Monday September 1, 2014, 57 miles (91 km) – Total so far: 4,688 miles (7,544 km)
The intermittent showers and storms continue into the morning. It is still raining at 6.00, 7.00 and 7.30 am. Finally, the rain ceases around 9.00 am, and radar indicates the showers are clearing with nothing redeveloping behind. I head out at 9.45 am. As I pedal the five miles into Red Lodge, I go over my concerns which include:
I’m getting a very late start. I like to start big passes before the sun comes up. What if I get caught in bad weather this afternoon?
The climb is long – from Red Lodge there is a gain of 5300 feet over about 25 miles. I’m not sure if I can manage all of that.
I don’t know what the conditions are like up top. It could be snowy or icy. I’m a bit scared of riding downhills on ice.
There are four to five miles above treeline. That’s a long time to be exposed. With the late start, am I setting myself up to hit that section at the worst time of day for traffic and weather?
The winds are supposed to be 15-20 mph. That’s not too bad, but above treeline that could be hard. What if I can’t make it?
Back when I first started climbing mountain peaks in college, I was taught to always do ‘alpine starts’, always get down below treeline by noon, and always sit at the trailhead and make a list of concerns and possible dangers. Then, make a decision about whether it is safe to climb based on that list. If deemed safe (enough) to climb, then make a contingency plan and a back-up contingency plan for what you will do for each concern or danger.
So today I’m violating the ‘alpine start’ AND the ‘below treeline’ rules. I would have less concerns if I had a riding partner. We could pace each other and check on each other and get help for the other if needed. However, riding with a partner would take away a lot of the sense of accomplishment for me, so I’m glad to be alone. I decide that my contingency plan for all of my concerns is the same: catch a ride. It is a holiday weekend. There will be plenty of people on the road.
The good thing about the ‘concerns and dangers’ list, and deciding upon contingency plans for them, is that it helps to manage fear. When you list your fears, and how you will deal with them, then it is amazing how they tend to disappear, or at least diminish.
Red Lodge has a big art show on today. All of the vendors are setting up in the park. It looks like it would be a lot of fun. But there is no time for culture today. I go into the supermarket to buy some food and snacks. I eat half of a tub of sliced turkey straight out of the pack in the parking lot along with some Smores poptarts and oat bars. It isn’t pretty, but it’s a stack of protein, plus complex and simple carbs, down my gut.
And then we begin our ascent of the highest paved pass in America not on the Continental Divide. The road takes off beneath tall valley walls. Some parts are rocky. Some parts are thickly forested. Businesses and various accommodation options line the road in flat spaces above the creek. The sun shines on the rock and the road, providing the radiant heat the last few days have largely been missing. The climbing is imperceptible to start, though my feelings of sluggishness probably have more to do with the invisible gradient than my physical readiness this morning. We pass the flashing road sign that says, “Beartooth Pass Open. Caution Icy Patches”. We are good to go!
We pass through the palisades of upturned limestones that line the edge of the Beartooth Front. The rocky, eroded pinnacles and chunks stand like a gateway to the mass of uplifted rock that lies beyond. We round a long sweeping corner and peer ahead up the long, U-shaped valley of Rock Creek. The forest is thick on the slopes but thins to grassy meadows along the valley bottom. The climbing starts to kick it up just a tad as the valley narrows, and the thick forest starts to spill onto the floor. The climbing now is visible; I flick back a couple gears to keep up the cadence. We lose the shoulder and sometimes have a drop to the creek steep enough to demand a guardrail. Traffic is still light enough not to be a bother. Gentle hills within the general climb tell a story of glacial deposits left along the valley floor by the Pinedale glaciation. The glaciers have gouged an entryway to the uplift but left reminders of their passage.
Soon enough we pass the last campground turn-off in a wide spot in the valley, and the road advances upward along the valley wall. The road is smooth and the climb very gentle to start. I wouldn’t really know we were climbing if it weren’t for my slower speed and the view of the creek bottom growing smaller and smaller.
