Montana 2014 Part 1 – Day 35 – Belle Fourche – 30 miles north of Alzada: Vibrancy and vitality

Monday June 23, 2014, 104 miles (167 km) – Total so far: 1,557 miles (2,505 km)

If you talk to a curious stranger long enough, and you’ve answered all the basic logistical questions of where from and to, how many miles you travel in a day, etc., you often get asked “why?”. Why are you doing such a crazy thing? My normal response to this is something about dreams – how we all have something we’ve always wanted to do, and that this is my dream. This is fine most of the time, but I have discovered that some people, sadly, don’t have any dreams. So what I would really love to do is bottle up a day like today and then pour it out like a glittering rainbow when people ask ‘why?’. Because today is precisely but wholly why I ride.

General delivery comes through for me again – my package is waiting on me at the post office. I add about two pounds to my load with the geology book and maps. Only the nerdy would lug around such a weighty book.

The post office pick-up allows the storms to pass, leaving a mix of clear skies and cumulus. All morning the clouds will come and go, bunching together into masses of darkness and threatening rain, only to clear away as I round yet another canyon corner. I’m pretty certain several times that I’m going to get wet, but never do.

The road rises gently to the border. It is actually near the crest of an anticline (upside down U-shaped uplift) but I can’t really pick it out at the surface here. There is a pull-out at the border and ahead of me lies one of the beauties of Wyoming – a nice wide shoulder. If the least populous state in the lower 48 can do it, I’ve got no idea why other states cannot. I loved my ride in Wyoming last year, so I’m happy to do a brief little sortie through the state today.

Oh, my beloved Wyoming, how happy I am to spend a few miles in your state today. How I have missed you!

We follow Hay Creek upward through a wide valley. Pines grow high on the slopes. Down in the ravines, bur oak mixes with sumac and chokecherry (I think), creating a wild and woolly looking collection of scratchy plants and bright green leaves. We climb gently all the way to Aladdin. Aladdin is an old coal mining town of about 15 buildings and 15 people – you can walk through the old coal tipple east of town.

The mercantile was built in 1896 and has housed just about every kind of business inside at some point. I creak across the worn and grooved wooden plank floorboards. There is a lot to look at – old and new – if you are so inclined. I head straight for the drinks case and grab a can of Coke. I sit out front, 18 miles into the day, feeling happy and in the groove.

The old mercantile in Aladdin. Plenty of business today. The whole town has been for sale for a few years now.

A woman pulls up in a very shiny red car, adorns herself with sunglasses and then comes to join me on the porch. She is from California. She is 67 and has always felt timid. She has finally gotten up the nerve to do a road trip. She’s been gone for three weeks and is on her way home. She’s feeling bold and adventurous. Until she sees me. And hears where I’ve come from, and where I’m going, and that I’ve done this all before. “Well, you just burst my adventure bubble!”, she exclaims.

I just laugh and say, “well, some people ride across on unicycles, some women go solo through the Middle East – there’s a lot of different levels of adventure. What you’re doing is way outside your comfort zone – so that surely qualifies as an adventure. I’m well within my comfort zone at the moment, so I don’t know that you’d really say this was anything more than a funny sort of vacation”. She laughs, we chat some more, I finish my Coke, and as I leave I’m reassured (cough!) when she says, “well, I’ll try not to hit you when I pass you up ahead”! Great, thanks, appreciate that.

The landscape is incredibly green from all of the rain and storms. The deciduous plants and the grass nearly glow with greenness. The woody draws scream photosynthesis as we start the climb up through the northern prong of the Bear Lodge Mountains. There are a few people on the road, but the shoulder is good and everyone is giving me plenty of room.

All morning we follow a series of creeks through the Black Hills.

I start into about a two-mile climb through pine forest and meadow. Rocks, I’m thinking Sundance formation but am not sure, crop out in the trees as small, craggy cliffs. The grade starts gentle but increases towards the top. But I spin away and smile. Life is good today.

Lots of gentle climbing this morning, then we hit the grade ahead. All of this gets us over the main ridge of the Bearlodge Mountains.

The road constantly curves and winds about, weaving along with the creek to the crest of the range. At the top, there are signs for road construction. They are repaving the road just at the top, and the other side is down to a milled surface. My side is still smooth, and the flag girl mid-way down the first steep hill just grins and gives me a big thumbs-up as I blow by her and her “SLOW” sign at 40 mph.

This is the scenic way to go from Belle Fourche to Alzada and stay off the shoulderless, truck-heavy federal highway 212. It’s about 20 extra miles but the scenery is so worth it!

The descent drops me into another wide valley of meadows ringed by hills of pine. We zoom on into Alva which sits tucked among the hills and the woody draws of oak and sumac. Then it’s another short climb out of this drainage and into the Spearfish formation (called Chugwater in most of Wyoming). This bright red and soft rock is distinctive wherever you find it around the world. Here it flanks the Black Hills uplift and lines the Belle Fourche river valley to which we now descend. The forest here hasn’t been ravaged by pine beetle. Combine that with all of the super-duper incredible green of the deciduous plants, and it gives the ride today an incredible vibrancy. It’s almost as if you can see the plants actively growing in the beams of sun parting the cumulus clouds. Good stuff!

