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THE WEST – Bozeman, MT (VIA BEARTOOTH HIGHWAY) to Cody, WY

July 2, 2012

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Squinting into my rain splattered visor I could just make out mountains – snowcapped peaks like in the Swiss god dammed Alps. Mid-June I’m still seeing snow. For the past few weeks I had been riding steadily West. At this particular moment, it was raining. A steady, cold, hard rain, on this portion of I-90 West. Somewhere west of Billings, Montana. It was the kind of weather that you don’t dream about when you are doing things other than riding your motorcycle.

Earlier that morning I had the oil and filter changed at Reiter’s Kawasaki in Billings. They did a good job except for neglecting to tighten the drain plug and the lower part of the engine got a good soaking before I noticed the leak. So I guess, in reality, they screwed up a simple job of turning bolts, draining oil, adding oil, and turning bolts…… Grrrrr. How hard is it to properly change the oil on a motorcycle?

Things like this make me want to DIY it myself – just cruise into a Wal-Mart, buy a large disposable roast pan, drain the oil, change the filter, and discard the oil bottles, filter, etc., in the parking lot. Just create my own mini-Exxon Valdez toxic oil disaster and walk away. At least that way I’d be sure about the quality of the work. Hell, I’d have enough extra money to buy a nice lunch….

But, that’s not how we deal with things as a society today.

On the way to Bozeman. I stopped to re-fuel in Livingston, Montana. I filled the tank, hit the starter button and headed back towards the highway. As I rode out of town, a flash of sunlight broke though the clouds and Livingston’s main street was brilliantly illuminated. A blue, gold, red, flash of sky, color and scenery, just for an instant and it was gone. Beauty passing, opportunity missed, infinite white lines ahead. As always when I’m riding I move forward. Always on to the next place, the next vista, the next thing. As I merged onto the wet highway, I realized I had just broken the one promise I made to myself….

NEVER, EVER, RIDE PAST SOMETHING INTERESTING.

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Too many times I’ve done exactly that and regretted it days, weeks, months or years later. You will tell yourself that “I’ll come back” or some other nonsense and end up missing out on something great. When you are long riding you need to adopt the see everything like it’s your last day on earth attitude – cause it might be.

Then again, it was really cold, and I was soaked. This weather was not what I expected at all. I suppose I imagined spring in the west to be wildflower meadows, jumping trout, and high lazy clouds in an indigo sky. No one told me that Montana would be grey, wet and wet in mid-June.

Snow covered the high peaks and most nights it was freezing. In Montana, May and June are generally considered the wettest months and in higher elevations, it’s not uncommon to see snow in the hills all summer long.

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Approaching Bozeman the weather improved and the sun peeked out occasionally. I rode the Caponord into the parking lot of the Holiday Inn and put down the side stand. Not having any experience at Holiday Inn’s I had no idea what to expect.

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The Bozeman Holiday Inn was one of the few exceptional hotels I enjoyed on the entire trip. From looking around the country, it seems that Holiday Inn’s are making a serious attempt at gaining a following. While the hotel was not perfect – NO elevator to the second floor. Considering they cater to the older folks and bus tours, this was a serious problem. Heck, at 40, I hated lugging my crap up the stairs. BUT – the staff was very nice, the property was perfectly located and restaurant and bar were excellent.

Normally I would never eat in a hotel restaurant. Most of my experiences run two directions – over priced and awful, or free and really awful. However, the next morning walking through the lobby and a man approached me asking if I had eaten breakfast yet. I said I had not he handed me his free food voucher. I said “thank you sir” and walked into the Three Rivers restaurant – happy to enjoy a free meal, but expecting the worst.

To my utter surprise, the food was exceptional. The bacon was some of the best I’ve had. I ate breakfast there every day during my stay.

For the first time ever, I was going to have company on one of my cross country trips. My ex-girlfriend Suzanne had been hinting on our occasional phone calls that she would like to fly out and ride with me. The biggest problem for me was where to put her and my gear. I have the bike packed to accommodate one person – me. Two would be a challenge and I was faced with the reality that my Motofizz seat bag (which occupies the pillion seat on the bike) would have to be left or mailed somewhere.

Also, there was trying to fit additional gear on the bike. Clothing, sleeping bag, etc. “You can only bring as much as will fit into a 12 pack beer container”. Well, you can’t tell that to any woman alive and expect them to understand.

I picked her up at the airport in Belgrade and immediately realized she had too much gear. I’m talking about amount of stuff you can take with you when riding a motorcycle across country. Not your typical woman on a vacation, 14 pairs of extra shoes type inventory. So in reality, Suzanne packed remarkably light – but it was still too much.

About 1/2 of her gear……..

