Montana 2014 Part 2 – Day 103 – Bratten Fishing Access – Columbus: A race across a bridge

Saturday August 30, 2014, 23 miles (38 km) – Total so far: 4,578 miles (7,367 km)

The wind pushes against the poles of the tent. Rain beats down in sheets and rhythmic sprays that coincide with the gusts of wind. The temperature has dropped. The cold front is making its way through. But I don’t need to get up and on the road yet since I’m just doing another short hop today down to Columbus. So I settle further down into the sleeping bag, shift my weight off my right hip, and go back to sleep.

Later, the rain has stopped but the wind has not. I let it dry the tent, for the most part, then pack up slowly. The clouds are pretty low and dark but not really threatening. It is hard to tell if any of them are carrying rain; they all look pretty bleak and bloated.

I get on the road around 11 am. I let the wind push me along on the old highway. It is flat and has a good surface. Vehicles pulling fishing boats or raft trailers pass me, but all the other traffic is out on I-90.

I roll into Reed Point. Tomorrow they will have a sheep muster where they run a whole bunch of sheep down the main street in front of a whole bunch of people. They do this every year and, supposedly, it is quite the thing. Based on the number of porta potties set up, they are expecting a decent crowd. Right now, it is the calm before the storm. Other than a bunch of people congregated on the front porch of a house, and a lone man with a can of spray paint marking out the market stall lines, the town is dead.

Downtown Reed Point. This is about all there is to this town. They are getting ready for their annual Labor Day sheep drive. The town swells to 15,000 people to watch a bunch of sheep run down the main street. It’s a very big deal. Right now, it is all quiet except for the locals spray-painting the street further up to line out the market stalls.

You have to join I-90 at Reed Point. The freeway climbs up the side of the valley wall here, and there are good views over the valley. They are reconstructing the interstate bridges over the river. They have been working on them since I rode through on 5 July. Heading west back in July was no big deal because there was a sufficient shoulder all the way through the work.

Now, nearly two months later, the westbound lanes are closed and all of the traffic is on the eastbound lanes. This is fine until I get to the first bridge. There is no shoulder. Because of the two-way traffic, there is no way for somebody to pass me on the bridge. Crap. I watch for the biggest traffic gap I can see, then pedal like I’m possessed. I make it almost all the way over before the traffic has to slow for me as I pedal the final five feet and make it back into the shoulder. Okay, heart rate is high now!

But then I see that there are two more bridges ahead that are close together. The road rises slightly heading over those. I had a downhill going into that first bridge, and a big gap in traffic, and I still didn’t make it. There is no way I’ll make it over the next two without backing up traffic. Even if no one hits me, my presence could cause an accident further back in the queue when someone comes up on a line of traffic moving 12 mph. Crap.

So I do what you do. I go cross-country through the median and go ride on the westbound lanes. They are not working today, and most of the concrete has been laid on either side of the bridges. All of the bridge approaches and expansion joints are unfinished, but I just pick the bike up and carry it over these gaps. It is 100 percent safer than being over in the eastbound lanes. I ride east on the westbound lanes under construction until I get to the crossover point where the westbound traffic diverts to the eastbound lanes. Then I dash back across all of the traffic between the orange barrels and cones to return to the eastbound shoulder. I can get off at the next exit where Old 10 resumes again. That wasn’t so bad for me, but beware if you are riding this section of I-90 east of Reed Point. The westbound lanes will have a tiny shoulder over the bridges but the eastbound lanes will have none.

Old 10 follows the rail-line and river down between the rocky valley walls. Close to Columbus we pass by the ranch where a trading post was established in 1875. In 1877, a post office was added when the mail and stage line came through. The place was named Stillwater. Then, in 1882, the railroad came through and built a division point at present-day Columbus. The post office moved east a few miles to the new town which took the name Stillwater. However, in 1894 they petitioned to have the name changed to Columbus because of repeated mail mix-ups with the town of Stillwater, Minnesota.

The road between the old trading post and present-day Columbus climbs up above the valley floor with good views of the confluence of the Yellowstone and Stillwater Rivers. The low hills are covered with pine. They are also covered with cloud today. There are no distant views to the Absarokas to be found today. The rivers run courses of grey that reflect the sky and the gloom of a late summer cold front.

Looking over the Yellowstone River up the valley of the Stillwater River.

I don’t have good feelings about Columbus after having a negative experience with some locals here back in July. But I do head up to the museum since I didn’t have the chance to check it out back when I rode through before. The woman at the front desk is a local teacher and loves this time of year when staff and students are still full of energy and optimism for the year ahead. She thinks the bike tour is an amazing achievement but warns me that Beartooth Pass is a bear in a car, so I might want to reconsider my route. She says there is already snow up there, so it might not be the best idea on a bike.

The museum is well-done and I spend an hour or so checking out the exhibits. I particularly enjoy the detailed information about the Crow Agency and the pictorial history of all of the small towns in the county. As I’m getting ready to leave, the volunteer chats with me a bit more about the town, the county and current trends in population growth. She also tells me she has just been speaking with her mother on the phone and had mentioned she had a bike tourist visiting who was planning to ride Beartooth Pass. Her mother is very concerned for me because they had eight inches of snow up there earlier in the week and are likely getting more with the current cold front.

I head up to McDonalds afterward to use the wifi to get a look at the weather. It doesn’t look too good. Rain again tomorrow with 1-3 inches of snow up on the pass. Fifty percent chance of rain/snow showers and winds 15-25 mph on Monday up on top. Tuesday is looking the best right now with a 30 percent chance of showers and winds 10-15 mph. I guess the thing to do is ride to Red Lodge and make final decisions there. I can always ride down into Wyoming through Belfry if Beartooth is a no-go. But I’m keeping my fingers crossed. Based on all of the journal descriptions I’ve read of touring cyclists who have ridden Beartooth Pas, I know it is a tough ride. It looks like an enormous challenge, and I want to see if I’m up to it. I really want that one under my belt. I love a challenge more than just about anything else in the world. I so desperately want to ride that pass!

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