Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Highway Home; Montana from End to End: Part 3

I glided down the sidewalk, stopping at the corner to check for traffic, before riding down the ramp and onto the street. The low, familiar rumble of the engine growling gave me a satisfying feeling of going home. There was no need for the GPS at this point since I basically knew my way to the Interstate. It was already over 90 degrees, I was sweating profusely while I made my way through the stoplights to the freeway.

I merged onto their freeway branch of I-90, once you get up to speed, the heat isn't so bad at all. Before the Rapid City branch merges onto I-90, it turns into another on-ramp, turning sharply after crossing over the main road. I was so happy about moving quickly that I didn't notice how sharp and fast this curve was coming up until just before I hit it. I made a quick brake to reduce my speed and pulled out of the corner without any problems, but I was slightly shaken at the way it came up so quickly without warning.

Getting onto the Interstate was simple, there was very little traffic and everyone was holding a reasonable pace. I passed so many riders that I had to stop waving to the ones heading eastbound so that I could give my left arm a rest. I was glad that I decided to take my open face helmet on this trip, the added airflow was pleasant in the heat. With beautiful red dirt to my right and the pine covered black hills on my left I rode through Sturgis and Spearfish to my exit on US 85. I could tell immediately that I was going to enjoy this route more than the interstate. The highway sprawled out over miles of plains where I could ride easy with little to no traffic.

As I approached Belle Fourche, the hideously mis-pronounced center of the United States, I decided I would pull over to take off my long sleeve shirt. This has become my favored way to ride any time the temperature exceeds 85 degrees. Anyone who has talked to me about riding knows how important good gear is to me, but riding with bare arms is a calculated risk I am willing to take in extreme heat. I tried riding in shorts once on a trip to the grocery store, but I felt too exposed to try it again. I've always felt that shorts are particularly stupid on a motorcycle since the chances of a bee flying in are very high and aside from that your legs and feet are always the first part to hit and they are usually hit the hardest of all when you crash.

I pulled into a parking lot in front of an auto-parts store. Since my shirt was under my vest and my vest contained my pistol, I had to be careful when removing it so as to not show my secret to the world. I usually don't have problems with sunburns, but I decided to put some on anyway since the sun was intense and I didn't have much time to stop if I started to burn.

Here I am at about mid-day in front of the auto-part's store. This is the last picture I took of myself on the trip.

Here is a nice picture of the bike in the sun. Notice the helmet resting on the license plate on the back where I normally keep it. I got on and was ready to ride off before I realized that I forgot to put it on. I was too busy focusing on charging my ipod and getting comfortable.

There were some detour signs indicating that there was construction ahead and possible delays of up to 30 minutes on my current road. I guessed that since it was the weekend any construction would be on hold or at least lightened and that traffic wouldn't be too backed up. I could have left highway 212 in favor of highway 24, which would connect with highway 112 and then reconnect with highway 112 beyond the construction. I chose to move forward along the planned route and after about 10 miles (right at the border of Wyoming) I was finally stopped to wait for the pilot vehicle to guide us.

I was third in line at the stop, where they had road crews handing out fliers and maps to show people the detour I described above. I asked them how much more time it takes on that route, which they indicated was about 30 minutes more. I decided to stick with my initial decision since the time would be about the same, but this route would give me some time to rest.

Enjoying some beef jerky and lemonade I took the time to stretch out and relax as much as possible. I applied more sunblock and just as I finished that, I could see the oncoming traffic and our pilot car arriving, it wasn't even a 10 minute delay. Packing everything away, I got on and started my bike, after the traffic cleared and the pilot car turned around, we were off and running again.

The pace was too slow to keep me sufficiently cool, but better than standing still. We never had to come to a complete stop, but there were several points in which we slowed down to a crawl to get around some large machinery. I was impressed with the way that Wyoming was handling their repairs, instead of spreading out several small crews, they had one large workforce. This reminded me of a trip to Reno and back that Brandy and I took a few years before, highway 89 in California had approximately 9 different road crews working on various portions of the highway. I was glad that this was not the case here.

Once we cleared the construction, I had the pleasure of riding on brand new roadways. They were all concrete instead of asphalt, I'm not sure if this is for cost savings, durability or some other reason, but I would guess that asphalt doesn't hold up well in the cold and snowy winters of that area since they make most of their roads in this fashion.

As I said before, I was only crossing through about 20 miles of Wyoming with this route. There was not much to make note of. The road showed me a fantastic view of small surrounding mountain ranges. It was a very clear morning and I could see a long way. There were a good deal of cattle ranches, which I could recognize by the fencing and gates, but I didn't see many herds of cattle and only an occasional driveway or house.

Just after getting out of Wyoming, I made my first stop at a small town named Alazda, Montana. It quite literally consisted of one small gas station and convenience store with only two 1970's style gas pumps, the kind with the on/off lever below the nozzle and with nothing more than a readout of gallons and cost. Since I was paying with cash anyway, I wasn't inconvenienced by the lack of ability to pay at the pump.

I bought some cold bottled water and enjoyed the air conditioning while I paid. I was still a little hungry, so I pulled my motorcycle to the side of the building and parked in front of a large round hay bale. I had cellular reception, so I called Brandy while I consumed a peanut butter granola bar and some very cold water.

Here is my motorcycle in front of the large bale, with the fields of Montana in the background.

