Montana 2014 Part 2 – Day 81 – Upper Thompson Lake – Libby: From (forest fire) ashes to (asbestos) dust

Friday August 8, 2014, 45 miles (72 km) – Total so far: 3,747 miles (6,031 km)

“It’s a death trap. Really. There have been so many fatalities on this road, it’s very sad. But they did a lot of work on it in the 1990s, so it’s better than it used to be,” said the camphost two days ago at Logan State Park where I refilled water bottles. She is referring to the road I’m on – Federal Highway 2 west of Kalispell.

The number of little white crosses along the road really is a bit staggering at times. The small, metal crosses have been erected at fatal crash sites all over Montana by the American Legion since 1953. On this particular highway, it seems drivers have the most trouble with curves and bends. In some places, white crosses line the bend like reflector posts. Somebody didn’t make it going into the curve, some people lost it in the apex, and even more did not make it out of the curve. The trouble is, this road has a lot of curves and bends.

Highway 2 between Kalispell and the Idaho border makes a few lists of ‘nation’s most dangerous roads’. In the mid-2000s, NBC Dateline included it in its list of ‘deadliest roads in America’ based on total fatalities in five years of federal crash data. The good thing about such a high death rate is that there is a nice shoulder most of the way from Marion to just before the curve north along the Fisher River at Manicke. Maybe some day they’ll get around to fixing that hair-raising section between Kalispell and Marion we rode two days ago – it has one of the highest crash severity rates in the state. In that 24-mile section out of Kalispell, in the 2004-2008 period, there were 357 crashes and 13 fatalities.

Just after we rejoin the highway this morning, we are confronted with a fairly new set of four crosses. One cross is set just a little apart from the other three. A baseball cap is perched on top of the single cross. In 2010, a 17-year-old driver fell asleep returning to Libby. When he hit the edge of the road, he jerked awake, jerked the steering wheel and rolled his vehicle into the path of an SUV. That SUV contained a 59 year-old grandmother and her two grandchildren aged 12 and 13. It is sad to think that three people never even made their 20th birthday. Associated with every single cross on this road is a story, and a life now extinguished.

The road curves around several of the lakes further down the valley and climbs over glacial debris. Soon, the road down the Fisher River takes off from Highway 2. It is another way to get into Libby that I have considered. But with my wheezy lungs, I stick with Highway 2 because it will have less climbing and should require less deep breathing and therefore less smoke inhalation. The smoke is not too bad this morning, but is still present, and will settle again thickly in the afternoon.

Highway 2 at Loon Lake.

The forest here is a little bit sickening. Most of this area is privately owned and given over to industrial forestry. Single trees pepper clearcuts, reminding you of what was once a forest. Granted, severe fires in 1890 and 1910 in this area means most everything is second-growth anyway. Large expanses look rough and weedy – the trees are not tall enough yet to give the slopes some uniformity in texture. The road gently bends and curves through remnants of second-growth forest, little bits of new forest, thinned stands and scraggly sections. The topography is gentle but beautiful, but the forest looks pretty sad.

A bit further on we enter the burn area of the August 1984 Houghton Creek Fire. A lightning strike had started a fire a couple weeks before this one. Firefighters thought they’d extinguished that fire, but smoldering embers reignited in 55 mph gusty winds and took off. The fire burned about 13,000 acres in just a few days. Foresters were able to salvage about 90 percent of the affected timber, but still lost about $10 million dollars in assets. 1500 firefighters fought the fire; 19 structures, including three homes, were lost. The burn area looks particularly scruffy. Many of the hillsides are still barren. They sprout a mix of forbs, weeds and bushes. Replanting has been more successful in some places, and rows of trees grow up the slopes. Still, this highway just feels like it’s all about death. Not only do you have all those little white crosses on every curve, but the scars of industrial forestry bleeding into the severe fire scars that line the road for about seven miles give the landscape a bleak and forlorn look.

About mid-way through the Houghton Creek burn area. You can see fire scars on the hill to the left, replanted trees to the right, and a hill in the distance struggling to recover. I didn’t take a photo of the really scraggly-looking areas. I do not know if the driver of the vehicle who left those black rubber marks made it. Other people did not make this curve. There are four crosses along this curve behind me.

In the middle of the burn area, the wide shoulder narrows temporarily, and the road heads sharp left. The curve is even a little tight on a bike at 22 mph. There are faint and fresh rubber marks where people have harshly applied their brakes. Then, in the tightest part of the curve, beneath a rocky slope where the road dives between hilly walls, there is a post with a mass of white markers. I look twice. Holy crap – there is a mass of small crosses all welded around the number 19. I think that it must be a bus crash, but later I find out that it was not. It is just a very bad corner that used to be worse. The old highway did almost a U-shape turn there. The hard left that is there now is an improvement!

As the road dives down between the hilly slopes, a creek follows the road downhill. The road curves west at the bottom of this into a wide valley. Some tall trees remain along the floor of the valley, but most of the slopes are still slowly recovering from the fire 30 years ago. We encounter more road curves and more crosses.

