Saturday June 28, 2014, 56 miles (90 km) – Total so far: 1,823 miles (2,934 km)
Yesterday we rode up on the plains for most of the day with occasional glances down into the Yellowstone River valley. Today we’ll ride down in the valley nearly all day.
Our route takes us west on old Highway 10 which was also the Yellowstone Trail – one of the first national highways (along with The National Road and the Lincoln Highway). The river, in this section, saw a lot of traffic, too. You will immediately think Lewis and Clark, but there were French explorers up here a couple years before them in the Yellowstone Valley, many fur trappers and traders (there is an old fort site at the confluence of the Bighorn and Yellowstone Rivers), and lots of Sioux and Cheyenne. The army general Terry ordered Custer and his cavalry to head up Rosebud Creek near Forsyth and approach the Little Bighorn Valley from the east. The generals Terry and Gibbon and their remaining troops then headed up the section of river we are travelling today to the Bighorn River confluence to approach from the north. Of course, as they say, the rest is history. Terry and Gibbon arrived to the carnage of the Little Bighorn Battlefield on 26 June, the day after Custer and his 7th Cavalry had been decimated.
I spend a lot of time thinking about all of the people who have travelled through here before me today. The dew this morning on the tent was super heavy, and the clouds once again are threatening rain. It is a cool and grey morning with dark clouds that scud low across the valley. The river reflects a shimmering silver; the tans of the sandstones in the river bluffs remain muted without the sun’s rays.
The local farmers still aren’t giving me much room on the road. None of them offer a wave, either. I do think eastern Montana is the unfriendliest place I’ve ridden. The corn they are growing is much more enthusiastic. The crops stand bright green and turgid. I wonder how much they’ve had to irrigate this spring and how much they’ve been able to just rely on rain. There has certainly been plenty of it so far.
We continue to cut across cropped fields – the road flat and mostly straight. The river lies on the other side of the flood plain here. Twenty-five miles into the day, still cloudy and cool, we roll into Hysham. If it weren’t for the Yucca theatre it would look like a lot of other little dead railroad towns. It has one main street with squat one-story brick buildings scattered along it like little red and green Monopoly buildings. The buildings aren’t continuous on each side, as if somebody bought Park Place and Boardwalk but could care less about the value on Baltic Avenue. It’s obvious some of the building in-fill from the early 1900s has not made it to present day.
The Yucca Theatre, and its southwest facade, looks very out of place. So do the large statues around the place. I get a laugh out of Lewis, Clark and Sacajawea. All of the statues I come across always have them pointing. This time they are pointing at a bison, totally oblivious to the sabre-tooth cat and woolly mammoth which have transcended time and are about to eat them.
The low, dark clouds start to lift and move away as I sit on a bench in Hysham’s main street and watch the dust blow down the street. (Really, that is the only thing happening in Hysham). Let’s add some sun to this humid atmosphere so it can develop thunderstorms instead of just low, scuddy clouds.
Hysham does have a courthouse, since it’s the county seat. I mistake the courthouse for a library or elementary school as it just looked like an institutional place of learning. Ornateness of public buildings did not make it to 1960s Hysham. The fact that Hysham (pop. 316) is the largest town in Treasure County and is the county seat should tell you something about the size and population density of the county. It’s a tiny county, and all five of it’s towns are clustered along the river (and the other towns are better called localities).
We ride across more fields as the road curves through the centre of the floodplain. In the distance, the river bluffs mark the river course on one side and the edge of the floodplain on the other. Eventually, the river comes back to meet us at Myers where a couple large fibreglass dinosaurs stored up next to a building look distinctly out of time and place. The park and fishing access near here would be a suitable place to camp, though perhaps a noisy one, as there are a bunch of ATV and dirt bike folks zooming around as I ride past.
We curve away from the river again through more fields of irrigated corn and hay. It all stands in bright contrast to the drab colours of the sagebrush and grass-covered hills on the edge of the flood plain. The road continues to get narrower. There isn’t even an edge-line anymore.
We ride through the area known as Pease Bottom. The first trading post in this area was built in 1807, known as Lisa’s Fort or Fort Manuel, but difficulties with the Sioux forced them to abandon it only four years later. Four more forts were built at the site over the coming decades but all were abandoned because of the Sioux. Major Pease came in 1875 and built an outpost just south of the Bighorn River confluence on the side of the river we are riding. He also was driven out by the Sioux.
The ‘bottomlands’ here are all cropped. The road takes to the edge of the valley and undulates just below the bluffs, so we don’t actually pass the old fort sites. After we pass a dirt road that takes off up a wide valley toward Highway 12, the road maintenance seems to end. It gets quite rough – some sections have that heaped asphalt dumped along them, some sections look like cobblestone such is the density and shape of the hundreds of little cracks. Other sections are very pot-holed and at one point, I’m pretty convinced it’s just going to go to dirt. It never does, though a few sections are rough enough, you kinda wished it had.
The scenery is pleasing, however. We ride right up close to the rocks, and you can see all of the pocks and holes from wind erosion. In the distance, down across the bottoms, you get glimpses of the river as it erodes right up against the opposite valley wall (note the interstate swings up and over the plains here). Finally, the county road we’re on climbs up the bluff and along a higher terrace, still close to the rocks but out-of-sight of the river and its junction with the Bighorn. I dodge cows and cow shit as we climb higher still. The new county brings a different approach to not maintaining the road – instead of it being crap on all parts of the road, it is just down to dirt in some sections, but patched and smooth in others. I end up riding down the centre line a lot.
Eventually, we get a nice plunge and curve back down toward the river. Just before the bridge, off to the left, is the former townsite of Junction City. This town developed as a river port and at one time had 14 saloons and three dance halls. It was as far upriver as the steamboats could go in the 1870s. By 1883, it had 500 people. But then the railroad came, on the other side of the river, and the town died. The railroad replaced the steamboat traffic, and the last person left the town in 1909. Buildings and materials were used to build the settlement of Custer on the opposite riverbank – a spot that had been used as a landing to supply Ft Custer (south of present-day Hardin).
There really isn’t much to present-day Custer. There are a few houses, a tiny bar/motel/RV hook-up place, an ancient gas station and a park on the edge of town. I stop at the gas station to get drinks and ask if there is anywhere nearby to camp. The older woman running the store surprises me when she says they have a town park (it doesn’t look like it would) and that I’m welcome to camp there. She gets off work in a few hours, and she’ll come down and unlock the toilets for me then.
I head down to the park, not expecting much from a teeny town not close to anything. But the park is great. There is soft, green irrigated grass, play equipment and a large community hall with a covered patio. Very nice! I commence calorie consumption and journal writing. When the woman comes down to unlock the bathrooms, she gives me a tour of the community hall, which has all sorts of historical photos. She just tells me to lock the door when I leave and to pitch my tent anywhere I like. I give her a $10 note as a donation. When she says, “are you sure you want to give that much?”, I reply, “oh, I’ve paid a lot more for a lot less, and I want to make up for the people that come through that don’t leave you anything at all”. She thanks me and reminds me again not to drink the water (for the third time).
I’m very pleased to watch two storms come through with drenching rain and lightning while I sit there dry and cozy under the patio covering. It’s a nice end to a very nice day. Later on, I’ll go pitch the tent in the soft grass and enjoy a very comfortable bed instead of camping on the concrete under the patio cover. I’ll pack a tent wet with dew in the morning if I can have soft grass to sleep on at night!