Subject: WanderNorth 11 - Missoula, Montana
Date: Wed, 13 Jun 2001 18:18:43 -0700
I don't know how I built up such an account in the
Bank of Good Weather Karma, but it continues to pay off handsomely. Having
read a report that Beartooth Pass opened last week, I toyed with the idea
of swinging wide to take it in. At the last minute this morning I decided
it would take me too far east and headed for East Glacier instead. That
corner of Wyoming received one to two feet of snow today.
Yesterday's wet afternoon amounted to only light showers for an hour and the forecast for the rest of this trip looks like my record will hold - no "serious rain" in the last 70,000 miles of wandering. But it is still much colder than I expected. Montana was 28 degrees below the seasonal norm, and despite Mark Twain's joke about a San Francisco summer I am wearing more layers and using more heat in June in Montana than I do in winter in SF. Whuda thunkit?
My random road choice took me along the east face of Waterton and Glacier Parks to the Chief Mountain customs gate, one of those places where you wonder why there's even a road. The guard came out yawning and I recanted the spiel I had planned to use entering Canada (no guns, no ....). I added citizenship, place of residence, length of time in Canada, and rough amount of cash on hand, then said "Well did I answer 'em all?" At first he looked like he didn't know what to do next, then he caught up and asked where I spent last night. I answered but queried why that mattered. He just wanted to see if it fit my story. So, I can just imagine if an Iron Butt rider answers "... on a picnic table".
Ok. I'm across the border and my first thought is Does it look American? Nothing specific, but the road immediately begins following the contours of the land rather than lining the creek. I missed that. It is good to 'attack' curves again. One thing is very different. Even here on a tiny two lane backroad, the speed limit is higher than any I saw posted on a Canadian freeway - 70 mph (which would be 112 kph). The reduced speeds through US towns are about what the highway was in the mountains in Canada.
The very first 'town' in Montana is Babb, part of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. In my experience, rez towns have very limited services because the local population is often widely dispersed. Was I surprised to see the first open business in Babb ... an espresso shack with a drive through window.
This is a country of contrasts. The east face of
Glacier Park is precipice after precipice, really the continuation of the
mountains down from Jasper. They probably should belong to Canada. Then
immediately to the east is buffalo country. The great rolling plains disappear
into the distance where the original 'thunder in the valley' came from
hooves, not exhaust pipes. There are still a few buffalo, but they are
tourist curiosities in pens instead of teeming controllers of the plains.
Then to the south are the beginnings of the great rivers. Travel down each
canyon and you can see the waters grow to where they deserve the name River
with a capital R. The Columbia, the Snake, and even the Missouri begin
not far from here. Lewis and Clark followed these same routes in their
journeys and they would probably still recognize the streams today. They
might not recognize where they camped on July 4, 1806, though, because
it is now the parking lot of a restaurant built on a bridge over the creek
in downtown Missoula.
Clouds lay like rolled pillows on the slipcovers of steep mountain slopes. Pressure changes caused by weather systems keep the clouds in layers which follow the cleft of a valley as they drift below the ridgetops. They remind me much of the fingers of fog captured in inversion layers in San Francisco Bay, except that they are formed like crisp white buttondown collars on the forest green shirt of the hillside.
Then there are the RVs. Like mosquitoes, they nest near the town then swarm the roads in the morning seeking the 'blood' of scenic vistas. You can almost see the magnetism of NATIONAL PARK suck them off the feeder roads toward that congested road 'you must travel' according to their TripTic. For this reason, I skipped Glacier and instead rode US2 down and around. Dunno what formula AAA uses to mark a road scenic, but in my opinion this definitely should be. The run down the Flathead River is smooth, and fast, and fun. Whereas the next road I took because it was marked scenic should not be - MT83 is pleasant enough but most of it goes through tall pine forest and you can't see anything. Oh, well, part of the fun of an unplanned route is learning where it goes and what it brings.
A prisoner of my own device. Sometimes when I have
no destination, I am driven to get there without stopping. The feeling
kinda gets under your skin at times. Ride. Don't stop to read the sign,
ride to see what's next. There is always a place to rest 'down the road',
but sometimes it is more peaceful on the bike, in motion, alive and involved.
I rode past a place deep in the Montana woods where my refined sense of analyzing cafes told me it would be a great place to stop. But I was in the flow of this ride this day and I didn't want to break it. Besides, I can't drink alcohol when I ride, and I don't eat lunch, and I don't need to chat about the weather ... so the Rocky Mountain Road House will have to wait for a next time.
Great roads converge on Missoula from all directions. As tempting as the Lolo Trail is, just over the hill, tomorrow I'll chew off the last of the renowned scenic byways I've not yet tasted, Route 200 to Sandpoint. But before closing, I offer the seemingly requisite weird sign of the day: Paws Up Angus Ranch
Pincher Creek AB6 MT17 US89 MT49 US2 MT206 MT35 MT83 MT200 Missoula
Sam Lepore, San Francisco