Montana 2014 Part 2 – Day 85 – Bull River CG – Plains: Reference points – The day I almost die

Tuesday August 12, 2014, 67 miles (108 km) – Total so far: 3,869 miles (6,227 km)

When I was 16, I got myself into a very bad situation. I didn’t know how to get out of it. And I didn’t want to involve my parents, the police, or other authorities because I was afraid I would be suspended or expelled from my high school. I was living at a public, residential high school for ‘gifted and talented’ students on a college campus. I had hated my old high school but loved my new school. I was so grateful for being selected to attend. So when I found myself in a really awful situation, I tried to extricate myself on my own. But I had not had a lot of life experience at that point, and when it got so bad I was afraid for my life, I confided in one of my friends from the college campus. He took me to the house he shared with his boyfriend, a recent college graduate. And that is how I met Mike.

Mike got me out of that awful situation and talked me through my fear, anger and pain. He sat with me one afternoon and said, “Emily, in life you will come across reference points. These events and situations will help you measure and assess things in life that come after. These are important because they help you react to situations later in life and help you gauge their seriousness. Reference points help you say, “It can’t get any better than XXX, or worse than XXX”. Reference points also help you stay out of bad situations because you can better see them coming. You have just found your reference point for evil. While it is awful now, you will be okay. And you will be stronger for it.”

Mike has continued to be a life-long friend. He is like a big brother to me. Through all of my trials and tribulations, he has offered solace and advice. And his advice is ALWAYS right, even if I don’t follow it. Last year, somewhere in Wyoming, I emailed him in excitement and wrote, “Mike, I’ve found my reference point in life for joy! Joy is riding your bike across nowhere Wyoming with everything you need on your bike and no other cares in the world. I love this like nothing else”!

Today I will end up calling Mike after I encounter a much less joyous reference point. But first, I start the memorable day to the beeping of my watch alarm. Ugh. I lift my head, wheeze and lie back down. Then I hear a low rumble in the distance. Thunder? At 6.30am? There is a chance of storms this afternoon, but certainly not now. Another rumble rolls forth, a bit closer this time. I peek my head out of the tent. Even though I’m in thick forest, I can tell that the sky is dark to the southwest. I don’t know which way that is moving, but if I get my butt moving, maybe I can get the tent packed before I get wet. So I commence a hurried pack-up as the thunder grows closer and the sky gets darker.

I ride down the hill to the day-use shelter as the thunder and lightning move in. A couple flashes are quite close. I can see it raining off to the north. Once to the day-use shelter, one of the flashes and simultaneous thunder is close enough to cause me to involuntarily flinch. It rains, then mists, then rains again for about 45 minutes. I put on all my rain gear, even though it is quite warm, just to keep the mozzies away while I nap on a picnic bench. What a not-so-nice way to start the day!

Finally, we are rolling on wet pavement at 7.30 am. The smoke is thicker again today. I’ve taken my inhalers, but my lung capacity is very poor today. However, I’m very excited because I will be riding along the path of the Glacial Lake Missoula floods and should be able to see evidence of it throughout the ride.

Looking west down the Clark Fork River under cloudy and very smoky skies.

Glacial Lake Missoula formed when continental ice sheets flowed down the Purcell trench and blocked the flow of the Clark Fork River just south of present-day Sandpoint, Idaho. There were no other outlets for the river, so the water behind the dam rose and rose, until it eventually got deep enough to float the ice dam. The dam then broke and a catastrophic flood swept all the way to the Oregon Coast. The ice then formed a new dam. The lake eventually floated the new dam and sent down another flood of water. This happened approximately 36 times between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago. At its highest shoreline, Glacial Lake Missoula covered approximately 2,900 square miles and held approximately 530 cubic miles of water which is approximately half the volume of Lake Michigan. At its maximum volume, the water where we are riding this morning was almost 2,000 feet deep. Imagine being at the bottom of all that water!