The climb from Red Lodge is an engineering marvel and a visual spectacle. The road climbs right up the valley wall in a series of long switchbacks and curves which weave in and out of the contours of the valley wall. The road looks like it is just clinging to the cliff – there is plenty of time on a bike to look at some of the spots and think, “wow, now that looks a little dodgy”.
I get in a great groove. I pump through the first and second switchbacks and only stop at the third to take my inhaler. My lungs are good today, but I’m trying to keep on the preventative side of things. The traffic has picked up but everyone is giving me plenty of room. When they can’t, they slow down and wait to pass or go by at such a slow speed that it doesn’t matter. I’m already getting cheers and honks of encouragement, and I haven’t even made the first rest area. I’m feeling strong today and revel in how easily we’re gaining the elevation. This may be the most amazing pass I’ve ridden. Life is good!
I reach the rest area, still in a fantastic groove. I need to pee, otherwise I don’t think I would stop. You hate to be in a groove, stop and then not be able to regain it. The parking lot is full and people are jockeying for spots that aren’t spots. Tourists line the rock fence butt-to-butt, gazing out over the Rock Creek valley. One group of middle-aged and retiree folks call out to me, “We are soooo impressed! You are amazing”! I laugh and say, “Oh, thanks. But there is a long way to go yet”. One lady says, “Oh, we’re already impressed. We’ll be quadruply impressed when you get to the top.” I can tell they want to chat further but I just wave as I get back on the bike and say, “Thanks, let’s hope I get there”! And then I’m back to climbing in my fantastic little groove.
From the rest area, the road weaves along through the last of the forest. The wind has been picking up in the past two miles, but it is not until we round the final curve above the valley that we meet it full force. As the road goes alpine and starts to ascend across the plateau, the wind picks up to become a nuisance. By the time I get to the sign that says, “Leaving Montana”, the wind has become quite ferocious. It has knocked my speed back from 7.5 mph to 4 mph. I look ahead to the hill that climbs between low peaks to the Wyoming sign. Wow – this is getting tough!
By the time I make it to the Wyoming state sign, the wind is pushing and shoving like it needs to be first in line somewhere far to the southeast. I would like to say that I stopped here for a nice snack and spent some time reflecting on my two months in Montana. But no, the conditions are just too crap. Not only is the wind incredible, but it is really cold, too. I stop to take a picture of myself at the state line. Then a motorcycle guy comes up to me and says, “Shit, lady! I saw that the winds up here were 25mph and gusts were higher, and I almost didn’t come up today. But now I see someone on a heavy bike – a lady no less – and I feel like such a pussy that I almost didn’t ride up. You’ve got more guts than I could ever hope to have”! I thank him. He doesn’t know how much his encouragement helps to spur me on in the coming mile when the wind blasts almost literally stop me a couple of times.
The scenery is tremendous, however. We are riding along 3 billion-year-old rock. It is such a privilege to ride among rocks that old. The time scale is just phenomenal! The snow-crested ridges that cap glacially gouged drainages form an imposing line to the west. Small hills, and rocks plucked from the greater mass, roll out to the south and east. The area and height of the plateau, and the forces required to uplift it, blow my little brain away. There is nothing better in the world than being alpine!
I have to stop about every ½ mile. The wind is just too much for me to handle for greater periods of pedalling. It has been pushing me all over the edge of the road – at times it is just impossible for me to hold a straight line in that crosswind. However, the drivers, and there are still plenty of them, are being really patient and giving me plenty of room when they pass. I’m even getting my photo taken by lots of people. One lady even leans out the passenger side window with a big lens camera and spends time getting just the right angle and focus. Even better, I’m getting tons and tons of waves, thumbs-ups, cheers, honks and smiles. Sometimes I think it is just this outpouring of support from complete strangers that keeps me going. On one steeper section, two guys in an old 1980s family van honk their van horn wildly. The driver sticks his hand out the window and waves as wildly as he is honking the horn. The other guy leans his entire upper body out of the window and screams like a banshee. His high, warbling scream ends with a walloping “Woo-hoo!!!!!” I wave and smile.
