After Helena, it was a two day cycle to Butte. I took the ‘alternate’ route, which mostly followed the Interstate, and I stayed over in the small town of Boulder, which has a typically Montanan unpretentious view of itself, as can be seen from its Town Hall.
The route from Boulder runs through many reminders of the mining past of the area – some looking like some sort of ancient monuments.
There was a festival in Boulder over the weekend, but I moved on to Butte anyway as I needed to pick up some time, and I had a creaking bottom bracket that needed seeing to by a decent bike shop. Butte is a fascinating place, built around a gigantic (and highly toxic) mine – the town was once known as the Richest Hill on Earth thanks to the massive copper deposits underneath. Now, its fading away, but the old downtown is very well preserved. The locals work hard at keeping up appearances – which can be confusing as many old shops are kept up, with even the neon signs lit at night, but the shops have clearly been closed for many years. But still, I had a fascinating two days exploring there – lots of photographs taken, but its too slow for now (I’m in a library in Ashton, Idaho at the moment), to post now. But suffice to say it has a great collection of turn of the century buildings. It also has a surprisingly Irish feel to it – apparently many Irish came as miners in the old days, and it has a reputation (as many told me) for having the wildest St. Patricks Day outside of Boston! Looking at the state of some of the bars, I’m not surprised.
The two bike shops in Butte are great. The ‘Outdoorsman’ crew were particularly helpful – I had a bottom bracket and chain problem that they sorted out with no fuss. The Bad Beaver shop gave me pretty good advice about the road ahead – one of many warning that I’m too late in the year and I run the risk of hitting snow on high ground. On their advice I decided to push as hard as I can to get to Colorado quickly, skipping sections of the route were necessary.
It was hard to pull myself away from Butte, but after two days rest I set off on six successive days to get into Idaho. South of Butte I rode over the hills to the south, bypassing Fleecer Pass, and staying in the village of Wise River. The alternate route is attractive, following minor roads along the Wise River, a favourite spot for fishermen.
The next day was a relatively short (33 miles) but surprisingly tough ride up to Elkhorn Hot Springs. It’s a run down place, but cheap and pleasant, and it did wonders for my aching muscles to soak in the springs for an hour that evening.
As I tried to put some miles on, the next day, from Elkhorn to Lima was a 75 miles ride on rough track and some smooth pavement. I decided to leave the main route to save time, cutting east from Grant, going past the beautiful Clark Canyon reservoir, then following minor roads paralleling the Interstate to Lima. The day was perfect – great weather and magnificent scenery. The area south of Polaris is particularly stunning, wide open spaces with just cattle and wildlife to be seen.
At Lima, I met up with Erin, Eric and Graham, three cyclists from Oregon. I cycled the next day with them on a tough day over rough tracks to the gorgeous Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, and probably one of the nicest campsites yet.
From Red Rocks, it was an easy ride and enjoyable ride to Big Springs, a scattered resort area next to Yellowstone National Park. The other three went to explore Yellowstone, but unfortunately I didn’t have time to join them. On the way, while passing over another crossing of the Divide, a driver came up, introduced himself as Newt, and said he made a hobby of collecting photographs of Divide riders – so some fame at last!
The route south didn’t look all that alluring, so I decided to rebel from following the map and find my own way down to Ashton, where I decided to spend my next day. So I followed the main road south, riding on the many small tracks (most designed for winter snow mobiles, a bit winter recreational sport here). Some were great, some were just dead ends! So I mounted up the miles as I went onto the Mesa Falls National Scenic Byway, and detoured to the magnificent Mesa Falls, which made the detour all very worthwhile.
I finished up in Ashton, a town of just over 1000 people (the roadsigns here are very helpful for anyone interested in population statistics). It’s a classic Midwest town – surrounded by vast fields of grain, and dominated by a railway siding that cuts right through the main street, with trains and trucks being loaded with wheat day and night. Its small, but the town is a nice place to stock up on food for the road ahead – east, running along the southern boundary of Yellowstone, into Wyoming, and through the Grand Tetons.