Looking west down the Clark Fork River valley near Noxon. Waters from Glacial Lake Missoula filled and catastrophically drained from this valley more than 30 times between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago.

As we progress east, we climb and descend a series of small hills near Trout Creek which are deposits of material left by the waning floodwaters. All around today are deposits on land that make you feel like you are riding in a river channel instead of in a river valley. I love looking for these places as I ride. I also enjoy looking at the different scour channels where the waning water flowed. This is all such recent history on the timescale of geology that you can feel connected to it in a way that is sometimes harder when the dates are almost beyond comprehension.

Looking east up the Clark Fork River valley while riding along a landscape with ripples left over from the draining of Glacial Lake Missoula.

I stop in Trout Creek about 20 miles into the day to get a drink for my water bottle holder. The sky is dark and threatening behind me so I don’t want to linger. The sky in front of me is so thick with smoke I don’t really want to ride into it. Ugh. My lung function is absolute shit today. My breathing is about as bad as it gets other than during a full-blown asthma attack. I’m being really careful not to push it too hard, because I am right on the verge of not being able to breathe at all. That would end up being very embarrassing, probably quite expensive (though I do carry travel insurance) and maybe scary, if it got really bad.

A couple miles back, I had the option of taking the gravel Blue Slide Road up to Thompson Falls. But the traffic has been quite bearable on 200, and I’ve occasionally had a shoulder. Plus, I don’t really want to linger much today or push my lungs harder than I have to, so I give what is probably the more scenic route a miss. Scenic is all relative today, anyway. It is so smoky, it’s really hard to see much anywhere anyway!

Closing in on the town of Thompson River.

Onward we go, trying to imagine the water up to the tops of the valley walls when Glacial Lake Missoula was sitting here. At times the valley walls are close to the road and rock slopes tower above. Other times we ride down the middle of the valley, and the valley walls look fuzzy through the smoke.

Thompson Falls is quite busy with all sorts of people: tourists, firefighters, townspeople and gawkers. I know that there is a fire burning northeast of here, but I quickly come to realize that it is actually burning quite close to the road and not all that far east. I head down to look at the falls, and all the talk around me is about the fires, and whether they are going to have to close the highway. I’m 40 miles into it and had thought about just stopping here because I’m having so much trouble breathing. But I don’t want to get stuck here in the smoke either, if they have to close the road!

I stop at the Subway on the east side of town even though I’m not hungry. Really, all I want to do is sleep. And sleep. And breathe. But sleep is not an option, so we will have to push on while breathing still is.

As I’m waiting on the man in front of me to get his meatball sub with everything (cucumbers on a meatball sub?), a man in business casual gets in line behind me. After a few seconds he taps me on the shoulder and says, “Excuse me”? Oh dear, I hope I’m not offending him. I haven’t done real laundry since Kalispell and everything I have is smoky, sweaty and stinky. I hope I’m not so whiffy I’m offending him! I turn and say, “Yes”?

The business casual guy, who is about my age, says, “I was just wondering if you are okay?”

“Yeah, thanks.”

“Are you sure? You don’t sound like you are well.”

“Oh. My breathing. No, I’m okay. I’m asthmatic and I’ve been out on the bike in the smoke. It’ll back off here in a minute now that I’m not riding.”

“Oh. You shouldn’t be out in that. I’m a radiographer, and when we get people who come in that sound like you, I can tell you their scans don’t look very good. Some people with double pneumonia don’t sound as bad as you.”

“No, it’s not very pleasant. This is about the ninth day in a row of smoke, so it’s just been building, and then today is quite bad. I’m taking it easy though to try to manage.”

Then it’s my turn to order. I go sit down and force down a six-inch turkey sub on honey oat. The radiographer comes up to me after he has finished eating. He says, “You know, I’m heading to Missoula. If you’re going that way, I’ve got a bike rack on our Toyota. I’ve got all the kids’ booster seats in there, but there’s still plenty of room for your gear. I’d be happy to take you with me. I can drop you off at a medical clinic that gives a pretty deep discount for cash payments if you’re not insured. I think you should get out of the smoke and get some medical attention.”

