Bike Nielsen 2000

After literally months of planning, the day of the bike trip arrived and we still rushed out the door. Months of planning for this, and we had to sprint out the door! We had the bikes boxed by a bike shop, so we loaded the boxes into the truck. Off we went to the train station. Berta stayed at the station while John drove home and took a taxi back to the train station. There was a lot of handwringing and looking up the street, hoping to see John approaching. We are people who inspect our tickets, put them back in our packs, and later remove the tickets to inspect them again. Sometimes we just pat the pocket where we hope the tickets are. Other times, we visualize having placed the tickets in the pocket, and we insist to ourselves that we are sure we placed the tickets there. Invariably, at least this time, we are reassured that the tickets are there.
The room we had reserved didn’t look at all like the diagram we saw on the Internet. “Yes, Sal said, that’s the room you ordered. Well the “room” is two seats facing each other with barely a size twelve shoe between, not the spacious fish-eyed lens photo we naively expected. It is a nice place to call home for witnessing wonderful scenery, and when push comes to shove, it is ours. We pretend that hundreds, no, thousands of people have called this roomette home and we settle in for the adventure.
For forty miles out of Santa Barbara, the train covers terrain we know like the back of our hand. Looking at the back of our hand, we think about the terrain. At Gaviota (the seagull), the highway curves to the right and the train tracks go straight. We cross an expanse of top-secret land, only able to catch a glance at important things. The launch complex at Vandenberg Air Force Base was a flurry of activity as they prepared to launch a missile. It seemed like a flurry of activity in a half-second of careful glancing. We passed Point Angelo where on the night of 8 Sept 1923 a flotilla of Navy Destroyers steered into the rocks at 20 knots. The task force commander believed they had passed the point and ordered a course change that wrecked seven destroyers and killed 23 sailors. “They” say you can still see the remains of some of the ships. We spotted one pod of porpoises, several deer, and many birds. We saw no ships. The Spanish called one of the bays near Monterey “Pajaro” (Spanish for bird) because of the abundant bird life.
At five o’clock we were called to the dining car. Our dining companions were Trudi and Carmen, sisters with a combined weight of 400 lbs., who were on the way to a family reunion. They were delightful, brown-eyed women with much jewelry and many stories. One story was about their 25 year-old grandson who died in his sleep the night after a marathon. The moral of the story is that diet and exercise have little benefit. Trudi and Carmen think we are traveling by bicycle for exercise. Christmas traditions were another topic for these ladies. Carmen always makes tamales; Trudi used to cook prime rib until her daughter-in-law became a vegetarian. Trudi is spending the first nights away from her husband in 40 years. All throughout dinnet, they whispered small asides to each other and it is obvious that they love each other.
Sal is our cabin attendant who has a swarthy complexion and black eyes. Sal likes to talk and stops by often. He contends that many Amtrak employees work two weeks a month with very long hours and make what most folks do working four weeks. He says that the Coast Starlight is one of the premiere train trips in the US. It sure has been fun so far.
Wine tasting in the Parlor car took place mainly on the Cuesta grade above San Luis Obispo while we waited for another train to pass. The Parlor car has big domed window ceilings and broken air conditioning. The temperature couldn’t have been much more than 90 degrees. Normally red-faced individuals became florid with nary a drop of grape juice sampled. Our wine expert studiously read verbatim the description of each wine from a card that was at each table. He gallantly pointed out that the wine was available for $13.00 with the souvenir wine caddy that
could hold “knitting needles for the women” or $8.00 without the caddy. We don’t know what the price would be for Crescent Wrenches for the Men. We bought some wine but they still have the caddy. Berta didn’t bring her knitting needles anyhow.
Day Two
Living on a train is a new experience. Walking on a moving train offers some entertainment. We all look like we’ve had too much to drink, for navigating any semblance of a straight line is impossible. Collisions are commonplace and the good nature of passengers is refreshing. Taking a shower is just like home except with 1/8 the space. Food is plentiful and tasty and the workers are willing to please. It turns out that the larger rooms are on the upper level, where the rocking of the train is amplified and access to the next car is possible so there seems to be a constant stream of passengers. So our smaller roomette on the lower level is really looking great at this point. We found out that when you pay for a sleeper car, meals are included. So we had exactly the same food last night as Carmen and Trudi (Prime Rib, which was actually quite good), but they paid forty-eight dollars for it because they got “cheaper” accommodations. We think our Puny Pod is serving us well.
Hours later, we are paralleling Klamath Lake, which is one of the largest fresh water lakes west of Rockies. There are lots of ducks, cranes and water birds. They take to flight in flocks when the train approaches. We have to assume that they squawk and honk as they fly, but the train is almost silent and the birds erupt from the water’s surface without a sound. Oregon has a large number of Snow-White Pelicans that are protected by law. We see them in the lake. They are indistinguishable to our eyes from the pelicans in Santa Barbara except for their color. We wonder if snow-white cows are currently lobbying for the same protection.
Now, you got Regular Time and you got Amtrak Time. We are currently at 10:54 am Regular Time and the Amtrak Time is 9:13. They keep telling us we will be making up the time later. I guess we will be transferring to a bullet train for the stretch between Eugene and Portland. Our plans to make it to the suburbs of Portland may be in jeopardy. Oh well, it won’t be the last Expectation versus Reality issue on this trip.
The train was more than two hours late. We got the bikes put together (we had to take off the pedals and turn the handlebars to put them in an Amtrak box) and hit the road by 6:05. After a short stretch of no bike lane, we hit the bike lane the Oregon Bike Map promised us. The nice, smooth bike lane did not stop. Very nice. We have stopped in Troutdale for the night and are enjoying a full size shower and room to move around. Tomorrow we strike out at COD (Crack of Dawn) for either Hood River or The Dalles. We have friends in Hood River, and there is some probability Berta will talk long enough to make it necessary to stay with them.

The Adventure Has Begun
Today’s mileage: 19 miles
Total mileage so far: 19 miles
Weather: about 75 degrees, humid and hazy
Animals for the day: snow-white pelicans and Canadian geese
Day Three
Troutdale to Hood River, Oregon
We were pedaling along the Historic Columbia River Highway today. We saw a whole batch of sedated dogs. No, really. We were going slowly because the road was a steady uphill, and passed by several houses in a row where the “Guard” dogs just laid out sleeping on the grass in big open yards. John was talking like a Megamouth just to get their attention, but these dogs didn’t even raise their heads. In fact, we thought about cutting them off from their Gravy Train with Valium.
After ten miles or so of that steady uphill, we emerged into the Columbia River Gorge and some spectacular scenery. For the next long stretch we flew down long, curvy, unbusy, and smooth pavement. We would pass an unbelievable waterfall at twenty-five miles per hour and holler out “WOW!” and wonder if that was a photo opportunity. But another similarly awesome waterfall was around the next bend and the next and the next. The largest was the Multnomah Falls. The water falls 542 feet—according to the sign—down a vertical rock face. This waterfall and many of the others are framed by beautiful rock bridges that were part of the original viaduct and highway system in the gorge.
The wind blows very strong in the Columbia River Gorge. Fortuitously, it usually blows out of the west. So we cooked along at more than twenty miles an hour for most of the way past Cascade Locks and into Hood River.
We are staying with friends tonight who live high in the hills on the Washington side of the gorge. They have an incredible view of Mount Hood. It must be magical to see that 11,600 foot mountain on the horizon every day.

Start time: 8:00 am
End time: 1:15 pm with one flat tire.
Today’s mileage: 55.6 miles
Total mileage so far: 76 miles
Weather: about 63 degrees at the level of the Columbia River, windy and clear
Animals for the day: Robins and John saw a little dead snake but didn’t point it out
Day Four
Hood River to Biggs, Oregon
The westerly wind was up even as we set out at 8 am this morning. It is most helpful on the Interstate, which is relatively flat and straight. We started out on the Historic Columbia River Highway, which is more hilly and curvy and speeds are lower. Oregon is restoring this stretch of the HCRH (between Hood River and Mosier), so it is closed to cars right now. We went through an old tunnel with walls of blasted rock (think Shark Encounter at Sea World), and in one spot we found some inscriptions. In 1927, a group of train passengers were stranded in the tunnel during a snowstorm. One inscription:
Nov 19 – 27, 1921
Chas. I Sadilek
E. B. Marvin
The tunnel saved those people.
We stayed on the HCRH and were rewarded for the extra hill-climbing with a spectacular view at the Rowena lookout. We were amazed at the graceful curving of the road descending from that spot, and only partly because we knew we would not have to pedal for at least a mile. There was a shiny new sign at the Rowena lookout—almost every public place we have seen in Oregon has been shiny and new—that gave us some history about the highway:
“Grades, curvature, distance, and even expense were sacrificed to reach some scenic vista or to develop a particularly interesting spot. Although the highway would have commercial value in connecting the coast with the Eastern areas, no consideration was given the commercial over the scenic requirements. The one prevailing idea in location and construction was to make this highway a great scenic boulevard surpassing all other highways in the world.”
John A Elliott, Engineer of the highway, in 1929
Not only does this highway live up to the intentions of its designer, current-day engineers have made a concerted effort to make this highway friendly to bicyclists. There are paths to connect the Interstate and other roads with the old highway. We wonder how Oregon pays for this despite having no sales tax and seemingly low gas taxes.
Traveling on Interstate 84, with a tailwind, we reached speeds of 18-22 mph. Soon after reaching cruising speed today, John had one of those flats that happen with a bang and two seconds before all of the air is out of the tire. We stopped in a hurry and fixed the flat. We were putting his panniers back on his bike when “BANG!!” the tire went flat again. It turns out there were two slices in the wall of the tire; each about a centimeter long, and the tube had blown out the opening. In a matter of minutes, we went from two spare tires to one, and from two brand new spare tubes to one. Berta admits now that bringing two spare tires on the trip was a good idea.
It is amazing how much energy a person can spend thinking about how things could be different if we just made a different decision. If that shard hadn’t been right there in John’s path, we would have had our comforting stores of spares intact. It is also amazing how eating Walla Walla Onion Rings at Burgerville can make a person forget all about explosive flats.
We traveled I84 the rest of the day without incident. We stopped in Biggs to rest and find out about accommodations further down the road. The answer led us to stay in Biggs. It’s always nice to be surprised by the end of the day, rather than dwelling on its arrival.
We took the packs off the bikes and pedaled to the Maryhill Museum. It overlooks the river. The building was the house of Sam Hill, a wealthy and ambitious man who lived in the Columbia River Gorge around the 1920s and 30s. He helped build the Historic Columbia River Highway. He designed this monumental house—it looks much more like public architecture than a private residence—and had the whole thing built with poured concrete! Later he built a full-sized replica of what he thought Stonehenge originally looked like also in poured concrete about four miles from Maryhill. The people here claim that Hill is the reason we have the saying “what in Sam Hill is going on here?”
Sam Hill had become friends with the royalty of Roumania (that’s how they spelled it in the museum) because he had donated a considerable sum of money to Roumania for their recovery from World War I. As a result, many of the pieces in the museum were donated by Queen Marie of Roumania (1875-1938). She was an artist with a fondness for Celtic and Russian design, and many of the royal pieces in the museum reflect her tastes. There were many examples of carved, wooden, gilded thrones. The museum also has at least 50 chess sets in almost as many styles: Balinese (figurative), Old English (what you would recognize as “normal” chess sets), Chinese, Korean that were in the Muslim style (very stylized, and resembling sea shells), and modern American of many kinds (one was extruded Aluminum). There were several sculptures and drawings by Auguste Rodin, Andy Warhol’s painting of Geronimo, and many examples of Native American baskets and clothing. Picture, though, that there is nothing surrounding this museum. The combined yellow and white pages for the surrounding 50 miles is less than an inch thick.

Start time: 8:00 am
End time: 1:30 pm with two blowout flat tires.
Today’s mileage: 58.1
Total mileage so far: 134 miles
Local Gas Prices: $1.83 but we think Oregon is all Full Service.
