Montana 2014 Part 1 – Day 46 – Billings – Columbus: The confrontation

Friday July 4, 2014, 39 miles (63 km) – Total so far: 2,038 miles (3,279 km)

I pull into the campground in Columbus at 10.45 am. My goal for this 4th of July was to get out of Billings and off the road as soon as possible. So I left quite early and was rolling through Laurel (where the biggest fireworks show in the state is held) while they were still flipping pancakes at the picnic breakfast. Lawn chairs all along the road were already set out to mark territories in anticipation of the morning parade. Several people yelled out “Love your hat” or “Love your sparklers”. My attempt at patriotism has not gone unnoticed.

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I purchase a 4th of July headband and zip-tie it to my helmet, so I can be festive as I ride. This turns out to be the best $1 investment I’ve ever made. I get heaps of comments about it and am told it is so sparkly in the sun it really catches people’s attention. So I leave it on my helmet… and continue to get positive comments about it for the next 3 months. I’m willing to look a bit ridiculous if it gets drivers to see me!
Heading out of Laurel. You can see my helmet streamers in my shadow. They look like alien horns here.

The campground at Columbus is very crowded and nearly every spot taken. I immediately get a not-so-good vibe but pass it off as my dislike of crowded places. I see four touring cyclists packing up and head over to them. These four mid-20s guys departed from Seattle and are riding to the East Coast. We chat a bit and I ask if I can take their camping spot – since I’d seen no others available that had any shade. It’s supposed to be quite hot, so shade is quite attractive. I ask the guys if they know who the tarp and tent belongs to that is all shoved up in and under some bushes at the edge of the site. They’ve got no idea – they never saw anyone.

As the afternoon wears on, I decide I’m going to move on tomorrow. I don’t like the vibe here. I don’t know if it’s because the camping here is free or what, but the vibe is incredibly redneck. Not a hunting/fishing/ATVing redneck, because that doesn’t really bother me. This is more of a cigarettes, tattoos and burn-outs kind of redneck. I don’t care for it and I don’t really like inhaling cigarette smoke continually.

I set up the tent off to the side of the site in the shade, in case someone comes back for that abandoned tent and intends to set up on this spot. Then I go for a swim, chat to the caretaker outside of the bathrooms and spend the afternoon reading my geology book in the shade.

As I’m walking back from the toilets around 5pm, a woman, a teenager and the teenager’s boyfriend have pulled into my site. The woman is really angry and accuses me of stealing their site. I calmly tell her that I asked numerous people (I did) if they had seen anyone or knew anything about the tent. No one had. The woman starts yelling stuff at me about being a claim-jumper and how this had happened a bunch of other times. She’s a local and this is HER park. I just sit down on my sleeping mat in the shade and look at her. She storms off to go look for another site.

The daughter says to me, “my mom lives here and I’ve just come home to visit. We were just going to camp here because there’s not enough room at her place”.

The chick is reasonable and polite. I tell her, “Well, I set up way over here so I could share the site if someone came back for that tent. You can set it up over there and use the fire ring and picnic table and everything. I’m just going to hang out here in the shade.”

She doesn’t seem to want to do that. The young boyfriend just stays quiet. The mom comes back angry as a hornet and continues yelling at me about how I tore down their tent. A guy across the road comes over and tells the woman, “Mam, there was big wind that came through yesterday about 5pm and blew down your tent”.

The woman is having none of it. She is accusing me of tearing down her tent and throwing it in the bushes and stealing her site. She tells me I need to move – that there is a site further down between two RVs that is big enough for my tent but not theirs.

I politely and calmly tell her that I don’t intend to move because I’m already set up and don’t take up much room. I’m happy to share the site. (Because if you think I’m moving between two RVS that are going to crank up generators later, you are nuts).

Reinforcements arrive. The lady’s older daughter and boyfriend show up. The mom starts telling the older daughter about how I tore down their tent and have claim-jumped their site. The daughter says, “well I’ve seen a lot of things, but that really takes the cake. That’s about the lowest thing anyone could ever do.” The mom replies, “yeah, they say it was the wind that knocked it down, but we never get winds like that here. It’s all a big lie”.