Not long after this, after several short swtichbacks that thankfully stop the wind for a quarter mile, I pass the ski tow area and the first (east) summit. From here I can look to the short downhill… and then I can see the road heading up on the other side. Holy crap – it looks like it goes straight up. The wind is battering me so badly, I really do wonder if I’ll be able to make it. On the plus side, there is no snow up here, expect for a dusting in shady places, and there is little ice on the road itself.
I fly down the hill as it curves around and back toward the northwest. The snow-capped Absarokas in the distance give the horizon a jagged, cold edge. The plateau drops down from the road in a sweeping wave of tundra. It is so gorgeous – but so tough. The wind is almost like being slapped. Just before I start into the final climbing through switchbacks to the pass, I decide I should get in some more fuel. I brought along a Snickers bar for this purpose. But my Snickers bar is frozen. I can only get two bites off of it. I spend forever just trying to get those frozen bits chewed and swallowed. Finally, I give up and decide I will just finish chewing as I ride. Please note, if you have to breathe through your mouth like I do, this is not a very good decision. As I’m spinning up the hill, I keep nearly choking as I try to swallow bits and swirl my tongue around to remove frozen but still sticky caramel chunks from my teeth. How embarrassing would that be to die on the final bits of a 25-mile climb because you choked on a candy bar!?
The final switchbacks are actually not too bad. The wind is blocked by the hill that the road clings to as it doubles back again and again to get to the pass. At one point, I have to stop so I don’t get run over by a coach-sized RV towing an SUV. I have to physically pick up the bike and place it against the guardrail as I lean out of the way of the behemoth, who doesn’t bother to move over at all, but still manages to make all the downhill traffic wait for him to negotiate the switchback. Sheesh! But then, after a bit more spinning, I hit the torrent of wind once again as I crest the hill… and I am there! We did it! The weather has been deteriorating, and it is now spitting snow, but we are here!!! It took us just under five hours from Red Lodge – and a full hour of that was the 4-5 miles above treeline in the blasting wind. I feel really good to have this one under my belt.
A guy goes by in a Land Rover and yells out, “Way to go, girl! Now put some clothes on, it’s 32 degrees”! I talk a young couple into taking my photo at the sign, then I put on my winter gloves and my raincoat and go flying down through the switchbacks on the other side. I’m actually keeping pace with the traffic, so I don’t need to use my mirror much. One big 5th wheel going up decides he’ll use the downhill lane to make the corner, until he sees me flying along using the whole lane to get just the right angle into the apex. He pulls back into his lane and flips me off. I just laugh out loud. He didn’t need my lane to make that turn, and I was fully within my side of the road, anyway. If he thinks that curve is bad, wait til he sees the ones on the other side!
Down, down we go next to scrubby, short stands of pine and small lakes whose crystal waters reflect the white puffs of clouds mixed with grey spaces of sky. We lose elevation as quickly as we gained it, but the temps don’t increase accordingly. By the time I make it to the Top of the World store, which is actually nowhere near the top of the pass, the sun has come out but I’m absolutely frozen. I’m shivering on the bike. So I stop to see if they have hot chocolate.
As I walk into the store, I see Guy Pearce walking out. Okay, so it’s not the Australian actor, but the guy could be his brother. The tiny store is overflowing with stuff, but there is no hot chocolate. I get a can of Coke instead, then go outside to drink it in the sun. Guy Pearce has a drink in hand, too. He comes over to me as I sit down on a large log. He says to me, “I can’t believe you are already here! I saw you near the state line as I was hiking back to my car and couldn’t imagine being on a bike in that wind. Then I passed you coming up the pass and realized you were a woman and I was just so in awe of you. You were just this symbol of life and determination. It totally made my day.”
I smile and say, “Thanks. It was hard enough I didn’t know if I would get there at times. Do you want to sit down?”