Now, hindsight is 20/20. If I knew all of things that were about to happen, I would have taken the ride. Not all the way to Missoula, but at least to the next town. But I didn’t know what was to come, and I really didn’t want to miss riding through the Eddy Narrows – one of my western Montana geology highlights – so I declined the man’s offer.

He looks at me with great concern, then gives me his business card with his cell phone number. He tells me to call him if I change my mind, and he’ll turn around and come get me. The road gods always provide, even if you ignore them. You cannot go bike touring and not have your faith in humanity restored.

The firefighting helicopters are coming and going from the field behind that row of trees.

I head on east out of town and immediately see helicopters flying into incredibly thick smoke. The thump of their rotor blades is about the only thing that pierces that smoke. I stop to watch them for a few minutes as they come and go to refill buckets on the other side of the valley. I also stop to look at all of the valley fill here that was dumped as the flow of the Glacial Lake Missoula flood water lessened after being forced through the constriction at Eddy Narrows ahead. Yeah, you can take the breath of me, but you can’t remove the nerd.

Just outside of Thompson Falls, I come across this sign and apocalyptic smoke conditions. My wheezy breathing is about to get very, very bad. By the time I get through this my breathing will sound like a boiling teapot and my lungs will burn with great intensity. Ugh.
You can see one of the helicopters working the fire just up and to the right of the mtn in this photo. The sign says: Caution fire activity. No Stopping. Rolling debris. Further on, you can see the fire burning in logs and stumps up on the talus slopes above the road. There are heaps of fire personnel and equipment around as the fire is burning just on the back side of the canyon.

I roll up the road a little bit to a temporary road sign. It says, in intermittent messages: ‘Caution fire activity. No stopping. Rolling debris.’ The smoke ahead is apocalyptic – at least for an asthmatic on a bike. You cannot even see the valley walls. You cannot even see the valley or the river. I can, however, see a very steep hill ahead (part of those big gravel deposits from the floods), and I’m not sure I can make it up that without stopping. The traffic is also heavier than it was west of Thompson Falls. Logging trucks, fire apparatus and a heap more cars are thrown in the mix.

Oh well, here we go. I fly down this hill and crank it up the next one. Without stopping. There are men digging a fire break along a field with a bulldozer and a bobcat. There is a house on the other side of the road. Anywhere there is a pull-out, orange cones have been placed to prevent people from stopping. A Forest Service “law enforcement” truck goes by. The woman inside the truck looks at me rather gravely but does not stop. Then I go flying down a hill into the canyon.

There is a fair bit of traffic and no shoulder. At times the river is right up next to the road and the guardrail forces me further into the lane. Talus slopes come right down to the pavement on the other side of the road. Above the lower slopes, the cliff walls jut straight up. Large slabs of fallen cliff rock lie on top of the smaller talus. Some of these big slabs have outstanding examples of ripple marks. So here I am in a canyon with spectacular geology, no road shoulder, log trucks, other heavy vehicles, a fair amount of traffic in general, and so much smoke it’s like getting caught downwind right next to a campfire. So what do I do? Nerd that I am, my brain multi-tasks. I take in the geology (ooh, look at the ripple marks!) while watching my mirror and responding to traffic so we don’t get flattened.

You can see a bunch of the scouring from the Lake Missoula floods on the hillsides.

A bit further down I see lots of fire trucks and personnel. There is a bulldozer on a very steep slope. Then I look further up the steep talus slope and I can see fire actively burning in logs and stumps. Whoa! Yeah, I could see how that could easily become rolling debris! It is sensory overload. And, of course, my breathing is so bad at this point that I sound a bit like a boiling teapot. The firefront is just over the hill apparently, and it has dropped embers that have started these small fires on the talus slopes. The hills are on fire, and so are my lungs. The pain is pretty intense, and my breathing is incredibly shallow.

