Welcome back to the present. This week, I suspend my ride through Europe to publish my school essay “What I did during the summer.” Remember those assignments? This will be the third and final installment of Breaking Out 2021, my life on a bicycle as we emerged from lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic. We may return to River Run 2017 next year, but you can always follow it by selecting the category “River Run 2017” from the list to the right of this post. Enjoy!
The day after the summer solstice of 2021, I finished storing my belongings in the attic of my brother’s barn in Old Lyme, Connecticut, just before the skies opened up. Back in the house, I set out my things for the next day and finished packing my panniers. I hugged my relatives and went to bed as the rain slowly blew over.
Listening to the patter on the roof and in the leaves of the woods outside, I wondered if that were the last time I would see rain before I returned. The heat dome over the western United States was making global headlines. My friend Cheryl (riding from Seattle, Washington, to Glacier National Park, Montana) reported that it was 37 degrees (98.6°F) in the northernmost states of the Upper Midwest.
The next morning (the 23rd of June), I rose at dawn, quietly dressed and made my breakfast. By 07:30, I was riding my loaded bicycle across the Connecticut River to the train station at Old Saybrook. With nary a cloud in the sky, it could have been warm already, two hours after sunrise, but the air was still damp and cool from the rain the day before. I had booked trains with an hour between each, in case of delays, so naturally, all three trains today ran on time! It felt good to relax in the sun on the platforms in Old Saybrook and New Haven.
When I emerged from Grand Central Terminal in New York City, I was struck by the beauty of the day and the relative peacefulness of the neighbourhood. It would have been a quick ride to the new Moynihan Train Hall at Penn Station, but I chose to push my bicycle down Park Avenue then over to Broadway, where the McDonalds had a ATM that did not charge a fee.
The diversity of the people, the chatter in many languages, and the smells of different cuisines made me realize how much I missed travelling.
The pandemic had not affected my work or my life immediately. I was used to being alone, and I worked from “home” already. Many of you are familiar with the tag line on my author website, “Home is where you park your wheels.”
But in New York it hit me: for more than a year, I had heard nothing but English except in my Zoom meetings with Italian colleagues. And in the last week, I had seen nothing but Anglo-Saxon New Englanders, until I boarded the train in Old Saybrook.
So, I celebrated New York: a hot dog from the food cart at Park and 39th, and dessert at the Magnolia Bakery. The sandwiches I had packed in the morning stayed in my panniers. People-watching was already one of my favourite pastimes; eavesdropping became another. Not that I understood anything except English, French, Spanish and Italian, but I did recognize some Russian, Greek, and I think, Hindi.
While waiting for the train, I met two other cyclists also waiting for the Lakeshore Limited. The Amtrak personnel escorted us well before departure, so we could take the gear off our bikes and still get to our seats after delivering our steeds to the baggage car attendant. I was able to work in my sleeper room before turning in for the night.
We pulled into Chicago the next day. Clouds and high winds clearly announced an impending storm, but I managed to walk to Whole Foods for groceries before it started.
Standing in line for the Empire Builder train in Chicago’s Union Station, I met Derrick James, an experienced traveller, and a member of the Amtrak Bicycle Task Force.
As we approached the first coach car, I was delighted that it was a superliner with a baggage conversion, so that my bike could travel below in the same car as I. The Empire Builder left on time into a heavy rainstorm.
Sitting in the lounge of the café car, Derrick answered many questions that I have never found answers to and told me about the many initiatives underway at Amtrak to extend lines, put new equipment on the rails and improve relations with states and with the freight companies that own the rails.
As the sun set ahead of us, Derrick and Andrew went to their dinner reservation. I walked back to my place and watched the train move gently up the Mississippi River through Winona and into the sunset. Night fell on our way to Minneapolis.
I awoke at dawn, as the train rolled under heavy, grey skies and punched through thick, violent squalls until we reached North Dakota. The sky changed, but the land did not. I remembered that the only features to break the vast expanses of farms (formerly prairie) were the escarpments at the edge of the Dakota Badlands.
Debarking in East Glacier Village, the first thing I noticed was a major half-marathon. Vacation Races produces it as part of their National Park Half Marathon Series. The finish line and the attendant booths covered the lawn in front of the Glacier Hotel. My heart fell at the prospect of every bed in town being taken.
I rode west on US 2 and found that people were very helpful. The resort at the edge of town was full, but the young woman running the cash register at the gas station told me about the Circle R Motel. I checked there, and they told me that they own a campground on the south edge of town. No publicity, but it served as overflow. I camped in a pleasant copse of trees in the center of a circle of RV’s. Quiet, except for the freight trains rolling through town.
