The walls of the newly constructed Elkhorn Quarters in Medora, North Dakota are thin. …thin enough to wonder if I could punch through the one behind my head, stick my face through, and do that bit from The Shining in order to freak out the couple who’d been drunkenly yammering then having a right fuck-fest the night before. But that isn’t necessary cuz I ain’t mad! Who needs sleep when the excitement of a state line crossing was keeping me awake and alert anyway?!
Like the last few states, I’ve never been to Montana. But when I was a kid, it was my ‘favorite’ state. For a while, anyway. I was a rather capricious child.
I have always loved maps and as a boy read the road atlas that my grandfather had in his car like other kids read comic books. Natalie and I had wooden puzzle of a map of the United States. Forty-eight puzzle pieces. (Predictably, Alaska and Hawaii were painted onto the navy-blue background.) Dumping out all the states – mixing them up with both hands in the threads of Natalie’s pink and white shag carpet or on the cool linoleum of our downstairs floor – before plunking each piece back into its proper geographical niche was an activity I did over and over again. (And over and over and over…you get the picture.) Natalie and I did this together, but I also did it on my own (probably after she was ready to get back to the book she was reading). I loved this toy and knew it so intimately: its musty old-book scent and the ribbed plywood roughness of the back of the pieces as compared to their smooth painted fronts. And the palette. A dark blue ocean framed states that were total 1970s colors: a rose-pink like how Natalie’s bedroom was painted, orange like mine, lime green, pale yellow, tan and gray. I can remember which states were which colors. Iowa tan, Ohio pink, Kentucky orange, South Dakota yellow, Montana green. The puzzle piece of New Jersey (gray), my pre-California (tan) home state, where I was born and raised, disappeared along with Connecticut at some point, perhaps inhaled by the vacuum or by the dog. Amazingly Rhode Island (green) survived. Sometimes I’d group the states by color and place all the yellow ones into the puzzle, then orange, and so on. Other times I’d rank the pieces from most favorite to least favorite. Not sure what the criteria were, but New Jersey never won. Montana did. It was big, it was green, it was rectangular but not boring (like Colorado, the Dakotas and Wyoming) because of its curvy western border. Minnesota (gray) also was a favorite for a time – and I’ve never yet been there. And until now, Day 36/Wednesday, June 27, 2018 Montana has continued to escape me. Ok, that was a somewhat relevant rabbit hole…drilling down deep…!
I don’t have much onboard in the breakfast department. Elkhorn Quarters doesn’t provide it, nor does my room boast a fridge. The Medora grocery store, which I visited the evening before, is a joke, pretty much all junk food, like what you’d see in a gift shop of a resort hotel. I choked down most of a white chocolate/macadamia nut Clif Bar. Yes, this is how far I’ve fallen – this hideous flavor– I am neither a fan of white chocolate nor macadamias, which, to me, are reminiscent of crunching into cartilage. I also take a few bites of an apple that has survived in Whitey’s rear-rack compartment for a few days. The plan is to ride about 35 miles to Wibaux, the first town across the Montana border and find something more substantial to eat before continuing on to Glendive.
Leaving very early was easy. Not only was I under the spell of the upcoming state line crossing, I was less than a hundred miles from where I’d entered into Mountain Time Zone. Still benefiting from the gain of an hour.
Day 36 is the epitome of gittin’ it done. The route is similar to the previous two days’ (mostly on North Dakota’s Old Highway 10, three stints on I-94 again, and then the Montana version of Old Highway 10, aka Route 106. It’s the second not-too-long day in a row (60 miles yesterday and about 70 today). Now, several weeks into the future, I don’t remember the day being short – I just remember it being hot. Looking at texts between myself and the warmshowers host I contacted the evening before, a social worker living in Glendive, Montana, I was clearly planning for a short(er) day…It’s the long evening that I didn’t count on and likely the culprit in my misremembering the day. So, here’s that story:
The old-timey frontierness of the landscape persists as I near the Montana border. I’m kind of loving the railroad/19th century quality of it all. Train tracks are bisecting the landscape, and I think, Oh wow look at the train, so cool, honk the horn or, um, blow the whistle Mr. Condutor, or whatever. Wait, what’s that the cars are carrying? …Oh, it’s coal. Car after car of nasty clean coal. Very 19th century, don’t ya think? Coal seems even more catastrophically ridiculous when the temp is close to 100. Yeah, let’s go burn tons of that shit! Yeeowch.
A few miles before the Montana border, I see a couple of fellow bike tourers coming the other direction. It’s Deb and Tom from Indiana.
They are on the Northern Tier route (which at this point is still intersecting with the Lewis and Clark Trail that I’m on) headed to Maine, raising money for a couple of different organizations that address homelessness. Check out Deb and Tom’s blog: Keep Calm and Pedal On. Deb mentions a fellow cyclist, a man named Gay from Virginia, who I’ve been told about already a couple of times. He’s traveling the same direction as me, also headed to Portland. “He’s just ahead of you. You’ll probably catch him today,” Deb said.
“I think you all are teasing me. I keep hearing about this dude, but he never materializes.”
