Friday, 26 August 2011

West Glacier, Montana - Going to the sun

Where the high plains of western Montana meet the Rocky Mountains is the territory of the Blackfeet Indians. One of their ancient legends tells of a time when the Blackfeet, an infamous warrior tribe, suffered terrible famine and lost their fighting skills and strength. The story goes that the Great Spirit sent down a fine chief who turned around the fortunes of the Blackfeet and restored their strength. Job done, the chief departed up the slopes of a mountain to the west as a snowstorm raged. After the storm, the sun came out and the Blackfeet noticed that the snow on the mountain formed the profile of the chief as he was going to the sun.

You may discard this tale along with those claims by people that they can see Mother Theresa’s face in a cinnamon bun or the outline of Jesus in a pain-aux-raisins. Nonetheless, the road that today passes the way of the great chief is called the “Going to the Sun” road. As it traverses Glacier National Park and crosses the Continental Divide, it forms one of the world’s most spectacular highways and it provided us with an unforgettable route over the Rocky Mountains.

We were sad to leave the high plains behind. The simplicity and airiness of the landscape had gotten under our skin and we were enjoying the increasingly chilly evenings and early mornings that made us reach for woolly gloves and duvet jackets. There was no gentle transition – one minute we were cycling in barren, arid grassland and the next in shady pinewoods that skirted the snow-streaked peaks of the Rockies. We barely registered the effort of cycling up the long and steep Going to the Sun road to Logan Pass at 6646 feet – the vistas of Glacier National Park were so spectacular. Jagged peaks and narrow fins of rock soared into a blue sky while dark forests of pines swept down the hillsides to the shores of dazzling glacial lakes. Meadows of wildflowers provided subtle colour and our first bear sighting added a frisson of excitement. It feels good to be in the mountains, as if the long ride from Boston was building up to this very moment. Of course, I love the mountains and cycling through Glacier National Park made me pine for the Scottish mountains … for throwing a pack on my back and heading out into the hills. After 14 months on the road, it’s the one thing that’s made me feel homesick.

Given that we’ve now cycled over the Continental Divide, you might think it’s all downhill from here but you’d be wrong – there are many more hills to climb. I’m hoping the great Blackfeet chief might make a comeback and restore my strength!

More words and photos on Flickr and updated map below.

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.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Malta, Montana - The Sleeping Buffalo

Graham and I are now cycling across the vast plains of Montana, once the home of Cree and Sioux Indians, where huge herds of buffalo used to roam the landscape. On an afternoon when golden sunlight broke through gunmetal grey skies, we came to a prominent ridge where there was an ancient rock the Native Americans called “The Sleeping Buffalo”. They revered and worshipped the rock which they believed safeguarded the buffalo herds on which they depended. At the time those herds numbered 60 million. How wonderful it must have been to watch them migrate across the grasslands or to feel the ground rumble with the thunder of a million hooves.

When the Europeans arrived they decimated the buffalo herds to just 200 beasts as part of their war against the Native Americans. Then, when the Native Americans were themselves decimated, the railroad came, pushing west and bringing settlers that turned the vast plains over to agriculture and cattle. The Sleeping Buffalo was moved to the city park in the nearby settlement of Malta but the Native Americans claimed that it was restless, constantly changing position and bellowing in the night. Eventually the rock was returned to the position it occupies today but corralled in a wooden structure that separates it from the very elements of which it was once a part.

The story of The Sleeping Buffalo is just one example of the devastating impact mankind has had on the landscape and its natural inhabitants. But the landscape watched us arrive and, one day, it will watch us leave. Maybe then the wooden walls will fall and The Sleeping Buffalo will awake to once again watch over vast grasslands and huge herds of buffalo.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Tioga, North Dakota - Weapons of mass destruction

Graham and I have now cycled across a big chunk of North Dakota. The gently furrowed high plains, once sculpted by glaciers and now covered with wheat, corn and canola, lend a simplicity to the landscape that is quite striking … but they conceal a sinister secret!