Meanwhile, Cheryl had her problems getting to East Glacier. It rained most of the way from Seattle to Highway 20 and across the northern part of Washington to the Cascades. In eastern Washington, she followed the Adventure Cycling Association recommendation to take an Indian reservation road across the river from Highway 20, which proved to be a bad idea because the dogs on that side of the river roamed free and hunted on their own. Four dogs attacked her. From her description, it seemed to me that the dogs were in pack mode, taking turns attacking her legs. A couple from Texas carried her and the bike to the urgent care clinic in Newport WA, then waited while she was treated before taking her to Whitefish, Montana. She had four nasty bites, with deep puncture wounds.
Because of the post-lockdown traffic, the National Park Service forbids bicycles on the Going to the Sun Highway between 11:00 and 17:00, making it impossible to cross the Glacier National Park in one day. She also got bad information that she could not ride to Lake MacDonald campground on the western side of the park. In fact, the prohibition starts after the Lake, and she could have camped below the west side of the mountain. In disgust, she booked the Empire Builder from Whitefish to East Glacier.
We met at 09:35 the day after I arrived and rode to Brownie’s Hostel, which we remembered from 2018. We were early, but Jason, the baker, checked us in and let us put our loaded bikes in the employees’ area at the back.
While we were discussing our plans for the day, Jason came out, all excited about the shell logo on the rear fender of my bicycle. He had walked the Camino de Santiago and was very enthusiastic to hear about our own pilgrimage in 2016 (https://freewheelingfreelancer.com/category/camino-de-santiago/?order=asc). .
We decided to try to go to the east end of the Going-to-the-Sun Highway. With our bikes secured, we started walking north, accepting a ride to Two Medicine Lake. That was only halfway to Saint Mary’s, but one of the half-marathon runners, Jennifer, gave us a lift all the way. She was interested in the ticket system and the road closure, too. We had lunch at Saint Mary’s, took photos at the east entrance of the Park, then she took us back to the hostel. She was staying in a motel in Browning and was not eager to go back. All in all, it was a delightful afternoon.
Back at the hostel, we found out that some of the employees were unhappy about our bikes and seemed relieved to have us lock them outside. We moved into our room, a cozy three-bed dorm room that became a private room under the COVID spacing in effect.
The next day we relaxed, laid out our plans and did laundry.
On Monday, the 28th of June, we began our ride south. First, we had to ride east. US-2 had a generous shoulder and a gentle profile, so we were soon in Browning, the intersection of US-2 and US-89, and a major town on the Blackfeet Reservation.
Just as we turned onto the National Parks Highway, I was afraid that the dogs had somehow put the word out for Cheryl. A large, black canine, looking more wolf than dog, bounded into the road, making for Cheryl’s bicycle. Fortunately, he was still about a hundred meters away when a pickup truck pulling in front of us forced the would-be assailant into the middle of the road, where he was trapped by fast-moving traffic in both directions.
Once on US-89, Cheryl and I made our way singly under a cloudless sky to the town of DuPuyer. She had been riding at altitude for a week already; I was never going to keep up with her at 1334 metres (4377 ft.), especially in the heat.
The expanse of cattle farms reminded me of nothing so much as a brown ocean. I thought of the pioneers who navigated the Great Prairie using sextants and chronometers, tools of the seagoing navigators.
I caught up with her at a rest area outside DuPuyer. After riding from one end of town to the other (three blocks), we rolled into the “DuPuyer RV camp”, which was little more than a lawn on the property of a retired couple who were slowly getting the enterprise going. In fact, the site was soft and comfortable, and they let us use the bathroom in their house.
The bandages on Cheryl’s leg were oversized, waterproof adhesives, and not easy to find. The next morning, we rolled into the town of Choteau, where we had stopped for a flea market four years earlier. The Rexall Pharmacy had the bandages that Cheryl needed. She could not bear the heat, so we hitchhiked from the edge of town to Great Falls. A man who freelances deliveries all over the state gave us a lift in his pickup. He was also taking a friend to a doctor’s appointment in Great Falls.
“I drive 400 miles a day in this truck,” he told us. I cannot imagine his being able to switch to an electric truck anytime soon.
In Great Falls, he left us at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. The Center had an interesting exhibition, including life-sized dioramas of native villages at the time the two explorers arrived. Learning the full backstory of Sacagawea also impressed me greatly. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacagawea.
When we emerged from the Interpretive Center, it was late in the day. We hurried to cross to the south side of Great Falls, where we hoped to shop at the Super Walmart before looking for the campground outside of town. As we left the park and gained the bicycle path on 38th Street, a van blocked our way. The man driving it offered to host us because the couple were bicycling enthusiasts. Jim and Judy Boyles adapted to the doubling at their dinner table by introducing us to Papa Mike’s Pizza, a service that delivers pizza ready to be cooked in one’s own oven. Fresh hot pizza, good wine and conversation livened the night, and we slept soundly in the air-conditioned family room downstairs.
This was now the third time is just a week that we had been met by the generosity of strangers. It would not be the last.
The next day, Jim and Judy left to go camping deep in the national forests to spare their dogs the terror of neighbourhood fireworks on the coming Independence Day weekend. We followed shortly thereafter, passing the Walmart that had been our destination the day before. US-89 joined US-87 leaving Great Falls to the south and carried us past part of modern-day Great Fall’s prosperity: Malmstrom Air Force Base. When US-89 peeled away from US-87 at Belt, the road began to rise, giving us our first serious, long climb. Mountains and ridges that had seemed only part of an indistinct, grey horizon now loomed in a panoply of greens, browns, and granite.
Jim had recommended stopping at Cougar Canyon in Monarch for the food. By now we had left the plains and entered the Lewis and Clark National Forest. The shade from the tall trees was welcome, but we had to adjust to climbing hard when we were already at a high altitude.
The catfish provençale surprised me, having the quality of a seafood dish from the south of France. We asked about staying at the motel on the premises, but they were full early in the afternoon. We found a spot in the Aspen Campground (US Forest Service) before Neihart. Quiet and clean.
Thursday was the first day of July. The shade over US-89 going through Neihart gave way to direct sun where the rights of way had been cleared of trees. Though the gradient was reasonable, we were riding 21 km to 2253 metres (7393 ft) as the heat built. Cheryl fell behind and began walking parts of the climb. There is no shame in not pedalling all the way with loaded bicycles.
As I struggled up King’s Hill, a large pickup towing a shipping container pulled in front of me at the 18-km point. Cheryl jumped out of the passenger’s side while another woman climbed down from the driver’s seat. She opened the back of the container, and we loaded my bike with Cheryl’s for the last two miles to the summit. It turns out that the woman was another freelancer, who repositioned empty containers. The gig economy takes many forms.
At King’s Hill Summit, we took some pictures and started the long, steep descent to White Sulphur Springs. On the first curve, my rear brake stuck, and I almost crashed as the bicycle slowed to a sudden stop. A piece of gravel had flown into the brake actuator and jammed it closed.
Cheryl was long gone, but my greater weight and recklessness allowed me to pass her by the time the road levelled out near White Sulphur Springs. We rested in the town for lunch, then rode to the southwest edge of town, where US-89 continued to Livingston, some 120 km (72 mi) away. A vast, sun-baked arid exposed valley lay before us. We knew that we could not make it even to Ringling (halfway to Livingston) in the merciless heat.
We set aside our distaste for sexual stereotypes and the prohibition against hitchhiking. Cheryl stood out at the edge of the road, whilst I held the bicycles off to the side.
Along came Joshua and his fishing buddy, pulling a fibreglass boat with his pickup truck. He enthusiastically stowed our panniers in the truck, and we lashed the bicycles upright inside the boat. I cringed to think one of my pedals punching a hole in his hull, but he seemed unconcerned.
Like most of the drivers on that section of US-89, Joshua was headed for Interstate 90, which passes south of Livingston. With plenty of daylight left, Cheryl and I found ourselves in the last big parking lot before Yellowstone National Park, surrounded by an Albertson’s supermarket, campgrounds and motels. Livingston was the logical last stop before the great park, and the heavy traffic bore that out.
Alas, the “campgrounds” turned out to be RV parks that did not welcome tents or bicycles. After a fruitless reconnaissance of a half dozen places, I returned to the Albertson’s parking lot, where Cheryl was waiting with a frosty lemonade. We booked a night at the Comfort Inn nestled below the overpass of I-90. Aah! What a relief after the climactic trials of the last week.
In the morning, we left Livingston together on the bike path, which petered out soon after the city limits. Now that we were both acclimated to the altitude, the difference in our relative tolerance to heat began to show.
After eleven kilometres, Cheryl stopped to hitchhike at 10:18. When a sheriff stopped to check on her, she walked for two hours to the Paradise Valley KOA. From there, she was able to find a ride to Gardiner, the town at the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park.
Meanwhile, I pressed on alone to Yellowstone (98 km, 61 mi). The weather was not as hot as it had been, so I had a pleasant ride alone, in spite of the traffic. The road had essentially no shoulder, and after Gardiner, the RV’s were creeping bumper-to-bumper up the hills. When the traffic got heavy, the impatience of the drivers and the choking exhaust fumes made riding in the Rockies as bad as any big city at rush hour. So much for clean, cool mountain air.
Typical of all national parks, there was no cell service, so I started looking for Cheryl among the tent sites. A ranger spotted me and guessed who I was. She gave me directions and I soon found Cheryl with camp already pitched. We had arrived in Yellowstone National Park.
We had light rain in the evening. An interesting homeless guy from Santa Barbara made a fire next door and shared secrets about freeloading around the West.
Come back in two weeks as we make our way to Flagstaff, Arizona, suffering the heat, making new friends, and seeing sights we never expected to see.
Smooth roads and tailwinds,