Big Sky Country

We apologize for taking over two months to get this next post up – it’s been a little crazy figuring our life post-bike tour!

Our time off in Yellowstone came to an end on July 11th and it was time to get back on the road. We made a quick stop by the Welcome to Montana sign, which we completely missed the first time we pulled into town, then headed north out of town. A sign warned motorists that 12 bison had already been hit by a vehicle this year along this stretch of road. I scanned the forests to either side of us moving my head like an oscillating fan, but no wildlife was seen. Our progress was slow as Nicole was not feeling well and needed frequent stops to recoup from her nausea. One of our stops was at the Earthquake Lake visitor center, where we watched a short documentary in the style of what you might see on the History Channel about the lake created by a landslide that occurred during an earthquake in the 1950s. They were very repetitive about the number of people that died (a campground was in the path of the slide) and barely gave any details about the geology at play so my interest was never piqued and Nicole wasn’t feeling any better. We decided to cut the day short and stop at one of the next two RV Parks. The first was staffed by a teenager at the front desk and when Nicole asked how much it would cost for us to pitch a tent, she was quoted $50, so we pushed another 5 miles to the next where we were charged closer to $10. Nicole took a much needed nap on the couch in the rec room until people showed up who had reserved the room. Two guys were chatting about going to grab dinner 20 miles back from where we came and invited us along. The first guy, Brand, was biking the TransAm eastbound for the second time, first completed in 1976. He was a private investigator for Nike back in the day and now owns a hot air balloon company in Chico, California. The second guy introduced himself promptly followed by, “don’t Google me.” He ran a shuttle company servicing the many flyfishers who travel to the area and camping at the RV park while renting out his cabin nearby. We were surprised at the restaurant when we were joined by one of the ladies from the Adventure Cycling Association tour group we met on day 1 of our tour and one of her old college roommates that now lives in Montana. As it turns out, they had used the shuttle service earlier that day and must not have been scared off by the driver that they were willing to join him for dinner. We were about 30 years younger than everyone and they were one of the most lively and hilarious combination of personalities to witness.

Hebgen Lake

We decided to make the next day short as well, ending in our original destination for the prior day. This gave Nicole a chance to sleep in and me time to work on my last blog post. Honestly, after reaching the mountains, finding time to blog has become much more difficult as we have little-to-no down time. Much of the day we continued to follow the river – according to our very talkative acquaintance from the day before, this area has some of the best fly fishing in the world. During the ride, the ACA tour group caught up with us. One of them bought us lunch at a restaurant in Cameron which turned out to have amazing food. We arrived in Ennis where a distillery lets cyclists camp in back for free, but we decided to join the ACA group at the RV park so we could catch up with all of them. Our schedule was closely synced with theirs for the next week so we got to hang out with them often in the evenings. I enjoyed talking with the tour leaders about bike advocacy and opportunities for the ACA to pull in more young folks.

Sitting in on the ACA group’s route review meeting

We started the next day with a large climb, followed by a fun descent. Halfway down we passed through Virginia City, an old gold mining town which had a posted speed limit less than what we were going. We stopped at a cafe for second breakfast where all the others in the tour group were just finishing up, then caught a tailwind to Twin Bridges. Our route then turned 270 degrees and we fought a headwind over rolling hills as we progressively slowed through the afternoon to Dillon. We passed a geologic point of interest and stopped to learn about our surroundings. The plaque stated that one of the rock masses was named Beaverhead Rock, because some settler thought it looked like a beaver. I imagine the settler spent a considerable amount of time staring at the rock, as an insomniac might stare at the popcorn ceiling texture above his or her bed because it was not obvious. If you really wanted to see the beaver, you would have to squint your eyes while cocking your head at a slight angle and hyperventilate while someone next to you puffed weed. No one was around so I was missing a critical component to allow me to see the beaver. However, Nicole said that she could see it and apparently other people who were in charge of naming things could see it too, because EVERYTHING was named after it including Beaverhead County, Beaverhead River, the Beaverhead Mountains, and Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest… the list goes on. Unfortunately we forgot to take a picture of it. Montana has surprised us in many places by the high speed limits on narrow roads – often 70mph on two-lane highways with little or no shoulder (or with a rumble strip placed right in the middle of the otherwise adequate shoulder), and this was one of the days where we experienced this. Definitely improvements that could be made for biking infrastructure! Dillon was on the larger end of small towns, with 2 full-sized grocery stores, a Patagonia Apparel Outlet, a brewery, and a memorial to a circus elephant that was killed by lightning. We camped at the KOA which is particularly friendly to bike tourists and were charged only $3.50 per person. A few other TransAm cyclists were staying the night including Kyle Hughes from South Africa, and Sam and Steph from England.