Though our conversation isn’t long, it’s a memorable moment for me. I haven’t really engaged much with other humans since the Abbey which hasn’t been more than a day at this point (!), but I am used to interacting with this strange species. I blurt out the monk ass-grabbing story and my reluctance to write about it.
“Oh, no!” says Deb about my hesitation. “You have to include it.” (If you missed it, it’s here).
We say goodbye, half-heartedly wishing one another tailwinds, but not entirely, since their tail is my head. “How about we split it?” I suggest. I am feeling generous, only because I am having a decent tailwind today. But we all know that west-to-east is better for winds, and, no matter who wishes what, nothing will alter that, save some terrifying, unprecedented climate change-related weather event. Have I mentioned previously that so many people I meet, cyclists and non, tell me: “You’re going the wrong way!” Haha. Ha. Not funny. Not funny cuz it’s true.
Since that day, when the wind is blowing in my face, I’ve had another way to comfort myself: If it’s bad for me, at least it’s good for another rider.
Several miles past Deb and Tom, I am crossing into Montana.
I’m on I-94 when that occurs, so the welcome sign is a good one! And about 40 minutes later, I exit the interstate and enter Wibaux (‘WEE-boh’), my first stop in Montana, to seek a later breakfast. At first, I don’t see any place to eat except Tasty Hut (a tiny burger shack), but it doesn’t open until noon, and it’s not even eleven. I hail a man driving a tractor who directs me to Wibaux Street and the Palace Café. In rural Montana, a regular ol’ diner is a called a café – but it’s pronounced ‘kuh-FAY. Trudy the waitress is just about the sweetest person ever.
She’s from east Texas, near Louisiana and came out here a couple of years ago following her husband who was transferred (oil company) to the Montana/North Dakota area. Trudy definitely brings a whole lot of Southern charm to the Palace Café. It’s not too late for breakfast, and I order something similar to what I’ve ordered thus far on the journey when I stop for breakfast as a full meal: eggs, bacon, pancakes and hash browns. Adding potatoes came later in the game. I think it was Kelly and Milo who told me that potatoes are the best things ever for cyclists to consume, so I’ve been obliging (and feeling less guilty about eating french fries practically on the daily). Everything is delicious, not least because I’m STARVING. And I have coffee. Too much. (Any is too much, but I certainly needed it after a not-so-great sleep!)
I arrive in Glendive about three hours later. It’s busy, not a small town, about 5,000 people. The railroad. Agriculture. Oil industry. Home of a pretty significant oil spill that contaminated the town’s drinking water. Definitely Trumplandia in a big way. However, I spot a storefront with “Jon Tester for Senate” signs plastered all over. I peek through the glass. It’s dark. No one’s there. Too bad, because I could have used a couple hours of volunteering for a Democrat after more or less holding my political breath for weeks. The woman I’m staying with is not going to be back from her job as a youth social worker until after 5pm, so I did have some time to kill. Via text she has told me to just let myself in the side door, take a shower, do laundry, relax. During our text convo the evening before, she was concerned that her 9-month-old puppy might be an issue. I told her I love dogs. Same with the last guy, she said, but then he “got all weird…”
I texted her, “Oh, well I probably won’t get weird. …”
As it turns out, the dog wasn’t weird, but everything else was.
Ok, this experience goes in the record books as my, um, least successful warmshowers.org attempt. The host. Let’s just make up a name, shall we? (How about ‘Paige’? She had a sort-of pageboy haircut. …Not really. …Well, to be honest, I don’t know exactly what a pageboy haircut is, but that’s what popped into my head, and we really need to move this along, don’t ya think?) Paige it is! Paige’s reviews on warmshowers highlighted her energy and enthusiasm and mentioned that she’d just moved into a new place. The fact that she is a youth social worker was why I hit her up instead of the other warmshowers host in Glendive. Like minds and all.
I arrive at her little bungalow, and let myself in the prescribed entrance to…can I just say it? …a mess. Paige’s puppy is big and sweet and rather mellow for 9 months; he’s definitely interested/happy to see me. To be honest, my first instinct after gingerly stepping into the laundry area adjacent to the bathroom sporting an unscrubbed toilet and shower and floor and sink is to pet the dog and get the fuck outta there and into one of the hotels I spotted coming into town. (There are a LOT of hotels in Glendive. I imagine this is because of the transience/seasonal situation (?) of the workers in the aforementioned industries.) BUT that I-don’t-want-to-ever-seem-rigid/judgmental/ungrateful aspect of my personality was in full effect. I mean, this woman is opening her home to you, Daniel. Who are you to judge? Who are you to say ‘no’ when you are supposed to be saying ‘yes’ and being openminded and willing and intrepid and all that?
The house is about a thousand degrees. Oh, don’t be so dramatic, Getzoff! It’s not quite a thousand. There is a thermostat on the wall that reads 86. Unfortunately, it’s not a thermostat that is connected to an HVAC system that incorporates the ‘VAC.’
