Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Great Divide Chapter 3: Red Meadows to Lima

This stretch started at Red Meadows Pass, just north of Whitefish, Montana, and goes all the way until Rawlins, Wyoming. Included in this stretch is the brief jaunt into Idaho, lots of high desert riding, and the infamous Great Basin. Looking back on the trip now, having finished it almost a month ago, this section was some of my favorite riding. I think the reason why is because it really felt like the "heart" of the trip. We had started quite a while ago, but still had a long ways to go. Not being able to really see the start or finish was my favorite part about the trip.

I've said it a lot, but I really still don't have words to describe the trip. And I'm being over-dramatic like I won the lottery or something, I just mean that it's hard to find the right descriptor. Sure, I'm thankful to have Will to do it with. I feel accomplished for having ridden the route. But that's not the whole picture. I hope I get to do more trips like this in the future, but no matter how many more big trips I do - this one - being my first one and doing it with the perfect riding partner, is really special.

Day 11 - Red Meadows to Flathead Lake
We woke up this morning at the top of Red Meadows Pass. All around us was snow, and it felt sort of strange to be spending a late June morning in what looked like a winter wonderland. The other bikepackers we had seen tenting when we got there the night before were moving around and getting ready, so we chatted with them for a little bit.

Eventually, we got packed up and started riding. Well, actually started hiking. There was another 30 minutes or so of hike-a-bike through the snow. The good news, though, is that the snow was still firm from the night so the hiking was pretty easy. After cresting a second small pass, we started downhill, still hiking, but slowly being able to ride more and more. Before long, the snow was gone save for a few patches and we ripped downhill toward Whitefish. 

At the bottom of the hill we had our breakfast of Nutella on tortillas, which is actually quite good when the Nutella is firm from cold temperatures. After eating, we continued on mostly downhill toward Whitefish. We passed a park ranger who told us the road where we had came from was closed, but we told her (completely honestly) that we didn't see any signs. She didn't make a fuss, and we continued on.

We reached Whitefish, and after having some trouble finding a bike shop, we followed Mike's (from up in Canada) advice and stopped at Glacier Cyclery. There, I bought a new tire (a 2.25 Ikon) to replace the one I had torn quite badly the day before, and we got some new chains to replace ours which had been abused by grime.

After the bike shop, it was a quick stop at McDonald's before continuing down to Flathead Lake for the public campground. At camp, we could hear a storm roaring in then distance, but it never hit us. A friendly camper walked over and offered us some ice cream sandwiches. We talked for a while and he told us he had ridden the Colorado Trail before, and he had ridden tons of trails in his native Canada all around where we had been earlier. It was a pretty busy campground, and there was a lot of noise while trying to sleep, but it ended up being a nice place.

The campground at Red Meadows Pass, and leaving in the morning

 A little further down the backside of the pass, and the Nutella breakfast at the bottom

Day 12 - Flathead Lake to Lolo National Forest/Clearwater Lake
This day was characterized by absolutely supreme gravel roads and doubletrack. If you looked up "perfect bikepacking", this is what would come up. Zero traffic, just the right amount of chunk, and awesome views. And oh, all of this is in remote Montana, which made it even more unbelievable.

We saw a couple on the trail around mid-day, and we helped each other's bikes over a big fallen tree in the trail. We pretty much just weaved our way along the base of the Rockies the whole day, occasionally climbing up the mountain and ripping back down. 

After a gas station stop in the morning, we were on our own the rest of the day. On the last climb toward Clearwater Lake, we passed two other bikepackers on the side of the road. The one guy was wearing sandals (hence we called him "Sandals") and the other guy seemed quite serous. Despite being a heavier-set fellow, he had aero bars and full race-type gear. He might not have been riding extremely fast, but he seemed to be putting in long days on the bike. Major kudos to him.

The final climb up to Clearwater Lake was also pretty perfect. It started out as a regular gravel road (mind you, as regular as regular could be in the Montana backcountry), turned into a rougher road, then eventually turned into doubletrack with a little singletrack mixed in. 

Once we reached the top (well, really just a plateau in the middle, we'd have 2,000+ feet to climb the next morning), we saw a little campsite right on the side of the road. It didn't look very nice, so we considered our options. After some thinking, I walked down to the actual lake to check it out. There was a guy already camping (not a cyclist) in the primo spot, but he said there was another informal spot just down the shore.

