Friday, 19 August 2011

Shelby, Montana - Life in the vast lane

Our little bicycles have now taken us across the high plains of Montana. Either side of us fields of golden wheat stretch to the horizon which is flat save for the hazy peaks of the Bear Paw Mountains and the Sweet Grass Hills. As we cycled into Shelby, we could see for the very first time a solid band of big mountains barring our progress – the Rockies!

Cycling across Montana’s plains made me feel very insignificant, both in the vastness of the landscape and the vastness of time that is laid out before us as we pedal along. Nowhere was this more striking than at the very pleasant town of Havre where we visited Wahkpa Chu’gn, a 2000 thousand-year-old buffalo jump. It was here that successive generations of Indians herded the buffalo over the cliff edge to kill or cripple them so they could be butchered and processed into everything the Indians needed. The buffalo was their supermarket and nothing was wasted. The excavations at Wahkpa Chu’gn revealed the different layers of time in the piles of buffalo bones and the blackened rocks of roasting pits.

But time here is even more vast. The buffalo jump is beside the Milk River which courses through a valley once cut by the mighty Missouri River at the southern edge of the last Ice Age. Across the valley we could see striations in the rock of the canyon walls that marked the different levels of an ancient sea and today the rocks are studded by fossilised seashells. This whole area is especially rich in dinosaur finds and in Malta we paid our respects to Leonardo, a 72 million-year-old mummified dinosaur and officially the best preserved in the world! Then of course modern man has added his own layer to the buffalo jump with the railroad that cuts though the valley carrying vast freight trains while people come and go above in the shopping mall.

You’ll remember that back in Argentina I wrote about the God of Cyclists (click here). Well, he has again been moving in mysterious ways. We’d planned to take a couple of days off in Havre and stay at the University which offers accommodation to cyclists in the summer months but we couldn’t get a reply on the contact number. As we arrived in Havre, a group of cyclists started chatting to us and amazingly one of them, John Donaldson, is Director of Student Services at the university. What a spot of luck! Though in the end we stayed in John’s house and spent three wonderful days with his wife Kathy, son Luke and their family and friends. They even took us to a pow-wow and a rodeo on the Indian reservation. Then there was another funny occurrence. John and Kathy had recommended that we stop at the Andersons’ farm store as we cycled west beyond Havre. When we pulled in there for morning coffee, we found Mrs Anderson stuck on a clue in the crossword – Scottish river, three letters! What are the chances that two Scottish cyclists would stop by at that moment and fill in the blanks with the “Tay”. Our third funny happening was in Chester. We were settling down for the evening in the city park when another cyclist pulled in with a wide grin and a six-pack of beer – it was Jordan whom we’d met on the SS Badger back on 27 June!

I’ll remember Montana’s plains for the vast views and pleasant little towns but I’ll also remember it for the worst place I have ever stayed! We arrived at Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs Resort intending to camp but the campground was overgrown, nobody had the key for the locked restrooms and it was infested with millions of mosquitoes. We decided instead to take a room at the hotel. It was a 5-star dump! The rooms were dirty and shabby. The TV didn’t work and the bathroom door fell off its hinges. Whenever you turned on the taps the smell of sulphur from the hot springs water was foul but even that was overpowered by the stench of skunk. The receptionist gleefully explained to us, as if it were an appealing feature of the place, that a skunk had died in the garbage disposal and the smell of it decomposing was wafting through the hotel’s air-con system. Perhaps it was the dead skunk that attracted the snake that was winding its way along the hall. We declined the invitation to take a dip in the hot springs which were green and slimy with rubbish floating on top. In the end, we decided to find it all amusing!

But the plains are now behind us and to continue to Seattle we must cycle through the Rockies and over the Continental Divide. So stay tuned. Will we make it through the mountains? Will we finally see a bear? If we do, will it eat us?

More photos and words on Flickr.

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