Montana 2014 Part 1 – Day 52 – Great Falls – Helena: Of cowboys and canyons

Thursday July 10, 2014, 92 miles (148 km) – Total so far: 2,438 miles (3,924 km)

There is no better way to start the day than to have to get on the interstate, negotiate a merge (I-15 and I-315), and then climb a steep hill. But there is no other choice to get out of town. So off we go.

We can get off the freeway at the airport exit and use the old highway for the next 58 miles. The first part of the day takes us across glaciated plains that sat about 500 feet below the surface of Glacial Lake Great Falls during the ice ages. In the distance to the south and southwest, dark mountains rise from the plains. Off to the left, and only occasionally visible, is the cleft of the Missouri River.

As I’m cruising into Ulm, a woman on a road bike pulls up beside me and says, “You are living my dream”! We pull over at the gas station in the little town and have a quick chat. She can’t talk long because she has to turn around to head back to Great Falls to go to work. We exchange phone numbers – she says to text her when I get to Lincoln because she and her husband have a place I can stay there. She also tells me the road is really bad through roadworks over Rogers Pass, so I might want to consider an alternate route.

Cruising south toward Cascade.

The road travels down the wide valley toward the mountains to Cascade. The mountains grow taller as we get closer. There are fantastic views of dikes lined up along the mountain-sides like huge rock fences. The Adel mountains are the remains of a volcano that erupted about 50 million years ago. The dikes are shonkinite, an igneous rock that is rare in most of the world but plentiful in the mountains of Central Montana. The Highwoods that we passed by yesterday are particularly renown for this type of rock.

Heading downhill on the old highway between Great Falls and Helena. Admiring all those volcanic dikes in the hillside.

Shortly after Cascade the old highway meets the Missouri River and weaves its way through the mountains right next to the water. It is incredibly scenic and a bit unexpected. In many places the river splashes by right on one side of the road and the rocks rise straight up on the other. A bit further down, the number of people in boats or in the water fishing is quite incredible. I wonder if there are more people than fish!

Between Hardy and Cascade.
Weaving along through the canyon.
Missouri River through the canyon.
Looking back downstream.

The road leaves the canyon again shortly before Craig. This little town sits out on grassy meadows in the valley and isn’t all that attractive. I had thought of camping near here, but it doesn’t look like somewhere I want to spend the rest of the day. I don’t like the sound of riding all that construction to Lincoln, so I decide I’ll just cruise on into Helena. The road south to Wolf Creek climbs and falls along the edge of the valley. The river is off to the right and still features a spectacular number of fisherman. The valley is wide here, but tall mountains surround the river nearby.

Wolf Creek has about three businesses. I stop, along with everyone else, at the gas station. As I’m walking out with my drink, a true cowboy holds the door open for me. He nods and smiles a happy, toothy grin beneath that cowboy hat. When he comes back out, he comes over to talk to me. He looks about my age, but is probably a bit more weathered than me. He has on brown cowboy boots, tan Carharts with a big belt buckle and a dark blue shirt with pearl-like buttons.

He inquires, “So where you ridin’ that bike from? We seen you back up the road some ways”.

“I started in Illinois. I’m spending a couple months out here riding around Montana”.

“No shit. That’s a long way to ride a bike. How far do you go each day”?

“Anywhere from 20-100 miles. I try to average 60, I guess”.

“Holy shit. I seen some people on bikes like yours before, but, don’t take offense, but I don’t really get you types, and I ain’t never seen one I thought would be nice to talk to before. I’ve always been curious about what your type was doin’ though.”

“No offense taken. I guess I don’t talk to real cowboys very often either (kind of a lie – I talked to lots of farmers/ranchers in my research). Are you from here?”

“Yeah. My whole life. Me and the boys are up there repairing fence right now,” he says, as he motions over to the other two legit cowboys hanging out by a truck.

They walk over after he’s looked that way. He says to them, “This girl, sorry I don’t know your name, has been riding that bike since May. She ain’t gonna finish up until September. She’s ridin’ all over the place.”

The skinnier of the other two guys says, in a friendly and joking manner, “Don’t you know that there are these things called engines”?

“Yeah, but I’m not much for internal combustion. You can see a lot more this way.”

“Um, I could teach you to ride a horse. Then it wouldn’t be so much work for you.”

“Ah, no thanks. This way I’m only responsible for myself. And I don’t have to source feed for the bike.”

