We drove through the Great Plains states on our way west, through Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana on Route 2. The two most impressive things were flatness and windiness. The northern plains states aren’t table top flat; the land undulates ever so gently. Every once in a while there is a big rock outcropping plopped in the middle of the landscape. It truly is big sky country, as there is nothing to impede a 360 view. It’s possible to see thunderstorms many miles away—atomic looking clouds that tower over the prairie with a gray pillar of rain cascading straight down. What the area lacks in landscape, it compensates with weather.
And boy, was it windy. We stopped by a rest area and someone had signed the guest book with “Boy o boy, dat wind do blow hard!” One day on the road we had a tailwind and got fabulous gas mileage (for a 40-foot rig). The second day we were hit with vicious crosswinds that tried to push us off the road. After a while we started noticing other travelers bucking the wind—cyclists. In groups of two or three, cycling east or west with loaded panniers. The ones traveling west had their work cut out for them. Ben and I have biked a few hundred miles at a time here and there, so we both have some experience with long-distance cycling, though not on an epic scale. Cyclists are intimate with the road in ways you can’t imagine. Everything beats you up. A rough road punishes your body with vibration, sun and heat drain your energy and a strong headwind can feel like the hand of Lucifer is pushing you back to where you started.
We had just stopped for the day in Williston North Dakota, when I noticed two guys setting up tents across from us. Cyclists. Ben was outside and chatted them up. We offered them a couple beers, and they came over to sit on our sofa. Stephen and Vincent were brothers from Great Britain. Vincent now lives in Canada, and Stephen had come from Great Britain to embark on a long distance bike ride—Seattle to New York. They were several weeks into their trip when we met. Avid cyclists, they had done several long rides in Britain, France and other countries in Europe, Now retired, they had more time to do things and this ride represented a bucket list item for them. Vincent told me ‘doing something like this just takes time and determination. You really don’t need extreme skills or fitness. You have to want to do it.’ Stephen mentioned that he had missed the birth of two grandchildren and other family milestones. He told me he had to be in New York by September 10 to catch a plane home, that is his deadline to finish the ride. “If I’m not in New York on the 9th, I’ll take a lorry, bus or train the rest of the way but I must be on that plane!” We chatted a bit more, and then they left in search of a ‘nice big steak.’ When we got up the next morning, they were long gone. They had a heck of a ride, because the wind was blowing directly out of the west. Hard. As they were riding east, I doubt they had to pedal much.
The next day we crossed into Montana, into a tough westerly wind. Ben groused at the reduced fuel mileage. If North Dakota is flat and windy, Montana is flat and empty and windy. The sky is the dominating feature of Montana. After a few hours, it was my turn to drive, so we started looking for a good pull-off. Just after the road sign indicating the next rest area was 2km away, we passed two cyclists laboring into the wind. Improbably, they were riding west. Most cyclists start west to east in hopes of favorable wind. Not these guys. Full panniers, heads down on the drop bars, they were pedaling along. We pulled into the rest area which was most un-restful. Crispy dried out vegetation, picnic tables with no shade, and a bathroom with questionable water. Shortly after we arrived, the two guys pulled in for a stop. British citizens Ben Boddington (Bod) and Albert Thornton (Alb) started their trek across America from Boston on June 14. Their ride is unsupported; they are carrying all their own gear and maps. They are raising money for a group called ‘The Campaign Against Living Miserably’ (CALM). CALM’s is a mental health organization that focuses on men’s mental health issues, running a helpline and providing mental health education. They were fun guys, witty in that very British way and remarkably upbeat considering the day they were facing. They are keeping a blog of their ride; you should check it out. It’s well written and contains some amusing observations about the American landscape. The ‘Things We Learned’ are pretty hilarious. Here”s a link to their blog: albandbodcoast2coast.wordpress.com. There is a donation link on their website for the CALM organization. They left the rest area before we did. We left about a half an hour later (lunch and dog walking takes time) and few kilometers down the road we spotted them pedaling into the wind. I hope Idaho is kinder to them, but now they have the mountains to contend with, which is why so many riders go west to east. Get the gnarly
stuff out of the way.
Finally we landed for the evening in the bustling outpost of Shelby Montana, at an RV park perched on a hill above the town. There are many hotel/RV park combos in the area, and this one had a Comfort Inn, RV park and cottages. Just above the RV park is Shelby’s Veteran’s Memorial park, which we hiked to that evening. The Comfort Inn also had a tiny casino. It was a casino in that there were opportunities to gamble, but 15 or so slot machines just doesn’t translate to ‘casino’ for me. As we were walking into the hotel to check into our RV site, I passed a group of bicycles. Two bikes were each towing one of those kid carriers, but instead of kids they were packed full of gear. One of the bikes also had a child seat mounted on the back. A third bike had front and back panniers. They were all festooned with many blinking lights which no one had bothered to turn off.
From a distance it looked like small ambulances were invading the hotel. Nearby, a kid who looked to be about 16 was slumped on the bench outside the hotel. I asked him if he was riding across country. He looked at me with the kind of suffering endured by kids who are dragged along by parents for an “experience.” He said his family was crossing the US from Seattle to Boston—again. “We started last year but we had to stop because school started. This year we started in Kalispell” (a town near Glacier National Park). Apparently they are doing it in stages. The parents came out with their younger son and dragged the bikes and all their gear up the steep hill to one of the tiny cabns. We didn’t chat them up; it was late in the evening and the family didn’t look like they wanted to make conversation. We left early the following morning. Hopefully they get to cross the Mississippi before school starts.
Our friends think we’re so adventurous for traveling in our RV. There’s adventure to be found in any form of travel, but when we’re lounging in front of the TV with the dogs snoring on the floor after a day on the road it’s a cushy way to go. Then again when we are dealing with wind, dangerous weather, unexpected detours and narrow scary roads it is challenging. Most of us get from one place to another by driving or flying from A to B. There’s a great number that prefer a more intimate relationship with travel. Hundreds of people bike or walk great distances on roads or trails. If you keep an eye out for them, you’ll see them. If you do, at least move over when you pass them. If you want to make their day and yours more memorable, stop, give them some water (or an adult beverage) and a snack and find out why they are traveling. They might write about you in their blog.