Montana 2014 Part 2 – Day 104 – Columbus – Red Lodge: An apron of debris

Sunday August 31, 2014, 54 miles (86 km) – Total so far: 4,631 miles (7,453 km)

I feel sorry for the hordes of people out trying to enjoy the Labor Day long weekend. Yesterday was rainy and cool. Today looks like it is going to turn out that way, too. As I shove off this morning, the clouds are light to the east but darker to the west. Down south toward the Beartooth-Absarokas, the clouds mass against the range. I put the rain covers on my front panniers, tuck Verne and Kermit way down in a rear pannier, and put my rain pants and raincoat right on top.

If you could turn off summer overnight with the flick of a switch, or with the arrival of a particular cold front, then this cold front is it. Yes, that cold rain up on Highway 2 felt more autumnal than summer-like, but the days following felt like summer again. But sometime in the past week, despite the warm temperatures ahead of this front, I have felt a shift. Perhaps it is something to do with the angle of the sun, or the number of trees whose leaves have started to turn. Maybe it is a change in the traffic, and my sub-conscious detection of fewer RVs on the road. Or maybe I somehow pick up on a change in the way people talk. The carefree days of summer are over; maybe there is a resignation in the air when I’m around others as they settle back into the routines of the school year and prepare for the coming cold. One thing is certain – everyone I talk to thinks winter will be early and harsh this year. More than a few Montanans, from the SWAT team guy in Shelby, to one of the road workers on Arrow Creek Hill, to some patrons in the supermarket in Big Timber, have told me in no uncertain terms that I need to be making a beeline south. And they all think I’m nuts to ride a bike over Beartooth Pass in September.

This morning, the road does that thing where it climbs with no noticeable grade. You only know you are climbing by your slightly lower average speed and the logic that roads gain elevation when you follow a river upstream. The road up the Stillwater River stays close to the eastern valley wall. Consequently, the road cuts into rocky spurs, and pine trees grow tall above on steep slopes. The earth and trees above mean I’m riding down in shade, as the sun advances upward underneath a thin cover of cloud. Views of irrigated hay fields and shrubs lining the river stretch out across the valley to the treed slopes on the other side. There are a few people out on the road early, but the majority of drivers are heading the other way. Maybe they are all going to see the sheep run down the main street of Reed Point later today.

We follow the valley to Absarokee. Coming into town, it appears that the place will just be a haphazard collection of a few buildings. But once you pass the gas station and convenience store and turn south, a long main street with double story buildings appears. Tall trees arch over the street. One house even has a wrought iron fence. The buildings in the main street crowd the road with little setback. I feel like I could almost reach out and touch the historic small-town high-rises from the road. It almost feels claustrophobic. Many of the buildings are brick which feels unusual when so many tiny towns I’ve been in have a majority of wooden-frame buildings with false fronts. In a way, the setting feels a little bit eastern mixed with a bunch of western. It is an interesting surprise. The town got its start in 1893 as a trading post and post office. The man who owned the surrounding homestead eventually platted a town. Its current population is 1200. Numbers are boosted by a large mine up the road near Nye – it’s the only mine in the U.S. that produces palladium and platinum.

Just south of Absarokee the road is all down to dirt for several miles where the valley opens up. Several creeks meet the Stillwater River through here and the valley walls recede, the views expand, and high, grassy hills replace the pines. The road construction is a bit bouncy and soft, but the traffic is still light, so it’s not a problem to meander about finding the best line within the lane. Some of the bumps are more like ramps, and I think if you had enough speed in a car, you might be able to get some air!

The road returns to pavement as it curves down to the forested banks of Rosebud Creek. The creek has eroded down fairly deeply into the sediments, and it’s a scenic cruise uphill through a fairly tight fissure with cottonwoods and shrubs providing a deciduous green feast for the eyes. On occasion we have to climb out of the creek floodplain onto the surrounding grassland. Distant views of the Absarokas replace the close-up views of water and shrubbery. The “Beartooth Front” is an intimidating wall of rock, even though the peaks and plateaus are hidden in swirling and accumulating chunks of moisture. The mountains look fearsome and deadly with their steep-sided faces and that congestion of cloud.

Heading up toward the Absarokas. We’ve been in a creek valley for a while but climb out of it and gain these views before dropping back into the valley.

