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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The Great Divide - One Puncture, No Flats

You should've been gone
Knowing how I made you feel
And I should've been gone
After all your words of steel
Oh, Sherrie, holds on, holds on, holds on
Oh, Sherrie, holds on, holds on, holds on

Oh, Sherrie, Steve Perry, Randy Goodrum, Craig Krampf & Bill Cuomo (1984)

Now, that's got to hurt. But the tire holds on another 1,500 miles.
And the Allen wrench holds on another 2,000 miles in a pack.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Many ask me about mechanical problems on my ride of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. How many flat tires? How many broken chains? How many worn out brake pads? Cables? Wheels? Pedals? Bottom bracket? What else?

The answer is one. One mechanical. A rear tire puncture on Day 2 that didn't even cause a flat. That's it.

Paul cruises up Red Meadow Pass early on Day 2 of our Great Divide ride.

From USFS Tuchuck campground atop Whitefish Divide, we start Day 2 cruising toward Glacier National Park just to the east, drop to and spin along the Flathead River valley, and climb back up Red Meadow Divide. We enjoy fast, narrow gravel roads through tall forests that occasionally open for big views both up the mountains and down the valleys. What a way to start the day.

We meet several other cyclists, including Bill, a northbound Great Divide rider on his Day 45, who is full of information and counsel. Here's a gem from him. "Start slow. Everyone wants to get those big 60-80 mile days in. Ride 40-50 miles a day for 10 days to start and let your body decide." That turns out to be very good advice that perhaps we should have followed.

In the morning, the rear tire still has not lost any pressure, but the puncture remains.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

After lunch at idyllic Red Meadow Lake, we soon top the pass and fly 22 miles down hard packed gravel. Twice I stop for pictures. Otherwise, this is 30-40+ mph territory, easy.

Abruptly, gravel turns to pavement. Almost immediately, I hear a metal scraping sound from my rear wheel. It repeats randomly, not rhythmically. What is that?

Nothing appears to be rubbing or dragging. The brake rotor, pads, and levers are fine. Tire pressure is unchanged. Then I spin the rear tire to find a large something had punctured the tire. Between the sealant, dirt, and speed, the puncture sealed without any apparent loss of air pressure. I certainly did not feel any change of handling during that long, fast descent. With no real loss of air pressure, I soft pedal the final few miles to our campsite for the night.

Paul holds the Allen wrench with dried up sealant by the plugged puncture.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Of course, I get distracted at camp with evening activities, such as meeting fellow bikepackers, and neglect the tire that night. In the morning, I'm surprised to find the air pressure unchanged. But I still need to sort this out.

Paul, a master tire plugger, takes a look. To our amazement, he pulls out of the rear tire a rusted 2 mm Allen wrench. Somehow, that long end punctured and completely entered the tire, while the short end stopped the penetration and rested under the tire tread. So, in the fast gravel, I didn't hear or even notice anything. When rolling onto pavement, I then heard the long end of the wrench randomly scraping against the inside of the rim.

Even for Paul, a master tire plugger, this is his first time plugging an Allen wrench puncture.

Paul's plug holds on for almost 1,500 miles supporting a 70+ pound bike bouncing over rough roads. Finally, on Day 34 near Salida, Colorado, the tire develops a slow leak that appears to be around the plug. With little left on the tread anyhow and with rough, prickly New Mexico on the horizon, I decide to just replace the rear tire at Absolute Bikes. Nothing but praise for both the original Bontrager XR2 2.60 tire and Paul's masterful plug!

Other than that one puncture and eventual tire replacement, I had no other mechanicals. That may simply be the result of riding conservatively, choosing and maintaining durable components, or dumb luck. Maybe it's all three. 

Oh, Sherrie, Steve Perry (1984)

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

The Great Divide - Five Acres Of Kindness

You got to try a little kindness 
Yes show a little kindness
Just shine your light for everyone to see

And if you try a little kindness
Then you'll overlook the blindness
Of narrow-minded people on the narrow-minded streets

Try A Little Kindness, Curt Sapaugh & Bobby Austin (1970)

The welcoming entrance to the iconic Lost Llama Ranch on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Sprawled out on the porch couch at the Lost Llama Ranch, I jot a few notes in my journal by the narrow beam of my headlight. It's near midnight, many hours past any reasonable bedtime on this Great Divide ride, but I'm determined to write a bit about today. 

It's a day to remember.

