There are pictures on the WWW. of people not too much further ahead of us than 100 miles, going through this area in coats. In a few short days Montana, the Big Sky Country AKA – ‘ The Last best place ‘, has turned to dog biscuit dry and oven range hot too. We are in a diner just a little on from Sheridan. Getting up early and putting a few miles on the clock before first breakfast, we have tried to beat the heat. There are two big climbs today that will coincide with the full heat of the day no matter what we do short of biking at night.
I am the only guy not wearing a cowboy hat or a baseball cap. Seated too far from the table of farmers I can only hear the occasional snatch of conversation. The punchline to the last story was – ” And you know what, we never did find that snake “. On we go and already it is hot enough to be a heat-wave in Scotland. Hay crops are drying, some being turned and a few ready for bailing. This is grass country and not a good place to live if you have any sort of pollen allergy or dislike of cows.
Dillon is ahead and the first of the climbs. For the first time on this side of the country we are biking in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark. The road uses one of the natural gaps in the landscape. Beaverhead valley is named after an outcrop which with a huge amount of imagination, resembles a Beaver. This is the gateway to ancient hunting grounds and is now a nature reserve. Cranes call from the pools under Beaverhead Rocks. Time in this landscape feels like it passes at the very opposite speed to ‘ Dog Years ‘. Lewis and Clark would recognise just about everything and like me would conclude that modern music is rubbish.
45 miles to Jackson, with no bailout and it is 102’f to begin the days climbing. I think we have got the measure of the road ahead, but we will underestimate the wind, which is twice as strong as advertised. Parchment dry, the air has to be gulped in with the effort of the climb. Within a few minutes my mouth is uncomfortably dry and my front teeth are glued to the inside of my lip.
6,000 ft showing on the gps, so just 700 to do. I am concentrating on a patch of road just half a dozen feet in front of my wheel, tying not to look up at the climb ahead. Legs need to stay fluid, turning with power on the down, but also pulling up through the cleats locked into the bike. Trying to stay loose enough not to grip the bar too much and tense up, but not flapping around and allowing the bike to flap from side to side. I must not give any energy away, nothing must be wasted on a climb. Other bikers have shoes and stuff dangling from their bags. On a climb you have to fight against these as they flap, they drain your power by 1% of 1%, but it adds up.
Big Hole Pass 7,400 ft and not a moment of it can I remember now. A purple line on the gps stretches to Jackson. It is not far at all, but always beyond one more curve, one more shoulder of the hill. I have never worked harder to get to anywhere and yet not one of Jackson’s population of 38 is on the streets applauding our arrival. We camp behind the Hot Springs Hotel. 86.62 miles and 3931 ft of climbing will take more than half an hour in a thermal pool to recover from.
I am trying to get cold water to come from the taps in the place, not knowing that this is impossible. A still night but warm enough for mosquitos to make gazing at the stars uncomfortable. Cows do their calling and later in the night Coyote cry out to each other.
The land of 10,000 Haystacks. Big Hole Valley grows cows and grass in inconceivable quantities. The worlds biggest hay bale was made here, which had a sort of inevitability about it. Grass fields, if you can still call them fields, stretch to a horizon of snow-capped mountains that rise abruptly. It is like Switzerland on steroids.
Today’s climb starts to pull upwards at Beaver National Forest. The big sky of the plains is broken for the first time in many miles by trees. Yesterday’s climb was dry and here we are with the sounds of running water. We had to stop and filter water yesterday, and searched for miles to find a suitable stream. Today, mountain fresh water is tumbling all around us. This must be one of our favorite National Forests. Pine resin heated by the strength of todays sun is filling our lungs. You can bike through a million miles of pine in northern Europe and never get this intensity of smells. Off to the side there are deer sheltering in shade, they watch us pass.
7241 ft and another crossing of the Continental Divide for us. I have nothing what so ever left in my legs. So hurrah for the longest downhill of the whole coast to coast adventure and thank goodness for glaciation or we would have to climb thousands of feet more. A right turn onto HWY 93 and we dive down in the direction of Missoula 3,000 ft bellow us.
It was hot at the top and descending we drop into air that is hot to the touch. It roars in our ears as we get up to 40 mph. We drop into Bitterroot Valley and into the town of Darby for the nights campground. It is one of those nights in a tent when an unplanned movement will bring cramps and swearing in equal measure. Now the nights may be clear, but we have lost the cool of altitude.
A tailwind and we still have more delicious down hill to ride. The Bitterroot River joins us as we pick up a bike path. This keeps the feel of a mountain river as it and Team Sportswool enter a much more populated part of Montana for a while and the relative flesh-pot and hippy town that is Missoula. Our ride is by the side of a busy highway now, but still the scenery is breathtaking. If you want to spend retirement with a fishing rod in your hand, you could do far worse than move here.
Once more, and now for three days in a row, the day is longer than expected. We want to call in on Adventure Cycling HQ. Inevitably, it is at the far end of town. The team greet us like family, which I guess we are in a strange way. We get our photos taken for the national archive and our bikes weighed. This was a number I am not sure I ever wanted to know, but here it is. Let the records show that Esther’s bike weighs 87 pounds and my bike weighs 89 pounds. We have to pedal all of that weight back up the hill will just came down when we start again. Esther has a new sketchbook for your delight – it can be seen HERE!!!