Weather: about 84 degrees, windy and clear
Animals for the day: Quayle who run when they are scared, Bunnies, and a Peacock
Day Five
Biggs to Boardman, Oregon
The embroidered blue letters on a white background spelled Paul and was sewn to a tan short sleeve shirt. His pale blue eyes looked at me through clear corrective lenses. “Well if you just want a clean room with fuzzy TV then the Biggs Motel is fine and the price is right. If you want all the frills, then the Rivera Motel is what you want, but it’ll cost you.” We chose the frills, which included four channels on the TV and most of them were clear. After trying to send our e-mail from the room we finally went to the office to use their phone. Moral: Frills are relative and we have them in abundance at home.
Food. We eat food like we won’t eat for a day and four hours later are hungry. Breakfast consisted of 1\2 box of Raisin Bran, 1/4 cup sugar, ¾ quart of milk and one small can of pineapple juice. Time: 6:30. Thirty-three miles later it is time to eat again, and not a moment too soon. Hash browns, two eggs, four pieces of toast liberally covered with jelly, and corned beef hash. And at the end of the ride, we had a hamburger with French fries and onion rings and an ice cream pie for desert. Berta had commented that all the food we have eaten has been fabulous, and she guessed that we are not hard to please at this point. Dinner was evidence that we are not too hungry to be able to recognize a truly mediocre meal. Maybe in a little while we will have a snack.
The terrain today changed from gorge to river valley. The lush green of western Oregon is now the hot, dry, light tan color of the Santa Ynez hills in August. The grade was fairly gentle and we maintained an average speed of 17.8 miles per hour. We saw a book in the restaurant where we had lunch called “Our Dog was a Redneck, but we got him fixed”. It had a gold foil sticker on the cover that announced the book was “Signed by the Author”; so I figured he was local.
They don’t total up restaurant bills in Oregon. You look at your bill, round everything up, and guess at how much you should carry to the cashier.
Start time: 7:50 am
End time: 1:15 pm with one flat tire.
Today’s mileage: 65.2 includes John riding through Boardman while Berta napped.
Total mileage so far: 199 miles
Weather: about 84 degrees, breezy, dry, and clear
Animals for the day: A pair of Great Blue Heron and one Stink Bug.
Day Six
Boardman to Pendleton, Oregon
As we approached a herd of sheep, Berta the Animal Spotter exclaimed “Sheep” because she couldn’t think of anything else to say. The two Guard Sheep alerted the others to the threat of People with Wheels who wear Loud Clothing. They took off for the far end of their corral, narrowly escaping Berta’s hollering.
The surrounding area during today’s ride has reminded us of the San Joaquin Valley, where there are fields almost as far as the eye can see and just beyond that are hills. We passed the Potlatch Hybrid Poplar Program land today. There were miles and miles of closely spaced poplars that ranged from six feet to twenty feet tall. The poplars shimmered in the sunny breeze. We had the option to ride 6.1 miles off the freeway to ask some questions, or we could take our chances and hope to run into someone who knew about the place. We declined the first choice and have had no satisfaction on the other.
Pendleton was not on our original route—we intended to turn Northeast just outside of Boardman to head to Umatilla and then Walla Walla, Washington. We decided to go this way because it represented fifty miles versus eighty-one to Walla Walla. Our experience tells us that the third and fourth days of a tour are particularly hard because the body just doesn’t believe you are serious yet. The advantage of this route is that we were able to see two interesting things: the town of Echo and the Pendleton Woolen Mills.
Echo is a small, beautiful town near Hermiston. It is situated at a fork in the Oregon trail where the pioneers needed to make a choice between a good road in the dry and hot plains where water was scarce or a worse road near the Columbia River with ample water. If they chose the river route, the pioneers faced very rough road combined with river travel. At that time—before the dams were built—the Columbia was a fast-moving and dangerous river. Many people perished,
but the alternative was not much better. The high road was much easier on the wagons but water was so scarce that animals died in their traces. Where the town of Echo is now, there was an Indian Agency building that offered travelers provisions and hope for the success of their trip. More than 50,000 pioneers sought the Oregon dream.
We took the 1:30 tour at the Pendleton Woolen Mill at about 1:45. We donned headphones with receivers that allowed us to hear the tour guide who spoke into a headset transmitter. When the guide got near the looms, the headphones allowed us to hear the machinery twice as loud. They accept raw dyed wool at this mill, comb it, spin it into yarn, and weave patterned material from it. The looms work at a rate of one large blanket per hour. The blankets they weave are a little rough still, so they are sent to another Pendleton plant for washing and “carbonizing”. That makes the blankets softer, but the guide didn’t know exactly what carbonizing is. We don’t either. More fascinating quasi-factual stories later.
Start time: 7:30 am
End time: 12:00 pm with no flat tires.
Today’s mileage: 54.1
Total mileage so far: 253 miles
Local Gas Prices: $1.69
Weather: 92 degrees at 7 pm, breezy, 20% humidity, and clear
Animals for the day: Sheep and one of those photogenic dogs but we don’t know how to spell its name. Microsoft doesn’t know either. Sounds like: Why-mur-ran-er.
Day Seven
Pendleton, Oregon to Walla Walla, Washington
Walla Walla Wacca Wacca. I just can’t help but be influenced by Fozzie Bear from the Muppets. As soon as I saw the sign Walla Walla, I was saying Wacca Wacca. Was it fatigue or just simpleness? It is easy to be entertained riding a bike. Walla Walla Wacca Wacca has been good to us. We were able to get a new tire just like the ones we started with. We call them Rocket Tires. They have Kevlar belts that help defend against the Silent Tire Killer: radial tire wire. Three of our flats have resulted from half-inch pieces of the stuff. The first bike shop had no suitable tires so they called their competitors and sent us over. People have been very good to us on this trip.
We found a motel across the street from a microbrewery. Berta is fast asleep now. The brewery is called Mill Creek Brewpub and produces a beer that won 2nd place honors at the Great America Brew something or another in Denver. Over 400 breweries were represented said the enthusiastic, flowing gray haired, smooth faced, violet blue eyed, military-trimmed mustached bartender. He went on to say that they couldn’t produce enough beer to satisfy demand. Their “Penitentiary Porter” is produced under the brand Big House Brewing and shows a guard tower and walls of the local prison on the label. He said everyone knows Walla Walla for its prison. We wanted to tell him we had only heard of their onions.
A French soldier, Peter Pieri, found a type of Italian sweet onion on the Island of Corsica and brought its seeds to the Walla Walla Valley over a century ago. Italian immigrant farmers who comprised much of Walla Walla’s gardening industry cultivated the winter-hardy onion. The onions are sweet because of their low sulfur content, which is half that of an ordinary yellow onion. They have been developed to grow large and round.
We visited Fort Walla Walla and the museum located there. At museums, you have to be willing to talk to the docents. We circled the museum with a family from Australia who had just arrived before us. “Are you from Australia too?” “Well I thought you were from Australia because those nice people are.” We were carrying our bicycle helmets and wearing bike shorts. “Did you travel here on a motorcycle?” “We’re going to eat lunch now so we won’t be able to talk for awhile.” “How many speeds do you have, or is it a single speed bike?” The museum was fascinating and we wondered at the hard life of the pioneers.
We saw a 33 horse drawn threshing machine that was used in the 1920s. Just the harness was a marvel of ingenuity (see the attachment). The crew that ran this combine consisted of 5 men. The Driver made $5 per day and the Separator Man who kept the machine in service and level through the hills made $10 per day. The Header Puncher who raised and lowered the cutting bar on the header, which regulated the amount of straw carried to the combine, made $2.50 per day. Then there was the “Sack Jig” who made $4 per day. He filled the sack with the fresh wheat and “jigged” the sack up and down to fill it with approximately 140 pounds of wheat. The Sack Filler took the sack from the Sack Jig and used twine and needle to stitch the sack closed. He released the sack down a chute onto the field where it would be picked up later. The Sack Filler made $5 per day. These wages sound like a lot for the 1920s, but not much for what a tough and dusty job it must have been. We did experience a wonderful aspect of a wheat field. The wheat here is about two feet tall and when the wind blows through it, the whole field hisses. A magical sound.
Start time: 8:10 am
End time: Early, with two flat tires.
Today’s mileage: 47.1 includes pedaling to get a new tire and back to get a decent motel.
Total mileage so far: 300 miles
Elevation climbed today: 1540 feet
Total elevation climbed so far: 10,100 feet
Local Gas Prices: $1.67
Weather: about 90 degrees, windy and clear
Animals for the day: Grasshoppers, Cows, and a big straw colored bird with a longish tail and a big head that Berta thought may have been an Owl, but it was in the heat of the day and that seems an unlikely time to see an Owl.
Day Eight
Walla Walla to Pomeroy, Washington
People feel obligated to set us straight when they hear we are headed for Minnesota. “That’s a long way,” they explain. I am tempted to say, “You’re right, I think we will just stop right here and buy a house.” “Minnesota?” they ask us again.
The rolling hills in Eastern Washington are covered with wheat fields, but they are smallish and interspersed with fields of alfalfa and other greener crops. We have seen our first hay rolls on this patchwork terrain. Until today we had seen only hay bails. There were houses and barns all along our route today, on Highway 12 from Walla Walla to Pomeroy. We rode through Dixie and stopped in Waitsberg. They have 1150 people and a lot more infrastructure than you would think a town that small would have. We stopped at a store called The Dugout that advertised rocks and antique mining equipment on the sign. Another sign said “open”, but the door was locked. We were getting back on the bikes when the proprietor called across the street that she was coming. She’d just been out on errands. John told her not to hurry, as it was unlikely we would be buying some rocks from her, but she hurried anyhow. She and her husband had grown wheat in the area for over thirty years and now are trying to make an easier living out of their hobby. They had petrified wood, polished rocks, raw rock in crystalline form, and interesting old and new mining equipment. She claims that basalt has covered any interesting rocks in the area, so their rocks are not local. She said her personal favorite for show and tell at the local schools is a petrified pile of dinosaur dung. It looked like a rock to me, so I have decided to avoid licking rocks of any kind.
This woman was a talkative sort, and reminded us that Minnesota is a long way away. She commented that we will meet lots of nice people along the way. We have already met a lot of nice people.
We stopped at a state park where there was a sign commemorating the Lewis and Clark expeditions. Lewis and Clark passed through the area in early May of 1806 on their return from the Pacific Ocean. They reached St. Louis on that trip on September 23rd. While in this region, the hungry men ate cow parsnip and dog for lack of better provisions. We have subsisted on hamburgers, ice cream, and onion rings.
After Waitsberg, we realized Berta had a broken spoke on the drive side of her rear wheel and as a result the wheel wobbled like a drunken sailor. The drive side has the gear cassette, and if you don’t have a tool to remove the cassette, you cannot insert a new spoke on the drive side. So we adjusted the other spokes to make the wheel wobble less, loosened the brakes so they wouldn’t drag, and continued to Pomeroy. There is a bike shop in Lewiston where we hope to have the wheel fixed. We had spare spokes but no tool to remove the cassette.
I (John) entered an antique store in Pomeroy, wearing my bike helmet, at the same time as a Stetson-topped cowboy. The lady in the store asked if we were together. “No,” the cowboy replied, “He has a more sensible hat.” The cowboy was tall, silver-haired and lean. “Did you get the stitches out yet?” “Yah” the cowboy replied, “It didn’t hurt.” “That is the cleanest rip I have ever seen from a bull.” The cowboy pulled off a bandage on his left hand that revealed a 2-inch by 2-inch “L” shaped wound between his thumb and index finger. Next the cowboy says, “I just met a lady named Sex who has a bunch of ferrets that she starves and wants to start a carpet cleaning business. She lets them loose and they lick the carpet clean. Do you know any businesses that might want her services?” I was incredulous. Had I been transported into the Twilight Zone? Without waiting for an answer the cowboy left. The clerk looked at me and said, “He’s a fun guy.” Can ferrets really clean carpets?
