Day 104: Lewis & Clark National Forest to Great Falls, MT - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

July 25, 2011

Day 104: Lewis & Clark National Forest to Great Falls, MT

Rain starts falling five minutes before I'm about to get up, just before daybreak. I hustle outside, throw on the rain fly, and then dive back into the warmth of the sleeping bag in less than a minute. The cracking of drops overhead lasts for several hours, which gives me more time to drift in and out of sleep with the rush of the river directly behind my head. It's not even 8:00 and the day is already an overwhelming success.

I ride out of the National Forest on gently winding roads that run in the shadows of tall hills dotted with sections of dark green pine trees that live in between the steep, tough, jagged sides of tan-colored rock. Deer munch on grass off to the edge of the road, birds chirp and call out to each other, and insects that sound just like the cicadas of the Midwest buzz constantly. Maybe they're out West on vacation. I'll take the calm and quiet and understated beauty of a National Forest over a tourist trap like Yellowstone every single time.

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The rain from earlier keeps the humidity high and sweat dumps in buckets as I push up over a big climb. It's the type of awful sweat I haven't felt since Illinois, the kind that makes my arms shine, turns the handlebar grips slippery, runs down my legs and onto the tops of my ankles, collects on the back of my neck, and drops down from my eyebrows and into my eyes at the exact moment a car passes by or a wind gust knocks me off balance, when I'm powerless to wipe it away and stop the stinging.

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As so often happens around here, I reach the top of the hill to find that the mountains are gone. Instead I speed down past wide open range land with mooing cows and baled hay and rolling hills that gently rise and fall out to the horizon. Farther on I pass through a river valley that would have seemed beautiful a month ago, but now paints an unexciting picture. The incredible landscapes of Montana and Wyoming and Colorado have completely changed the definition of what's stunning or amazing or gorgeous. I think I'll have just enough time to recalibrate the scale before I reach Glacier National Park and have my mind blown again.

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When Highway 89 joins up with a major east-west route that runs four lanes wide it turns into a disaster. The wonderful wide shoulder turns to a narrow, rough gutter that puts me way too close to tractor-trailers, RVs, loud diesel pickup trucks, and the hundreds and hundreds of other cars that haul ass toward Great Falls. It's the kind of road that reminds how easily I could die out here. If the driver of that Ford F-350 is busy punching in a new route on his GPS and drifts to the right, if that truck carrying a 15-foot-wide combine doesn't move over and take up both lanes, or if one of those ferris wheel cars slides off of the carnival-bound trailer, I'm spent, done for, toast. I try to push those thoughts out of my head, but during only a couple of hours I count seven white crosses along the westbound edge of the highway alone, each of which represents one person who died at that spot.

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I punch over another long hill and find myself surrounded by wheat fields. It's like being back in Kansas, which makes some sense because today's the first time I've passed below 4,000 feet since somewhere in the western half of Kansas. The winds are a special delivery from the Midwest, too—the kind that hit me on the left-front, enough to slow me to a crawl, push me from side to side, and almost blow me off the road, all at the same time. They turn what was supposed to be a quick and easy downhill run to Great Falls into a slow and painful slog. I lose my shit accordingly. I curse the wind for making me work hard. I call my elevation profile a liar and a bullshitter. When my contacts dry out and stick to my eyes and blur my vision I respond with a passionate, foul-mouthed rant that carries on and on and on as traffic hauls by on the other side of the white shoulder line. I've had such good luck with headwinds on this trip that I have no reason to complain, but if someone was around to give me that advice I'd tell them to go do something terrible and physically impossible involving their head and their ass.

It's not the best afternoon.

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My reward is the city of Great Falls, population 60,000 or so, which says hello with a four-lane divided highway surrounded by car dealerships, casinos, auto parts stores, gas stations, a Japanese massage parlor, and the crush of traffic it takes to support them all. I wind my way through residential streets to avoid it, past the aftermath of a drug bust, and eventually find downtown. Unfortunately it's the same story with a different name—low-profit businesses like tattoo shops and cafes with weird hours and no specific audience in mind that barely hold on to spaces in century-old buildings once occupied by name brand stores that moved to cheaper, more accessible land with better parking on the outskirts of town.

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I want so badly to keep riding when I see that the wind has died to nothing, but I'm stuck. The next town with camping is at least 40 miles away, and now that I'm out of forest country setting up in the woods isn't an option. I settle for an RV park in Great Falls, where the tenting area sits beyond the garbage bins and portable toilets like a fenced-in leper colony. The place caters to RVs and fifth-wheels and they're everywhere, at least 150 strong, in long and orderly lines, half of them mobile and the other half frozen in place with permanent staircases and well-groomed planter box gardens. Cords and hoses snake from all of them, providing hookups for power and water and the crapper.

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The permanent residents I understand. It's a cheap, clean, safe, convenient place to live, and they could do so much worse. But as I look at the motorhomes with Arizona, Washington, and Ohio license plates I try to figure out what brings their owners to a place like Dick's RV Park. After all those years of working and saving for retirement, and after dropping several hundred-thousand dollars on a shiny land yacht that's a home away from home, everything comes together in a big, mid-rate campground on the outskirts of the nondescript city of Great Falls, Montana, where I can't figure out what there is to do except watch TV or surf the Internet or finish sudoku puzzles, one right after another. I'd love to pick the brains of a few of the people staying here, but they're all tucked away inside their metal and fiberglass caves.

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The Pringles can is a great thing. Instead of fishing down into the bottom of a crinkled and greasy bag I can just tip the can back and let all the pieces slide down into my mouth. It's perfect.

As night falls I lay down in my tent, stare up into the rain fly, and listen to the strange world around me. Off to my right, a frustrated young woman yells at her ungrateful little black dog ("Penelope, stop! Pe-nel-o-pe!") Beyond my feet, two French-Canadian guys carry on a conversation punctuated every few minutes by an "Ohh faahhck!" or "Holly sheet!", both of which become more slurred as the hours pass. To my left, on the other side of the fence, teenagers walk by on their way to get stoned or drunk, with stuttering laughs and a lot of bros and dudes and mans. A thunderstorm rolls through just before 11:00, leaving me to fall asleep to the sound of tires splashing through puddles on the nearby road.

Today's ride: 59 miles (95 km)
Total: 5,344 miles (8,600 km)

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