I clean the solar panels and set out at dawn. I will be riding southeast all day so the sun will be in front of me all morning. With a bit of afternoon cloudiness in the forecast, this will probably not be another 100 mile day.
Ninety minutes after sunrise, I’m getting only 20 solar watts while riding or 200 solar watts if I stop and find the optimal angle. I set the electric assist to a bare minimum, run the battery down all the way and take long charging breaks.
I stop for lunch at Penny’s diner in Glendive. Good fries, lousy pie. I should really wait until the second half of the tour to get my fill of diner-era American nostalgia on “Route 66.”
A local stops to take photos of the bike and I learn about a primitive camping spot 50 miles (80 km) away which is not on my map. It’s basically a picnic table next to a lake with no running water and no toilet. That suits me just fine.
I get on I-94, my first interstate highway of this trip, and find the riding much more relaxing than the two-lane highways I’ve been following through most of Montana. The shoulder is very wide, there is no oncoming traffic thanks to the median and all the big rigs move to the left lane when passing me which means I can ride with the panels fully tilted. I raise my hand in thanks to each one as they pass and occasionally one will toot back an acknowledgment. Grammar of the road.
There are so many animals napping by the side of the road, all covered with raspberry jam. Don’t they know it’s dangerous? Poor dears.
I get my second flat of the trip. Even Schwalbe’s unplattbar “flat-less” tire is no match for a sharp nail kicked up by the front tire. Thirty minutes and seven cookies later, I’m back on the road.
The North Dakota border sneaks up on me. I knew I was getting close but I hadn’t checked exactly where it is in a while and thought I had another day to go. That’s what averaging over 100 miles (160 km) per day for four days will get you, state borders jumping out of nowhere when you least expect them.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is along my route tomorrow. Hoping to see some buffalo. Hold the raspberry jam.
Or is it a new salad dressing? Oh, wait. I see. Never mind. My bad.
I wake an hour before dawn and use the remaining charge in my battery to make coffee because my stove is out of fuel. There is only enough charge left to heat the water to 185°F (85°C). It’s not quite hot enough for a proper extraction but it will have to do. I am now a rough and tumble frontiersman and this is how we roll.
Next door, my loud-splaining neighbor expounds on the difference between “the good black people” and “the regular black people” to someone on the other end of a Zoom call.
I linger for a while to get some charge into my battery before heading out. Local store patrons walk past me, studiously avoiding eye contact. I haven’t even had a chance to tell them I’m from California yet. Are they prejudiced against filthy bikers? Outsider! Unclean!
I pop into the store to say goodbye to my host. “Would you happen to have any bananas?”
“No, but I have some at home,” she says, picking up her keys. I thank her profusely and convince her my need for bananas is not that urgent. I’m filled with admiration for this woman who has created an oasis for bikers in this desert. The contrast in attitude gives me whiplash.
In Jordan, I stock up on fruit and muffins. I see my first cowboy with actual spurs on his boots. Is it an affectation? Based on the amount of dust covering him, I decide he is the real deal.
“Busch Beer: Welcome Hunters” signs are everywhere. I pull over to the side of the road for another charging break and there is a small fortune in scrap aluminum on the ground around me. Hey hunters, I understand that drinking cheap beer is an essential part of the tradition but how about starting a new tradition of not tossing cans out the window? Seriously, aluminum recycling is one of the most effective recycling programs we have. The energy requirements for extracting new aluminum from ore are insane.
Oops. There I go trying to infect the local culture with my “California” ideas. I’m starting to see why my kind is so unpopular around here.
The landscape begins to change and interesting land forms appear – weathered rocks and miniature canyons. Out of habit, I start looking for camping opportunities. Then again, with all these beers-swilling hunters around maybe wild camping isn’t such a brilliant idea. I wouldn’t want to be mistaken for a ten point buck.
In Circle, Montana, the city park allows tent camping as long as you check in with the sheriff’s office by phone. I have the place all to myself. As it gets dark, the yipping of coyotes fills the air. Good hunting, fellas, and remember to pack out your cans.
I depart at dawn. I’m trying a new range-extending technique: ride slowly with minimal electric assist when the road direction and wind allows for maximum solar energy harvesting. Ride quickly with maximum electric assist to get through stretches of road where the sun is in front of or behind me, meaning I get less than half the solar power because the solar panels do not tilt forward or backward.
I run into road construction which consists of 5 miles (8 km) of single-lane traffic through oil-slicked, chewed-up roadway. I can’t keep up with the pilot car and end up dodging construction vehicles and oncoming traffic. “Are you sure you want to be on this road?”asks one of the workers. No. I really don’t. At least I have these bright flashers on the bike. It’s a bit chaotic but I manage to make it through without incident.
Second breakfast (elevenses?) is a fresh baked egg and cheese pocket thing from an independent bakery in Lewiston, MT. The owner fills me in on how the whole town is suffering because it’s been a poor crop year.
