Livingston, MT to Big Timber, MT

48.4 mi / 8.4 mph / 2765 ft. climbing
Home: Spring Creek Campground

‘The Horse Whisperer’ is the main reason we are riding in this part of Montana. The 1998 Robert Redford movie has long been a favorite of Rett (and her mom), and my favorite reviewer begins his 3.5-star review like this:

Low, gray clouds scud across the sky while the grass of a seemingly-endless plain ripples in response to the prompting of a spring breeze. Thunder rumbles in the distance. On another day, a bright sun gazes down on those same fields while cattle roam from horizon to horizon. The silhouette of a lone cowboy on horseback stands out against an evening skyline. Above these vistas, the Rocky Mountains tower like implacable guardians, seeing all. These are only some of the images from The Horse Whisperer, a film as rich in its visual presentation as it is in its emotional resonance.

And later he writes, “[Redford’s] presentation of Montana, with all of its glorious open spaces, is enough to make anyone in the theater think about heading west.” Of the millions who had such a thought flit through their heads, I’m proud to say that we’re among the few who have made it happen. Not only heading to the West, but riding our bicycles to this particular part of Montana, and then today, navigating our way to the Engle Ranch, the main location where the film was shot. It just hurts my heart that Rett’s mom could not make the pilgrimage with us.

The town of Big Timber is about 35 miles east of Livingston, along I-90. The Engle Ranch is (as the movie points out) appropriately far from any town, with the easiest access coming from Big Timber and heading about about 20 miles south and west up the Boulder River. So either we ride to Big Timber, and then do a 40 mile in-and-out to see the ranch for a 75 mile day, or we spend an extra night in Big Timber just to do the ranch offshoot. Or! There is a road (Swingley Rd.) that lights up bright on Strava’s heatmap, indicating a (relatively) lot of bicycle usage that also connects Livingston and Big Timber, but swings (pun intended) further south than I-90, thus reducing the offshoot to the ranch to an 8-mile in-and-out, and a total distance of 48 miles. The only problem is that 21 miles of that distance would be gravel, whose quality is completely unknown. I messaged a WarmShowers host in the area to see if he’d have any intel, and he replied back “Yeah it’s fine. Def have some washboarding at times other than that epic road”. Hmm. Sounds good? It brings us closer to the Absaroka Mountains to the south, and should have hardly any traffic. Let’s do it!

Sunrise over the clouds at our Livingston HipCamp.
The friendly cat brought me a dead bird in the morning as a “gift”. Wait, no, it’s not for me, it’s for him. He just wanted to show off for me how easily he could kill and eat a bird (he essentially swallowed it whole; it was completely gone in about 30 seconds). So, uh, yeah, if he could make short work of a bird like that, I don’t think I was being unnecessarily paranoid about the possibility of him ripping a hole in our tent!

After a few miles of pavement, the road unceremoniously switched to gravel. It was relatively smooth, so even though it smacked us in the face with an 8% hill (much steeper than the 5% max we prefer and have become used to), it was still doable and Rett was really loving where it was taking us to, out alone amongst the hills.

The first gravel climb of the morning on Swingley Rd.
Leaving Livingston behind and below.
Nearing the top of Hill #1 on Swingley Rd.
The road brings us closer to the mountains.
And of course we aren’t really alone out here; the moo-cows are definitely keeping an eye on the interlopers.
One of the few houses out along this road, and not a bad place for one to be!
There’s a nearly Half Dome-looking mountain hiding out here in the Absarokas.

By the time we hit our second climb, the road surface had degraded significantly. It felt like we had been lured in to a trap, and now were “stuck”, because at this point turning around would take more time than simply plowing ahead through the big rocks and ruts. At least we hoped that plowing ahead would take less time! Rett actually apologized to me for “making” us take this road, but as long as she’s enjoying herself, that’s 90% of what I need to enjoy myself.

Riding a rougher surface, though the views are still great!
These three horses trotted with us as we rode by, which was pretty amazing because it’s difficult to get horses to even pay attention to us, much less join our fun.

On the big 1000 foot climb that would take us to our high point for the day, the slope got steep enough that combined with the loose surface, Rett was no longer able to safely power up it. So we converted to the bike-ferrying mode we’ve done a couple times before when the ride got too challenging. I would ride up a stretch, park my bike, walk-run back down the hill, pick up Rett’s bike at the point where she had pushed it to, ride that up to mine while she walked unencumbered, and repeat. By the time we reached the final pitch, I even needed to get off and walk once when riding Rett’s bike, since the grade ramped up to 11%!

We’ve made it to the top of Swingley Road!
Our bikes ready to start the downhill.

It was noon and we had barely made it 15 miles into our planned 48 mile day. But at least we were at the day’s high point, and “everything” would be downhill from here, with no more major climbs. Any hopes of gaining speed were quickly dashed though, as the surface forced us to stay on our brakes on the downhill (and even walk the bikes for a bit near the steep-and-loose top).

Washboards keeping our speed slow even on the downhill.

