Tuesday September 2, 2014, 24 miles (39 km) – Total so far: 4,712 miles (7,583 km)
Some days on tour are hard. Some days are long. Some days are short. Some days are perfect. Some days are miserable. And some days like today are a relaxed saunter full of visual delights and low mileage. The road I’m riding today, the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway, was my favourite stretch of road on all of last year’s tour. However, I did the ride all in one day and was so exhausted by the end of it that I felt like I failed to appreciate some of its beauty. So this year, I’m splitting the ride into two days and will have plenty of time this morning to really stand around and absorb the sights I passed in an exhausted daze last year.
The rodents are in disagreement over something this morning. The clicks, alarms and calls among the chipmunks and ground squirrels echo through the dense forest in the dim early light of dawn. Perhaps they are concerned about the cold this morning and are calling out to others, saying, ‘bury your nuts now! Winter is on its way!’
I peel myself out of my sleeping bag to discover frost on the tent. Brrrrr….. It is definitely chilly this morning. If I had someone to talk to, I might be calling out in alarm, too, only my words would be more like, “Sweet Josie, it’s rather nippy!” My little thermometer says 29F. Still, I force my poor wooden finger sticks to bend and exhibit some level of manual dexterity as I put away the tent. I want to get going early for several reasons: 1) early morning is the most awesome time on the road with little traffic and plenty of time to gawk about, instead of needing to focus on what vehicles are doing; 2) I want plenty of time this morning to take in the spectacular geology along the route; and, 3) I want to get in 25 miles to the next campground before noon when the winds are supposed to increase to ‘unpleasant’.
Down deep in the shadow of the canyon walls, I pick up speed quickly on a downhill. The river below can be heard audibly eroding deeper into the earth. The white noise of the rush of water over rock is soothing. It is the only sound besides the tread of my tires on the road. I stop at the next campground down the road to refill the rest of my water bottles. It’s a scenic spot right on the river below the road with about 15 sites. There is a hand-pump here, and unfortunately, the only tent camper in the place is camped right next to it. With every squeaky downward push, and every mechanical clink and thunk, I think, “oh, man, I’m sorry about the early morning noise”. I know the poor person has had to be awakened by the ten minutes of water procurement taking place at 7am right outside her/his tent.
Back on the road, we quickly come up to Painters Outpost where we camped last year. We cross the river and its black, swirling current, then climb up into the sun where the valley opens out and Crandall Creek courses down from high peaks to meet the river below. We won’t see the river close-up again. It cuts a very deep canyon through very resistant granite and gneiss on the other side of the valley for the rest of the ride.
The scenery along this road is tremendous. Over on the other side of the valley, the Clark Fork fault runs along the base of the Beartooth uplift. The same rocks we are riding on over here are several thousand feet higher over there. Fantastic! There is so much to look at; the sun is shining brightly; the traffic is very light; and the road surface is good. There is so much to be happy about this morning.
Soon we ride along under the Cathedral Cliffs. Here I stop next to Swamp Lake to think for a while about the geology on show. It is a scenic spot to spend a bit. The deep blue lake is surrounded by long grasses and large outcrops of rounded boulders. Thick spruce forest edges down to the lake along its irregular edges. The lake sits beneath a tall and rocky ridge of Paleozoic limestones which rise at height not far from the grassy banks of the lake. It is here that geologists come to look at dikes in the rock and argue about how all that rocked moved about 50 million years ago.
All along the road today is evidence of the Heart Mountain Detachment. Geologists agree, for the most part, that about 50 million years ago, a huge landslide detached from the side of the big Absaroka volcanoes. The landslide took a big chunk of Mesozoic and Paleozoic rock and Eocene volcanic rock with it. The mechanism for the slide, which allowed it to move so catastrophically, is still debated. It is thought, however, that the slide moved at speeds between 280 and 760 miles per hour. The landslide broke apart as it moved and spread blocks of rock as far away as 50 miles over a 300 square mile area.
One of the things that is debated is whether the overlying Eocene volcanic rock buried the debris avalanche after it stopped, or if the volcanics moved with the slide, or they did both. At different places along the Heart Mountain Detachment, there is evidence for all three cases. Here at Cathedral Cliffs, the volcanic dikes in the Paleozoic limestones above the detachment do not extend down into the detachment. This means the dikes must have intruded into the limestones before the slide.
