Where The Rockies Meet The Plains – Saturday 28th to Monday 30th May
Saturday 28th May – East Glacier Village to Cut Bank
With the benefit of hindsight, East Glacier Village isn’t somewhere I’d choose to visit again & I should probably explain why I feel that way. I’ll begin with the hotel we stayed in – when we checked-in it took 10 minutes for someone to come to Reception in spite of my vigorous (but polite) ringing of the bell. When someone did turn up, they had clearly just woken up & were in their boxer shorts & vest. I’m pleased to say he went & tidied himself up before checking us in. In the corridor to our room something (or possibly someone) small had left a recent “number 2” on the carpet – luckily we both saw it & avoided it! To give the Inn Keeper credit, he quickly cleared it up & apologised.
There was only one restaurant in town, a Mexican, so that made our choice for us. Unfortunately, Sean doesn’t like Mexican food, so he chose the burger – when it arrived it looked a bit cremated to me, but I kept quiet at the time. Later Sean confirmed it was fairly grim! Although salad was on the menu, they weren’t serving them that evening, although Sean’s burger & my fajitas came with tomatoes, lettuce & onions!
Anyway, enough of East Glacier Village – you live & learn, plus we only stayed one night. We had a few bowls of cereal, a yoghurt & some tinned fruit for breakfast before hitting the road by 9.40am. The first couple of miles climbed gradually as we continued easterly on US 2, with the Rockies laid out to our left & behind us. We also noticed that we had a keen tailwind for the first time on our adventure – this could be fun if it lasted!
The first obvious difference cycling on the eastern side of The Rockies is that the roads are very long & very straight!! The second obvious difference is the lack of protection from the howling wind – while we have a tailwind that isn’t a problem!
Having gradually climbed for the first 30 minutes or so, we found ourselves at the top of a very long, straight descent – after taking the photo, I let the bike start rolling down the hill & by the time we got to the bottom, the howling tailwind had got us up to 46mph as we heading into Browning. This is comfortably the fastest I’ve been on my touring bike, yet it felt really well balanced & safe.
Browning is the headquarters for the Blackfeet Indian Reservation & is the only incorporated town on the Reservation. As we passed the Heritage Centre, I stopped to spend some time reading about the history of the Blackfeet & also to take in the wonderful exhibit which set out The Myth Of Creation. It’s a small town with about 880 inhabitants & it was clear that a number of businesses have struggled over the last couple of years – sadly this cool espresso teepee was one of those that had closed.
Crossing town our tailwind turned to a brutal, gusting sidewind that slowed us down temporarily, until 2 feral dogs started chasing us! We’d been warned about dog behaviour in Browning by several different people at varying points over the last few weeks, so we realised we had to pedal & get away from them as quickly as possible.
Leaving Browning behind, the road turned slightly to the left & our friendly tailwind returned as we flew along the pan-flat, almost deserted road at upwards of 20mph – it wasn’t quite a full-blown tailwind but was very enjoyable!! I stopped occasionally to take a look behind at the snowy peaks as they slowly receded, although I feel I may continue to see them for a little while yet.
We stopped briefly at a Historical Point of Interest – these are indicated by brown signs & we’ve learned to look out for them, as they add a flavour of what life was like 125 to 200 years ago. Today we found out about Captain Meriwether Lewis & his experiences that led to the naming of Camp Disappointment. This was also the moment when the road altered direction enough to give us a full-on tailwind! We also had our first experience of the huge grain elevation silos that border the railroad tracks in this part of Montana.
For the first time on our adventure the temperatures were high enough to see heat haze in the distance. Passing a field of cows on the right, the road rose gently for the first time in about 15 miles – the legs were slightly surprised when they were asked to put in some proper effort, so I stopped at the summit for one final look behind me. The cotton wool clouds overhead reminded me why Montana is known as The Big Sky State, as even the most normal view seemed so much bigger.
Once the road flattened out again, we were cruising along at almost 25 mph – the photo shows how happy we were & how easy the riding was! As we passed an irrigation channel by the side of the road, there were hundreds of birds swooping & diving on the insects in a feeding frenzy.
In just 2 hours 30 minutes we were on the outskirts of town, having covered 46 miles, at an average of over 18 mph – I’ve never achieved this on my carbon bike, so just shows the power of the tailwind! There was a stunning Blackfeet Nation Sculpture which welcomed us to Cut Bank, before we climbed a final, small incline to join up with the railroad once again.
We had a relaxing afternoon, before heading out for a beer to celebrate another cracking day in the saddle. On the way back to the hotel I got to see both the sublime & the ridiculous within the space of 5 minutes – a glorious sunset & a 27 foot penguin which is a permanent reminder of when the temperature plummeted to 64 degrees F below freezing on 1st February 1989. The coldest spot in the nation is actually Prospect Creek Camp in Alaska, where temperatures plummeted to 79.8 degrees F below freezing.
