August 17 - Second Pass: White Sulfur Springs to Helena, MT

This is one of the three best days of biking so far during the trip. (The other two were Shreve to Carroll, Ohio, and Keosauqua to Lake Rathbun, Iowa). Weather, route, winds - all converge to make the day memorable.

A sunrise of lemon and grape colored clouds over softly treed, gently rising mountains first captured my attention. I insisted that Cheryl get up to see it, a failing of early-rising husbands on vacation, I know, so an invitation I offer only rarely. She knew I meant it, got out of bed, and thanked me for the wake-up call.

The initial nine miles were spent in the RV. Montana provided us with our first torn up road. US 12/89 is being widened and re-built, and now is a bed of dirt and gravel. The rains of the two previous days produced a slurry of stones and clay, which we chose not to take our road bikes thru (on the other hand, my mountain bike would have loved it).

Rod and Joan were joining us, with Dani. Cody worked out a plan to shuttle their car forward using a minimum of driving time for the trio of Joan, Cheryl and Rod. We worked our way up our second pass in as many days, again unsigned, but rising to about 6000'. Near the top, just before the national forest boundary, the land had been sub-divided into 20 acre plots - too small to either farm or ranch out here, so obviously intended for lowland ex-patriates, retired or telecommuting. People who've been here for years look down on such transplants, who don't appear to have the skills and fortitude to actually make a living from the land, but prefer to just look at it, or play in it. A new home was being built in the subdivision - I hope its intended occupants understand what the winters are like there.

The morning low-flung clouds seemed to brush up to, but not over the mountains we were crossing, pushed there by the favorable southeast wind. On the other side, the terrain changed from wide-open big sky space to the closed-in deeply forested downslope. There was barely room for both the clear, angry stream, and our road. I have no picture, as I forgot my backpack on this 10 mile stretch. I captained Dani downhill on her first tandem ride. She did great, and kept remarking on how beautiful it was. Later, she said, "I liked how fast we were going. I liked the mountains, and how the noise the stream was making. It was fun, but scary."

I changed stokers, Dani for Shaine (she's my best downhiller), and off we went, pedaling in-phase at 25-30 mph for all but a short up hill into Townsend. By this time, I had shed my wind pants, sleeves, and jacket, and marveled, like I do every Spring in Puget Sound, that there actually was some blue sky beyond the clouds and rain. And in the summer, in the mountains, things warm up quickly, but not too much, when the sun appears. By the time we left Townsend, it was 77 F, sunny, and we looked forward to the shoulder Rod had promised for the next 23 miles.

There was indeed a three-foot wide shoulder, but the Dept. of Transportation, in order to keep the drivers reasonable and prudent, and between the white lines, had placed 2 inch deep, 2 inch wide grooves, perpendicular to our line of travel. Great to wake up the wondering auto occupant, but impossible to bike on, so we hugged the fog line and prayed for space from the cars, RVs, horse trailers, and occasional (even on this Sunday) semi rocketing by, some at nearly 100 mph. I waved at each as they approached from the rear, hoping that gesture would make me seem a friendly human, rather than a slow moving target or bowling pin for their amusement. It worked for all but a couple of drivers, one a Caddy from Oregon, the other an oncoming Toyota intent on passing the truck in front, and coming within inches of me. Each got a one finger salute.

After ten miles of this, while going ever so slightly uphill, and with a very slight squall cooling my face, we headed down and the grooves disappeared. Heaven again: a perfect tailwind, and rolling downhill, puffy white clouds and mountains surrounding me - all combined for a feeling of bicycle power, as I easily cruised in the biggest gear at 25-30 mph for miles on end. The terrain looked a lot like every other western state: Idaho openness near Lemhi, Utah mountains coming into Nephi, plateau entering Santa Fe, and Colorado Western Slope, near Glenwood Springs.

Fifteen miles from Helena, we switched onto a back road - the one from Ferry Lake (Canyon Ferry) into town, passing north of the airport. As we motored thru wheat fields, I heard the rumble of a 737 taking off up ahead, looked up, and saw an alternate explanation for the noise: a thunderstorm/squall was draped across the mountains to the west of town, which lay spread out below us five miles away. With the wind at our back, I figured it would blow away from us. After four miles, it became obvious we would still get hit. We needed to cross Interstate 15, go 1/2 mile to Montana Ave, and we'd be in the shopping district, and safety. As I rose up the overpass, I counted 3 seconds between the flash and the crack, the drops got bigger, closer together, and the wind shifted into my face. I turned into ShopKo, and started looking for Cheryl and Rod. In the gathering storm, I herded them and our bikes into the airlock-like lobby, just as the hail started and the lights went out. One minute in the gully washer, and we were soaked.

I walked once around the store to dry my skin. By the time I got back, blue sky was filtering through the rain to the west. Joan came driving up in her Honda. She'd been on the shuttle this leg, and was looking for a supermarket, not us. Luckily, she and Shaine had brought several rain coats, and Cheryl and I each grabbed one. We started off, with torrents rushing from the overflowing gutters into the parking lot, and the wind freezing our soaking clothes. It all happened so fast, I forgot to take a picture. But I did get one of the storm in retreat, moving west while the wind blew east.

Two more miles to the campground, a hot tub, and bike cleaning time. Cody even got the hosts to donate a phone line for an upload, so all our needs were met. A day with something for everyone.

**Next Day's Journal**

-Al Bikrutz

Miles: Al (Tandem&single) 75; Cheryl (single) 50; Shaine (Tandem) 13; Dani (Tandem) 12.

Total Miles: 2865