We plugged along (because what else could we do?), and kept hoping that a good lunch spot would appear in this nearly-treeless landscape. We got to the point where the road was roughly following a river downstream (which gave a place for shade trees to grow), but it flowed well away from the road, cruelly fenced behind private land. Eventually we settled on a spot where there was five feet of steep slope between the road and a barbed-wire fence, and if we clambered down and hunched close to the fence amid the rocks and dirt, we could catch a tiny bit of shade that would keep us from roasting in the hot sun while we ate. Needless to say we couldn’t set up our chairs and have a relaxing midday recovery period like we normally do, so it was pretty rough.

We pushed on, and with only a few miles of gravel to go before we hit the paved road, we ran into a section with utility work happening, which added a bunch of dust-throwing trucks into the mix. Rett spotted an irrigation ditch crossing under the road, and there was a spot where we could at least climb down to fill a bottle to dump cooling water on our heads. Relief! And then, even more luck! One of the utility workers driving by stopped and ask if we wanted cold water to drink. Yes! He handed us three ice-cold waters out of his truck. Thank you!! We always feel somewhat jealous of other bike tourers when then they report such roadside gifts, since it hardly ever happens to us, but then we remind ourselves that it’s probably because we’re much less-likely than other bike tourers to put ourselves in straits dire enough that we look like we need help. So while we’re enormously thankful for the gift, we’re less-comfortable with what the gift told us about how we must have looked as we were reaching into that irrigation ditch for salvation.

After a final descent, our 21-mile gravel nightmare finally came to an end. Well, it was only about 17 miles of nightmare-gravel, and the scenery and isolation softened it to mildy-disturbing-dream gravel, but we were still extremely-relieved to reach the end. Rett was less-excited to be reminded that the Engle Ranch was a right turn at the T-intersection, whereas with a left turn we could make our lives much easier and cut 8 miles out of our already-exhausting day.

So I couldn’t have been more proud when, after two seconds of disappointment and thought as she slowed before the stop sign, Rett declared, “Fuck it! I didn’t come all this way to not see the ranch!” and made the right turn. I loved to see her strength and spirit still shining through despite the day burning away so much of that energy.

Adding to the challenge, the ride along the Boulder River valley to the ranch was again uphill. But the landscape was just as inspiring as the movie had led us to believe it would be, and we were cheered on by an entire herd of roadside cows when all twenty of them stood up to honor our pilgrimage as we passed.

The main ranch house in the movie had been constructed on the property just for the production, and my Google Maps research suggested that it might have (finally) been demolished relatively recently. Our arrival revealed that it unfortunately had been (and understandably replaced by a house someone could actually live in), but most of the draw to this place was about the wide-angle view of the land anyway, and we could still absorb plenty of that. And we think we could still see the cabin in the trees across the river where Annie and Grace lived during the restoration of their horse, Pilgrim.

The Engle Ranch, home of The Horse Whisperer. The brown house on the left side of the frame replaced the white ranch house used for exterior shots in the movie.
The old cabin hiding in the trees.

Reaching this point brought waves of emotion, especially after such a grueling day. Rett had brought herself here, to this place she’d dreamed of, on her bicycle! And while our arrival circled a laser pointer on the black hole by her side where her mom should be, it also uncovered an amazing truth: her mom knew that Rett was here in this beautiful place. Because even though she has been gone from this earth for nearly two years, Sue had such faith and confidence in the adventures her daughter would have, that this moment was already reality to her two years ago. Even though it wasn’t reality to us, and wouldn’t have been to most parents. It took our arrival to this Montana ranch to make me realize that that unwavering faith in her daughter is something that helps keep Sue with us as Rett navigates the world after her mom’s death.

Rett thrilled to have brought herself to the home of ‘The Horse Whisperer’ (that asymmetric mountain peak just above her head is proof that we made it to the right place, because it’s seen in the background in more shots than any of the buildings are).
But being here also brings a mix of emotions.

Finally we could turn around and ride the downhill toward Big Timber. We got a final bit of Horse Whisperer magic when, on a steep hill just to the left of the road, a whole group of horses was running joyfully together through the grass, while a fawn sprinted in the opposite direction. It was the most-dramatic and panoramic interaction with horses we’ve ever seen in our riding.

Rett riding downstream in the Boulder River valley, still in the heart of Horse Whisperer country.

The campground was (thankfully!) a few miles short of town (though it insulted us with a long gravel drive that forced a final bit of bike-walking!), and we picked a tent site right on a 10-foot cliff with the churning, roaring Boulder River at its base.

Yesterday we didn’t set any records, after setting a speed and a distance record the two prior days. But today, we made it three records in four days, by spending 5 hours and 45 minutes in the saddle pedaling (luckily the 8.4mph was only our 2nd-slowest average speed, saving us from collecting two dubious records in one day). That record day meant that for dessert we each got a pint of Wilcoxson’s ice cream (a Montana brand) from the camp store to eat.

We were short one quarter to do late-night laundry, but a friendly couple with a giant RV gave me their “Aldi cart” quarter so that I could get a load wash-and-dried. A final gift on an epic and emotional day!



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