I walk through the rooms. The bedroom looks like its owner is a hormone-soaked teenager whose parent has moved out of the house, because they couldn’t bear to hear her scream “I HATE YOUR GUTS” one more time and finally gave up asking their kid to clean up her mess. That could be said about all of the rooms. Located in one that is probably the living room is a black futon. Using my well-appointed powers of deduction, I assess that I will be sleeping on it. There’s a tatty cover on top of the futon, presumably to keep the dog from messing up what’s underneath. But what’s underneath is even less clean to my human eye – dirt, crumbs, crustiness, the works. Oh, don’t be so fussy, Danny, just have the experience. The house is a mess, yeah, but she’s a fuckin’ youth social worker, doing good for the world! The futon I can deal with, maybe, with my sleeping bag on top of it – but the heat? I’m sweating worse now than when I was riding – and that’s saying something. Just take a shower. Which I do. Even though it’s not, y’know, clean, per se, in the usual sense of the word. She just moved, for godsakes! Give her a break! I have a bag of groceries, mostly produce which I plan to share with Paige, especially a bag of cherries which I wash in the less-gross half of the kitchen sink. Who doesn’t love cherries? (Actually, Donny doesn’t, and others too who I can’t think of at the moment – cherries aren’t as universally well-regarded as ya’d think.)
It’s only 3pm. It’s too hot to write. It’s too hot to do anything. It’s less hot outside, so I text Paige, suggesting I take the dog out into the backyard. Feels weird to go outside without the animal in the room who’s been indoors all day. Paige is grateful, and I take the puppy out and play fetch, throwing a stick to him several times before I get too cocky with my amazing arm and fling it over the fence. Game over. There are no other sticks in sight. And no shade in the yard either. And what are those bugs swarming my legs? They can’t be mosquitos, they move too fast. I swat one and blood drips down my leg. Oh, shit, I didn’t realize that I had a cut there—…no dumbass! These are mosquitos. (Later I find out that Montana had a lot a lot a lot of rain this year after having almost none in 2017, and mosquitos are rampantly epidemic this summer.) Mosquitos mean I can’t/won’t open windows or doors to ventilate in Paige’s house. 0 screen doors + very few screened windows = SWARM.
I bring the puppy inside. He’s scratching. A lot. Fleas? Or maybe he’s been mosquito-bitten. The last thing I want is to be scratching all night on this futon in this heat.
It’s time to let this situation go.
I send Paige a text saying, “Hey, sorry but change of plans. Going to stay at a hotel tonight. A little overheated and I think AC would be helpful. I appreciate the shower very much. Brought you some cherries. Enjoy!”
JUST KIDDING. Of course I don’t do that. What would she think? I don’t want her to feel bad!
Paige arrives soon after. I’m standing in the living room because it’s too hot to sit, because there isn’t a comfortable place to sit, because the places I could sit are too hot, etc. And, as embarrassing as it is to confess, I’m sorta having a bit of a panic attack. Dig?
As manic as I am internally, I am no match for the whirling dervish that is my host. Paige doesn’t greet me nor does she introduce herself, just launches into a monologue about the dog and how he’s the best thing that ever happened to her and that’s right you’re a little shithead aren’t you, the shithead who saved my life! and men suck! and the grandfather of a friend of hers at work has died and it’s really sad because they were close and it was unexpected and kind of fucked up the day and that’s why she seems so stressed and I’m sorry I’m so stressed it’s just been a killer day and do I want a beer? well she needs one and she’s going outside to smoke and sorry about that it’s just one of my vices and do I want a beer? and I can come outside with her if I want and did she tell me about the 60-year-old guy who was her last warmshowers guest who said he was cool with dogs but then acted really weird around the puppy? I mean, he’s just a puppy and he actually reached out his hand and pushed her dog away and she was going to say that she didn’t think it was going to work for him to stay there because of that and do I know what else? he made a comment about her tattoos immediately when he came through the door something like “I told my son not to get tattoos” barely even said “hi” before he started judging her and come outside! she shouts and her neighbors are Republicans but don’t worry about them well not all of them but she’s made a lot of friends in Glendive she’s not from here she’s from Minnesota where people are progressive but here she’s made a lot of friends here who are cops which is weird because of what cops have done to young black men in Minnesota and everywhere really and later we can go to Makoshika State Park and watch the sunset but before that she wants to try out this harness on the dog so he can run alongside her while she’s riding her bike it goes around her waist and she’ll probably wipe out and come crawling back with a ton of road rash haha kidding but she’s sure it’s safe she just wants to try and the state park is really near and she likes to take guests there but only when they’re nice to her dog haha “are you sure you don’t want a beer?” she is getting another already and sometimes she thinks she’s an alcoholic haha.
“Yes,” I say to everything except beer, mentally counting the hours until sunset, here on the 7th longest day of the year. I’m having one of those experiences where you feel invisible in the presence of someone’s loneliness, discomfort, bad boundaries, and narcissism. I try to banish the thought I’m having about the need for competent social workers in the system in eastern Montana.
I slather on some of the insect repellent lotion that was recommended to me at REI months before, so I can join her outside, even if it means dozens of mosquito bites. I tend to use it sparingly, a) because I don’t want to run out of it and b) because I feel like I can taste it whenever it’s on and it’s not a delicious flavor. I join Paige outside in the blazing sun. The Montana mosquitos snicker at my half-assed attempts to repel them. They swarm. I go inside pretending to have to take a leak. Paige is still talking to me, to the dog maybe. She’s a really sweet person and means well but after ten minutes I’m about to ——“What did you say? Am I hungry? Umm, no, no, you don’t have to go to any trouble.”