I was entertained by all of the spots on my windshield made by bugs, despite the fact that I was cleaning my windshield at almost every stop. The picture doesn't show them all well enough, but in the streak of sunshine you can see a representation of the real magnitude.

You can see a lot of gnats on the headlight and turn signal bar, though it also doesn't show the true magnitude.

Alazda actually shows up on Google's Street View feature. If you happen to look it up, you'll see a lone fuel station surrounded by a lot of open dirt. It didn't look quite like that when I was there, but it is a good way to see the seclusion.

I put my button up shirt on underneath my vest because I can see patches of clouds and don't want to expose myself to a pummeling of rain-needles if I hit a patch of precipitation. I have adjusted to the heat enough that I don't feel uncomfortable in the extra layer. To the contrary, because I wasn't moving, putting my arms back in the shade was relieving. Once I got moving again, I felt fairly comfortable in the heat.

I listened to some music again to take a break from the monotony of podcasts. The bright day and beautiful scenery made for excellent listening. I was beginning to feel hungry, so I made plans to stop in Broadus for lunch if I could find a place. When I looked on the map that morning I could see that Broadus was small, but that it was the largest town I would pass through before getting back onto I-90.

As I approached the town, I slowed to a crawl to search for potential signs of restaurants. There was nobody else on the road to get in the way of, so I took my time inspecting each intersection. The buildings were almost all residential with a small gas station that had old timey pumps which were even more old timey than the pumps at the station in Alazda. As the town started to thin out and seemed to come to an end, I began to think that I wouldn't find a place to eat and as the remains of the town fell into my rearview, I gave up entirely. After about half a mile I saw a building on the right that didn't look like much, but as I came closer I saw that it was actually a diner. I pulled in right next to the front door, there were no cars there, and two semi-trucks parked across the street in a parking lot made for them.

Before I went in I took some more Ibuprofen and made sure I was parked in a spot that could be seen easily from a window. Luckily a booth was available at the window right in front of my bike, so I could keep an eye on it while I ate. I made my order and took a trip to the restroom, it was nice to use a facility that wasn't part of a gas station, which meant it was considerably cleaner. I came back out and had a lemonade while I waited for my fish and chips.

There was a TV with local news playing overhead. I thought to myself how I hadn't so much as glanced at a television for more than four days. I stared at the TV to watch, and had a light conversation with the cook/waitress, but in reality I was reflecting on my journey for the first time, until now the trip was a surreal experience, now everything else was like a dream. I felt as though I had been traveling all of my life and that I would do nothing but travel for all eternity. Aside from a voice on the other end of a phone, Brandy, home, my job, all of my things seemed intangible.

The lemonade was a bit sweet, but I felt as though I needed carbohydrates so that I didn't end up with the burning ears brought on by too much water. The Fish and Chips were good, for what I would expect from a land-locked state, I felt like they were exceptional.

Getting back on the road felt like I would have expected, it was hot and dry with a touch of rolling hills. There was a large patch of clouds looming on the horizon ahead of me, I could tell that they were heavy rain clouds and from miles away I could still see an occasional lightning strike. The were definitely situated to the North of the highway, but I did not seem to be moving. I picked up the pace in hopes of getting to the Interstate before the rain got to the highway. I knew that the Interstate would have plenty of overpasses for me to use as shelter while I put on my rain gear, and I also guessed that the highway wouldn't have anything to offer for shelter at all. Lightning was a large part of this concern, but the heavy midwest rainfall was an even bigger one. I knew that getting soaked would probably result in a long stop later, so it was best to have my rain gear on in advance. Riding with my rain gear in this heat, however, was completely out of the question.

As I got closer to my next stop of Lame Deer, it looked as though my estimates of the storm staying to the North of the highway were accurate. I couldn't have been more than a miles south of the storm, but was still in hot, dry sunlight. The hills were starting to get bigger and closer in, but when I passed through wide prairies, the stark contrast of clouds and sun was quite impressive. There didn't seem to be any wind, so the storm was not moving anywhere. At this point I thought it may be possible to ride all the way around the storm before getting onto the Interstate, but being unable to see any end, I knew the chance was small.

I pulled into Lame Deer at about 2:30pm. There were only two roads, but the gas station was off the main highway by half a mile, and there were trees between us, so I went the opposite direction at first, getting a chance to see their huge tribal medical center. I didn't see any signs for a casino, so I'm not sure if this center was paid for by gaming profits or federal grants, but having grown up on and around a lot of reservations, I'm always happier to see tribes providing valuable services to their members instead of wasting it. I do feel like the federal government should stop giving grants to tribes after they reach a certain level of profitability, and I don't much like the super-citizenship that some tribes receive, but overall I'd rather see my income tax buy them a medical clinic than have it handed out as cash, which some tribes do with their grants.

Having corrected my course, I found the gas station/mini-mart, which was apparently the only thing around since it was completely packed. It was very hot out and I didn't mind waiting in a long line at the cash register since the building was well air conditioned. I was definitely the whitest guy there, which is an odd thing to happen to me, I'm by no means dark, but I'm certainly not very fair skinned either. I felt as though some of the other patrons noticed this and it could have been my imagination, but it was a small town and everyone seemed to know each other by name, I guessed that traveling strangers of the paler variety weren't common here. Looking back over it, I could also assume that they may have had unfavorable experiences with the type of motorcycle travelers who came through on their way to or from a large rally. I wouldn't blame them for their apprehension if that was the case.

