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I was twenty-one hundred miles out of Juneau when I arrived at the Montana border. If you haven’t been through a land border in recent years, you’re in for a surprise. There are huge hi-tech almost other worldly sensors linked by thick ropes of electrical cables that check everything coming into the States for radioactivity. On the Canadian side there’s a little outpost where an officer casually asks if you are bringing in any alcohol or firearms. Our propensity to overreact to our own fears can be humiliating.
The officer who took my passport asked where I was going.
Mexico, I said
“You’ve got to be kidding,” he said. He also took my orange.
I was verbally distressed at losing it. He told me I could replace it in Eureka, just 12 miles down the road, but wasn’t the loss of the orange itself that I mourned—it was that I’d been carrying it for miles and miles looking forward to the moment when, hot, sweaty, and thirsty, I would bite into it and luxuriate in the sweet juices filling my mouth and running down my throat. And instead of in my mouth, it ended up in a trash can.
I am a rad-delayed-gratificationist. Except in chess, I’m not driven by impulse. An iconic example: On the pipeline, workers lived in camps and the food, within the standard American context, was very good; but within the hippie-vegetarian context, was shy on such things like wheat germ and tofu. So periodically, I’d mail a shopping list and a blank check down to a health food store in Fairbanks. At the end of the list, I’d ask for some cookies or something sweet. Once they sent me two batches of different cookies. One batch was your standard granola cookie, but the other was of some exquisite chocolate cookie. Per my rad-delayed-gratificationism, I saved the chocolate cookies for last, dutifully eating the granola cookies, one or two a night, first. A week or two later, when I opened the bag of chocolate cookies, I discovered they’d grown a thick blanket of white and green mold. I’d had to toss the lot of them. You’d think there’d be a lesson in there for me, but, witness the orange, it’s a hard habit to break.
Succotash and I dove into Montana, up over the Whitefish Divide, south along the North Fork of the Flathead and the western boundary of Glacier National Park, back across the mountains pumping south at the foot of the Whitefish mountains, passing thru the wealthy, ski-bum and yuppiefied town of Whitefish and, ten miles down the road, through the tattered and dying town of Columbia Falls, and then through sub-developments of mini-McMansions plopped without grace into old cow pastures and finally back into the trees and streams of Flathead National Forest.
The trail is mostly dirt or gravel road; the quality varies enormously. North of Butte, the trail was a four-wheeler track that climbed a high ridge–I had to walk the bike over most of it; it was too rocky and rooty for me to muscle up it. I camped that night along a stream and the next day the track deposits me onto a Forest Service road that has been closed to the public. Several gold mines have opened up and the ore was being trucked out in huge Cat wagons making the narrow road too dangerous for any other traffic. But I wasn’t going to go back over the 4 wheeler track and find another way around. So, risking a $5000 fine, I ran the gauntlet, hauling my bike off the road and into the trees when the massive trucks passed by. Several stopped and the drivers leaned out of their cabs high above to yell at me, but I escaped the Forest Rangers who were the only ones who could arrest me.
I was racking the miles and Succotash rode easily in her traces—until August 7 when everything started to fall apart. On that day, one of the support bars on my front pannier rack broke. On the 8th, the hanger on my front pannier ripped out, the splash guard of the front fender got tucked between the tire and fender and bent the fender, and my cook stove quit. In the middle of the night on the 9th, I turned over in my hammock, heard a ripping sound, like a string of small fire crackers exploding, and the next instant and only for an instant I was in free fall; and, later that afternoon, I got lost for the first time and had my first flat.
This is a story, less about my feeble vision and more one that is emblematic of the good, generous, and helpful people I met the whole stretch of the ride from Juneau to Mexico.
