In the morning of Day 41 (aka Monday, July 2) when I make my way upstairs at 6:30 or so, Becky and Mel are about to take off to work at their family business in town. (I’m sure I’m not being 100% accurate but…Becky’s father invented something related to HVAC metallic ventilation tubes, and at some point her brother moved their operations from Maryland to Montana. Bet doing business is cheaper here in the Treasure State.)

Someone’s made coffee. On the counter there are fresh eggs straight from the hens’ butts. (Yes, it is the same exit hole. I looked it up.) There’s the last elk sausage Becky’d defrosted, which I’m instructed to eat. Becky also instructs me about how to distract the dogs, Buddy in particular, from preventing their newest herd member from cycling off the property. I’m told to give each dog a treat the second I’m about to take off. Both will be all instinctual-like with their prey, carrying their treats out of sight to the other side of the garage. These are tiny regular ol dog biscuits, by the way – not the giant (real) (elk?) bones I’d seen them gnawing on the night before. Hardly seems that much of a treat. But one dog’s treat is another dog’s…not-treat. Whatever. This way Buddy won’t follow me and bark and try to cattle-dog me back into the fold.

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Blitz and Buddy.

Becky suggests that I take a route through their property to cut out a quarter-mile or so on the road – and I won’t have to ride up that 14% grade of gravel I came down. According to Becky, I shouldn’t have a problem finding my way and my tires seem ok to handle the terrain (yikes – are they?) and points in the general direction. “You know, it’s the way we came back around yesterday.” Well, I shouldn’t have a problem finding my way but I’m already imagining several scenarios that get me lost or in a ditch or covered in cow crap adding several hours to the day’s ride. And it’s not like I can call anyone, since (for the fortieth time within 4 blog posts) AT&T only works in Montana towns with more than a few thousand people.

It’s not really the tires or the directions I have concerns about, or even the uphill battle; it’s the fear of not being able to click out of my pedals in time in case I do tumble. That’s the worst! If this sounds foreign to you, imagine you are riding a bike with shoes that have cleats which snap firmly into the pedals. A bit of effort is required to disengage; for lack of a better word, your feet are stuck to the pedals. Okay, got that? Now imagine you’re pedaling slowly up a hill, and you hit a rock and lose your balance, or the road suddenly becomes too steep to pedal in the gear you’re currently in. You’re unable to regain balance or lower the gear in time to keep momentum. You have to unstick your foot quickly so you can steady yourself with your foot on the ground. But it’s too late and you tip over. With your foot still stuck in the pedal. And a bicycle with 80 pounds of gear on top of that leg with the foot still stuck in the pedal. Dig me? Extricating oneself from that arrangement requires one not to panic like a fox caught in a trap. Fortunately, I’ve never been in a situation where I had to chew off my hind leg or self-amputate it with my Swiss Army knife in order to free myself. Yet.

At 80-plus miles to get to Geraldine, Day 41 isn’t a mere drop in the bucket. So, no time to waste worrying. Especially after a comparatively relaxed morning cooking and eating a rancher’s breakfast, it’s getting sort of late. On the Jacksons’ warmshowers.org profile, they warn that cyclists who stop longer than one night may be put to work. As tempting as that is, which it absofuckinglutely is, I am meant to be in Missoula to visit the Grady-Franzon clan by the weekend. Before that, however, is Great Falls where I’m taking a couple days to catch up on the blog while enjoying AC in an Airbnb. Been in communication with a guy named Jason, and I’m going to stay in his family’s apartment above the garage starting tomorrow evening. So. No rest for the motivated, no ranch work for the restless.