As I pulled away from the town, the trees thinned out and I was out on open fields again, surrounded by small but steep hills. I passed by several small ranches consisting of homes on the hillside with some fenced acreage leading up to the highway.

Dreaming about living in a place like that, I saw a small housing development come up on the left. I recognized the building styles and proximity immediately as a government housing project, much like the many I encountered at home during my youth. They bore other marks which made me feel more justified in my opinion, the trash and broken cars on the lawn and street, the untended yards littered with bicycles and toys. Anyone who hasn't been to a development like this will have to bare with me, but once you experience it for yourself, you will learn to recognize all of these attributes as signs of people who live in a home they didn't pay for and don't care about.

Across the highway on the right I saw a strange looking, multicolor, mound in the distance. As I got closer, I was able to make out a concrete slab and a driveway. Nearing even more, I made out the mound as a trash pile and the concrete slab, with a sharp ledge and brown dumpster below, it was quite obviously a transfer station which was no longer being serviced. The trash mound was so large that it was piled high up over the end of the ledge and on top of the slab itself, as well as all the way up and down the driveway and scattered around the nearby area.

I wanted to stop and snap a picture, but I had already lost too much time in Lame Deer and didn't want to draw unnecessary attention from the housing development by turning around and stopping. I certainly wouldn't appreciate anyone making a spectacle if it were my trash pile anyway.

I looked it up on google maps, and took this screenshot of the location, obviously from one or more summers prior.

When I rode by, I don't recall seeing a fence, and as stated before, the trash was mounded up all over the slab, dumpster and driveway off to the right. Either I was too shocked to notice the fence, or (since it appears to be falling down in this picture) it was stolen.

These two sights in conjunction took me straight back to my youth. I guess there is some consolation in the fact that tribes everywhere have problems like these, but it shocks me that anyone can live in such blind ignorance of even the most basic sanitation.

It was no more than a fleck of dust among the scenery of that day, my mind was soon going to move to the more pressing matters of the storm which now seemed to loom just an arm length to one side. I knew I was less than 30 miles from the interstate, so I pressed onwards with determination. Occasionally I would pass through a flurry of drops, and 100 feet of wet road, patched on either side with blinding sunlight. the road started to wind downhill as I passed two hitchhiker's going back towards lame deer. They looked concerned about the lightning overhead, but there was nothing I could have done to help if I wanted to. It was warm, so I was personally enjoying the spectacle of heavy raindrops, sunshine and stormy flashes.

The road began to wind more and it took on a gradual downhill slope, ahead of me I could see that I was living the small hills and crossing into another large plain, one which I had passed through in the very cold and early morning before last, but didn't have the pleasure of seeing before. As I got closer to the Interstate, I could see it ahead, I was still skirting the edge of the storm, but the patches of rain became more frequent and I could see that there was a small patch of Interstate where the clouds were not thick, before it eventually headed right into the heart of it. I knew I would have to stop, but was very glad I would be making it to the interstate before doing so. I came into the lush farm valley and merged onto I-90 right at the monument to the Little Bighorn Battlefield. I was interested in stopping here, but thought it would be better to drag Brandy along the next time I was out that way. As much as she argues, she definitely enjoys historical sights as much as I do, it's the travel to and from that she wants to bring to an abrupt end.

I could tell that this valley received frequent rain because the farms had little or no irrigation, but the fields were all a lush and bright green. After two or three miles, the clouds became dark and sharp raindrops poked me through my shirt and gloves, I came to a stop under the next overpass and took a few minutes to study the storm.

I snacked on some jerky and had some water while I watched. The darkness made it feel like dusk, even though it was still the middle of the afternoon. There was frequently lightning and thunder, the clouds were dense and black and there was no wind, I wasn't going to be able to wait this out, I had to gear up and ride through it. I guessed that once the highway passed out of this valley it would clear up, I hoped I could get past it before dark so there would be time to dry off.

Here are a couple of pictures I took to show the storm, unfortunately a picture can't capture the magnanimity of something this big and the light in the clouds makes them much less ominous.

Here is my motorcycle under the overpass. You can see the line of water on the ground, showing where the edge of the overpass was.

This was the view to the South, where I came from. If you follow the line of the clouds going from East to West, it ends bordering Hwy 112 perfectly, you can see how I rode right around the edge of the storm.

In the full size version, you can see the two crows in mid-flight where the dark clouds meet the bright sky beyond.

This is the view to the North, the road ahead, showing a bit of the cool looking clouds. Off to the left you can see that it's actually raining heavily, though you can't see how the interstate curves off ahead, right into the rain.

The clouds and rain made me feel at home. Things like this are hard to explain, but I felt as though I should like to spend an entire afternoon under that overpass just relaxing and watching the storm, as though I had lived there forever and would never leave again.

It was not my home though, as much as it felt like one. I put on my rain gear, leaving off my thick gloves since it was far too warm for them, my hands would be waterproof enough on their own. I put away the camera and slipped all of the covers on my bags, including the two trash bags to go over my duffel and was on my way again, riding straight into the storm.

After five miles the interstate swings sharply to the West, the rain was heavy at first, but the further west I moved, the lighter it became, eventually melting into cloud cover. The clouds were high enough that I could see the land I rode through before, which appeared as a dark ocean outside my headlights in my previous visit. It was a vast valley with hills in the far distance, closing in closer and closer to their eventual meeting point at my next destination, Billings. The approach was mostly flat and straight, but the hills on either side were close and steep. On my previous passing, all I could see of them was an occasional flash of steep hillside in my headlights and a feeling that something huge was around me.