Unfortunately, it was a bit hard to appreciate the Eddy Narrows as much as I would have liked. It was just too hard to look around with everything else going on. And obviously, I could not stop. The other side of the canyon was hidden in smoke, as well. However, this section of the canyon has been used by geologists to estimate the discharge through the canyon as Glacial Lake Missoula emptied. It’s been estimated that the flow was approximately 58 miles per hour with a maximum drainage flow of 9.46 cubic miles of water per hour. At peak discharge through the Narrows, the flow was approximately ten times the combined flow of all the rivers in the world. Phenomenal!!!

It is somewhat ironic that I wanted to ride this route to see all of the evidence of massive floods, and the evidence is all shrouded in smoke from a wildfire.
Still in the active fire zone – you can see all the firefighting crew buses down the road. They are up working on the talus. If you look closely, you can see a plume of smoke rising from the slope just to the right of the middle of the photo.

At least, I can see, sort of, all the scouring that the water did. Through the entire canyon, the walls are scrubbed clean of vegetation in the lower reaches. 13,000 years later and the bedrock still looks as though it has just been subjected to a high pressure cleaning hose. Rock falls have created vegetated slopes, and trees cling to cracks, but the flood evidence is still quite plain to see.

Looking back into Eddy Canyon where there is a lot of good evidence of the Lake Missoula Floods. Those orange cones indicate I’m still in the “No stopping – fire zone” but there isn’t really anything active here. Note the sprinklers going to keep that field wet. There is ash falling here but no embers yet.
Further up the valley, the smoke lessens a bit and you can see all the scouring on the hillsides a bit better.

Eventually, the smoke lessens and the valley widens out a bit. It has been a pretty dramatic day. Then it gets more dramatic than it’s ever been before in my life. I encounter my reference point for primal fear. This type of fear is distinguished from normal fear in that you do not have time to think or create a plan. You have a fraction of a second where you understand that your life is in imminent danger and then you have a second or so to make one move. One move only. And it is not a calculated one. It is simply your reaction – so you must hope it is a good one. You think, “I’m going to die”, and then you react.

For me, this moment comes on a flat, straight section of road with a teeny shoulder to the right of the rumble strip. That shoulder is so teeny, I’m not even in it. I’m riding just to the left of the white line when a large, on-coming four-wheel-drive pick-up suddenly swings out wide to overtake a small sedan. Yes, this has happened to me six times in Montana and Idaho already. Someone goes to overtake a car and I’ve had to stop and get off the road since the oncoming traffic is in my lane. Each time in the past, I’ve had enough time to stop and flip them off and yell at them as they go by. But not this time.

The vehicles are right there. The pick-up swings out so wide, his tires run over the rumble strips on my side of the road. Every cell in my body yells “FUUUUUCCCCCKKKK”! The sound of the tires on the rumble strip is like a machine-gun staccato. It is something I will never forget as long as I live. The left headlight of the truck is aiming straight for my head. I cannot really tell you what the truck looked like. I can only tell you it was black and he did not have his headlights on. Etched in my mind is that headlight close enough to my head that I swear I saw the bulb.

In that eerie way of terror and fear, everything goes into slow motion. In my mind I see the headlight coming at my head, I hear the tires over the rumble strip and it all plays at four times slower than normal speed. I feel like I’m in a cartoon. I brake hard and head off the road. I was only doing about 13 mph, so I don’t have too much speed to carry into the grass. And luckily for me, there is no drop-off. In all that slow-motion movement, I try to lay the bike down gently and jump off the bike. But I don’t get my left foot over the top tube. I catch my toes and this causes me to fall and roll. I don’t call it a crash, I call it a ‘failed dismount’. I just missed death by about five feet.

