Higher and Higher
It was raining again. The forecast called for sunny skies in the afternoon. I decided to wait and have a late start to the day, and wound up leaving at 11:00 AM, by far my latest start to date. I usually leave around 8:00, but I've been getting better at pushing that a little earlier.
Ezra, who is on a "hitchbiking" tour himself, joined me for the morning. His bike is noticeably more weighed down than Valeria, and he wears street clothes as he rides. I was impressed that he was going at my pace, seemingly without any trouble! As we made our way up a long hill, though, he started falling back, sometimes by a minute or more.
It stopped raining on the way up the hill, and even started to warm up a little bit. The land all around us was completely flooded. Entire new creeks were running in places you could tell they usually don't.
The border guard only had a few questions for me, let me know the hill was over in only 3/4 of a mile, and sent me on through. I decided to wait for Ezra, who was still in line behind a car. Another border guard approached.
"Are you the one coming down from Alaska?"
"Uh, yeah, I guess, that's where I started."
"We heard about you. Did you go through all that weather the last few days?"
I shook my head and grinned, "Yeah..."
"We heard the Great Divide racers were gettin' snow!"
Oh man, at least I wasn't getting that again...
Ezra got through with no problem and we headed out. I'm not even kidding, but almost the minute we got into Montana, the sky turned blue, the sun came out, and it turned into a beautiful warm day. The good ol' USA was treating me right. And it started off with a big downhill and a gorgeous view.
I'd wanted to go into Glacier National Park, but due to the bad weather, the roads into the park were staying closed unseasonably late. So I'd have to either wait around for a week or skip it. I skipped it.
I got away from Ezra on a few hills, which culminated in a humongous descent into Babb, MT, where two packages were waiting for me. One containing the tires I was always supposed to have (until my bike shop changed my order without telling me), and the other a few handy things I had my parents send from home. They included some nuts, trail mix, and a cookie for good measure. Thanks, guys!
I unpacked my panniers and spread everything out next to the post office. I was planning on sending a few things home, then re-organizing the panniers based on the added space. Just before the post office closed, I managed to send home a package that was probably close to 4 kg. That oughta make a difference!
Of course, most of that weight was stuff I was sending home in place of things I had just received, making it a net loss of zero. But I do think I've dropped a small amount of weight. The tires are lighter, for example, and rotational weight counts double. Plus they're a smoother tread, which should make them roll faster as long as I'm on pavement.
Perhaps the biggest change is that I managed to free up a little room in the panniers, which has allowed me to stuff the sleeping pad in a pannier and lay the tent lengthwise on top of the rack, instead of having them both strapped sideways across the back. This has two benefits:
1. The rear panniers are easier to access, and
2. Valeria has a smaller forward-facing profile, making her slightly more aerodynamic. I won't pretend a touring bike would ever be classified as "aerodynamic," but we're talking about a surface area the size of a license plate, and I think that could make a small difference on a long day into the wind.
Sadly, the rear-facing sign with the World Bicycle Relief and the Texas Exes stickers had gone kaput in the two weeks of rain. It was now a permanently soggy mess and was hard to read. I had to toss it. I still had a few small stickers from each of them though, and while they're less visible than the sign, I think they're a fitting addition to Valeria.
New tires, less cargo, Valeria’s running a little more lean and mean! I like it.
Ezra caught up to me at the post office and decided to stay at a campsite in Babb. I was trying to get to Great Falls the next day, roughly 270 km from Babb, so staying put wasn’t an option. I would have to press on to Browning, the next town on the way.
Those last two hours involved a strong cross wind and a few big hills. When I got to Browning, still 210 km from Great Falls, I still wanted to log more distance to make the next day shorter. Besides, the road took a turn that would give me a rockin' tailwind for that last extra distance. According to the locals, there was literally nothing between there and Dupuyer, 75 km away.
I'll point out here something I'd forgotten about the lower 48: almost all land is privately owned and fenced in. Even the vast majority of public land has a fence around it. I don't know if that's needed because we're that destructive, or if we're too overprotective. I think it might be a little of both. Either way, it's sad that we feel the need to protect our land from our own people. And for me, it means the end of being able to find camping wherever I need to.