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I was now faced with a problem. There was no way I could fit everything. The pillion space is pretty large when you think about it. I would have to eliminate everything stored in the Motofizz tail bag and 1/2 of my gear.

Also, where to store the gear? Send it somewhere? Leave it somewhere? To be brutally honest I was a bit grumpy about having my carefully packed and many thousand mile tested setup disrupted. Hey, at this point she was my ex-girlfriend anyway……

Thankfully, after a few beers and dinner I decided to store my gear at the hotel and come back to Bozeman from wherever we were going (at this point the weather was so cold and rainy that I decided to leave Montana in search of warmer weather).

I wanted a guarantee of good weather and the only way to ensure that is to head one direction – South. So with the Road Atlas in hand, I zeroed in on Moab in Utah and a goal of visiting Monument Valley, Arches National Park, Moab itself and whatever else I could fit into five days.

HEADING OUT TO LIVINGSTON, MONTANA

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There is not much to say about the ride from Bozeman to Livingston.  It’s pretty country, all interstate, and that’s about all I can remember. 

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From one up to two up.  Eventually I relocated the bedroll and sleeping bag to lower locations on the panniers.  This helped get rid of the “and the sink too” look of the bike.  I hate having stuff all over the place.  Like I said before, I had my system in place for many, many thousand miles and it took me a while to adapt to having more than I was used to carrying.

LIVINGSTON, MONTANA

Livingston is beautiful and the picture perfect version of what your imagination says is “the American west”.

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Livingston was originally a trading post on the Yellowstone river called Bensons Landing.  In 1882 the Northern Pacific Railroad arrived and a short time later the camp was relocated and re-named Livingston after The Northern Pacific’s director Johnson Livingston. 

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For those of you who might be fans of the HBO show Deadwood – Calamity Jane lived here for twenty years.   More recently folks like Jimmy Buffett, Peter Fonda, Jack Palance, Robert Redford, Sam Peckinpah, Will Rogers, Rip Torn and Arnold Schwarzenegger, have made Livingston a hide out or second home.

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Lyrics from Jimmy Buffett’s Livingston Saturday Night

You got your Tony Lama’s on your jeans pressed tight,
You take a few tokes, make you feel all right,
Rockin’ and rollin’ on a Livingston Saturday Night.

Pickup’s washed and you just got paid.
With any luck at all you might even get laid,
‘Cause they’re pickin’ and a-kickin’
on a Livingston Saturday Night…..

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Seems every small town in Montana and Wyoming has a “Mint” bar.

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Originally named the Elite Hotel, the bar at the Murray has always been a gathering spot for the famous, infamous and just plain thirsty.  In 1905 the hotel had a hand cranked Otis elevator installed.  That’s a job I know I don’t want!

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LIVINGSTON TO RED LODGE, MONTANA

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We rode out of Livingston and I hope to someday return and stay longer.  The Murray is calling me.  We rode back onto I-90 and headed East.  At Columbus, we exited the highway and picked up 78 South.  Here the roads are more interesting.

RED LODGE, MONTANA

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Did I mention the weather was absolutely beautiful?   Warm, fluffy clouds, fantastic.

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Uncle Sam (what’s the right term for a land takeover at gunpoint?) “acquired” the land that now contains Red Lodge in 1851 by signing a treaty with the Crow Nation.  Shortly later significant coal and gold deposits were discovered….go figure.

By 1906 the population of Red Lodge included settlers from Italy, Scotland, Wales, England, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Germany.  Red Lodge had twenty saloons and records show riotous and violent behavior typical of a mining town.   By 1911, the town population had increased to 5,000. 

Red Lodge today is a vacation destination. The Red Lodge ski area is nearby and there are more outdoor activities than I can count. Red Lodge is also called “The Gateway to Yellowstone” and of course, the reason I was there – The Beartooth Highway.

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Friendly Pit Bull/Rot mix at the saloon door – tied to  a 1/2 inch diameter rope.  Good or bad for business? 

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We stopped here and had an excellent lunch.  There was no consensus on whether the Beartooth pass was open or closed.

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Red Lodge Ski area – still skiing in mid-June!

BEARTOOTH HIGHWAY

Charles Kuralt described the Bearthooth Highway as “the most beautiful roadway in America”.  From Red Lodge, the road climbs to 10, 947 ft.  It’s a real adventure.

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According to the Montana DOT the Beartooth pass was open. Open as in open for the first day this season TODAY.  The world around town was that the pass was open, or that it was not open, or that it was open and then they closed it.  So, there was zero consensus on what the real deal was.  All I knew is that I wanted to ride the highway and turning around would absolutely suck.

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There was some snow as we rode higher, but nothing to be concerned about at this point – the road is clear and dry.

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Looking back on some serious curves.

