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Erik Trautman

“Everything you can imagine is real.”
-- Pablo Picasso

The Road to Glacier

The ride up to Glacier National Park included the most dangerous situation I’ve ever ridden through. It started uneventfully enough, though, with miles upon miles of gentle yellow hills dotted with erratic boulders and tough teal shrubs. A dusty sort of hay smell was generally dominant but for a mile or two, the air was softened with the smells of wild lavender.

At one point, descended from a low mountain pass and came upon a picturesque but entirely unexpected canyon:

We ascended into the Louis and Clark National Forest, a long series of twists and turns through the mountains and among the pines. Occasionally the mountainsides were scarred by the wide troughs cut for the chairlifts of ski resorts.

After we exited the forest, we descended a hill and turned a corner and were suddenly confronted with an endless expanse of yellow farmland. Where the previous day’s ride just north of Glacier National Park made me wonder if yellow could be my new favorite color, it was certainly a bit overrepresented in the next day’s endless fields.

As we got further and further north, eventually the road began curving a bit more and we passed several enormous hay fields:

As you can see from the clouds in that picture, there was something funky going on in the high level winds. The more we traveled north, the more clouds we began to see, though they took on strange, hurried-seeming formations that weren’t the typical stormclouds I’d been avoiding for months. They tended to look long and thin like an artist’s hurried brushstroke.

Finally, on the home stretch to our final destination in Saint Mary (just next to Glacier National Park), we saw up ahead a brown smudge hanging low across the road and extending to either side. Given our experience, we both assumed it was a wildfire to the west, where it looked like the cloud had originated. We rode directly into it expecting to surrounded by the pungent but not unpleasant scent of burning sage.

Instead, we were almost blown off the road by the fury of the crosswinds that came roaring from the east. It was like hitting a wall. Within 30 seconds, the temperature dropped 20 degrees and we were in a fight just to stay upright. The dark smudge revealed itself to be, not smoke as expected, but dust kicked up by the violence of the front that stung the eyes and face. I had been going 70 into the cloud but could only manage 45 with the throttle wide open in fourth gear once we’d pierced into its midst. I could feel the strength of the wind causing the tires to skid alarmingly left and into the oncoming lane.

Once the initial shock of that transition passed, though, we were forced to stop to put on more clothes to avoid freezing. 90 and sunny is very very different than what had become 50 with gale force winds. We pulled over and took turns supporting the bike upright while we pulled on our warmest gear and donned our rainclothes to break the wind.

There was nothing for 60 miles behind us and the town of Browning, MT was not far ahead so we opted to push forward and shelter there while we decided what to do. That ride was one of the most challenging I’ve ever done. I fought the wind with all my strength until my biceps quivered and my back had tightened into one big knot. The next 15 miles passed agonizingly slowly, with the fight against the crosswind only broken up in the shadows of hills, where the eddies could play havoc on the bike’s lean with their unpredictable direction reversals.

The clouds raced tightly overhead no more than 50 feet from the ground and at frightening speed. The creepiest part about it was that the upper-level clouds were also racing quickly… in the *other* direction. The only other time I’ve ever seen such an effect was at the very top of a mountain and it really shouldn’t have been present there.

We rolled into Browning, a little town in the heart of the Blackfeet indian reservation, frozen, windburned, tired, and unsure of what to do. Our cabin (which was bought and paid for already) lay another 50 miles up the road. The winds were bad, but had reduced from deadly to merely severe as we moved away from the boundary layer of the front. Given the severity of the weather, we decided to look into our options for staying in town. It turned out that the only room left was the king/jacuzzi suite at the only motel in town and it wasn’t cheap. We gritted our teeth and decided to try to make it up to Saint Mary’s.

The biggest unknown was whether we would see rain or not. One thing that we both agreed on was that the first raindrop would be immediate cause for turning around. The tires were traveling laterally too much for comfort as it was. A wet road meant a certain crash in the ditch or, worse, against oncoming traffic.

We made it 8 miles into the failing light before the windshield became flecked with drops and we were forced to turn back. A challenge is one thing and I’m usually willing to push the boundary a bit but there’s a line and that was absolutely it. We circled back to the motel and dipped into the contingency fund to stay in the last remaining suite. After settling into our room, we actually had quite a restful and peaceful evening while the cold rain fell into the night.