It’s no trouble at all. We are standing in her oxygen-deprived, unventilated kitchen. With the thermostat that reads 87 now. Paige preheats the oven to make a frozen pizza. We chat. I sweat. I watch the thermostat climb: 88, 89 and then it holds at 90…If it hits 91, that’s when I might imply that I am considering an alternate situation, one that involves me leaving. I swear on Whitey Jackson and all that’s holy that’s what I’ll do if it hits 91!
The pizza is done. Paige burns herself several times dealing with it. It’s too hot to eat. It’s never going to be cool enough to eat that pizza. That pizza is never going to cool. It will always be too hot. It will burn my tongue and hard palate, turning them to numbed sandpaper for weeks. It’s a nice gesture, of course. Don’t be such an ungrateful asshole! Once the impossible occurs (the pizza cools), I eat two pieces. I don’t want even the first one, but one seems like too few and three is impossible. In any case, I feel like I need to keep pedaling the bike forward, move things along.
A while later, when Paige leaves on her bicycle with the dog in the new harness, I pack up my kit that I’d rinsed, get the produce from the fridge (except the cherries!), call the La Quinta Inn back up on the main road, book a room, then send Paige a text saying: “Hey, sorry but change of plans. Going to stay at a hotel tonight. A little overheated and I think AC would be helpful. I appreciate the shower and the pizza very much. Don’t forget about the cherries. They’re still in the sink! Enjoy!”
EXCEPT I DON’T DO ANY OF THAT.
Instead, I pace around. I imagine calling a friend to ask their advice about what they’d do in this situation. “Just leave.” That’s what any friend I conjure up would say. There’s something about this situation that reminds me of meeting people online for a date or a hookup, specifically those situations where you want to say “no thanks” but you go through with it anyway. Because you feel guilty. Which is something I’m working on not doing. Because: a) it’s dishonest and b) it demonstrates a lack of humility (as in omg if I reject this person, they will never be the same again!) and c) I’m making it more about me than them anyway. Under the auspices of honoring their feelings, I’m actually just preventing the discomfort that goes along with being a grown-ass man who takes responsibility for his wants/feelings/actions.
A few months ago, Patti, a friend and colleague whom I totally love and respect, gave me a mug with ‘Hold on. Let me overthink this.’ imprinted on it.
I examine the futon. Maybe it isn’t that bad. … No, it is.
I examine my motives.
Motives for staying: 1) don’t want to hurt her feelings, 2) don’t want to be seen a certain way – which way? Like I’m spoiled or disrespectful of the way others live, or that I’m not the intrepid traveler I claim to be. But, am I even claiming that? When have I claimed that? I’m not claiming anything! Again, I’m faced with that Whose Ride Is This Anyway? question. By what standard of intrepidness am I being judged? I’ve already revealed the identity of the panel of judges, and it’s just the one. (Me.)
Motive(s) for leaving: 1) I want to. 2) Everything that’s true and real. (aka See #1). Do you, says my sponsor and everyone in the world who has even an infinitesimally evolved sense of self.
When Paige returns, I am minimally resolved to leave. But… I still might stay. Things could turn around. You never know.
Paige hasn’t wiped out on the bike, and the puppy behaved well in the harness. The thermostat is now up to 92 which I guess is my internal combustion limit, because I gasp, involuntarily, when I spot it. “What’s wrong?” asks Paige.
I fan myself. “Oh, nothing. I’m just really hot. Riding all day and…y’know…”
“Oh!” she says, “I’m so sorry I don’t have the AC turned on yet. I only have one fan, but it’s in my bedroom. Let me get it for you!”
No no no. “No, thanks, it’s cool… That’s your fan.” She’s already bringing it from the bedroom, bless her. I really wish she were less accommodating. If she weren’t such a nice person (even though we aren’t really having a two-way conversation), this would be so easy. (Yeah, right.)
I don’t remember what I said to her, what we were even talking about, when she said, “You’re a direct person. I really appreciate that.”
As slam-dunk normal as it seems to some, it takes me a bit of courage then to say, “Well, in the spirit of being direct, I think I’m going to head out and stay at a hotel. Thank you so much for the pizza and the shower.”
NOT KIDDING. I SAY THIS. I CAN’T UNSAY IT.
Paige’s is it me?! reactions reinforce the online-dating aspect of the encounter.
“No,” I say. “It’s just hot, and I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep here.”
“Okay…You’re not gonna give me a negative review on warm showers, are you? haha, just kidding, haha…but, are you?”
“No!” I say. “It’s not your fault that it’s so hot.” I’m not planning on writing any review. (Except this one I’m writing right now.)
Because of my indecisiveness, I haven’t really reorganized my stuff and packed up any items I’d removed from Whitey’s panniers. So, it’s very uncomfortable as I’m scurrying around but trying not to scurry because I still don’t want her to think that I’m running away from her, which if I am being handlebar-confessionally honest, I am in part. Have you ever gotten shouted at by a lifeguard on a pool deck – “NO RUNNING!” – and you slow down to a pace that’s as running as possible without actually running? That’s how I’m moving around the house and shoving things into Whitey’s compartments.