I follow the bends in the grass made by the ATVs doing my best to avoid big rocks and climb up toward Route 200. I can hear the road in the near-distance, particularly when a truck zooms by. I’m feeling confident and brave. The cows are spinning their tails, blinking their goodbyes. Or maybe they’re just keeping flies out of their eyes. Their expressions are serious. I hope none of them is nursing an open wound. Magpies. Last evening, when I inquired about the provenance of a cool-looking crow-looking long-tailed black-and-white bird, Becky pulled a face. “That’s a magpie. They are nasty.” When a cow has an open sore on its body, magpies will swoop down and feed on it. They are scavengers, especially for warm blood! Magpies followed native people on the hunt to scavenge the remains of the carcasses they left behind. Lewis and Clark wrote about magpies brazenly hopping into their tents looking for grub. Anyway… luckily, I’m don’t have any significant suppurating wounds that might tempt the odd magpie longing for a mid-morning snack, and I’m not inert. Nor am I wise to Satan’s corporate machinations. You know, like in Damien: Omen II where the journalist in the red coat gets her eyes poked out once she figures out what’s really going on and staggers…into the path of a semi. Raven was the culprit in that situation, not Magpie. But same family. Caw!

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Prepare to be pecked!

Once I get to the main road, it’s downhill all the way to Lewistown from the Jacksons’ ranch; it takes only about a half hour to ride the 7 miles, previously unheard of during this journey, with Whitey’s big load.

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Down, down, down to Lewistown.

Lewistown is the largest municipality I’ve hit thus far in Montana; almost 6,000 souls live there. I hit the Albertson’s to grab some foodstuffs and a pair of cheap sunglasses to replace the ones I’d lost in the storm in Jordan a few days ago. I forgot to mention earlier – this critical detail that thematically ties everything together! – that in the middle of the storm in Jordan a few days before I lost my sunglasses. It’s a miracle that it took this long for me to lose something or leave it behind. Generally, I’m not the best at not losing things. In fact, I’m pretty awesome at losing them. (Oh wait… I did leave a bike water bottle on a bench near a water fountain in Pennsylvania weeks ago. Did you really believe for a second that I’d managed not to shed at least one water bottle in 41 days? If you’ve spent any time with me, in real life, you’ll be snorting and rolling your lovely, naturally-gooey-but-not-pecked-out eyeballs just about now.) It’s miraculous that I haven’t lost my gloves yet and even more astounding that I’d had this particular pair of now-disappeared sunglasses for a couple years previous to the ride. A few times over the course of these past weeks, I removed my fingerless Fox cycling gloves or sunglasses during a snack break or whatever, laying them down on top of one of the rear panniers – and then blithely took off leaving them vulnerable to the wind and gravity and bad luck. And then realizing after a few miles, Wait a sec, I don’t have anything on my hands and/or my face. What the— But somehow in the craziness of the wind and getting in and out of Bonnie’s car (she’s the woman who saved me in the storm – read about that here in Days 36-38: Online Hokup Gone Awry, In A Storm I Almost Die) – I lost them. RIP, Oakleys. Expensive but worth it; then scratched up and worth hanging onto; now dead on the side of the road in rural Montana, worthless. Oh, no. Is that littering?! Should I go back?! When I get to the Airbnb in Great Falls tomorrow, I’ll order a new pair on Amazon and have them sent to Chez Grady-Franzon to await my arrival in Missoula. But another few days with wind in my face and sizable specks of shit blowing into my eyes? Hell no. Who’s that behind those Foster Grants? Getzoff, that’s who.

ANYWAY…

Another Big-Sky-style wind day, 4th in a row. Was it ever not windy? But guess what? Sit down if you’re not already sitting down… There’s. Another. ROAD! Exiting Lewistown, the route leaves Highway 200 which continues due west without us. Whitey (if you’re just joining us now, Whitey Jackson is my trusted steed/touring bike) and I are directed to jump on Route 191 which heads north and even jogs slightly east for about 10 miles. The wind is not in my face for this window of travel. The South Moccasin Mountains are to my left and the Judith Mountains to my right. In the distance is Square Butte.

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The Square Butte That’s Everywhere.

