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Dakota Excursion - part 3

Photos and story by Colleen First

We're back with part 3 of the Dakota trip.  Click here if you missed part 2 .

 

The heat had been increasing and now that we were crawling along the park's approach road, the cooling breeze of movement was no longer doing its job. We stopped at the store at the park's entrance to adjust gear, get some water and check out the store. The store clerk didn't know how much it cost to get into the park but said that cars were $10. I looked at Req and said "I'll split it with you" and asked him about doubling up on his bike. He was game for it, we locked his Givi's to my bike and pulled up to the tollgate on his Strom. Naturally it was only $5 for motorcycles, but just think of all of the Reese's Cups I can buy with that $5 saved! Jim joined us in the park, on his own bike.

After a casual spiral around the fringes of the tower, we reached the parking lot and found a spot among the cars, RVs and other motorcycles. Some gear was shed and we walked to the path that would lead us directly to the base of the monolith. We didn't bother to walk all the way around the base but instead stood for a while in the shade of a tree watching a speck of a climber attempting to scale to the top of the tower. Enough of being a spectator; it was time for us to do our own climb back on to the bikes and hit the road.

We left Jim at Devil's Tower while Req and I continued north. It was a pleasant ride through a varied landscape and the sun peeked through scattered white clouds. Nearing the Montana border I made a pass and expected Req to follow along behind me. When I didn't seem him right away I assumed that he had stopped for a photo and I kept riding, but at a leisurely pace. I reached the tiny town of Hulett and decided to wait for him here, parking the bike at the curb underneath the welcome shade of a tree. I kept scanning the corner, expecting him to appear at any minute, but was worried when he hadn't shown up in what I felt was a reasonable amount of time. Req had commented that twice now his bike had died at idle and I was now concerned that he was sitting on the side of the road, waiting for me. I turned my bike around and doubled back through town to seek him out. No sooner had I ridden past the last city block then did I see him heading toward me. It turned out that his tank bag had been open and his birth certificate had flown out while at speed. He had stopped to retrieve it and was fortunate to be able to find it with relative ease. Now we could continue on our way.

We rode back through the town and were soon gaining elevation along a deep valley. Traffic was minimal and I was enjoying the wide open roads when I noticed that my GPS said I was going east. I should be going north. That was odd. I pulled off to the side and informed Req that somewhere back there I had missed the turnoff for Montana. We circled back and rode through town yet again, looking for a sign for where we should turn. I eventually had to ask at the general store, learning that I had overlooked the sign (twice) during my anxious search for Req. Direction now correct, we were once again on our way.

Southeastern Montana doesn't have a lot of variety. It's beautiful but it's also fairly desolate. Rolling plains stretched out underneath eternal skies, giving both of us time and reason to contemplate why Montana is known as Big Sky Country. At the junction of 112 & 212 I pulled over at the only building, a roadhouse saloon that proudly advertised cheap beer and lousy food. The parking lot was empty and Req gave me a quizzical look when he saw that I was contemplating stopping here for lunch. I looked around some more and reconsidered my choice. I was turning my bike just in time to see Randy and Mary, two friends from the Meet, go speeding by on their bikes. I flew across the grassy median and flogged my GS to chase them, eventually catching up to wave hi.

Their pace was faster than ours and I let them gradually pull away, their two silhouettes eventually cresting one last hill and fading off into the distance. It was just Req and I and it was time for lunch. I spotted a couple of bikes in the parking lot of the diner in Hammond and took that as a good sign and pulled in. A huge puddle from the previous night's rain was on one side of the parking lot and I aimed the GS directly through the middle of it. It was much deeper than I had anticipated and water was flung up in all directions, completely covering me from head to toe. Req laughed heartily at me and I was smiling when I parked my dripping bike next to his. He had decided not to follow me through the puddle. Obviously his sense of adventure needs to be adjusted.

Lunch was good, with entertainment being provided by listening to the bikers and the locals alike. This was diehard farming land and the men who came in obviously worked hard to put food on my table. I wanted to convey my appreciation to them for their efforts but didn't know how to do so without sounding like a fool from the big city. In hindsight I should have just done it.

Back out in the parking lot I was waiting for Req to gear up and decided to take a couple of laps around the parking lot. I headed for more puddles and amused us both by splashing around until he was ready. And much to my disappointment he once again declined to give the puddles a try even though I had demonstrated how harmless they were.

