52.1 mi / 12.2 mph / 1844 ft. climbing
Home: Ovando Cyclist Camp
We got back on the move in the cool morning air made comfortable by the bright sun. Within a mile after leaving our AirBNB, cutting through the University, crossing a heavily-padlocked pedestrian bridge, and joining MT-200, we were already (briefly) in another gorgeous deep river canyon. Already Rett has declared Montana the prettiest state in the Union, which tells me we made the right decision to dally here (though I’m guessing she might waver if presented the evidence side-by-side.)
Then it widened out a bit with a couple very un-suburb-y suburbs, but once MT-200 separated from I-90, we were into the Blackfoot River canyon, with Missoula’s version of sprawl ending very quickly in this direction at least. MT-200 has an 8-foot shoulder, making it much friendlier than US-12 coming in from the west, but the shoulder was also a necessity in this case since traffic was much heavier than I’d anticipated (who goes this way?! Traffic to Helena it turns out), and still flying by annoyingly at the 70mph speed limit (which is why you can get there faster on this 2-lane highway vs. the Interstate). We had to put on our down jackets at our roadside lunch, because a chilly wind coming down the slope was holding the midday temperature below 60 degrees F.
After lunch we rode for several miles along a mysterious ranch/resort called “Paws Up”. I’d seen it on Google Maps when looking for places to spend the night along our route, mentally giving it a positive association due to the PAWS animal charity. But then I saw they required a four-night minimum reservation, so cross them off the list. But out of curiosity… the cheapest available accommodation, a glamping tent, was $3400. Not for 4 nights, but for a single night! WTF?! Seeing their logo as we rode by (a stylized bear paw with the claws pointed skyward) did nothing to disprove my suspicion that the nightly rate was inclusive of the right to shoot and kill some big mountain game (bear, moose, mountain lion, etc.) But when we later checked their website, the closest thing they mentioned was shooting clay pigeons, so the mystery continues. I suppose if you run bear hunts, you might do it with this sort of wink and a nod rather than posting it on your website? Or, if you run human hunts… Human cyclists, who were just at a Pride festival in the big city… Pedal on!!!!
Luckily my searching had eventually revealed the exact opposite type of place for us to stop: the tiny 50-person town of Ovando, which is extremely cyclist-friendly, where we could stay for $0 or $5. They’re nice enough to even explain everything on the town website. They have a Sheep Wagon, a Teepee, and a Jail that you can sleep inside of for a $5 donation, or, plenty of tent space for free. Water, porta-potty and showers are available (the last for a $10 fee). The Great Divide Mountain Bike route passes through the town, and someone must have been wise enough to realize that rather than making cyclists’ lives difficult, providing amenities to (cycling) tourists would be good for the town.
So Rett was pushing hard over the last miles, fighting increasingly-annoying traffic with decreasing shoulders, in order to beat any other cyclists to those cute and quirky lodging opportunities. The Tour Divide Mountain Bike race was currently going on, but it looked like most racers were already well south of Montana, so I was more concerned about beating the forecasted rain (that we had seen coming down on distant hillsides all around us for the last couple hours) than having many (or any) other cyclists in this nowhere land competing with us for space by mid-afternoon.
But it turns out she was “right”. We rolled into town and there were a couple of down-jackets-and-shorts guys with bikes by the fire ring next to the teepee, and they told us everything was already filled up. Being so set on the idea of sleeping under a roof, we even inquired about a room at the small inn, but that was full too. This was crushingly disappointing to Rett, to the point where she even asked about the possibility of continuing on 27 miles to the next town, I think mostly as a way of expressing her spite at the entire town of Ovando for ruining her hopes.
The white-haired manager of the inn/general-store had seen it all in life, including disappointed women. He got me on their WiFi (we’re back in a cellular-challenged zone) so that I could check the radar, and it showed that the chances of us getting rained on had mostly passed. He then suggested pitching our tent on a fenced-in grass lawn next to the volunteer fire station (a spot not even on the “official” list of free tent-camping areas in town), which I agreed would be an excellent blocker of the cold and strong west wind.
So we got camp set up and walked the half-mile to the opposite end of town for early dinner at Trixi’s, a true country saloon. Food helped the mood (as it often does), dessert improved it even more, and then the teeter-totter out front (with horse saddles for seats) put the final cap on the emotional turnaround, bringing Rett to a level of uncontrollable laughter I’ve barely seen in the last two years.
When we got back to camp there was another guy setting up his tent on the lawn, here from Wales doing the north-to-south Great Divide route on a mountain bike, just like everyone else. One of the first things he said to us was something like “I spent most of today asking myself why I’m doing this”. His pain was a valuable perspective for us: yes, there are certainly times when we’re not having a lot of fun, or facing disappointment, but I think it’s rare for us to question whether pain and difficulty outweighs the joy, discovery, and freedom of the adventure. The source of our Welsh friend’s problems (just as it was for me back in my earlier days of bike touring when I’d have many more why-am-I-doing-this moments than now) is that he was committed to completing a grueling 3000-mile route in 25 days! Like, I get the value of challenging yourself to achieve a difficult goal, and I get that not everyone has constructed their lives to allow unlimited time to explore money-burning pursuits like we have, but, c’mon man, you should try taking it easier!
It turned out that we made it through the whole day with no real rain, so the full accommodations ended up not being a practical problem. It was down to 43 degrees F by 10pm though, so it felt especially lucky to be able to crawl into a dry, wind-sheltered tent.