Outside, a local man monologues at me about how Chinamen are ruining everything what with the personal computers and the Internet and what not. He suggest that I visit a local high school and talk to students there to help inspire the next generation. The latter idea is not entirely terrible.
The shoulder disappears. Boo! But traffic is light. Yay! The road has its own grammar and syntax. I ride in the middle of the lane to let cars coming up behind me know that it’s unsafe to pass without crossing the centerline. As they approach, I pull over to the side… because texting.
Most drivers are courteous and give me plenty of room when there is no oncoming traffic. Others pass much too close at 70 mph+ (115+ km/h) even if we’re the only two vehicles on the road. Even the worst drivers believe they are above average.
At solar noon, I have already covered 61 miles (98 km). I decide to try for 65 more miles in the second half of the day. A metric double century (200 km). That’s a thing, right?
The day ends at 205 km with a shower, pizza and beer with a campsite behind a small general store in this rural part of Montana. I pull up as the sun is setting and the owner comes over to open the store two hours after closing time to get me settled in.
She has a logbook of bikers who have come through. The last entry is three weeks old. It looks like I’m closing out the season on the ACA Northern Tier route.
As I climb into my tent for the night, a skunk munches loudly on a bowl of cat food not 3 m from my tent. I take all my food and garbage inside the tent with me hoping we won’t need to have a standoff in the middle of the night. Bear spray versus skunk spray. It’s mutually assured destruction. There would be no winners.
PS: If you are a teacher or you know a teacher who is along my route, feel free to reach out to me to arrange for a presentation to students. If you have a backyard where I can pitch my tent, even better. I’m currently in Itasca State Park heading towards Walker, St. Paul, Muscatine and Odell.
On my way out of town, a youth in a rusty pick up truck offers the perfect send off, “Nice helmet, asshole!”
“Thank you, asshole!” I reply cheerfully. Stay classy, Great Falls.
I start the day with a full battery and wall-to-wall sunshine. The first two hours are WOT (wide-open throttle) all the way, averaging 21 mph (34 km/h). Weee!
Stanford, Montana. Population 400. I park the bike outside the grocery store and start collecting attaboys right away. Inevitably, a local man asks, “Where are you from?”
Not this again, “You don’t want to know… California?”
“The way I see it, there are idiots everywhere.”
“Truth. Just this morning, a young man in Great Falls…”
He directs me to the “hydrant“ so I can fill up my water bladder and I manage to walk through some dog shit hiding in the grass. I wash it off as best as I can and walk into the grocery store still smelling a bit off. I want to explain, “I didn’t smell this way before I came into your town,” but this doesn’t seem likely to win hearts and minds.
The barbershop across the street has an “open” sign in the window. I still have 24 miles to go and two hours until sunset but this feels like an opportunity. As I walk in, Andy the Barber is finishing up with one of his regulars and they’re talking shit about people from Helena, Montana’s capital. I join in on the patter.
Andy is a delightful human being who clearly enjoys his work. He has been cutting hair for 60 years. He shares anecdotes about touring bikers who have come through town in years past and refuses to accept payment for his services. “You have enough expenses on your trip.”
Ackley Lake Campground is empty except for three fishermen who are packing up their trucks and heading home. As the sun sets, I have the place all to myself. Self registration is $0 for Montana residents who have “elected to pay their DMV fees” and $24 for non-residents. Andy he was right. I do have expenses.
Tomorrow, I’ll try to break the 100 mile mark if the sunshine holds.
Today, that temperature is 38°F (3°C). It’s the coldest morning of this trip. My past self anticipated this and packed electric boot warmers. Thank you, past self.
I ride on frontage roads paralleling Interstate 15 for most of the day. There is almost no traffic, which is a nice change of pace.
Mid-afternoon, I pick up an Amazon package at a GNC store in Great Falls. I ordered a replacement gimbal cable for the drone. I’ll need a place to work so I check into a motel. The operation takes longer than anticipated but the patient makes a full recovery.
For dinner, I choose a local “Mexican” place. It appears to be the only non-chain option within walking distance. Huge mistake. I eat what I sincerely hope will be the worst burrito of the trip. I’m pretty sure everything on that plate came out of a #10 can.
Great Falls is a much bigger city than I anticipated. I miss sleeping in the woods with the bears.
The weather forecast calls for 36 mph (58 km/h) wind gusts. It’s going to be that kind of day.
I turn off the pavement onto a gravel road which leads me through a wind farm. Just as you don’t stick solar panels where the sun don’t shine, you don’t stick wind farms where the wind don’t blow.
I stop for a minute to catch my breath and a rancher drives out to investigate. “I saw the flashing lights and I was confused.” “I just wanna make sure all the vehicles on the road can see me.” “All right.“ She puts the SUV in reverse and that’s the end of it. No questions about the bike. Did she come to offer aid? Did she suspect California monkey-business and drove out to make sure I wasn’t putting down roots?