Off to the grocery store. I was looking for a 6 pack of diet Dr. Pepper but they only had a 12 pack. They were willing to break up the 12 pack, but I bought a 6 pack of diet Coke. In conversation with the clerk I described the problem with Berta’s wheel. “Oh you can go to the hardware store. Tom (the proprietor) loves bikes and he can fix anything.” Tom wasn’t there. We really have met a lot of nice people.
Start time: 8:20 am
End time: 2:45, with no flat tires and one busted spoke.
Today’s mileage: 69.3.
Total mileage so far: 369 miles
Elevation climbed today: 3000 feet
Total elevation climbed so far: 13,100 feet
Local Gas Prices: $1.63 but you’d have to drive a ways to get here
Weather: about 80 degrees, breezy and clear, but it seems hotter in the sun.
Animals for the day: Llamas in Waitsberg, and a Dalmation-style horse.
Day Nine
Pomeroy, Washington to Orofino, Idaho
The first Interesting Thing that happened today was payback for Berta scaring the sheep the other day. Word of Berta’s transgression had spread through the Ovine Underground to a Brother Sheep just outside of Pomeroy. We were just over the fence from him when he yelled “Baah!!” right in our ears. We were both startled by it but managed to stay upright.
Early in our trip today, we climbed a moderate hill in the cool morning air. As we approached the summit, Berta entered her vote for a plateau at the top. Downhills are fun, but they also negate the effort of a climb. On this day, we were in for fun. We descended for more than five miles, from the Alpowa Summit at 2785 feet to the Snake River at about 1200 feet. The Snake River is wide and slow near Clarkston-Lewiston and the wind out of the river valley cushioned the end of our descent.
We have regained a day on our “schedule” by pushing ahead to Orofino. We found a bike shop in Lewiston where a guy named Steve worked on Berta’s wheel right away. It only took thirty minutes, and that included a fair amount of gabbing about bike touring. Steve thinks we should have used 40-spoke wheels for touring. We learned something else at that bike shop: don’t totally believe a bicyclist who says a route is easy. We asked Steve about the road to Orofino and he said something about it being an easy ride. I don’t remember if he said “piece of cake”, but that was his meaning. The trip out of Lewiston was windy and long. We finally made it into Orofino around 2:30 to find that the Helgeson Plaza Suites Hotel and the motels and town were filled because of a softball tournament in town. Aaaggh! We backtracked a couple of miles to a motel that looks better inside than it does outside. $32.05 for the night will keep us within budget, too. What’s funny, is no matter how bad the motel looks, they always have cable.
We passed through Nez Perce territory today, and read a bit about the Nez Perce Indians. They helped the Lewis and Clark pioneers to find provisions and a route through this area. They also liked their mythological figures, and many rock formations are named for unrecognizable animal spirits who had a way of arguing and throwing each other around the valleys here. We did see the actual Lewis and Clark trail near Highway 12 east of Lewiston. The expedition in 1806 comprised 30 men and 23 pack horses.
We are watching Lawrence Welk on Idaho Public Television. John would like to know why a nice guy like Dean Martin had to die and a jerk like Jerry Lewis is still alive. Questions like these have no answers. We will spend the rest of the evening wondering if the dinner we got at the bowling alley next door was cooked well enough. Tomorrow we might stay in Orofino (“Fine Gold”, get it?) at the Suites we aimed for tonight, and rest up for our venture into the Rockies.
Start time: 7:55am
End time: 2:45, with one flat tire.
Today’s mileage: 79.5 miles.
Total mileage so far: 450 miles
Elevation climbed today: 1230 feet (current elevation: 1670)
Total elevation climbed so far: 14,800 feet
Local Gas Prices: $1.59 was the lowest we saw today.
Weather: less than 80 degrees, breezy and clear, and sometimes it was even cool.
Animals for the day: Lots of cows and some horses. Canadian geese.
Day Ten
Orofino to Kamiah, ID
We decided to push on this morning and make a short day of it so we could rest, in preparation for the attack on Lolo Pass. Last night we bought a bottle of wine but realized we had no corkscrew. It seemed that a good place to shop was next door at the assault rifle dealer/pawn shop. Lo and behold they had a corkscrew. We walked out of the shop armed with a pamphlet from the Gun Owners of America and newfound knowledge that the gang problem in LA was easy to solve. “Just give me ten good men and there would be no problem after two weeks. Just shoot anybody wearing gang colors. The word would get out real fast.” We learned that the SKS with the 30 round banana clip was legal and that there are millions of banana clips around so they don’t cost much. “You see, the manufacturer knew that there was going to be a ban on 30 round magazines so they made them as fast as they could before the ban,” said the clerk as he adjusted his ankle holster. My favorite quote from the Gun Owners pamphlet is from the esteemed senator from North Carolina, Jesse Helms. “Let me reiterate, once more…”
We pedaled around for eight miles this morning searching for a place to eat breakfast. We found Becky’s Burgers open for business in downtown Orofino. This place is covered with joke signs like “Unattended children will be sold into slavery”. Berta managed to sit at a table that could be raised about a foot from a switch behind the counter. Ha ha. Glad we weren’t eating those platter-sized pancakes when the guy pushed the button. He was a good kid, though, and helped us the night before by calling a motel that was three miles away so we didn’t have to
pedal there to find out they had no available rooms. Hey, if a motel is a motor hotel, are we looking for a botel? We grabbed a leaflet from our table that had jokes in it, and will send you the best ones:
“The college girl says, “Mother, I wish you would teach Father to say fertilizer instead of manure when I bring my friends home.” The mother replied, “You better leave well enough alone. It took me 20 years to get him to say manure!”
The reward for having to search for our breakfast this morning was a sighting of about seven wild turkeys. We startled them (as shocking as we are) and they flew out of the bushes. This was shortly after our brush with the ferocious wiener dog that chased us for about ten yards. We’ve been told not to stick our foot out at an aggressive dog because that gives him something to bite, but Berta was tempted just to see if this pup could reach. He let out with a final “and don’t you come back!” bark and we were gone.
It is thrilling to see the trail that the Indians and Lewis and Clark used. We have seen it on two occasions and it is amazing to consider that the explorers used the trail 194 years ago. Not far from here Lewis and Clark chose a campsite solely because it had suitable trees that could be made into canoes. In Clarkston, they call it the “Clark and Lewis” expedition.
How would you pronounce “Kamiah”? That’s right, it’s “Cam`-ee-eye”. Just what you guessed, right? Whatever you call it, we are here tonight. Tomorrow we have a thirty-mile day to Lowell, where we might not have email access. The next day takes us to the summit at Lolo Pass and almost to Montana. We will catch you when we can.
Start time: 9:00 am
End time: 11:00, with no flat tires.
Today’s mileage: 38.3 miles includes goofing around before breakfast.
Total mileage so far: 488 miles
Elevation climbed today: 1550 feet
Total elevation climbed so far: 16,350 feet
Local Gas Prices: $1.62
Weather: less than 75 degrees, breezy and clear, but it got much hotter in the afternoon.
Animals for the day: The Daschound (maybe those of you who helped with Weimaraner can help with that as well), the turkeys, and a screeching hawk.
Day Eleven
Kamiah to Lowell, Idaho
We had rolling hills today and never got more than fifty yards from a river. We started out along the Clearwater River, which is slow moving, wide, and shallow. We stopped to watch a pair of Ospreys circling above the opposite bank. One called to the other with a shrill “Yewk-Yewk”, just as a sign we saw described their call. On the same sign, there was a picture of a River Otter and the suggestion that we might see some. When we arrived at Lowell we decided to take a room at Ryan’s Wilderness Inn. The sign here says the population in Lowell is 24, but that is crossed out and 23 has been written in. We asked a few people where we would have a good chance of seeing some otters, and the consensus was “The Pond, near the ranger station, up the Selway River about four miles”. We took that road, which is paved and very quiet, to the pond,
which is a stocked fishing pond. We sat on a picnic table for about five minutes before we saw a definite non-fish in the pond. It was a River Otter! He (otters are boys) made several trips into the middle of the pond; swimming back to the shore on his back with his rear paws churning like a sternwheeler. There was another couple there who caught a small fish and threw it back.
Later in the afternoon we went to the café for dinner. We each had fried chicken, which was very good. Oh, we had huckleberry pie earlier today that was yummy tart. Back to dinner. The waitress, it turns out, spends her days talking to the bicyclists who pass through, and dreams of pedaling across the country with her 18-year-old daughter in a few years when her two toddlers are old enough to handle Mommy leaving for a few months. She told of a group of 70-year-old women who pedaled through recently, asked us if we saw the guy who is walking across the country pushing a baby stroller (no baby), and commented the oldest guy she has seen bicycling through was 80. It was fun to hear her enthusiasm and interest in our trip. Her stories about other travelers bring to mind all sorts of trite sayings like “where there’s a will, there’s a way”.
In Idaho, they have many signs asking people not to litter and to prevent forest fires. Sometimes these admonitions are painted onto the pavement at the turnouts near historical markers. In letters about a foot high, they plead. Yesterday there was one that said, “Don’t be a guberif”. Does anyone know what a guberif is? The note was in capital letters, so we don’t know if guberif is a proper noun, a title, or what. We’re just hoping we make it out of Idaho before we slip up on this one.
Tomorrow we head for the Lolo Pass. We have a long day ahead of us. Tonight we had to borrow a phone line from the café for this transmission, so we will get back to you when we can.
Start time: 8:10 am
End time: 11:00, with no flat tires.
Today’s mileage: 41.6 miles includes going to the fish pond to see the otter.
Total mileage so far: 530 miles
Elevation climbed today: 1800 feet
Total elevation climbed so far: not sure
Local Gas Prices: $1.78 because there is no other gas for 63 miles.
Weather: Warm, breezy and clear.
Animals for the day: The Ospreys and a River Otter.
Day Twelve
Lowell, ID to Lolo Hot Springs, MT
We would have contacted you earlier, but between our water-resistant sunscreen and the ridiculously soft water at the Lolo Hot Springs Resort, it has taken us several hours to be able to type without our fingers slipping off the keyboard.
We had anticipated a long and difficult day. It was long, indeed, but we have arrived in fine fashion. Last night we called the Lochsa (say lock-saw) Lodge and discovered they had no rooms for tonight, so we knew we would have to pedal more than 60 miles before tackling the hill at
Lolo Pass. We also knew there are no places to buy food in that 60+ miles, so we chose from the wide selection of non-essential foods at the convenience store in Lowell. This morning, we spread berry jam (no Peanut Butter) onto hot dog buns (no bread) with the spoon we have along, and put them in the bun bag. We packed that, Fig Newtons, Oreos (Single Stuff, the horror!), and chocolate pudding cups and we hit the road. I think the most oft-used word today was “serviceable” because that is all you can comment about a jam-soggy hot dog bun and lukewarm chocolate pudding. This menu was less appetizing than Berta ever imagined junk food could be. The Oreos turned out to be most excellent on the hill, but we discovered that black Oreo dust creates an interesting line around your lips if you eat them during exertion.
The hill at Lolo Pass is about five miles long and the signs say it is a 6% grade. We started climbing at about mile 63 today, and one hour and fifty minutes later (at mile 78), we had reached the summit. Berta was disappointed there is no sign at the summit declaring the elevation. The visitor’s center there has the elevation at 5266. John’s cycle computer shows we climbed 4220 feet today. One thing “they” don’t mention about climbing long hills is that buzzing insects are attracted by the sweat and motion of a cyclist. We were cyclo-Pig Pens out there with a cloud of annoying gnats around our heads. They couldn’t keep up with us on the descent, though.
We giggled our way down the mountain in Montana territory and were surprised after eight speedy miles of coasting to find the resort here. The décor is faux log cabin, the rooms are large, and the price is right. The bar is not too far away and that is where we will be while we can still keep our eyes open.