Whitey is laden with extra weight from the Albertson’s break, but I can’t really feel the difference. At more than 2,600 miles traveled, every added nano-ounce is not a donkey’s burden anymore, like it was at the end of the first week, when I unloaded items as light as a travel-sized packet of Q-tips upon arrival at my cousins’ place in Cleveland. The day is bright and clear. My time with the Jacksons, their humor, their guns and the elk sausages, the gloomful dirge of a fridge magnet (SAY A PRAYER TO PRESERVE MARRIAGE), and the freakin’ glorious ATV ride are on my mind. I’m writing the Day 40 blog post in my head and blurting out key thoughts verbally into the Notes app as I pedal hoping Siri is doing a decent job of converting voice-to-text, so I’m not confused later. [Later = 5 months later when I finally published that post. Which you can read here!]

I’m barely an hour’s bicycle ride from Lewistown when I make a left onto yet another road. (Hopefully you’re still sitting down, so this news hasn’t overcome you. Bring on the smelling salts! At once!) Our new road is Route 81; we’re in the unincorporated community of Brooks, a mere 10 miles from a town of 6,000 but oh so quiet. Saying Brooks is the ‘middle of nowhere’ may ring rude to the denizens who occupy its structures, though I witnessed precisely zero denizens, excepting bovine ones. It’s ‘somewhere’ if you live there…right? But see Figures 1 and 2 and judge for yourself.

Also, just for shits and pedals, check out the difference in topography between Day 41’s ride and a recent 50-ish-mile ride here in the heart of Los Angeles (Figures 3 and 4).

And while we’re on the subject of population density, check out how Los Angeles County’s population roughly compares to the area I’m in at the moment (Figure 5). No wonder I’m feeling somewhat melancholic today…

Image 12-6-18 at 12.37 PM
Figure 5. I mean, seriously?!

(Play with this interactive map on slate.com here.)

Like the stretches I’ve ridden on for the past few days, Route 81 is in fair shape but with mere bicycle tire-sized shoulders. Thankfully, there aren’t any rumble strips. Because of the infrequency of cars and trucks from either direction and the gusts of wind at frenzied intervals, I’m more comfortable riding comfortably within in the actual lane, not within a Nothingsville shoulder. As someone who is more steely nerve-wise at the nearness of passage by other vehicles (in Los Angeles you have to be, or else you’d fall apart…or not ride on the city’s streets in the first place), it’s safer for me this way, rather than trying to navigate the scraggy, somewhat gravelly shoulder, where I’m markedly less steely. I’ve found that drivers heading the same direction will go waaaay out of their way to avoid me and stay on the other side of the highway for a tenth of a mile or more before coasting back into the correct lane. I don’t remember who along the road said this to me, but I hear that drivers on these roads tend to appreciate anything that puts the minutest fissure in the monotony of travel, especially when it involves driving on the wrong side of the highway for a spell. At least that’s what I’m hearing.

It’s been well over two hours since breakfast. As, er, heartily portioned as that was, I’m making every effort to follow Diego’s fiat that I consume 300 calories per hour of riding. There’s bug spray all over my hands and I don’t want to waste water washing them off (and I’m too lazy to dig out a baby-/ass-wipe), so I have to eat the banana the Ol’-Fashioned Way. And by that I mean, Step One: peel-to-reveal, then Step Two: taking bites off the top, as opposed to the Contemporary Methodology, which is Step One: peel-to-reveal, then Step Two: manually breaking off bits and consuming. Why the change? you ask, likely enraptured. Here’s the banana BJ story:

Several years ago, when I worked at Common Ground, I would find myself positively starving after sitting in front of my computer and/or putting out fires all day and eating nothing. There was a 7-11 catty-corner to our location and often I’d stagger over there at like 3pm to get a banana and some almonds or cashews. Unaware of the risk one takes when one eats a banana the old-fashioned way at a busy intersection, on the walk back I took what must have been a robust blowjob-esque bite of my banana and was instantaneously cat-called, in what can only be understood and experienced as homophobically-generated. What they said was crude and not worth repeating, no sir! (Though I would, of course, repeat it if I remembered what it was.) As a gay man living and working within an urban arena where LGBTQ shit happens out in the open, I rarely question my safety in that regard. But this was memorable: a rare moment when the flush of residual shame from my nonconforming boyhood and that old-as-dirt fear of being seen in a feminine light and publicly ridiculed for it knocked me outta my self-esteem-tinctured ignorant bliss. Was I asking for it, biting directly into the banana like that? It had never occurred to me that I should eat a banana a different way. Moments later, back at Common Ground with partially eaten tumescent fruit still in hand, I shared my shame with Lisa, my beloved work-wife, who schooled me about hypervigilance effected by females-while-eating-a-banana in public, lest…the inevitable. (#workwife #wokelife) Coincidentally – or not coincidentally – Lisa also showed me that peeling a banana is much easier when you start from the bottom rather than the stem. That woman certainly knows her way around a banana.

