Lovell, Wy - Red Lodge, Mt: 78 miles. Total: 2377 miles
Where am I? In Lovell, Wyoming. That’s where I am. I repeat it three times before my glassy eyes stare at the slim cracks between the curtains. No daylight comes through which means that it is still night time, is it? I stumble across the room trying to find my bearings, the coarse carpet makes the underside of my feet itch, the smelly room is a battle field. I am in an unsightly hotel which reeks of dirt and neglect. I stick my hands out in front of me like a blind man, that's the bike. I depend on it, without it how the hell would I get out of here, how many rides would I have to hitch before getting to a proper town, or to an airport? All I’ve got is the bicycle. The room is hot, almost sticky but I didn't want to turn on the AC last night, maybe that was a mistake. I look at the curtains again and a slight glow peers through them. What time is it? I don't care what time it is, I just want to get out of here. I feel like Captain Willard waiting for his assignment. Kurtz, where are you? I’ve got to find you, no matter where you are, I swear to God I will find you. I put on my smelly clothes, they are clean but the smell of thousands of miles never leaves the cloth no matter how hard you wash them. I have to get going, my mission up the Congo River awaits.
Water on my weather-beaten face feels refreshing. I leave the key on the front desk and don't even bother to turn around to see if the guy running the place has heard me come downstairs. The fresh air feels good, breathe in, let the fresh air clean your lungs, let’s get rid of the smell of failure that you have been inhaling for the last few hours. Regenerate. Rebuild. Move your legs, wheel the bike with you to the side of the road. At least I'm walking now. Movement is always good. A neon light shines through a window almost entirely covered with flashy big-lettered stickers, this means that the store by the gas station is open. Let's go inside and grab something to eat. The world is silent and the early morning noises are muffled, like someone is constantly keeping his hands on my ears. It is a very lonely morning in this dusty desert hamlet which sits in this dustbowl of a valley, a forgotten place which breeds mosquitoes and heat. Some route you chose! There is even a TV in the convenience store, what does it say? I can't hear the voice of the woman who is reading the news. Oh, it's not the news, it's the weather forecast but it's the East coast, what am I looking at? What the fuck am I doing here? You are traveling, that’s what you are doing. A large-framed man with an evident limp minds the store and he rings me out silently. I'm not hungry and I stuff the food I buy in my backpack. How can I be hungry? How could anybody be hungry in this silent movie of a world that I'm trampling on. The bike is the only salvation. Come on Willard, move your ass.
I am finally on the road, alone, not even a car, not even a truck, I exit Lovell and figure I won't ever come back here again but life throws unexpected curveballs so who knows. I take 301, which is a gamble, if it's unpaved I swear to god I'm not doubling back. It is paved but the surface is as rough as an alligator skin. I have 65 miles before I hit the next gas station, the next food, the next water source, the next anything. I couldn't care less, I just want the wind to shut up and to go back to sleep, will it? The bike runs smoothly on the bumpy road; my legs respond to my pulses. There is a chance. I look around and the land only offers dry bushes, twigs, shrubs, dead rattle snakes and dry grass that line the edges of the road. Why would they build a road here? The image of Wyoming I had in mind does not line up with this desert, how can I be only 50 miles from the Rockies? Where am I? Are you sure you know where you are? My last two fingers on each hand have been numb for three days now, are they connected to some quarters of the brain that has gone to sleep too? In the recess of my mind doubts mount like water gorging from a waterfall, better not question my enterprise, just follow the road, 65 miles, a joke for you. So shut the hell up man and just ride. I pound out mile after mile and then another one but the next town feels farther and farther away, why? Oh man don't start questioning the road, with at least another two weeks of this you will go nuts. I could stop this and just go home. Doubts brew and churn inside me like rough waters in the open sea, they grab me at my sides, the indefinable feeling shakes me like I am piece of cloth in a dryer, could I lose my mind? Are my legs completely detached from my brain? On a long and lonely stretch of desert road one can go insane without a reason. A plan will save me, an objective will keep me sane. Anybody, anywhere can go insane without a plan.