I roll through the grass and come to a stop. I end up face up, sprawled out half-sitting, half-laying. For a second I think, “am I dead”? No, I can’t be. The tall pines and smoky sky are still there. I inspect myself. There is ground-in dirt on my right shoulder and my right knee is scuffed up with a few pricks of blood. But, really, I’m fine. I check my backpack – my blinkie light is still attached and flashing.

I get up and walk over to the bike. I’m shaking so hard, I’m very wobbly. My knees feel like they might collapse. Verne and Kermit are fine – the handlebar bag never hit dirt. My headlight is still attached and on. I pick up the bike. It seems fine. I stand there shaking so violently I wonder if I’m going to be able to mount the bike. I’m also wondering if I’m going to throw up, because I feel distinctly nauseous and ill. My heart is still racing. And of course, I still can’t breathe. I still sound like a teapot.

I hold onto the bike and just stand there wobbling, looking down. Tears of anger, and probably relief, flow down my cheeks. I am full of fury. Wobbly fury.

For a second I think, “Fuck this! I don’t ever want to tour again! I’m done”!

Then, the other part of my brain says, “Don’t be silly.”

So, for the next two seconds I think, “Fuck you Montana! Fuck you! I’m done with you and your shitty drivers! Fuck you! I’m going back to Wyoming!”

I even yell it out loud, “FUCK YOU, MONTANA! FUCK YOU!” My anger is exacerbated by all of the drivers who went by while I was on the ground or picking up my bike who did not bother to stop to check on me.

Then, the other part of my brain says, “C’mon Em, be rational. We’ve still got to go see Glacier and the Shonkin Sag.”

For the next five seconds I think, “Well, fuck this. I’m done. I’m done for the day. Right fucking here”!

But the other part of my brain says, “C’mon Em, get yourself together. You’re fine. You can’t stay here. So get your tootsie roll back out there. Get your ass back on the bike.”

I stand there. I no longer think I’m going to puke. But I’m still shaking like a skinny person who just emerged from a polar bear plunge. I feel incredibly fragile, like one wisp of wind will shatter me into a million pieces. Furious but fragile. I push the bike back out to the road. I wait for the traffic to pass. Then I swing a wobbly leg over. And stand there. Then I push off. It’s a good thing. Pedalling actually feels more stable than standing. I don’t feel the shake as I ride.

It’s about ten miles into Plains. The scenery really is beautiful. There are gentle hills. Pine forest lines the road. The road is sandwiched between cliffs and the river just below in a few places. But I can’t really appreciate it. I am too frazzled. And did I mention I can’t breathe very well today. I flinch when the log trucks pass closely. Then, when I’m just about a mile out (well, probably ½ mile, it just felt like a mile) of Plains, a garbage truck comes up behind me but can’t get around because the traffic is heavy enough and spaced apart just enough that he can’t pass. Oh, I feel bad as I lead an ever-growing line-up down the road. But I can’t stop. I’ve had enough. If I don’t keep going, I don’t know that I’ll get going again. I do ride off onto the dirt and ride next to the road, but there is no shoulder, so I’m still too close to pass. Thankfully, the garbage truck is not right on my butt or being aggressive.

Finally, there is space for him to get by me. I roll into town. It is another railroad town with the same layout as Columbus or Whitehall or any number of others. Most of the businesses line a street parallel with the railroad tracks. Other businesses lie over the tracks on the other side.

I stop at the supermarket to get a couple days of food. I’m still not hungry. My legs aren’t quite so wobbly, but I’m still shaking. I gather some supplies and take them to the counter. The checkout chick just looks at me. She does not speak to me. I’m still shaking badly enough that I have trouble getting the money out of my wallet to pay. The woman averts her glance. I start to speak, but my voice comes out in a hoarse whisper. She hands me my bag in silence.