Will and I rode down to the lake and took the other spot. It was right at the mouth of a small creek that flowed into the lake. This was the first night I was slightly concerned about bears, but to be honest, I still slept extremely well. We hung our food in a tree far away from our tents and took all the precautions.

Earlier in the day (left) out of the Flathead Lake area, and then near the end of the day near Clearwater Lake

The tent and camp setup

The little creek near our campsite and filtering some water

Another view of the tents and looking out at the lake

Day 13 Lolo NF/Clearwater Lake to Lincoln, MT
As promised, this morning started off with a big climb. This climb was full of switchbacks up the side of the mountain, and as we climbed, it got more and more unreal. Finally, near the top, my Garmin said to make a turn, and I looked and saw the turn was onto singletrack. I didn't know there was going to be singletrack, so this was an insanely awesome surprise to start the day.

The trail meandered along the side of the mountain for a while, and eventually, we reached a small snow spot. We had to hike our bikes maybe a few feet at most, but I know that just a week or two earlier, that entire section was covered in deep, fresh snowfall.

Before long, the trail pointed downhill and we got to enjoy one of the most insane sections of trail of my life. Imagine remote, backcountry singletrack down a massive mountain in Montana. It's almost hard to describe how much fun that section was. There was some deadfall at the bottom we had to hike over, but that just added to the awesomeness (is that a word?).

There was a second big mountain pass toward the end of the day, and I remember feeling in such a perfect groove the whole way up. Never has an hour long climb felt so good. Granted, we weren't ripping it at a VO2 pace, but Strava tells me we were 16th place out of 956 people. Not that I care at all about Strava for this trip, but still, it was good to know I still had some legs.

When we got into Lincoln, we stopped at a local bar restaurant to get some food. It was the biggest serving of fried food I've ever seen, and we both almost got sick from eating too much. 

In the restaurant, there was a small dog on the bar-top just walking around and chilling. People seemed amused and a little boy was playing with the dog and then chasing it around when it got off the bar. I don't think they'd allow that in Pennsylvania, haha. 

There was also a waitress who I overheard having a funny conversation.

She told her coworker: "Someone asked me if I was pregnant, and I said, nah, it's just Busch Light!"

Lincoln was a strange town, because even though it seemed like it was in the middle of nowhere, it had an unusual amount of touristy signs, like "Wild Bill's Cafe" or "Cowboy Casino" (not real names, I can't remember them). It doesn't seem like the kind of names a regular old Montana town would choose, and it certainly did not seem like this town was very touristy. But back to food.

To make matters worse with our overstuffed stomachs, some girl at the campground offered us some more food later. Normally, that would be welcome, but we were super full and the food was sort of gnarly, so it only made matters worse.

The first climb; still some snow visible

The singletrack section at the top of the first climb

More of the singletrack section

Ovando, a popular place among Divide riders (left) and the massive meal in Lincoln

Day 14 - Lincoln to Helena
The start out of Lincoln was sort of tough and a little chilly, but the climb got progressively more interesting. After the summit, we passed some ranchers on the backside herding their cows (I think that was here) and went past the famous llama farm. The llama farm offers free camping for cyclists, but sadly it did not work out logistically for us.

There was a second, smaller pass later in the day, and some more good views of Montana. The last downhill was a screamer, and it also a gradual downhill on the highway all the way into Helena.

Once in Helana, we stopped at a bike shop to replace Will's damaged seatpoat and replace one of my pulley wheels which had broken. We got a cheap hotel that night and ate plenty of food.

Oh, and side note, Hardy's is actually pretty good food. When riding through Helana, all the other places were drive-thru only or closed, so we had to stop at the Hardy's for food. We weren't expected much, but but it ended up being pretty good.

The llama farm

A scenic climb on a rough forest road, and an old mine off the road

Climbing the last small pass of the day, Priest Pass, and my broken pulley wheel

Day 15 - Helena to just past Butte
This was a hard but rewarding day. It was over 10,000 feet of climbing including nearly 6,000 feet in the first 35 miles. The first climb was steeper then most, and for some reason, I was dying the whole way up. I think I ate too much the night before, or maybe ate the wrong thing, because I felt all kids of funky.

The second climb was also pretty hard, but I knew the third big climb was going to be a doozy. It was the infamous Lava Mountain climb, supposedly extremely chunky and not ride-able for portions.