As we ride along today, I keep looking for the trace of the detachment. It sits just above a prominent ledge of white-tan rock that is 500 million-years-old and called the Cambrian Pilgrim formation. Younger limestones and volcanic rock above it have slid there from the northwest. I love looking at the Madison limestones (yeah, those limestones have been in a lot of places on this tour) and thinking about them sliding along at incomprehensible speeds of movement for any object – let alone rock! Then I think about them scudding to a stop along the edge of this valley (though it wouldn’t have been a valley then).
After a long stop at Cathedral Cliffs, we commence our ride on the lightly trafficked road. At one point, I nose over the edge of a steep hill. I’ve been looking for this one! Even though I knew it was along here somewhere, I didn’t remember exactly where. The road undulates for its entire length, and this steep hill can’t be seen ahead of time from either direction. So it is not until I get into the top section that I recognize it. While most of the rest of the road climbs and falls at respectable gradients, this one just drops like a bomb. Last year, it nearly killed me going up, and I stopped midway at the cattle guard to curse, rest and wonder where the heck it came from. This year I drop down with total glee! Hee, hee! Wheeeeeeee! Because I didn’t see the hill coming, I didn’t pedal hard into like I might otherwise have done, just to see how fast I could go. My speed going down the hill is just gravity and good pavement, but still, I break my personal, fully-loaded speed record somewhere along that gallivanting good ride. I fly over the cattle guard, and for the first time ever, I sound like a car going over instead of a bike (bing-bing! instead of bbbbllllurrrrrbbbbb). What fun! The speed carries me through the curve at the bottom with some really fun g-forces. I lean the bike right into the curve and let it fling me up the next incline for a bit. Yippeeeee! My personal speed record jumps from 43.4 to 46.3 mph.
There are many more points along the way to stop and ponder, and think and stare. Just before dropping into the Sunlight Basin I stop to have a look at the Clark Fork valley and the edge of the Beartooth Uplift. The Clark Fork fault and the Beartooth fault merge here, though it can’t be seen at the surface. Still it is fun to think about what is going on beneath the surface. I also enjoy looking down toward the mouth of the Clark Fork canyon as it makes a sweeping turn in the distance. The scale of things here is mind-blowing – I’d love to stand on the edge of that canyon way over there.
Just ahead, however, you can stand on the edge of a steep, narrow gorge at Sunlight Creek. It is so deep there is no good way to get a photo of it. The bridge over the narrow chasm is the highest in Wyoming. I am just dumb-founded how the little creek cut so deeply into 3 billion-year-old rocks. Heading up from the Precambrian rocks at the bridge at Sunlight Gorge, you immediately pass into Flathead Sandstone and over the “Great Unconformity” – a gap in the rock record of at least 2.2 billion years.
I roll into the campground at Dead Indian Creek to find it deserted. The campground has spaces along both sides of the creek, but no one is here. The road winds down from Dead Indian Pass to the creek valley on one side, wraps around the creek in a U-shape, and heads up the other valley wall on the far side. The campground sits right along the creek in between the long gradients of the road. The creek falls along a pretty decent gradient itself. There is plenty of vegetation along the creek-line, including trees which have taken advantage of the moisture and protection from the wind.
I find a good spot with views of the Heart Mountain Detachment rocks visible from the picnic table. I set about completing an afternoon of chores and relaxation. While I’m spending a considerable amount of time drinking water to rehydrate from yesterday and treating creek water to fill bottles for tomorrow, I catch up on my journal. I like to get conversations down in my notebook pretty quickly, so I can remember what people said and how they said it, before I forget their words and tone. I have lots of practice with this from my social research training, but even when my note-taking is for a personal journal and there are no research results hanging on the completeness of my notes, I always want to record it before time swipes some memories and rehashes others. I had written down my conversation with Derek from the Top of the World store last night, but I didn’t have the energy to note my conversation with the woman at the campground or some of my thoughts on the climb to the pass. It can be so easy to fall behind in my journal, particularly toward the end of a trip, so I really have to force myself to sit down and do it on short days like today. I also get in a nice, warm nap on the picnic table before the wind picks up and makes things less pleasant. I also take time to further put the geology story together in my head.
I’ve been hoping somebody would show up to camp as the day progressed. Even though I am getting more comfortable camping in grizzly territory, I’m not to the point where I want to camp alone outside of a developed campground. I’m still too wimpy for that at this point. Plus, I’m still at the point where it would be nice if there was at least one other soul in a developed campground. The Commander doesn’t help things when he suggests that maybe he and Kermit could sleep in the bear box where they know that they’ll be safe. I overrule and make them sleep in the tent with me. We are a team. We ride as a team. We’ll die as a team, Sir Queen Commander!