The road ducks back down into the creek valley. Roscoe is tucked down in the protection of the trees and surrounding slopes. It feels a million miles from anywhere but it’s not really remote at all. There is a big climb leaving Roscoe out of East Rosebud Creek. I can see the climb heading up along the side of a steep hill. So I stop for a drink and to top off my tires. Then we go spinning up.

Holy crap, that was a bit on the steep side! But the views over the valley and the feeder creeks draining from the mountains into East Rosebud Creek are gorgeous and complex. I trace the lines of the creeks and the valleys that reach back into the mountains. I contemplate the abrupt face of the mountain front. Once I get my breath back, I go cruising down the other side of the hill.

View of the Absarokas covered in cloud after the first of many climbs and descents in and out of every single creek draining off the mountains to the northeast.

And then I climb and descend a seemingly impossible number of hills splayed out along the front of the mountains like a skirt of debris. I don’t really know all of the geology here, but I do know of a couple things that influence the topography. First, the Beartooth Uplift started to rise about 65 million years ago along a series of very deep faults that uplifted Precambrian rocks (oldest rocks on earth). The uplift was pushed to the northeast (we are along the northeastern edge), and the overlying sedimentary rocks folded over the faults. As the Beartooth Plateau was being uplifted, it was also eroding. The sediments of the overlying rocks were deposited in a basin at the foot of the mountains called the foreland basin. That is what we are riding through right now. If you were to dig into the earthen terraces here, you would find the youngest rocks at the bottom of these terraces, because they eroded off the Beartooth Plateau first. The oldest sedimentary rocks, eroded last, would be on top. Geologists call this the ‘unroofing history’ of the mountain range. This is why the rocks exposed at the surface up on the Beartooth Plateau are ancient metamorphic rocks – the younger rock has slid off and been deposited down here. In recent times, streams have carved into the apron of debris and dissected it into a bunch of climbs and descents for the touring cyclist.

Lots of climbing and descending on MT 78 between Roscoe and Red Lodge.
Hmmm… I wonder how much total elevation we climbed today on all of the hills. We were down in granny more often than expected.

The Beartooth Plateau has risen in multiple periods of uplift. Since it started rising 65 million years ago, it is estimated to have risen 4.5 to 7.5 miles, with the last 2.5 miles of uplift occurring in the last 20 million years. Like most places in the Rockies, there was a time in the Miocene when erosion outpaced uplift, but the rising rocks continue lifting to this day. It is also worth mentioning that the Nye-Bowler lineament runs right through here – a series of faults that trend northwest-southeast with some perpendicular faults. This could have uplifted some of the hills in a series of anticlines and synclines, but I don’t have the eye or experience to be able to pick out the offsets in the rock in the roadcuts, if they are there.

Down to another creek – there will be another climb out the other side. Take away the mountains and you might think you were in western Nebraska or out on the prairie of eastern Montana.

Two things are obvious, however: 1) the Beartooth uplift is impressive, steep and beautiful; and, 2) there is a whole lot of steep climbing and coasting between Roscoe and Red Lodge. The climbs take us through treeless terraces of grassland and pasture. It feels more like northwestern Nebraska or eastern Montana than the edge of a basin at the foot of a massive plateau.

The ranches become more numerous and smaller in acreage as we advance toward Red Lodge. Gargantuan homes on hobby farms dot the hills. Horses replace cattle as wealth replaces a multi-generational way of life. The traffic increases, too, but most people are giving me some room. The clouds stack up and the sky grows darker. The ski runs off Grizzly Peak come into view above the upturned Madison limestones. The nearly vertical white ledges are the only remains of the sedimentary ‘verneer’ that once covered the plateau. These Paleozoic rocks on the steep sides of the mountain front have not eroded in the same way and been redeposited like the similar age rocks on the flatter parts of the rising plateau.

See the ski runs up there above the Madison limestones. Yep, we’ve left all the Belt rocks behind and are back to those pervasive limestones laid down about 300 million years ago.

There are a couple more steep climbs before we get onto the terrace where the Red Lodge airport is located and where new neighbourhoods sprout homes whose owners obviously have plenty of money. Then, we have a super-fast downhill on dirt that spits us right out onto the main street of town. Be prepared to brake hard or you might just go streaking right on through the intersection!

