Custer, SD – Pt 1 (2007)

2007 STN National

June 9 – 17, 2007
Total Miles: 3,794, 9 days
Seattle, WA – Custer, SD and back
Map Link (east bound)

As usual, it was raining when I started out on this trip. The sky was low with clouds and the air thick with humidity. Cool temperatures led me to bundle up early and I rolled the GS out of the garage for the first leg of what would be a 9-day journey to Custer, South Dakota for a motorcycle meet and then back home to Seattle.

A quick dash through town and then I was on I-90 for a few short miles to North Bend, where I planned to meet up with two other riders. I was early and sat down under a tree to wait for the first arrival, camera in hand. Chris was the first one to roll into the parking lot and I snapped his picture as he neared me. We went inside to wait for the other rider, who’s name is also Chris. Because of the confusion this creates, I call each of them by their screen name on STN.

Cheez, the first Chris to show up, and I had a light breakfast and talked for a while until Req, the second Chris, could finally make his way to North Bend. Req had run into some trouble with getting his new Olympia riding suit delivered in time for the ride and was delayed in retrieving it from the UPS holding facility in Redmond, WA. But we were finally together and ready to go, only an hour later than planned.
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The Meeting Place in North Bend, WA

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Cheez pulls up

The first order of business was to get over the Cascades. I felt confident that once we got over the mountainous barrier that the sky would clear up and the sun would come out to play. So we trudged up I-90 through a light mist and came down the other side still in a light mist. Not one to pass up an opportunity for fun, I took us over Blewett Pass, enjoying the brief 40 miles of curves and close mountains. The clouds persisted even as we dropped down into the Okanogan valley near Wenatchee but I held onto the hope that riding a little further north or east would clear things up right away.

We took the same route that I had taken to Grand Coulee Dam the previous month, enjoying yet again the wide-open spaces of Washington’s interior. I toyed with the idea of skirting over to Wilber and taking the Keller ferry across the Columbia River but I was interested in taking a particular road north of the river. I should have taken the ferry, but the original route was still enjoyable. Despite the wet conditions.

The weather held for our dash up #21, following the Sanpoil River and enjoying the farmlands along the way. It didn’t take long to cross the border at Danville and then we were safe on Canadian soil. I led Chris and Chris through Grand Forks, noting that the town’s tough bicycle gang was out in full force, the four riders pedalling down the sidewalk with gusto. Shortly after Grand Forks I saw a single headlight heading my way. Something about it looked familiar and I wasn’t too surprised to see Jim (bubba zanetti) waving at me as he went by. He had been itching for a ride and decided to come out and meet us. He caught up with us and led us back to Castlegar, where we were planning on spending the night at his house.

Dinner awaited us with fresh burgers off the grill and cold beverages from the fridge. Req took some time to check out his new riding gear while in the comfort and dryness of Jim’s living room while Jim and his family relaxed with us. John (GetFuzzy) dropped by to say hi and the hours passed by pleasantly. Plans for the morning were made and eventually we stumbled off to our beds for the evening.

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Dry Falls, WA – not looking very dry

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Viewpoint from Peter Dan Road

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Cheez looking wet and serious

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Req checks out his new gear more closely

The next morning dawned damp and overcast, but not actively raining. Jim was going to ride with us for a few hours that day and we started by heading north to Balfour where we were just in time to catch the Kootenay Ferry across the lake. It was a relaxing 30 minute ride across the lake with clouds hanging low over the water but the sun still managing to lighten things up in a cheery sort of way.

What was even more cheerful was the prospect of #3A that awaited us. This is Destination Highway’s #1 ranked motorcycle road in all of BC. I don’t think it deserves that high of a ranking, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy a good romp down its pavement now and again. The road did not disappoint and even managed to dry out for long stretches at a time. I lead us at a decent pace but Cheez quickly took over and let it be known that he was the fastest rider in the group. A quick photo-op near the south end of Kootenay Lake grouped us up again and then we were together rolling through Creston and points east.

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On the ferry across Kootenay Lake

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Bubba on the ferry

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The traveling fools (me, Req and Cheez)

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The view down the lake

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Stopping along 3A on Kootenay Lake

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More views from 3A

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Misty mountains

From Creston the #3 rolls quietly through the softer hills that are tucked between the Kootenays and the Canadian Rockies. The clouds continued to haunt us and eventually the rain caught up to us (or we caught up to the rain) near Moyie. Jim pulled off to the side so he could put his rain gear on. Traffic was getting thicker the further east we went and I looked sadly at the RVs and campers that drove by, knowing how hard it was to pass them before and I’d have to do it again. The road beckoned and soon we were back on our seats and playing in the weekend traffic. A few more elevation changes and we came to the town of Cranbrook. I was charged with finding lunch but failed miserably. The couple of places we stopped at were closed (it being Sunday) and finally we resorted to asking a local. They made a suggestion that was just down the street and somehow between getting on the bikes and pulling out of the parking lot, I lost the rest of the guys. I also got lost getting to the suggested eatery but with some more help from the locals I eventually found the place and parked the bike. No one else from my group was there so I sat down to wait.

