Day 102: Bozeman, MT to Wilsall, MT - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

July 23, 2011

Day 102: Bozeman, MT to Wilsall, MT

I haven't slept in a bed in the last week and my body knows it. Every time I think about getting vertical it tells me, "Just ten more minutes"—and then I listen and don't wake up again for an hour. The squish of a real mattress, the soft support of a pillow that isn't a towel, and walls that block out the weather and noise of the outside world are beyond luxury after 101 days on the road.

Heart 0 Comment 0

I ride away from the hostel rested, shaved, showered, and ready to conquer Montana. Well, almost. First there's pizza. I can't leave a real city like Bozeman without loading up on enough delicious pizza to feed a family of four.

Heart 0 Comment 0

I end up a newer place that tries its hardest to look both modern and rustic, with chairs and booths and ceiling beams that look like they were hand-carved from giant pine trees, mixed in with stainless steel counter tops and expensive glass. I sit at a table next to a couple in their early 70s. She's a beast of a woman in a light green ankle-length dress, while he's a skinny little guy with bifocals, a sport coat, and a thin head of bright silver hair. They sit across from each other for the better part of an hour without saying more than a few words, staring past the person in front of them and out onto the activity of Main Street in stone-faced silence as songs from The Smiths, The Cure, and Duran Duran burst from the speakers overhead.

It isn't that they're upset at each other, it's that after 40 or 50 years of marriage and raising a family there's nothing they could say that hasn't already been said, and they both understand that. I keep sneaking glances in their direction, waiting to see them say something—anything—but it never happens. I start to feel sad for them. Then I think about how awful it would be if Desiree and I got to that point. It's depressing as hell. But before I can get too down a woman walks past pushing a stroller with a little Shetland Sheepdog sitting in the seat. It's such a ridiculous scene that in an instant I forget about every serious thought clanking around in my head.

Heart 0 Comment 0

I don't leave town until almost 1:00. I ride toward the north through a wide valley called Bridger Canyon. Expensive country estates and more modest farms pop up every half mile or so, and huge fields are filled with waves of green grass or giant round bales of yellow hay. The surrounding hillsides are thick with trees, and deer and elk occasionally drop down from them and trot across the road in front of me. Even though the sun shines brightly and directly overhead, the day is cool and the wind gives me a push of the subtly but constantly rising road.

Within 15 miles I leave the last of the homes and ski resorts behind and find myself pushing up steep hills through untouched National Forest land.

Heart 0 Comment 0

The longest climb of the day brings me to the top of Battleridge Pass. I've seen all kinds of strange and interesting things on this trip, but the pass manages to toss something new my way. Standing at the crest of the road in head-to-toe suits of leather dotted with patches of road rash are Noah and Zack, a couple of fresh-faced guys no older than 20. They're downhill skateboarders and they're just about to bomb down the huge descent to the north.

Noah and Zack. Hardcore.
Heart 1 Comment 0

"Wanna race?" Noah says with a smile.

"Maybe," I tell him. "I'm not sure I can keep up with you guys."

"How fast do you ride that thing?"

"35 or 40. It gets a little wild after that."

"Yeah, we might do that," he says with a little laugh that tells me 35 to 40 miles per hour is on the slow side for them. Badass.

As we stand and talk the guys zip up their leathers, put on helmets with full face shields, and set their boards on the ground. The boards are longer than a normal skateboard and have wider wheels, but they still look like just about the last thing anyone would want to ride down a mountain pass.

Just before I clip in to start the ride down, Noah hands me a business card.

"Here's my card," he tells me. "Just so you know I'm the best skateboarder here."

A team logo and Noah's name are printed on one side of the card. On the other is a picture of him giving a thumbs-up with a caption that reads, "Best skateboarder here." If someone can fly down these monster hills on a skateboard regularly and live to tell about it, they've earned the right to say things like that.

I start down first, with the guys a couple hundred feet behind me. In less than half a mile each one blows past, in a tight crouch, six inches off the ground, wheels howling. My speedometer reads 40 miles per hour and I have to grab a handful of brakes to keep from shooting off into a canyon as they bend and twist their way into the distance. They ride smooth, calm, collected, and effortlessly, making something impossibly difficult look very easy. I'm beyond impressed.

Heart 0 Comment 0

The huge drop down from the pass spits me out into a different world. Gone are the nearby mountains topped with snow that rise up from the sides of a closed-in valley. In their place I see rolling hills of light green and yellow, grazing cows, and a few hundred thousand sagebrush plants. It's wide open and beautiful—Big Sky country at its best. And it's the perfect day to ride it.

Heart 2 Comment 0

I roll into the hundred-person town of Wilsall in the early evening. With a grocery store, a restaurant, a bar, and an attractive park it's bike touring gold. When I scope out the park to look for a secluded spot to set up at later, I find someone cleaning out the covered pavilion. His name is Ken. He's in his late 50s, wears a salt and pepper beard, and has a Wilsall Longhorns ball cap on his head, the shade of which matches his faded blue jeans. Because it looks like he's the caretaker of the park I do something I've never before done on this trip: ask for permission to set up the tent.

"Well, I don't know," he says. "We got a class reunion in here tomorrow. Biggest thing we had in town for awhile. So I guess the soonest you'll be able to set up is tomorrow night."

Not good. I pry a little deeper.

"What class is it?" I ask.

"Class of '61," he explains. "The largest graduating class we ever had here in Wilsall."

"How large is large?"

"About 21."

Twenty-one! Not exactly the huge party I pictured as the biggest thing. That means no one will be around until later in the morning, so I go for the sale.

"I'll be out of here by 6:00," I say. "I've got a long day ahead and I need to be on the road early. I can set up anywhere."

"Well," he says, followed by a moment's pause, "I guess that won't be a problem. In fact, you can probably set up in the shade, right next to that tree over there."

Heart 1 Comment 0

Montrose, Missouri is still an outlier. Everyone else I've met who sees the bike and understands what I'm doing has no problem lending a hand when it's needed. Standing next to the covered pavilion I feel better about Wilsall and better still about small-town America.

Over the next 20 minutes I learn that Ken's the only one of five siblings that stuck around in Wilsall. Most kids leave town once they're able, so the population of the town continues to fall. In the jumbled mess of a story that follows I find out that Ken's mother is close to death, that his truck-driving younger sister hasn't been heard from in almost two decades, that he recently had to go to court over a local property line dispute, that he lost his job with the county after using one of their giant lawnmowers on private property, and that the farmer who owns the cattle that graze near the top of Battleridge Pass is a real asshole.

Ken warns me about the sprinklers before I head off to the restaurant. They come on at 4:00 in the morning every other day, he explains. Then, in the middle of telling me about the areas I should avoid, he stops, walks over to a control box, and flips a couple of switches.

"There," he says. "Now they won't come on until Monday morning."

My hero.

Heart 0 Comment 0

In the evening I set up next to but not under the freshly cleaned pavilion. The birds that nest in the rafters cry out in a loud chorus of chirping until the second the sun passes below the horizon. Then the air instantly starts to cool and all I hear is the hum of a nearby air conditioner, the rustling of tree leaves and branches in the light breeze, and the occasional car passing through on the highway. I head to sleep feeling so happy, on the heels of one of the most satisfying days in recent memory.

Today's ride: 41 miles (66 km)
Total: 5,194 miles (8,359 km)

Rate this entry's writing Heart 2
Comment on this entry Comment 0