I should say that expletives are thrown in there at about every other word. I don’t say anything or even look at them as the mom starts to angrily roll up the tent. The younger daughter pleads with me to move again. But any congeniality I may have had has been wiped by the mom’s approach to the situation and her accusations. If she’d calmly and politely engaged me, and explained the situation to me, I may have just moved to an unofficial spot somewhere, but because she won’t listen to me explaining that I took the site from the people who were there the night before, then screw them.

So they storm off and peel out of the site spewing dirt and gravel from the tires of their cars. I breathe a sigh of relief. That was the nastiest encounter I may have had in… I really don’t know how long.

But then, the entire family comes back about 15 minutes later. Mom in one car. Youngest daughter and boyfriend in another car. Older daughter and boyfriend in a van. And Dad in a rusty pick-up with another man.

The Dad is as redneck as you can be. T-shirt with cut-off sleeves. Very worn jeans. Untidy and greasy hair poking out from under a dirty baseball camp. Out-of-fashion glasses and thick mustache. Big belt buckle.

He is incredibly angry and comes up to me. I don’t stand up to meet him. So he has to just yell at me standing there, while I’m sitting on the ground. The rest of the family stands behind him with arms crossed or hands on their hips. I think I should be intimidated by 7 angry people in front of me. But I’m not. And for some reason I’m not even scared. I’ve done nothing wrong – and the campground rules says you can’t leave a spot unattended for more than 24 hours anyway. I can’t believe I feel so calm – it’s as if ‘fight or flight’ has been replaced with ‘just sit there’.

The guy absolutely lays into me in a barrage of curse words and spit. He picks up a rock from the campfire ring and holds it partly raised into the air. He tells me he’s a local. He lives here. This is his park. They were going to come down here for their 4th of July celebrations and have a fire. They’d reserved the spot (no reservations here). Now I’ve absolutely ruined it all. I’ve ruined it all by stealing their site and destroying their tent.

I calmly reply, “Sir, I’m only taking up a tiny bit of space over here. You are welcome to have the picnic table and fire ring and all the rest of the site. I’ll be in bed early anyway. I’m happy to share the site. I asked about the abandoned tent. I took the site from the people who were here last night”. And this is how I know I’m not scared – my voice comes out normal, instead of high and thin, like it does when I’m afraid.

He raises the rock higher, then spits on the ground in front of me, and slams the rock down so hard it bounces and cracks. He yells, “You are a fucking liar! You just ruined our whole holiday! We are locals! This is our park! You have no right to come here and do this! Where are you from anyway?”

“I’m just passing through. I’m from Australia.”

Whoa. That stumped him. He is quiet for a moment. He wanted me to say Bozeman or Billings so he could go off on city people. But he retorts, “Well,that explains it then, doesn’t it”?

I think: no, actually it explains nothing. But I don’t say anything. I just look at him stony-faced. Any goodwill I might have had or any thought of cooperation is long gone. I’m not angry, but at this point, I’m not going to be pushed around either. If they’d been reasonable and agreed to share the site, we might have all gotten to know each other over a beer and had a nice time. But there is absolutely no reasonable compromise to be had with a person like this. Obviously.

He yells, “You’ve got no right! This was our spot! I’m going to go have a chat with the caretaker and tell him about you! Don’t be surprised if he comes over to have a talk with you”.

“Yeah, that’d be fine,” I say. He already knows I’m in this spot since we talked earlier.

The man takes a piece of gum out of his mouth and throws it at me, then stomps back to his pick-up. His army gives me filthy looks and then retreats. I just claimed victory, or something (what was all that?), never having gotten to my feet.

Of course the caretaker never comes over to talk to me. And the redneck locals never return. But still, I bring the bike right up next to my tent, flip it upside down, and put the cable lock through the bike and around my tent pole. I’m afraid they’ll get drunk and come back to harass me or slash my tires or something. This is America – those sorts of people have guns! I had already planned to leave tomorrow, but now I’m definitely out of here!

And so concludes the worst day I’ve ever had on a bike tour.

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