The storm became a black cloud behind me and my clothes dried out in the warm air.

I found a gas station with a small deli inside at the east edge of Billings. I had a strong desire to eat something other than burgers. I picked up some macaroni salad a couple of hard boiled eggs and a sandwich, and I convinced the cashier to let me refill my large empty water bottle with iced tea, instead of using their cups. I filled it up with a mix of iced tea and lemonade.

Taking a seat on the curb next to my motorcycle, I called Brandy while I ate my dinner, it was about 7:00pm and the sun was starting to get low. Now that I think back about it, I can't remember if I called Brandy when I stopped for lunch in Broadus or if this was the first time I had called since that morning in Alazda. After some internal debate, I packed up my rain gear, knowing that I would need to put it back on in a couple of hours when it became dark. I watched the storm behind closely and looked ahead as much as I could, to be sure that I wouldn't run into more rain unexpectedly.

While I pulled out of the parking lot, my back tire slid on some loose gravel near a storm drain, but I quickly kicked the ground and accelerated out of a potential drop. A couple on a Harley Davidson pulling into the parking lot noticed me and looked concerned for an instant, but by the time I saw their reactions, I was already on my way. I appreciate their concern, whoever it was. The single best thing about the motorcycle community is the universal fellowship among riders. I recall a time when I had only been riding for a few months and had stopped on the side of the road in Kingston to talk to a friend. A rider on a BMW pulled over to make sure I wasn't broken down. My astonished friend asked if I knew him or if he was a stranger, I explained it by simply saying "Nope, just the Brotherhood of Leather." The majority of riders on the road always offer the same courtesy and assistance.

Despite the clouds behind me, the hills glowed as the sun got slightly lower. About an hour after leaving Billings, I passed through a small town (I don't recall which one for certain, but I think it was Laurel) where thick white smoke and the smell of burning shrubs told me that there was a forest fire nearby. It was dense like thick fog and for a short time, it felt as though the night had come on much sooner than it should. The smoke burned my eyes and lungs a little, but it was over soon, leaving only a faint scent on my clothes. Driving through this made me think of the forest fires that were going on in the Olympic National Park when I left on this trip. The night before leaving home, the same odor filled the air as I packed my motorcycle with the garage door open.

As the sun went down, it became gradually cooler, but it wasn't cold enough to stop until the sun went down entirely. I stopped at a rest stop shortly after sun down and put on my rain gear, heavy gloves and opened a few air activated hand warmers for my boots, pockets and gloves, even though I wasn't yet cold. I find that it's a good philosophy to stay warm instead of getting cold and attempting to warm up after the fact. It took me about 20 minutes to put on my gear, I used the electric hand dryer in the bathroom to heat up my gloves, which were slightly chilled from being in the saddlebags.

The sun setting over the mountains to the West made the sky beautiful shades of deep blue, eventually fading into black. The lack of rest for the last few days was beginning to catch up with me, so irresolutely I decided that when I reached Livingston, I'd see if there were any motels with vacancy so that I could get a few hours of good sleep. I didn't feel overly sleepy, but I was worried about feeling sleepy on the road ahead, and to a tired and paranoid mind, you can easily work things up to be more extreme than they are. I knew from experience that there were a lot of cities in Western Montana which would have accommodations if I became too tired, and I also knew that I could always nap at a rest stop or on the side of the road, but as with the irrational paranoia I felt two days before on the late night portion of my trip, it is easy to overlook these things.

Part of the internal argument for stopping was that I knew the roads well enough to understand that there were a lot of windy passes coming up near butte, and that the weather radio at the rest stop said there were showers ahead in those areas. Traveling through those passes at night with the potential of a thorough soaking was the biggest discouraging factor. I was cold enough two mornings before in Wyoming without any rain, I didn't want to consider the possibility of having a harder night than that.

Taking the first exit for Livingston (one which promised both lodging and fuel), I rode a few miles down a highway leading away from the Interstate. My paranoid mind worried for a few minutes that Livingston was a long way off as visions of running out of gas, being stranded on a desolate highway in Montana ran through my mind. These were only slightly settled when I passed a highway sign that said it was just another mile ahead.

A motel appeared on the left, with a Chevron station just beyond, there was a neon vacancy sign clearly lit. I pulled into the Chevron and filled up the motorcycle. I needed to use the cigarette lighter adapter for my phone since I both forgot to charge it at Jon and Sheena's place (aside from some charging in their car while on the road) and since I forgot to turn it off before leaving, which caused the phone to search constantly for signal, which drains the battery quickly. I called Brandy to let her know my intentions, explaining that I wanted to avoid being stuck in a night time rainstorm and that I felt like a few hours of solid sleep would be a good idea. I could tell she was unhappy, but only because it meant I'd lose some of the time I made up by heading home a day sooner than I initially planned.

I rode back through the parking lots to the motel, driving right up to the lobby door. I had to ring an after hours bell to get assistance, a lady arrived to help me right away. We talked a little about my trip while she set me up and handed me my key.

I drove over to the room and parked in the space directly in front of the window. I put the front tire against the curb so that it would be harder for someone to steal or tamper with before drawing my attention. I brought in all my bags and bolted the door, hanging my jackets sweaters and gear on the rack in the room. I turned the air conditioning on immediately to draw out the humidity and cool the room down.

