Big Timber, MT to Columbus, MT

45.5 mi / 14.9 mph / 493 ft. climbing
Home: Git’s Big Sky Motel

Our campsite at Spring Creek Campground, even though that’s the Boulder River (see the boulders?!?), not Spring Creek. It’s a little tough to see from the photo, but if I pushed my bike three feet forward, it would disappear down the 10-foot cliff (and then down the swift-running river!)
Another epic remote gravel ride?! No, just leaving the long driveway from the campground to get back to the highway.

To make our lives easy after yesterday’s tough day of riding, we skipped camp breakfast and just packed up and rode the quick three miles (well, quick once we made it up the campground driveway again) into the small town of Big Timber which we didn’t quite reach yesterday. ‘The Horse Whisperer’ tells the audience how remote the ranch is by having several characters comment on how long the back-and-forth drive to town is that Kristen Scott-Thomas and Scarlett Johannson make every day for the first part of the movie. Big Timber is essentially the real-life version of that town, so now Rett has completed our Horse Whisperer tourism by making the movie’s commute herself, and on her bicycle!

Rett chose to believe that this is Pilgrim from ‘The Horse Whisperer’. (It was dedicated a year after the movie was released, so…maybe?)

We ate at the 4.8-stars-on-Google Big Timber Bakery, and it definitely lived up to its rating. A couple booths were filled with tourists like us (though I doubt many know of ‘The Horse Whisperer’ connection any longer), but there were definitely plenty of ranch-working locals in line at the counter, and of course a gray-haired group at a big table that surely meets here at least every week, if not every day.

When I was outside with the bikes while Rett finished her morning routine in the restaurant’s bathroom, a tall 80-something man wandered into the open door of the small Main Street insurance-agency storefront next door, and had a friendly and familiar chat with the woman inside about how she was sprucing up the place. Then on the way into the cafe (likely to join the locals’ table) he stopped to have a nice chat with me about what we’re up to. Quickly I learned that he had lived in Schaumburg, the Chicago suburb right next to where I once owned a house! Better than that, he lived there some 60 years ago, so it was great to hear his memories of the 1000-person town. It’s a place that history had told me existed, but I had only known as a 75,000+ person suburb, and home of Woodfield Mall, once the largest shopping mall in the country (which likely has more than 1000 people working there every day!) He said that this area of Montana had changed so much in recent years too, and I assume he meant the broader Bozeman area, because the population there has been exploding. Well, not to the level that Schaumburg did between 1960 and 1970, when its population increased an unbelievable 1800%, but Gallatin County (two narrow counties to the west) has doubled in population in the last 20 years. Surprisingly, Big Timber’s population has remained quite stable for decades (around 1500), similar to wider Sweet Grass County of which it is the seat (around 3500…yes, an entire county with only 3500 people is how Montana rolls), so not everywhere in this area is being roiled by change. That’s a comfort both to us who came in search of movie ghosts from 25 years ago, and to my fellow Schaumburg escapee.

We got our final bit of Horse Whisperer tourism in on the way out of town when we rode past the Lazy J Motel, which looks nearly unchanged since it appeared in the movie. We wanted to spend last night in the motel, but unfortunately it had been fully-booked.

The Lazy J Motel, looking just as it did in ‘The Horse Whisperer’ 25 years ago.
There is a brief scene where Robert Redford arrives in front of this office, and I’d noticed the key-drop box on the wall labeled “KEYS” with the stick-on address letters that you get at the hardware store. Even then the stickers looked old, so I laughed to see them still unchanged 25 years later! A good example of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

As a makeup for that disappointment, and yesterday’s exhausting ride, we were granted a huge tailwind today to push us eastward. We were able to cruise easily at 20 mph (the route was also mostly downhill along the Yellowstone River), but Rett was also able and interested in pushing strongly, a surprise after yesterday.

Train and grain (elevator) at Reed Point.
Reed Point seems to really like their sheep, and thus Lamby really likes Reed Point.

At Reed Point we were forced to leave the I-90 frontage roads and get on the Interstate itself. That’s normally not a big deal because of the giant comfortable shoulders Interstates have, but I knew there were two bridges crossing the Yellowstone River where those shoulders disappeared. Also there were reports of construction, but we talked to a woman in Reed Point who said that was all cleared out by now. That part was a relief, but then shortly before we hit the bridges, Rett got a sudden flat tire. Usually a wire from an exploded truck tire is the culprit (it’s the worst part of riding on the Interstate, especially since changing a tire on the shoulder isn’t fun!), and since I couldn’t see anything on the outside of the tire, it seemed that was the case again. So we were shocked when I pulled the tube out and there was an inch-long, 1/8th-inch-wide strip of metal that had just shot straight into the tire. Well, at least it made finding the hole easy! And it was good that it happened just before the shoulderless bridges, and not on them.

And once we got going again, we hit perfectly-lucky timing. Zero vehicles were on the road with us when crossing the first bridge, then a large wolf-pack caught us and flew by just as our sprint returned us to safety on the shouldered sections between the two bridges, and then again we were all clear for the second bridge. Phew! Generally traffic is light enough on this section of I-90 that vehicles should have little difficulty moving into the left lane if they’re paying attention, but it was nice to not have to rely on that attention!

It all helped to bring us into Columbus with a new average speed record (our fourth statistical record in the last five days), with the 14.9 mph just eclipsing our 14.8 mph from five days ago!

Approaching Columbus and the Yellowstone River.

We made a beeline for a McDonald’s lunch, and in the air conditioning tried to decide how to spend the night. Our plan had been to camp at the city park along the river, which Columbus generously allows for no charge. But it was really hot, and while there would likely be shade, it would still be an uncomfortable afternoon and evening. The Super 8 motel was asking an insane $193, so I didn’t have much hope that the not-online Big Sky Motel would be much cheaper, despite it being the one I’d read previous cyclists had stayed at. Rett’s desire to not roast overcame her reluctance to make phone calls, and she rang the motel while we ate our fries. To my surprise, she immediately went ahead and made the booking without even consulting me, and before we even checked the conditions at the city park. It turns out that’s because it was $70, tax included, so I 100% agreed, no consultation necessary! The funny part was that 5 minutes later as we left McDonald’s and turned to ride towards the motel, a giant billboard advertising the motel and its price was staring us right in the face! Whoops! It was facing people coming into town off the Interstate (and heading to the Super 8), so it probably works really well for them, but I wonder if spending a fraction of the cost of that billboard rental on a simple website would be even more cost-effective?

Hmm, how could we possibly find out how much a room at Git’s Big Sky Motel might cost?

Once we got to the motel it became quite clear that no website will be forthcoming! It’s co-operated with a gas station, and the motel office is inside the gas station store building. One half of the interior is standard gas-station convenience items for sale, and the other half (separated physically by only a wooden railing and two shag-carpeted steps up, but separated in time by decades) is the motel office, looking like the office of a 1970s hit man who pretends to be an insurance salesman as his cover. The odd thing was that I could neither smell nor see the haze of cigarette smoke that ought to have been present in such a place. In short, it was awesome, and exactly the sort of place where bike tourers should be staying. We paid our $70, got into our old but perfectly-livable room, and spent the afternoon and evening being so thankful that we weren’t suffering in the 97-degree heat.



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