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The Great Divide Ride - Part 2, Montana

11 July 2019

Words and Images Sasha Smith

On my first day in USA after crossing the border, I was lucky to have two Warmshowers hosts in the small town of Eureka have me stay. One of the first things they asked was "so what do you think of Trump?". I was in red territory of the USA - what was I meant to say? My response was along the lines of "uh… we hear a lot about him back home". Luckily this was the right response and in return my friendly hosts gave me a first-hand overview of what it meant to be American to them now. One thing that stuck in my mind was hearing of their own cycle trips overseas when they would say they were Canadian, rather than admit they were American. I felt a deep sadness for them. During my trip I’d often be asked where I was from ("are you from… Australia?") and I'd delight in explaining I was from New Zealand ("oh of course, your accent sounds much nicer").

The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (source: Adventurecycling.org)

Montana was a spectacular introduction to the USA. It's known as 'Big Sky Country' – think beautiful mountain vistas, clear rivers and green open landscapes. It's also known as a bear hotspot. So far on my travels I'd avoided having to do the safety trick of hanging food from a tree. In Montana I experienced my first nervous night. I arrived at a basic camp site after a day of riding through lonely forest service roads. I'd seen a black bear and what I thought was a wolf (most likely a coyote, in hindsight, but exciting nevertheless). My piece of string ended up being hopeless for the job of hanging up my gear, so I ended up stashing my panniers in a bush well away from my tent. For your entertainment I could make up a story of ripped apart bags, but no. I was grateful to wake up in the morning to untouched panniers.

A couple of days into Montana, riding through fire-destroyed forest, with views of Glacier National Park

Please remember this as you enjoy the outdoors

Whitefish, MT for 4th of July celebrations

Big climbs with rewarding views

A couple of my trip highlights were in Montana. The first was a small town called Ovando, population 81. At the centre of the tiny village was a big old general store, an eatery, a fly fishing store and some free accommodation options for Great Divide riders: a tee pee, a wagon and a jail. I set up for the night in the tee pee and mustered up the courage to go to the local diner. I still hadn't figured out the process of tipping, so I was a bit nervous wandering solo into the USA equivalent of a small rural kiwi pub (the sort where everyone turns to look at you if you look remotely from out-of-town). Luckily, the real-life cowboys (complete with spurred boots and cowboy hats) were friendly, and the burger was so atrociously bad it was great. I hoped the food might get better along the route but it never really did. On the Great Divide route, salad means iceberg lettuce and tomato, maybe some red onion if you are lucky. You don't ride this route for a culinary experience… or maybe the bad food is an experience in itself?

Welcome to the Ovando, friendliest town for Great Divide riders

Comfy digs

All the treats in Ovando

It was only 80 km from Ovando to Barabara Nye's cabin accommodation, but it was a blazing day with a steep climb on dusty roads. At noon I hid from the heat in a town called Lincoln to prepare myself for the climb ahead. I scoffed a big container of watermelon from the run-down convenience store. It had a funny tangy taste to it. At the time I thought this was just how they prepared watermelon in the States. Yeah nah… I think it had started to ferment and I was lucky to not get the spewspews. The rest of the day ended up being a crappy ride: I got dehydrated, the climb nearly broke me, and my mental state was a mess. I was feeling homesick and I remember balling my eyes out as I dragged my bike up the climb. Luckily the roads were human-less and no one witnessed my feeble state. I remember arriving at Barbara Nye's cabin and feeling so elated. My diary record says 'just turned up in heaven'. Barbara Nye's accommodation is Great Divide-famous and if you plan on doing the route I recommend you figure your timing to be able to spend a night here. Barbara has set up a self-contained cabin for riders to freely stay. It has a very homely feel and everything you need– a bed, gas stove, pans, solar shower, some basic food, a big container of M&Ms, and a friendly llama.

Sometimes I get confused about the weirdness of humans. To me, playing computer games seems like a boring and pointless thing to do, but those people enjoy doing it. I enjoy carrying my mountain bike for hours up steep hills for a 30 minute downhill, but I know others wonder why on earth I’d want to do that. As I pedalled along the Great Divide, especially in dark moments, it would occur to me that riding a bike for 4500km could be a rather strange thing to do too. However, the experience of Barbara's act of kindness towards complete strangers doing a weird thing was one of those special moments that made me remember why these touring trips mean so much to me, and it's ok to do 'pointless' things.