As also promised, the downhill to Lava Mountain was chunky, but the actual Lava Mountain climb was not as bad as expected. I mean, it was still steep and hard for 50 pound bikes, but both of us only had to dab once.

By the top, I was pretty smoked, and I looked forward to some downhill. I ended up feeling pretty bad and was also running out of water. I don't know what happened, but for some reason this day was just a tough one.

We re-filled water a campground and kept riding to Butte. We got some food at Subway, got some re-supply at a gas station at the edge of town, and kept riding into the forest.

The last few climbs destroyed me, and when we reached the campsite, I just laid down on the grass for a few minutes. The campsite was actually just a small wooden-fenced in enclosure with a pit toilet, and it happened to be where the Continental Divide hiking trail crossed a road.

We saw two other bikepackers on the road who got to the camp area just after us. Unlike us, they were traveling extremely heavy with lots of gear and cooking supplies.

The one guy (or maybe both) were packing heat, with a Glock or some other 9mm pistol strapped to their bikes and later their hips. They also cooked entire dinners out there (the one guy was a chef) with raw beef, potatoes, and fresh greens.

They told us a story that in northern Montana, they think a grizzly bear was honing in on their raw beef. I guess that's why they brought their gun.

All in all, they were actually cool people. That being said, they did get a massive fire going on the side of the road after Will and I went to bed, and if I didn't dream it, I think some other people saw the fire at night and weren't too happy. Oh well. I guess maybe they might've smoked more than just the one doobie tucked behind the guy's ear.

The top of one of the climbs out of Helena

A mid-day campground stop for water, checking out the CDT at camp

More pictures from camp

Day 16 - Butte to Bannack
We knew there was going to be rain in the area when we woke up. Sure enough, all around us was enveloped in a haze of mist. We started packing up our stuff under the overhang of a pit toilet, and before long, there seemed to a window of relatively good weather so we headed out. The gravel roads, although wet, weren't really muddy. Sure, it was a little slower than dry roads, but nothing like the death mud we would come to know further on in the trip.

There was a massive gravel descent, that, looking back on it, was actually one of my favorites of the trip. It was slightly misty in the air, and the road was quite steep and chunky; it flew down out of wooded mountainous terrain into a valley full of cows and I remember having a couple "oh shit" moments on the downhill.

I suspected the next big climb was going to be Fleecer Ridge, a famous part of the Great Divide. Sure enough, the Garmin was telling me turns coming up with the name "Fleecer" in it. It was now beginning to rain, and at the base of the climb, we tried top put on the right amount of rain gear.

The climb itself was not especially steep, as it meandered along a stream. The terrain reminded me somewhat of the Sierras in California; the rocks had a different feel to them and there was just something unexplainable about the area.

We followed a bike track up the whole climb, so we expected to see someone pretty soon. Sure enough, at the very top, we saw a guy on the side of the road. He was an older guy on a full suspension mountain bike, and he was wearing fingerless gloves. It was high-40s and raining, mind you. He was either unprepared or a total badass, and as we'd come to know, he was absolutely a total badass.

We went on our way past him after chatting for a little, but the rain continued getting heavier, so we stopped to add more clothes. Actually, we put all the clothes we had on while huddling under a dense tree trying to stay out of the heavy rain.

The guy passed us, but he didn't see us off the side of the road. We got back on the bikes and I realized there was one more steep section before the top. We got to it and it was a grassy doubletrack with a stream of water flowing down it.

That whole experience was really amazing: we were over 7,000 feet up in the Montana mountains in the middle of a thunderstorm, and it was pouring down rain. The climb got pretty slippery, so we got off and pushed our bikes. Through the rain, we could see another rider walking back down toward us. It was the guy we had seen earlier; he missed the turn onto the downhill and was coming back down to it.

We said hello again, and then started riding together down the hill. At first, the descent was gnarly but ride-able. Will fell once, not bad, but it was a reminder of how treacherous riding fully loaded bikes was down a washed out, rocky, extremely steep trail.

Then, the trail got too and too gnarly to ride (for us). Our friend, who told us his name was Walter, also got off to walk, but despite being 62 years old, I think he could've ridden the rest of it no problem, he just didn't want to show us up. Montana also says he rode that downhill when he raced it, I guess if it wasn't a rainstorm and I had a lighter setup I would consider it.