The room itself was a bit too simple, the carpets were pretty worn, but not dirty or broken through, the TV was pretty old, mounted to an arm on the wall, and the sink was in a plain Formica counter with no cabinet below, just the exposed plumbing. The air conditioner control knob was broken, but still on the unit, so I left it on a small table for them to see and used my multi-tool to adjust it. The bed and covers were pristine, however, so I decided I could ignore the other problems and stay. There was a small mini-fridge in one corner as well, I stored my bottled water and iced tea mixed with lemonade in there.

The water in the tap was warm because it had such a hot day, and no amount of running it would cool it down, but the ice machine was locked in the lobby and I didn't want to waste any time waiting for service there. Warm water isn't particularly pleasant, but it doesn't do any harm.

The control knob for the shower didn't really work quite right, due to the initial warmness of the water (from the previously mentioned hot day), so at first it was hard to tell which way was hot and which was cold. This problem was accentuated by the fact that there was only a small position in which the knob would actually produce hot water and if you passed that position by the slightest degree, the water would go back to tepid. I finally got it right and took a thorough shower, then vigorously brushed my teeth, riding for hours gives you a feeling of uncleanliness, even when you aren't particularly dirty, most likely from all the sweat and dust you can mix together on a hot day like this.

I took everything out of my bag for re-packing, set out the clothes I would be wearing when I got up, and set the pistol on the night stand next to my charging cell phone. The odds of running into a bad situation where are firearm will be needed are always extremely low, but they feel considerably higher for someone traveling alone in unfamiliar places. My calculations for remaining travel time and effective sleep time told me that I should set my alarm for 6:00 to allow enough time for me to get home before dark the next day. I had to re-count the time mentally several times to be sure (more of my paranoid state of mind). I went to bed just before 11:00pm.

At about 4:30am, I woke up from a dream in which I thought I had to pick up my grandma to take her somewhere, I don't remember where or why, but I knew I was worried about running late. When I sorted out woke up I mentally sorted out the dream in my mind and then felt worried that I had mis-calculated my travel time for the next day, I worked it out again and confirmed that I was correct, so I went back to sleep.

What seemed like about an hour later, I woke to what sounded like a garbage truck emptying a dumpster. The banging was coming from behind the building, but I couldn't imagine that a garbage truck would be making it's rounds so early in the morning. I saw that it was getting light outside, so I rolled over to the night stand to check my phone. Very surprised to see it was 6:30am, I jumped out of bed and started getting dressed. I was very confused at first, but as I got my things together and became more awake, I realized that I had set my alarm for 6:00pm instead of 6:00am.

The preparations I made in packing the night before paid off and I was able to load up the bike in just a few minutes. It wasn't raining or cloudly, but it had obviously rained hard at some point during the night, since the ground was wet and the bike was covered in beads of water. I thought this may happen, so I had a rag ready for wiping down the seat, windshield and mirrors.

The sky was turning bright blue, though the sun was not even cresting the mountains yet. I walked over to the main office, checked out (the same lady was working when I checked in) and I got back on the road. The three miles of highway out to the interstate was beautiful. There were lush green hills in the background and the road crossed over a very wide section of the Yellowstone River. I was overwhelmed and surprised that there was so much I didn't see the previous night. I knew that I crossed the Yellowstone River the night before because of the sign over the bridge, but in the moonlight I couldn't see just how large and sweeping the view was.

The bridge I crossed over was called Carter's bridge, which you can see a winter picture of here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:YellowstoneRiverCartersBridge.jpg

I was on the interstate in no time, I ate a granola bar before leaving the motel, but was planning to stop for Breakfast in Bozeman, which would only be about 30 minutes of riding. I had the road all to myself and the green fields around me made the short trip very pleasant. It was not very cold, but I was wearing my rain gear to keep warm anyway. When I got to Bozeman, the was still not up, but the sky grew brighter every moment. This is the best time of day to be on the road or relaxing on your porch drinking coffee.

There was a Mcdonald's just off the north side of the interstate, when I pulled up I noticed a large group of motorcycles in the parking lot, but the restaurant itself was almost empty. I guess that the motorcycles were just using this lot for the hotel across the driveway.

I ordered my small breakfast and sat down on a leather sofa to watch the news on a plasma TV mounted on the wall. I've never seen a Mcdonald's quite like this, but it was obviously new and all of the furniture and interior decorating resembled something far from a fast food restaurant in every way. The leather sofa was a great relief to my lower back, which was still fresh for the morning, but also tired from the literal thousands of miles in travel which it had been through over the past three days.

The weather report showed a hot clear day ahead of me. I was excited at the prospect of a day full of riding without any need for rain gear, though the morning was still brisk and dewy and I would need to wait until my next stop before I could take it off for the day. My goal was to get home before it was late or cold enough to put it back on, so as long as I didn't run into any unexpected storms, I was in the clear for a day of great riding.

I recognized the mountain pass as I got closer to Butte, I welcomed a second chance to ride through this area in the light. The shadows of sunrise sharply contrasted with the golden brown hills. Low wisps of clouds still hung down, close to the fields where it was damp and cool. As I came down the opposite side of the pass, in the shadow of the mountainside, I was glad to be wearing my rain gear. My fingers and legs felt a little cold, but the view of the valley below was distraction enough. I passed the point where Brandy and I narrowly avoided a dead deer carcass, remembering how tired and nervous I felt that night with rock to my right and cliffs to my left. I took it easy around the blind corners today for fear of finding a living beast out on a morning stroll.

