Montana 2014 Part 1 – Day 43 – Hardin – Billings via Pompey’s Pillar: Rockin’ and rollin’

Tuesday July 1, 2014, 73 miles (118 km) – Total so far: 1,966 miles (3,164 km)

Sometimes you know you’ve made a bad decision mere moments after you’ve made it. And sometimes a third party confirms your feelings.

We leave Hardin on old 87/212. We ride through a very large basin for quite a few miles. Then we get on the interstate for 6 miles. We are up high for awhile and can see down into the basins and creeks.

After a stint on old 87/212 this morning through gentle hills in a large basin, and a shorter stint on I-90, we turned off at the Fly Creek Road exit. This gravel road runs between I-90 and I-94 and will allow me to get up to see Pompey’s Pillar – a spot on the National Historic Register.

In my pre-trip research, I was at a loss for a good way to get into Billings from the east. There was no way I was going to ride into town on the interstate because there is a merge of I-90 and I-94 on the edge of town, and the bridge over the river after the merge did not appear to have a shoulder. The other two options were to come in from the south on Old 87/212 or come in from the east on old Hwy 10. Bike blogs on CGOAB and elsewhere indicated both of these roads had no shoulder, heavy traffic and could be a bit hair-raising, as well. So I decided I’d head up to the Hwy 10 route so I could at least see a national landmark before I diced with death. This is also an ACA route, and I figure they try to route people on the least horrible roads.

Well, that all seemed good at the time. In reality, as I stand here at the interstate exit, I have my doubts. The gravel road has no defined tire tracks to follow and the gravel is all rather large. My thinking goes like this: I don’t want to backtrack. I can do gravel. It’s only 9-11 miles, how bad could it be?

Don’t ever ask that last question. Murphy and his law thrive on that. I am immediately questioning myself as I go skidding and sliding down a hill and around a curve with golf ball size stones ricocheting off my rims in the first 500 feet. At the top of the next hill, I stop, because I can hear something large approaching from behind.

I turn to see a man driving a road grader. Oh, no!!! Please don’t be grading this road – grading makes it so soft and so hard to ride! The man looks down at me as he passes with a look I can only describe as disapproval, a bit of anger, a bit of concern and a bit of contempt. He shakes his head as he goes on. He seems to confirm this might not have been the best choice.

And then I commence 1.5 hours of pure concentration and torture to pedal around 10 miles of gravel. There are no tire tracks to follow, except occasional short bits in flat sections. The road is soft underneath the gravel, and that gravel is all loose river cobblestones that range in size from pea to cantaloupe. Most are on the upper end of a marble-golf ball size range. The downhills are pretty sketchy – it’s slick, it’s hard to stay away from the big stones, and any tire tracks tend to appear and disappear. I keep one foot out of my straps and close to the road on each descent. Poor Verne and Kermit are getting vibrated like nobody’s business. Verne’s head shakes like he is having convulsions. The turtle is most definitely not happy with this route choice.

The Fly Creek Rd is a gravel road that connects I-90 to I-94. It is the worst road I have ever ridden. The ‘gravel’ is all river cobblestones ranging in size from pea to cantaloupe – and very little of it is packed down enough to gain any speed. This is 1.5 hours of pure concentration and torture.

I stop for a mid-morning snack at what I think is about the half-way mark because I’m a bit frazzled. I’m so tense from concentration and holding onto the bike that I just stand over the bike for 20 minutes instead of trying to find a nice place to rest. I pump myself up and say, “C’mon, Em, it’s not that bad. You can walk it if you have to. We’ve got all day to do this. Just keep taking it slow and it will be fine. You are not a girly girl. You are not a quitter. This is NOTHING – you aren’t doing this on the side of a cliff in Tajikistan. Quit your bitching.”

And so I continue. I’m not so worried about crashing – even though that’s a distinct possibility, I’m more worried about dinging the rim or throwing it horrendously out of true if I hit one of those big rocks dead on.

Wheat growing along the Fly Creek Road.

Eventually, we roll down to cross the rail-line, then we see the guy grading the road. Crap. It was hard enough as it was! The guy has been down my side of the road and is heading back on the other. It is actually not too bad – it is a lot softer, a bit like riding on sand, and I leave tire tracks in my wake, but all those big rocks are all lumped on the side. I have about a mile of this before I meet up with the grader. He stops when he sees me coming and lets me get by. As I go by, he looks down at me with a big smile and waves. I guess I get his approval now that I’ve made it through.