While John was checking into the “Resort”, Berta befriended a 6’ 4” 270 lb RV driver with two dogs, a Scottie named Roxie and a Labrador named Ebony. We learned that after driving your RV for 14 hours your prostate hurts and we imagine other parts do as well. The design of bicycle seats is inadequate for the prostate as well claimed the RVer. John’s part of the conversation consisted of “Yes.”, “No.”, and “Uh-huh.” Roxie is going to have puppies in two weeks. So far this has been a very educational trip.
Start time: 7:05am
End time: 3:30 PST, with no flat tires.
Today’s mileage: 86.2 miles and not an inch further.
Total mileage so far: 616 miles and we are feeling pretty good about that!
Elevation climbed today: 4220 feet
Total elevation climbed so far: 20,200 feet
Local Gas Prices: There is no local gas.
Weather: Warm, with ominous thunder but only big cold sprinkly raindrops.
Animals for the day: More Ospreys and lots of Flutterbies.
Day Thirteen
Lolo Hot Springs to Drummond, Montana
“And then they turned on the buzz saw!”
We planned a 55-mile day. Boy, were we wrong! We got a late start, and went through Missoula around noon. There is a river park in Missoula where on Wednesdays (during the summer) they have a lunchtime festival. There were hundreds of people sitting on the grass in the hot sun listening to folk music. It was called Caras Park.
That was the end of the magic, though. We left town, headed for a place called Clinton, where we intended to spend the night. There was nothing there except a gas station, no offense intended to the residents of Clinton. After learning we had another 30 miles to the next motel, we were too shocked to inquire about voting demographics. We suppose that jokes about the city name from people wearing Spandex would not be welcome. We had one flat in that stretch from Clinton to Drummond and managed to dodge some fierce rain clouds and impressive thunder. The road had puddles in places that turned into a refreshing spray when navigated by a 18 wheeler. We are watching Survivor for the first time tonight and it seems pretty appropriate.
The word prize for the day goes to Aunt Elaine who realized that guberif spelled backwards is Firebug. So we did make it out of Idaho without being guberifs! How silly do you have to be to spell a word backwards in foot-high letters on the road? And the “It’s a Really Small World” award goes to Elaine’s friend Mary who was in the group of 70-year-old women who pedaled through Lowell and made such an impression on the waitress we talked to. Mary would like to clarify that there was only one woman over 70 and most of them were only “over 50”.
Start time: 9:30 am
End time: 5:30, with one flat tire.
Today’s mileage: 96.8 miles and boy was that dorky!
Total mileage so far: 713 miles!
Elevation climbed today: 1460 feet
Total elevation climbed so far: 21,700 feet
Local Gas Prices: $1.69.
Weather: Warm, with ominous thunder but only big cold sprinkly raindrops.
Animals for the day: Llamas and honey bees .
Day Fourteen
Drummond to Helena, MT
Today we stopped in a small town (smaller than you are imagining) called Avon and bought some Gatorade. Fruit Punch flavor is much better than the Lemon-Lime mix we had been using until we ran out yesterday. There is a General Mercantile in Avon in a building that was built in 1893. We talked to a man whose grandfather started working in that store when he was 17 and worked there for sixty years. He eventually bought the store from his employer. The structure was built of large uneven rocks with a worn whitewash on them. You know the style of building, in the old west: a rectangle with smaller rectangle above. If it was a really important building it had a third rectangle on top. Well this building was a two rectangle affair and it reeked of history.
We walked into the Avon post office/general store. A lively conversation was taking place between the postmaster and a Stetson hated cowboy who was holding a newspaper. Admittedly,
the conversation waned upon the appearance of fluorescent clothing. The art of conversation is not lost in the west. Baseball-capped, cowboy-hatted or bareheaded, suspender-equipped men sit in restaurants, early in the morning, discussing work, weather or local gossip.
As we were leaving Avon, some kids hollered at us with Buy Our Lemonade voices. That’s not what they asked, though. They asked, “Do you have some money for homeless people?” Berta, lost in sympathy for these poor kids, couldn’t think of anything to say. John, being more perspicacious even in his fatigue, hollered back, “Are you kids homeless?” One answered, “No, but we know some homeless rats.” At least they were honest little scam artists.
Later we decided not to eat in Stoners Last Chance Saloon where they had a sticker on the bar that proclaimed “I don’t care how they do it in California.” The tall, bespectacled, gray poney tailed guy behind the bar/grill area nodded when John asked him if the next place to eat was in about seven miles. What this guy neglected to tell us, though, was that the place we had in mind was on the other side of the Continental Divide, over the MacDonald pass and it didn’t open until 5 o’clock. That will teach us to walk into a bar in Spandex.
People who live in sparsely populated territory like to make up neighbors. Today we saw a couple of particleboard cowboy silhouettes in Avon and a full-sized “sleeping” patron on a barstool in the saloon. All three were wearing bandanas.
We didn’t know we were going to cross the Continental Divide today. We trudged up an 8% grade for a few miles—fixing a flat on the ascent—and there was a sign that declared we were at the summit of MacDonald Pass at the Continental Divide at 6325 feet. That wasn’t enough for John, so we pedaled up the dirt road to the Vista Point and took a picture of the valley below.
The descent from the pass lasted about seven miles and was a blast. On a descent, you glance away from the road for a millisecond to check your rear view mirror. Then you glance at your speedometer and brake a little if you are going faster than 35 mph (that’s fast enough to handle a flat tire if you had to). In between, you try not to look possessed when a bug comes at your face in a strange super slow motion trajectory. After that, you try to convince yourself that the bug is not still stuck to whatever it hit and isn’t plenty mad about it.
Start time: 8:00 am
End time: 3:30, with one flat tire.
Today’s mileage: 70.9miles
Total mileage so far: 784 miles
Elevation climbed today: 4190 feet
Current elevation: about 2780 feet
Total elevation climbed so far: 24,500 feet
Local Gas Prices: $1.59.
Weather: About 75 degrees, with afternoon thunderstorms.
Animals for the day: Billy Goats and unnaturally large Ravens.
Day Fifteen
Helena, Montana to Helena, Montana
This morning we took a tour of the city in wheeled mini Pullman cars pulled by a truck designed to look like a locomotive. Our engineer/tour narrator made liberal use of the bell and whistle. He was a knowledgeable and humorous. His stories were punctuated with “Word on the Last Chance Gulch was…” and “That is what I have heard”. The mansions in Helena are large. Four stories all, they each have the flavor of the homeland of their builders. Many were stone or brick, and all looked like a challenge to heat. Some of the sidewalks were original brick set in the nineteenth century. There were horse hitches on many corners.
We decided to pay our money and take our chances at Big Dorothy’s, for lunch, on the walking mall at the Last Chance Gulch. We were rewarded with the best meal we have had so far, a blackened New Orleans chicken sandwich with dark green leaf lettuce salad. Yum! Before Helena was called Helena, it was called Last Chance. The gulch made many millionaires during the Montana gold rush, and when a gold claim “dried up”, a building was erected (sometimes in the same odd dimensions of the original claim) and a business was founded. As a consequence there is a four-story building that is something like 22 feet wide and 168 feet long. Now in place of miners’ claims there is a beautiful downtown of art galleries, restaurants, and offices.
Helena has some pretty interesting history. The man who suggested that name for the town was from Helena, Minnesota and just wanted a little taste of home. Helena, Minnesota no longer exists. Helena became the capital of Montana with a number of votes that was double the number of registered voters in the region. There is a statue on the lawn in front of the capital building that was not commissioned by the city. It was sent to Helena by the people of Bozeman and Anaconda who lost the bid for the capital but wanted to honor Captain Mar. He was a man who had been exiled from the United States for treason, then later appointed the territorial governor of Montana by the President. He met his end under questionable circumstances, on a riverboat, during an Indian attack. The statue that is on the dome of the capital building and is a symbol of Montana just appeared one day as the building was being completed. The builders decided to place it atop the copper dome. The sculptor and the commissioner of the statue is unknown.
We went to a movie and saw X-Men for $4.00 each at the matinee. It lacked substance, but plenty strong in entertainment value. That Magneto sure is a mean guy.
Start time: When we felt like it.
End time: Later.
Today’s mileage: 4.4 miles
Total mileage so far: 788 miles
Elevation climbed today: Zip, zilch, nada.
Current elevation: about 4210 feet
Total elevation climbed so far: 24,500 feet
Local Gas Prices: $1.57 across the street.
Weather: About 90 degrees. It was a lot colder in the movie theater.
Animals for the day: A pair of deer, one with fuzzy antlers.
Day Sixteen
From Helena, MT to White Sulphur Springs, MT
The pace of traveling by bicycle is slow, so the mind tends to wander. Two people traveling by bike have chances of intermittent conversation depending on the traffic noise. So this morning the musical theme of the day started with Berta singing happy birthday to John to the tune of the William Tell Overture. John replied in the same tune with, “Thank you, thank you very much…” And “Berta.” You can fill in the blanks but we thought we were funny, at least at the time. Later in the day we passed a sign, in the middle of nowhere, proclaiming ‘Land for Sale’. The letters of the sign were done in black spray paint and as an afterthought the phone number had to make a 90 degree bend. Immediately Berta started singing, “Land for sale. God forsaken, miles from nowhere, land for sale.” to the tune of Love for Sale. Of course this provided general mirth that lasted at least a half-mile. The next musical interlude came at a rest stop when Berta proclaimed we were doing the Deer Fly Hokey Pokey. This dance required shaking the feet and waving the arms. It was a short dance, as we decided to move on. Remarkably, some deer flies seem capable of traveling at least 12 mph. This area seems to be an entomologist’s nirvana.
Lunchtime usually is around 10 o’clock if a town is available. So it was today and during the search for lunch we located the road that we were supposed to take but didn’t know it was there. Lunch was in a place called the Creamery and since it was still breakfast time we had breakfast again, with ice cream. The Creamery is for sale. $199,000. Not a good investment.
A road sign you don’t want to see is, “Chain Up Area Ahead.” What this sign means is that the road is going to be steep, you’re going to sweat more and the insects are going to have a chance to catch up. The dreaded sign appeared again today and validated our concerns.
A few days ago we passed the spot where they placed the “Golden Spike” to finish the Transcontinental Railroad. We stop at every historical marker we can, but it is difficult to chronicle all of the rich history of this area. Today we rode along Canyon Ferry Lake, between the Big Belt Mountains in the East and the Elkhorn Mountains in the West. The Montana Bar in Diamond City on the West slope of the Big Belt Mountains was famous in the 1860s as “the richest acre of ground in the world”. They claim people gathered $2000 in gold in a pan. Lewis and Clark came up the Missouri River in that valley in July of 1805. We crossed the Missouri River, but we were too surprised by seeing a stork on a sand bar there that we overlooked the significance. We have a question though. Do storks and the Missouri River (the real one) both exist in Montana?
The picture for today is of the Manlove House that is in East Helena. The Manlove family built this house in 1864. They were the first settlers in Montana. They raised potatoes, and had several children. One of their sons was a barber in Helena who lived into his nineties.
Start time: 7:50 am.
End time: 3:00.
Today’s mileage: 78 miles with no flats.
Total mileage so far: 866 miles
Elevation climbed today: 2960 feet
Current elevation: about 5190 feet
Total elevation climbed so far: 27,700 feet
Local Gas Prices: $1.57 still.
Weather: 400 degrees. And it was hotter in the sun.
Animals for the day: A Stork! And some hawks.
Day Seventeen
White Sulphur Springs to Harlowton, MT
The prevailing summer winds in the high plains of Montana blow from West to East. We, too, are going from West to East, and we had a Convergence of Events that made this a magical day. We climbed a hill right outside of White Sulphur Springs, and began a long and gentle descent. Part of the way down, we stopped to wonder at a male antelope who was standing maybe twenty yards from the highway at a pond. He had a white chin, belly, and rump; his face was black, and all of the rest was a warm fawn color. He had early antlers. He trotted when he saw us, and hurried away when a car passed.