As I’m dancing as fast as I can, Paige is firing questions at me, “Are you sure it’s not me? I hope I didn’t do anything. I’m sorry, I’m in a really strange mood.” She cracks open a third beer. “I know the place isn’t all done up yet cuz I just moved and—”
“No, no, I’m telling you, it’s just really hot in here. No worries at all.”
“Well, do you have any feedback for me? I mean, seriously I want to know.”
She does seem serious. I don’t tell her every detail. But I say that even though cyclists are generally cool with whatever sleeping arrangement a warmshowers host provides, you should always put clean sheets on whatever they’ll be sleeping on – couch, bed, futon. I say that you should do that just to be welcoming, do it for yourself, whether or not you think the person will mind, because it’s the right thing to do. I mean, you should clean your pad if you’re having guests, right? Paige sincerely thanks me for the feedback.
And I make my awkward escape into the weighty evening air.
I just get on the bike and ride. Don’t know what direction I’m going. I’m reasonably sure I did the right thing, but I just want to get away. A couple blocks away I stop and open the google maps app to look for a hotel. I am swarmed by the Reanimated Montana Zombie mosquitos who haven’t eaten since 2016. So I clumsily try to pedal while looking at the app while I’m at an anxiety 11. It doesn’t go well. I just ride. Until I feel like I’m nearer to the main road. But I’m not.
Eventually, I make it to a La Quinta Inn. It’s way more expensive than I want to pay – like $90. But it’s almost 9 and the sky’s finally darkening. All I want is to take another shower and go to bed. I call Samm, because I feel like she’d support the decision I made (which she does) and have empathy for me in the situation (which she also does) – as well as get a kick out of my insanity about the whole thing (ditto). I eat two Snickers bars while on the phone with Samm and then hit the sparkling clean comfortable bed.
The breakfast at La Quinta starts at 6am. I wake up at 5, so I can be totally ready by 6 except for drinking coffee, eating and shitting. Despite what my buddy Jacob (whom I met on Day 2 – see here) told me on the morning of my 3rd day of travel – and his 63rd – about quickly losing luster for pre-ride stretching and warming up, I’m still managing to do at least a few stretches and some abs/core exercises before I smear the Assos chamois cream in all the right places and don my stinky kit that’s still a little damp from the rinse-out at Paige’s the afternoon before. Breakfast is good! Definitely one of those where I can nick some PB&J fixins’ and an extra banana. I’m not a big fan of hard-boiled eggs, but they are a sort of perfectly easy, self-contained protein source. Malodorous, but easy.
On Day 37, I’m on the road at 6:30. Still a bit frazzled by my wee panic attack the day before at the would-be warmshowers host’s, I want Glendive in my rearview ASAP!
The original plan was to have a third shortish day of about 50 miles to Circle, Montana. But there are favorable tailwinds, like 15-plus mph favorable. In other words, rather freakin’ decent! It’s going to be even hotter today than the previous two days, with lots of rolling hills, but I feel prepared for the heat. I am carrying extra water now and have even introduced a bit of fruit punch-flavored Powerade into my life. (I am running low on Nuun tablets and want to make my supply last until I get to Missoula next week, where I’ll be staying with my old friends Kathryn and Eric and their two kids, Elizabeth and Michael. I can buy what I need on Amazon and ship to their place.)
But I don’t want another shortish day. Since today is the seventh riding day in a row, tomorrow should be a rest day. With the favorable tailwinds, a clear 50-mile stopping point (Circle) with a place I can eat lunch and cool off and refill everything with ice), and my newfound commitment to not dying of heatstroke, the plan is to get to the next stop after Circle, the town of Jordan. Jordan, pop. 300-ish, is (in)famous for being the home of the Montana Freemen, a right-wing extremist anti-government militia group that had an 81-daylong standoff with the FBI and other federal law enforcement agents in 1996. In a long text exchange with Kathryn while in Medora, who I’ve been chatting with quite a bit as I’ve neared then entered her home state, she has assured me that I’m hitting all the greats, like Jordan, as well as Lincoln in a few more days, which is where the Unabomber hid out. Jordan is the county seat of Garfield County which wins the grand prize for the reddest county in the country for the 2016 election (i.e., 91% Trump vs 4.5% Clinton vs 4.5% Johnson). I’m hoping I’ll run into any of the 21 Clinton voters who live in Jordan before I meet a white supremacist, but statistically that is unlikely. Very unlikely.
Even though Jordan doesn’t seem like an ideal place for me to spend an entire day of rest, the fact that I’ll want to stay inside and avoid the locals will definitely translate to focus on writing my blog, which is really what rest days are all about. Jordan is almost 70 miles past Circle – and there is nothing—and I mean nothing—between them – making for a 117-mile trek in the heat. (See Figure 1, below).
The last time I attempted 100+ miles in the heat, you may recall, I was underprepared, and endured a touch of the heatstroke (see here). Though I am a bit nervous, I feel confident that this time I shall not fail! My weather app says that there’s a chance of a thunderstorm later in the afternoon, but I think I’ll get to Jordan by then. Not really worried about that. I mean, I’m not really in tornado-land anymore, so…
Circle is a pleasant town. The tailwinds (and the fact that there is nothing between Glendive and Circle either!) help get me there by about 11am. I stop for lunch at the kuh’fay there. Tuna sandwich, a pickle, chips and tons of water to drink and store on Whitey. I spend some time cooling off.