And wait.

Eventually Jim rode up and let me know that they had found an even better place, which was good, because I had been sitting in front of what was essentially a coffee shop – not exactly “lunch” material. A quick trip down the block, around a few more blocks and then up another block found Cheez and Req waiting outside a suitable looking diner. The key to this building’s acceptability was the sheer number of pickup trucks parked out front – a sure sign of good food inside.

And the food was good, although the service was a little bit lacking as the server was caught alone and a lot of patrons came in around the same time. The highlight of the stop was a tie between Cheez trying to get a glass of water and Req trying to get into his riding gear with the liner in place.

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Puppy guards its couch

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Crossing back into the US at Eureka, MT

Shortly after leaving Cranbrook the rain returned in earnest and it was with a wet, heavy heart that Jim pulled off near Elko to turn around and head back home. We said our goodbyes while standing in the puddles of the turn out and then headed south for the border.

The border guard was repetitious in his questions to us, asking us no less than three times if we had anything to declare or if we had any firearms or tobacco. After making me open up one of my side bags he finally seemed satisfied and let us cross over into Montana. A few short miles later we were fueling up in Eureka and making plans for the next portion of the day’s ride. Jim had told me about Koocanusa Lake, a little known lake just east of the Montana/Idaho border that was ringed by motorcycle friendly pavement. We would make our own way down to the south end of the lake and then meander south and east until we decided to stop for the evening. The plan being set, we headed for the lake.

A long bridge marks the choice between routes. The east side is fast, full of sweepers and high-speed corners. The west side is the opposite with tight turns and a correspondingly slower pace. I chose to go for the west side, hoping that there would be less traffic and more fun. The roads were wet which in of itself wasn’t a problem, but the surface was covered with “tar snakes” – those strips of tar that the state puts down to cover up cracks. These are deadly slippery when wet or very hot, and today was a wet day. The road was so bad, in fact, that Cheez turned around to take the faster east side route while Req and I continued to slide our way through the corners.

It was worth it. After a few miles the tar snakes cleared up and the surface dried out and I was railing through the corners like no one’s business. I saw more bicycle riders than I did cars and only two deer cared to come out to bother me. I stopped frequently for pictures, occasionally catching Req as he flew past and then mentally waved as I passed him further on down the road. The tar snakes returned towards the end of the road but a sufficient number of corners had been conquered so that I did not feel entirely cheated. After a brief confusion on finding our route, Req and I met up with Cheez and together we took off down Fisher River Road and points east.

Fisher River Rd started out as fairly unremarkable and desolate. The river and the railroad followed along to my left and trees dotted the hillside to my right. There was no commercial enterprise here, or any residential. From what I could tell, this was generally unused recreational land. Therefore it was no surprise that traffic was almost non-existent and the three of us were able to keep up a merry pace through the gently bending turns. Then the road took a dramatic swing to the right and left the river and the railroad behind. The road started to climb and get narrower. Eventually the painted lines disappeared altogether and edge of the road dropped down into a steep valley. I was seriously hoping that this would not be a well-traveled road. As it was, we encountered one truck coming our way but it was at an easy place to pass and we were left alone for the remainder of our route.

When riding down a major road I often look at the road signs tucked along the side, wondering where these passages lead to and what wonders might be found if I were to follow them. Fisher River Rd is one of these, as it spit us out surreptitiously onto Hwy 2 and we joined the plebeian crowd of travelers yet again.

Hwy 2 stretches out across the state of Montana, reaching up to touch the southern tip of Glacier National Park. But that would not be our destination this day. Actually, we didn’t know what our destination would be. In order to keep some semblance of our timetable we’d have to at least get past Kalispell, something that obviously would not be a problem at this point for us. In Kalispell we fueled up and consulted the map. Cheez would be heading home (Olympia, WA) the next morning while Req and I continued on our southeastern jaunt to Custer. This meant that our route, and stopping point for the night, would have to take into consideration each of our needs. It was decided to ride south along the shores of Flathead Lake and find a place to stay somewhere south of there.

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The bridge over Koocanusa Lake, MT

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Some serious excavation to make this road!

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I’m guessing Req is not prepared to stop

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Koocanusa Lake

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Finally decent pavement

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Shoreline of the lake

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Req zips by

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Pavement worth detouring for

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Dam ahead!