I left Juneau unhappy with a new prescription for my contacts, my first in a decade. The entire run down from Alaska had been out of focus, with my left eye seeing double. I’d hoped my brain would adjust and sharpen everything up, but my brain had never been an organ I could rely on and it was predictably AWOL on the vision thing. I was unable to read road-signs or recognize faces; nor was I able read the map without reading glasses. As an aside: At no point in my previous 50 odd years had it occurred to me that I might one day need reading glasses, just as it had never occurred to me that I might one day lose my hair. Middle age is that time in one’s life when everything you were certain would never happen to you, starts happening.
I’d never gotten it together to see an eye doctor on my way through Canada, but by the time I came into the old mining town of Butte, I couldn’t take it anymore. Eight o’clock Friday morning, I called every eye doctor in town—all eight of them. Every office was still closed, but in one, the receptionist/office manager was in early. As soon as I sputtered out “seeing double”, “not local”, “biking”, she rearranged the world for me.
Her doctor rode circuit and was due in one of the outlying towns that morning. She called him up and told him to get down to the clinic lickity-split. Then she hopped into her car and buzzed out the KOA campground where I’d spent the night. The three of us arrived at the clinic ten minutes later. I worried that the doctor would be rushed to make his out of town appointments, but he was exacting in his examination and attentive to my whining.
Ironically, his prescription was identical to the one I’d had for the past ten years. The Juneau doctor had bumped it up in my left eye by fully a half diopter. When I’d whined that I was having trouble going thru doors and avoiding trees, he’d given me a couple of contacts, one a quarter diopter stronger and the other a quarter weaker and told me to figure it out for myself. I chose the weaker, but it still wasn’t sharp.
I was back in the Butte office Monday morning—I’d spent the weekend with friends in Bozemen, a hundred-odd miles to the east—my vision was better, but I was still seeing double. After another painstaking examination he determined that I had an astigmatism in my left eye that could only be corrected with glasses. He did suggest a different brand of contact, which he had to order and send to me c/o General Delivery down the Trail in Rawlins.
Anyway, I was warmed and super-appreciative of their care, willingness to help, and good cheer; virtues that I met in folks all the way down the Trail. Which is to say, which is to say, when I claim to have biked the trail by myself, I’m lying through my teeth. Without the help of many good and generous people, many of them strangers, I’d have never made it to the end of my driveway. [In NYC, I learned that I had cataracts growing in both eyes–and they were responsible for my blurry vision]
Into the Dry
I saw my first Great Divide biker in Butte. From Belgium, he had the latest gear, made 100 miles a day (I do 40) and had perhaps 1/3 the weight that I had. Since I pride myself on my minimalism, I was mildly humiliated.
I detoured off trail with an auto assist to Bozeman (120 odd miles east of Butte) to visit friends. It was great to have rambling conversations with someone other than myself. One friend (of a friend, really), was distraught with the “risk management” problems he was having with his 6 y/o very red-headed son. To illustrate: on a recent family visit to the Maine coast, little Alex burst out of the car, tore down the path, pounded right out the wharf and cannon-balled into the sea, not bothering to check whether the tide was in or out or whether the fishing dory was tied up below. I kept quiet, but I’m with Alex; too much looking before leaping and you never get out the door.
Friend Ben kindly dropped me back in Butte just as the sky was looking black and ugly. Suzanne had, unexpectedly and, to my great gratitude, sent my tent c/o of Ben in Bozeman and I put it up as the commercial campground didn’t have any trees close enough to sling the hammock from. Great swimming pools of water dropped from the skies and scored direct hits, the tent poles flexed with the impact–the tent seams failed and water rolled in. I huddled on my Thermorest, the only island in the puddle.
The next day was clear–unlike SE Alaska, in the rest of the world, rainstorms end. I headed south, the mountains ahead of me dusted with August snow from last night’s storm, and climbed high out of the Butte basin and back into the back country.
That night, camped off a gravel road, a fellow biker came through. We chatted around a late night fire that kept the cold at bay. Marche was born in Russia, emigrated to Israel with his mother, then to New Zealand which was now home (Note: New Zealand Air carries bikes without charge.). In 1940, his family, Jewish, was rounded up by the Soviets just days before the Nazis invaded and deported to Siberia on the premise that the Jews would collaborate with the Germans. Those Jews (including a number of his family) who escaped the Soviet round-up perished in the Nazi death camps; those sent to Siberia survived. Sometimes it’s impossible to know where your best path lies.