The road heads north. The mountains still remain gently hilly. Finally, we make it into Forest Service lands and the landscape doesn’t look quite so butchered. The valley narrows, we totally lose our shoulder, and the road climbs into tall trees which completely shade the road. After this we hit road construction.

Finally into Forest Service lands – but we are just about to lose our shoulder completely.

I cannot see the construction from the stop/go light. So I pass the line-up of cars. One guy honks at me and yells out, “what the f*&k do you think you are doing”? I do not stop to explain the finer points of riding through road construction on a bicycle. My experience is that it is best to just keep going if you can’t see the construction from the stoplight. You then ride up to the construction and wait for the pilot car there; otherwise you lose the pilot car before you even get to where they are working. Most times, if there is a flagger, they just tell me to go for it anyway. And almost every single time I lose the pilot car and end up on my own somewhere along the way, regardless. But Mr. Angry isn’t worth my time.

In this construction zone, I do get up to a section where large front-end loaders, dump trucks and other heavy vehicles are zooming around on one side of the road. The other side of the road is gone. There is no safe way through, so I wait for the pilot car to come back through. When it does, I join the end of the line and am able to get through the 500 feet of road with the escort. Then they speed up and leave me behind. The road is freshly chip-sealed, and I have it all to myself. They are only actively working back in that other part. I peacefully cruise through tall forest growing over steep-sided valley walls. At one point there is a climb where they have made a new road grade along a hill. The old road curves along the creek below quite close to several dilapidated homes. At the beginning of the new grade, a man in a construction helmet who is holding a clipboard waves to me and says, “have a nice ride, girly!”. Girly? It makes me laugh. He meant well.

There is a long section of road construction, but they are only working on a tiny bit of it. I get the new chipseal all to myself for long periods of time after I lose the pilot car. Please note they are not adding a shoulder to this section with the new work.

The rest of the ride is downhill between trees lining the road. The land falls away on either side to grassy valleys settled down beneath rocky, and sometimes sparsely forested, hillsides. The construction has the traffic coming up behind me in bunches, so it makes the traffic easier to manage. I just get off the road, let them go by, then resume my downhill run.

Closer into Libby, the road regains a shoulder. The landscape here looks pretty flogged, too. I see the museum and roll in right on opening time. I decide to have a look now, because I don’t see myself riding back up the hill to come take a look later.

Somebody gave the museum some funding in 1992. A bunch of exhibits seem to date from that time. The exhibits detail the mining and logging history of the area – it is extensive. They have mined, and still mine lead, silver, copper and zinc west of here. The town was founded on placer deposits (which weren’t all that great and didn’t last long). Logging got going fairly early, too. The county has one of the highest harvest rates in the state. At one time more than a quarter of the total state harvest came from this area. However, the 1990s saw significant downsizing of the timber industry, and the mill in town closed in 2003. The vermiculite mining east of town is mentioned, but how it poisoned the town with asbestos dust fibres and is slowly killing off its residents through asbestos-related diseases is not. Really, that is the story of this dying town – the deadliest Superfund site in America.

I chat with the volunteer. She is volunteering here because she cannot get work at the moment, but she wants to do something and she loves talking to people. The gas station laid her off after a worker’s comp claim, and she cannot work until she gets her knee fixed. The hospital in town has a bad rap, after it supposedly worked with the vermiculite mine to cover up the growing list of patients with lung disease in the 1980s. So she has to travel all the way to Kalispell for treatment. The folks in this town also have to travel 60 minutes to Sandpoint, Idaho or Kalispell to do their major shopping. A few years ago, Walmart wanted to move in, but town officials refused to grant permits. The volunteer doesn’t understand it. The unemployment rate here hovers in the teens, and has been as high as 25 percent. They need the jobs, even if they are low-paying. And it would be nice if poor people didn’t have to drive so far to go shopping. She gives me a further run-down of the town’s woes and describes what a nice place it used to be but is no longer. She says people under 30 have left the town in droves.

More old cars for sale. My dad builds hot rods, so I always take pictures of the old ‘project’ cars for him. Just across the road is a BBQ place – he’d love that, too 🙂

Once into town, I stop at the visitor info centre. It is located in the Chamber of Commerce building. No one even looks up at me or offers to help me, even though they are sitting in plain view of me. Wow! Libby, Montana is a very, very sad place with a very, very sad story. They need tourism dollars. But that is not the way to bring them in, I tell you. I get some maps then head to the city campground that is behind the building. I’m worried about getting a spot because there is a blues festival on this weekend. But there are plenty of sites available. The Blues Fest has some fairly big names on the performance list, but the admission fees are way too much for me to even consider attending. It is really no worry, though, because later that night, I can hear the whole thing just fine from my tent site across town anyway. Tomorrow will be a lung rest day, ironically in a town where more than a third of the population has lung disease and can’t breathe.

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