In the mornings, I have to sit up in my sleeping bag, cross my legs, rest my head in my hands, close my eyes tight and trace our steps to where we are currently camped. Sometimes I skip towns that we’ve stopped at, wondering how we made it so many miles in that one day before I remember my yearning for ice cream in Lincoln two nights before and I’ll add that in as a waypoint. The trails all pass as one, all the gravel, all the rocks barring our way from a smooth ride, but it becomes hypnotic the way you ease your tires around the softball sized stones, up the washouts, around roots and bushes, rubbing against the barbed wire to keep from the tire sucking mud on the edges of the puddles. I sat down yesterday on a bank leading into a creek, rubbing the grease and dirt from my calf, finally noticing all the bruises running from ankle to thigh, how I thought it was only muscle soreness I was feeling.
For hours we climb, next to the sage and cow tracks. We break the miles down by making it to the next shaded spot, the next wooded area where the wind might finally die off, the next crest of the hill. My dad watches the Garmin, the elevation screen ticking up the numbers. He’ll look over at me after ten miles, “We’re now at 7,600ft.” The breath I’ve been regulating for the past couple hours always whooshes out of me at that point, exasperated as I try and calculate how many vertical feet we are supposed to be climbing for the day and I know we’ve only just passed halfway. At our highest points, we always look higher, wondering why they wouldn’t just take us to the very top if they’re going to take us that high at all. At the end of the days, we message my mom telling her where we’ll be and where we should meet and there she’ll be with the truck, whisking us off to the campground she’s found us for the night, our tents set up with dinner and new local beer in the coolers.
The day before yesterday we started in Helena, MT and made our way to Butte. At the beginning of our ride, we hit construction on the road we were on, and being an extremely large project with three bridges being built, the pilot truck put our bikes in the back and ushered us inside, giving us a ride through the flat four miles of our ride. After saying our goodbyes, we started climbing some of the roughest trail of the ride. On the map, it reads, “a rough four-wheel-drive track, next two miles-plus are steep and rough.” This is where the infamous Lava Mountain Trail tries to tear you as a rider from your bike as much as possible. Two feet deep water ditches run down the middle of the trail, roots sticking up half a foot bump your front wheel up, threatening to overturn you on the already steepening trail. My dad and I seem to have a terrible habit of taking pictures at the false summit, leaving another half mile of climbing, me usually whimpering at the sight of it and my dad cheerfully riding on, his pedals rotating at an annoyingly steadfast pace. The rides down are always short and acrobatic in nature. A steep drop on one side, rock face on the other, the gravel awash under our front tires, where most descents I find myself in what I like to refer to as my “Tour de France-speed-crouch” where I tuck my knees into my frame, feeling the water move around inside my camelback that’s zipped inside my frame bag, my fingers fluttering on the brakes, my torso parallel to the ground.
In Helena, we stayed at the lovely Super 8, relishing in the washed out flickering light of the TV, the sitcom Modern Family on a marathon run through the episodes. That night, my dad and I visited the Lewis & Clark Brewing Company and Blackfoot River Brewery. We are both religiously unvaried when it comes to choosing the type of beer we want at each brewery. My dad ordering scotch ales if available, and if not then a red ale usually being in order. I however will always order the IPA. At the Lewis & Clark Brewery, I tried their Double Dry Hopped IPA which was good, but much preferred the unfiltered citrusy zing of the IPA at Blackfoot River Brewery where the popcorn was buttery and the dry air wafted through the open garage door of the upstairs deck.
Yesterday, after our climb up Fleecer Ridge, we began our steep, rocky descent where the map highly recommends walking. My dad and I had to try to ride it down just to be able to say we gave it a go. About two hundred feet down, our brakes failing us miserably, I toppled down over a rough patch of sage held down by chunks of slate, the rest of the trail littered with loose pieces of the thin rock. A hundred feet from where I fell, I looked down where my dad was positioned amidst the branches of a lone spruce tree along the trail, his bike turned on its side. We laughed, shook our heads and barely made the way down on foot without wiping out again. At the bottom of the hill, there was a short, steep dip and then a pass over a creek where I took another digger and ended up with the bike on top of me, my legs every which way, my headphones wrapped around me, connecting me to the iPod latched to my handlebars.
On our way from Butte to Wise River, our main backdrop was barren fields dotted with black and brown cows. Every few miles, we would pass an outcropping of rock, where I would always look up, checking for any perched felines, or lumbering bears. Yesterday, I came around a turn, looked up to my left and there beside me was a large black animal. I yelped, almost leaping sideways on my bike, figuring out moments afterward the large animal was only a relaxed cow, staring at me with large brown eyes, unceremoniously chewing on its grass as I settled my heartbeat.
In the Canada section, before the snowstorm, we met a hiker from Toronto, on his way from Canmore, Alberta to Banff. He had asked if we had encountered any bears along the way and we shook our heads, and asked him in return, noticing the bear mace looped around his wrist. He smiled, said no bears and no mountain lions. He went on, “You know, my buddy said to me before I left that if I encountered a mountain lion on the trail, if I saw him in a tree, or whatnot then I shouldn’t turn around and keep walking, I should keep my eyes on it.” He laughed. “Like if I saw a mountain lion lurking above me in a tree, I would just nod to it and be on my way! I’d be walking backwards for the next mile and a half with my eyes on the thing.”
The morning we left Condon, we met John Denver, a fellow Divide rider, going the opposite way, about a week from his ending point. As he asked us pointed questions, pursing his lips and raising his eyebrows, he shifted his weight on his bike, slowly crunching the stones under his tires. We shared trail conditions, places to stay, wishing each other well and went on our way with a slight, yet convinced notion of the type of person willing to take on the trail by themselves.
abandoned Merry Widow Mine- near Butte