It was time to ride east for a long time. We had no real destination for the night but were once again determined to find a place to camp. Infrequent small towns popped up along the way, giving me insight to the people who lived in this area. One sight in particular caught my eye enough for me to turn around and snap a photo of it. A horse was hitched to an old Amish-type buggy in front of a white-picket fenced house. What was odd about this was that there were three mattresses strapped to the top of this buggy. I chuckled and then raced to catch up to Req further down the road, telling him what he had missed later that night.

We stopped short of I-90 and put on some extra layers, as the weather was cooling off and I was getting uncomfortable. It was back to the interstate but only for a short time until we reached Billings. From there we'd start looking for a place to stay for the night.

I must have retreated into some sort of coma for this section of I-90 because I can't recall any of it. I just know that Billings is a much bigger and more industrial city than I was expecting. I found a full-size grocery store where we once again stocked up for the evening's dinner. Under threatening clouds we left Billings behind, climbing up an amazingly high and ancient riverbank. The view of the city was expansive and the road followed the rim of this canyon for some time before darting north and away from the city.

I checked my map on my tank bag and saw three or four towns between here and the next junction and trusted that one of them would have suitable accommodations for us. I was wrong. Each dot on the map represented approximately four buildings, with even the largest dot, Lavina at the junction, offering up nothing more than a general store and a couple of random businesses. Our prospects were looking slim, especially considering that the dots on 12 were even fewer and further between for the next 50 miles. The sun was falling and we were on our own.

The map gave one more glimmer of hope: just twenty minutes away there was a symbol for a campground. We'd be getting in late but at least it was worth a shot. After what seemed to be forever I saw a sign for "fishing access" and realized that this was our chance. I pulled off onto the side road and consulted with Req. Our choices were to take this dirt road to the "fishing access", not knowing what was there or how far it was. Or we could keep on riding to Harlowton and hope that there was some place to stay there. By now the sun was showing off its evening colors and I knew that we had to make a choice quickly. We chose to look for a motel in town. I found that we were choosing the "adventure of finding a motel" over the "adventure of finding a campsite" amusing and wondered if we would have been better off camping for once. Regardless, it was a few dark miles to Harlowton, made slower not just by the twilight but also by a surprising increase in traffic.

Our adventure ended at the neon lights of the Corral Motel, brilliantly lit up and across the street from a truck stop and casinos. The room was clean and large, paneled in exotically stained particle board with circular florescent tube ceiling lights. This was travelling in style!

The next day was a big one: we were going to visit Glacier National Park. I wanted to get on the road early so as to have plenty of time to lollygag through the park and see the sights. A quick fuelling in Harlowton set us up for a few hours of riding and we were once again heading east, but only for a little bit. Near the town of White Sulphur Springs route 89 shot off sharply to the north, passing through Lewis and Clark National Forest before joining 87 into Great Falls. It was a good choice. The road kept me entertained as it traced its way up a wide low valley, the hillsides covered in deep pines while a bubbling stream ran along side the pavement, glistening in the bright sunshine. Periodically, houses were set back in the hills, long drives snaking their way out to the road. As we rode north the valley narrowed, eventually closing in tightly, its rocky walls towering on either side of the twisting path. Rapid elevation changes gave an added dimension to this already fun ride and I had the pleasure of leaning the bike over time after time.

A quick stop in the tiny burg of Neihart to secure gas left us empty-handed. Req's range was less than mine and his tank was getting pretty low. According to the local gentleman spraying weed killer on his lawn, the only two pumps in town were shut down and would not be turned on for another two hours. I double-checked the mileage on my map to the next town, consulted the running odometer on my bike and estimated that we should be able to make it. And if nothing else, we could siphon gas out of my oversize tank and into Req's (something he was not very keen on resorting to). Back on the bikes and back on 89, it was a quick trip up to 87 and then just a few more miles to Belt, Montana. Those last few miles were a bit nerve-wracking, as I hadn't calculated them into my mileage. But the turn off to Belt from the main road was a special little treat as it closely followed a deep ravine and dropped quickly to the valley floor below. The one pump in Belt was operational and we both pulled up to it to replenish our supplies. Belt is a cute little town with an historic stone theatre, a rock-faced bank and quaint rusty pick ups trolling down its street. The general store was a veritable zoo of taxidermy animals, poised over the aisles of soup and laundry detergent. More Reese's were purchased and we took a little break in the parking lot, drinking our water and watching the town go by.

