North Dakota

Let the Bike Tell Me - August 30, 2015

Tonight we camped with some relief at Nelson Reservoir in northern Montana along Hwy 2 just east of Malta.  I say relief because as today rolled by it seemed we left a lot of cares and responsibilities behind us.  We’ve visited and said goodbye to my parents and family in Washington State, we’ve been up and down through the US-Canada borders, we’ve done the Horizons Unlimited meeting, and we’ve visited friends in Calgary.  Now we’re on the road, just looking at the map each day and making it up as we go along.  We’re finally on the trip we began 20 days ago.  This big bottle of hefeweizen also seems to help.

At the end of our last story, we were camped at a lovely lake outside of Golden, BC.  After our $20 kampground karma jackpot, we packed it up and took off for Lake Louise, first stopping at the awesome Takakaw Falls.  Almost as amazing as the falls themselves were the bozos in giant RVs that forced their way up through switchbacks that fold back on themselves, about as tight as those we saw in the Dolomites.  Great fun on a bike, just not enough of them.

After leaving smoky Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, we headed north a short ways up the Icefields Parkway along an absolutely beautiful sheet of asphalt bounded on either side by tall Canadian Rockies.   We really couldn’t see any of them, save for a silhouette here and there where they sloped down close to the road.  The smoke was very thick here, giving us visibility down the road of about 3-400 yards.  Giant ghosts loomed out over puny ants on two wheels.  I can see how tales of trolls arose, giant stony bulks above, frozen where they stood.  The smoke was only thick on the ground, and looking upward through it, we could see some sky above, and tall peaks through a grey haze.  Only the general shapes were available to us. All detail was lost, smeared away by the smoke, leaving an impressionistic view of a nonetheless breathtaking world.

I loved camping at Mosquito Creek, what a great campground.  You pay the fee, and if you want a fire, you pay an extra fire permit fee, not much.  But there’s a big pile of dry split firewood near the entrance, and you can take all you need.  The host (who had a bike, too) let us have a bunch of kindling as well out of a stack he’d split.  Nice guy.  There area was damp enough and the streams were full here, with green grass, so fires were okay.  We stayed two days here in the deep smoky mountains, and the fire sure felt good as the temperature dropped rapidly at night. The Big Agness bags are working out well.  They use an insulated inflatable pad that slips into the bag, and so no bottom bag insulation is needed.  All the down is concentrated on the top and sides.  No slipping off the pad, either.  As long as you have plenty of air in the pad to give you good separation from the cold ground, you stay nice and warm.  We also use silk bag liners for a bit of extra warmth and to avoid having to clean the bags as much, which is hard on them even if you do it right.

The Icefields Parkway is just terrific.  You gotta do it if you ride a bike anywhere near it.  It’s named for the many glaciers that can be seen on the mountains around you as you travel it’s length.  Beautiful smooth pavement winds gently up a high river valley that periodically opens into a broad braided stream with deep gravel deposits.  I was impressed with the massive gravel mounds at the mouth of each side-stream coming in, presumably left from flooding events.  The road isn’t a twisty canyon road, but a mellow flowing road that won’t give you any surprises as you gawk at everything but where you’re going.  At the top end is Jasper, a busy recreational town for skiers, hikers, and mountain bikers.  We had our grocery store lunch, met some very nice people on a BMW RT outside while we ate, and then headed back south.  We stopped for more pictures on the way, as the smoke was pretty thin around Jasper, but by the time we got to the Columbia Icefield, it was closing in fast to the south.  When we got back to the campground, we were firmly in the Venusian soup again.

The visit in Calgary with our friends Loni and Meghan, and their two boys Tao and Ripley, sped by in a flash.  Loni helped me weld up a crack that had formed in one side of my engine guard bars, 20 minutes and he had it done.  After a restful night at Meghan’s mom Joan’s house, Loni and I went out for a loop ride up through the mountains to the west of Calgary, and saw moose and bighorn sheep.   The sheep were licking salts off the road and not budging or even acknowledging vehicles, so we just eased around and took full advantage of the photo op.  That evening, Meghan whipped up a fantastic dinner of enchiladas and dessert of shortcake, whipped cream (all homemade), and fresh blackberries.  Bravo!  We also want to thank Joan for giving us the use of her home for two nights of rest, showers and laundry.  Treats like that are getting kind of exciting!  We invaded their busy lives, but they found ways to make us feel warmly welcomed, and these travelers feel so indebted to them for the break.

Dropping south through Alberta toward Waterton National Park, we stopped short at Chain Lakes Park to camp.  Nothing special, but it was a nice, clean place, and we appreciated the quiet.  Up and going, we headed down toward Waterton, but decided to skip it as the smoke was still quite thick and the views non-existant.  After a surprisingly quick and cheerful border crossing back into the US, we also skipped Glacier Natn’l Park for the same reason – there are fires inside the park on the east side to boot.

So from St. Mary we headed east on Hwy 2 to cross the northern tier of Montana.  That was yesterday morning, and we’ve been rolling along over the gentle terrain for two days now.  Mostly wheat or grazing land, with a little corn now seen as today wound by.  Broad and open, I again felt we were puny ants on two wheels, crawling along.  Were we proceeding across the stationary land, or were we the unmoving ones, and the land a conveyor belt beneath?  No way to tell.  Jalene feels the ride here is like a meditation, and I agree.  Though one could describe it as boring, it’s anything but.  Today we followed the Milk River on one side and the railway route on the other side.  The track was almost always visible beside us, and the trains plentiful, these are busy rails.  The wheatfields are endless to either side, and I found myself wondering who could ever find enough time to till them all, plant, and harvest.  I did see one tractor working, a massive machine far bigger than our Oregon varieties.  Still, the task seems impossible to me.

I kept my eyes on the rails more than anything.  I’ve always loved trains, but this particular railway line may have been the one we cruised when the family took the train across the country when I was about 6 years old.  The Great Northern Route.  I remember sitting up in the gondola cars watching terrain like this roll by.  I also remember the taste of the water as it came out of stainless steel tanks (I love that taste).  The memories are old and sort of still-picture like, but what I saw today matched those memories nicely.  And so we rolled along, with the visions taken in pushing all the stray thoughts out, keeping us in the moment.  I’m looking forward to more of this tomorrow as we continue east toward North Dakota.

We had an exciting time packing up the tent this morning, as a strong, warm wind from the west had set in during the night, and built while we ate our breakfasts.  We were “camped” on the lawn of the Comfort Inn, which charged $25 and set us up with our own shower building as well as access to the pool and hot tub and a nice breakfast.  Deal!  The wind rattled the tent during the night, but only caused us concern when it came time to take it down and pack it up.  With a good 35 mph steady breeze, a strong grip was needed as each piece was released and folded, but we got it done without losing anything.  Teamwork!

We’ve been cruising at an easy pace, about 60 mph.  Even though the speed limit is 70, I let the bike tell me what it likes.  These machines need to last two years of this, and I don’t relish the thought of burning up tires, chains, and sprockets, either.  Money saved is money to travel on.  Since the traffic is very light and passing zones almost continuous in this fairly flat country, it’s no issue to let faster vehicles go right on by.  Oh, how having a smaller bike and no deadlines changes habits!

So here we are tonight.  If I put my glasses on, I see out across a shallow lake to a small island where there are a dozen or so white pelicans.  There are also terns, at least two species, one black-headed, the other white.  I’m not sure if I should expect Caspian or Artic terns here or not.  The light is getting low, as the sun dipped below the horizon about 20 minutes ago.  It’s overcast but I don’t think it will rain.  The still-present smoke makes reading the sky difficult, though it’s much thinner now.  Jalene sits in her chair in front of me gazing out over the lake and reading her book. 

I decided to carry an old Kindle that her son Josh gave me, and I have Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on it.  Not far along yet, I’m at the part where the cold front just raced in on them, and they found a small motel down a sidestreet that he “just knew was there”.  I read these pages a long time ago when it first came out, and I was too young and inexperienced to know what anything really meant (other than that there’s no point in getting mad at a recalcitrant machine, a very freeing realization).  Now I’m older and still eternally inexperienced, but it makes a lot more sense now.  I’m glad I’ve had the opportunities to do so many cool things in life, giving me the mishaps and memories that now help me relate to this wonderful book.

It’s morning now, and my prediction of no rain was upended by the treeless prairie weather.  Shortly after turning in, the wind picked up, thunder boomed in the distance, and the rain began.  The wind went from zero to 40-50 mph in about 3 minutes, and we were out of the bags and supporting the tent from within.  Eventually it died down and I ventured out to re-do the tent guys correctly like I should have in the first place.  The whole thing lasted maybe 30 minutes.  From now on when we’re not in a sheltered area, I’m not guessing the weather.  But we got a good night’s sleep, and this morning is bright and sunny with a light west breeze and all looks fine.  Like the ocean, there is nothing out here to stop the wind, and the air is almost always in motion.  The strong southerly storm winds last night have blown the smoke out of here, and it’s perfectly clear right now, the first we’ve seen clear air 15 days.  Time to fold up the tent and go.

Postscript – Our day ended by rolling across the state line into North Dakota and we camped just east of Williston at Lewis and Clark State Park, on a reservoir of the Missouri River.  We went from the placid open lands into the Bakken oil fields like a switch was flipped, and suddenly the shock of trucks and equipment everywhere, with oil and gas fields, frakking tanks, blazing jets of flaring gas, and just a general mess made of the land.  It came on with the same rapidity as the thunderstorm last night, boom and you’re there.  I’ll have to think about this, having witnessed it while aboard my fossil fuel powered bike, with lots of plastic and petro-products aiding our trip.

Click HERE to see photos.

Click HERE to watch a post on Jalene's blog about the inner journey that's happening as a result of our travels.

Written by Keith. Posted with photos by Jalene.