The noise woke me up as I was lying in my bag. The rustling started around me and the movements got my attention as I rolled onto to my side to peek out of my sleeping bag. This morning it’s not the bears I’m worried about. It’s the bikers.
After getting dinner in Gardiner, MT just outside of the North Yellowstone entrance I came upon a football field full of tents. It was the 3rd stage of the Cycle Greater Yellowstone bike race campground, complete with a showering truck, restrooms and a full breakfast buffet in the morning. Contemplating a night sleeping on the side of some dirt road, I decided to at least ask if my friends and I could join them on the nice soft grass of the football field and maybe get a shower. After talking with the event director and promising not to be a problem, we were welcomed into the group. I decided to cowboy camp as it was a nice night and made my way to the shower truck which is just as it sounds… a truck and trailer with about a dozen cubby showers in it. The water was hot and it felt great.
In the morning we woke up slowly and gathered our gear. Word had gotten out to the competitors about us, so people were approaching, wishing us good luck and letting us know how they were jealous of our trip. I was jealous of their ability to ride a bike for hundreds of miles, so I guess we were even. With full bellies we started out on the alternate to our previous alternate route around a fire that had been burning in Yellowstone. We walked the dirt road opposite highway 89 and the Yellowstone River, passing acres of farmland.
We then turned west into the Gallatin National Forest and the Lower South Rock Trailhead. The campground there was empty so we made ourselves right at home with a big fire after getting wet in a short downpour. The next day my goal was to go up and over Windy Pass. The trail was indistinct due to lack of use but beautiful, with many of the trees covered with lichen that was a bright neon green. The long switchback climb up Windy Pass seemed never ending and when I did finally reach the top, I was welcomed with a soft rain. Regardless, the pass was wide open, covered in grass with several small lakes. The clouds were thick and the wind was calm, as the prairie-like vista opened up to a small peak to the north. An old cabin stood hidden in the trees – a symbol of the rugged lives that men who had come before me had lived. I would not have wanted to live up in this place, but someone else found it to be their paradise. Making my way back down off the mountain on the Windy Pass trail, I ended up at the Upper Portal Trailhead. Hiking up and over the pass was fun, but now I had a 22 mile forest road walk to the highway near Big Sky. With the sun starting to disappear over the steep mountains to the west, I quickly made dinner on the road. This was my new technique in bear country. Stop and make dinner before walking a mile or so to where I would find camp. This would prevent the odors of cooking to linger in my camp attracting unwanted animals that I would have to spray with my trusty bear, which I kept handy as I slept. That night I slept right off the forest road in a previously established site, complete with shotgun shells, Natural Ice beer cans and shards of clay targets and glass. I hate these sites but you can’t be picky when it’s already dark.
Leaving early in the morning, I made it to the highway and decided to hitch into Bozeman. Highway 191 leads directly into the town so I assumed it would be an easy hitch and the traffic was moderate to heavy at times. Regardless, it took over 1 ½ hours get a ride from a seasonal worker from Big Sky to pick us up and drop us off in the middle of town. Having been to Bozeman once before many years ago I had a good general layout of the town. The downtown is where the bars and tourist shops are, the college is to the south and then everything else surrounds it. It’s a beautiful town with a good vibe, but during my time there it was crowded since it was “parents bring your kids to college week and hope they make it the next 4 years”. All of the hotels were booked and pricy. My hiking partner and I started our walk around town looking for a cheap room after some Internet investigation. Most of the time the cheap hotels are on the outskirts of town and are locally owned, not major chains. The first one looked OK, but at $85 for a tiny double twin room with a shower that ran like a drinking fountain, we thought we’d keep looking. I’m not a shy person so I didn’t hesitate asking a local police officer where the cheap hotels were, or as I put it “where do you get all the disturbance calls?” He mentioned the one we had just looked at and he gave us a warning to stay away from the Continental Motor Inn, it’s the worst. So we headed there immediately. The cop was right, it looked like a crack den. We ended up at a budget motel just west of the downtown area that was actually a nice room with a crazy-good showerhead but no laundry onsite, which was a bummer.
The next day we decided to take a zero day to rest up and run some errands. My hiking partner was having trouble with his kid’s college financial aid and I needed to get across town before noon to pick up my resupply box from the post office. Not realizing the time, I literally had an hour to run to the post office that was closing at noon, which was 4.5 miles away. After an exhausting run through the neighborhoods of Bozeman I arrived at the post office. Turns out it actually closed at 1 pm. I was pissed. Hiking and running are two different things so my legs were shot and I was tired. I made a stop at the local REI to pick up a map I thought we needed for the next section and to get new socks, since mine were full of holes. Outside REI, I hopped on a local bus and got back to the hotel where I found my hiking partner enjoying the daily drink special of double screwdrivers in the casino bar for only $3. We watched the Bronco game while we enjoyed our screwdrivers.
With no place to stay and not wanting to pay for another night in a hotel we became true hiker trash by sleeping in a local park. We decided on Cooper Park, which was close to the college and the bus stop that would take us to Big Sky in the morning. It ended up being the most miserable night’s sleep for me on the entire trail. Hiding in some bushes near the far west end we were woken up by drunken college students leaving the bars, people walking their dogs late at night and the “unconfirmed” drug dealer who had people coming and going from his house all night. Sleeping in a park was nerve racking because you don’t want the cops to give you a hard time and you don’t want some random stranger to mess with you either. Everything came to a wet end when after finally falling asleep at 4:30 am I was awakened by the sprinkler system spraying me in the face and drenching everything I owned. Not just one sprinkler but about 4 of them and I was in the line of fire of all of them. I quickly jumped out of my bag, yelling at the sprinklers and dragged my drenched sleeping bag and backpack to a bench far from the spraying water. I was soaked! Everything I owned was soaked. Pissed off, I stuffed everything into my pack and started the walk to the bus stop where I would be picked up in two hours. I was in a foul mood I didn’t talk much with my hiking partner, since he’d had the same experience. Sometimes it’s better to say nothing than something.