Montana 2014 Part 1 – Day 36 – 30 miles north of Alzada – Baker: Riding clinker

Tuesday June 24, 2014, 71 miles (115 km) – Total so far: 1,628 miles (2,620 km)

Willa Cather once wrote, “Anyone can love the mountains, but it takes a soul to love the prairie”. Many people will tell you there is not much to see in eastern Montana, but the landscape in the southeast corner is every bit as grand as the Rockies. It is no less magnificent nor smaller in scale. It is just a horizontal grandeur instead of a vertical one.

I wake to a dome of clear sky. It is still dark in the west, a purple turning midnight blue that drops back through lighter shades until the sky to the east is almost white in the pre-dawn silence. I’m wearing full rain gear – but only to ward off the mozzies while I pack up. Once I pedal back up the track and rejoin the road, I ditch the outerwear. I’m feeling very refreshed this morning. I slept the hard, deep sleep of exertion on a super-soft bed of prairie grasses in a darkness that city people could never comprehend.

The road descends to the valley of Box Elder Creek. The green still stretches to forever – the grass so long and luscious, a cow would get a stomach-ache just looking at it. There are few people on the road this morning, but the farmers that are out do not wave or move over the lane like they did back in Nebraska or Iowa.

After some time, Capitol Rock and the resistant ridges of rock to the east grow larger as we get closer. I get to the turn-off for County Road 328, where I would have joined 323 (the road I’m on now) had the road in South Dakota not been washed out. I contemplate heading east to check out the buttes and ridges in the Long Pines Unit of Custer National Forest, but I decide I can’t be bothered. I think the Finger Buttes we passed yesterday actually looked more exciting. I’ve also only got four litres of water since I dry-camped last night, and there are no water sources up there that I know about. I just can’t be bothered to figure out the logistics of riding up there and camping tonight.

Heading down the Box Elder Creek valley. That’s Capitol Rock over there in the distance. It’s another butte of Arikaree and White River sediments perched on Cretaceous strata.

So I continue on down the valley. It is fairly flat. Ridges of harder rock that resisted erosion show up here and there. This area is more closely settled and I pass a fair number of ranch homes. The people passing me in vehicles are decidedly unfriendly and very few are giving me any room on the road at all. There is so little traffic, they could give me the whole lane.

I pass another one of those bomb scoring sites – wow, that just creeps me out. I wonder where all the old missile silos are located. I contemplate the unfriendliness of the drivers. Maybe the locals don’t like outsiders and are peeved that road is now fully paved. I can’t think of any other reason for the distinct displeasure being directed toward my road presence.

Eventually, the Box Elder Creek valley heads northeast and the road heads northwest to climb over the Chalk Buttes and Ekalaka Hills. The Chalk Buttes are considered sacred to the Northern Cheyenne. Tribal members come here on spiritual quests, as they have always done. The grasses give way to the pines which clump and cluster up the steep slopes and along the top of the ridge.

Heading through the Chalk Buttes and Ekalaka Hills just south of town.

Ekalaka’s main street is a few blocks of low-slung buildings, and a triangle of grass that might have once been a ‘square’ but now only has buildings on 1.5 sides. There are a couple cafes, a motel, a bank, a library and a high school around the corner. There is an excellent museum with local history and dinosaur displays – many fossils are found in Carter County. There are also a couple churches and a few blocks of homes. It’s 35 miles to Baker which is the closest town of any size. It’s a pretty isolated place tucked down in hills which surround it on three sides.

Ekalaka also apparently has very hard water unfit for drinking. An overly-friendly man in a pick-up truck offers to take me back to his place to get jugs of distilled water, after I ask him if there is a park with water faucets where I can refill water. He originally came up to me as I came into town and suggested a café as having cheap and filling food. He was heading there himself, so I could join him. I declined. I went down to a park and ate out of my pannier but could not find a toilet or water pump. As I came back down the main street, he was coming out of the café and started talking to me again.

Now, this is one of the ways that bicycle touring can be slightly empowering for solo chicks. In my normal life, no one hits on me. No one ever even looks at me. I’m getting to be middle-aged. I’m not cute and don’t hold any illusions that I ever was. I’m a jeans and t-shirt kind of girl and don’t wear make-up. I am a nerd – I’m okay with it, and I try to own it, but it also means that men don’t come beating down my door to hang out.

But on a bicycle tour, somehow I become superwoman bicycling chick. At least once every few weeks, I will have a conversation with a man that I know I have the power to control and lead anywhere I want, including the bedroom. I don’t even need to be wearing lycra to achieve this. It surprises me a bit every time – I’m just not used to guys flirting with me and leaving the door open for me to swing through at will. But I will say, it does give me a sense of power that is novel and very road-specific. I don’t know if solo guys get this same thing, but I think if nerdy chicks want to get laid, all they really need to do is go bicycle touring.

So I leave super-friendly man behind and climb the steep hill out of town. Immediately I hit long, rolling hills. The character of the landscape is completely different on this side of the hills. It is also the really cool feature of the day for me.

Why are there rolling hills here, but the land was mostly flat on the other side? Well, get ready for today’s geology lesson…. (overfriendly man, still want me to come back to your place?). On the south side of the Ekalaka Hills, the surface rocks are Cretaceous shales and siltstones. These were deposited in a shallow sea and along coastal rivers and marshes 90 to 65 million years ago. Most of these do not resist erosion and therefore erode into fairly flat plains.

North of Ekalaka, you are riding across the Fort Union formation, deposited 65 to 55 million years ago along rivers and marshes that emptied into the retreating shallow sea. The Fort Union formation has three ‘members’, from oldest to youngest – Tullock, Lebo and Tongue River. The Tullock and Lebo members have eroded into flat plains, but anywhere the Tongue River member is at/near the surface, the topography is hilly. The Tongue River member is a sandstone with lots of coal in it. As streams cut down through the formation’s coal seams, the water in them emptied out. Then when lightning or prairie fires ignited the coal seams, they burned hot enough to bake the sandstones and mudstones above them into a red or yellow rock called clinker. This baked clinker provided a cap of hard rock that resisted erosion. As you ride north toward Baker, the ‘clinker’ hills are very evident and provide a rugged topography of great beauty and contrast. It also means your legs get a work-out!

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Between Medicine Rocks and Baker, you climb one hill after another. It is incredibly scenic with all of the bright green grasses. The hills are formed from resistant beds of clinker – all the red rock seen in the hills in the distance.

I also hit construction not far out of Ekalaka. The guy in charge of the whole project pulls up next to me and introduces himself. He asks if I’ll ride with him through the 11 miles of construction. He says I’ve got no chance of making it through. They are laying down fresh chips which are so sharp they’ll give me a million flats. So we load my bike in his truck, and he starts asking me about the bike and gear, and all about my trip. It turns out that he is a cyclist, and he is also the Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator for the eastern section of the state. We aren’t travelling very fast, so there’s a lot of time to chat bikes and where he likes to ride, etc. He tells me that eastern Montana is not bike friendly, and that he is still trying to get through the barrier that bikes should even be allowed on the road. He says it’s hard to push for bike infrastructure when the general public doesn’t think you should even be on the road at all. He says he is making progress with attitudes, but it is slow. He is very articulate and professional – he’s definitely the guy you want working for you in eastern Montana.

Eleven miles later he pulls over and helps me unload the bike. He tells me to be careful further up because there are oil fields south of Baker and there will be increased truck traffic from that. Then I’m back to pedalling those steep Tongue River clinker hills. The only downside of the construction is that Medicine Rocks State Park was in the middle of all of it. I wasn’t about to ask to be let out there, so I didn’t get to walk around the wind-eroded rocks along the ridge.

Up and down I go. The sky feels incredibly close, as if you could just reach out and grab a cloud. The clouds are clustering, and I’m glad for the 11-mile lift, because it might mean I can beat the building storms to town. I love the landscape but I don’t really want to get ‘clinkered’ if a thunderstorm catches me on these high hills.

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Looking across to the hills of the Tongue River member of the Fort Union Formation. The flat valley below contains the Tullock and Lebo members. The views are long and the scenery varied. If this doesn’t give you a sense of horizontal grandeur, you’ve got no soul – well, according to Willa Cather anyway.

The truck traffic does pick up, but the rest of the traffic coming from the south is coming through in bunches from the construction zone. So when I spot the group of cars coming in my mirror, I just pull off and let them all pass. I think it is the least stressful thing for all of us.

I do not beat the storms to Baker. They catch me as I’m hitting the outskirts. I get rained on for about 5 minutes, but not enough to get soaked. Baker is a bit of a hole – a dirty, resources-driven mining town. The grocery store staff are not friendly. The library staff are not either, but they do give me good information about road conditions for tomorrow. So far, eastern Montana has not been really rolling out the welcome mat for the travelling cyclist.

I camp for the night in the RV overnight camping area. There is a covered picnic table to hide from the wind and some grass next to it to pitch the tent. The toilets are not clean and have no toilet paper, and the trash cans near the picnic table and toilets are all overflowing. This town would not win Australia’s annual “Tidy Town” award. But it’s free, and the toilets aren’t too gross to use, so I won’t complain too much. I just would never come back here given the choice. The redeeming quality is that I got to ride through magnificent prairie to get here and will get to ride through more of it tomorrow when I leave. Baker gives me a free library and a spot to pitch the tent. In return, I purchase about $10 of food and drink. We’ll call it even, and tomorrow I’ll move on.

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