One example of Montana’s ridiculous speed limits

The following day we started with a quick breakfast of donuts from the grocery store (this has quickly become our staple breakfast for this trip), then moved towards the next series of mountains and valleys. The mountain ranges in this part of Montana are long ridges requiring going up over a pass to get to the next valley, and this day we had several of those before descending into a broad valley with incredible views of the Bitterroot mountains. We passed through our only town along the route today, the tiny, western-feeling town of Jackson, before ending in just-as-small Wisdom, MT, where the RV park campground bordered a mosquito-filled drainage pond covered in sludge. There were showers and WiFi, however, and we opted for pizza at one of the 2 restaurants in town instead of eating dinner outside with the mosquitos. It was a Saturday and the only “grocery” store, a small convenience store, had already closed, so our options were limited unless we wanted to keep eating PB&J tortillas! We were once again at the same campground as the ACA group, and saw Kyle, Sam, and Steph when we ate dinner in town, so there seemed to be nearly as many TransAm cyclists in town as there were locals! When we returned to the campground everyone was hiding from the mosquitos in their tents, we did the same despite the heat (high 80s), lying as still as possible waiting for things to cool down. In the morning we faced the same food dilemma when we realized the store didn’t open until 10am on Sundays, so we went to the one open restaurant for a surprisingly good breakfast of pancakes and eggs. As we were leaving, a motorcyclist in his 50s came up and asked us a bunch of questions about bike touring and wanting to do his own trip – encounters like that where we can encourage others to try it are always highlights!

Bitterroot Mountains

Camping next to the mosquito bog

The next day we climbed Chief Joseph Pass, just reaching the Continental Divide again and briefly dipping into Idaho at the top before turning north back into Montana. The descent was miles of steep curving roads overlooking unending pine-covered ridges, which was beautiful and exhilarating trying to stay focused on the switchbacks and cars while admiring the views! Once we descended to the valley again, the curves became slightly more treacherous as they were surrounded by narrow canyon walls and blind curves. With 17 miles to go for the day, Nicole got a punctured tire from rolling over a large nail lying on the shoulder which ended up meaning an hour of an unsuccessful patch job and then replacing a tube. That night we stayed in Darby, where we visited Bandit Brewing Company, the 2nd smallest brewery in Montana and what turned out to be a hidden gem tucked away in a neighborhood. It ended up being one of our favorite breweries of the trip, with a wonderful local feel – the bartender knew nearly everyone who walked in and would grab them their personalized mug off a rack as people gathered in the tiny space to hear a local 2-man band. We’ve been really impressed with small-town Montana, where compared to some other states we’ve gone through, these tiny towns feel alive and have so much personality and interesting things going on. Back at the RV park, we chatted for quite a while with Ryan, a photographer and bikepacker who was completing an incredible trip from Arizona up to Montana, including having hiked the Grand Canyon with his bike and gear strapped to his back, and repairing his tires by sewing them back up. (You can check out his incredible photos and stories at @ryankodakbrown on Instagram.) Hearing stories like his makes us realize how really unremarkable our trip is compared to the crazy accomplishments of so many people we’ve met along the way.

Slowly getting better at this
Ryan’s setup – a very different way to bike tour!

We had a late start leaving Darby as Nicole had a Skype job interview scheduled so did that sitting at a picnic table in the RV park, then we headed to Missoula. The last 40 miles or so had a bike path along the highway, which was great except that the path kept moving from one side of the road to the other without warning which meant for some annoying delays crossing the highway! Missoula was one of the destinations we were looking forward to a lot on this trip. It’s the headquarters of the Adventure Cycling Association, the source of our maps for the TransAm, and in the middle of a pretty conservative mostly rural state is full of bikes, hipsters, outdoorsy millennials and a large university. We’d tried to find a Warmshowers host, but despite the many hosts listed, everyone we contacted was busy/out of town/not able to host for various reasons. Our backup, then, was the Bike House, a huge old house near the university owned by Bruce Anderson, a local who has opened up this house for years as a hostel/free place to camp out for cyclists and others coming through town. He wasn’t even home when we messaged him, but wrote back saying “come on over, it’s unlocked and instructions are on the door”! We had to wonder what the neighbors in this very nice neighborhood of historic old homes think about all the bikers and hikers coming and going from their neighbor’s house! There were several other cyclists there when we arrived, including Claude, a Swiss guy cycling the continental divide route, and Kyle from South Africa and Sam and Steph from England showed up later that night. As usual we spent our day off on laundry, finding good food, saw a movie, and spent quite a bit of time at Adventure Cycling’s headquarters chatting with people since we unknowingly showed up as they were having a BBQ for the ACA tour group. We took the traditional picture for their wall and weighed our fully loaded bikes, which came in at 75 (Robert’s) and 74 (Nicole’s) pounds each! This is not light, but at least we weren’t quite as bad as some of the others who weighed after us at over 100lbs. For sure one of our biggest takeaways of this trip, though, is how much less stuff we would bring if we did it again! For our second night, we took advantage of Nicole’s mom generously gifting us a hotel room over staying in the non-air-conditioned Bike House for another night.

More donuts! Don’t worry, we shared a few of these with our neighbors.

Bike paths!
The Bike House in Missoula

Weighing bikes


We’re on the wall!
So much appreciation for a real bed

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