Stage Stats – 48 miles, 958 feet of climbing. Virtually pan-flat with a roaring tailwind for most of the ride.
Sunday 29th May – Cut Bank to Conrad
After a breakfast of cereal & toast, we were on the road for 9.30am. After yesterday’s turbo assisted ride we were expecting to have to work a bit harder today. We set off under overcast skies, with squalls of rain already falling around us (but not on us). The day started with a short climb up to the turning for the Valier Highway, where we turned left. Reaching the plateau we were surprised to meet a herd of alpacas. The alpha macho came over to check us out while the remainder of the herd looked on from a distance.
We were on straight, undulating roads again today & the breeze was behind us for the first section of today’s ride. We could still make out the snow-caps on The Rockies away to our right as they stretched north into Canada & south towards Wyoming.
Off to our left a wind turbine farm was in the middle of a localised downpour, while we continued riding in the dry. The landscape was also gradually changing as the light browns were showing the first signs of green shoots. suggesting there must be a source of water nearby.
Turning to our right there were showers falling on the present & the future of America’s energy needs – a nodding donkey drawing up oil from below, while another wind farm harvested nature’s raw power. It was clear the showers were very localised, as the mountains remained in view throughout the ride.
We stopped at a monument to the Two Medicine Fight Site, where the only violent encounter of the Lewis, Clark & Discovery Corps expedition took place in July 1806. There were differing accounts of what took place & why, however, what isn’t in doubt is that this was the first military conflict between US forces & a plains tribe. The site itself is on Blackfeet Nation land & requires permission to visit it. Crossing the Two Medicine river very little has changed in the intervening 200 years.
Just after crossing the river, we took a left hand turn & experienced the strength of the wind at first hand – unfortunately on our faces, not our tails! We also got our first look at the local “pepperpots” which store grain on individual farms before it gets collected & transferred to the larger co-operative facilities in local towns. After 13 miles of character building riding into a headwind we finally reached our coffee stop in Valier. Being a Sunday, we had to settle for a gas station coffee & Snickers, while we were finishing up, a professional rodeo team passed through.
For the next 8 miles we again fought our way through a headwind – the toughest part is having your entire challenge laid out in front of you! At points we could see 3 or 4 miles into the distance & what the terrain was like. On the descents Sean would tuck in behind me & could just about match me for speed as the laws of gravity took hold. Finally after one last, long climb the ordeal was over & we took a right turn to pick up a tailwind again!
We recognised our good fortune, as we’d avoided the rain all day. All that remained was to enjoy the tailwind for the last 5 miles as it blew us into Conrad, our base for the next 2 nights.
Stage Stats – 53 miles, 1,909 feet of climbing. Undulating terrain with the pain of a headwind & the joy of a tailwind at various points.
Monday 30th May – Rest Day
Monday 30th May is Memorial Day in the USA & most of Conrad was closed to enjoy the Bank Holiday. We took the opportunity to take a stroll along Main Street & then return via Front Street which bordered the railroad. Walking along Main Street, the first thing we noticed was that almost every building had a Stars & Stripes flag flying. As we reached 4th Street I spotted an old map of Conrad that had been drawn on chipboard in 1986 & mounted on the wall. The town has spent a significant amount of effort retaining the 1950’s vibe & it was a look that worked.
We turned onto Front Street just as a freight town was passing through town – I just had time to get myself in position & then take a few photos as it continued on its way – it took about 5 minutes until the rear engine (4106) passed . I also managed to shoot a small piece of video & was very surprised by how much the carriages actually sway as they are pulled / pushed by the engines at the front & rear of the train.
On the opposite side of the tracks was Columbia Grain Central & Mountain View Co-Op, where grain from all the surrounding farms is delivered & from there it’s transported out by railroad. These are huge warehouses & it certainly got me wondering what it must be like around town when harvest season is in full swing.
As we neared our motel there was an old John Deere tractor on display behind the dealership -it was too good an opportunity for me to miss, so I jumped onboard in a flash! There were also a few harvesting machines there too & the front wheels were as tall as me. These really are monster bits of kit!
The dealership itself had a vast array of different farm machinery, I dread to think how much all the items on the forecourt would cost! Hopefully we’ll all be able to spot a John Deere machine from 100 yards from its distinctive colour scheme!
We always try to find something a little different to do on our rest days. There’s quite a bit of admin to do as well, but reading about how I plan a route, book a hotel & write my journal / blog isn’t going to be very interesting!!!