When I pulled into Butte, I went to a gas station where Brandy and I refueled before heading home last year. There was nothing special about it, just a little Texaco on Harrison Avenue, but revisiting places like this gives me a very satisfying feeling of nostalgia. It's like re-affirming the reality of something which seems unreal after so much time.

While I was fueling up, I heard a low rumbling which was quickly growing louder. I looked around the skies to pinpoint the source, guessing that some airplane was flying very low. Two F-18's appeared over the top of the building. They were flying very low at slow speeds, making a kind of zig zag pattern over Butte. They eventually passed over the horizon and I went inside to pay. I asked the cashier if this sort of thing happened a lot and if there was an airbase nearby. He never really answered either of the questions with certainty, so I just moved on.

Before heading out, I packed away all of my rain gear, and even though it was still in the 60's, I knew it would warm up quickly with the sun rising, so I kept my sweater on for the time being. The tops of my legs got a little cold, but I kept my fingers warmed with my patented engine heat trick described before.

One thing that I wish I had taken a lot more of was books on tape. I loaded two onto my ipod and I listened to them both in the first day. Having two types of podcasts with the occasional break for music kept me fairly entertained, but I would have liked it much more if I could have put some heavy reading out of the way at the same time.

The temperature rose steadily into the hundreds as the sun came up. At times I envisioned the pine trees around me catching fire from heat alone. The air moving around me on the highway became so warm that riding at highway speeds no longer felt refreshing and cool, in fact, it just barely kept me from sweating.

The views became more impressive with every passing minute. I can't say how many times I-90 crosses over the Clark fork of the Flathead river, but the repeated views of the river valley below the interstate are overwhelming.

I breezed through Missoula, I hardly remember stopping for gas, I think I decided to skip buying lunch there since it was still a little early and I had plenty of snacks in my bags. The filling station was just outside of town on a narrow but very busy street. The only way in or out seemed to be through the freeway, but I assume a road somewhere must have led out. The tight grouping of automotive buildings around the gas station kept me from seeing anything in any case.

I think Missoula was one of the hottest points I passed through in both directions. I didn't pay close enough attention to my thermometer/clock along the way, but it definitely felt like the hottest point. I'm sure this was exaggerated by the fact that I was mostly riding along the south face of the hills, which only intensified and reflected the heat more.

There were occasional patches of clouds, but none of them looked like rain, only provided comfortable shade for a short time. I like clouds in the middle of the country because they leave such defined shadows, I enjoy racing the shadows to pass the time as I ride.

About 45 minutes beyond Missoula, very close to the State Border, I pulled into a rest stop for a break. While I snacked, I noticed family of ground squirrels in the bushes. They were walking out and eating out of the hands of families who stopped by with crumbs.

One of them was particularly fat, not that the picture shows this particularly well.

Since they were so well fed already, I didn't offer them anything I had, but they were very eager to come up to me anyway.

I needed to take off my long sleeve shirt for a while, so I went around to the back of the building to undertake the complex process of changing my concealment vest around without exposing anything that was supposed to be secret.

The section of road leading out of Montana and into Idaho has a large amount of interstate with two closed lanes. You can't seem to stay at full speed for more than 10 minutes before running into another repair site where both directions of traffic share one side of the freeway and speeds are reduced to 35 or 45 (even though everyone goes much faster than that anyway). The closed sections, which I could see from my side, did not appear to be under any sort of construction and had been closed for a long time judging by the amount of debris scattered over them. Since there were no road crews, it was fairly tempting to ride between cones to get to the closed section and explore. If I lived in the area there is no doubt in my mind that I would have done so already (carefully to avoid finding an overpass which was partially deconstructed).

As I moved into Idaho, a lot more big fluffy clouds came in overhead and occasionally blocked the sun, making it dark. I was a little worried that my expected day of sun might turn out to be rainy, but the clouds never got too dark. Because of the cloud cover, however, Idaho was very humid and muggy.

I pretty much burned through the panhandle, stopping for fuel once and at a rest stop once to put my shirt back on under my vest (I was concerned about sunburn, even with my hard to burn skin). The forests and mountains were a reassuring site, I hadn't seen any real forests for about three days. It made me feel like I was closer to home , though I knew I had to cross through a few more hours of desert before I was really there.

In Coeur d'Alene the humidity seemed to hit it's peak. When passing over the lake, you could actually see wisps of moisture over the lake surface, if you looked into the distance everything was hazy, almost like a far off fog. Moisture and sweat seemed to collect a little on my skin, even at freeway speeds. I stopped for gas in Kellogg, ID again before reaching Coeur d'Alene, having stopped there before I knew that it was difficult to get to the gas stations from the freeway, and Kellogg had several barely off the road. Running into no traffic, I flew through the remainder of the state, winding down the hills, crossing the Spokane River back into my home state, where I've spent more than 99% of my life.

There was some traffic through Spokane, which was pure torture due to the humidity. We crawled through the urban regions, I reverted to my normal traffic habit of staying in first gear at about 3mph to keep up with the flow of idiots who thought they would get somewhere faster by using the speed and brake method of heavy traffic driving. I'll always fall back a few hundred feet and watch everyone accordian in front of me as I dance with the nearby cars, casually gliding closer, then drifting further away.