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WHAT MAGAZINES, TRAVEL GUIDES AND BOOKS SEEM TO IGNORE:

I want the head of whoever decided to cover almost the entire route with tar-snakes. Talk about something that absolutely destroys your confidence. First it felt like the front end was going away, then the rear end…… Huge bummer. I guess the extreme conditions require constant sealant, but man, did it suck. That the Beartooth highway is about 80% covered in this stuff is something you will never read in a guide book, motorcycle travel guide, internet review, etc.  Take care, those things want to kill you!

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I was entertained by watching the Garmin Nuvi GPS altimeter. The numbers were rising so fast I felt like I was in an aircraft, not a motorcycle.   More snow but no worries.

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Higher yet, but still no worries.

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Beautiful views and vistas. 

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8,000 feet – still no worries.

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9,000 feet.  Now it’s getting cold.

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And dark…….

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9,500 feet.  Seriously cold, there is a storm coming toward the summit and it’s beginning to snow.

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At around 10,000 feet I started to get worried. It was COLD, and snowing harder and harder. Visibility was getting worse and with the exception of that one car in the distance there was no other traffic. What concerned me the most was that there were no cars headed from the other side.  Maybe riding over the pass the DAY it opened was not such a good idea……..

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Boundary of a ski area above (orange fence).

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What’s this?  Ski lifts in mid-June?  The skiers there were race training in full winter conditions. 

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Zamboni, schamboni!  I want to drive the Snow Cat!  I thought I might have to ride this sucker back to town.

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Did I say it was cold and snowing?  Suzanne enjoying the cold.

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Is that a smile or is my mouth full of snow.  It was an unreal experience to ride from 70/80’s to full, and I mean full winter conditions.

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As we descended from almost 11,000 feet the weather was truly awful.  It was snowing heavily and visibility was close to zero.  Toss in non-stop curves and you have a huge pucker factor.  It is impossible to really show how bad it was.  The flash on the camera makes the road look great and without any flash it looks almost dark.

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Snow banks that went from 15 to 30 feet.  Crazy.

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Finally as we rode lower, the snow turned to rain.  For once, I was absolutely delighted to seen rain!  As I had given the Gerbings to Suzanne, I was absolutely, completely and totally frozen.  Did I say cold?  I was freaking coooooold.

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Someday I’m going to give up my insistence on wearing leather when I’m long distance riding.  I’ve been wet occasionally, soaked through occasionally and cold (less so now that I own a Gerbings heated jacket) and I know that textile is a better all round material (waterproof, vented, etc.) for the riding I do.

But – there have been so many dangerous situations, high speed desert riding, freeways in LA or Miami, carving up Mulholland canyons, or tearing up the Needles highway that I knew, with absolute certainty, that leather was the best protection. 

It may not be practical for every type of riding, but If I’m going off I want leather.

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Down several thousand feet and back into June weather.

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Triumphant “I’m still alive” pose.  Hard to believe how bad the weather was just a few miles ago.

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We arrived in Cody, Wyoming around 7:00.  By this point, Suzanne was exhausted and had just about collapsed on the motorcycle.  We stopped for a beer at The Irma hotel. 

The Irma is a Cody landmark.  Built by the town’s co-founder William Buffalo Bill Cody who named the hotel after his daughter.  The hotel and saloon opened in 1902 and quickly  became a popular gathering spot.  I wonder what old Buffalo Bill would think of people sitting in the bar, loading blanks into their replica Colt pistols, and checking e-mail on their smart phones.

Then again, I’m not sure Bill would care as in 1913 he was forced to sign over the hotel property to his wife.  She died in 1925.

At Cody, the West ended.  Replaced by rubber tomahawks, dollar stores and hokum “authentic western reenactments” of actual events. 

It was getting dark and we needed a place to stay.  As usual, I pulled out my IPhone and logged into Priceline.  I’ve used Priceline many, many times to secure a last minute room at a great price.  If I can get a hotel room for the cost of a tent space at KOA – why not?   Suzanne’s strength was almost completely gone and she needed a place to lay down right away.  She went through breast cancer surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatment the previous year.  Sometimes she would just crash and need rest.  I needed a hotel room now.

For the first time ever, Priceline immediately failed to produce results.  All my offers were rejected.  Apparently hotels in Cody don’t discount much if at all.  Everything I could find was excessively over priced.  The one hotel that was “affordable” was the extremely dumpy and nasty Budget Host Inn. 

But Suzanne needed a place immediately, ant it was the cheapest in town.  After resting for a bit, we walked into town and had dinner (no idea where).  It was a lovely evening, even if the hotel was awful.  That night I put a chair against the door – just for extra security.  It has been an amazing and memorable day.

NEXT – THROUGH YELLOWSTONE AND PAINTED POTS

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