Guy Pearce’s name is Derek. He is 43. He has the striking eyes, the defined cheek and jawbones of Guy Pearce, but longer, wavy hair with dirty blonde streaks among the brown. He’s not shaved in a couple days and is wearing long polypro hiking pants and a dark blue, nubby North face fleece jacket. He pushes dirt back and forth with his boots and then says, “To see your vitality today was perfect. Today is the anniversary of my wife’s death. I went down to hike one of our old favourite trails, like I always do on this day. I always have mixed emotions on this day. But for that sadness, I see this biker just totally kicking ass into the wind. Then I discover it’s a woman. On her own. Just totally kickin’ it.”
He then asks the standard six and tells me that he lives in Billings and is camping down the road with his brother and sister and their kids. As much as he likes playing with his nieces and nephews, he finds it hard to be around his siblings because they are quite judgemental about how he handled all of the family tragedy and his wife’s death. So, he always goes to hike alone to be with his thoughts. He then tells me about how he and his wife lost their three-year-old son seven years ago in a drowning accident. He felt numb for an entire year but then realized that life had to go on and that it wasn’t anybody’s fault. There were plenty of people around, plenty of supervision, but drowning is quick and silent. His wife, though, never got over it. After a while she became very depressed and seemed to drift away from everyone and everything.
Derek continues, “Sometimes I would just hold her for hours. She was just so sick. I did everything I could for her. I tried in every way to get her help or to get her to get help. But she wouldn’t go on medication. She wouldn’t do anything. It was like she was dead but alive. I felt so helpless. Then, one weekend I went to help some buddies rebuild a hunting cabin, and when I came home, she was gone. Like she took enough pills to kill two people. It wasn’t going to be a cry for help or an attempt. She knew she wanted to be gone. I felt so guilty because I was so unbelievably sad, but that was selfish – for me. Because for her, I just felt so much relief, like she had finally escaped from that irrecoverable illness. I knew she was finally at peace. But for the first two years, I caught all sorts of grief for not handling grief ‘the right way’. Everybody had an opinion on what I should have done when she was alive and then when she was dead. Then my dad died six months later. Then my mom died six months after that. But I just decided that life has to go on – that there is no use staying in the past. Sure I’m sad sometimes, but I’m still here, so I want to live as best I can.”
His whirlwind speech pauses. I have tears in my eyes. I feel so very sad for him. In some way, too, I feel a connection to him. His pain is refined, not raw, but it is real, nonetheless. He looks over to me and says, “Oh shit. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to go on like that. I’m making you cry.”
I tell him, “No, it’s fine. I’m glad to hear you story. I’ve never encountered the tragedy that you have in life, but I have tried to look after a loved one with mental health problems, so I know the tremendous love, helplessness and hurt you had with your wife. I’m so sorry you’ve had to have so much loss in your life.”
I’m a pretty socially awkward sort of gal, and I don’t know what you are supposed to do when a cute stranger spills his guts to you in the parking lot of a tiny general store in the middle of nowhere. So I reach over and just take his hand. And we sit there like that for quite a few minutes. Just two strangers, in the middle of the most beautiful place on earth, sitting on a log in the sun with some sort of faint connection. We are silent for some time – connected by a shared understanding of loss and helplessness, and the determination to embrace life when society says you shouldn’t. It’s a bit like the wording and image on a Hallmark card. Only this is real life, so the Hallmark moment doesn’t last.
Derek says, “So, in the past two years I’ve been dating a fair number of women, and sleeping with some of them, but I’ve never dated anyone that I’ve liked as much as I’ve grown to like you in the past 15 minutes. You probably aren’t single, are you”?
Em, supressing a cough and total surprise, says, “Oh, no, I am attached. More or less. And I’ve lived overseas for 13 years.”
Derek says, “Oh, yeah. Sorry. I figured as much.”
I reply, “But you know if I’d met you in a different place at a different time – well – uh – you are very good-looking. And you seem very kind. Has anyone ever told you that you look just like Guy Pearce?”