The conversation continues. The three guys are teasing me about my choice of locomotion and all the high-tech gear. But they are doing it in a funny and good-natured way. They tell me all about fencing and what it requires, and all the places I should visit in Montana. They keep trying to convince me that I should be on a horse instead of a bike.

Then, the first guy, who held the door for me, cocks his cowboy hat back and says, with a wink, “I bet you can ride it longer than any of the horse-ridin’ girls I been with though.”

Ahem. There is a pause. These guys have been teasing me for a bit now, but that takes it just a bit further than I was expecting. My brain has a quick conversation with itself (imagine red devil on right shoulder and white angel on left shoulder). And then then I decide to go for it.

I say, “What, you mean you’ve never heard of reverse touring cyclist? Man, you should see my helmet streamers shake. It’s too bad you’re wearing a wedding ring and I’m a bit attached.”

Oh my. The conversation goes further south. Much further south. But in a good way. We’re all in tears from laughing by the time they head off to finish up fencing and I head off for Helena. Oh my goodness, what fun! I may have pulled a muscle in my torso from laughing so hard. Two of the cowboys were doubled over, they were laughing so hard by the end.

As they take off, they all give me a hug (I really don’t like hugs) and tell me to be safe. As he gets in his truck, the first guy calls out, “Hey, that was great. Now I know you types are okay, so I’ll stop and talk to more of you from now on.” He winks at me and waves as they pull away. So if you are riding the old highway between Helena and Great Falls you’ve been warned.

For me, the incredible introvert who doesn’t really like talking to anyone, I’ve learned a nice lesson: there can be rewards if you don’t take yourself too seriously and talk to people who are not like yourself. That may have been the best conversation of the whole tour. I haven’t laughed that hard in a very long time.

The road out of Wolf Creek is tucked deep down in the Prickly Pear Canyon. Colourful pink and green rocks of the Precambrian Belt formation are exposed for much of its length. The canyon is narrow. In many places, it goes: rock, old highway, creek, rail-line, grass, interstate, rock. Sometimes the interstate is far enough away that it is just me, the creek and the old highway traversing a wiggly course underneath those bright mudstones and a thick cover of riparian vegetation. A couple motorcyclists give me the victory wave as they go the other way.

Prickly Pear Canyon.

At Exit 219, the old highway ends and you have to get on the interstate. It is still very scenic, but there is one bridge with no shoulder that is a bit scary. I time it okay, though, and get across before any vehicles catch me.

The canyon ends abruptly and there is a climb up through the Hilger Valley. You may notice that it is a very big valley with a very small stream. The geology book says that this valley was probably carved in the late Miocene (around 10 million years ago) when the area was lusher and had rivers flowing larger than the present-day Missouri.

Big Belt Mountains from 1-15.

There is another long climb before we reach the downhill to Helena. Off to the left in the distance, the forested ridges of the Big Belt mountains drop steeply to the Missouri. To our right, grassy and forested hills rise straight up from the road.

You have to join I-15 at the end of Prickly Pear Canyon, then do 2 long climbs on the interstate before a nice, long downhill into Helena.
The second climb is 2 or 3 miles. It’s hot. But lots of people are giving me honks and waves. Not too far now.

I’m getting heaps of friendly honks and waves from people going both directions on that last long climb. It’s in the low 90s today, and it’s a few miles of climbing, so maybe they feel sorry for me. All of the trucks crawl up the hill with their taillights flashing. One gives me a short friendly toot as he goes by.

Now for the downhill….

The downhill into the valley is steep to start and good fun. I tuck down, but the wind is a crosswind, so it’s not much help. Still it’s nine miles of down. We never complain about that.

Getting closer to Helena.

I get off at the first interstate exit and find a Burger King. The Coke tastes amazing – it’s been hot! I use the wifi to find a motel cluster down at Exit 192. This will allow me to walk into town tomorrow, but also position me well to get out of town the next day. I also figure out a way to get down there on Google maps. It’s not a problem – the streets are all easy to negotiate, and I have no trouble with traffic. I go to the Days Inn – it’s not too expensive; I get Rewards points with that chain; they have popcorn and cookies each evening; they are incredibly friendly; and, the rooms have recently been redone and are very nice. This is a few steps above a normal Days Inn. It’s a great choice after a great day. It ends up being one of the most scenic rides of my entire time in Montana, and I wasn’t expecting it at all.

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