Refreshed and refuelled we got back onto 87 and onto Great Falls. I've always wondered about the falls that towns are names after. Just where were the "Great Falls"? Were they even still visible or had they been buried behind dams? I think that it would be an interesting search for these falls someday. I think that perhaps we saw them on our way through the city. In my haste I had read the sign for the bypass for 89 and confused that for the 87 that we should have been on. It was a circuitous route around and through the city, but it was somewhat enlightening nonetheless. And we still managed to find the interstate on the other side, forced to take it for just a few miles before regaining the pleasure of 87 through the countryside.

Ever so faint on the horizon I could see the dark forms of the Rocky Mountains. I was getting closer but it would take a while before they would rise up before me in their glory. Instead I focused on the gently rolling hills around me and the flat, wide marshlands near Eastham Junction. Many birds were taking advantage of the protected area and I had hoped to stop for photos. Unfortunately, taking pictures of birds is usually a patient endeavour, requiring time and persistence. I was short on both. Instead I kept my eyes open for the various species I could recognize and others that simply intrigued me.

It seemed to take a long time to cover the 80 miles to Browning. Perhaps it was the slight monotony of the surroundings, or the idea that Browning would be a lunch stop and I was looking forward to the break. Regardless, it was with slight relief that we reached the outer limits of the city and I pulled off into the first diner parking lot I saw. As a testament to the diner, many locals came through to eat there while we were seated. Lunch was tasty and relaxed and we poured over maps while we ate. I suggested our plan of attack for Glacier National Park, which Req approved of (he's a really good travelling partner). It was time to hit the road again.

I did another lap around the parking lot while waiting for Req to get ready, almost dumping the GS in the surprisingly deep and loose gravel in the corner. That would have been embarrassing, to say the least. Req was ready to go and I pulled out on to the main road. I immediately noticed a large SUV (like there is any other kind) that had just pulled into the left lane from the other side of the road. My well-honed motorcycling instincts warned me that she'd soon by merging into my lane and sure enough, without so much as a signal or turn of the head she was coming my way. I backed off and with a blast of my horn and went around to her left. She appeared momentarily startled from her phone conversation but quickly resumed her dazed state as she continued drifting over into Req's path. I watched him avoid her in my mirrors and shook my head visibly at her stupidity, my hatred of cell phone-using drivers reaffirmed once more.

The main arterial through town swung to the left and as I slowly moved through traffic I had the joy of watching a cruiser turn left toward the entrance to a gas station just as a truck was pulling out. The truck surprised the cruiser and he wobbled his bike for a few feet, narrowly avoiding dropping it, before he could regain control and get around the truck. This town was dangerous and I wanted nothing more than to leave it behind me. In my haste to do so I forgot that it was time to get gas.

It was a few miles down the road when I realized what our mileage was and that gas may or may not be available in the next town. I pulled over to check with Req but he assumed that I was a on a picture-taking mission and blew right by me. Surprised, I caught up, passed him and then pulled over again. He blew right by me. So I caught up to him again and on a straight stretched I matched his pace in the next lane over and motioned to the gas tank. He looked vaguely confused and at this point I gave up. If he ran out of gas he could suck on the siphon hose!

The road we were on paralleled the Rocky Mountains as they gained the grandeur commonly associated with Glacier National Park. Light-leafed aspen trees covered the nearby slopes while acres of torched pine forests covered the distant hills with grey skeletons. Traffic was getting thicker and so were the corners, a sad combination. I was enjoying the occasional corner taken at speed but they were few and far between. Finally I pulled over on a gravel turnout just to let traffic get ahead and to give myself a break. It was a beautiful spot to check out and Req and I each took a few photos of the mountains and the wildflowers. The roads weren't about to clear up as we stood there though, so we got back on the bikes and joined the crowds heading north.

While coming down a long and fairly open hill I could see a dirt road at the top on the other side. What better way to avoid the crowds than to explore some dirt roads? Req was right behind me as I signaled and took the turn. We flew a mile or so down some well-packed dirt, surrounded by felled trees in the midst of a log salvage project. Those grey skeletons were being harvested before they became unusable. The mess created by such an undertaking was all around us. But then we were also surrounded by unspeakable beauty. Hillsides of wildflowers of every color, snow-capped mountains framed by blue skies, rich green leaves of underbrush recovering in the burn areas.

