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Day 9: Lincoln, MT to Great Falls, MT

Well, this one’s going to be a doozy. I slept horribly last night, waking up in a cold sweat more than once, and when I woke up for good this morning, I felt completely demoralized about the day ahead. On top of my initial apprehensions about the day, when I opened the door to my motel room I discovered a thick fog had settled over Lincoln.

Also, it was 49 degrees and I had only brought a light jacket. Didn’t think about the fact that I’d be spending a night at 4500 feet above sea level. So now I was practically in a panic. But I realized I didn’t have much of a choice other than to forge ahead with the day.

Got breakfast at the local gas station and hit the road at 7:45. A mile out of Lincoln there’s an outdoor public sculpture garden which is supposed to be quite impressive, but given the weather conditions I decided not to stop. Two miles out of Lincoln, I suddenly broke out of the fog. It wasn’t that the fog had lifted, because when I looked back it was still sitting there behind me. I guess it was just that localized.

The first 19 miles today were a generally gradual climb to the Great Divide. The road was still following a river for a good portion of the way, so I had nice views like this.

Also, really pretty flowers by the side of the road.

Just shy of the pass, there was this cool informational sign. It’s impressive to think this part of Montana once recorded -70 degrees!

The final mile before the pass was definitely steeper than the previous 18, but it was only a mile and even with the thin air I made it to the top without too much trouble.

Now, would you believe me when I say this was the easy part of my day?

I had been warned yesterday by multiple people that the descent from the pass included a lot of rolling hills in the 38 miles between the pass and the next services. The problem was, it’s very difficult to tell how big the hills are from an elevation profile, since the height of the pass dwarfs everything else. So when I had a few small uphills in the initial descent, I thought that was as bad as it got.

11 miles past the pass I decided it was time for a longish break, since I had done 30 of the 57 miles I’d need to cover to get to the first set of services. Only thing was, there was no shade. Or anywhere to sit down. I wound up taking my break in the sun in the grass on the side of the road. It was only a little past 10, but the sun was beating down pretty hard. At least the temperature never hit 80. And I had a nice view.

After this break was my rude awakening. The rolling hills became considerably bigger. Imagine a steep downhill for a mile or more, followed by a steep uphill for a similar distance. Now imagine doing that several times in succession. It was brutal. On the second big uphill after the break, my legs just plain gave out. They were simply too sore to pedal uphill, and I wound up walking the bike for something over half a mile. Fortunately none of the other hills were quite as bad, and I was able to pedal up all of them.

All of the exertion and exposure was really taking a toll on me though. At 45 miles and 11:45am I took another longish break. Thing is, I was having trouble keeping track of things. There was a great view of this beaut of a butte (see what I did there?) but I forgot to snap a photo. 20 miles later I came around it from the other side and got a shot, but it was a bit further away.

Also, when I got back on my bike, I noticed my weight was a bit off. Turned out I had taken off my Camelbak and left it sitting loose on my rear rack! Fortunately I retrieved it before it fell off, but that shows how fried my brain was.

To make matters worse, after Route 200 crosses into Cascade County, the shoulder starts having some very wide rumble strips. You would think this would be a good way to protect cyclists from cars. Problem is, the shoulder isn’t much wider than the rumble strips, so I had very little room to maneuver between the strips (which would have sent me to the ground) and the dirt (which would have sent me to the ground).

Eventually though I survived the 57 miles and made it to the service station in the tiny town of Simms, feeling completely spent. The experience in said service station made me acutely aware just how culturally different this part of the country is. There were multiple Christian bumper stickers prominently displayed inside, they had Fox News on, and while I was chatting with the guy at the counter he made some casual remark about “the lying news media”. I decided there was no point in engaging him on politics (and it probably didn’t even occur to him that I might have different political or religious views). The experience did remind me though that I’m almost certainly having an easier time biking solo across the country as a white male than I would if I were a different race or gender. In a place like Simms, I’m sure I’d get some weird looks (at an absolute minimum) if I weren’t white, and I’d probably get some condescending remarks (again, at an absolute minimum) if I were female. So yes, I definitely have it easy in terms of people by default treating me with respect.

Anyway, after Simms there were actual signs of population along the road. Things like houses and shops, which I hadn’t seen for 57 miles. The wind was highly variable⁠— a tailwind one minute could become a headwind the next and then go back to a tailwind the minute after⁠— but overall I think I got more tailwind than headwind. Also, the terrain flattened out considerably after Simms, so when I did have a tailwind I was able to book it.

19 miles later I stopped at a service station in the town of Vaughn. A bit worryingly, I had no appetite, even though I knew I needed some calories. Eventually I forced down a couple of Fig Newtons.

Leaving the service station I noticed some ominous clouds in the direction I had come from, so I decided it would be prudent to get to Great Falls as fast as possible, before a potential storm hit. Accordingly I really pushed myself the last 12 miles and got to Jeremiah Johnson Brewing at 4:30.

It was nice being able to hit up a brewery again after the disappointment of Lincoln not having one! That said, the only particularly noteworthy beer at Jeremiah Johnson was their imperial IPA. The others were completely forgettable. (I do give them credit for making a very good IIPA though.)

As it got towards 6pm, the sky darkened considerably and it was pretty clear a storm was brewing. Thing was, I wanted to have dinner at Mighty Mo, the other brewery in downtown Great Falls, and they were a mile away. So I quickly settled my tab and bolted. About halfway between breweries I realized I had left my Camelbak behind. That’s twice in one day being absent-minded with the Camelbak! Well, no time to turn back now, I’d retrieve it after the storm passed.

I did make it to Mighty Mo in just a drizzle and was safely inside when the thunderstorm hit. The beer there is quite good; I particularly liked the Orangutan blood orange IPA and the blackberry sour, but the Smoke Jumper scotch ale and the Rendezvous red ale weren’t half bad either.

After the storm, I returned to Jeremiah Johnson to collect my Camelbak. The bartender said he wasn’t sure if I’d make it back for it. Doubling back also gave me the chance to cross the Missouri River at a more leisurely pace and get a photo of it.

Yes, even in Great Falls, which I’m sure is at least 1500 miles upstream from St. Louis, the river is this wide!

So that more or less wraps up today. The only thing outstanding is that under my original plan, I was going to bike 106 miles tomorrow. Given how I’m feeling after today, I don’t see that happening. I guess what will happen will happen.

Note: Distance and speed figures for today include walking up the hill and doubling back through Great Falls.

Total distance: 92.7 miles
Average speed: 14.2 mph

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