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Yep, that’s a lot of concrete

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Req meanders his way down Fischer River Rd in Montana

Flathead Lake was surprisingly beautiful, with glacier-fed waters in the northern end offering a greenish hue to the surface. Houses and boats crowded the shoreline but in a pleasing picturesque sort of way. The road hugged the western shore of the lake and gave a variety of views and road conditions. This wasn’t a very fast road and traffic was a little heavier than we had been used to, but we made good time and arrived in the rather dull town of Ronan. We found the stellar “Starlite Motel” at the end of the commercial strip and proceeded to bargain for a room for the night. The desk clerk was helpful, if not a little too talkative, but pointed out a nice place to eat a few miles down the road. We secured our room and took off for dinner before it got any later.

I laughed when we pulled into the “restaurant” that the motel clerk had recommended. He had neglected to tell us that it was actually part of a lodge and we very well could have stayed there for the night. But the food was scrumptious, the waitress was a hoot and the view of the Rockies was spectacular. It was with a heavy heart that I could not eat the last two potato skins on the plate. But I did manage a pretty good imitation of Devil’s Tower with my mashed potatoes, complete with broccoli trees at its base.

Fun with food time was over and we got back on our bikes just as the sun was sinking behind the mountain range to the west. Cheez rode ahead to stop at the store while Req and I stopped at a scenic turnout, a sign that he had scoffed at on the way to dinner. But now, with the fiery red sun setting behind us, the mountains to the east were lit up with a mystical hue. The day’s lingering rain clouds provided the second ingredient necessary for a rainbow that stretched down into the wetlands. But a warm room was calling and we made quick work of the last couple of miles back to the Starlite Motel.

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The Starlite Motel in Ronan, MT

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Spacious rooms

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Our view during dinner

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Oh yeah baby!!!

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An omen of things to come…

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A surprise sunset after a damp day

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The ubiquitous rainbow

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Scenic turnout – indeed

The next morning dawned bright and clear, a welcome change from the last couple of days. Cheez packed up his bike and Req and I bid him adieu as he road off to return to work and other bastions of responsibility. But Req and I had better plans! I had scoped out on the map a dirt road that would connect Rt 93 with Rt 83 and we were both excited to check it out. Req rides a V-Strom and had ridden with me back from California a few weeks back, enjoying the brief stint of dirt roads we had found then. More dirt could only be better!

I studied the map and figured that the road I was looking for would have a sign along the highway. We rode south and then hit construction. Miles and miles of one-lane construction with gravel – this was not the dirt road experience I was looking for. By the time the construction ended I realized that I had not seen the sign I was looking for. Instead of backtracking through the construction hell, I saw that another dirt road would start a little further south from us and join up with the original road. It was time for Plan B.

Nearing the tiny town of Arlee I once again kept a careful eye out for a likely looking sign. Almost too late to make the turn I saw what might be what I was looking for. We made the turn and proceeded down an arrow-straight paved road that ran behind houses, pastures and parking lots. Not exactly what I would consider an auspicious start to a dirt road adventure. And just as suddenly as the road had come upon me, it took a wild swing to the left and became dirt. Potholes and all, this was the dirt road we had been looking for and I now knew it was called “Jacko Rd”. Req and I took turns again leapfrogging as we stopped for photos that interested us and then caught up with the other further down the road. It’s a good way to travel as you’re not hindered by what the other rider wants to do but you can count on someone being around to come back and help you if something does go wrong.

Jacko Rd started out low in a narrow river valley with lush green pastures surrounding old rustic buildings. The views were limited by the thick trees and tall mountains around us, something that wouldn’t change much over the course of this road. But soon we found that we were gaining elevation and the views became a little broader as we could look down on the valley below, including man-made lakes and beaver dam marshes.

An odd waterwheel contraption caught my eye and I stopped for a closer inspection. Neither Req nor I could figure out its purpose. I appeared to be diverting water from the main river but I couldn’t see where it would go. A fish ladder to one side allowed for nature to take its course as well as it could, but the natural flow of the river seemed stunted to a certain degree. Confounded by the waterworks, I gave up and continued to ride east along the narrow and winding road. Eventually a ranch or two would appear along side the dirt and shortly after that vacation homes made their appearances. We were entering the recreation area of Seeley Lake and the civilization that goes along with such places.

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Checking out Jocko Rd out of Arlee, MT

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Farms along the way

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Excellent road!