At the the bottom of Fleecer Ridge, we split up with Walter and continued on our way down the road. At the bottom, there was a general store where we stocked up on food.

One of my favorite moments from the trip is something that I actually didn't hear first hand, but I did see the kid and the guy who were talking. 

Will told me a kid, who was helping fill up gas, asked a guy who was carrying a gun, "why do you have that gun mister?"

"For bears and such", the man said, with a sort of country accent and quiet resolve that showed how different people are in the rural parts of the country.

After the store, where we signed our names in a Great Divide guest book, we had a pretty long stretch of pavement. It was really scenic, though, and it made for fast riding. As we crested the next small pass (which actually was pretty high up, but it didn't feel like a big pass), we could see a storm looming in the distance.

We started to pick up the pace to try and beat the storm, but sure enough, we got hammered with rain. Luckily, the storm was not as bad as we had feared, and after some rainy pavement miles, we rolled into the ghost town of Bannack, which had a state-run campground. We saw some other bikepackers there, so we set up our tent near them.

We chatted with them for a while and shared some stories. Then, just as we Will and I were talking about how bad-ass Walter was, we see Walter riding into camp right toward us.

He has a huge smile on his face and says, "Hey Will! Hey John!"

We were excited to see him again, and we told him to just pitch his tent up in our site. We told him we didn't need any money for the site, but he insisted on giving us each money to get a beer in the next town. Much appreciated Walter!

We ended up talking to Walter for quite a while, and it was dark before we climbed into our tents. It was awesome to have a conversation and hear about his experiences on his ride so far.

Camp on the morning, and the view from the the first downhill

From the top of Fleecer Ridge, you can see Will and Walter in the background

Eyeing up the storm on the way to Bannack, and the last road before Bannack

Day 17 - Bannack to Lima

It was a pretty in-auspicious start to the morning; we got some water from the spigot in the campground and then started riding. It was extremely wide open terrain and it really made me feel small in the scheme of the whole Earth. We rode for maybe an hour before stopping for a quick morning snack, and then we saw another rider coming up behind us. He caught up to us, and we rode together for a while.

I can't remember his name, but he was a PhD biologist who lived in Logan, Utah. We chatted about all sorts of things; it was cool to ride with someone for a little bit. Not that it was bad riding with Will, quite the opposite, but after pretty much only talking to each-other for several weeks, it was a "unique" experience to ride with someone else.

Somewhere along a gravel road, we spotted a badger. We stopped to take a picture and watch the badger run up and along the hillside. I'd never seen a badger before, so it was really neat to see one.

Around mid-day, we got to the one steep climb for the day, and somehow I made the mistake of going a little too fast at the bottom which triggered Will into attacking and dropping me (and the guy we were riding with). Of course, I chased and basically rode full-throttle to the top, but he still dropped me.

At the top, we stopped for some lunch and actually cooked up a little bit of ramen. Our friend also cooked a little food, and we admired the view. Apparently the road was an old travel route by pioneer-folks, and there was even a sign saying as much by where we stopped for lunch.

After lunch, we rode a little bit and then our friend stopped to filter water and take a little break, so he told us to go on. We did, and we ended up settling into a pretty easy pace for the rest of the day. The route cruised down a super scenic canyon (not a very deep one, but gorgeous), until we got down to a pavement road that took us into Lima.

We were planning to camp in Lima, or possibly go just past Lima and camp, but there was a motel in town for only $50 or so. We decided to get the motel, which ended up being the last room available, and got a good rest. Unfortunately, since it was the 4th of July, no restaurants were open in town, so we had to eat microwaved burgers and chicken sandwiches from the gas station. To be honest, they were actually pretty good.

That night while we were in our comfy hotel beds, we could hear the 4th of July fireworks blasting off outside, and we were thankful to not be camping in the town campground presumably right under the fireworks. Our other bikepacking friends who we met did camp out in town, and they told us it was tough getting to sleep with all the noise.

For some final notes about this stretch: I think this is some of the best riding on the route. It's scenic, and while maybe not as scenic as Banff, its incredible in its own way and the roads are absolutely perfect for riding. Endless car-free miles. Perfect.

Camp in the morning, and just after leaving camp at Bannack

More really cool open views, and lunch

The old Bannack Road, and more lunch pics with our biologist friend

One more view from the "pass" and the gradual downhill toward Lima through the canyon

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