So the tale of this trip is taking longer to tell than it was to actually do. If you’ve read the first three installments, you’ll know that I had pretty good weather for the first half of my trip from Pensacola, Florida to Brewster, Washington. Then things kind of went sour. The bike, which I had been worried about, performed flawlessly. The weather and the roads, which I had not been worried about, turned nasty. How could it get worse, you ask? Ah, I’d forgotten about those dang ol’ Rocky Mountains…
I knew Tuesday (my third day on the road) would be rainy, but I naively did not expect it to be very cold. So when starting out from Gillette, Wyoming I didn’t dress as warmly as I should have. Turned out to be a near-fatal mistake. We got diverted off the Interstate and through the Bighorn National Forest and I found myself riding across snow-covered passes. Damn, it was cold. Finally back up and westbound on I-90, it poured rain but the temperatures didn’t seem so bad. It was 3 p.m. or so when I stopped for gas in Big Timber, Montana ("A" on the map below) and I had 260-something miles to go to Missoula ("B" on map below). Four hours, maybe five. I could make Missoula by sunset, and then it’s an easy hop from Missoula to Brewster.
Now, in this area of Montana I-90 generally rides along a plain that is about 3,500 to 4,500 feet above sea level. We all know that temperature drops the higher you go, and it was getting noticeably “chilly.” I probably should have been paying more attention to the topography. My bad, as the kids say.
Once you get past Livingston, Montana you have to cross over a little mountain range where the peaks are up around 10,000 feet. I went through Bozeman Pass, which the FAA chart says is at 5,718 feet, and it was cold. Really cold. You only drop down a little into the city of Bozeman, which sits at 4,820 feet. Not quite as high as Denver (5,130 feet), but almost. I should have stopped there for the night, but stupidly I pressed on.
West of Bozeman, the terrain gets higher. The cold was starting to get to me. The face shield on my helmet began fogging up badly on the inside. Opening it even a crack was extremely uncomfortable due to the cold. The steady rain was putting water on the outside of the shield as usual. The combination of water on the outside and fog on the inside was making it really hard to see. My “waterproof” gloves turned out to be not-so and my hands were freezing. The road through the mountains was challenging, and I was concentrating hard on not crashing. The best speed I could maintain was around 60. Faster than that was just too damn cold. I knew I had screwed up.
After crossing the Continental Divide I was going down this one hill/curve – a long, sweeping right-hander just east of Butte – when I inadvertently allowed the bike to drift wide into the left lane (no turn signal, of course). I was not riding well. Correcting as best I could, I eased back toward the right lane – again, no turn signal – just as a pickup truck came roaring down the hill to pass me on the right. I looked in my left mirror, which I could barely see anyway, thinking I would get back in the left lane, but there was a car right there that was about to pass me on the left. These guys were hauling ass too. The guy behind me jammed on his brakes, but I wasn’t at all sure he was going to be able to slow down in time. I thought it was all over. At the last second, the car on my left eased by and the pickup truck swerved over into that lane, missing me by inches. I’m telling you, it was close. My heart was in my throat.
At the bottom of the hill I took the first exit. I had to get gas anyway. At the pump, I could barely get my Visa into the card reader, my hand was shaking badly. I thought at first it was because I’d just scared myself, but I soon realized that my whole body was convulsing uncontrollably from the cold. I went inside to warm up, but the shaking would not stop. I was having trouble moving, and my brain didn't seem to be working right (yes, yes, you're asking "How could you tell?"). I don’t think I’ve ever been colder in my entire life – and I grew up in New York City so I know a thing or two about cold weather. In Butte, I was experiencing mild to moderate hypothermia. The clerk said, “Dude, you look terrible. Get a cup of coffee or something and warm up.” I abandoned any thought of going further, the one good idea I'd had all day.
It took about thirty minutes or so before I warmed up to even be functional enough to get back on the bike. The gas station clerk let me drink as much of his coffee as I wanted and - again - wouldn't take any money. It turned out there was a Days Inn right next to the gas station. I stumbled in and luckily, they had an indoor hot tub and a guest laundry, and I took full advantage of both. Then I crashed for the night - in a bed and not on the highway. It had been one friggin' rough day.
And there was still one more to go.