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Here comes Req

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There goes Req

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The nameless river

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Cow and GS tracks in harmony

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Flowers along the road

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Peak-a-boo view

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Random waterworks

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Fish ladder in the background (left)

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Req watches the mechanics of it all

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An original dam builder

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Req takes the high road

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Man-made lake

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Art shot

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Leaning into the corners

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Waterfall under the road

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Upper portion of the waterfall

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More road

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More Req

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I never get tired of roads like this

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Almost back to pavement

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Ranch near Seeley Lake

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Well-built “wood shed”

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Old livestock fencing

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Seeley Lake with a fishing boat

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Stoney’s Kwik Stop

A quick stop at the junction of 83 and 200 gave us a chance to quench our thirsts and my Reese’s Cup supply. Now it was back to pavement and covering as many miles as possible before the close of the day. Tomorrow we were to cross over Beartooth Pass and I wanted to be as close as possible in preparation of an early morning assault.

Hwy 200 was a wide-open road that passed through wide-open countryside. I was getting into the steady rhythm of the motor when I was surprised by the turn off for 141, a short little ride that would connect us with the more widely known Hwy 12 that crosses the state. Again, Big Sky Country was at its finest, with fluffy white clouds filtering through a blue sky and pleasant breezes. At the town of Avon we picked up Hwy 12, which was almost no different than the previous two roads. We cruised merrily across the rolling hills and the smooth pavement until we reached the bustling capital of Helena. Speeds dropped and we had to wend our way through downtown streets, fighting traffic and the increasing heat of the day. It was with pleasure that we left the city behind and embraced the cooler air of the open road. It was also time to eat and I pulled off at the first likely looking diner I found in the town of Winston. It was cool inside and our waitress was a sweetheart. And the food was pretty good, too.

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Anyone else see the irony in these two signs?


Highway 200 towards Clearwater, MT

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Highway 200

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Finally some clear weather

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Yellow fields and blue skies

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Montana skies

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Coming in towards Helena, MT

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Lunch in Winston, MT

After lunch it was more open road and rolling hills. At the junction of Townsend we were almost immediately blessed with a tight canyon and the corresponding wall-hugging pavement. Unfortunately with that blessing came a curse: an old couple in a nondescript sedan who felt that the speed limit was much too high. After a couple of frustrating miles (as well as building up quite a parade behind us) I pulled off to let the clowns get ahead for a while, only to find that the curves ended shortly thereafter. We caught up to the slowpokes, passed them this time and then ducked off the main road to take the lesser-used 294 through towns with names like Hamen and Lennep. It was well worth the detour, as the road led through some beautiful landscapes and friendly locals waved back at us. We caught 12 again and took it as far as Harlowton, where fuel and more Reese’s were finally obtained. Now we’d drop south for a while on 191, hopefully not fighting too much of a crosswind while we were at it. Instead of a crosswind, we found more construction. Miles and miles of freshly laid gravel awaited us, as well as a long line of single-lane “follow the leader” traffic. As a consolation prize, the Crazy Mountains kept my interest as they loomed larger and larger to the west. Eventually the gravel ended and the construction crew gave up and let us go. It was a short distance to I-90 and then a painful (albeit short) hop to our exit at Columbus, MT.

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Highway 12 and one of its many faces

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Wide vistas from Highway 12

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More Hwy 12

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Absoroka-Beartooth Mountains

Planning to camp that night, Req and I hunted down the local Columbus grocery store to pick up fixings for dinner that night. This was really supposed to be a tight-budgeted trip and so far we had both failed miserably. Food secured to the bikes we headed south on 78, a road that was a complete unknown to me. I’m sure that someone must have mentioned at some point in time, because the further we got from Columbus the better the road got. At first there was more construction (apparently half the state of Montana is under construction this summer) but then the road was unobstructed and we were left alone in rolling hills with the Beartooth Mountain range looming to the south. As it has been every time I’ve seen this range, there were dark, angry looking clouds hovering above it. But I didn’t fear for the weather: the wind was blowing favorably and we were headed in a slightly different direction. As the mountains drew nearer the views became more spectacular, combining with a late-day showing of the sun and thick clouds to bounce the light back. The road required a bit of speed to properly enjoy the curves at this point and with the late hour, Req and I were only too happy to oblige.

This road choice was actually a mistake I made when we left Columbus. I had misread my map and thought that we should be taking 212, which was further to the east, but I had missed the turn off and chose instead to just stick with 78. I’m very glad I did. After almost 50 miles of pure joy we found ourselves in Red Lodge, MT, ready to find a place to pitch our tents for the evening.

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The local IGA “Plus!”