I really should make sure there’s room in the only hotel in Jordan. Don’t want to get stuck camping in this heat, and the forecast the next day is rain, so… But annoyingly, my cell service has screeched to a halt the second I exited Glendive. (Later I find out that AT&T doesn’t work anywhere in Montana, except in cities.) Well, who needs it! I can wing this one.
The heat is way more manageable during the afternoon, since the sun has been mostly hiding behind clouds. I entertain myself by conversing with the cows and horses as I pass by. I try a few “YEE-HAWS” and other noises that I associate with ranch life – you know, like that clicking noise people in movies make at horses. I sing at full voice a lot on Day 37, because I am completely alone except for the animals. White-tailed deer bound away as I pedal near. Hares. (Or rabbits. I don’t know the difference but I’m using ‘hares’ cuz it sounds more exotic to my mind.) Smushed smelly skunks. I wish I could see a fox.
The landscape is all golden-yellows and grassy-greens, and the browns, coral pinks and ivories of badlands and buttes, not a tree in sight or a structure of any sort, hilly for sure, but the tailwind makes it so Whitey can (FINALLY, after 1,500 miles of NOT) use the downhill to assist at least partway up the next uphill, instead of stopping me and my load practically dead in my tracks as the incline starts.
My visibility is so damn expansive. I can see for miles in every direction (except when facing an uphill directly, obviously). I’ll spot an object in the distance, e.g., that sole tree or barn out there. It seems far away, sure, but sort of a mindfuck how I won’t actually get near it for 20 minutes, or a half hour. Even cars traveling toward me at 80 mph take ages to pass. There are buttes galore. The elevation is consistently between 2,500 and 3,000 feet. I can feel the mountains in the distance, right? I mean, still a couple hundred miles away – but the Rockies are calling me.
At around 85 miles, the sun seems permanently ensconced behind thickening and condensing cloud cover. Good! I’m satisfied with my cautious performance in the heat. I’ve been snacking, consuming almost the correct amount of carbs every hour (per Coach Diego) and drinking lots. Because of the rest day planned for tomorrow, I’m freer about working harder on the bike, and because of the favorable wind, I’m in a great mood. “YEEEEEE-HAWWWWW!!!!!!”
At 90 miles, there’s a storm in the distance seemingly to my left. I can see the entirety of it, where it begins and ends. Microscopic lightning flashes, and the rain happening way over there looks like a ghostly silver shower curtain. I’m traveling due west, so that would make the storm south of me. This is great! Because the wind is blowing behind me, I’m sure that means that whatever storm I see in the distance will be traveling the same direction, right? … Right? That’s how it must work. Unless I’m wrong and have no idea what I’m talking about.
At 95 miles, hmmm, it seems as though there’s another storm but on my left, which would be north. I can still see the lightning, and now I can hear – barely, though – thunder way, way, way in the distance. Well, that’s no big deal. A storm has to be moving faster than my ass on this bicycle! Haha! …ha? Instinctively, I start pedaling faster, just in case. Don’t feel like getting wet.
At 100 miles, the sun isn’t just obscured by clouds, it’s trapped behind them; it’s a distant memory. The sky is darker. I’m definitely pedaling faster now, more consciously. I bet it’s raining in Jordan right now. I’ll probably just miss it. I’ve had pretty good luck with missing storms.
At 105 miles, I’m cresting over a pretty big hill, and as I get to the top, something strange has happened. I’m not sure if it’s my perspective or what, but the two separate storms – the one to the north and the one to the south – now seem to be a single storm right in front of me. Also, I think I can see the town – a splattering of structures sort of to my left – in the distance. Aww, I thought I was gonna hit at least 115 miles. Looks like this will only be a 110er.
At 110 miles, Jordan looks only slightly closer than it had 22 minutes before. The merged storm, if it was even two separate storms in the first place, is angrier. The thunder is louder and more frequent. And so is the lightning. I’m pedaling faster and faster. I’m checking out the landscape to determine where I could get some cover…and there are zero options. Just telephone poles (bad idea – all those wires! – and wouldn’t provide any protection anyway) and the ditch alongside of the road where I could lie if there’s a tornado, which there won’t be, because, well, there just won’t. Still the best option is pedaling to the town which as I hit 111, 112 miles is getting closer. Isn’t it?
At 115 miles, I am for sure getting closer to Jordan, but it’s still out of reach. There is a smattering of structures in the near distance coming up on my right. It’s about 5:30pm, but the sky is telling a nighttime story. It’s getting darker by the second. It’s turning so gray that it’s entering into green territory on the color wheel. A dark greenish-gray, like the ocean. In a storm. And this small craft has no radio. Fuckin’ AT&T.
Next, in a split second, two radical shifts in the atmosphere occur: the temperature drops like a bomb, like mercury splattering in water — and the wind, which has been my ally in this chase toward the ever-distant town of Jordan, about-faces, is a traitor to the cause, turns up its volume, body-slams me.
