Wisdom, Montana is home to 150 people and sits 6050 feet above sea level. These are things I had to look up online because Montana’s road signs, unlike their counterparts in Wyoming, do not tell you these things. Mountain passes tend not to be labeled, either, which is frustrating when you come to a crest in the road and think it’s the top but have no way of knowing for sure because there’s no sign, and then you go around a bend and discover that you have another thousand feet to climb and only two miles to do it. The two most fun facts concerning Wisdom, Montana, though, are the following: this town scoffs at the idea of named streets, and it boasts a single church called The Church of the Big Hole. Riding in yesterday, we had fun imagining what this intriguing name might mean. You can guess the sorts of explanations we produced, but the true meaning is only moderately thrilling: Wisdom is in the middle of a plain bordered by mountains on all sides, so this plain is essentially a big hole in the earth. It’s called, not surprisingly, Big Hole Valley. Tricky, those pioneers.
Now, the problem with Big Hole Valley is that with mountains on all sides, water collects on the plain around Wisdom, and when to that you add temperatures near 100oF, you get mosquitoes. When we got up at 6:30 AM this morning (late, by HBC standards), few of us had gotten more than three hours of sleep thanks to a concerted effort by the mosquitoes and the heat to make us as uncomfortable as possible. Those of us who had slept in the church sanctuary woke up in a sweat bath; the few who had slept outside escaped the heat but awoke drenched in rain and dew. At breakfast it became apparent just how lightly some of us had slept when tales of Rob’s early-morning somnambulating surfaced from multiple witnesses. At least three lengthy outbursts of sleep-talking, including an entire one-sided conversation from Brooke, had also been overheard––a rough night overall, but certainly not the fault of The Church of the Big Hole. (Curse you, global warming. Curse you.)
Filling up water bottles after breakfast presented a problem: the tap water smelled an awful lot like sulfur, and questions arose as to whether it was potable at all. Some riders took their chances and went ahead with the tap water while others took the last of the water from the coolers that had accompanied dinner the night before and which had apparently been filled elsewhere, since that water tasted fine. These two things may not be related, but within an hour Kathleen was throwing up and had to ride in the van for the rest of the day. I don’t know if she drank the tap water or the cooler water, but other people were certainly feeling ill as well, while still others, including people who drank from the tap, felt fine. Quite the mystery.
To get out of any big hole, you must climb. One of the ways to climb out of the Big Hole is to follow Route 43 west out of Wisdom towards the Beaverhead Mountains; up, up, up the Beaverhead Mountains; and over Chief Joseph Pass, which, of course, features no sign of any type to mark it. We went this way. However, as we rode across Big Hole Valley towards the Beaverhead Mountains, we couldn’t actually see them for the thick screen of smoke that obscured them from view until we were right at their feet. I’ve been told that seven western states, including this one, are currently on fire and that this is where all the smoke is coming from. My eyes have been stinging for days because of it. Apparently smoke is a common feature of the Montana summer, but typically not until August. This summer has been unusually hot (we know this well, believe me), hence the smoke in July. (Again, curse you, global warming.)
For the first part of the ride along Route 43, I rode with Rob and Lindsay, though I wasn’t technically with them because I decided I would keep a distance of at least one Greyhound bus between us. Odd, yes, but I’ve decided I must do this because the other day, going into Virginia City, I was shocked to learn that some people make negative assumptions when followed closely by another rider. Now, when I ride right behind someone, I’m usually thinking, “Well, I could probably go faster, but I’m not going to pass this person because then I’d be riding alone and that’s not safe.” Similarly, when someone comes up right behind me, I think, “Uh-oh, I’m going too slow and holding this person back, and the only reason they’re not passing me is because they don’t want to ride alone.” Throughout the summer I imagined that this is what everyone else thinks when they’ve got another rider on their heels, but apparently that’s not the case at all, for when I rode right on someone’s heels on the road to Virginia City, I was accused of doing it just so I could draft off this person and not have to work as hard against the headwind. It had never occurred to me that someone might think such a thing. So, as opposed to my perhaps naïve and self-deprecating assumption that when someone rides immediately behind me it’s me holding them back, other people are thinking to themselves, “This person behind me is riding on my heels so that my speed will pull them along.” I don’t want anyone to think that I’m a freeloader, so I will keep my distance from now on and fight headwinds myself, unless I’m invited into a paceline. (In a paceline, people ride in a close line and take turns riding at the front to “pull” the rest of the group against the headwind. This allows the group as a whole to go faster in a headwind over longer periods of time than any one rider normally could. One way I amuse myself now is by keeping up with pacelining groups without actually joining them or getting anywhere near them––it’s sort of my own mini bicycle challenge.)
Somewhere on the plain between Wisdom and the Beaverhead Mountains, we happened upon the Big Hole National Battlefield. Most of the group stopped at the visitor center to check it out. The National Park Service lady who worked there was especially accommodating and let us watch a 27-minute video on the battle at an irregular time slot, “because you’ve got a high pass to climb over and a fun downhill to get to,” she said. The video left me depressed and in a bad mood. I won’t get into too much detail, but basically what happened was that in 1877, a few bands of Nez Perce Indians decided to head east into Montana rather than following government orders to move onto a tiny reservation in Idaho that had recently been reduced to one-tenth its original size. (We’re actually going to be staying on this reservation when we get to Kooskia.) In response, the government ordered U.S. troops to pursue these “nontreaty” bands of Nez Perce. The troops attacked the Indians’ camp in the Big Hole Valley one night, killing mostly women and children before the men were able to rout the soldiers and allow the surviving family members to escape with the few possessions they could grab from the melee. It was another embarrassing anecdote from that chapter in American history, and I needed the imminent climb to take my mind off it.