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Route 78 as it wanders through the hills

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Absoroka-Beartooth Mountains

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Route 78

Rolling slowly through the town, I was struck by its picturesque buildings and quaint aurora. It vaguely reminded me of Jackson Hole, but in a much smaller, less trendy sort of way. There were plenty of cruisers parked along the main drag and a small brass band was playing in a park. People strolled up and down the sidewalks taking in the evening air. It was all very pleasant and when Req and I found ourselves rolling out the other end of town I pulled over to offer a suggestion. I knew that we were supposed to be camping, but wouldn’t it be fun to find an old hotel in downtown and spend the rest of the evening enjoying the atmosphere? Req agreed and we rolled back up Broadway, the main street. I stopped at The Pollard, which looked to be the oldest hotel in the town and we went in to inquire about the rates. The high price didn’t surprise me much, as the building was decked out with brass rails and ornate woodwork and had a delicious looking restaurant inside. Now keen on the idea of staying town Req and I checked out two more motels, these ones at the other end of town. Neither was near the budget price of “camping” so we declined both of them and took up the suggestion from one of the managers of finding a campground that was just “three miles down the road”.

Five miles later with no campground in sight Req and I turned around. We returned to the main highway and decided to go for Campground Option II, which was just south of town. As we rolled on the throttle I glanced down at my odometer. Gas. It was something that Req would need in the morning and from what I could tell by the countryside I had seen thus far, once we left Red Lodge we would also leave behind all chances of fueling up. I pulled over once again and explained my concern to Req. We finally decided to go back to the second motel we had inquired at and just take the room. It was getting later, darker and cooler. The prospect of finding gas, and then another campground, the corresponding site and then setting up camp in the dark was not appealing to either of us. We went back into town and rented their last room.

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Setting sun and heavy clouds

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Kicking back at the Yodeler Motel in Red Lodge, MT

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Fashion mecca of Montana

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Req demonstrates the narrow entrance to our motel room door

It was still light enough to walk along Broadway, but the band had gone home and most of the crowds had retired inside the various restaurants and pubs. Cruisers still lined the curbs and just made the Moto Guzzi Norge parked down the block stick out that much more. What was a Moto Guzzi doing here? We walked by it and saw Washington plates. No other discerning features would tell us who the rider was or where he was from. We wondered if he was an STNer on his way to Custer. No way to confirm our thoughts, we continued walking, window-shopping and people watching as we went.

On our return down the other side of the street I saw the owner of the Norge putting on his helmet as he sat on the bike. Ever the shy one, I crossed the street to find out who it was. As I approached him he glanced up. A moment’s look of hesitation crossed his face before his eyes lit up. He looked familiar to me as well, but I couldn’t place his face. Fortunately he wasn’t as addle-minded as I am and he remembered my name. He turned out to be Dave, a guy I met at a Washington State BMW campout last August in Yakima. He was on his way to a Moto Guzzi rally in Eureka Springs, AK from Seattle. The three of us marveled at the odds of finding another Seattle resident so many miles from home and for different reasons. We chatted there on the sidewalk for quite some time before Dave said that he had to get back to his campsite at the KOA just up the road (something that Req and I conveniently hadn’t known about during our search for a place to camp).

Req and I returned to our room to eat our dinner and, to our surprise, find that the room came equipped with an “in-shower steam room”. All one had to do was set the timer, step into the shower stall, close the doors and within minutes scalding hot steam was piped into the stall. A stool was provided for the user so as to fully relax in the soothing heat. Each of us tried it out and while I don’t like steam rooms I must admit that it did feel good.

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Req is cool with our room

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A random meeting with Dave from Seattle

The next morning we got up exceptionally early (6am, much to Req’s dismay) and looked for gas and our morning grocery run. Req likes a nice little pastry and a cup of coffee in the morning and it was always fun to see what we could find at our various stopovers. Red Lodge hadn’t shown us where it hid the local commercial establishments but true to form of most tourist towns, one block off the main drag showed us a wealth of useful businesses. The Beartooth Market got us what we needed and then a quick stop at the gas station got the bikes what they needed. Now we were ready for Beartooth Pass!

I don’t think more than 15 minutes of pleasant, winding roads passed under my wheels before the road suddenly doubled back on itself, gaining elevation at a startling rate. Turn after turn negotiated up the steep side of the mountains. Last year’s repairs to devastating washouts were evident but the road surface was in good shape. Fields of rocks were poised above the road, appearing ready to crash down with the slightest provocation. The trees retreated from the scene, leaving the rocks unencumbered should they slide but also allowing for vast vistas. Snow packs dotted the shaded gullies and the bright sun lit up the dry road. There was only one other car headed in our direction and we were able to move around it easily, using the long sight lines between switchbacks. A DOT sign made me smile: “Stay on Road”. I thought the instruction was a little redundant, but I guess some people need to be reminded.