Later that afternoon while I was pulling faces with the llama and eating M&Ms, a fellow Great Divide rider turned up at the cabin. Jacob was a recent engineering graduate from Germany who had worked for a year to save for his first ever touring trip – a year-long ride starting in Canada all the way to the bottom of Argentina. Jacob, with his red painted toenails and ability to say inappropriate things without offending anyone, had the kind of extroverted energy which made for a hilarious travel companion. I had some memorable and funny moments during my week riding with him. Much later on down the road I would meet people who had also ridden with Jacob and had some great stories to share (like how a bunch of them got lost in the Wyoming desert, or how he had nearly been shot by police after being mistaken for a burglar when sleeping rough under what he thought was an unoccupied RV).

Barbara's cabin - a nice place to rest the legs and good company

Montana had some nice camp spots, including this one. This was my first day riding with my new friend Jacob. We ended up hanging out by a campfire with a group of wealthy American guys on a week-long 4WD road trip. The conversation between these freedom loving Americans ("Make America Great Again!") and an extroverted German ("the rules are there for a reason!") made for a very entertaining night.

Navigation using the official Great Divide maps was easy

Rough scenic roads

Stopping for pics of the open landscapes

The small mining town of Butte offered an interesting place for a day's rest. A group of four of us riders from various countries ended up pitching our tiny tents at the local campground, which was an incongruous sight next to the massive RVs. It was nice to share stories, drink beer and eat pizza with a friendly bunch after a lot of lonely kilometres. On our day off we visited the decommissioned mining pit. It's an environmental disaster waiting to happen – the water level in the massive toxic pit is continuing to rise and is about to contaminate the town’s water supply. A pretty big deal, yet all the information about the pit downplayed the environmental disaster and instead focussed on the great mining achievements.

Butte's disastrous urban development also made me cry inside. During our ride into Butte, and our one day of looking around, I'd only witnessed the old heart of the town. It seemed to be dying, with beautiful old brick buildings sitting empty, and only a small number of people walking around. It wasn't until on my way out of the town as I continued along the Great Divide that I realised why. For kilometres, I followed a strip mall highway with oversized shops and cars, cars, cars. The heart had been yanked out of the old CBD and transplanted into this new part of town, but it was no longer beating. It was a very exaggerated example of what is happening to some of our smaller cities in NZ.

Making friends in Butte, MT. Bike gang heading out for pizza (along the start of the strip mall) at 10pm.

The Butte mining pit

Jacob and Jaap on some sealed road treat

Mountain passes and American trucks

One of those wild Canadian horse things

A Kiwi, a Dutch and a German

Jacob making friends with strangers, again. This ended up being a great night with a delicious meal shared with strangers. Riding with a very extroverted German for a week was great fun.

Crossing over the border into Idaho… then back over into Montana the next day

In Butte, one of the riders I met was Jaap, from the Netherlands. Jaap was ex-military with a detailed day-by-day plan for his route, which he soon realised wasn't really appropriate for the type of ride the Great Divide is. I spent just over a week riding with Jaap and Jacob for most of the remainder of Montana. There were great quiet roads through massive open landscapes, often with a day or two without food restocks, wildlife to look out for, some heinous climbs and descents, and friendly locals. One night while camping on my own, a friendly retired teacher from Flagstaff, Arizona approached me to share a beer and a chat. Her husband later returned from the river and shared his trout catch with me.

I was about to reach the end of Montana and I had a decision to make – whether to visit Yellowstone National Park or not. Most people I had met along the way had warned me not to, definitely not on a bike, don't be stupid. They warned of narrow roads, queues of car traffic, crazy campervan drivers and really bad mosquitos. In my head that didn't seem so bad compared to what I was looking forward to: geothermal wonders and equally wondrous wildlife, so I opted to deviate off the Great Divide Route and head toward Yellowstone while Jacob and Jaap continued on.

Sasha's trip through Yellowstone National Park is continued in Part 3.

If you missed The Great Divide Ride - Part 1, Canada, click here.