Â Â Â Â Â A city of 25,000. The sheer mass of Helena initially frightened and intimidated the backcountry-loving bike nomads. Upon the first peddle stroke into the deadly congested city limits, boisterous oaths were uttered from all, “we’ll just be passing on through”. In reality we ended up passing from one couch surfer’s home to another, from seedy bar scene to dimly lit bohemian espresso shop, antique bookshop to farmers market; for nearly a week we embraced metropolitan society.
Â Â Â Â Â Our second couch-surfing crash-sight belonged to an older couple who were not at all aware of how couch surfing worked. Their son signed them up for the program at the same time that we were forced to depart the residence of our first host. The couple offered us a warm studio above their garage, and after some nervous consideration decided to feed us in exchange for various odd jobs that included cooking, gardening, and cleaning the house. Perhaps an overabundance of cold snowy mountain trails had succeed in diminishing our usual haughty disdain for modern indoor comforts. We settled uneasily into domesticated routines while retaining our shaggy wild animal appearance; Goat would fashion dough for pie crust, Jacob would vacuum every floor in the house and search the internet for piano chords to play reggae tunes on his new Melodica, I would play the dark wooded upright piano of impeccable tone till my fingers are numb and then go out and uproot leeks for soup. Our host in this quaint Helena abode attempted to persuade us to fashion a commune on some land they had purchased up in the hills, maybe build tree houses, turn the earth, and cultivate silent minds. It did not take long to cultivate a desire to depart from this comfort, from this metropolis that rolls out in unkempt suburbia over the flat stretches of plains creeping up to snow capped mountains.
Â Â Â Â Â The phone rings, no one of the household is present to pick up, the message clicks on, its a man we’ve never met offering fair warning of the divide trail. “Yeah, about those cyclists, they’d be nuts to ride out onto the trails, there’s six to eight inches of snow on all the roads, and its the first day of hunting season”.
Â Â Â Â Â Yes indeed, hunting season has begun and well over half the male population of the county are oiling rifles, polishing scopes, filling coolers with beer, and sharpening their filleting knifes. We had been warned by several concerned citizens to take the safety measure of wearing orange vests to prove our neutrality in the escalating war on the wild. Despite being flashy and fashionably flamboyant, the vest may prove not to be an adequate precaution against heavy fire since men up in the hills will shoot anything that moves. As Vice President Cheyney demonstrated last year being buddy with the man with the gun doesn’t ensure one’s safety, and we were hearing reports of old men suffering from Glaucoma out on the trails. At best wearing the vest might provide us an appearance of being legitimately oriented to Montanan back-country etiquette. Then if a hunter were to shoot one of us he could not simply accuse us of sabotaging the festive activities that happen only once a year. The orange vest was essential to our survival out in game land, to leave it behind would be tantamount to parading around the north pole in grinch costumes on christmas day.
Â Â Â Â Â We weren’t too concerned with the reports of heavy snow accumulation; we hoped that the endless caravans of hunting bound vehicles would pack that slush down to a manageable surface. It so happened that we were waiting for new tires to replace the wide knoby monstrosities that we had installed on our bikes just a few hundred miles back. The wide treads had been slowing us down and we figured the real heavy snow wouldn’t appear for at least another few weeks. However cruel and miserable the outcome the change may prove it would be a useful experiment to see how much worse -or better- the narrow tires faired in the snow.
Â Â Â Â Â Straddling the polished leather saddle of our newly revamped mountain bikes we busted out of Helena with a vengeance, determined as ever to conquer the Great Divide trails. Ten minutes out of the city and a considerable headwind thrashed our faces, the trail degraded to soft mud below puddles of melting snow. We climbed a gradual hill of seven miles, coasted down a pleasant downhill section of four miles than climbed another steeper hill of at least nine miles. It was an exhausting day; my feeble limbs softened by nearly a week of domestic leisure were sore, my lungs felt constricted from rising altitude, and personally I felt that the narrow tires weren’t helping my momentum. Approaching the beautiful and nearly frozen-over Park Lake we were informed by a man in a pickup truck of our failure to wear striking colors. Except for my plaid bell bottoms, everyone was wearing dark or camouflage clothing splattered with mud; we were quite indistinguishable from dirt. In an official self-registration campsite, we found one occupied sight containing two pickup trucks with one pulling a motor home, the other a trailer with two ATV’s, complete with gun racks and beer coolers. No sounds, not even the irritating buzz of a gas powered generator providing quality indoor visual stimulation, our neighbor campers must have exerted themselves to the extreme during the day to have crashed before sundown. We pitched our tent finished off a bottle of whiskey that had been purchased to congratulate our previous triple Divide crossings, and dozzed off. Late that night, at some obscene hour reserved for the squeals of hovering banshees and the howlings of rabid wolves, I was roused from blissful unconsciousness by Ozzie Osborne wailing something unintelligible. It was Iron Man blasting through four hundred watt speakers, accompanied by the war cries of some young hunter dudes riling themselves up to begin shooting. I expected gun fire followed by blasting caps, white flashes of burning magnesium, penetrating laser pointers dancing around the tent, who knew what incendiary display would accompany the preparation for a late night hunt. Early the next morning Goat told me that people often hunt at night intrigued by the possibility of sneaking up on a dear asleep on its legs. Goat’s slumber hadn’t been disturbed by last nights’ pep rally, leaving me to believe that he wouldn’t serve as an alert look out -should the occasion ever arise that we would need to monitor the premises of our camp.