The tailwind was building as we started into the rolling hills of the plains. Spinning downhill and giving a kick into the uphill, we watched our average speed climb higher as the miles ticked away. It shows 15.86 mph now, which includes a cheeseburger/onion rings/banana shake hampered ride back to the motel into a mean headwind.
We also stopped to watch a small herd of Buffalo. They considered our passing an Unwelcome Spandex Incident, and ran to the far side of their pasture. We have that effect on hoofed animals. Later, we passed a group of cows. Most cows we see just turn their heads to look at us. They all have ear tags on both ears around here (yellow plastic dangling is the “In Thing”), and they turn their heads without moving their feet. Some moo. If they don’t moo and don’t chew when they turn their heads, they look flat like refrigerator magnets. Berta says they are looking at us and thinking, “It’s not natural to be that thin!”
Those are most cows. Today we passed a cow congregation that evidently believed we would feed them. So they started chasing us. It wasn’t like we were frantically pedaling, looking over our shoulders and starting to blubber. Actually, John was singing some bovine version of Riders in the Storm. The pursuit cows hung on for about a half a mile before they gave up on getting food from us. I could have told them we only had artificially flavored fig bars and warm fruit punch Gatorade.
Between these encounters, we added a little bit of pedaling to the tailwind. We arrived in Harlowton right after noon. Later we went to the Musselshell County Museum. Some of the exhibits in this museum were displayed just like the stuff in a cheap antiques shop—piece upon piece were jammed in glass cabinets. The highlights were: 48 Edison Amerol cylinder records with an Edison player for them, a 45-star American flag from the 1890s, and the fact that many of the pieces were not behind glass nor roped off. There were many signs asking, “please don’t touch”, but we could get our eyeballs right up to the details of the antiques. The woman at the desk talked with us for quite a while about our route for the next couple of days.
Montana is called the Treasure State. Idaho is the Gem State. Green Eggs and Ham, by Dr. Seuss, was the result of a challenge by Dr. Seuss’ publisher to write a book with fewer than 50 different words.
Tonight’s photo is of an electric locomotive, which was in service in this region up until the 1970s. It was the last of the 84 electric locomotives General Electric built in 1915. They
covered over 600 miles of rail in Montana, Idaho, and Washington state. The locomotive is almost 58 feet long, almost 17 feet tall (including the panagraph on top), is 10 feet wide and weighs 144 tons. It is rated at 1500 hp, ran on a 3000 volt DC current, and was virtually trouble free. However, the electrified lines available were limited, so these electric locomotives were retired and replaced by the more versatile diesel engines.
Start time: 8:10 am.
End time: 12:30 pm.
Today’s mileage: 61.7 miles
Total mileage so far: 928 miles
Elevation climbed today: 1360 feet
Current elevation: about 4440 feet
Total elevation climbed so far: 29,100 feet
Local Gas Prices: $1.57 still.
Weather: 89 degrees with a strong tailwind.
Animals for the day: Two beautiful antelope, a bunch of buffalo, and several prairie dogs.
Day Eighteen
Harlowton to Billings, Montana
(We bypassed Roundup because the morning went so well we decided to take Highway 3 straight to Billings).
We are meeting some genuine American characters. Typically, we stop in a town, identify the best (only) place to eat, and have two or three meals there. So we have the place pegged by the time we leave. Jenny works at Wade’s Drive In in Harlowton. She is sixtyish, with closely cropped mostly gray hair, short and stocky. She is the only waitress and has 12 tables and 20 counter seats to dispense food, fluids, advice and conversation. She doesn’t write down what you order until it is time to pay your bill, when she examines the detritus on your dishes and recalls what you had. Everything Jenny says can be heard by all the patrons and the cook. If you are gonna eat at Wade’s you need to pay attention. At any moment a question may be directed to you even though Jenny is ten feet away and not looking at you. An answer is expected immediately. She will ask, “Did you want a vanilla malt?” Patrons look at each other in panic and through a series of nods the guilty party is determined. Everyone wants to please Jenny.
This morning, Jenny was complaining that the grass was too high next to the road to see the deer that are about to cross the road. One cowboy nods in our direction and says she ought to ride a bike like us. This comment provoked chuckles. Berta told the cowboy, “I haven’t hit a deer yet.” Jenny tells Bob the truck driver that she knows someone who needs some hay hauled. The best part is Jenny laughs often while she works, and makes her fellow workers laugh. Jenny owns the place.
Smoke was heavy in the air this morning. There is a wild fire by Canyon Ferry Lake just outside of Helena, where we were two days ago. Lightening started that fire and a few smaller fires in the region yesterday.
In preparation for this trip, we read a few books about bike touring and goofed around on the Internet a lot. We read about some roads that had rumble strips and wondered, “What’s a rumble strip?” We are Rumble Strip Experts now, especially since we saw a machine creating a rumble strip. They are any form of grooves cut or carved or pressed into asphalt on some part of the road shoulder that warn narcoleptics that they have veered out of their lane. In a car, these things are shocking. On a bike, think Magic Fingers from Hell. They are not inherently bad things, though. A Good Rumble Strip is about six inches wide, has gaps, and separates the shoulder from the lane. It offers psychological protection. A Bad Rumble Strip spans the complete shoulder and prevents a cyclist from using any part of the shoulder. We ran into that for a short stretch a few days ago. We rode on some brand spanking new pavement near the Manlove house in East Helena. The smooth clean asphalt was treat enough, but then we saw a vehicle cutting a Good Rumble Strip. The operator sat on a thing that looked like a miniature steamroller. But instead of a smooth barrel, this thing had grinding teeth that chewed a three-by-six inch half-cylinder shape two inches deep out of the asphalt and spit the gravel out on the shoulder. The machine was a super slow motion bronco: chewing, then rearing, then chewing again. The operator used one leg to counter the bucking and a sweeper followed to clean up the mess.
We ate five times today. We started out in a six-table bar annex ordering muffins and greeting the one customer, a middle age woman whose bonnet sat on the table. A large sign outside proclaimed the dates of the Testicle Festival with a picture of a bull on it. The waitress said the festival was becoming more popular each year. While we ate our muffins the other customer had a non-stop conversation with nobody. Life is bittersweet everywhere.
Start time: 8:00 am.
End time: 2:15 pm.
Today’s mileage: 93.6 miles at 17.4 mph.
Total mileage so far: 1022 miles
Elevation climbed today: 1410 feet
Current elevation: about 3340 feet
Total elevation climbed so far: 30,500 feet
Local Gas Prices: $1.66
Weather: 90 something degrees with a strong tailwind.
Animals for the day: Besides necropsy specimens, we saw two deer and a prairie dog who sat on his haunches and chewed on the top of some grass near the road.
Day Nineteen
Billings to Custer, MT
Bike Touring is like a Box of Chocolates:
We got a late start. We started down one road that looked safe on the map but proved too busy, so we turned around and headed for the Interstate. It was a very good decision, and well worth the 13.5 extra miles it meant. We had a headwind and the terrain in Montana goes up and down and up and down over lots of buttes. We had three flats. We stayed in a place called Motel/Café. The food was prepared by a character from the Bates Motel of Alfred Hitchcock fame. Dinner was horrible. We are staying in a converted mobile home where the water comes out of the sink in machine gun bursts. Heavy rust spots and gouges in sink. We don’t want to set anything down because it will get cooties. The fitted sheets don’t fit the mattress and we hope they have been laundered recently. There was a black and white television that received two channels of snow with perfect audio. We listened to TV. We were given no room key and the room cost $28.00. That may give you an indication of the quality of our lodgings. There, for all of you who have asked if we are glossing over the bummer aspects of a bike trip, the answer is no. We haven’t been keeping them from you; we saved them all up for one day. Now we have them over with (we hope).
All of this was not so bad to detract from our most excellent visit today to Pompey’s Pillar. This is a rock landmark that stands alongside the Yellowstone River about twenty miles East of Billings. It was named the Iishbiia Anaache by the Apsaalooka (Crow) people and was a well-known landmark to the plains Indians. It was here, at the strategic crossing of the Yellowstone (or Elk River as the Apsaalooka called it), the Indians met to exchange goods and information. They etched pictographs into the rock. Indian legend says the rock was originally connected to the sandstone cliffs across the river, but it detached itself and rolled across the river. In 1806, Captain William Clark camped near the outcropping. Clark carved his name and the date into the rock and named the rock in honor of Sacajawea’s son. The date was July 25, 1806. We did not plan on being there on the exact anniversary. The carving is protected by a piece of framed Plexiglas that is attached to the rock. From the top of Pompey’s Pillar, we looked at a spectacular scene across the Yellowstone River at a clearing where in 1873 Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, his men, and the men of the Yellowstone Expedition commanded by Col. David Stanley camped.
We talked to three generations of one family at Pompey’s Pillar. These people impressed us first because they convinced the lady collecting money at the Visitors Center that we were one vehicle (2 wheels plus 2 wheels equals one four wheel vehicle) and saved us three dollars. The eight of us moved around, avoiding the hot sun, trading stories. Pretty Grandma and handsome Grampa live in Montana, and handsome Son with beautiful Wife and two picture-perfect kids live in Phoenix now. G and G are teachers and “force” the grandkids to visit places like Pompey’s Pillar to show them the history of our country. Grampa and Son pedaled from Butte to Billings when Son was in eighth grade. During that trip the prevailing winds took the week off and they had to pedal downhill. People were very nice to them on their bike trip and fed them. They wanted to know if people were feeding us. Not without frying it first and demanding payment, they aren’t. Son told us about traveling in this area when he was about five years old
and his sister Troy was two. His grandma sent along a bunch of envelopes for the kids to open when they passed a special spot. He remembers when they passed by Pompey’s Pillar; he opened a little bag of candy orange slices. This family was interested in history and enjoyed experiencing it together. It was a magical experience the eight of us shared. We were immediately comfortable with each other. There were no gaps in the conversation and all comments were eagerly interjected. People are delightful.
Start time: 9:30 am.
End time: 5:00 pm.
Today’s mileage: 69.1 miles with three flats.
Total mileage so far: 1091 miles
Elevation climbed today: 1050 feet
Current elevation: about 3080 feet
Total elevation climbed so far: 32,000 feet
Local Gas Prices: $1.68
Weather: 90+ degrees but it was a dry heat.
Animals for the day: We saw ghost cows who were completely white. When we were stopped at a rest area, a toad popped out of the ground where it had buried itself under the decorative rock.
Day Twenty
Custer to Forsyth, MT
Forsyth has two freeway exits and a domed building on its main street. We discussed whether they got the dome as a result of the exits or vice versa. We visited the dome, which turned out to be the Rosebud County Courthouse. In 1912, the people of Rosebud County, who were relatively wealthy from the coal industry here, voted for a bond issue to pay for the courthouse. It was built in 1914 and is beautiful. So the dome came before the exits. There are marble columns inside and out, and ornate gilded floral molding at the ceilings. We were enjoying the four large paintings of Justice, Reverence, and two other good things, when a court worker identified us as tourists (they don’t get a whole lot of Spandex here). She offered to show us the courtroom and disappeared. She popped out of the courtroom doors and showed us in. She told us she didn’t know what other courtrooms looked like, but had heard that theirs was particularly nice. We decided it wouldn’t be smart to admit to seeing a lot of courtrooms, but this was not much different than any one of those in TV courtroom dramas. What set it apart was a 15 by 8 foot hand-knotted carved rug showing the state of Montana with the state seal depicted. The mother of the presiding judge of Rosebud County made the rug. It took eighteen months to produce and was magnificent.
There is a 1967 Chevrolet Nomad wagon, modified to be four-wheel-drive, for sale in the parking lot near our motel. The asking price is $5000. This blows our theory that people in Montana never get rid of their old cars, but park them in their yard.
Start time: 8:00 am.
End time: 12:30 pm.
Today’s mileage: 49.6 miles with one flat.
Total mileage so far: 1141 miles
Elevation climbed today: 1390 feet
Current elevation: about 2940 feet
Total elevation climbed so far: 33,400 feet
Local Gas Prices: $1.59: there is no method to gas price madness.
