Out of the Mountains and Into the Plains
Montana is officially giant. Especially if you ride across it like a drunken sailor rollicking on a ship’s deck. Instead of a straight shot across and 500 miles, it took us 25 days and 1,080 miles of pedaling from the time we hit the border in the SW corner and then up into Canada before cutting SE (check map below). We’re averaging 51 miles/day with six days resting or exploring towns along the way, right where we want to be. And now that we’ve crossed into Nebraska, we’ve officially hit the plains! Verdict still out on how interesting they are… I’ll say this: We in the northwest are very spoiled with our gorgeous landscapes and green scenery.
With that many miles, we covered a vast amount of terrain in Montucky (as my friend Margi lovingly calls it). Rivers cutting through forested valleys were gobbled up by the magnificent Rocky Mountains of Glacier and Waterton Parks, which then turned into rolling hills of wheat fields as we hit north-central Montana coming out of Canada. Heading south, we crossed through deep river valleys at the headwaters of the the Missouri River, spinning past the same route Lewis and Clark trudged and floated through 150+ years ago. Pointing our wheels east, we hit long climbs and dry landscapes seared by wind that tossed us about like two plastic bags in a parking lot. A few days of 80+ miles through the middle of nowhere, marked only by the occasional unoccupied rural post office with peeling paint, and we finally hit South Dakota, our fifth state of the tour. From there, we climbed up to 6,500′ elevation into the Black Hills while hanging with motorcyclists heading to the Sturgis Rally while making our way into (as it says on the sign) “Nebraska: The Good Life.”
It is hard to believe it has already been more than 30 days on the bikes. Time slows down out here, that’s for sure. In a good way, and sometimes in a is-this-FrakkZore-of-a-hellhole-hill-ever-going-to-end kinda way. Headwinds, especially uphill into them, are officially more difficult than mountain passes and I’d trade gusts in the face for a giant climb over Glacier any day. Emotionally weak and scrambling to rationalize things, I remind myself that I chose to be here while taking zero comfort in the fact that everyone we meet tells us, “Wow, these winds are rare. They almost always blow to the east.” What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but I’ve had a couple screaming outbursts at the wind, yelling obscenities into their uncaring Maw of Cyclist Hate. Bike touring is a moving meditation with occasional reminders that I’m so very human. Back to my breath, pedal pedal pedal. Praise the cycling gods for podcasts and audiobooks because too much time alone in my head out here and I’d be chewing bar tape off my handlebars like a psychotic rat.
What to say about a month+ of touring? In July, we spent almost 120 hours pedaling, by far the most I’ve spent on a bike in a month. Not a full time job, but close enough at anywhere from 5-8 hours/day cranking away to deserve benefits or at least a support vehicle with a water cooler (any volunteers?). As my muscles steel themselves to cycling, I’m finding that I’m more mentally tired than physically exhausted at the end of a day, though Chelsea might vote differently. It is exhausting, and slow going compared to the full expanse we will eventually cover, but the reality is that we’re within 45-60 days of hitting the east coast, which is pretty crazy to think about. Day by day, we pedal and chip away at our goal.
Of course I must mention the characters and cool people from all over the states that we meet at every rest stop and restaurant. We loved a dinner with a nice couple (hi Jim and Shawn!) in “pre-tirement.” They quit their jobs to cycle west on a tandem on a trip Shawn was first inspired to do 40 years earlier in 1976 when she heard of the Trans-America Bi-Centennial ride. We met a cheery and fun Swiss woman named Regi dressed for tennis riding from NYC to San Francisco. Beyond that, countless people approach at various stops to chat about our trip and offer their blessings for safe travel. We also loved a stay with two young, forward-thinking farmers (hi Casey and Kelsey!) who we stayed with for a couple days, playing around and pretending we were helping out while I pretty much just got in the way I’m sure. I rode in the combine and jumped some hay bales…it almost felt like work! Man oh man do farmers work hard – makes me appreciate, once again, where our food comes from. And a special shout out to the Warm Showers hosts that we’ve stayed with – thanks mucho Alan Da Man and John+Rebecca.
I think the biggest takeaway so far is that our bodies and minds are powerful machines when given the opportunity to shine. Both are working hard these days while stepping up to the plate to crank some home runs. (Except when I’m swearing at the wind. That’s more like a mental ground-out to the shortstop.) We’ve come a fair piece, yet it is slightly daunting to think how far we still have to go, about 2,500 miles more to Maine after 1,400 traversed in total so far. I know we can do it, though I’ve come to realize this is no small undertaking. Perhaps I was a bit flippant up front, but I’m gaining more respect for how difficult this trip is and just how long it takes. A quarter of a year, third of a pregnancy or an entire summer is a big commitment to one adventure!
The toughest thing as of late is no downtime. We get up, pack up our paltry few possessions and ride. Get to our destination, unpack, shower (hopefully), find food to eat for that night and the next day. Sleep like the dead (unless surrounded by idling semis), though with muscles that hurt more than a mummy’s. Repeat, ad nauseum. Whew! It was easier with breathtaking scenery. Rolling fields are a bit less inspiring, and the aforementioned winds tax both body and mind like a fat anchor clanging along tied to our bikes.
Still, we are having fun and carrying on with lots of laughs with people we meet and one another! Any journey has its headwinds and I feel truly lucky to have created the space to spend with Chelsea to test our will together while exploring this great country. We’re spending tons of quality time together, as well as plenty apart in headphone-land to keep sane. I feel closer to my wife than I have in years as we pedal together each day with only one another (and Danielle Steele bodice-rippers for me) for support. It’s a powerful bonding experience, one I know we will both draw on in the future as a source of strength in the face of something “difficult” that is really just something we don’t want to do. “Remember that impossibly tough day biking from Broadus to Alzada?” we can ask ourselves, and just smile because we NEVER have to do that ride again.
We are now heading east on Nebraska’s Highway 20 through the Sand Hills, just below South Dakota. A weathered bike tourist in middle-of-nowhere Montana whom we ran into said said 1) “Hooray! I haven’t seen another cyclist in a month!” and 2) the Sand Hills of Nebraska are awesome compared to eastern South Dakota. And so here we are, in the state from which Chelsea’s grandparents hail and where Warren Buffet lives in the house he bought for $31,500 decades ago.
Be it headwinds, monotony or thunderstorms (we’ve out-sprinted one already), onward through the plains!