Montana 2014 Part 1 – Day 54 – Helena – Three Forks: The rant and the rave

Saturday July 12, 2014, 85 miles (137 km) – Total so far: 2,523 miles (4,061 km)

Today happens in two parts.

PART I: The Rant

Okay, the next paragraph will read a little like an algebra story problem, but it is not, so please don’t abandon me yet (however, if you like algebra story problems, please add times, distances and vehicles as you see fit, e.g. if a car travelling 80 mph heading north on 287 meets a truck travelling 55 mph heading south, and a touring cyclist travelling 12 mph is in between….). But I digress….

Any car or truck or RV or any sort of vehicle with internal combustion has a few routes they could use to cut through between I-15 north of Helena and I-90 west of Bozeman:

  1. Stick to the interstates to go south on I-15, then east on I-90;
  2. Stick to the interstates to go west on I-90 and then north I-15; or,
  3. Use Hwy 287 to cut out the elbow on that triangle and cut straight through from Three Forks to Helena.

Which would you choose?

Yes, you and everybody else on I-15 and I-90 cut between the interstates using US 12/287. This would not be a problem if that section was also an interstate, since it carries an interstate-level of traffic. It wouldn’t even be a problem if 287 was a four-lane divided highway with a shoulder.

But it is not. Hwy 287 from Toston to the I-90 junction is mostly a two-lane road with no shoulder. There are very short sections with a shoulder and passing lanes for one direction or the other, but these make up less than three miles out of the 22 miles of dangerous road. The road is TOTALLY inadequate for the level of traffic it carries. For the touring cyclist, it is 22 miles of constantly looking in your mirror and at the on-coming traffic to see when (not if) you are going to get squeezed. It is 22 miles of incredibly tense and pretty dangerous riding. I say, “F#@k you, Montana” more times than you want to know about in this section. The road into Billings was bad, but the speeds were generally lower. I think this section of 287 may be the most dangerous road I’ve ridden.

But let’s give Montana a little bit of credit. The road out of Helena is four-lane and divided for some distance. The day starts out quite well.

See ya later, Helena. You are the only town in MT I’ve liked very much so far. If a professional job came available, I could live here, but I wouldn’t move here, then look for work. A lot of urban sprawl and not really bike friendly, but the downtown is cool and there are plenty of outdoor rec opportunities everywhere.

The road south to Townsend generally has an okay shoulder, and is, in some places, four lanes. This section follows the very wide valley of the Missouri River. The Precambrian Belt rocks of the Big Belt range rise to the east of the reservoir, and the volcanic Elkhorns rise off to the west. It is very hazy today with all of the wildfire smoke, so there are not many great views.

Very hazy and smoky heading down US 12/287 by Canyon Ferry Reservoir.

We stop to get some food at Townsend. We do not know yet that the road is going to become such a tense and uncomfortable ride soon. I started in with my preventer inhaler yesterday, but it usually takes about five days to start kicking in. Consequently, my lungs are pretty tight and phlegm-filled as I ride today. I use my reliever inhaler just before we leave town, so at least I can breathe while I get skimmed by vehicle after vehicle.

I have learned very quickly that the 70 mph speed limit in Montana is just a guide, and most people go considerably faster. I’ve also learned that Montanans don’t generally move over for cyclists – very few leave the lane to give you any room. Not that they could do so on this road anyway, since there is fairly constant traffic in both directions.

I would love to describe the valley we rode through between Toston and Three Forks, but I never really got to look at it. There were hills in the distance and lots of grass and few trees where we rode. Sorry, that’s it. I was too focused on staying alive to take much notice.

When I get to the busy I-90 interchange, I stop for a drink at a gas station and to take a break. I just pedalled that 22 miles as fast as I could, and I need to celebrate my survival.

A man walks out as I roll in and says, “Hey, you made it. I thought for sure you were going to get hit by a truck back there. You shouldn’t be on that road – it’s a really dangerous one even for cars. I almost pulled over to give you a ride.”

“Thanks, I appreciate your kindness. But that’s the only road – there aren’t any alternatives. That road is even on a route that a cycling organisation recommends. But yeah, it sucked”.

We chat for a bit more about the ride and the local area. The guy wishes me well and says to make sure I go out to see the state park – it’s really neat.

And so concludes my rant about that section of road. The afternoon goes considerably better.

PART II: The Rave

I hop on the bike path that starts from the fishing access site just a little ways down from the junction of 287 and the road into Three Forks. The trail is bumpy and overgrown, but it is still a nice change from the road, particularly after running the gauntlet this morning.

In town, I can’t find where the bike path takes off from town to head out to the state park. So I stop at the information centre on the main street. It has a bunch of interpretive sign boards outside of the caboose that contains the volunteer and all of the brochures.

The volunteer woman is very, very kind. She immediately greets me and says, “Please, come sit down in front of the air conditioner. It is way too hot to be out there today”. So my very smelly self sits there with the aircon fan blasting my stink everywhere. The woman says, “Here, you must try this taffy! It is to die for”!

I don’t really like taffy, but she is so enthusiastic I can’t refuse. I take a strawberry one and let it stick to my roof cavity, my teeth and my tongue. That is not enough. She wants me to try more. So now, I have three pieces of taffy in my mouth threatening to glue my molars together or suck out a filling in a total tropical flavour explosion.

The woman wants to know the standard six, but I can’t talk because I’ve got taffy absolutely everywhere in my mouth. So she fills in the conversation telling me the history of Three Forks and all the things I should take the time to see.

Once I get most of the taffy ingested (I will keep finding pieces stuck in my teeth for hours), I ask about the bike path out to the state park. She tells me where it begins, and then says, “But you can’t go out there. It’s 94F degrees. It’s TOO hot.”

It is very warm today. But I knew this would happen at some point. Maybe I’ve earned my naturalised Australian citizenship, because I’ve now lived in Australia long enough that 94F (34C) no longer feels HOT. It just feels hot. Where I live in Australia, our average high for January is 95F. We can get entire weeks in summer where the high temp is over 100F. It is not uncommon to get 113F or 111F for a few days in a row a few times a summer.

So I tell the woman that where I live it gets a lot hotter than this, so I should be okay. She finally agrees to let me leave if I promise to come back by afterwards to sit in front of the A/C again.

The bike path starts near the golf course. It is very bumpy in places, but is a great initiative for a town this size. There are absolutely HEAPS of locals floating the river between town and the state park. Once we get there, I take the opportunity to wet down my jersey at the junction of the Madison and Jefferson Rivers – the official start of the Missouri River.

The guys at the junction of the Madison and Jefferson Rivers. You can see the different colours of water where they join off to Verne’s left. The Gallatin joins a little bit further down.
Three Forks State Park – where the Gallatin, Madison and Jefferson Rivers come together to form the Missouri River.

The guys and I then ride down to where the Gallatin River joins about 0.6 miles further down. We do the short walk that has interpretive exhibits under a shelter at the base of a hill.

Lewis and Clark camped here on 28 July, 1805 on their way west. They named the three rivers after the President and the Secretaries of State and Treasury. It’s well worth your time to head out here and have a look around.

Paleozoic limestones over there. Do you remember where else we’ve seen these? (Answer: mostly the Little Belt mountains and the Black Hills).
I tried to come up with witty captions for this altered road sign, but the heat has zapped my brain. Feel free to make up funny captions for yourself.

After having a good look at the area, the guys and I head back into town. There are storms developing in a few directions and we still need to get food and a place to stay. I don’t stop back at the info centre as I’d promised. My poor teeth cannot handle any more taffy!

At the grocery store, I see two touring cyclists. They are a couple guys in their 20s heading east. They started in Townsend this morning, so I must have passed them while they were still in town. I ask if they’d found an alternate way here that wasn’t on 287. No, they rode the gauntlet, too, and were not impressed.

I head back out to the ex-KOA. The fishing access site had a gross toilet and no shade when I checked it out heading into town. I’m also thinking a real shower instead of a dip in the river would be good for me… and the well-being of any members of the general public I may encounter.

The bike path on either side of Three Forks was a bit rough and overgrown in spots… but still appreciated.

The campground is just okay. Its glory days as a KOA are long, long gone. The laundry room and pool are defunct (even though they are advertised) and the wifi is down. The showers/toilets are clean-ish but really could do with an update. However, the tent sites are huge, well-shaded and have nice views of the mountains in the distance. It’s been another very full day – and I was really impressed with the state park and all of the amenities and friendliness I encountered in Three Forks.

There are good views of the mountains in the distance from the tent sites at the campground outside of Three Forks. Sorry you can’t see them in this picture – the haze is too great.


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