*Note (regarding post title): Yeah, made ya look.

Why is this relevant? you ask. Because I am consistently asked, what do you think about on the bike all day? (#rabbithole) And it’s hard not to overthink eating a banana when the sweat on your hands is tinctured with bug poison. The last thing I want in the middle of cow country is to get busted fellating anything.

After Lewistown, it’s been hilly terrain but overall I’ve lost a considerable amount of elevation since leaving this morning. There’s a nice downhill as I cross the Judith River, followed by a 500-foot climb over a few miles. So not a big deal in other circumstances. What was I saying about extra weight again? Grunt.

At mile 46, I hit the town of Denton, pop. 255, and I stop to eat lunch. At a neat-as-a-pin grocery store, I ask to use the bathroom. “Hold on,” the proprietor tells me and exits through a door for a brief second to warn someone of the intrusion, his wife, I guess. I’m fascinated by this aspect of small-town life, the intimacy of living where you work with strangers traipsing in – whether it’s a grocery, a hotel, a bar, a post office. Maybe not so many strangers, come to think of it. And, who knows, maybe the momentary encroachment spices the day up a bit – like driving on the wrong side of the road to avoid a cyclist? (BTW I am aware of my assumptions about people living in towns like this à la I’m a breath of fresh air to soothe one’s ailment of monotony. As if!) I empty my bladder, refill water bottles, buy a bag of red Doritos to eat with the ham and American cheese sandwich I bought earlier at Albertson’s, and a can of Coke! Magnificently American (with a faux-Mexican flare).

Denton. There’s something so sweet and settling about this postage stamp-sized break in the horizon. Where to consume my prey? I coast a hundred feet or so and espy a picnic table in the grass next to the public library. There’s a white-painted gazebo, and I’m tempted to eat up in there, but it seems, I dunno, too public. Too look at me, I’m a stranger amongst you about to post this experience of eating a sandwich on Instagram! As if, otra vez! There’s no cell service of course. And no one’s around anyway. I could probably selfie-video a tap dance atop the picnic table in my bike cleats and lycra, and only the wind would know. Sigh. Day 41 is turning out to be one of the lonelier days.

Lunching over, I pedal west into the wind. Although I must be getting closer to Square Butte, it still seems frustratingly far. I can’t tell from the map panels whether I’m going to pass it today or what. Coffee Creek is the next community I hit, another Brooks in terms of its minuteness and unincorporatedness. Continuing north and then west again, Square Butte is closer now, but not satisfyingly so. At mile 60, Route 81 ends and I head north on 80. The farming/ranching terrain is temporarily halting as well. There’s an end-of-the-world feeling as I stop to snap a photo of a road sign that evokes the joy of anticipation – two whole miles straight downhill at an 8% grade. fullsizeoutput_220fNot only do I get such a change of scene as I plummet down down down into a deep crevice drilled into the earth by some act of holy mother of goddess probably thousands (millions? I have no idea) of years ago, the road jogs northeast, so I’ll have the wind at my back, or, more specifically at my left shoulder. I approach 40 mph, and I let out a WAHOOOOOO! And then have enough time for scores more organically-grown volcanic and otherworldly wahoos and whoops and yeehaws, because the downhill from start to finish is a full SEVEN miles.

But nothing lasts forever. In this case, it’s only fourteen minutes before the road swings around the other way, and I am once again wind-facing and fretting/trying not to fret/getting pissed at myself for fretting/imagining fighting with Carlos and saying all the things I wish I’d said and then some! Square Butte is definitely looming nearer now, way higher due to the drop in altitude. I feel like a kid sitting at a table without a booster seat. In front of a wind machine. Wind, wind,

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Square Butte, Friend for a Day, Friend for a Lifetime

wind. Waah, waah, waah! As it turns out, Square Butte isn’t just a 5,700-foot butte and my only friend for an entire day, there’s also a town called Square Butte, pop. negligible. Less than 10 miles to go.

 

 

 

When I finally hit Geraldine (pop. 261, home to Geraldine Airport, say whaaaat?), I’m ready to shower, eat again, and sleep. It’s almost 7pm. Cloudy now. No one is out and about. There’s an industrial farming/grain elevator complex that’s probably booming midday harvest-time but is noiseless end-of-day early July. Whitey and I cross the railroad tracks. As usual, except when the plan is to stay with warmshowers hosts, I have no plan. The ACA map shows only one motel and no places to camp. It’s Rusty’s B&B (with Bar and Grill right next door), or it’s…nothing?

I don’t have that everything’s-gonna-go-my-way feeling. I clomp onto the wooden porch. There are two men inside Rusty’s cramped office. Neither man is Rusty. The screen door bangs my ass inside. There’s a brief exchange, basically heyyyyy any chance there’s room at the inn? hahaha…um, yeah, no. These guys are there for a hunting trip, have the whole place as far as they know, only four rooms, don’t work there. Same people who own this place own next door, so I clomp over and enter the dark bar. A lineup of men are sitting on stools, men who’ve been laboring all day, in the wheat fields or wherever, and are drinking up some of the fruits of their labor. I slip into a booth. Two women work the bar, both friendly, but the news is as expected. Nope. No room at the inn. HmmOkay, this was bound to happen. No hotel, no warmshowers, no campsite. Oh, no. I’m going to have to ask for help. Channeling my friends Mi and Kelly who told me back in South Dakota how they dealt with a situation like this: ask about any place I can camp, ask about a church or a fire station. God, please don’t make me have to camp somewhere without explicit permission! This is just not how I’m wired (as I explained several posts ago about my position regarding stealth camping here on Day 14: Stranger on Exhibit in Ashkum, America). The bartender heads into the kitchen again to put the camp space question to the other woman (maybe she’s Rusty?) who’s now making me a bacon cheeseburger as replenishment for the ham and cheese I’d burned off this afternoon. Apparently, I can pedal about 500 feet back down Main Street and pitch my tent in the park. There’s a bathroom there I can use that won’t be locked. No shower, though. “No one will bother you there.” That’s explicit enough. Okay, then.

The sky is darkening, and the temperature’s dropping (we’re at 3,136 feet here in G-dine). I’m shivering a little from the layer of dried and dusty sweat that has accumulated on my body over the course of a day’s ride. I have no service so I can’t check the weather. Have I mentioned that there’s no service? I don’t know if it’s going to rain or tornado or what. I did spray the seams with the waterproofing stuff that Alex convinced me to buy at Walmart way back in Napoleon, Ohio, but I haven’t had to test out its/my efficacy. Anyway, the park has a structure I can camp under if it rains. In the bathroom, I change into flip-flops, cutoff scrubs and a t-shirt. My balls are sweaty but relieved to be released from the prison of my kit. This is the first night of my trip with no post-ride shower. I make do, birdbath-style. Brush my teeth. Slather myself with bug lotion to repel the consistent swarm of hungry-ass mosquitos that are following me across Montana. I pitch my tent and poke around for an electrical outlet so I can at least charge things up for the morning.

Sigh.

I wish I had something chocolate, some sort of sugar to put a band-aid on the emptiness I’m feeling tonight. Even a banana would do.

Whitey stands guard, and I crawl into my tent where I try to read a chapter of Undaunted Courage, the Lewis and Clark book on my iPhone. The wind’s died down now. It’s more than standard quiet, it’s like vortex quiet.

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“No one will bother you here.”

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