Nothing around me suggests that human life exists or once existed, it is pure desert. I am completely alone. For at least 15 miles I have not seen a single vehicle, I have not seen a single human being or heard a noise that relates to human activity. The bike better not break down, I better not break down in the middle of this nothingness, this is how people die, this is how that guy had to chop his arm off to save himself. Me, no way I chop anything off, I think I rather wait for death to slowly insinuate its tentacles around me and drag me to its depths, wherever those are. I don’t even have a knife with me so I couldn’t possibly perform an operation on me. You have a perfectly nice apartment in a city with people and restaurants and ATMs and taxis, your friends are sipping cocktails at a beachside somewhere, why are you here? My hands are dirty, my skin is peeling off, my feet bleed and my skin is either covered in blisters or burnt off by the sunlight. Let's face it: you look like shit. I do. Okay, tonight wherever I am I will shave, I want to look presentable for the Beartooth Highway and for Yellowstone. Here's my plan.
I snap away at the Montana sign and as per tradition upload the photo on fb as soon as my phone gets signal. It doesn't happen until Bridger, the first town after at least 30 miles of desert. These are the silly little things that keep you sane. Then they are not silly. No. Not everyone has the same dreams and not everyone has a dream. I could just settle for a good book and a pair of sandals. Not yet. One more desert. One more day. One more climb. Just one more.
I'm not alone anymore, trucks begin to whizz by and I see a huge antenna on top of the hill. There is life around. With a smirk on my face as large as the Montana blue sign that only a headwind will wipe off, I ride to Bridger, 48 miles from Lovell, pushed by a tailwind, I average 23mph and I am thinking, when is this ever going to happen again? Maybe never, maybe tomorrow, right now I will take it, here's your good book and the pair sandals. Bridger is a tiny milestone because it is northernmost point of my ride, from here on out it will be west and south, south and west. I take 311 where I ride for 11 miles into the headwind, the very same wind that was my good friend a few minutes back. Then I go west on 308 which leads into the mountains. Only 15 miles to Red Lodge but the last 3 make me really work. Am I tired or is it this hill that it is really steep? I hit Bearcreek, a dirty speck of a village perched on the side of a dry narrow valley. The place looks unappealing, ordinary, empty. It is but it has an interesting past. In 1907, there was one of the best hotels in the region here which would accommodate hundreds of miners that came to live and work in the underground mines. The road I am cycling on is a narrow two-lane highway which follows a gorge until it yields onto a plateau. In this narrow valley five companies used to operate coal mines in 1910. Coal boomed by the 20s but by the 40s production diminished as the railroads converted to diesel-powered locomotives and private homes began using natural gas. The last mine closed down in the 70s. Today the place is almost a ghost town and many of the buildings from the mine era and the hotel included have been razed. Only a few shacks stand, waiting for rust and the weather to pollute them to death and disintegrate them forever.
Just west of Bearcreek, I ride by several old structures which were the site of the Smith Mine disaster. In 1943, 74 men died in the worst mine disaster in the history of Montana. This event put the final nail on the coffin of the local coal industry.
Red Lodge is civilization. After the desolation of the desert I am happy to find a lively town which, on account of its vantage proximity to the Beartooth and Yellowstone has a booming tourism industry. I ride to the tourist information center to get some heads-up about the road for tomorrow. Much info comes my way and with it an unbearable excitement. What were you saying about a good book and cocktails? Fuck that. I want to be here, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
Today it was all about getting as close as possible to the mountains. It was a very short day, only 78 miles but tomorrow it will be the biggest day of the ride. For the first time I make a reservation ahead because inside Yellowstone all the lodges are likely to be fully booked. I have found the only place on my route in Canyon Village, a long way from here with passes and climbs in between. More than 100 miles and if I don't make it I will waste two hundred bucks. Two hundred bucks for a room in a lodge? This is Yellowstone. I am going to make it. The weather for tomorrow is not ideal, slightly iffy, 20% chance of thunderstorms. Fantastic, just what I wanted.
I should be in the mountains for at least three days, Beartooth, Yellowstone and Tetons, I am pretty sure that I will find wifi but if you don't see any updates you will know why.
The view from route 308 before reaching Red Lodge