That’s Devils Tower over on the left. We went there last year, so we’ll turn north at Hulett instead.
So green! We’re riding through a lot of the Spearfish and Sundance formations today.

Hulett sits right on the river and has old western false front stores lining the main street. It’s the closest town to Devils Tower so it has a few motels and touristy things – but no tourists right now. That’s a little creepy. I get two apples and a yogurt from the supermarket and sit out front and consume.

A cranky old man sits down beside me on the bench. His pants are too big; his shirt is dirty and stained. He has not showered recently. Along his jawbone grows the stubble of resignation and depression – he can’t be bothered to shave much anymore. His lips tremble as he reaches to light his cigarette. He proceeds to tell me all about how awful Obama is and how he is going to be the downfall of the US. He asks if I voted for him. I say, “No, I did the apathy thing” (which is true, I’ve never bothered to register at the US Consulate to receive my ballot papers overseas). The word apathy throws him. He doesn’t know what it means, but continues on with all the ways the world is awful and all the things it’s done to him. I sit there trying not to breathe while I bite chunks of apple. The cigarette smoke wafts about my head in a curl of second-hand sin. Finally, I get through the apple and excuse myself. He’s still muttering as I ride off. Oh, ‘but there for the grace of God go I’, is what I always think when I meet people like that.

The library is in the old elementary school. I ask to use a computer since there is no wifi or it isn’t working. I’m keen to see what the weather is doing. I could find somewhere to camp here tonight (the ball field looks quite possible) if there are strong storms building. All of the kids in the library are playing on a Wii gaming system. As I wait for each letter of a page to download, I understand why the kids aren’t on the computers. I have not been on one this slow since about 1984. All sorts of pop-ups in the task bar are suggesting that this computer needs A LOT of attention very soon. Approximately seven minutes later, I get the radar up. There are some isolated storms about but they seem to be falling apart. We look good to go.

Hwy 112 immediately starts climbing up a creek valley on the outskirts of town. I also immediately run into road construction. The flagger tells me there is eighteen miles of construction but they are only working on about 8 miles of it. I’ll just come across sections where the road is down to dirt like it is here. He then says, “Go on through. Good luck. Have fun.”

The creek is entrenched deeply in this valley and we climb the side of the hill on the dirt. The pine forest is thick through here. There is very little traffic, and the dirt is fairly packed, so it’s not a problem. We climb and climb out of the valley. The pines give way to meadows and grassland on the opposite side of this first crest. We zoom down on pavement, then fly over a dirt section at about 30 mph. We climb this wide valley. The pine trees grow on the slopes, and a small creek runs down in the bottom of the pasture. We ride up out of this wide valley, following the creek upward as the valley walls close in again. It is picturesque in a pleasant and park-like way. The winding road continues to bring new scenery around each bend.

Eventually we start a pretty long climb and gain a mostly continuous ridge. From up here, the grassland dominates the high points, and the pines cluster together down the draws which all branch away in erosional cracks from this high surface. We sail along on the sandstones. At one point, I spot several trailers holding missiles and a building with a big dish on top. What the?!! It turns out that is the “Clark Radar Bomb Scoring Site” – we’re in the Belle Fourche bombing range. Why they need missiles for electronic bombing practice makes me a little suspicious – but never mind. Off we go!

We’ve done a lot of climbing since Hulett and now we are very high in the landscape looking over to other ridges.

We are so high up in the landscape now we can look over to other ridges. The views reach far away down onto the plains and prairie to the north in Montana. We can even pick out the Chalk Buttes and Ekalaka Hills which we’ll ride over tomorrow. Then, the grassland gives way to an open pine forest high up here in the landscape. After several miles of cruising through this, we get a super fun and fast straight descent right down out of the hills and onto the plains. Yee-ha! I may have giggled a bit coming down that one.

Still high in the landscape. Way off to the north, we can see a raised line of hills or buttes in the far distance. Those are the Chalk Buttes that we’ll go over tomorrow.

I stop for a picture at the state sign, then commence forth on chip-seal with no shoulder. Welcome to Montana! Alzada is not much more than a wide spot in the road. Road agents (gangs of robbers) headquartered here in the 1800s when the place was known as Stoneville. They frequently robbed stages and travellers on the road we just came in on. Alzada become a telegraph station on the line between Fort Keogh and Fort Meade. Today, Alzada has a bar, post office and gas station.

Hello, Montana! Let the crappy roads begin!