We pulled off at a vista point, whereupon I figured that we had crested the pass and it would be downhill from here. As it was, the views were stunning. Towering peaks still covered in a mantle of snow reflected back the brilliant sunlight, giving a stark contrast to the dark and sombre tree-covered slopes below. A wide glacial valley was stretched out before me, the narrow pavement snaking its way up one side, while the other side of the valley was marred only by a single dirt track. Naturally I wondered how to get to that track and where it led. That would have to wait for another time. Today I had a date with Custer, SD and I didn’t want to be late.

After getting back on the bike I was somewhat surprised at the rate at which the road continued to climb. Not the tortured switchbacks of previous turns, but still tight corners that led to more and more extravagant scenes.

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Picking up breakfast before heading out of town

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Early views on Beartooth Pass

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Coming up the Pass

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Req poses for a picture

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Vistas from Beartooth

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Looking back down the road

Then the trees vanished completely and we were left with vast tundra, dotted with snow and pockets of melted ice water. A sign welcomed us to Wyoming and tall sticks placed by the DOT indicated snow levels but sparse remnants existed of those packs by now. There was nothing but distant mountain ranges to hamper the view in all directions. Small delicate flowers blossomed staunchly in the glow of the sun, braving the cold wind in this short growing season. Puddles of melt water reflected back the blue sky, giving off the illusion of warmth despite the thin skin of ice still coating the surface. A steady breeze blew across the land but there was little movement to give evidence of its presence. Finally I was at the top of the pass, where the GPS read 10,947’ above sea level. And now it was time to go down.

It took a long time to travel across the tundra at the top. I was certain that it would be just another corner and the road would angle down but instead it kept close to its current elevation and snaked along low ridge lines. Then the corners got sharper and the snow pack deeper. The road dropped down and the views were of icy lakes, stunted trees and rocky outcroppings. It was right out of a fairy tale. Traffic increased slightly as we encountered those travelers who had started in Wyoming and were just now getting to the pass. Motorcycles dominated the crowd, if a dozen vehicles can be considered a “crowd”, and the road was still unencumbered to us as we descended into a more hospitable-looking environment. Streams rushed along valley floors and trees regained their height. Soon the snow had disappeared and a young buck in velvet bounded into the forest as we rode by, continuing our descent to a warmer climate.


Req playing in the snow

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Crossing state lines

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Flowers in the tundra

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Bikes at the top of the world (10,947′)

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Amazing scenery from the top

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And on the way back down (note 3 bikes coming up)

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Miles and miles and miles

A quick junction onto 296 led us east over Chief Joseph Pass and into Cody, WY. The temperatures had become comfortable again and the sun was shining above me. The road was nestled in a pine-filled valley and oozed comfortably along the southern wall. High rock outcroppings lent a touch of color to the otherwise green views and a few miles of grey tree trunks gave evidence of raging wildfires that had torn through the land years ago. As we neared Chief Joseph Pass there were small signs of ranching in the area but it was minimal and we had the countryside to ourselves. A deep fracture in the earth heralded the start of the pass and there were many people pulled over to gaze into the crevice’s depths. I passed by them all, more interested in surmounting the height of the mountains in front of me.

The road was in excellent repair and was nicely cambered and apexed through the corners. Fortunately there was no traffic in front of me to slow me down and I was able to fully enjoy each turn as it presented itself to me. I felt sorry for the motorcyclists I saw coming down the pass who were not just stuck behind a slow moving semi, but one carrying a load of cattle. What a stench it exuded!

This was a much quicker pass than Beartooth with slightly less expansive views. But there was a nice pull off near the top that gave a rich history of the area and the plight of Chief Joseph and his people. After reading the historical plaques and taking some pictures we headed down the other side and into Cody.

As we descended the temperature rose and by the time we crawled through the main streets of Cody it was time for a break. A brief stop at a gas station on the way out of town allowed us to adjust our gear choice, get some fresh water and check out the map for where we wanted to go next.

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Down the other side of the Pass

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Heading for Chief Joseph Pass

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Looking back down at Chief Joseph Pass

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Views from the Pass

You can’t go wrong with the east-west routes across northern Wyoming. They all go over the Big Horn Mountains and it’s just a matter of what kind of road and scenery you want along the way. For this journey we had decided to cross over on 14, mostly because I hadn’t been on it before and Req figured that I should see something new on this ride. I guess the fact that Koocanusa Lake, Beartooth Pass and Chief Joseph Pass were all new to me didn’t seem to count. But first we had to get to the Big Horn Mountains. This entailed running across central Wyoming, which, like central Washington, is hot, flat and rather dull. So run we did, getting into the town of Greybull as quickly as we could and just in time for lunch. I found an inconspicuous dinner in downtown Greybull and while the food was ok, I was disgusted by the many patrons who insisted on lighting up during and after their meals. I had never been more thankful for Seattle’s public smoking ban. I was ready to leave before we even ordered, but I kept hoping that the old couple would leave before my food was served. They left shortly afterwards but were replaced by three other patrons who immediately lit up upon being seated. Fortunately lunch didn’t take long and Req and I left as soon as we could. Dessert was waiting for us in the guise of deep pink canyons, rushing streams and twisting pavement: the Big Horn Mountains.

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Req becomes a pirate in the heat!

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Lunch in Greybull, WY

There’s no real way to describe the joy of a perfect corner: the pavement tilted at just the right angle, the radius even around its entire length, the surface smooth and clean. It’s a joy that is sought after and savored as often as possible and I savored this road into the Big Horns. Corner after corner, with a periodic pause in between to allow full appreciation for the natural beauty that formed the backdrop, led me on a merry chase up to the top of the mountains. And after the steep ascent I was greeted with open fields of lush grasses and thick stands of pine trees. Marshes dotted the landscape and while the views weren’t very expansive, they did provide a nice alternative to the hard rocky walls of the canyon I had just climbed. The road took a sharp turn to the north before eventually meeting up with 14A. The joined roads swung back to the east and incredible views were to be had as the road took a dramatic plunge to the flatlands of the northeastern corner of Wyoming. The serpentine road raced down the side of the mountains, almost desperate in its need to find flat land. The pink rocks of ancient corals contrasted beautifully with white shale and green forest. It was a symphony of colors, the bike dancing its way through corner after corner.

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Entering the Big Horn Mountains

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Looking back along the canyon

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Open views at the top

One hundred and forty-six miles of hell lay before me, alternately known as “I-90”. As I mentioned earlier, I had a deadline to meet in Custer and needed to be there by 4pm. This left me no time to explore alternate routes across eastern Wyoming, not that there is much of an alternative. Req chose to follow me and together we trudged across the open landscape of rolling hills, low clouds and strong winds.

This left me plenty of time to consider what is so very “wrong” with interstates. Sure, they are perfect for moving California strawberries to my local market before I would normally even consider the prospect of strawberry pie, but for vacation travel interstates should be shunned. But why are interstates such soul-sucking entities? I can only come up with this hypothesis: they are highly sanitized roadways. The government has made them predictably safe with wide corridors, drawn out corners and expansive shoulders. In doing all of this they have also removed the traveler from his surroundings. No longer does the grass come right up to the edge of the pavement, patient cows mere feet beyond a wooden fence. No more sharp bends in the road hiding the surprise of what may lay around the corner. No more small towns to navigate that offer up an insight to its peoples and a different way of life.

No, none of this can be experienced on an interstate. Instead, for thousands of miles the same food and motel chains confront the traveler. The rate of travel never changes no matter how many hills have been vanquished or subdued. Towns are obstacles to be bypassed as quickly as possible and with the least amount of interruption. The interstates do not allow a traveler to fully explore the land but instead he is treated to the Disney-fied version of America, and I find this to be a crime in of itself.

A brief break in Gillette allowed Req and I to reclaim our souls before they could be completely diminished. Thirty minutes more was all that lay between our exit and us. Rain threatened constantly but never fully expressed itself, although the pavement was frequently damp as we passed. I was feeling excited as we neared the Moorcroft exit, knowing that from there is would be straight but at least two lane roads for the next hour to the South Dakota border. And once we crossed the border – thirty more miles of unsanitized roadway for my pleasure.

Sure enough, as soon as I rounded that perfect radius exit from the freeway my soul began to sing again. Or maybe that was just me in my helmet. Regardless I woke up and started to take notice of the things around me: the rusty railcars, the swaying grasses, the dilapidated barns with rotting bales of hay stacked in the fields. I was alive again.

Req and I pulled into the resort in Custer with time to spare. We found our cabin, our cabin mate and unloaded the bikes. I wouldn’t have to load things up for two days so I stripped the bike down in preparation for a casual “local” ride the next day. Now the rest of the evening was mine to enjoy with friends, both old and new.

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Bikes and cabins in Custer, SD

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STNers, causing trouble no doubt

Having ridden through this corner of South Dakota a couple of times before I had little desire to re-visit the roads and sites previously enjoyed. This year I was prepared to see the so-called “backyard” of the Black Hills. I mentioned my plan to take dirt roads into Deadwood and by the end of the evening I had four other willing souls to join me. A late start was planned, as it was to be a late night.

The morning dawned bright and cheerful and I eventually roused myself from my bed. I meandered around the resort for an hour or so, chatting with other riders and checking out their bikes. Ten o’clock came and it was time to depart for our little adventure. Because it was my idea to go to Deadwood, it was also my responsibility to lead everyone there. Fortunately for me no one else had a map so they wouldn’t know when I missed a turn or really had no idea where I was. The roads we found were well-maintained gravel roads that looped through pastures and forests alike, crossing over cattle guards guarded by fat cattle and their calves. The pace was easy and relaxed with plenty of stops for photos (to disguise my map checking needs). Recent rains kept the dust to a minimum, which was an unexpected blessing, as the five riders were able to keep fairly close together.