Not long after meeting the grader, we hit the county line and the road turns to pavement. I feel like jumping for joy or doing a jig, but I don’t. The last few miles up to the interstate fly by.

Oh, &^$*, thank god!!!! Once you leave Big Horn County, the road becomes paved for the final few miles to the interstate.

As I ride down Old 10 and Pompey’s Pillar comes into view, I can’t help but think: “That’s it? I rode all those miles on all that crappy gravel for that”? But my disappointment is only momentary – the real draw of this spot is to see Clark’s signature etched into the rock, not the rock’s size or prominence.

There it is – Pompey’s Pillar. I guess I was expecting it to be a bit bigger.

The guys and I head to the top of the rock. The views are not all that far today because of fairly thick haze. The volunteer at the top lends me binoculars to look at an eagle’s nest in the distance. We have a nice chat – she looks for birds and reads novels when not chatting to tourists. She apologizes for the haze and hopes it lifts. I tell her not to get her hopes up, because even though it doesn’t smell like smoke, the tightness in my lungs tells me it is probably wildfire smoke.

View from the top of Pompey’s Pillar.

The guys and I go check out the Clark carving – supposedly the only physical evidence remaining of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery. I thought I read at other L&C historical sites, though, that they have found artifacts at old campsites that were related to this expedition. Never mind, the turtle, frog and I contemplate the inscription while the volunteer at this spot talks away on her phone.

Clark climbed this rock outcrop and christened it Pompey’s Tower after Sacajawea’s son, whom Clark affectionately called Pomp. Clark carved his name amid ancient pictographs high on the rock’s northeast face. It is reputedly MT’s only surviving physical evidence of the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery.

We go for a hike along the river and Kermit gets a good feed of mozzies while the mozzies get a good feed of me. Then, after a short snack break, we head west towards Billings.

The guys want to spend more time in their habitat, but I’m getting demolished by mosquitoes, so it’s time to get moving.

The road is narrow and the traffic moderate to start. But as we get towards Huntley, the traffic increases and it becomes not so pleasant. The good thing is most everybody is waiting behind me to get around when it isn’t safe to pass. We drop a bunch of traffic after the turn-off to Huntley but start picking up a new set of traffic after we cross the river. There are some hills here, and people are passing without being able to see over the crest. The closer we get toward Billings, the heavier the traffic gets. There are new neighbourhoods and development out this way, but the road is still the narrow, 2-lane, no shoulder thing it’s always been. Now, cars are passing me without moving over at all. It is stressful. I move out further in the lane to where the right tire track is to try to force them to wait or give adequate room, but this just means they skim me within inches rather than within a couple feet. No one is slowing down; no one is moving over at all. The speed limit is still pretty high, so it’s incredibly dangerous for them to be side-by-side in the lane with me. This continues for at least five miles before I finally get close enough to town that the road becomes four-lane, divided, with a shoulder. I’ve been pushing incredibly hard, so when I get to this bit, I stop for a bit of a break. Phew!!

Once into the edge of town, I turn hard left at the first set of traffic lights and go in search of the bike path I’ve got on my map. It’s not marked but you’ll see it taking off on the right. It weaves its way into town near the river. As we pass through neighbourhoods, nearly every house has extensive hail damage on its siding and/or roof.

One of the bike paths in Billings runs along the river and doesn’t really connect up to much. It abruptly ends, with no warning, on the south side of town in a park. Coming into town from the northeast, once the road turns into four lanes, make a hard left at the first stoplight onto a road that parallels the highway you were just on. Head east a few blocks and keep an eye out for the unmarked bike path which takes off on the right. This will take you into town without having to ride on the busy roads (though you will eventually have to get on them to get anywhere).

The bike path takes us past all sorts of industry but doesn’t have any real good connections to downtown. Then, it all of a sudden ends in the middle of a park, on the south side. At this point, I’m getting rained on and there is thunder all around. Ugh. What next?

Billings is a very industrial city. I’m not overly impressed with much in this town. Even the museum associated with the Smithsonian was underwhelming. The bike path along the river gives you a good tour of the old refineries, coal processing plants, sewer and water treatment plants and oil holding tanks.

I work my way back up to the nearest road, then find the one that winds along past the two RV parks. There are “Share the Road” signs through this bit. I finally get to the RV park, only to find that it is bursting at the seams, is very expensive, and has a whole bunch of men staying there to work on all the hail-damaged houses. I don’t like the way they leer at me as I ride through to my site, but it’s been such an exhausting day mentally that I’m really too tired to care. Wow – really glad to get this day done!

Leave a Reply