The slight delay wasn't too disappointing, I was eager to go home, but I never spent much time looking out across Spokane, which has some very interesting architecture. Since the city is small, we were soon speeding away again, through a loose pine forest.

Something hit me there, between Spokane and Ritzville, among the trees and dried grass. The few hours remaining on my trip seemed like an eternity, a mixture of excitement to be home with a feeling that I would never get there. I recognized the feeling immediately, I've been on enough trips to know how it feels; days of travel can breeze by, but the last few miles of those old familiar roads will drag on, I spend a lifetime considering every pebble and crevice in my path.

I had already made three or four stops for fuel and only had two more left before reaching home. I was definitely on the downhill side of my trip, but when boredom and anticipation set in like this, you just can't go fast enough.

I took the first exit for Ritzville, I knew it would have more gas stations than the exit I took on my way out of the state two days before. Since the sun was being fairly effective at baking me, I was enjoying the idea of a short break in an air conditioned mini-mart.

I can't recall the exact tempurature, but I'm fairly sure it was 107 in Ritzville when I pulled in. Almost everyone around was wearing swimming suits, my denim jeans and heavy boots just couldn't compare. I felt kind of dead while waiting in line for the cashier. My face felt heavy, I was tired and a little dehydrated from all the sweating. After finishing off a couple of bottles of water I began to come around, though my head began to hurt a little, I suspect it was a dehydration headache. I called Brandy to let her know where I was and when I planned to be home. We talked for a little bit so that I could rest in the shade, though the conversation wasn't specifically interesting since I was tired from my trip and she was tired from our young son's sleeping habits.

To help distract me while I continued, I changed over to music in hopes that it would speed things up and raise my sprits. It certainly didn't drag on the way that podcasts do, but it was hard to enjoy any of the music with the sun blazing down. When you feel as though you are in an oven, everything becomes stale and washed out, colors fade and it would seem that notes do too.

The water I had drained and the Ibuprofen I took chased away my headache, but the nagging pains in my butt, back and legs droned on. I was constantly drifting up to 85mph in my eagerness to get home, but the vibrations from doing so would quickly make me slow down to 70 again. I only stopped once between Ritzville and Cle' Elum, at the one major rest stop right in between the two destinations. It's on a windy ridge that rises above a large flat valley on either side. Since I was not taking breaks, I had to adjust my legs and feet a lot, occasionally moving into my patented slouch position where I scoot forward and lay back on the seat so that I can't see out the rearview mirrors. It tires out your arms quickly, but it is about the only way to get relief for your lower back when you don't have pegs or floorboards that you can stand on.

The sun continued to bake me until I got closer to the Columbia River crossing. At the river itself there was a brief respite, then back into the oven as I climbed the western bank, though the temperature was definitely starting to drop overall.

I found myself thinking a lot about my strange attraction to the idea of a four day trip, by myself, traveling through five states each way. I never expected to spend this much time traveling, but as worn down as I felt bringing this trip to a close, I never hit the wall of regret that one can encounter on journeys like this. I certainly had feelings of loneliness and on one or two occasions may have thought how nice it would be to be instantly home, but I always felt reassured that the power of a journey like this lies entirely in the journey itself. Removing the best bits and condensing them down only makes a diluted version of the experience, your favorite recipe from a cookbook is not going to turn out well if you only add the parts you liked. This much is also true when considering the perfect balance in which the ingredients must be mixed in, even the ones that don't taste good at all on their own.

The bitterness of leaving my family was well balanced by beauty and experience. I've never spent this much time without Brandy and though he was still fairly new, the same could be said about my son. It's always better to do things which you can share with someone, I certainly prefer it that way, but in the end, I know that this was a trip which would never work any way except the way it did.

As I got closer to Cle' Elum, I once again had to move the fuel switch to the reserve. I knew when I passed Ellensburg that the way I was pushing my speed I would also be pushing the limits of fuel, so the familiar drain of power I felt was not a surprise when I started up into the mountain pass. I checked highway signs repeatedly and did the math in my head. I reassured myself that I should make it to Cle' Elum before running out and that even if I didn't, I still had my backup reserve, a 12 ounce plastic water bottle filled to the brim with gasoline (I had carried it with me the whole time). The idea of stopping is what bothered me most. The closer I got to home, the more drawn to it I became, an entire trip which could have easily been a dream became a very real past, I looked forward to the exciting future.

When I pulled into Cle' Elum, I opened the glove box below my seat and emptied the 12 ounce plastic bottle filled with gasoline into my tank. I no longer required an extra reserve both because I would be in populated or familiar areas and because I knew that there would be more than enough fuel to make it all the way home. I was very glad that I managed to repair my motorcycle's reserve switch before my trip, the added security of a half gallon reserve eased my mind even more being back in such familiar territories now. I threw the bottle in the trash and filled the tank all the way. Even with the bottle I put in about 4.2 gallons, my reserve was definitely close to being used up, but since I made it, I didn't let it worry me.

I had been thinking about coffee for a couple of hours, and there is a pretty good coffee shop in the same parking lot as the Safeway gas station I have been to so many times before, but riding with coffee wouldn't work without a cup holder and I couldn't stand the thought of delaying myself any further for any reason, not as enticing as it was to rest my back and legs while I consumed a cloudy brown beverage.