It was already 8:30 at night. There was still two hours of daylight to work with, and I now had working lights on Valeria, but ending a day of riding at 11:00 or later, then pitching my tent in this kind of wind in the dark, it didn't sound like a good idea. I decided to stay in Browning.
When I mentioned I might stay in Browning, two people had told me it wouldn't be a good place to stay. Almost immediately, I found out why. At least a couple stray dogs on literally every block. A lot of people walking the streets or loitering, not that I have any problem with that, but as soon as I ever stopped, I'd get swarmed by about eight people who wanted to ask me for money. Two guys almost got into a fight for the right to talk to me, before they both asked me for 50 cents. Almost starting a fight over the chance of less than a dollar. I decided that instead of asking around, I'd just splurge and get a hotel room, my first of the ride, over a month into it.
It wound up costing more than I would've liked ($80 to let me lie down somewhere is, to me, a lot of money), but it was nice to be able to open up all the panniers again and finish the job I'd started at the post office. And the breakfast the next morning was, well, it was OK (no hot food), but I ate a ton of it and I met a cool Swiss couple who were also on a bike tour, more or less around the world, with a hop or two in between. We were headed the same direction today, only I was going twice as far. We said our goodbyes after breakfast, knowing we wouldn't be riding together today.
210 km was my longest day yet. Thankfully, not many hills, even less hills as I went, a light tailwind late in the day, and the best single day of weather I've had thus far. I made excellent time throughout most of the day, but, well, 210 km is still a lot. In the last 30 km, I was dog tired.
After I made one of the very last turns of the day, I looked up and saw one of the most dramatic abrupt changes in the sky I can recall. Clear blue skies straight above, the sun still shining. But ahead, with no transition whatsoever between the two, ominously dark gray-navy clouds, the kind that would produce a violent thunderstorm. The weather was about to go from zero to sixty.
John, my WarmShowers host, had decided to go for an evening ride (it was now just past 7:00 PM), and he met me on the road and led me to his place. We managed to get in only about 10 minutes before the rain started. The streak was over! After 15 straight days, a whole day with no rain!!
John and his family had already eaten, but saved me a heaping amount of homemade chili and a couple of biscuits. Normally I prefer to shower first thing if I can, but I felt so depleted, I didn't care and ate first thing, still wearing my bike clothes. After showering, John followed it up with peaches and ice cream. Hit the spot!
And how do you follow your longest distance of the ride? Why, by reaching your highest elevation so far, of course. And go ahead and do 170 km for good measure.
The first 50 km just flew by, but after that, the next 70 km would be almost one long, steady climb to the highest pass I'd crossed. There was one dip in the entire 70 km climb, which only made me mad that I'd have to do that work all over again.
Most of the second half of the hill followed a river upstream. That's almost never too difficult, because as long as you're following a river, you're going with the grain and staying between the mountains, not crossing or climbing them. The only thing was I was climbing to the source, and then some.
Early on, I was able to keep it in a cruising gear and mostly maintain a respectable speed. As the climb went on, I watched the river change from a trickle to a steady flow, and eventually a rapid cascade down the rocks, whiter and faster as I went. The road, in turn, kept getting steeper and steeper!
The last few km before the pass probably weren't nearly the hardest climb of the ride, but after going almost exclusively uphill for 70 km, they seemed tough. From there, a 50 km cruise down into town. I'll admit I was disappointed that the wicked awesome downhill part didn't last very long.
Apparently I've been following Lewis and Clark's path, backwards. I know they made it to the ocean in Oregon, so I was surprised to learn they came this far north. Fun to be a small part of history.
John in Great Falls had told me that the hotel that owns the hot springs in town would let me camp nearby for free, and getting in the hot springs would cost $5. They wanted $17 to let me camp with no services, which wouldn't cost them a thing, and $14 to get in the springs, which wouldn't cost them a thing. Yeah, no.
For the first time, I asked a church if I could stay the night on the floor and they said yes. Incredible I got this far before it happened once. On my Idaho tour, that was almost every day. And by now, I would've already made it to Idaho, and even made it halfway back! Maybe it's an American thing?