My trip notes say there is camping at the fairgrounds, but I don’t know where they are located. I do see the library, so I head there to get some info. When I walk in, the woman at the desk immediately says, “Oh my. Would you like to sit down? You are very, very pale.” I tell her that I’m okay, but I’m on a bike tour and looking for a spot to camp and wonder if she can direct me to city hall or the police station. The smoke is bothering my asthma (trying to explain my gravelly hoarse voice). She gives me directions and asks again if I’d like to sit down first for a few moments.

I head over to the city hall and ask about camping. I tell them I’m on a bike tour but need to stop for the day because the smoke is really bothering my asthma. The two women in the office are very helpful. The one lady says she is sure it would be okay for me to camp in the park across the road. The toilets have just been cleaned and there is a picnic shelter. The other lady goes to ask the mayor. While she is gone I tell the other lady I thought there was camping at the fairgrounds. She replies, “Oh no, you don’t want to camp there. The county fair is next weekend, but the carnies have already started arriving and they’ve taken over the place”. The other woman comes back and says it is fine for me to camp at the park. It is only 2pm, but I head over there and lie down on a picnic table. I’m totally spent. But still shaky.

Later that evening, as the sun has started to set, and after I get my tent set up, I call Mike. I lie in the tent as his phone rings on the other end.

“Hello,” Mike says.

“Hi, Mike. It’s Em.”

“Oh Em. Where are you? Are you okay? Your voice is bad.”

“Yeah, Mike, I’m okay. I’m in Plains, Montana. My asthma has been bad because of wildfire smoke.”

“Oh. But are you okay? You do not sound okay.”

“Yeah, I’m fine. I found another reference point today.”

“Oh shit, Em. It was bad wasn’t it”?

“Yeah, pretty bad. I just need you to talk to me. I don’t care about what. I just need to hear someone’s voice. Just tell me work stories or something”.

Just then, one of the trains goes by. I’m about 30 feet from the active rail line and it is incredibly loud when the trains pass. You can feel the pulse in the earth as they travel over the ties.

Mike says, “Holy fuck, what was that? Are you okay?”

I reply, “I’m fine. I’m just camped about 30 feet from the train tracks in a city park.”

Mike laughs, “I always knew you’d become a hobo. Hang on a second. I know what you need.”

I can hear him put the phone down. In the distance, he yells back to the phone, “Hang on Em. I’m coming. Hang on.”

He comes back to the phone and says, “Here. Let’s try this.”

Then, Mike, always my savior, reads me selected quotes from Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman. For thirty minutes he reads me inspiring quotes:

“What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lives within us. You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment. Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes”.

Finally, he stops reading and pauses. Mike says, “Is that good, Em? Can you talk to me now?”

“Thank you, Mike. That was perfect. I needed that. You are my reference point for friendship. You don’t know how much you mean to me”.

“Thanks, Em. You are my reference point for resilience. You have had some hard times at various times in your life. But you always pick yourself back up and keep going. I don’t know what happened to you today. But I know it won’t stop you. But promise me if you need to go to the police or the hospital that you will go.”

“No, I’m okay. I just found the reference point for primal fear.”

“Fuck, Em. Did anyone hurt you”?

“No. I’m fine. I almost got hit by a pick-up. But I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Em, Em, Em. I love you. I wish I could be there to give you a hug. But I know you will be okay. You are the toughest person I’ve ever met. But, woman, your breathing sounds awful. Call me or text me tomorrow, so I know you are still okay. And go to the hospital if you need to. Go get nebulized or something. Promise me you’ll get in touch tomorrow and before that if you need to talk about what happened.”

“Thanks, Mike. I promise I’ll text or something tomorrow. I’ll be okay. I just needed to hear somebody’s voice. You were perfect. As always, I owe you one”.

We hang up. Finally, the shaking has gone. I feel okay. But I also feel like I just went ten rounds with Mike Tyson. I feel completely physically depleted, as if I’ve got absolutely nothing left. I sink into the sleeping bag and lie still. Consciousness slips from me like the sea retreating at low tide. Soon enough, I’m out. Wasted. Done for this day.

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