It is drizzling in the morning, which is never good for the psyche. I begin thinking about garbage. Roadside detritus, much like roadkill, is something you have plenty of time to ponder on a bicycle. I form a theory: Items tossed out car windows provide exceptional insight into a region's mores. I test it. For the ten miles between Chinook and Zurich I carefully inventory the trash aside the eastbound lane. My findings: bits of shredded flannel; a golf glove; a bag of beef jerky; a smashed cassette tape (Ricky Van Shelton's Backroads); a plastic Sinclair cup; two empty bottles of Old Milwaukee; a mud flap embellished with the outline of a buxom woman; a Montana license plate (24T440F, which I pick up and bungee to my bike); several McDonald's ketchup packets; and a cardboard box advertising Jolly Rancher candies (tossed there, I can't help assuming, by a disgruntled rancher). My conclusions: I declare this a work in progress.
We spend a quiet night in Zurich and awake to a miracle: a westerly wind. It is also Sunday, meaning truck traffic will be practically nil. Camp is broken in record time. We are escorted onto the Fort Belknap Reservation by a honking squadron of Canadian geese, who then turn south toward winter quarters. The road is empty. We spot relics of a different era: long-abandoned homesteads, frames twisted, roofs staved in. Weeded-over railroad tracks. Rusted-out tractors. Half-collapsed hilltop cairns.
The sun burns away the clouds, and we strip down to our T-shirts. I remove my helmet. Bluebells line the pavement, attended to by frantic bees. A herd of elk races across a freshly cut field. Mosquitoes nibble our ankles. Signs announce: NO BULL EAT BEEF! The land is rifted with dry valleys and pocked with buttes. When our shadows grow long we race to Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs, where Anne and I, silly as teenagers, ride the spiral slide until well after dark.
Of course, the one night we determine that it's too beautiful to unpack our rain fly, a major storm moves in. When we emerge from our damp tent at sunrise, the whole structure blows away and gets snagged in a barbed-wire fence, puncturing the bottom with holes. At breakfast we see the headline of the lead story in the Great Falls Tribune: FROST, WIND AND SNOW IN FORECAST. The subhead reads COVER UP TOMATOES, CHILDREN. It does not say what to do with bicyclists. We have nearly 200 miles to go.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication