Lay of the Land: A series of essays on the spirit of Montana
Beauty is only skin deep? In this case, maybe a bit deeper…
I didn’t start out to find the most beautiful lake in Montana. Rather, at 59, I brushed off an old dream of bicycling solo across the United States. But to fit my dream within work, I would bike the country in multiple stretches over several years — a week or so, 3- to 400 miles at a time.
The first leg more or less planned itself. My three adult kids from California, Ohio and Billings try to get together periodically, and last year they were to meet in Billings. So Billings was the destination. Where to start? I didn’t want to get run over by some oil truck. Glendive to Circle got me past the oil traffic, and away from I-94. So Glendive to Circle on Highway 200S, Circle to Jordan to Winnett on 200, Winnett to Roundup on 244 and 87, and 87 into Billings. About 300 miles, five days at 50 to 75 miles a day. A manageable start to my cross-country aspirations.
Day One: Piece of cake. Early start from Glendive through empty streets. I was afraid I would have to climb the Rims out of the Yellowstone Valley, but 200 followed a little valley, gradually climbing the first 20-plus miles, and then mostly downhill into Circle. The same scenery I would see throughout the trip — rolling high plains grassland, occasional dry creek or coulee. Trees, wildlife, crops and houses were rare, almost nonexistent. I reached Circle before noon. So easy that I should have planned to be done in four days? I would not entertain that thought again.
Day Two: The one I was worried about. From previous hiking and canoeing, I knew that I would have good energy on the first day, be tired and sore on the second, and by the third, start to get in shape and in a routine. Unfortunately, the temperature for my tired and sore day was predicted to be 93 degrees, with winds from the west by midmorning. No towns for the whole 67 miles. The final encouragement: the lady at the Circle motel said that other bikers had told her this was the hardest stretch from the West Coast — even harder than the mountains, just hill after hill.
With that on my mind, I didn’t sleep too well. Up by 5:15, I microwaved a dried-out gas station McMuffin-like substance. My blueberries, purchased at the Circle IGA, had frozen in the motel mini-fridge. Nothing open, so no coffee or other food options. My tea was frozen, too. Not a resounding start.
I met the hills immediately out of Circle. I tried not to count them, and was afraid to look at my odometer. But I estimate that for the first 30 miles there was a hill every mile or so. Nothing gut-wrenchingly difficult, but not easy either. Climb a stiff rise steep enough to stand on the pedals, summit, and coast down the other side. Then half mile or so of flat, with some interspersed smaller rises, then climb a nearly identical hill. I had trained on occasional hills, but not one every mile. I kept waiting to peak one hill and see an end, but no. Just hills. And grass. And hills. Amazingly, I got into a rhythm.
Shortly before halfway, where Highway 24 comes down from Fort Peck, is a little rest stop. No trees, just sheltered picnic tables, a bathroom and water. I enjoyed watching some children running off energy before the family disappeared in their air-conditioned SUV. I ate a sandwich, rested and filled all my water containers for the coming cruel heat.
Thereafter, the terrain changed. The differences may not even register if you’re driving at 70 mph, but on a bike, mind and body feel every nuance. Instead of steady rolling grasslands, it becomes rugged. Hills are higher and steeper, but less regular. Rock outcroppings. Grass in patches, rather than cover. More stern. More barren. A stretch of a few miles identical to the Badlands National Park. But no buffalo, or cattle, or even birds — all wisely hiding in some protected coulee from the glaring sun.
Montanans don’t need to be told about remote. Montana, itself far from the madding crowd, is a collective of places far away from anything. I knew in planning this trip that there were no towns in this stretch. But I was thinking of that as a benefit — no traffic and thus safe biking. Only as I sweated and struggled to the top of these hills did I make the connection why there are no towns or farmhouses. The terrain is so demanding and uninviting that only a handful had yet figured out how to make a living off it. Now, I was testing myself against that same unforgiving land.
A few miles past the rest area, at the top of one of the first of the rugged hills, my cell phone rang. Coverage! My wife was checking on me. I told her I had 33 miles in, the terrain was tough, but I felt good. Shortly thereafter, however, as predicted, the wind shifted. Not a strong wind, but now fighting me. As I was forced to downshift a couple of gears to reconcile the new headwind, my spirits shifted accordingly…
I don’t have a lot of memory for a while after that. The miles all the same. The sun and the road and the hills and the heat hollowing out body and mind and spirit. My brain involuntarily dropping into endure/survival. Just keep pedaling. But each mile harder, slower. Would I make it?
At some point, even my diminished consciousness grasped that I had to get out of the sun. Not a tree in sight. I could not remember when I had last seen a tree. The sun almost directly overhead, the only shade available would be under one of the road bridges that periodically crossed a dry drainage. I passed one bridge, hoping to find something more picturesque. But by the next bridge, after another hill, picturesque wasn’t an option.
I pulled my bike off the road and leaned it against the bridge. Except for the grasses, not a living thing in sight, not even insects. As I rummaged through my packs for food and drink, my hands were shaking so I could hardly open the zippers. I stumbled and staggered down the steep ditch and bridge abutment and crawled under the bridge onto a 2-foot concrete ledge. Shade.
I lay exhausted, without energy to unwrap a sandwich or even take a drink. Was this sunstroke or heat exhaustion? I didn’t know. Eventually, a couple of sips on the water bottle. Sit up. A bite or two of sandwich. Sit. More sandwich. Sit. Then, enough energy to go back for more water and food. Almost conscious again. And then I realized — it was right there. The rain a few days before had left under the bridge a little puddle maybe 15 feet across. It wasn’t deep or clean or cold, but I was drawn. My body knew.
I shimmied off the ledge, and instead of sliding through mud as I expected, it was gravel and grass to the water’s edge. And it was a foot deep! I squirmed up to the “shore” and, lying on my stomach, plunged my head in. The water enveloped my head like a cool womb. Refreshment and refuge! Exhilaration and pure physical joy of a kind I could not remember since childhood. I dunked my head again and again, stirring the mud from the bottom.
I crawled back to my concrete ledge, ate some licorice and drank more water. Revitalized, I nonetheless crawled down to the pond again and soaked my head time after time until satiated. Baptized, reborn and girded against the coming heat and hills, I mounted my faithful steed.
I still had 15 or 20 miles to Jordan, and I ended up walking parts of the last five or six hills. My Camelback malfunctioned near the end, and I lost all my water. But I made it. When I hit Jordan about 3:30, the bank sign said 94 degrees.
So, I can’t tell you exactly where it is. I didn’t take a picture of it. And on most summer days, it’s probably a dry gulch. But for me, on that day in July 2013, Lake McDonald or Flathead Lake or the aqua-blue lakes of the Beartooths could not compare.
I had found the most beautiful lake in Montana.
John Petrik has lived and worked in central and western North Dakota for 32 years. For the last 25, he has spent a week or two each year experiencing Montana.