Going into the Beaverhead Mountains, we entered Beaverhead National Forest, which you surely would find stunning if you could get your mind off the six or seven bees that have been pursuing you for the last mile. (Is it our yellow jerseys that attract them, or does our body odor really smell like flowers as we like to believe?) Somewhere in the forest, on the gentle incline before the steep climb to the pass, we happened upon the older gentleman we had met the previous evening in Wisdom. In spite of his age (he’s 70-ish), he’s riding his bicycle from his home in Arkansas all the way to the Oregon coast, making him one of the few east-to-west bikers we’ve met (most go west to east, with the wind), and certainly the oldest. Rather than doing the whole trip in one go, though, he’s broken it into segments, and he spends a few weeks doing each segment before returning home. This staccato approach to biking 4000 miles means it’s actually taken him three years to get this far. (Some people do have real lives, we realize.) He can’t go up steep hills––doctor’s orders––so his wife, who follows him in a truck pulling a trailer that supposedly contains a bed, waited for him at the base of the climb to Chief Joseph Pass to shuttle him up. Most of us OTers, on the other hand, despite having the same luxury available (our lovely van), chose to attack the mountain on the strength of our own two legs. The climb turned out to be only moderately difficult––about the same grade as the climb over the pass on the way to Virginia City, but requiring us to gain only 1000 feet in elevation as opposed to 2000. I rode up next to Rob and was surprised to make it to the top of the pass without sustaining a bee sting. At the pass we ate a quick snack as a group and the bid farewell to the continental divide for the last time before sailing down the other side at over 30 miles per hour. (It was fun, as the National Park Service lady had said.) Rob got some people to join him in a Super Special Mile coming down from the pass, but I did not take part, unfortunately.
Route 43 came to an end at the Idaho border, so we turned north onto Highway 93 towards Hamilton and Missoula. The steep downhill that had begun on Route 43 at the pass continued for a good distance along 93 as well, so we were able to average 30 miles per hour for perhaps ten miles, losing several thousand feet of altitude before the road flattened out. At that point we found ourselves following a northbound river with the Bitterroot Mountains rising up immediately on both sides of us. Around mile 45 we happened upon a lone restaurant that apparently opens only at night, so we took the liberty of claiming its shaded deck as our lunch spot for the day. The van arrived with our food shortly thereafter, and by that time the number of people in it had swollen to seven (including Jessalee, today’s driver), an impressive figure but still short of yesterday’s record of nine. Then again, two of yesterday’s nine were riding in the van not because they were sick, tired, or injured, but because they simply didn’t feel like riding, so I almost feel like that record doesn’t count. Today’s seven included Kathleen, who, as I mentioned before, got ill towards the beginning of the ride; David, who had had to induce vomiting after a sprint on his bike and had subsequently suffered an allergic reaction when climbing stacks of hay; and a few other riders who were just worn out.
I ate lunch rather quickly and ended up being in the first group to leave, along with Severin and John. Seeing that it was already 2:00 and that the afternoon had brought with it a brutal headwind, we decided that the only way we’d be able to make it to the church on time would be by pacelining the last 30 miles into Hamilton. So, in spite of the headwind, we were able to average 20 mph, arriving at Faith Lutheran Church right at 3:30. The pastor welcomed us and led the three of us to the showers, which were actually right at the church––a rare treat, having showers “on premises.” By the time I got out of the shower a good portion of the group had arrived, though Alex (today’s sweep) and a few others didn’t make it in until after 4:30, which is technically later than we’re supposed to be on the road, but concessions are made if you’re close enough. At 5:00 we had a wonderful dinner provided by church members, gave a slide show presentation, and then moved to a front room where the group of riders who had managed to make a post office run between arriving, showering, and eating had lain out our eagerly anticipated mail. Among the dozens of packages piled on the table was one containing edible goodies from our prayer partners back in Youngsville, Pennsylvania, which we were so grateful to receive! David got a fun magazine that he secretly dismembered and redistributed so that each of us, upon rummaging through his or her bag, would be surprised to find a page or two just for him or her. This provided many hours of amusement.
Around 7:00 I walked outside to make some phone calls. Not surprisingly, I found about a third of the group on the lawn doing precisely the same thing. This is an HBC evening ritual. I myself clocked about two hours on my cell phone. At one point a dog appeared out of nowhere and bounded up to me. His name was Hank and he did not know how to sit. After I got off the phone I played with him for a bit before calling the number on his collar to inform his owner that she was missing a dog. I stayed out just long enough to see Hank off but then had to go inside because the smoke from the forest fires was too much for my eyes. I decided to hit the sack, but there were snorers in the room where I had set up my sleeping situation, so I moved my stuff from a space beneath a table in that room to a space between spare pulpits and stacks of bibles and Sunday school supplies in a closet. A night of perfect sleep will certainly be had.
On a note totally unrelated to today’s activities, I would like to mention that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final book in the epic and majestic series, comes out at midnight tonight. So, by this time tomorrow, thousands of people will have read it (including some acquaintances of mine who are, er, dedicated), and they will know the boy wizard’s ultimate fate. Meanwhile I remain in painful ignorance, my fresh UK edition sitting unopened on my bed at home because I pre-ordered it before I knew I would be on a bike thousands of miles away when it arrived. Making it through the next three weeks without having the ending inadvertently spoiled for me will be the real challenge of this trip.
Hamilton, by the way, has a population of 4443 and an elevation of 3572 feet. Now, fondly, good night.