During the Cold War, when the West and the Russians amassed vast piles of nuclear weapons and pointed them at each other, the Americans built hundreds of nuclear missile launch sites in North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming – states that were within rocket range of Russia across the North Pole. When the Cold War ended and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty was signed in 1991, America shut down many of those missile sites.

On a balmy summer’s day when the fields were as green as billiard baize and puffy white clouds puttered across a blue sky, we came upon one of the old missile sites, November-33, near Cooperstown. On the surface there was not much to see except the circular blast door through which a nuclear missile would have exited at the start of its journey to death and destruction. We cycled a few miles further on to Oscar-Zero, a missile launch control facility, mothballed in 1991 but now open to the public. Our tour took us 50 feet below ground and through 3 feet thick blast doors to the missile control room. Inside were two control desks (one for each “missileer”, as the commanders in charge of missiles were called) with an array of instruments and switches. On the left of each desk was a loudspeaker through which the grave voice of a President might have instructed the missileers to initiate a launch sequence. Above was the little red box that contained the two keys required to turn the switch to “launch”. How chilling now to imagine that the turn of a key in this secret bunker on a quiet back road in North Dakota could have started a nuclear war and changed the face of the planet for eternity.

I returned to the surface and the outside world. With my back to Oscar-Zero, I looked out over the empty North Dakota landscape. I tried to imagine what it would have been like for a missileer to step out here some weeks after launching the missiles that started World War III and to gaze out into a nuclear winter. The land was empty to the horizon … there was no bustle of people … no sign of life … and all that could be heard was the eerie whistle of the wind through the wire fence.

For the people of North Dakota today a more real threat comes in the form of nature’s weapons of mass destruction – wind and water! Every day as we cycle across the open plains we keep an eye open for “funny lookin” clouds that may signal the beginnings of a tornado. People have told us stories of tornadoes that can demolish a house but a few yards away leave a flowerpot standing. We met two cyclists who had to take cover in a roadside ditch when caught out in the open in the path of a tornado.

But most devastating of all is the extensive flooding we have seen in North Dakota caused by the thaw of a record snow pack last winter followed by a very wet spring. Since we set out cycling west from Boston we have seen pictures flashed across TV screens of a small town in North Dakota demolished by floodwater and a few days ago we found ourselves cycling through the aftermath. That town was Minot. We cycled along deserted streets where all that stood were empty shells of houses gutted by water and the debris and mud that washed through with it. On the sidewalks were huge piles of garbage as people began the process of demolishing what couldn’t be saved. It was very sad – all those homes and the hopes and dreams of the families that lived in them, swept away in a moment.

It was a surreal day as within a mile I cycled out of the flooded zone and into the unaffected commercial centre – from a disaster zone to Starbucks in 10 minutes. I treated myself to two coffees – it’s the last Starbucks until Seattle!

That night a storm passed over Minot sending down more rain and wind but we were safely tucked up. In Starbucks I’d met Karla who invited us to stay out at her farm a few miles west of town. It was one of the loveliest places I have stayed on this trip. The farmhouse is built on a plateau at the end of a long avenue of evergreens and looks out over rounded hills separated by wooded coulees where moose, elk and wild turkey roam. Humming birds and dragonflies make Karla’s garden their home. In the evening we sat on the porch with coffee as the sun sank and the breeze played music on the wind chimes. Before cycling away next day, we were joined by Karla’s friends and neighbours for a traditional American breakfast of pancakes with maple syrup, eggs, sausages, fresh berries and good, strong coffee!

Nature may be adept at mass destruction but she’s also quite handy at mass construction. In a few days we’ll cycle out of North Dakota and into Montana where one of nature’s mass constructions will be on our distant horizon – the Rocky Mountains!

More photos on Flickr and we’ve been on the telly again – click the “Sleepless til Seattle” link and then the “video archive” link.