Marche wasn’t a thru-biker as he hadn’t the time and wanted to see other parts of the U.S. He and I pedaled together the next day, descending together the infamous Fleecer Ridge–flagged with red warnings in the guide book, but of little note in the execution.
We lost each other soon after lunch that day and I never saw him again.
Succotash and I pedaled up the Big Hole valley–beautiful trout streams amid the lodgepole pines. Forest Service campgrounds everywhere to accommodate the world’s flyfishermen/women. Up over the pass and immediately, the terrain dried, trees retreated to the stream beds and sage and saltbush claimed the hillsides. I was back in ranching country; cows were everywhere. They’d lift their heads and stare at me as I passed. If they were in the road, they’d stare at me as I approached, bolting when I got 30 or 40 feet from them.
I camped by a small stream off the road. It was still hot enough to take a bath.
The next day, more climbing. Assuming age and decrepitude, the going was slow and full of struggle and I wondered if I was tearing myself apart without enough down days to recover. The map claimed I would be passing a 9500 foot peak and I could not find it–all those around me no higher than 2 or 3000 feet. And then, of course, I realized that I was some 7000′ in the air and the mountains didn’t have to get much higher to reach 9500′. And maybe the thinness of the air had something to do with my huffing and puffing.
It took hours to cross the Medicine Lodge-Sheep Creek Pass. Finally at the top, I could see for miles and miles and all around me the land was treeless and brown. Succotash and I sped down the far side into a wide flat basin, ringed by distant mountains, that was stunning in its starkness. Sage and saltbush, brown grasses, antelope and cows for miles and miles; criss-crossed by fences and high-tension lines, there was always something stuck in the earth. It was other-worldly, but deeply entrancing. I could understand how this country could so stretch a person’s soul that they could never live in a forest or a city where the sightlines weren’t infinite.
It was hot and there was no protection from the sun. My skin dried and cracked as I pedaled across the basin’s floor. There was still surface water; some few days in my future, that too would disappear.
Exiting the basin through a high rocky canyon with a rushing stream to my right, a brutal headwind whistled up pass and even hunkered down, in lowest gear, and going downhill, it was a struggle to come out the other side. It felt like pushing through a birth canal; it was a hard birth, the labor all mine. I camped in a shelterless camp ground with several fisherfolk, waddling around in waders and multi-pocketed vests. That night would be my last bath in a stream.
Next day, pedaling along busy Interstate 15, I came into Lima population 250 or so, and reprovisioned in an Exxon convenience store, the only food store in town. Many of the Great Divide Trail’s provisioning stops were gas station convenience stores. For those not dependent on such stores, who tend to blow in and blow out without careful examination of the goods, there are things that might be missed. If one looks carefully, treasures can be found. In this one, I discovered a box of instant brown rice. What a startling concept, it seemed a culinary oxymoron, but welcomed and quickly snatched off the shelf.
Lima, according to a resident born in the town who stopped by to chat, was once a hustling and bustling place; now every block had deserted buildings on it. When it had been bustling, it was a railroad staging area with roundhouses and trains whistling through hourly. The interstate put an end to that. He recommended too, that I come back in April and May when the rains come and the desert is green and abloom. He swept his arm around the distant hills. “It’s beautiful,” he said.
West out of Lima and immediately back on dirt roads; past a long reservoir and into Centennial Valley. The breadth of this valley far exceeded the one I’d passed thru the day before. And its emptiness was more complete–not even high tension lines marching across its fastness. The one or two ranch houses I discovered were tucked up side valleys or draws and barely visible.
