Nowhere Slow

Amber Waves of Grain
Bikes, bags, and a pickup in the no-truck parking zone.
Just taking a break (Anne Sherwood)

The next day we feel as flexible as two-by-fours. We struggle through the see-saw foothills, coaxing our muscles to continue, then within a matter of miles the road straightens and we abruptly find ourselves surrounded by golden fields, the world smooth and wide open. It's harvest season and threshers are busy working the farms. The air is warm and smells like hay. I keep twisting around on my seat to watch as the mountains, pleated with snow-streaked drainages, gradually recede. There are no more trees. We have entered a new land.

On the way to Cut Bank, where we will camp, the pavement and the telephone poles and the fence lines seem to extend to infinity. It is an Escher-style illusion: My sense of dimensions is being toyed with. We are encircled by a vast, unbroken horizon. I swear I can see the curve of the Earth. The fields, alternating sown and fallow like a giant flag, compound the illusion; they too are endless. The wind rushes through the fields in waves — it sounds like people whispering in church. Even my psyche is influenced: All afternoon I think expansive, effusive thoughts.

On our sixth day of biking we ride only twenty-six miles, to Shelby. It's a rest day, and we move even slower than usual. Every half-hour or so, freighters on the Burlington Northern Line rumble by. I wave to the conductors; they wave back and sound their air horn. For two miles, a cricket hitches a ride on my pannier. Others call to us from the ground. Round hay bales — jelly rolls, we call them — are aligned snakelike in the fields. Cows lift their broad heads and watch us pass. A pair of pintos race us to the end of their pen.

Despite the easy day, the next morning's ride is unexpectedly rough. Headwinds, it turns out, are aptly named: They mess with your head. Today they howl unceasingly, tossing us about like a strong riptide. Add to this the five-second typhoons created by every passing semi that snuff our hard-earned momentum and sandpaper our faces with road grit. Though there isn't a hill in sight, the effort required is the same as cycling up Logan Pass. We're getting nowhere slow, I moan to Anne. She asks me: Isn't that the point?

The day is monopolized by three views — growing wheat, cut wheat, and wheat being cut. Every few miles we pass a grain elevator, some made of concrete, some of corrugated steel, a few of weathered wood. They are embellished with painted signs advertising the Farmer's Union Grain Company or the Occident Elevator or, most often, General Mills. Above each one is a cloud of crows.

Out here, the towns are small and old, still huddled around the railroad track rather than the highway. The signs for bars and cafis and bowling alleys are composed in fonts I've seen only in black-and-white movies. Ford pickup trucks serve as police cars. Flash bulbs are still for sale, as is panty hose that comes in egg-shape packages. Joplin proclaims itself, on a roadside billboard, the"Biggest Little Town on Earth." Rudyard advertises its populace as "596 Nice People and 1 Old Sore Head." Kremlin wants us to know that it has "USA Style," lest we mistake it for Russia's headquarters. High school football season has just begun, and the store windows in each town are painted with the local mascot and an exhortation for victory. Go Loggers! Go Cougars! Go Coyotes! Go Broncs!

We stop for the night, after gutting out eighty-one miles, in Gildford. The town park is right next to Kelly's Pub. When we enter the pub everyone turns to stare — as usual, we're the only ones wearing Lycra. So we go through our bar routine: say hello, mention what we're doing, and comment on the bar signs. Kelly's sign collection contains old chestnuts like FREE CHEWING GUM UNDER STOOLS and SAVE WATER: DRINK BEER. We order burgers and elect to save water — an ideal eastern Montana supper.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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