Day 18: Bannack State Park – Lima, MT

Miles: 81

Climbing: 3822 ft

I’ve been noticing lately that because the terrain and weather change so frequently, my days are often divided pretty neatly into distinct phases. This was most painfully clear today, which included: the most miles I’ve ever ridden my bike at a single go, some of the most beautiful stretches of the trip, and also by far the worst few hours of the trip. Let me break it down:

Phase 1: Bannack Ghost Town and Some Rolling Hills

This was my morning! It was nice! I got packed up, and spent a few minutes exploring the ghost town of Bannack, the first capital of Montana and site of Montana’s first gold rush. You’re allowed to walk in and explore the buildings as you wish, and it was really cool.

After a bit of exploring, I headed out into the hot, open, desert-like hills. There were no trees, just low shrubs covering the hills as far as you could see. The sun began getting very very hot, so I changed into long sleeves. This comprised the first 20 or so miles of the day–hot, but manageable. Nothing crazy.

Phase 2: Cow Water and the Slow Climb of Death ☠️☠️☠️

So, in riding in the heat for miles and miles, you end up drinking a ton of water (obviously), which today had two unforeseen consequences. First was that I had to stop and filter water more often. No problem, except the only water available today came from these streams which snaked for miles through…..cow pastures. Even though I know my water filter is good, I swear the water hangs onto a slight cow-y smell/flavor. Am I aware this is all in my head? Yes. Does that change the fact that drinking cow water grosses me out? Nope. 🐄💦

My mood re: this section. Also, a closeup of my gross lip sunburn blisters

Drinking cow water all day has another consequence: you have to pee a lot. And guess what: when you’re traveling through wide, open, exposed country all day, THERE IS NOWHERE TO PEE. Add to that the fact that I wear bibs instead of shorts (probably stupid, but they’re more comfortable, whatever), this means that every time I have to pee, I have to get half naked and squat on the side of the open road. Awesome. One time I just managed to get dressed before I truck came by. 🙃

Now, cow water and free range peeing is one thing. A 35-mile rocky road gradual climb in 100+ degree heat is another. These few hours comprised my greatest misery I’ve experienced on this journey. Turns out that, while wind and rain and climbing and technical terrain can get me down……it’s unyielding sun that really draws out my worst moods. I managed–somehow? pedaling and crying and literally yelling at the wind?–to get to the top of Medicine Lodge/Sheep Creek Pass. And as I approached it . . .

Phase 3: On Top of Montana, the Clouds Come Out

Clouds. That’s all it took. 5 minutes under cloud cover and I was cured. I hiked my bike up the last little bit of the pass and was on top of this gorgeous amazing beautiful field, with snowy mountaintops in every direction. Dramatic cloud formations stirred with the coming afternoon thunderstorm (which has happened nearly every day in Montana), and a chilly wind blew through. It was epic, and beautiful. I stopped and ate some Oreos, and my thoughts shifted from “I hate biking and this trip was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done” to “this is amazing and cycling and this trip is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

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I honestly think the heat and cloud cover were like….80% of it.

Descending off the mountain top, I got this amazing tail wind and FLEW down the hill, laughing almost maniacally as I navigated the road. It was intoxicating.

Then, to IMPROVE matters even more, I descended off the mountain (still under the lovely cloud cover) into the most incredible route through a canyon. The landscape was fascinating: big dramatic rock formations on one side, near-vertical grassy faces on the other, with a river carving its way along. Smells of sagebrush came on the wind, which whipped along the canyon. At various times, it reminded me of the Scottish Highlands, parts of the Caucasus mountains I hiked in Azerbaijan, and Cappadocia, Turkey (#flex on my traveling past 🙆🏼‍♀️).

Phase 4: Changing Plans

As I exited the canyon, I approached the campground where I had planned on staying–I was tired from a long, hard day, but a little bit of me had considered making it all the way to Lima (an extra 12 miles). When I pulled up next to the campground, two things happened: First, I noticed that unlike many campgrounds I’ve stayed at (which are full of families and old couples in RVs), I saw only a group of 8-10 dudes in their 20s-30s standing around a fire drinking. My self-preservation woman-traveling-alone alarms started going off. Then, at that exact moment, a super strong tail wind came from behind me–strong enough to push me UP a hill, and in the direction of Lima. Hey, I can take a hint. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I rode that tailwind about 5 miles, until I had to make a 90 degree turn…..so it became a pretty stiff crosswind, ha! The last 7 or so miles into Lima were flat, with raindrops threatening to fall. However, I also saw about 5 different rainbows in the course of this time, and felt reassured that I had made the right choice.

Double rainbow pulling into Lima

Sun setting on the mountains over Lima

I got into Lima and grabbed a camping spot, shower, and did some laundry in the RV park there. I also ran into Pete, whom I hadn’t seen in almost 2 weeks! He had been having knee issues and hitchhiked to a hospital to get a cortisone shot. It was great to catch up with him, and find out where others were distributed in front and behind me. It has been super fun to meet up with people along the route as I go!!!

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