polite, friendly Canada back.


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