“No, who is he?”
“He’s a hot Australian actor. He got his start on a crappy soap opera, but he is known for doing roles in small budget, highly-praised films. He’s very musically talented, too. But he’s been in some films you’d know. You should google him.”
“Oh, okay. So, I know this is a long shot, but do you want to come and camp with us tonight? I’d like to hear some bike stories, and it would most certainly give my brother and sister a shock and something to talk about if I came back with a cyclist girl on the anniversary of my wife’s death.”
I decline. I’m already much further into his life than I’d really like to be. As I leave I say, “You know, you should go to Halloween this year dressed as Guy Pearce’s character in Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Now, that will get your family talking! Take care!”
Then the crew and I resume the downhill run. The open expanses of the plateau give way to the thickly forested edges of the upheaval. We get great views of Beartooth Butte before we roll into the trees. It is a fantastic example of the rock that used to cover the plateau before it was eroded away and deposited in the basins below. The butte has an entire sequence of rock from Cambrian to Devonian – about 150 million years of time is represented in its layers of deposition. The rock at the top is the Jefferson Formation – the same rock we rode through in Grand View Canyon between Challis and Arco, Idaho a month or so ago.
The views of the Absarokas in the distance, and the cascading vertical drops of the plateau edge, keep my exhausted spirits high as we ride ever downward to the Clark Fork valley. To be here dropping off 3 billion-year-old rocks, and looking over at a volcanic pile that erupted 50 million years ago with evidence to the southwest of Earth’s largest-ever terrestrial landslide, makes my heart sing. My mind can’t really get my head around the expanse of time and my inconsequential place among it, but it does fill my thoughts full of gratitude and fortune. The endorphins are pumping, and I feel so incredibly alive and happy.
I turn off the Beartooth Scenic Byway onto the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway. With our late start today, it’s getting on 5 pm. I’m ready to be done, and ready to really get warm. I’m still feeling chilled from all that time up above treeline in the freezing temps. I pull into the first campground. There are two other sites out of the six occupied.
As I’m getting the fee envelope, the guy from the over-cab camper comes up to me. He and his wife passed me on the Beartooth climb and can’t believe I’ve already made it here. His son used to race bikes professionally in Europe so he knows what it is like to do alpine climbs on a bike. When I ask if the campground has water, because I’m down to one litre and too lazy and exhausted to treat the adjacent creek, he says no, but says to come over later and he’ll fill my bottles.
Then, his wife comes over and invites me to roast some marshmallows. I head down there, burn a couple marshmallows, and keep my mouth shut as politely as possible. I need these folks to fill my water bottles – but it’s hard to be nice. The woman is a Creationist. I am not religious but don’t mind anyone else having such beliefs. However, Creationism, and the belief that the Earth is only 3,000 years old, is about as opposite to my worldview as you can get. So I just don’t say anything much. It would have been nice if she could have talked about something else though, since there are an infinite number of topics in life to talk about. But she just goes on and on about how famous geneticists are describing the information they don’t know about genetic make-up as being God’s miracles. All I can think about as she dismisses all that I know to be true is: I really need that water. I do think it would make a great joke, however: an aetheist, armchair geologist with a staunch belief in science sits down to roast marshmallows with a Texan Christian Creationist…. You supply the punch-line. I do get my water.
I retire to the tent early. It is cold already. I even put my winter hat on before I crawl in the sleeping bag. It has been a tremendous day. I achieved a bicycling bucket list item that, at times, I wasn’t sure would be achievable. I pushed hard, didn’t choke on a candy bar, and made it to the top in a respectable time. I got to ride on 3 billion-year-old rocks and absorb scenery so grand it has to be seen to be believed. I met a sweet man whose life was filled with tragedy but who refused to be taken down by torment. And now I’m poised to again ride my favourite section of road from all of last year’s tour. Life is grand, and I really am the luckiest chick alive to be out here on the bike pedaling along each day.