I hit the road with a new found vigilance. The sun was setting and everything was starting to cool off (even though it was still in the 90's), so I played some more celebratory music while I sped up the hills into the pass. As many times as I've been over Snoqualmie pass, I've never once gone over in a motorcycle. For a short time the sun was directly in my eyes any time I was going up-hill, the visor and sunglasses together made everything just barely visible, but I managed to get through since there wasn't any traffic and I had four or five lanes to myself for most of the time.

The sun continued to set over the mountains until it was just a light shining from behind large hills of green trees and sharp gray rocks. Combining this light glow with the openness of riding a motorcycle made the pass more interesting than it has ever been before. The steep cliffs and hills which I barely noticed on previous trips made prominent impressions. I thought to myself how original and refreshing this view was, as inconvenient as the terrain might be, I hadn't seen a real forest since I left, I felt overjoyed to be back in my home where everything was overpowering and alive, it's a pleasant way to be reminded of how little we can control despite our best efforts, the green and living things simply cannot be destroyed, they will overcome any obstacle that man creates, they represent the slow and steady power that the whole world adheres to, man in a constant rebellion against it. The humidity here is extreme, compared to the arid heat I was in just an hour before, it feels almost hard to breath in this thick soup.

As the altitude drops the humidity does too, but not by much, I take the exit for Highway 18, the cutoff between I-90 and I-5. I had considered taking a ferry home, but when I thought about the schedule, it would have taken more time than it was worth, so I stuck to riding around.

Highway 18 took me straight into Auburn where I met a bit of a traffic backup. Being on the west side of the mountains, I was in partial sunlight again, and even though it wasn't hotter, the humidity was making me sweat a little in the slow traffic.

A car of teenagers was driving next to me as I idled along in first gear, I didn't notice them right away but they were trying to say something. Just before they pulled away I figured out that they were complimenting my motorcycle, to which I got in a thumbs up just before they were gone in the sea of traffic.

Once I got to I-5 traffic was dense but flowing smoothly, I was glad to get up to speed enough to dry out and cool down just a little. Driving through Fife was much too dense to feel comfortable, but luckily I didn't have any close calls that I can remember. I don't really recall much from the remainder of the ride other than an extreme eagerness to get home. The closer I got the longer it seemed to take each mile to pass on the roads which I knew so well.

It was a stark contrast when I pulled into the driveway and opened the garage, when it felt as though I had never left, aside from the nagging pains and overwhelming exhaustion. I took the bags off of my bike and dropped them inside to unpack on another day, I took out a couple of things that I needed and the two or three remaining food items which I didn't want the dogs to get into, changed my clothes, grabbed a beer and sat down on the couch to relax. I know that Brandy and I talked a lot about what had been happening to us both, but I don't remember the conversation at all.

I wish I could say that the journey was over, but as with most hardcore road trips, I had dreams about it for at least two weeks. One night in particular I had a dream that I was in Montana and I was feeling tired, my eyes drooped and I struggled to open them to find that my lights had gone entirely out, I couldn't see or touch my handlebars or gauges at all. The only thing I could make out was a large pillar from a bridge to my right and a large red LED billboard to my left. My eyes were burning and out of focus, but when they finally came through I realized that the billboard was showing the time in big red numbers, it said 11:41 clearly. Why, I thought to myself, would they need a huge clock billboard here in Montana by this large bridge. I strained to see if there was more around me, but aside from the bridge pillar and the billboard I could only see black. As my eyes cleared up a little more I found out that the billboard was just my clock and the pillar was just the light from the hallway shining through my bedroom door.

I had several more dreams like this, none of which I remember, aside from the feeling of being alone and worried. Even though most of the trip felt as though I were only lightly paying attention to the road, my brain was collecting all sorts of undefined information which it needed a lot of time and rest to sort through. Most people I know who have been on long road trips have confirmed that this type of dreaming is not limited to a me alone. What I find most interesting is that on all the trips I've taken, I never seem to dream about them at any point during the trip. Even when Brandy and I went to Nebraska and stayed there for a full week, at no point during the nearly two weeks of travel and visitation do I recall any serious dreams about the travel until I was back in my own home. It is as if your brain takes on a different type of purpose when you are traveling, something which it doesn't fully reconcile until it can move back into it's familiar and stable routine, when it then must go through a nightly task of sorting and filing.

I'm not sure if it was the UV exposure or the large release of stress, but the eczema which had been plaguing my fingers and hands for two years slowly healed up and has not come back with more than a mild spot since. I can't say that this trip made an impression on me in any specific way, but I can say that the adventure itself definitely had a huge effect in general. It hasn't changed my life or altered history, but I can't imagine what things would be like without it.

Looking back on it now and seeing people's reactions when I tell them about some of my favorite details like making 1,000 miles in the first 24 hours or napping in an open field beside the interstate in Wyoming, I got out of this exactly what I wanted, which was a story and another successful test of my limits. I find that the limits of human ability are almost bottomless, each time I find a new way to test myself, I find that I have plenty more to give. I can understand exactly how thrill seekers can quickly become crazed and take needless risk.

I'm not there yet, but my boring office-life is considerably more comfortable, but less fulfilling than my adventure. I don't know if I'll ever do another IBA certified ride, but I think I have many years to go before my days of long trips are over. I hope that I can share my future trips with someone more intimately, that is, sharing it with someone instead of only writing about it for all of you.

1 comment: