Montana 2014 Part 1 – Day 37 – Baker – Miles City: 85 miles by noon – tailwind, anyone?

Wednesday June 25, 2014, 85 miles (136 km) – Total so far: 1,713 miles (2,757 km)

The fog sits 20 or 30 feet up in the air when I crawl out of the tent. The wind is still. The tent is wet. It is cool and clammy. A tailwind is predicted, as are storms after noon. Let’s get going. I’m looking forward to the ride today because there are no services for 82 miles. That, hopefully, will mean a road without much traffic.

Picture 004
I get an early start – long distance to cover today and storms forecast after noon. It is quite foggy when we leave the hole…ummm….town of Baker.

The fog has lifted a little by the time I hit the road just after dawn. We still can’t see more than a ¼ mile down the road, though, so the path of the road unfolds a bit like a video game. The hills ahead only emerge out of the low cloud as you ride into the bottom of them. The views north and south end in fuzziness at the edge of gentle hills.

All of the traffic is going the other way right now. The speed limit is 70 mph, but no one is going that slow. It really does feel like a video game the way they flash past. One moment you see their headlights in the distance. The next moment they are here and then gone.

As the fog lifts about 15 miles into the day, the wind picks up. It’s a quartering tailwind, and it pushes me down the road nicely. The bright green prairie mixes it up with hills and buttes. We are again riding across the Fort Union formation. We’ll be traversing up and down the Tongue River hills and through the Lebo and Tullock valleys all the way to the outskirts of Miles City.

Picture 005
I like this road. Long stretches of no traffic. Hills and buttes mixing it up with prairie. Ahhh….

Though there are hills to climb and descend, my general trend is down. Baker sits up on the Cedar Creek Anticline (the source of all the oil fields in that area) at 2936 feet, and Miles City sits down on the Yellowstone and Tongue Rivers at 2369 feet. The only real significant climb I will have all day is the climb out of the Powder River Valley.

Picture 006
Between Baker and Miles City.

What I’d really like to do today is cut over to Terry to visit the Evelyn Cameron gallery. The ladies at the library told me yesterday that County Road 320 through Ismay has just been re-gravelled. They thought the large stones would be difficult for me on the bike, particularly because the large stuff hasn’t been flung off to the side yet by enough vehicles passing over it. The one woman says it’s soft and slippery in a car at the moment, so might be tough on the bike. They do think the road by the Powder River would be better, as long as it’s not wet. Apparently, it’s got a finer gravel, but a gumbo surface when it rains.

So when I get up to County Road 320, I have a look but confirm the ladies’ thinking. There are no established tire tracks yet through all the new gravel – and all that gravel ranges from marble to golf ball-size with some larger river cobblestones thrown in. That’s a no go for me.

So on I go over the hills and down across creeks still flowing with recent rain. The road curves at times to wiggle through hills and buttes. Other times it’s a straight shot between longer ridges. It’s scenic, somewhat remote and lightly trafficked most of the morning. Traffic only begins to change from very low-low to low after about 10 am.

Picture 007
All morning we ride through the Fort Union formation. We find more clinker-capped hills like these as we head west.

I check out the road that leads to Terry just before the Powder River. Yes, it does look better. It looks quite smooth. However, there is thunder rumbling in the distance, and the clouds are all bunching up, so I’m pretty sure I can’t pump out 28 miles on dirt before the rain gets here. I don’t want to get bogged in gumbo – even though I’ve got enough water for today and tonight if I got stuck. But sorry, Evelyn Cameron, I’m not risking that road with incoming storms – I’m going to have to give your photograph collection a miss on this trip.

Picture 008
Old bridge over the Powder River.

After I cross the Powder River and spin my way up the curvy climb above the river bluffs, I get another good downhill. Here I see cyclists heading uphill in a pair. They wave enthusiastically. Then, just ahead, I see the support van, and a long string of riders into the distance. I stop for a second on my side of the road and ask where they’re heading; it’s a tour group where you pay a heap of money to do a supported cross-country ride. I kinda had in my head that only older people do this, but there are at least 8-10 of the 15-20 riders my age or younger. The woman says they are riding Seattle to New York. I yell out Good Luck and resume my downhill. I fly down past all the riders slowly pedalling up that hill. Everyone waves and smiles. Poor folks, they aren’t very far into their day, they’ve got a lot more climbing to do into a quartering headwind, and there are storms approaching – it’s only 10 am.

Picture 009
Climbing up out of the Powder River drainage. I can hear thunder in the distance.

The dark clouds off to my right are sparking lightning – long bolts reaching downward into meadows in the distance. I pedal hard uphill, but the storm catches me just after I crest the clinker hill and start across a somewhat level surface. There are multiple strikes of lightning in front and behind me and to the right of me. Rain and pea-sized hail drop down on me for about five minutes. Through it all, I just keep pedaling. There isn’t really an alternative, and I think I’ll get through it faster if I keep moving forward. The road ahead is sunny – the sky in the direction it’s coming from is still dark.

Picture 010
Looking back not long before we descend to Miles City. The guys are in the panniers. I just rode through that storm. Plenty of lightning and a few minutes of pea-size hail. Ugh.

I round a long sweeping bend on a gentle uphill and stop to take a drink while I look back at the storm I just came through. I’ve got about 12 miles left until I reach the interstate. I’ve felt like ‘I’m almost there’ since I was 19 miles out. It’s funny how 19 miles out feels like you are almost done on a day of 85 miles – but it doesn’t feel anywhere close to being finished on a day of 50 miles.

Not long after this, we get a long, curving descent through the Strawberry Hills. The eroded hills are alive with colour from weeds and grasses. I pedal into the downhill and pass a construction truck. I’m doing 35 mph; they are probably doing about 20. In my mirror, I can see them stopping to pick up the orange cones. Further down, still flying, I come up to the new asphalt they’ve laid. It is still soft and grips my tires a bit, slowing my speed. They’ve done a crappy job. They’ve just lumped a whole bunch of asphalt down and only sorta spread it out. There’s a big bump onto and off of it and a big hump in the middle. I see that this is standard protocol as I hump over other repaved places from earlier patch-jobs. It’s half-ass work, in my opinion.

Picture 011
Zooming downhill at 35mph into the Yellowstone River drainage.

The construction guys finally catch me on the flats as the road curves west. I roll into Miles City at 11.45 am. Not bad to have 85 miles done for the day before noon!

There is tons of traffic at the interstate exit, but there is a wide shoulder on a street crammed full of motels, restaurants and big box stores. I see a Wendy’s and head there for a chili, baked potato and Frosty. Yum, I’m hungry! There is also a DQ – so a Smores Blizzard is in my future. More storms, accompanied by street flooding, come through later in the evening. It’s a pattern that started a few days in Belle Fourche and will continue on through Billings.

Picture 012
Miles City has heaps of motels, restaurants and stores out by the interstate now. They have tried to re-energize downtown, but it is pretty much half-dead.

Leave a Reply