Montana 2014 Part 2 – Day 97 – Shelby – Havre: Mother Nature’s ALS Challenge

Sunday August 24, 2014, 105 miles (168 km) – Total so far: 4,259 miles (6,854 km)

At the moment, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has gone viral. This charity fund-raising activity has swept the globe. It is all over my facebook feed. Today, I participated in the ALS Challenge. However, unlike all the videos where people wearing summer clothing get doused by a bucket of water for 15 seconds, then go grab a towel and dry clothes, the version I participated in was a bit different. You see, I participated in the Alberta Low-Pressure System (ALS) Challenge. The huge, churning weather system that dropped down out of Canada has been bringing cold temperatures and rain for quite a few days now. Mother Nature’s ALS Challenge went a bit like this:

We climb out of the town of Shelby through Cretaceous sandstones in gently hilly terrain. It is 43F degrees with a 15-20 mph wind out of the north. The dumping of water/rain is applied slowly. It rains just enough to get me wet and cold before it stops for a bit, and then I start to dry in that moderate crosswind. Then another shower rolls through to get me wet again. All the while I pedal through an immense landscape of wheat in all stages of growth and harvest. I love the vastness of the landscape, and the feeling that the earth stretches forever and never quite reaches the sky. But that sky is reaching down to the earth today. The clouds are low and dark. It has the feel of winter instead of late summer.

Another cold, wet day on the Hi-line.

The road climbs and falls, climbs and falls. Sometimes there is a shoulder. Sometimes there is not. Traffic is fairly light and mostly courteous, though. There is not much to look at other than wheat, and scattered buildings here and there. The gentle hills break the scenery and my thoughts are left to wander. I think about the layers of time and how much of the resource production in Montana and Wyoming is dependent on just such a short period of time in the Cretaceous – much of the oil and gas produced in these states comes from decaying matter that died and was compressed over about 40 million years. And we have used tremendous quantities of that in less than 200 years. The earth has been around for 4.7 billion years. I wonder how we just cannot clue in to the unsustainable use. I ponder the pros and cons of technological solutions. I think about climate change and what that might mean for this area. And I think about the rain. I look at the sodden sky and try to look for light spots among the continuous grey sky. When I crest a hill, I look all around and try to figure out which way the showers are moving and whether there might be any longer lasting dry spells among it. But the sky is dark and grey and cold and wet in every direction I gaze. There is no sign that any of it will ever end.

Wheat is in all stages of growth and harvest. Soil moisture is improving at this exact moment.

The intermittent ALS Challenge soaking, and my wandering thoughts, consume most of the first 45 miles. It’s a landscape that I really enjoy, but not so much when I’m cold and wet. I’m not soaked though, so I don’t feel in danger of hypothermia. I think about it for a bit and come to the same conclusion I’ve always had: I’d rather ride in snow than rain, when the rain comes down in temps less than 50F. My thoughts are interrupted by a nice downhill into Chester along a gently sloping decline which allows an overview of the town and its grain silos as you approach.

I stop at the public restrooms and peel down my rain pants and lycra. Nothing like peeling off clothing when it’s 40-something degrees. As I walk out of the toilets, a woman climbs out of the cab of a large pick-up towing a 5th-wheel trailer. She looks at me and says, “You are not riding that bike are you”?

I reply, “Yes, in fact, I am.”

She wrinkles up her nose and looks to the puddles on the pavement. Then she looks at me again with the quizzical look of the sedentary and secure and says, “Well, why the hell would you ever want to do that?”

I don’t think the tone of her question deserves a response. I also know that any explanation of the joys, challenges and rewards of touring are well beyond her scope of understanding. So I don’t say anything.

She proceeds, “Well, we’ve been driving for two hours now, and I just demanded we take a break. The scenery is miserable and I had a big breakfast.” Yep, I’m sure she did. I think she’s had quite a few big breakfasts, and lunches and dinners, over the years. I continue to look at her. Surely, she’ll stop talking soon. It is starting to rain again.

“So does this godforsaken little town have clean toilets?”

I reply, “I really don’t know what your standards are. But there is toilet paper, paper towels and the toilets actually have seats.”

She looks at me to appraise the value of my critical review then says, “Thank you. I hope nobody hits you today. I don’t know why they even allow bicycles on highways.”

Ahem. You know all of the things I wanted to say. But I restrain myself, say nothing, and just think about what I would have liked to have said: ‘I hope the wind doesn’t blow you all over the place today causing your husband to lose control and roll that big-ass thing. I don’t know why people are allowed on the road with those things with just a car license.’ Needless to say, there was certainly no progress made on “Share the Road” respect for either traveller in that encounter!

I head up to the gas station at the other end of town. It has a grocery store attached. They sell pre-made hot pizza. I get one of the personal size boxes and a cup of coffee. I don’t drink or really like coffee, but it’s the only hot option. I consume these at the inside tables and decide that even though I’m wet, I’m not overly cold. I don’t really want to stay here. My options ahead are pitching a tent in a park or some sort of open space in one of the towns even tinier than this one ahead, or ride all the way to Havre 60 miles further which will have motel and camping options. I decide that the intermittent rain has been bearable, so we will push on ahead. I do not consult the Commander. He and Kermit are tucked away in the panniers – hopefully hibernating or sleeping or telling great jokes or something in there.

And so we begin the second part of Mother Nature’s ALS Challenge. The second part gets considerably more ice-buckety. Not far out of Chester, back on the high rolling hills of wheat and forever, Mother Nature steps up the torture. Silly me got excited about some relative ‘lighter’ spots of sky to the north by the Sweetgrass Hills. But no, that is not ‘lighter’, everywhere else has just gotten darker!