When the rain finally starts in earnest, I’ve already jumped off Whitey, because the wind is too strong to stay aboard and pedal forward. I have to get to those buildings. Then I’ll be cool and wait for this to pass. However, the wind and crashing thunder are a wrathful god banishing me from the town of Jordan. The lightning rod that splits the sky in two is so, um, generously proportioned that it looks like some visual effects artist is laying on the CGI too thick. I’m using all my strength to push Whitey, which is made even more difficult wearing cycling cleats. If I have to lay my bicycle down on the road and make a run for it, the cleats will be as likely to be my undoing as the storm itself. Talk about the dangers of running on a pool deck!
Just as I’m about to give up pushing and RUN, a white sedan is coming toward me from the southwest. It’s the first vehicle that’s appeared from either direction for at least an hour. I can’t let go of the handlebars to wave the person down, or the bike will tumble. The car pulls over. A woman leans out of the driver’s side window, yells at me, something slightly nicer than WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING OUT HERE?!! but that sentiment and the urgency are well-represented in her utterance.
“You need to get out of this storm!” she shouts. Thunder crashes to gild that lily.
I turn Whitey around and roll the bike toward the car, to the passenger side. I assess the situation. “I don’t think my bike will fit in your car!”
“Well, do you wanna get in?” she asks. She is smoking a cigarette. “I hope you don’t mind my smoke.”
Ugh, I do mind. But this is no time to be indecisive. “No, of course not!” I open the passenger side and get in.
“What were you thinking?!”
I don’t know how to answer that. And I don’t have to, because she’s waving the Stormtracker app in my face. “See where we are?” she asks, pointing to an orange ring amongst several concentric areas. “This is us. We are in the orange.” She points to a cherry-red blob, with an even darker blood-red nucleus. “This is the storm.” She waits for my response.
Oh, I get it. I point out the window. The wind is blowing the grasses flat against the ground. The rain is pounding. “You’re saying this is not the storm. Yet.”
“Yup. Nope. Ever been in a hailstorm? You and I might be on the floor of this car any minute.”
I profusely thank her for stopping. “I don’t know what I would have done.”
“Well, you’re still a half-mile from town. I just came from there.”
This is Bonnie. She is a farmer during the summer growing and harvesting alfalfa with her son – and Jordan’s kindergarten teacher the rest of the year. She’ll have 8 students this year, which is more than last year (6), but fewer than two years ago (12, which was a high in recent years). She was working on the farm all day long today and she’s wearing the dirty jeans and a sky-blue (not the current sky!) t-shirt to prove it. After working the fields, she went to town to meet an insurance person. To get an insurance policy that covers hail damage to her car.
Bonnie blows smoke out the crack of the window she’s left open. “Policy goes into effect at 6pm.”
I look at my watch. It’s 5:45.
“No!” I say.
“Yup,” says Bonnie.
“Well, if it happens and the car is damaged…will you tell the insurance company that it happened after 6? I mean, would they know?” I mean, how accurate is this Stormtracker app?
“Oh, I know what I’ll tell the insurance company!” she quips.
Bonnie asks me that common why? question. She’s seen cyclists riding through Jordan, but hasn’t ever had the opportunity to ask why would someone ride their bicycle across the country. Since she is (potentially) saving my ass for real and we have a few minutes before the storm fucking arrives, I give her the version that includes the stuff about the divisiveness between the political factions and desiring to be a human among other humans who live outside my LA progressive bubble. Storm or no storm, she still seems to think I’m crazy. I feel a little crazy. I’m wearing a bicycle helmet inside a stranger’s car in the middle of an intense storm that might damage her vehicle and my bicycle which is leaned up against the car that has all of my belongings, including my laptop and my— “Oh shit! My phone!” The computer is inside the rear panniers which are waterproof, but my phone is on my handlebars inside the map compartment which closes with extremely effective Velcro. But still…
“Well, you can go and get it. I’m not going anywhere.”
I can’t tell if she thinks I’m stupid to even consider it. Or more stupid than she already thinks I am. I open the door slightly; this action soaks my right leg immediately. The wind is pressing Whitey against the car. It’s already been 10 minutes. If the phone is wet, it’s already wet.
Bonnie refreshes the StormTracker app. “You better hurry if you’re going out there. I sure wouldn’t!”
I don’t. “Well, AT&T doesn’t work out here anyway,” I say.
The storm barrels in. The hail is minimal. I’m a little disappointed, if I’m being honest. Not that I would have wanted Bonnie’s car to get damaged, of course. But, y’know…It would have been fun to tell the story later about how Bonnie and I dove onto the floor of her car while the gods pummeled us with tennis ball-sized hail stones. Or survived a tornado unscathed. There was a tornado that day, about 100 or so miles away. When I ultimately did get access to texts, Kathryn sent me one with an article attached entitled: 5-ton tractor still missing after tornado touches down in southeastern Montana. I was in northeastern Montana, so nothing to worry about! … (If you look at where Jordan is on a map, it’s actually more central-eastern.)
About 30 minutes after jumping into Bonnie’s car, I’m checking on the well-being of my iPhone. It works! I thank Bonnie a million more times, take her photo just as she is in the post-storm light which is beautiful, and bid her goodbye.