The information centre is on this corner, and I go in to inquire about the road over the pass. The woman tells me that it is open with icy patches on top. She doesn’t know if they’ve gotten much snow yet today, but there isn’t much left of the snow that fell earlier in the week. Right on! It is looking more do-able every hour.

The woman is full of questions about my tour. She is absolutely thrilled to see a solo woman touring cyclist. She thinks the world needs a lot more strong women. She and a group of other women do a backpacking trip once a year deep into the Absarokas. She says they are all just regular women – not super outdoorsy types at all – but determined to dash stereotypes of what women can and can’t do. I tell her that I’ve never directly tried to confront stereotypes – I’ve always just done what I wanted to do and never thought much about my gender. I see myself as a cyclist, and everything else is just descriptive. I tell her people rave about my strength and independence and hold me up as some sort of role model – but I just see myself as somebody that likes to ride a bike. She thinks I should grasp the opportunity to challenge stereotypes and become a motivational speaker for women. Wow – that is SO not me!

She says she had always been the type of woman who was meek and afraid to do things, but then she got thyroid cancer, and that changed her whole perspective on life. After surgery and treatment, she decided she would start doing things she feared. So she first challenged herself to ride a rollercoaster. The first few rides were exceedingly terrifying, but then she started to enjoy it, and now she loves it so much that she is trying to hit all of the theme parks in America that have coasters which hold records like the ‘highest’ or ‘fastest’ or ‘most vertical drop’, etc. I tell her that she is the one who is inspiring and that SHE should be the one out there doing motivational speaking!

The supermarket is large and well-stocked. I gather the fixings for lunch. The nearby park has little shelter, and rain is imminent, so I ride south looking for another park. The rain reaches town just as I’m passing the post office. It has a sheltered sidewalk, so I head there to eat and hide from the precipitation. It is only in the low 50s today, so I’m pretty chilled by the time the rain has stopped. I head over to the main street to the coffee shop recommended by the info centre woman. I am able to lean the bike up against the window and get a seat next to it inside. I order a large hot chocolate and a plate of pumpkin bread and get down to business using the wifi.

The streets outside are crowded with all sorts of tourists, many whom have probably been driven into town looking for something to do in the nasty weather. It’s not a day to be out fishing or hiking. The mix of tourists reflects the mix of the town. Cowboys, middle-class folks with tshirts and baseball caps, and richer folks with black boots, fashion sunglasses and perfect hair, all mix it up on the sidewalks outside. The main street businesses are also a mix of cowboy boot stores, outdoor gear stores, art galleries and day spas. I like it – diversity is good.

Downtown Red Lodge. It started in 1884 as a stagecoach stop then became a big coal mining town. It supplied coal to fire the smelters we saw in Anaconda. I really like this town. It’s the only town in MT that I would consider moving to if a job was available (well, Helena would be okay if something was lined up beforehand).

I’m surprised at how many people stop to look at my bike as they walk by. Some people get right down and look at how the panniers attach or at the gearing. Others just point and stare. All the while, I’m checking weather forecasts, emails, and messages from cycling friend Jack Day. I met him on the road back in South Dakota, and he rode Beartooth Pass back in June. I’ve asked him for tips and tricks for the pass. He thinks I’ll do just fine and says traffic is heavy to the first overlook but dies off considerably after that. Good stuff!

I wait for a break in the rain then ride the five miles out of town to the KOA. It has new owners who are really working hard to bring the place back up to scratch. The old owners had let it get run-down. The tent sites are great. They are large, well-shaded (not that that is an issue today) and are situated near the amenities block next to a creek. Everything is clean and well-kept.

We stay at the KOA north of town. The tent sites here are really nice – big, shaded and on the creek. But, it is very expensive. The guys enjoy the habitat. It rains most of the afternoon, though, so we spend a lot of time in the tent.

I manage to get my tent set up just before it rains yet again. The swirls of dark clouds bring lots more rain, lightning and thunder in periodic spurts the rest of the day and night. I get laundry done and get my first shower in a few days. I study the weather forecasts all evening long and decide that the weather looks better tomorrow rather than Tuesday. The chance of rain is similar both days, but it is now supposed to be windier on Tuesday. I hadn’t wanted to ride the pass on the holiday weekend, but cycle touring is all about flexibility and changing plans. Our best chance to make it over is tomorrow, so a Labor Day Monday is going to be all about labouring up a very long, tall hill. I’m so excited I wonder if I’ll be able to sleep!

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