Â Â Â Â Â Simon and Garfunkel’s tune “Slip Slidden Away” became the soundtrack to my mornings’ ascent up the snowy ice bound roads as we set out to conquer the remaining thousand feet of elevation. There came a point where our trail map prescribed a steep climb up a ‘rough four wheel drive’ trail for two miles and being the trusty navigator I grew a bit disheartened at the prospect of following a trail that may very well be buried in snow, with no human tracks to follow. As it turned out, the trail wasn’t ridable, we dismounted and pushed our bikes up rocky ledges, snow up to our ankles. looking ahead I cringed in horror at Goat’s feet hoping gracefully through the blinding white powder wearing only ski-boot liners, I was wearing Keen sandles with snow building up between sock and sole and generally feeling inadequately insulated. For two miserable miles our generally neglected arms were sapped of all strength, one holding the handle-bars steady, the other yanking at the saddle. It was nearly impossible to position oneself in a manner that would avoid having the back of our calves chaffed by our peddles and/or xtracycle bags. It would take an experienced oarsmen from a Viking slave galleon to efficiently haul our loads up that hill, anybody less would no doubt succumb to nervous and physical exhaustion. Any hunter within a mile would no doubt be drawn to the wretched gutteral sounds eminating from our disgruntled throats; surely we were easy targets for the itchy finger assailants. At about the mileage where we should have been able to see the summit, Goat turned back and began descending the hill. “The trail just ends at a tree, and the hunter’s tracks lead up the slope of a hill that we can’t climb,” Goat flatly offered his prognosis. A good part of me desired to fling my bike off the side of the hill and try my luck at suspended animation for the duration of winter, yet reluctantly I complied with the inevitable and backtracked two miles to the beginning of the trail.
Â Â Â Â Â After some discussion we concluded that this would be a good point to begin altering our route, and opted to follow an steep downhill route toward a town called Wicks. Disheartening though it was to know that an early descent would ensure more uphill climbing overall, we believed it better than trudging through blankets of snow and risk getting lost for a second time. The road conditions downhill were incredibly rocky, with deep rain indented ruts that would catch tires as they struggled to steer through hair-pin curves. On one downhill the cold air was blasting my face at such a speed that my eyes teared up obscuring my vision. My tires got caught in a rut that led to the edge of a rocky cliff and reflexively I rolled off the side of my bike onto the rocky slope. Immediately my bicycle flipped ontop of me as I attempted to brace myself from sliding further down the slope and the two of us shared a worthwhile moment of intimate bonding. After throwing my bike further down the hill and cursing my miserable existence I looked up to find Jacob holding his camera; I cursed him as well and set about finding a spot to convalesce. Finally we found camp beside some grazing cattle, and ended the day content in achieving negative mileage.
Â Â Â Â Â The next day we came into Wicks. I mistook the line of gutted buildings for a ghost-town until a white S.U.V pulled up in front of an oversized trailer home. The old couple that stepped out of the car asserted that we were lost which I confirmed with a nervous laugh. I noticed the corpse of a recently shot deer strung up to dry from the roof of a derelict shack across the street, and that served as a slight intimidation while asking for directions back to the main highway. The man told me that it was necessary to backtrack on the road I had just come down some six or seven miles, he was describing a route that we had been avoiding in favor of a shorter one through the mountains. After informing the man of the presence of a direct road from Wicks to the highway his wife laughed out loud, “yeah, Finn Gulch, my god you boys will still be riding on that till night comes”. The man reasserted his advice that we backtrack seven miles, saying that biking up Finn Gulch as foolhardy; “You don’t realize how many people we have to pull out of that mess in the winter!”. The woman sent us off with a bag full of her ‘Wicks Famous” cookies, telling us to be safe. Naturally we ignored the local wisdom and ascended Finn Gulch amidst the boisterous protests of innumerable dogs that erupted in spasmodic discontent in every yard along the road. Indeed the hill proved to be treacherous being close to a twenty percent grade covered with slushy snow, it was however little over two miles long, and as we crested the hill top and gazed over the vast stretches of mine terraced hills we laughed in triumph over local wisdom. It would be all downhill from here to the city of Butte, where we would inevitably begin again exploit the warm local hospitality.