Weather: 95+ degrees.
Animals for the day: a batch of sheep who were sleeping in the triangular shade of an evergreen. Grasshoppers are everywhere. We haven’t seen half of the mosquitoes that have bitten Berta.
Day Twenty One
Forsyth to Miles City, MT
Mosquitoes can smell imported blood.
So far, we have avoided making comparisons between bike touring and life. You know how sometimes you think you have something covered and it turns out to be a lot more difficult than you anticipated? And how other times you worry needlessly? This could have been a hard day, but it wasn’t bad at all. The real peanut butter cookies at this Holiday Inn Express may have something to do with that.
We knew it would be hot today, so we tried to get an early start. It kind of worked. We got on the Interstate, which in Montana means a divided road with more than a couple of cars on it. The problem with freeways is debris on the shoulder, especially that dreaded radial tire wire. We were a little concerned about our tube inventory, but we knew there was a bike shop in Miles City, 45 miles away. So we tried to levitate. Whenever we stopped, it was a race to rest as fast as we could before the mosquitoes could mobilize. Berta gets a welt when a mosquito lands on her, and if it bites (so to speak), she starts to puff up like Rich from Survivor. So we didn’t do a lot of resting today. When John popped a spoke about 25 miles into the trip—it is an unmistakable sound—we stopped in the shade of the next overpass to evaluate the wheel. John held the bike off the ground and Berta spun the wheel. Thank goodness the rim didn’t wobble enough to contact the brake pads, because Berta was starting to swell. If a broken spoke doesn’t make the brakes drag, your next concern is another spoke breaking under the changed tension. So again, John tried to levitate to take the weight off his wheel. We reached Miles City before noon and found the bike shop right away, but not before Berta also broke a spoke.
Miles Milligan is the proprietor at Pedal Power Sports. Miles is 6’4’’, 250lbs, fair, middle fifties, balding and a blue eyed character. He regaled us with ninety minutes of Miles and Miles City Vignettes. The chief of police here is a large man who can ride up the big hill in town without standing up. The Chief bought a fancy Trek bike a while back even though Miles told him he wouldn’t like that particular bike. The Trek is back on Miles’ sales floor. There is a 70-year-old lady in town who rode 10,000 miles on one set of tires and was upset she had three flats in that time. Miles finally convinced this woman to replace her three-speed bike. She puts laundry in the
washer, goes out for a spin, comes back to have a cup of coffee with her buddies and swap the clothes, and goes out again. The topics of conversation were wide ranging and freewheeling. A lot of conversation centered on motorcycles: a favorite of Miles and Gus. We heard lots of crash stories. Gus is an enthusiastic 14 year-old who works in the shop and enjoyed talking to Berta. He is riding his Yamaha 125cc dirt motorcycle in the Billings Hillclimb stock class this Saturday. The hill they try to climb is 400 feet long, with an 82-degree incline until the last part, which is 87 degrees. A bit difficult to believe, but that is what we were told. Gus would talk for a few minutes, then hurry off to find us some cool picture or part to show us. Miles says he leaves Gus with the keys to the shop every day. Last week he did that and Gus had sold four bikes in the time he was gone.
Miles worked through his lunch hour, charged us a fair price, and gave us some free glueless tube patches to go with a couple of new tubes. He cautioned us to take lots of water for tomorrows ride but said that we could stop by any farmhouse and ask for water. As a parting gesture he gave us his cell phone number. This is another example of how well people have treated us. We sure are having fun! Telling you about our trip is fun as well. We’ll write again tomorrow.
Start time: 7:45 am.
End time: At 11:30 pm, we got to the bike shop.
Today’s mileage: 49.2 miles with two broken spokes.
Total mileage so far: 1190 miles
Elevation climbed today: 1330 feet
Current elevation: about 2740 feet
Total elevation climbed so far: 34,700 feet
Local Gas Prices: I can’t see a gas station from here and I’m not going out to check.
Weather: 100 degrees, but they said the “heat index” was 97 degrees. Well, I feel better!
Animals for the day: Grasshoppers Everywhere! In some places, about ten grasshoppers would jump up for every pedal stroke. It was kind of biblical.
Day Twenty-two
Miles City to Baker, Montana
There is a sign near Miles City that says there is construction on Highway 12 and motorcycles are not recommended. “PPPhhhh!” We said. Why would they possibly say that? Seven miles of a gravel/dirt/barf pavement later, we understood. In Montana, they don’t bother with foo-foo detours and pave one side of the road while they move the traffic to the other side. No, here they just rip out the whole road for miles and throw some gravel on the gouge marks. We both cheered the pavement when we rejoined it.
We saw three White Tail Deer shortly after the gravel/dirt interlude. The tails on White Tail Deer are about a foot long—you’d have to hold your foot up to the tail to prove it though—and they flop up and down when the deer runs. The deer floated over the ground and sailed over a
barbed-wire fence, crossed the road in front of us, sailed over another fence and off onto the plains. When they jump, their bodies form a graceful arc.
We saw an Antelope. The scene was almost the same as with the deer, except the Antelope scrunched down and hurried under the fence instead of hurdling it. Later, Larry told us that deer jump fences, but antelope (antlers and all) duck through them. Oh, did we tell you about Larry? We were stopped at a historical marker when a guy in a pickup truck pulled off the highway and asked us if we needed anything. Larry introduced us to his daughter, Kelly Jo, and said we could get water at his house across the road. He has a 1000-head cattle ranch of 26,000 acres that stretches three miles to the North and more than two miles to the South. While we were talking, Larry noticed one tire had a flat and while we were fixing the flat, two Montana State Troopers stopped by to see if we needed help. In the middle of nowhere, people rely on each other.
Larry has a personalized license plate that says STRADOG. He evidently has a reputation for picking up strays. We didn’t quite qualify, but we did need some water. We hopped in the back of Larry’s truck and bounced to his house. We were greeted by Stripes, or rather, the Belly of Stripes. The Belly of Stripes is a kitty belly that needed scratching. Larry said we could have Stripes if we had room. Next in the animal greeting line was a dog that thinks she is the kittens’ mother. She let Stripes reach up and bat her paws as Berta patted her head. Two other kittens appeared right before the tomcat strutted past. Larry offered us those kittens, too. The tomcat has stubby ears because he was born late in the year and the tips were lost in the cold. In the enclosed entrance to the house, a blue healer thought Berta’s sunscreen tasted good. Larry pleaded with us to take the healer as well. Inside the house, we met Jodi—Larry’s wife—and daughter Rhonda Sue while we ducked from two attack parakeets. Jodi offered Rhonda to us as she poured some ice cold Nectar of the Gods (Hawaiian Punch). We filled our bottles with water and gabbed. They shrugged self-consciously when John referred to them as the type of people who have made this trip so gratifying, but these people went out of their way to help us. On the way out, Larry suggested we ride away slowly and maybe the blue healer would follow us. We also met Dru and Tammy out in front. They run Powder River Ranch Realty and are Larry’s closest neighbors who live three miles away. Tammy commented that Larry doesn’t get enough visitors, so he grabs them off the road when he can. We were lucky to be Larry’s strays for the day.
Today’s picture shows Berta near the top of the gravel hill.
Start time: 7:30 am.
End time: At 4:00 pm.
Today’s mileage: 80 miles with one flat tire.
Total mileage so far: 1270 miles
Elevation climbed today: 2780 feet
Current elevation: Don’t know
Total elevation climbed so far: 37,500 feet
Weather: 98 degrees when we stopped for the day.
Animals for the day: Three White Tail deer, an Antelope, a hawk, and some really loud cows.
Day Twenty-three
Baker, Montana to Bowman, North Dakota
There is nothing funny about a 10-15 mph headwind to a bicyclist. The weather channel says that is what we faced today. Our speedometers can attest to our slow progress as well. The wind is supposed to be out of the South tomorrow when we will be heading southeast.
We ate frozen Milky Way bars in Marmarth, where today’s photo was taken. The candy was frozen because the air conditioner for the metal building was broken. All of the candy was melting, so the owner put it in the freezer. There is a very small temperature difference for a chocolate bar between rock hard and sloppy. The owner had been waiting for air conditioner parts for two weeks and was disinclined to open for business. After we purchased our candy bars she closed up and went home.
Most small towns in this area have a city park, as we are learning, and water as well. Wells here are usually artesian and have an elaborate valve. One must be careful when opening the valve because a small adjustment makes quite a difference in water volume. John learned this lesson the hard way.
The terrain in North Dakota is lunar, with grass. It has the same feel as Yellowstone Park: chalky, ashen ground with smooth edges like it was poured out of some big soft-serve machine. The delineation between grass and this moonscape is very sharp and quite lovely.
The photo today is of a bank/auditorium built in 1918.
Start time: 8:30 am.
End time: 2:00 pm.
Today’s mileage: 49 miles at 11.1 mph.
Total mileage so far: 1319 miles
Elevation climbed today: 1110 feet
Current elevation: 3120 feet
Total elevation climbed so far: 38,600 feet
Weather: It was in the mid-nineties. It was only bad when we stopped and the gnats caught up with us.
Animals for the day: Gnats
Day Twenty-four
Bowman to Hettinger, North Dakota
Things we learned today or recently:
Continental Breakfast is a subjective term. North Dakota is the Peace Garden State. In this region, you get your utensils at a restaurant in a wax-paper sleeve. There is a trail in the Theodore Roosevelt State Park in North Dakota where you can ride a mountain bike for days. No one knows how to pronounce the name of this trail, not even the locals. It starts with an “M”, so if you say the Mmfmrh Trail, you sound knowledgeable.
Talk in the local breakfast establishments has an agricultural flavor. There is the usual bafflement at what the government is doing, but the overriding concern is the cost of a bushel of wheat or the price of yearling cows. Much discussion is spent on where to sell wheat or beef and the cost of transportation to obtain a higher price.
We walked into Lola’s Diner at high noon on a Sunday during their popular buffet. Forty forks froze and twenty stories stopped. We haven’t seen this many people in one room for two states, and they hadn’t seen Spandex in Hettinger since those last weirdos were here. Eight trips to the They-Didn’t-Think-We-Could-Eat-That-Much Bar later, and the conversation still hushed when we stood up. After paying our bill two brave ladies talked to us about our trip. They were pleasant, kind and interested. One told us her grandson is a cyclist and he really enjoys it.
Hay bales have changed shape and size as we travel east. In Idaho, we saw contraptions called “Beaver Slides” that were used to store hay in big stacks in the field. The farmer would use a motor—sometimes using the axle of a truck—to run a conveyor belt that would lift the hay high so it would pile higher and pack better. In western Montana we saw bales 6 feet high, 6 feet wide and weighing 1200 pounds. Larry says they are making balers that can pack the hay tight enough to make a 1900-pound bale of the same size; however, you’d have to get new machinery that can carry the bigger bales. As we moved toward eastern Montana and North Dakota, we saw more bales in big jellyrolls, like the picture tonight. We challenge you not to laugh!
Start time: 8:10 am.
End time: 12:10 pm.
Today’s mileage: 42.7 miles.
Total mileage so far: 1362 miles
Elevation climbed today: 570 feet
Current elevation: 2870 feet
Total elevation climbed so far: 39,200 feet
Local Gas Prices: $1.59
Weather: About 93 degrees and humid.
Animals for the day: we saw a coyote the other day. Slim pickins today.
Day Twenty-Five
Hettinger, North Dakota to Lemmon, South Dakota
It would be nice if there were a motel with guest laundry, continental breakfast and a spacious clean bathroom every twenty miles. There is not, so some days we have a short day because the next opportunity is too far away. On those days, we hope for interesting local attractions. Today, we dispatched with 28 easy miles because tomorrow we need to go 98 miles to Mobridge. Let us all say a little prayer to the Gods of Strong Tailwinds and Delayed Precipitation.
