Day 94 — Recovery Spin

Waking up from the 90 mile epic was a bit rough.  Eventually hunger won out over being tired (the dinner of popcorn didn’t really hold out), and we headed to the Crossing for yet another big breakfast.  That means big plates of food, a milkshake and piece of breakfast pie, of course.  Yum.

By now, everyone in town pretty much knows us, and knows what we are doing.  Wisdom isn’t a common stop for hikers, so they can’t really understand what riding the CDT means. But they seemed to really like the big loop we did, between two fairly major passes on the divide.  “Did you hear that?  They rode 90 miles, and it’s rugged up there.  It’s not like 90 miles of pavement.  That’s crazy.”

We took a late checkout from the kind motel owner, and took a lazy approach to the day.  A zero day was possible if we needed it, but a recovery spin on pavement back to the CDT was a secondary goal.

Food was a major motivator.  Our bodies were sore and tired, but energy levels were surprisingly decent.  We may have killed our phyiscal recovery, but mental and energy is more important.  We were still feeling good in that department.

So we finally left Wisdom, mid-afternoon.  It was time to leave the MT/ID border and go deep into Montana, at last!  The crux of the route is behind us.

The Pintlar Wilderness meant we were on a 30+ mile paved detour.  Fine by us, especially when we saw the significant snow accumulation on the highest peaks!  Yikes.

It was just what we needed — a true recovery ride on smooth surfaces, mostly slightly downhill and gentle tail breeze.  We followed the Big Hole River all the way to the turn off to Anaconda, where we turned up to rejoin the CDT. It was a beautiful ride with lots to look at and plenty of sunshine to soak up.  The traffic is, as expected, so low that I’m not too worried about finding an off-road route (through the Pioneers?).  After riding the border, I figure any CDT rider rightly deserves a break and it’s nice pedaling.

We’re camped in a small grove of trees on the edge of a hay field, in some sort of state wildlife management area.  Tomorrow we climb into the mountains above Fleecer Ridge, and hopefully make it to I-15 and the promise of MTB-friendly CDT beyond! 

Day 93 — Doing stupid

We did a stupid.  A stupid ride, that is.

Tired and feeling the effects of nearly 3000 miles of backcountry bikepacking?  Not the best time to go kill ourselves on a huge day ride.

But we did it anyway.  And it was fun.

We ended up with nearly 90 miles, and over 12 hours of moving time.  Oof.

It started with a big breakfast at the Crossing. 7am open time.  We were on the bikes and rolling by 8.

21 miles of dirt took us back to Big Hole Pass, complete with two cramping calves on me (umm.. is this a good idea?). We saw a hiker’s head walk across the trail.  Good timing!

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The trail from Big Hole is mostly old ATV style, trying to be reclaimed to singletrack.  It’s mostly steep, often unrideable.  Even unloaded as we were.

We quickly caught Unbreakable and NoTrace, who we had not met yet.  They were very cool to talk to, quickly grasping what we were up to.  I swear the older folks on the trail are the quicket and the most impressive.  I hope I am doing things half as epic as they are when I’m there age.  Inspiring.

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We continued roller-coastering along the divide, happy to not have camping gear along.  Small moursels of great trail (singletrack!) kept the mojo alive.  Then we’d slide down 400′ drops of highly eroded trail, only to push bikes 400′ back up.  Ah, the CDT along the ID/MT border.

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Then we got to ride a section of the PCT that’s open to bikes!  In Montana!  To whoever put that PCT sticker on that sign — well played!  It’s in a place where most hikers need a good laugh.  And a wistful rememberance of a trail that is so much easier than the CDT.  The PCT blaze is right in the middle of a rather laborious and steep climb, on a trail that barely exists.

A boy can dream of a better future where people are more accepting of quiet and human-powered ways to travel the backcountry.  Bikepacking is just beginning, and still widely misunderstood.  Things will change, though.  (100% of the PCT is closed to bikes currently, but there is a movement afoot to reevaluate that short sighted policy).

We caught another inspirational older couple on the dirt road after Anderson Mountain.  It’s Marmot and Trail Dog!  We first met them in Pie Town.  They leap frogged and still have some hiking to do in Colorado, but it was great to see them still in the game and in great spirits — despite having walked in the rain (and sleet/snow) for the past 4 days.  Tougher than us…

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Memento followed shortly after.  Then Data and Abandoner, hitching at the pass.  Glad we haven’t had to do that yet.

After the pass we rolled onto some XC ski trails that made for very nice travel and were in great shape.  Some jumps.  Some nice benchcut descending.  What a treat to ride it unloaded.

At Gibbons we made our truly stupid move… continuing on the CDT even though any reasonable person would have bailed out and headed back to town.  It was 5 pm.  11 miles more trail of unknown quality.

Well, we had heard it was a local favorite, and that there ‘might be a few trees down.’  The first 2 miles were all clear, even though the trail went through a massively burned area.  It suckered us in.

By the time we hit tree after tree across the trail, it was pretty much too late.  We’d already climbed 500 feet and descended a few hundred.  It was already looking very unlikely we would make it back to town in time for dinner — 9pm.

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Oh well, we continued on.  There’s great trail underfoot.  Easy CDT traveling.  Brief sections untouched by the fire were pure dream riding.  Then we’d be off the bikes in rapid fire succession, hopping over trees.  Dinner?  No way.

The clouds unleashed enough rain to get us pretty well soaked, despite the sun continuing to shine.  Just enough to ensure we would freeze on the descent off Schutlz Saddle. Gah.

Freeze we did as we blasted downhill through endless burn.  Luckily has a 400 foot climb that would have otherwise been frustrating, but served to warm us back up.  Darkness fell completely upon us as we dropped down the highway — still 13 miles from Wisdom.  I liked where the Big Hole road dropped us out better — 3 miles from town.  This section was definitely out of the way for us (especially since we were already in Wisdom!).

What the heck though — why not make it the third time we’ve ridden into Wisdom?  As we were dropping we both had the same thought at the same time, with Eszter vocalizing it first, “thanks for doing stupid stuff with me.”

It was, by all accounts, a truly silly exercise.  But we got to meet some friends, old and new.  We got to enjoy riding unloaded, getting more for our pedal stroke than we are used to.  We got to ride some of the PCT.  We got some great trail.  We saw the sun and felt its warmth.  And we completed what we set out to do, even though it seemed unlikely it would happen as we watched the rain fall and fall in Wisdom over the weekend.  An epic backcountry loop during a long distance bikepack.  Why not? 

Day 90 — A Wise Nearo. Days 91, 92 .. and? Rest in Wisdom

The rain kept me up for sometime and had me checking the time, hoping for sunrise. 12:30am. Ugh.

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Next thing I knew it was 6:30 and though the rest of the world was soaked, we were dry! Our little tarp did its job… and at half a pound, has sure carried well on all the nights we haven’t needed it.

It wasn’t currently raining. Time to get moving. It was tempting to continue along the trail, but a bailout was in front of us and we needed it badly.

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Right away we met a curious colored grouse of some kind. It fluttered its feathers up at us, dancing around and strutting towards us. We’ve seen many types of grouse, all hopeless at flying and/or running away, but none so colorful or behaving so. After snapping a few photos and marveling at the amount of control the bird had over its tail feathers we saw another bird in the trees. I think it’s protecting its mate!

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The divide was blanketed by clouds. The ground saturated. We coasted downhill on a route that seemed straightforward,  but soon we found ourselves following nothing more than trampled grass across a meadow. The adventure continues…

The trace of a road eventually brought us to a more major road.  20ish miles to breakfast! Go!

I had the opportunity to correct a route blunder from 2008. Mike Curiak and I had also bailed a Big Hole Pass on our bikepack trip.

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Which would you choose? The longer one starts out with a climb and looks less used. In 2008 we chose the shorter after a quick scan of the GPS. Incorrect choice!! It climbs and climbs and ends up being 8 or more miles longer. Luckily I documented the blunder here on the diary and had read that entry. Not going to make the same mistake twice!

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Are we there yet? — may have been asked more than once. We rode out of the fog and into the sun shining throughout the Big Hole Valley.

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Breakfast was glorious. We had eaten well on this leg, but no trail food can compare to a ginormous breakfast in town.

We have secured a roof and are pretty content watching it rain here in Wisdom. The Crossing has good food, a diverse menu and the best pie since Pie Town. Work and emails are getting caught up. Netflix is streaming movies. Bodies and minds are resting.

Wisdom is incredibly quiet, and small. The Big Hole area is one of the least inhabited of any divide community we have thus visited. A good place to slow down and convalesce.

We’re hoping to head out to hit the last section of the Idaho border, as a day ride, even though it is very much out of the way, and it’ll be the third time returning to Wisdom! We’ll see how the weather cooperates for that.

One thing I love about long distance travel such as this is that is really makes you appreciate sitting still. Not being on the go, when you are so used to moving, brings such a settled state of mind and a peace that can’t be found when you are stationary.

And yet, we crave movement. A fluid landscape. New horizons and the thrill of the unknown. Though we have stopped in many beautiful places, where one might be tempted to be content and live out their lives, it isn’t long before static beauty and wonder become old. The world is a dynamic place and meant to be explored. We feel the itch and the trail calls again.

At the same time, a journey this long is beginning to have an effect. Recovery is slowing, bikes and bodies are getting tired. I wonder how much of it is true fatigue and how much is the mind allowing some fatigue now that the end is nearing. If we still had another 3000 miles to go, fatigue wouldn’t be an option.

Of course traveling this trail by bicycle is demanding, physically. It is emphatically not a bike trail and there is a pretty good reason that no one has completed it before. But the mind and soul have a way of keeping bodies going. In Colorado getting deeply tired couldn’t be allowed — with so much to go. But in Montana,  perhaps we can get away with some?

I don’t know, but it’s not just us. As soon as we hit Montana the talk changed to finishing, worrying about it and being tired — among the hikers. It’s interesting.

Here’s to blue sky and sun ahead!

Day 89 — Slag-a-melt-down

We made it to the continental divide and the first flat ground with minutes to spare.  Lean bikes against tree, evaluate possible camp spots.  First drops.  Get the tarp up!  A few minutes later the downpour began.  We sat under the tarp, cooked dinner, and marveled at the good timing.

Earlier in the day, it wasn’t so sure we’d even make it here.  We knew this stretch was going to be challenging, and should have taken the warning of wanting to give up while riding roads back to the CDT a bit more seriously.  Still, the weather forecast promised lots of rain and only a short window.  We wanted to keep moving and move on past Jackson.  There may be a hot spring and restaurant there, but not much else.

Had there been an earlier bailout that put us anywhere near Wisdom, we would have surely taken it.  But the way the roads run, all we could do is pop out 5 or 6 miles north of Jackson — right where we were before.  We’d then have the same problem — no groceries to continue down the trail.

It was a tough situation, and the trails we faced are even tougher.

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They are exceedingly beautiful, too.  High alpine riding of the highest order.  Pristine alpine cirques.  Rushing creeks.  Treeline surreal forests.  Sinuous singletrack.  Rock strewn singletrack.  Definitely lots of rock strewn singletrack.

The day started out well — a mega challenge descent from camp that was just rideable.  A reasonable climb to Lena Lake.  Some contouring goodness over to the Slag-a-melt drainage.  Steep but reworked ATV trail cilmbing to Slag-a-melt lakes.  We took the side trail to the upper lake and were wowed by the beautiful lake and stunning cliffs.  We get to ride bikes here!

Err, push bikes.  The climb to the pass above the lakes is a doozy, and the downhill gives little respite.  It’s hard, hard riding, and not a good place to be with failing motivation.

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Ez tired

Ez isn’t the first to lose her will bikepacking here.  When I rode this stretch with Mike Curiak in 2008 he struggled like I have never seen him struggle — before or since.  He called the day early — well before sunset.  He dabbed on stuff he should have been able to ride.  He fell and dislocated his pinky, then ended up sending me on solo.

So, to say that this isn’t easy country is a pretty fair statement.  Ez got more and more quiet and finally voiced that she was done with the CDT.  It wasn’t fun anymore.

I can try to be encouraging and realistic, but there’s only so much a ‘significant other’ can do in that department, especially in a situation like this.  I didn’t actually think she would quit (impossible at the time), but I didn’t want to see her struggle and slog through the remaining long and difficult terrain.

I posted the above photo on facebook and asked for encouragement.  Within a few minutes a dozen people had chimed in.  People are awesome.

She got up from her nap.  The thunder boomed behind us.  It was time to get moving.  Motivation was back, and the trail conditions improved.

We passed numerous other small lakes as we pulled techy move after techy move to keep moving.  The trail contoured to the divide and the Idaho border much sooner than expected.

New trail continued into the spud state, and it was nothing short of dream trail.  Well built, and views that have to be experienced to understand.  We couldn’t believe there was a trail at all where it was taking us, let alone one so rideable.  Just awesome.

Then the trail turned to mega chunk and we were fighting our way down.  Then the rain came.  The first waved missed us directly, but soaked us in the end — the brush was tight on the trail and there was no way to avoid getting drenched as we descended.

Second wave doused us again.  We sat it out under the tarp, eating a second lunch.  The downhill eventually did end, putting us on a very old road.  Time to climb back up to the divide.

The climb was laced with rasperries, so we took little breaks to pick all the way up.  As it pitched steeper we readied ourselves for a huge push — lots of walking.

Out of nowhere a new CDT sign directed us onto singletrack.  Wahoo!  I wish we had a bit more energy to ride it all, but it was easier than the road.  The top half mile was rideable, taking us to ‘Big Hole Pass’ #1 (there seem to be multiple) where we hurredly set up the tarp.

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The first storm lasted nearly a hour and had us bailing water from under the tarp and building little moats.  We thought that was it, but as I finished typing this, it’s sprinkling again.

Energy and motivation or no, with this much rain and predicted worse tomorrow, it’s an easy choice to take the dirt road into Wisdom.  I’m quite happy we made it this far under very difficult circumstances!

Day 88 — Tired country

Simply getting back to the trail today nearly crushed us.  Sure, we were wrapping up a 65 mile resupply run from the CDT to Wisdom.  But it shouldn’t have been that bad.

Headwind, washboard, loose large gravel.  Fresh grading of the road in progress.  Loose soils.  Ugh.

We sat down about 10 miles into the ride and felt like turning around and going back to Jackson.  The rooms are not cheap there, though, and the weather is supposed to turn soon.  It wasn’t really an option.

We observed that everything and everyone in the Big Hole valley seems to be tired.  The lodge was run by tired people.  The restaurants.  The grocery in Wisdom.  Even the patrons and guests.  The thru-bikers and thru-hikers are definitely tired.  It’s just a tired place.

Things improved when we got on a non-loose surface and began closing in on the CDT.  We probably should have headed west from Jackson, on Miners Creek, skipping a good chunk of the trail.  But we didn’t, and I was regretting it, right until we hit the big descent down to Miners.  It was a blast! Freshly constructed with a wide bench, it was a bikepacker’s dream.

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Waiting out first drizzla

From Miners it was a mere 2000′ climb on chunky trail.  Luckily it strikes that nice balance between challenge and hike-a-bike, making for interesting climbing and giving you something to take your mind off how long the climb is.  Eszter was riding all sorts of chunky things and steep ramps.  It was looking good.

The last 500′ to the rock cliffed and percipitous pass was almost purely a hike-a-bike.  It rained again on us, luckily just another drizzle.  I pulled out my rain jacket this time, since it was late in the day.

The hike was hard work, and though the trail and scenery are incredible, it was hard to keep motivation high.  We really needed a full rest day in Jackson, not a 36 mile resupply run.  Montana is kicking our butts.

The descent from the pass was a hoot — for me.  Eszter wasn’t feeling it and had to walk most of it.  It’s a shame to have to slog through such beautiful country, but so it is.  The trail and the towns are what they are.  The weather is what it is, too.

We’re camped above the ‘Big Swamp’ drainage, super high for this part of Montana.  The sheer rocks and steepness make a trail seem unlikely, and a rideable one even less so.  It’s truly a special place to travel through, especially with a bike.

We have a number of 9000′ passes to cross in the morning, then a big drop into Idaho followed by a climb to Big Hole Pass and our first bailout to Wisdom.  Hopefully it doesn’t come to that, but with energy limited and gnarly weather predicted, it may be an option we have to exercise.

Until then, I’m looking forward to more wilderness style, high alpine riding.  And hoping for renewed energy in both our tired bodies.