Not content to just sit there and look at the pretty scenery I suggested to Req that we do some more exploration. Always game for fun (but not necessarily puddles) he agreed and we continued down the packed dirt road. At a "Y" junction I paused, not sure which would be the better choice. The one to the left looked a little rougher and therefore more adventurous so I chose it. I should have chosen the other one.

The surface was heavy, loose dirt that didn't play well with our street-oriented tires. I plunged on ahead until I came to another "Y," at which point I thought that turning around would be the best option. Unfortunately in doing so I also dropped my bike. It was one of those silly, low-speed situations where the front wheel caught an especially deep rut and the momentum of the heavy bike just kept going down, down, down until the bike was resting comfortably on its side. I stood up just in time to see Req pulling up on his bike, a grin on his face. He whipped out his camera and then came over to help me pick the beast up. We decided to head back to the pavement and go into the park on proper paved roads.

Fortunately the gift shop at St Mary's Lake sells gas. Of course they also know that they have a corner on the market and charged us a pretty penny for the privilege of filling our tanks. They also had jacked up prices on other "tourist necessities," such as charging $90 for a memory card that we saw later that day in Canada for only $10. I still bought some stickers for my bike and then we headed into the park.

Going to the Sun Highway was not open all the way. In fact, we got the short end of the stick because coming in from the east the road was only open for nine miles, but had we come in from the west we would have had 17 blissful miles of amazing scenery and vistas. The weather was perfect, too. As it was, we rode up as far as we could and then turned around and rode back down. What else could we do?

The guard was very congenial and walked to where we sat on our bikes instead of asking us to move up to the line. He asked the requisite questions while I swatted at mosquitoes hovering around my head. He seemed satisfied with our answers and motioned us to move ahead. I did so and was surprised when I looked back and saw that he was still talking with Req. It turned out that the guard was thinking of getting a Strom and wanted to know what Req thought of his. This tickled Req to no end!

From the border we made a quick descent to Waterton Park but decided not to check out the village. I had been there before and quite honestly the only thing I can remember is that there were deer in the yards of the houses. Instead we'd keep heading north/west and shoot for a cheap motel. We had unanimously agreed that the mosquitoes were to thick and we weren't going to deal with them. We really are wusses, aren't we?

Some time after we left Glacier National Park, the sunshine left us. The clouds had moved in and they looked dark and threatening, another reason not to camp. We travelled along 3, nothing truly remarkable occurring for many miles. A quick stop at Pincher Station for a break was enjoyed and while I was inside and Req waited outside, a heavy burst of rain blew through and soaked everything in sight, including Req.

Checking the map I could see that the town of Fernie was just an hour down the road. It was already getting late but Req said that he didn't mind riding further to stay there. I had heard other people comment on the charm of the town and I had always been curious to see it. This would be a great opportunity.

When riding east to west, lower British Columbia appears to be one big mountain. No sooner do you cross a pass and think "well, that was fun" then another mountain range would loom ahead. This makes for interesting riding and scenery, for what can be days on end. We had dropped elevation rapidly from Waterton and even more coming into Pincher Station but now it was time to regain some of the ground. The highway is now a blur in my mind but I do recall high cloud-covered peaks, heavily forested mountainsides and fast flowing rivers. And then we reached Fernie.

The helpful billboards on the approach to Fernie informed us that the cheapest place to be had was The Grand for $19.95 a night, complete with active train tracks across the parking lot. We found another likely looking place but the fact that it was locked up tight made it unlikely that we would get a room. We tried two other places, one whose "Vacancy" sign referred to RV spaces available while the other place was closed for remodeling. Our choices were getting slim. It looked like we were going to have to bite the bullet and get a room in The Lodge, undoubtedly the town's most expensive accommodations. As luck would have it, I saw one more option just as we were pulling into The Lodge's parking lot. It was the Same Sun Lodge � a hostel that catered to young adventures travelling through the area. The price was right and the room was comfortable. It would be perfect.

We unloaded our bikes and walked across the street to The Curry Bowl, where a delicious hot meal filled our bellies. Returning to the hostel I visited in the common room for a little bit before heading back to the room. We settled in for the night and I enjoyed the heavy featherbed comforter on my bunk. It was a very peaceful night's sleep.

Part 4 coming in January!


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