This gravel road is a navigation mistake. It continues to kick my ass for the better part of the day. I’m too far in to turn back and the paved road ahead of me is still miles away. My narrow road tires can handle some sections but in other places it’s so loose that I have to get off and walk. The powerful cross winds make it much worse. With the solar panels locked in a horizontal position, I’m getting less help from the partly sunny sky than I would with the full tilt range.
Traffic is very light which is great because I need to pull over into the deep gravel and stop every time a vehicle passes. Every other truck stops to ask if I need help. Surely, no one in their right mind would be riding a bike down this road in this weather. I suspect they have a point.
I resolve to get an earlier start the next day and try to make the most of the sunny forecast and slightly reduced winds.
Robert and I ride together for a while longer before parting ways. He just flew in from Alaska where he has been working at Denali National Park. I ply him with fresh brewed coffee and instant mashed potatoes and ask questions about biking in Alaska.
The green tunnel of trees is replaced by flat grasslands from horizon to horizon. I suddenly have more solar energy than I can use in a day.
The winds have been fierce for the last 24 hours. Last night, my bike stand snapped under a strong gust of wind. The wind continues to plague me today. I have to pull off the road and lock out the trailer tilt mechanism to keep it from being blown sideways into traffic by wind gusts. One section of road is almost unrideable due to crosswinds.
I almost miss the green tunnel. Almost. Riding for extended stretches at 28 mph (45 km/h) is a welcome change.
“California” by Phantom Planet is playing on the radio in the hardware store. “California, Califooornia, Califoooooornia. Here we come!” I point it out to the cute cashier and get a genuine laugh. “California” is a dirty word in Montana.
The joke is that Californians suck and that all 40 million of us are moving to Montana and generally ruining things by bringing in new money and new ideas. That most Montanans are recent descendants of immigrants is conveniently forgotten.
I have been told several times not to tell people I’m from California. I ignore the advice. It’s too much fun watching their faces scrunch up when they hear the answer. If you don’t want to hear where I’m from, then don’t ask the question.
In fact, I’m only most recently “from California.” I could also say Connecticut or Czechoslovakia. Or even Colorado or Canada if we’re counting all the places where I’ve spent time. All C words. Weird.
When I open up my merch store, the second item I sell will be a trucker hat with the words “NOT shopping for real estate.”
The RV park in Cut Bank, Montana has some cool hoodoo rock formations. I feel like I’m in a scale model of Cappadocia, Turkey. I sleep under the stars and wonder where I’ll be sleeping tomorrow night.
Last night, I drank a beer in a city park where I pitched my tent and this morning I’m going across the street to use the bathroom at a gas station. Truly embracing the solar hobo lifestyle.
Random motorist, “We saw another bike like yours a few days ago.” “Really? Where was it?” “It couldn’t have been you. It was really far away.” “I don’t think there are very many bikes like this around here.” “It was in Idaho, about three days ago.” “I’m pretty sure that was me.”
I temporally changed my Insta username as a joke and now Mark Zuckerberg’s minions won’t let me change it back. I’m just going to lean into it. The California DMV should have no problem with putting “DJ Phresh Bearskat“ on my driver’s license, right?
I made it to Whitefish, Montana tonight. Huge thanks to David and Joan for hosting me for the night and giving me a chance to get cleaned up. The Grin extended family came through once again for the solar traveler!
Montana, there’s a lot of it to love. Riding along Lake Koocanusa all day today. It was formed by a dam on the Kootenay River and goes from Canada all the way to the USA. Get it? Koo-Can-USA? Is this one of those things that’s so dumb it comes all the way around to being clever again?
So many pick up trucks on the road towing RVs and RVs towing pick up trucks and everything in between.
The air has a pine fresh scent with a top note of diesel and wildfire smoke. That junk they sell for cleaning toilet bowls? Not even close.
I have my first flat tire today. I come out of the grocery store and a man in a beat up sedan has parked within inches of the bike. I deliberately picked a spot in the sun away from other cars so this is a bit of an annoyance. He is sitting on the hood of his car repairing what appears to be an IED with a large homemade knife. He says it’s a Bluetooth speaker that he made himself. We chat about the bike and say our goodbyes. As I ride away something is wrong with the rear wheel. Sure enough it has gone totally flat and the tire is completely unseated from the rim.
I have to unload the bike and detach the trailer to do the repair. It’s a messy job and I have chain grease on my pants and on my hands. As I look for the leak, I start to suspect that I’m going to find a hole made by a knife in this tire. It seemed like the tire was fine when I went into the store and now it’s suddenly completely flat?
Moments later, I find a tiny piece of wire has poked through the puncture resistant Schwalbe Marathon Plus lining. It’s been my experience that this is a frequent cause of punctures. I believe the wire comes from a shredded steel belted radial by the side of the road. I’m embarrassed for thinking such dark thoughts.