Days 83 & 84: Huffing and Puffing into Butte (and huffing and puffing getting out of it)

I left Lewis and Clark Caverns feeling rested, but not necessarily strong – I’ve kind of developed a sixth sense for knowing how well I’ll ride on a given morning, and that morning I was feeling weak. This was unfortunate given that I had 2,500 feet of climbing ahead of me over the Continental Divide for the last time. But I did what I always do. I got on my bike and started riding, trying to find my legs:

I was definitely sluggish in the morning despite an energy-heavy breakfast, but it was easy to forget with scenery like this:

The mountain butted up directly next to the road, and it gave me a very excited feeling. I’m telling you, I love the mountains. They’ve given me so much since coming into Denver with the Delaware rowers a month ago. 

And then a sight that got the geography geek in me excited:

Three modes of transportation that span the history of settlement in this country within feet of each other. Very, very cool. 

I made it into La Hood and made a pit stop at the lone gas station:

I talked to the workers there and asked them what the road was like going into Butte. They asked if I was on a bicycle. Yup. They immediately got a pained look on their faces. “Oh, it’s really, really steep. It’s hard on even my car. Bless you!” 

And then one of the more bizarre incidents I’ve had at a gas station on the tour. A couple pulled their pickup truck and camper trailer to the air hose to fill up the tires. But they didn’t know the pressure:

I offered my bike pump. I told them the gauge would work just fine for dialing it in. They did their checks and and were grateful for the peace of mind. I felt good for helping… But honestly, my entertainment at being a cyclist saving the day for motorists tickled me more.

As the sign says, I was making my way to Whitehall:

Lewis and Clark iconography has been thick on the landscape since entering Montana, and given that I’m going to be on the Lewis and Clark trail from Missoula to the coast, it’ll probably only increase. I find myself increasingly wanting to learn more about their expedition. It’s one of the great adventures in history and I can’t imagine the hardships they endured. All in good time I guess. 

In Whitehall I saw one of the strangest public installments:

Ok… So this is a fountain without a fountain…that’s caged in…with a pile of rocks in the middle… And a plastic bald eagle on top. It felt like a Marcel Duchamp found art piece. Here’s the story:

Well alright then. 

Leaving Whitehall I knew my climbing was ahead of me:

This was perhaps the most foresight I’d been given to a mountain I had to climb. They seem to generally just start going up through mountains too massive to fully comprehend visually. But here it was all laid out for me as if to intimidate. I just kept pedaling. 

I finished my descending to the base and then started going up through the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest on MT-2:

The climbing immediately felt different than what I’d conquered previously. The gradient felt just a tad steeper, but it was probably in my head. The real difference was elevation. I’m much closer to sea level than I have been, and the heat was much more of a factor. I had to stop regularly, every couple miles or so, where the cliffs would provide a bit of shade. But it only did so much. The Pipestone Pass I was climbing up was a beast. 

But then, for the second day in a row, wildlife took over the highway:

“Wildlife” feels a bit extreme when talking about cows, but this calf and it’s mom were willy nilly. I stopped and waited for them to pass before riding on. I guess this is open range country…

If the climb started out hard, it just continued to get harder. The heat was baking me as I pedaled with everything in me in the lowest gear to make it to the top. I didn’t know how far I had to go – there was no signage to indicate my relative location, and I didn’t know how long the climb was. I just knew I had to do it. 

I eventually made it to the top unceremoniously. The climbing morphed into a downgrade relatively quickly around the southern parking lot for Thompson Park. I had made the Continental Divide for the last time on the tour and for the first time there was no sign to mark it. But then I went down…

And oh what a joy it was. Ever since coming down to Breckenridge I have been hungry for a speedy descent and have been robbed time and time again because of strong headwinds. But not this time. For several miles I was in a sheer state of bliss as my bike bombed down the pass without anything hindering my speed. There were plenty of fits of giddy laughter and “WAHHOOOOO!”s as I cut through the open road, negotiating hairpin turns with incredible speed and ease. It was so worth the effort to the top. You don’t get any free descents out here. I started this ride at zero elevation and I’ll finish it there. But in between you must pay. I paid, and I was so, so handsomely rewarded. 

But then the road flattens out, and with it, my glee. All good things must come to an end. But Butte was in the distance, yet still wasn’t far:

Proximity to town meant I had a cell signal for the first time since Whitehall and used it to figure out where I was going to sleep. There was a KOA… Which charged $30 for the privilege of pitching a tent. Uhhh…. No. Hotwire gave me a room with wifi and AC for $20 more. I booked it. 

As I got closer to Butte proper it proved to be quite an interesting town:

Butte was a mining town that went bust and then rebounded… As much as a mining town can. But the mining infrastructure situated in the middle of town was a wonderfully bizarre sight:

My hotel was on the edge of town to the west, which was fine by me, as it would cut down my long ride the following day by a few miles. But to get there I had only one possible route to take – the interstate:

It was only a few miles, but the novelty of riding on the interstate was just as potent as it was in Wyoming. 

At the hotel I tried my best to relax. I was feeling a combination of exhaustion and elation after climbing on a weak day and then the monster descent. But I had an 80 mile ride ahead of me with some 1300 feet of climbing ahead of me the next day… Or so I thought. 

*** *** ***

I woke up the next morning checking the forecast – winds of 15-20mph coming out of the west-northwest with gusts up to 25mph. I was to ride west-northwest. Yay. 

I wasn’t feeling it early on, still feeling as beat down as I did the day before. But I can’t let that stop me out here. I’m on a mission, and I was excited to see Missoula. So I hit the frontage road for I-90, when I hit a sight I hadn’t seen since coming out of Pittsburgh:

A seemingly public road that goes through private land. Hmm. 

I turned around and sat in the hotel lobby to figure out my way to Drummond, halfway to Missoula where there was a campground. The only other option was to take the interstate. 
I felt a bit uneasy about this, in no small part because I knew the vicious wind would be so much more intense on the open highway. I looked up the Bicycle Coordinator for the Montana Department of Transportation (yes, that’s a real job, and they’re awesome). Michelle answered immediately and she was wonderful. I told her my situation and she assured me that riding on the interstate was perfectly legal and I wouldn’t have a problem. I thanked her and climbed back on the bike for I-90. 

The wind was hitting me immediately. I knew instantly that this would be the hardest day of wind since I left New York. 

I probably didn’t even break 10mph, and I was working as hard as ever to do it. The 12 foot shoulder was plenty for safety but the force of the passing traffic at 70mph combined with the 20mph headwinds were throwing me all over the shoulder. I tried to just focus on the road with all I had (hence no pictures) but eventually I just felt defeated. 

I made it to the frontage road (it eventually went public again) in hopes that the few tres would block some wind. It did a little bit but were no match. The wind was just overwhelming and quickly wearing me down. I made it to an underpass to get shielded by it while I looked for lodging in Deer Lodge 7 miles up the road. 

A similar predicament presented itself – camping, but expensive when I could pay just a bit more for a flea bag motel room. I rode into town and found one, which stung. I don’t like getting this many hotel rooms this frequently. But the heavy wind combined with the slight cost difference made the decision a bit easier. I’m more upset that I could only manage a measly 38 miles between 10:30 and 1:45. But the wind is supposed to be much less severe tomorrow and the additional rest has done me well. Missoula awaits, it’s just going to have to wait a bit more. All I can do is give the road my all tomorrow. 


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