13.5 mi / 6.8 mph / 1501 ft. climbing
Home: Parkside National Forest Campground
Over the next two days, we’re set to climb to nearly 11,000 feet above sea level, to conquer the Beartooth Pass. That’s higher than either of us have ever been on our bicycles, and more than 5000 feet up from our current mile-high elevation in Red Lodge (and even getting there already required a 2000 ft. climb!) In short, we’ve made it about halfway through a 52-mile, 7200 ft. continuous climb to the top of the world. Well, halfway distance-wise. We’ve put less than a third of the elevation below us.
So today we would grind up another chunk of that elevation. Not nearly enough to get us to the top, but hopefully enough so that we’re able to chew through the last (and still the largest) portion tomorrow. 13.5 miles is a short day distance-wise (even for us, though we’ve done several shorter), but the 112 ft/mile rate of climbing would be another new record for us in this record-setting phase we’ve found ourselves in (previous record was 105 ft/mile). And it’s also the only reasonable way to split the remaining 5200 feet, because much further and we run out of places to stop; only the mountains remain.
So even though there would be an unusual amount of effort in the 13.5 miles, we didn’t need to be in any hurry to start. Especially since the weather we’ve been waiting out for the last four days turned out to be more like four-and-a-half days of weather. The no-chance-of-rain period wouldn’t actually begin until this evening.
Thus, we didn’t clear out of our AirBNB until 11am checkout, and even then we sat on the porch waiting for Rett’s new credit card to appear. Well, not really waiting, but on the phone trying to figure out a new solution. See, her bank told her a couple of days ago that her card has been compromised and they were mailing her a new one. Well, this is one of the big ass-pains of our nomad life, receiving physical objects through delivery services. Since sending the card to our address on file would have been completely useless, Rett had been able to get her bank to rush it to our AirBNB, which we were conveniently staying in for multiple nights. Unfortunately, despite supposedly being out for delivery (and us watching a UPS truck drive down the street), it still hadn’t arrived by checkout time. Waiting longer would just be a crapshoot, so she did the simplest thing of cancelling that delivery, and having a new one sent to my parents’ house, a rare location that combines the predictability of us being there, and the ability to receive and hold mail. We have other credit cards (though not with as good of rewards!), so we’ll be fine without for a while (especially since we can both still use it by tapping our phones). It’s just a pain in the ass.
After that stress, Rett was ready for a nice lunch, so we went to the highly-rated Mexican restaurant in town. It was also an opportunity to wait out the rain that had started popping up on the radar to the south. But with lunch done and no rain yet in Red Lodge, we decided to finally just head out and up in that direction.
And immediately the drizzle started. I needed to stop to tie my shoe, then we needed to stop to put our rain jackets on as it got heavier, then we needed to stop to check pressure because Rett thought her tires felt funny, and finally we stopped at the US Forest Service ranger station as it began raining for real. Good thing we do have only 13.5 miles to go, because we’re getting nowhere fast!
The ranger station had a nice covered porch where we hung out for 15 or 20 minutes while waiting for the rain to lighten (and we could even charge our phones). Since we were there, I popped inside to ask the rangers if they had any idea what our chances would be of getting a site tomorrow at one of the first-come, first-served campgrounds on the other side of the pass. It turns out the US Forest Service is as parochial as I expected it might be, and these Custer National Forest rangers had difficulty seeing through the invisible boundary at the Wyoming state line to the campgrounds on the other side in the Shoshone National Forest. But they tried to be as helpful as they could, and expressed a decent amount of confidence that we would be able to find a site, especially since it would be a weeknight. “Most people around here are just looking to get to Yellowstone” is the hope.
We began again once the rain had returned to a drizzle, but the strong headwinds quickly began frustrating Rett and making her doubt our ability to complete even the 13.5 miles. Luckily when the rain finally lightened, the winds relaxed as well and uphill progress became easier.
As the skies cleared, the ever-growing mountains took center stage, with the rollicking Rock Creek providing quite a sideshow. After several miles the nice shoulder we had been granted out of Red Lodge of course disappeared. We were still on US-212, the highway whose heavy traffic north of Red Lodge had pushed us to a gravel alternate, and given that there really aren’t any other roads in the area to drain US-212’s traffic, I had been concerned ever since that day’s ride that our whole idea to ride over the Beartooth Pass was stupid/impossible/deadly. But somehow traffic was far lighter heading south out of Red Lodge (like, 80% of it must terminate at Red Lodge and turn back north), so the riding remained comfortable.
Even though the ride-long climb was never steep, one thing that made it tough is that its constant upward tilt didn’t allow any moments of coasting, when we can relax for a few moments, shift our bodies, stand on the pedals, stretch out, and generally reset any minor aches. And it took a long time, since we set two records today: our 6.8 mph average speed smashed our previous-slowest of 7.4 mph from two Decembers ago. All the more reason to remember to do a bit of post-ride stretching!
For tonight we were able to reserve a site at Parkside Campground, even though it’s still relatively-primitive (vault toilets only, and a hand-pump for water; most other USFS sites we’ve been at have pressurized water spigots). Each site does have its own (large, modern) bear box, a luxury we haven’t had in a while. And since one final round of drizzle was nearing, it was definitely helpful to be able to throw things in there while I hurried to get the tent set up. Immediately we also needed to get into our warm clothes, because even the sun that began shining through the trees wasn’t doing much to fight off the chill.
We had a couple of nice visits from fellow bike-tourers who weren’t currently in that mode. One was from an off-roader who had not only done the Great Divide route, he had done it as part of the “Tour Divide” competition. When I asked how long it took him, he first asked me if I knew what the record was for the 2745-mile course, seemingly as a way to downplay his result. Whether it was 16 days (my vague memory from looking it up weeks ago after talking to other Divide riders), 13 days 22 hours 51 minutes (the actual record), or 34 days (the time of our new friend), those are all mind-boggling results. The last one is still 81 miles per day, a distance I averaged in 2007 when I rode from Chicago to Oregon, but that was on paved roads and with a fraction of the climbing along the Divide. I have been considering putting us back on the Great Divide route for section through Wyoming, and he had a lot of good practical information to share about it. He also said that the campgrounds I was targeting for tomorrow night were closed to tent camping due to grizzly activity (he had just driven from that way), but I hadn’t heard anything about that, so I sure hope he was just confused! (we’ve left cellular reception so have no way to re-check).
Our other visitor was 67-year-old grandmother and longtime resident of Red Lodge (extended family was having their yearly gathering at the campground, so it’s lucky that we got a reservation!) She had done her first bike tour just 10 years ago, fully-loaded and self-supported with friends, and loved it. But as time has passed those friends have “gotten soft” and no longer want to carry their own gear or camp. Whereas she still wants to do it the way we do, so I could feel the same mix of envy and excitement for us in her voice that I would feel whenever I would encounter a bike tourer while I was in “normal life”/non-bike-touring mode. Maybe you can find some new people to hook up with!