Bear Mountain lookout was on my map and we took the 3-mile detour to check out the structure and its views. I confess that the Black Hills aren’t that impressive from 7,000’ but it was still a welcome addition to the backyard tour. A few miles of pavement appeared before we found some more gravel, only to be regulated to pavement for the final miles to Deadwood.

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The day ride: taking the road less traveled

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Mrs. BMW-K on her first real dirt ride

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Dinner?

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Jim shows me that I don’t need my GS for dirt roads

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Checking out a nearby lookout

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Views from the top of the tower

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The bikes, waiting for us

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Coquettish-looking Req

Deadwood was a disappointment to me. I realize that I was spoiled by the rough beauty portrayed by the HBO special I had watched over the winter, but in no way was I prepared for the shallow tourist trap that the town appeared to me. To be fair I spent very little time really exploring the town and its history. I didn’t walk beyond the main street, nor out to the cemetery, nor enter many of the buildings. But what I did see were buildings with beautiful facades that contained obnoxious slot machines in the front and over-decorated restaurants in the back. Tour buses, cars and motorcycles clogged the streets and gawking people crowded the sidewalks.

Our group finally found a relatively quite place for lunch and enjoyed a social hour around the table while eating our food. The temperature was hot in town and it was a pleasure to enjoy the respite of the back room. After lunch we took a brief stroll down to the end of the main street and then back to the parking garage where we had left our bikes. It was the general consensus that we’d rather be on the bikes then here and it didn’t take us too long to gear up and “get out of Dodge”, so to speak.

Once again consulting the cheesy map handed out by the front desk of the resort I selected an alternative way back to Custer, inadvertently taking us six miles out of our way instead of the more direct two mile route to the main road. Once on 385 south I checked the map frequently, trying to determine when I was approaching the squiggle on my map as I passed each recognizable feature. I missed the turn.

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More dirt roads awaited us

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Deadwood, SD

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A tourist trap with a real history

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Waiting for business on the second floor

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Napoleon Dynamite joke…

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Mr. BMW-K sports his tourist hat

I knew I had gone past it when I saw the sign for the lake. I considered continuing south and merely taking the next turn off but the previous route had us skirting a river and as every motorcyclist knows: a road that follows a river is a Good Road. I pulled over to the shoulder and let everyone know we were going to turn back. No one seemed to mind and in fact, once we had taken the road in question it was generally agreed upon that it was a worthy quest.

The river road was superb and vastly more enjoyable than the morning’s selections of roads. Tighter corners, more elevation changes and the close, lush scenery of the river all combined to create a wonderful backdrop to our little trip. What more could one need for a quick adventure? Why, how about the US Army?

The Reserves were apparently practicing this weekend as there were tanks, trucks and Humvees all over the roads, both paved and otherwise. However we were surprised when we rounded a bend in the road and saw a sign proclaiming “Military Block Ahead – Slow Down NOW!” And there around the next bend were tanks, Blackhawk helicopters, razor wire and machine gun toting men in fatigues, all camped out in a field on the side of the road. The guardsmen were manning the access road to this field, guns at the ready and pointing towards us. To say it was unnerving is a bit of an understatement. But we were just passing by and nothing more came of it. Until later in the day.

I had stopped at a “T” junction to consult my map – I mean, “take pictures” – when I saw five Humvees coming our way. Always polite, they had their turn signals on, indicating that they intended to go in the same direction as we did. Not wanting to get stuck behind a convoy of sluggish army guys I encouraged everyone to hurry up and take off up the hill. The hill was steep and the road twisted sharply up its sides. I kept up a decent pace but still made sure that there was a headlight or two behind me. The last member of the group, Trina, later told me that Humvees are not slow vehicles and it was all she could do to stay ahead of them. I can only imagine what it would be like to be riding down a dirt road with the Army in my mirrors – I thought that State Troopers were bad enough.

We eventually lost the Army and found the pavement. It was time to head back to the resort for one last night of carousing and socializing. It had been a fun day of exploration but tomorrow would be another day of riding, this time towards home.

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After lunch dessert!

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Here comes Mr. BMW-K

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Fleeing from the army

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Mrs. BMW-K studying the road

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The Resort’s main office

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Helpful staff!!!

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Advertising to the masses

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Chili takes his mind off the road

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Sarsaparilla!

Continued to Part 2

Tell me what you think! I want to know!