I biked east along the northern edge. Hours passed and no trucks passed me. The wind, always out of the southwest pushed against my back and I made good time. Towards the end of the day, I turned south to cross the valley and pick up a road that lay at the foot of the hills hemming the southern border. The wind, now in my face, dropped my speed from 12-15 mph to 4-6. I pushed the pedals and pushed into the bullying wind. The road turned to soft dust and the bike skittered. A truck hauling a horse trailer passed me–the first almost since Lima–and I didn’t hear it coming as it was coming from down wind and I’d quit looking in my mirror. Startled I pulled right and the bike lost traction in the soft dust and ran off the road. No injuries, but I was learning the perils of soft, depthless sand. I’d learn more in coming days.
The sun was inches above the western horizon, it was getting cold and I was tired. I stopped at a culvert where a broad, currentless stream ran when under the road. The ever-present fences fell back far enough from the road that there were places I could camp. I walked up and down looking for some small protection from the wind–but there was none. I camped in the lee of the roadbed, 3-4 feet above ground level, but on dried mud that would turn slick and clinging if it rained.
A tent gives you a sense of sanctuary that a hammock under an open tarp does not. That sanctuary may be illusory–the tent material is so thin and diaphanous, barely able to keep out the rain much less anything more sinister–yet I get a great comfort from crawling into the tent, my sleeping bag and hearing the world crashing about me on the outside. I didn’t eat dinner, the water in the stream too cow-polluted to be used even if treated.
One last look outside as the sun fell, turning the grasses golden. The air was nippy.
The next morning, frost was on the grass. I’d suspected that in recent nights there’d been frosts, but this was my first sight of one. I packed up, again without breakfast, and got back on Succotash. The early morning sky was clotted with clouds–usually the early morning is clear and the clouds come as the day warmed.
Something about the day, the clouds, the early wind, not hot meal, soured my mood. I counted the miles and days beforel I reached Mexico.
I was pedaling toward another crossing of the continental divide, still 30 miles or so off. This crossing would take me into Idaho ending my month long passage across Montana. Tucked up against the divide, was a collection of lakes; part of the Red Rock National Wildlife Refuge established in the 1930s to protect the Trumpeter Swan, which had been hunted for its feathers almost to extinction. The feathers were a much sought after fashion accessory in women’s hats. Many years ago, I’d read the autobiography of Edward Bok, one of the storied editors of American magazines. He brought the Ladies’ Home Journal to national prominence in the early 20th century. A Dutch immigrant, he dedicated himself and his magazine to ending the killing of the swans for their feathers; perversely, he only increased their attraction.
I stopped at the NWR’s campground for lunch and as I was eating, I watched a bilious black cloud leap in slow motion over the high mountain ridge just south of me. It curved as it cleared the ridge and the peaks scored its black belly. It sank as it came into the valley and when it had gathered enough of itself, lightening flashed and thunder ripped the air and the crashes rolled for long seconds around the surrounding mountains and rain streamed from the sky.
I cowered under the interpretive sign in the campground, had a good overhang, and waited. When it quit raining, more clouds came over and rained more rain fell. I gave up and pitched the tent and took a nap while the sky did its thing.
Late that afternoon, another biker came in. Dave, young, handsome, a financial headhunter from London, with brand new, top of the line (carbon bike, B. O. B. (trailer) with heavy duty suspension, new tent, tights, the works); he was headed all the way. He planned to be off the Trail by October third, and, afterwards, he was headed to Hong Kong to visit his brother, a contractor responsible for the Venetian, a massive new casino in Macao (Note: British Airways also carries bikes without charge.)
Dave had been pummeled by both wind and rain and a passing RV had told us the weather report was for more of the same tomorrow. We agreed to be up and on the road early the next morning to beat the weather, which tended to come in the afternoon. I was up at 5 am, the eastern sky still black, no hint of the coming sun. The stars were brilliant, a sky rarely seen in Juneau. It was frosty, but I ate and was on the road just as it was dusky enough to see the rocks and mud puddles. There was no life in Dave’s tent as I passed it and I never saw him again.
I headed east into the dawn and mid-morning I crested Red Rock Pass and left Montana.
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