Proprietors in the middle of the country put their names on their ads and their businesses. It reflects pride in ownership. We stayed with the Starkveds at the Tip Top Motel in Hettinger last night. They have a contract with Burlington Northern Rail Road to provide lodging for their workers. Most of those workers used to stay in Lemmon, where we are tonight. According to the Starkveds, the guy who owns the Prairie Motel—our castle for today—won the lottery and ever since has not invested in improvements on his property. So Mr. Starkved suggested we stay one mile outside of town at a nicer place. We decided we needed to camp near the watering hole, so
we are staying in the heart of Lemmon. We asked the female motel clerk, who is proof that spiked bleached hair and “body modification” is alive and well all over this great land, if we could see a room. In a brilliant customer service move, Raven (Berta thinks that was her name) showed us a dark yucky room. John asked her if there was a better room, and within five minutes, we were checked into a room that is just fine and much nicer than the demo room. There was a child in the office with Raven who announced she had a sucker. John asked her what flavor it was (Red Dye No. 5 is very versatile), and she said “Yummy”.
We met an a couple at a rest stop in Montana who were returning from a missionary trip in Alaska who suggested we see the petrified wood forest in Lemmon. Do you have a picture in your mind? The “World’s Largest” petrified wood forest in Lemmon is a shadeless city block of columns and cones formed by chunks of petrified wood set in concrete. Inside, the floor looks just like the walls. The museum was a collection of antiques from local families as well as a good selection of rocks, dinosaur artifacts and Native American displays. However, the display of money from around the world, the large collection of small bells, the carved wooden world leader figurines from Norway, and the World War II uniforms didn’t quite seem to fit. There was a display of portraits of the men who have been named “Boss Cowmen” each year in the community. This is the west and the Cowboy is revered.
Later, we went to the Grand River Museum. The Schmidts, who are ranchers in South Dakota, started the museum. We talked with Mrs. Schmidt, who was very proud of her son, Stuart, who has done most of the work in the museum. Mrs. Schmidt is retired, drives 40 miles one way to the museum, is seventyish, and has piercing clear blue eyes. We were fortunate to have her full attention for forty-five minutes. It is amazing how much you can enjoy a museum when a curator walks around with you. She eagerly pointed out her favorite exhibits and stepped over a barricade to show us a particular aspect of a large dinosaur skull. Their focus is on the dinosaur bones, some of which were excavated on their land. They also have a pictorial history of local Indians (Sitting Bull lived in this region) with some arrowheads and beaded clothing. This museum seems sympathetic to the predicament that the Indians faced in the late 1800’s (the historic markers on Highway 12 have painted the Indians as “hostiles”). All of the displays are very informative. They have some ossified dinosaur tendons and many specimens from the duck-billed dinosaurs (“Edmontosaurus”, named for where they were first discovered) that lived in this region. There is a skull of a Triceratops that shows several scars as a result of combat, according to the paleontologists. This was an animal that weighed up to six tons. The sound of dinosaur combat must have been fearsome.
Start time: 8:20 am.
End time: 10:45 am.
Today’s mileage: 28.8 miles.
Total mileage so far: 1391 miles
Elevation climbed today: 500 feet
Current elevation: 2760 feet
Total elevation climbed so far: 39,700 feet
Local Gas Prices: $1.53
Weather: Hot and humid.
Animals for the day: Dinosaurs.
Day Twenty-Six
Lemmon, SD to Mobridge, SD
We started the day with a really good breakfast that came with our not so good motel room. After leaving mere crumbs for the other guests, we went to the gas station to add air to our tires. We have become quite bold using gas station compressed air and so far haven’t blown up any tubes. Just as we were leaving the gas station, a farmer walking to his pickup said, “Heading for Sturgis?” We started laughing. Then he said, “Maybe the wrong equipment.” Without further comment, he drove away. This area of the country is full of motorcyclists, most on Harley-Davidsons heading for Sturgis this week where 500,000 bikers are expected.
Rolly-Bumps (n.): 1) A technical term used to describe the fissures in pavement caused by winter freeze/thaw and, 2) the jarring a bicyclist can experience on such pavement. Usually the fissures are 12 to 25 feet apart, but sometimes are 12 to 25 inches apart. Also known as Rolly-Bonks or Those Infernal Cracks.
We had lunch at the café in McIntosh. The menu had at least six different versions of a ham sandwich, but we both had patty melts (the special of the day). Outside the cafe, there was a 6-year-old boy who was spray-painting glow-in-the-dark green highlights onto his BMX bike, the sidewalk, and the building we just exited. The paint can he was using was too big for his hand so he had to use both hands to hold the can and “controlled” the spray with his thumb.
We tried to fill our water bottles at the city park but the water spigots were chained closed so we stole two quarts of water from the local church.
Don’t trust a person who says a route is “all downhill”. We can only surmise that the man who talked to us earlier today about the road being “all downhill” near Mobridge was confused as to whether we were traveling East or West. He was sitting in a café in Watauga where there were some funny signs on the walls. One said: “The more you complain, the longer God will let you live”.
Live long and prosper.
Start time: 7:30 am MST.
End time: 4:00 pm CST.
Today’s mileage: 101 miles with one flat.
Total mileage so far: 1492 miles
Elevation climbed today: 1970 feet
Current elevation: about 1910 feet
Total elevation climbed so far: 41,700 feet
Local Gas Prices: $1.57
Weather: Not so hot and kind of humid.
Animals for the day: Hawks and Honey Bees. We saw one Mallard that burst out of the bushes as we pedaled by. He flew away, quacking like a quazy duck.
Day Twenty-Seven
Rest Day in Mobridge, South Dakota
Business Hours are a fluid, flexible concept in the Midwest. There are two Tourist Attractions in Mobridge, and only one of them was open during business hours. The Klein Museum was a well-presented look at the history of this region. There were many recreations of rooms and shops. There was Al’s Barber Shop, which was a shop in Mobridge from the 1930s. The display reminded us that before indoor plumbing was common, the barbershop was the place to go to get cleaned up. On Saturday nights, when many of the field hands returned to town, Al would serve about 300 men at fifty cents a bath.
We learned that Sitting Bull, chief of the Sioux (or Lakota) people, was killed by Indian agents after he was part of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. A U.S. Army general was concerned that Sitting Bull was going to encourage Indians to perform the Ghost Dance, which was a ceremony calling for help from their ancestors. The general worried that Sitting Bull would use this dance to organize the Indians against the government. So Indian Agents were dispatched to prevent Sitting Bull from performing the dance. He was killed by the Indian Agents and is buried near here.
The second tourist attraction in Mobridge is a series of murals on the walls of the city auditorium. They were painted by a Sioux man, Oscar Howe, who was hired under the Work Project Administration. For the work, Howe was paid the regular WAP wage of sixty dollars per month. He worked for a month before he was drafted into the Army, and was given a 2-week pass to complete the work after Mobridge citizens wrote letters to his CO at Ft. Snelling in Minnesota. He met a woman in Germany in 1945 who would become his wife. Two years after Howe returned to the United States, he won an art contest and $350 which paid for his wife to join him in the U.S. Howe had a difficult life, and it wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that Howe started to be recognized as an important contributor to Indian and American art.
Mobridge is at Lake Oahe, which is fed by the Grand River and the Missouri River. The lake is a popular Walleye fishing spot. This does not explain the high price of a Walleye dinner at the café fifty yards from the water’s edge. The high price does, however, explain why Berta still doesn’t know what Walleye tastes like.
Most restaurants here are called cafes. Some are called Supper Clubs, but we haven’t been to those because we don’t want to expose our uncertainty as to what time of day supper happens. Even in the cafes, we have had to ask a few questions. For instance, today we learned about the difference between American Fries and French Fries. We cannot agree on what we learned, but the American version sounds like potato wedges.
Start time: 7:3am MST.
End time: 4:00 pm CST.
Today’s mileage: 4.8 miles.
Total mileage so far: 1497 miles
Elevation climbed today: 0 feet
Current elevation: about 1910 feet
Total elevation climbed so far: 41,700 feet
Local Gas Prices: $1.57
Weather: Cooler and pretty humid.
Animals for the day: A quartet of Pelicans flew by (outside) while we were eating dinner, which actually is called supper here.
Day Twenty-Eight
Mobridge to Aberdeen, South Dakota
We crossed the 100th Meridian today. For two generations, insurance companies and lenders refused to work with people west of the 100th Meridian. This was based on a claim by a geographer that the 100th Meridian was the border of the “Great American Desert”. Neither the geographer nor the moneymen had actually been west of the line. The policy forced South Dakota to get into the businesses of insurance and lending, which was a long and difficult row for them to hoe.
We were discussing whether this trip is still fun (after 90 miles) today when we got to the 13-mile stretch of oil and gravel they just put down yesterday. We know the road was “normal” up until then because we talked to a couple in Aberdeen who said we would have missed the construction if we had come through town two days ago. We first met this couple in Dairy Queen. They asked all sorts of questions about our trip and insinuated that we might have a few “rocks loose in our head”. It was difficult to refute at the time. They were nice people who were quick to chuckle and interested in our journey. We finished inhaling our food, exchanged best wishes, and went looking for a motel. Later, we walked over and joined all the other shoppers at WalMart. While turning circles, mouths agape, trying to decide which quadrant would have stain remover for the road oil on Berta’s jacket, we encountered the couple we had met at Dairy Queen. We were glad for this, because we had some unanswered questions about our earlier conversation. They had commented that their wheat harvest had been slow recently because it had not been windy. We asked them to clarify. They explained that wheat will get moldy if it is too moist after harvesting. In fact, buyers pay less for wheat that is more than 13.5% water. So the growers need a warm wind to dry out the wheat before they harvest it. Another thing that hampers the harvest is a heavy dew (high humidity), because the wheat takes half the day to dry out even if it is windy and warm.
This couple owns three combines (which cost $230,000 new), and they begin working in Oklahoma in May of each year and end in North Dakota each November. They harvest Winter Wheat in the south, and follow the harvesting season in each region until it is time to harvest Spring Wheat in the north. They met each other in 1969 on this moving harvest, and have been married for twenty years. He raced snowmobiles (drag racing on Saturdays and ice oval track on Sundays) for many winters. Now their kids want to race snowmobiles. This couple is typical of the interesting and hard working Americans we have met.
Start time: 8:05 am.
End time: 5:00 pm.
Today’s mileage: 105.6 miles. Bleh!
Total mileage so far: 1603 miles
Elevation climbed today: 1420 feet
Current elevation: about 1570 feet
Total elevation climbed so far: 43,100 feet
Local Gas Prices: $1.45 was the lowest we saw today and that was for premium. Unleaded regular was $.02 more per gallon. Weird!
Weather: It was 78 degrees at High Noon in Bowdle.
Animals for the day: Camels!!! Ha Ha, can you believe it? A guy raises camels near Selby. We stopped to make sure we weren’t hallucinating. We also saw a few Weasels, who are smaller than you would guess.
Day Twenty-Nine
Aberdeen to Webster, South Dakota
The only motto we’ve seen for South Dakota is “Great Faces, Great Places” that is on their Mount Rushmore license plates.