This was sort of my goal for today. We’re 75 miles into it, and with our late start, it is already 5pm. You can camp on the gravel RV lot at the gas station or out the back of the bar. But neither of those appeal to me at all, and with all the trucks on 212, I think it would be quite noisy. So, in one of those spontaneous decisions that makes bike touring addictive, I think, “what the heck, let’s stock up on some water, get something to eat, and then just head out on 323. A spot to camp will turn up. There is some BLM land that touches the road on my map”.

So I load up on fried chicken fingers and waffle fries, then load the bike up with six litres of water, and then head north on 323. The road is flat to start, following the edge of the valley where the Little Missouri River carves wide arcs and wicked curves through the sediments. The prairie just stretches out like it’s reaching for the corners of the earth. It is so bright green and vibrant, I feel so incredibly fortunate to see it at such a beautiful time. This area north of Alzada was one of the last strong-holds of the northern plains bison herds. As late as 1880, 30,000 bison could still be found roaming this valley. I try to imagine them out there in such density.

The final 14 miles of this road were only paved in 2010. There aren’t many people out here, though most of the land is private. I love the feeling of riding into remoteness at the end of a perfect day.

The road curves, crosses the Little Missouri River, and then begins to gently climb and fall. Off to our right, sandstone spires carved by wind and water create a ridge called the Finger Buttes. These rocks are of the Arikaree formation – a pale soft sandstone and white claystone of volcanic ash. These sediments were deposited by slow-flowing streams that chugged along a fairly flat landscape 25-20 million years ago. The rocks sit atop the White River formation – a white and pale pink rock deposited 35-31 million years ago.

These sandstone spires and buttes stay off to our right for an hour or so.
I’m enjoying the scenery this evening. Prairie and sandstone spires.

The prairie just reaches forever in three directions. The green of the gently rolling hills is a scene of vitality. It shifts your perception of distance. Miles seem like a small measurement to describe the line of sight. If forever was a measurement, I’m thinking the horizon is at least three forevers from here. That horizon just keep receding and receding, as if I’m pedaling and stomping down the miles but really going nowhere.

The prairie stretches forever in three directions. It is just magnificent.

I have had an okay idea of where the patchwork of BLM land has met the road, but all of the roads leading off have been gated instead of cattle-gridded. My fingers don’t do the barbed wire gates very well, so I’ve just continued on. My state map doesn’t really have the level of detail that would be helpful in avoiding private land, but for whatever reason I’m feeling totally zen about everything right now. Maybe it’s just fatigue!

Now the sun is getting pretty low in the sky. We’ve ridden 98 miles today but still feel amazing. Still, we need to be looking for somewhere to pitch the tent pretty soon. I’m hoping to come up to another section of BLM land after the road does a big curve, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to spot it. However, the road reserve is really wide, and there have been roadcuts through some small hills, so I’m fairly certain I could just pitch the tent at the top of one of those hills off the side of the road up next to the fence. I’ll just go a bit further until I find the next one of those.

But the road gods provide. Off to my left, at mile 103 for the day, a two-track path leads away from a break in the fence that has a cattle guard. It kinda looks like where the BLM land should be, and all of the private land roads have been gravel, not two-track, so I head down the track about a quarter mile. It heads gently downhill to an ephemeral creek that is just muddy. I head up the other side of the slope then pick the bike up and carry it through a surprisingly deep cover of grasses and other vegetation. I’m just hoping there isn’t a snake, because I cannot see my feet. I trek about 30 feet off the track and lay the bike down on its side. The diversity of the vegetation, and the fact that so much of it is flowering, overcomes me with the greatest joy. I am such a lucky person to be here at just the right time!

30 miles north of Alzada and the sun is getting low. We need to find a place to sleep for the night. A BLM road miraculously appears – we head down that for a quarter mile or so and set up camp in the middle of an incredibly diverse range of prairie plants in the middle of nowhere. There is no one around and it is absolutely silent. TOTAL BLISS!

The sun lowers itself toward the horizon like it’s cautiously slipping into a cold pool of water. I erect the tent among clouds of mozzies, gnats and a huge diversity of flying black bugs. The tent sort of sits on top of all of that vegetation – my bed will be a soft one tonight.

I feel so humbled by the absolute silence and the scale of the landscape. I feel so grateful to be out here on the bike getting to experience such tremendous places. I feel so joyful to be among all these plants and bugs – all alone in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the prairie. A couple tears of happiness seep from my eyes and roll over the curve of my cheeks.

I have loved every minute of today – the vibrancy of the plants and the Spearfish formation, the humans I met on opposite ends of the vitality spectrum, the winding roads curving up into mountains and along the woody ravines, the last 30 miles of the day where the road sliced through endless prairie and I felt like I could just keep pedaling forever through a forever landscape. If you could have a perfect day, this was one of them. And then, to be able to end the day all alone in absolute silence, with a horizon that feels as far away as the deep dome of stars popping out as the sun sinks out of sight, well…. this is pure bliss!

Sunset after a terrific day. I’m one lucky chick to be out here riding. Humbled and grateful.

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