I ride the last bit into Jordan. The sky is bright again, not with direct sunlight, but it’s still day. The temperature stays cool, but the wind hasn’t resumed its friendly demeanor, so I’m riding into it. The streets of Jordan are dead. Presumably, people haven’t reemerged since the storm came through. I stop at the intersection of Route 200, the road I’d been on most of the day and will continue to traverse for days to come, and Jordan’s Main Street. An SUV pulls up next to me. God, I hope it’s not a militia member.
“You get caught in the storm?” It’s a gray-haired woman, Janet, the editor of the local paper, The Jordan Tribune.
“Yup. Nope. Well, I mean, yes I was, but someone picked me up and we weathered the storm in her car.”
Janet of course knows Bonnie. Everyone knows everyone. Or at least the nosy longtime editor of the local rag knows everyone. That’s her job. And it’s her job to find something to write about in a town where barely anything has happened since the ’96 standoff. Janet invites me to her lair the next day to interview me for the paper. Umm, no way. “Well, I have my own writing to do tomorrow…if I actually do stay the extra night.” I wonder how hard it will be to hide from the county’s only intrepid reporter who knows where I’m staying.
I walk into the office of the Garfield Motel, which Janet said had new owners who were taking real good care of the place. The AC is blasting. I’m a little cold now, post-117-mile ride, post-storm-induced adrenaline rush, pre-shower. No one’s at the desk, but some ornery dude, presumably a guest, is in there pouring himself free coffee. “Pick up the phone.” There’s an old-school creamy-yellow push-button telephone on the desk.
“Just pick it up and it rings them back there.” (I think I’ve forgotten to mention that motels in tiny towns have living quarters where the owners or managers reside. I guess it’s sort of a 24/7/365 job.) So far, I wouldn’t say this place is the polar opposite of the Bates Motel.
Chevelle, one of the owners, comes from the back to help me out. She’s totally not scary. I get the last available room at the Garfield Motel. The place is less for tourists and more for hunters/fishermen, maybe farmworkers or hail insurance salespeople traveling for work. Or for longer-term housing than for a night or two. My room is on one end of the building. It’s sort of giant, has two beds, a desk next to the bathroom, a large-screen TV even. All my gear in the front right-hand pannier – which is where I store most of my non-cycling clothes and my tool pouch and miniature first aid kit – is soaked. I lay out or hang all the wet shit around the room. I plug in my phone, watch and external battery charger. There’s wireless, thankfully, so I’ll be able to publish a post, hopefully two, in the next 36 hours – and not be completely disconnected from my people. Just as I connect my computer to its power cord and stick it in the wall, the electricity snaps off. Shit! Did I trip a circuit breaker?
I put on my flip-flops and poke around outside to find a breaker box but can’t find one. The office is empty. I pick up the phone, but it’s dead. Ah, electricity’s out in the whole building. I do that thing I do where I make a weedy attempt to get help but not really go all the way. “Hello?” I stage whisper toward the door where Chevelle came out of before. Eh, they’re probably fixing it.
The bathroom in my room has no windows, so I take a shower in the dark. Chevelle had mentioned that there’s a kuh’fay, The Summit Corral, up the road a bit, a 10-minute walk, but they only serve until 8. It’s 7, so I head up there. I’m starving, now that my adrenaline and endorphin levels have plunged. I try the door of the café and it’s locked. A young woman comes to the door.
“Sorry, electricity’s out, so we’re calling it a night.”
The whole town has no electricity. On the walk back to the motel, I stop at the gas station I passed by earlier. Won’t let me buy anything there either, because they can’t scan the bar codes or open the till.
I almost cry for the second time of the trip. (First time was crashing multiple times on that dirt road in Iowa; read that entry here.) But I need real food! I just rode my bike 117 miles and almost got pelted with hail the size of tennis balls that almost existed!
Too bad, Getzoff.
Back in the room, I eat the other white chocolate/macadamia nut Clif Bar, more gratefully than I had eaten the first one the day before. It’s not bad. I polish off the rest of the almonds. And…that’s it. It’s dark now, finally. I say thanks to Bonnie aloud, for being there when the sky opened up and might have swallowed me whole. I’m not the praying type, but Bonnie deserves it. Am I right or am I right? I read a bit of my Lewis and Clark book on my iPhone and fall asleep in utter darkness to the sound of nothing.
At about 4am the AC unit springs to life and the light/fan in the bathroom. I guess I’ll be eating a real breakfast soon!
I spend Day 38 writing about Iowa. I check warmshowers.org to see if Paige has given me a bad review. Instead, I see that she has marked herself Not Currently Available for Hosting. Surprisingly, I do not feel guilty. I’m alone all day except for breakfast at the Summit Corral, which is standard but amazing, likely because I was still hungry from the previous day. I of course run into Janet, the one-woman newspaper. I’m walking back from the county library which, even though it’s Friday, is closed. Janet calls out to me. I say, “Hi, just coming back from the library. It’s closed.”
“You can come into my office and write here.”
Hmm. “Do you have wireless?”
I am about 100 feet from her, but I can see Janet is drawing a blank. Unless I’m talking about old-timey, vintage wireless radios. I am not in a saying-yes mood. And I’m eager to get back to writing about Iowa. Montana may have had a stint as my favorite state during childhood, but it hasn’t yet outshined Iowa in 2018.