Lunch, I mean dinner, is not always a planned event. Sometimes we are in a town, we look at our watches, don’t want to eat any more Fig Newtons and stop. Today we made a serendipitous stop in Andover, based only on a hand-painted sign that said Carolyn’s Kitchen ¼ mile. It no longer bothers us when the conversation stops upon our entrance, but it is nice when people talk to us like they did in this place. We answered the usual questions from three different people. John immediately decided on the Pork Steak Dinner Special ($4.75) and convinced Berta that, even if it didn’t sound good to her, she should order it too. The food was ready right away, because this establishment serves meals to senior citizens who need them (delivery or eat-in), and we had appeared just before the noon rush. Our food arrived on plates with sections, but the potato salad and baked beans didn’t behave and soon food was touching. For Berta, food that touches other food is almost inedible. We each had two slices of wheat bread with butter and they gave us a pitcher of water as a matter of policy and not because we looked like we needed it. In this region of the country a pitcher of water and glasses on the table are de rigueur. For dessert, we had the cup of vanilla ice cream that came with the special, and raised it a piece of rhubarb pie. This meal was proof that we are truly nearing the Motherland, Minnesota, and it was excellent. There were six men at one table near us, (average age 70) and they were all trying to get a word in amongst themselves. Competition was stiff. Robert walked in, and they all said hello and beckoned him to sit. For some reason, Robert sat in the next room, at a table by himself. “Well, be that way about it,” they hollered across the room and gave him a real ribbing. Finally, they gave up, and ended it with “He doesn’t even hear us!” The man who served us—and the rest of the fifteen patrons—told us he doesn’t have the energy to do what we are doing. Considering he is about 75, that seemed reasonable. Our waiter was dressed in a stripped sport shirt, kaki pants belted with a Masonic buckle and wearing a John Deere baseball cap. He had a big nose, wore gold-framed glasses, and was friendly and gregarious. Another man didn’t ask us any questions, but listened to everything we were asked, listened to our answers and gave us a nod when we left. A man out in front of the café squeezed in probably ten interested and friendly questions without actually stopping on his way in for lunch. Our waiter carried a box of meals out to a delivery car and looked at our bikes. “Not much tread left on those tires!” he said. All this activity took place in a town with a population of fewer than 100 souls.
It is clear we are approaching the land of ten thousand lakes. We see a pond or a small lake every five miles now. Almost every lake has a collection of waterfowl and a house on its
bank. So far the mosquitoes have not been apparent. The humidity is high, and for the first time on our trip, it was overcast all day and it is raining now.
We visited a liquor store tonight and the proprietor said she supposed we were on bikes as she motioned towards our helmets. No, we told her, we’re just incredibly clumsy. John asked what the “Off Sale” meant on her sign. That means we couldn’t drink the liquor there, she explained. So he put the cap back on the Tequila bottle and we returned to the motel.
Start time: 8:55am.
End time: 2:00 pm.
Today’s mileage: 50.6 miles with no flat tires and a headwind.
Total mileage so far: 1654 miles
Elevation climbed today: 820 feet
Current elevation: about 2110 feet
Total elevation climbed so far: 44,000 feet
Local Gas Prices: $1.39!
Weather: It really is the humidity, believe me.
Animals for the day: Great Blue Herons and a passel of prairie kittens who were pouncing in the tall grass.
Day Thirty
Webster to Milbank, South Dakota
In Eastern South Dakota, restaurants wrap table utensils in paper napkins. This is the latest example of regional utensil presentation. On the west coast, utensils sit on top of the napkin. Somewhere near Montana, they live in wax paper sleeves. In Western South Dakota, utensils developed a Post-It style band that encloses a napkin that encloses silverware. Within the last few days, these tight paper wrappers have accounted for 100% of our experience. Maybe the heavy insect load of the Midwest accounts for this practice.
Yesterday we stopped at a gas station to test our luck with an air compressor to add air to the bike tires. Back in Pendleton, Oregon, we used an air hose that wouldn’t inflate past about 50 pounds. Since our tires need 85 psi or more, we kind of gave up on gas station compressors for a while. Translated, we gave up on John being able to pump up the tire and still be civil. But in this part of the country, regulation is illegal, so you could blow up the Goodyear blimp with an air hose if you needed to. We were working on the tires when a mechanic appeared from the building. He had fair hair and bright blue eyes. We don’t remember what he said as much as the constant good-natured head shaking at the folly of our trip. His coworker was a much bigger man, had the same fair hair that was shoulder-length, and had tattoos showing on his upper arms where a shirt with sleeves would have covered them. He appeared from a portal in the building, and announced, “Bikers!” He said the only difference between our bikes and his was about ninety horsepower. He, being a Harley-Davidson guy, was prone to exaggeration considering he rode an old shovelhead. He claimed there were no rooms available within 250 miles of Sturgis for the motorcycle rally, but assured us we were not going to have trouble getting a room further east.
Dyed diesel. Did you know there are two types of diesel fuel for vehicles? Well, in this region of the country, most of the large farm equipment is diesel-powered. Since no road tax is collected for fuel for farm equipment, they color some of the diesel fuel green for such purposes. Without the tax, dyed diesel is much cheaper than diesel used for travel on public roads. There are billboards and wanted signs posted for violators who use dyed diesel on public roads. “Report any violation!” say the placards. We have noticed quite a few diesel pickup trucks in this region.
Tonight we are staying in a motel that flies the American flag as well as the Norwegian flag. The proprietor is a gentle, blue eyed, silver haired, Scandinavian-accented man. He noted, “Nielsen is a Norwegian name, no?” When we answered yes, he noted with a smile, “It was a lucky guess.” We are surrounded by people of Northern European extraction here. Blue eyes, fair skin and light hair are omnipresent.
The picture speaks for the beauty of the many farmhouses in this area. We are twelve miles away from the Minnesota border.
Start time: 8:55am.
End time: 1:15 pm, in time to catch most of the Nascar race.
Today’s mileage: 50.6 miles with no flat tires and a well-deserved tailwind for the last twenty miles.
Total mileage so far: 1705 miles
Elevation climbed today: 450 feet
Current elevation: about 1680 feet
Total elevation climbed so far: 44,500 feet
Local Gas Prices: $1.48!
Weather: Cool and overcast, but the rain stayed away.
Animals for the day: A large collection of honking Canadian geese, white herons who fly away before we can get a picture of them, a turtle near the road (John turned him around, towards the lake), and Blue Dog Lake.
Day Thirty-One
Milbank, South Dakota to Grandma’s house, Minnesota
We had a wonderful day, and spent a great afternoon with Berta’s grandmother and her uncle. We went on a “Bambi Drive” this evening (thank goodness for an engine) and saw many white tail deer. We have chatted away the day, and will continue our travelogue tomorrow.
Start time: 8:55 am.
End time: 1:00 pm.
Today’s mileage: 45.2 miles with one flat tire and an awesome tailwind!
Total mileage so far: 1750 miles
Elevation climbed today: 490 feet
Current elevation: don’t know.
Total elevation climbed so far: don’t know
Local Gas Prices: $1.48 in a town 15 miles away.
Weather: Pleasantly cool with clear skies.
Animals for the day: We saw Bambi today, at mid-morning next to a cornfield. The white birds we are seeing are egrets, not herons.
Day Thirty-Two
Milan to Willmar, Minnesota
The morning arrived bright and clear with grumbling stomachs. Food was the agenda, so we headed to the only café in town, the More Café. As we parked our bikes, we were greeted by a short, barrel-chested, bespectacled, gray-haired man who turned out to be 72 but sure didn’t look it. “Hi there, you must not have come far,” he said. Berta replied, “We’ve been visiting my grandmother, Leona Thompson.” Billy indicated he would be going in for coffee, so we sat on one side of the bench seats and Billy sat on the other. He started talking. Soon he knew our ages, our employment or lack thereof, and our relationship to anyone—living or dead—in town. He was a dynamo. After buying our breakfast, he invited us to his museum that used to be his store. He has catalogued and preserved hundreds of photographs of Milan history. He has displayed many of these photos in a unique way. Most of the photos are of early merchants in their stores. The photos are enlarged, then curved and set into a frame overlaid with a painted storefront. This presentation creates a life-like perspective. Billy showed us very nice oil paintings that were done by “the town drunk” who was his grandmother’s cousin. Billy’s father was an inventor who developed a wire-coil amplifier for radios. He sold 30,000 units in the early 1930’s. The employees who made this booster were paid $1.30 per day, and the booster sold for $2.85. He had photos of a car that his father had modified to have a radio years before they became common in automobiles. A local landmark, Andersen’s department store, burned down in 1992. One exterior wall of the building was a favorite spot for local youths to carve their initial. Billy convinced the demolition crew to be gentle with the walls, and he gathered 6000 bricks. He sorted out the bricks with inscriptions and reassembled two walls inside the museum. He has the bricks and marble that framed the building’s door and wants to use those to complete the display. He took us to the art center where they teach Rosemaling (floral decorative painting), weaving (three looms), chip carving, wood bending, and knife making (all Norwegian crafts). Billy proudly showed us the trees he planted that are now 2 feet in diameter and the house his grandfather built. This man was a fountain of information and energy. All of the history he so proudly recites emanates from a town with a population of 353.
With that small of a town, trust is still in fashion. People don’t lock their doors, and Billy doesn’t hide his photos behind protective glass. We reluctantly said our goodbyes to Billy, Leona, and David (Berta’s uncle), and headed out of town.
Start time: 10:00 am after we talked with Billy.
End time: 2:20 pm.
Today’s mileage: 46.4 miles with no flat tires.
Total mileage so far: 1796 miles
Elevation climbed today: 540 feet
Current elevation: 1560 feet.
Total elevation climbed so far: 45,500 feet.
Local Gas Prices: $1.38.
Weather: Pleasantly cool with partly cloudy skies and a southeast wind.
Animals for the day: Three exuberant dogs who chased us down the road, and stood in the road for a minute, as if to make sure we were getting out of town.
Day Thirty-Three
Willmar to Plymouth, Minnesota
The other day, John asked a young waitress if she could recommend something in particular from the menu. She declined, saying she couldn’t because she hadn’t eaten anything yet that day. This was a funny comment amongst many funny comments we have heard on the trip.
It has been our experience that the people who work at the front desks of motels and hotels are almost always new in town. We know this because they tell us so and explain that is why they can’t give us directions out of their parking lot. On Monday, a person told us she had just moved to town on Friday. She did not know that there was a convenience store one block away. So we told her all about her new home and what to do and see.
Today we reached the suburbs of Minneapolis, which pales in comparison to another event of the day. As we approached the tiny town of Darwin, we saw a sign that would change our lives: “The World’s Largest Ball of Twine”. (See Picture) Actually, it is not the largest ball of twine anymore. The ball of twine that is the largest is some half-rate, plastic-twine, made-by-a-bunch-of-people imposter. Darwin’s ball of twine was created by one man, is made of real twine, weighs 8.7 tons, is eleven feet high, measures about 40 feet in circumference and sits in a shrine to idleness on the main street of a very small town. The ball is enclosed in a beautiful glass gazebo-type thing that has such a glare that you have to get right up to the glass and put your hand up to see the ball. They have the Twine Ball Days festival every year, which we have missed by a week. The lady who was guarding the ball of twine was a busybody who asked the most bizarre questions. She wanted to know what was wrong with John’s knee. There is a little scar on his knee, and he figured that was what she was referring to. Politely, John explained that the knee has had a rough life. She told us that his knee is so “crooked it’s a wonder it can hold you up”. We shrugged our shoulders and maybe should schedule some therapy sessions for when we get back. Next, she asked John, “What is the white stuff on your butt?” John puts talcum powder in his shorts each day before riding. John felt like asking our inquisitive hostess, “ Why are you so fat?” This was a case of discretion being the better part of valor. A bunch of Harley-Davidson riders showed up, walked over to the ball, got real close and put their hands up to shade the glare. We became old news.
Start time: 8:35 am.
End time: 4:00 pm.
Today’s mileage: 85.3 miles with no flat tires.
Total mileage so far: 1881 miles
Elevation climbed today: 1030 feet
Current elevation: 1380 feet.
Total elevation climbed so far: 46,500 feet.
Local Gas Prices: We saw $1.36 today.
Weather: 75 degrees, humid, and only a little windy.
Animals for the day: We went to the Red Rooster Café, does that count?
Riding in a car after weeks of riding a bike is interesting. We spent our first car trip looking anxiously at the speedometer and pressing our feet into the floorboards. Good thing John’s cousin was only driving 55 mph. It felt like we were going very fast, and this sensation persisted well into our trip to Berta’s grandmother’s house in Grand Rapids.
That first car trip took us to a nice restaurant in the very pretty town of Stillwater on the St. Croix River. From the deck of this restaurant, we watched boats on the river, the drawbridge going up and down, and enjoyed the view of Wisconsin on the other shore. We had salads with fancy lettuce and extra things like figs and walnuts that they wouldn’t think of putting in a salad in South Dakota.