The light-moderate rain turns heavier after I leave Chester. The wind picks up, too, but starts to give me a push. It is cold. 43F. I am pretty much soaked by the time I get to Havre. But I’m proud to do a century in such crap conditions.

The rain becomes continuous and heavier. It will rain for the next 60 miles. And then some. Cars, which should have had their headlights on before, now turn them on. There is no drying now. Within 15 miles, I’m pretty soaked. Within 25 miles, water has saturated everything. It drips off my helmet, my nose, my jacket, my pants. If I don’t get soaked by the vertical drenching, then the horizontal drenching from the spray off all of the cars and semis completes it.

Sweetgrass Hills rising from the rolling plains.

If you didn’t like infinite fields of wheat rolling toward the sky, and a sky that is coming right down on you in wind-blasted sheets of liquid, then this might have been miserable for you. But I like this type of landscape, and I see the weather as a challenge. I get my ‘conquer everything’ attitude on and ride it out. Up and down the hills I go. Sections of shoulder are filled with shallow but awful-to-ride rumble strips. I ride out in the lane but move over to the ‘vibrate shoulder’ on uphills with no good sight lines, if cars are coming from behind. I fly down the other side of these hills with rain and grit flicking up into my face. I yell out lyrics to songs. I try to name every song I can think of that has rain in the title. I try to remember what the song ‘Purple Rain’ sounds like, but come up blank. I can however, for some embarrassing reason, remember how Milli Vanilli’s “Blame it on the Rain” goes, and worse, I can even remember some of the lyrics.

By the time I get to the bar/café and cluster of buildings that is Guildford, I am thoroughly soaked, a bit uncomfortable and a wee bit cold. I’ve got 27 miles to Havre to go. But the internal roar is lit and I feel unstoppable. It also helps that the wind is swinging just a bit to give me a quartering push on occasion. Not far up the road from here, I meet my second asshole for the day (I consider that lady back in Chester the first). I can see the bright red pick-up aiming for me in my mirror. So I brace myself for it and get ready to vacate the road if he is ass-holey enough to require it. But he just skims by really close. Joke is on him. I don’t even flinch because I saw him coming and was ready for it. He is also very bad at physics. He lays on his horn but starts too late, and he is already beyond me when the audio blast comes out. I don’t even bother to flip him off.

Roar. Roar. Hear me roar. I am cranking down the miles on an incredibly crap day. The temps have never really risen. It is still in the 40s and the rain still pelts down. Pedal it out, woman! Go! Go! Go! I promise myself a motel room if I can make it to Havre. I think about turning on the heater to “Australia Summer” and a hot shower to remove all the grit and grime. How many days ago was it that it was 103F? The wind continues to swing and gives me a push.

I’m wet. So is the whole world it seems.

About 12 miles out of Havre, another red pick-up comes up beside me. But this guy slows, rolls the passenger window down and says, “Hey, you wanna ride into town?” He is a rancher sort of guy about my age. I smile and say, “Oh, thanks so much, but I’m good. I’m almost there.” He yells back, “Okay then” and heads on. Just up the road, he pulls into a driveway and turns around. Awesome, he wasn’t even going my way, but he bothered to turn around, come back and offer a ride into town. Thank you so much Red Pickup Man 2, you more than made up for Red Pickup Man 1!

The terrain becomes hillier as I ride into Havre. Current and two past river drainages flow through this section. I wish it wasn’t so wet so I could look at them more closely. The remnant drainage right outside Havre is the pre-glacial path of the Missouri.

Havre sits on and among the river bluffs. I almost laugh out loud when I see the size of the hill I need to climb into town. Yep, that would be appropriate 103 miles into a very wet day! I go spinning up, slowly, dripping as much water off of me as that still coming down from the sky. On the way up the hill, there is a hotel that I know will be out of my price range, so I keep going. There is a Super 8 on top of the hill. I try there.

When I walk in, totally soaked, water dripping from tendrils of my hair, the check-in lady doesn’t even flinch. She talks to me like I’m totally dry and just walked in wearing business attire. It probably attests to all the crazy things she’s seen that a totally drenched person in full rain gear doesn’t even raise an eyebrow. She’s got rooms, but only on the second floor. I ask if I can take the bike up to the room, and if she has some spare rags I can use to wipe it down first. All good.

But it’s not over yet. I don’t have food and everything is down the other side of the hill. So warmth will have to wait. I fly down the hill toward downtown, find a fast food Mexican place, then leave puddles of water at the counter, on the table, on the bench seat, on everything I touch. I’m like the wet and poor version of Midas.

Then I pedal back up the steep hill and go leave a trail of water all through a Dollar Store in an attempt to restock my snack supply. Finally, I get back to the motel – it is still raining! – and wipe down all of my gear and the bike, then carry the bike up, then carry the gear up, then peel off all of my wet clothes. Naked and pruned, I start to hang up the wet stuff after I turn the heater on. But about 30 seconds later, an acrid smell fills the room and sets the smoke detector off. Great! I am naked. The smoke alarm is going off. Yep, the challenges of touring sometimes come in ways unexpected.

I shut off the heater and throw open the window, inadvertently flashing my tiny tits at a man standing in the parking lot below. He looks up and grins very big. Oops! But crisis averted. The building alarm doesn’t go off. I turn the air conditioner back on and rearrange things in the hope that cold blasting air will dry things a little overnight. I hop in the hot shower and get warmed up. What a day!

So the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge all over the media ends with folks nominating friends to undertake the challenge. But I nominate no one for Mother Nature’s ALS Challenge – riding 105 miles in potentially hypothermia-inducing conditions is only for the tough or crazy. Being thoroughly pruned and totally squelchy is not all that pleasant at 43F. But I’m a tough, crazy gal and proud to have done another century ride in such crap conditions. Keep the days coming – I never want the tour to end!

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