Paul steams out of Ovando toward the heights of Huckleberry Pass.

Fueled by a scrumptious breakfast at the Stray Bullet Cafe and stoked by the friendly Ovando vibe, we briskly roll on hard packed gravel toward the Continental Divide. see The Great Divide - Small Town Stoke. Starting Day 7, we feel comfortably sore and tired. We're not breaking down. We're breaking in.

Like every day, my map reveals a steady, day long dose of up and down. From Ovando, it's about 100 miles over 4 mountain passes to reach Helena, which perhaps is a single day ride for some. Not for me. Even if I thought I could, I would not. The iconic Lost Llama Ranch rests in between.

Paul works his way up Stemple Pass Road.

We cruise along a warmup valley, jazzed by the good vibes behind and anticipated ahead. Hard gravel roads and gentle grades deliver us to the steeper final miles up Huckleberry Pass. But it's early and we feel good, so before long we're coasting down to the town of Lincoln.

After a quick convenience store lunch, we spin up Stemple Pass Road in the heat of mid-afternoon. Once again, the grades steepen significantly as we approach the pass and I frequently stop, just to stop. It's getting late and I'm ready to call it a day.

But, no. More through miscommunication between us than anything else, we take the wrong road and plunge downhill in the wrong direction. By the time we discover our mistake and work our way back on route, we extend an already hard 62 mile day into an even harder 74 miles. So, it's after 8:00 pm when I top a final crest to spot the Lost Llama Ranch in a meadow along a forested valley. What a relief.

John Keller opens the way into the Lost Llama Ranch.

A bit ahead on Marsh Creek Road, Paul rides up to another cyclist. It's Barb Nye herself, the owner of the Lost Llama Ranch, out for an evening ride. Shortly after they roll into the ranch together, I ride up to find John Keller, Barb's partner, who directs me up to their porch.

Barb and John ask everyone riding into the Lost Llama Ranch to first sit down with them on their porch. They offer cold drinks, sandwiches and fruit in a comfortable, shaded place to relax and chat. They genuinely wish to meet each person and hear their story. 

The welcoming porch of the Lost Llama Ranch.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Barb's and John's story is one of hospitality, generosity, and kindness. Barb had been living on the ranch for many years when the Adventure Cycling Association first published the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route in 1998. Living right on the route, Barb started seeing Great Divide cyclists ride by. Soon, she was offering water, food, and even her ranch as a place to camp. In about 2005, Barb bought a neighbor's old cabin and moved it onto her property just for cyclists. Over the years, she continued to make it more and more bike packer friendly.

In 2015, John stopped by the Lost Llama Ranch on his Great Divide ride and met Barb. They kept in contact and eventually John moved out there. Together they continue to build this special place for Great Divide cyclists to rest, recover, and share their experience.

Welcoming note on the porch refrigerator at the Lost Llama Ranch.

After a delightful time over cold drinks, John shows us around. There's the original cabin Barb moved onto the property years ago and the nearby bathroom. Next are a line of various small shelters added more recently, each furnished with beds, lights, a way to cook, some food and other things a bikepacker might need. The barn housing their llama and alpacas has power for charging devices and an outdoor shower out back. The surrounding pasture provides plenty of space for those wishing to pitch a tent.

A large van and trailer sit at the end of the pasture, which John identifies as a van-supported guided tour by the Adventure Cycling Association, the group that created the Great Divide route. A number of other bikepackers mill around the shelters and a smattering of tents.  John gathers the group and joyfully announces that, with my arrival tonight, the Lost Llama Ranch now has a new record of 21 bikepackers staying the night. 21 in one night!

A look inside the "Alpaca Inn" hut that I slept in at the Lost Llama Ranch.

John completes his tour with a reminder to everyone to help themselves anytime to the cold drinks, sandwiches, and fruit on the porch. Paul then bee-lines to a spot to set up his camp, attend to his bike, and change clothes, while I soak in the ambiance and meet our fellow bikepackers.

As Paul finishes, I haven't even started with my tent, but it turns out that I don't have to. One of the other bikepackers, Franz from Virginia, decides to sleep in his tent rather than the "Alpaca Inn" shelter and offers it to me. Well, alright! Last night I slept in the historic Ovando Jail and tonight in the Alpaca Inn at the Lost Llama Ranch! Splash Two!

This shelter houses the ranch's llama and alpacas, while out back is the outdoor shower.

The environment created and nurtured by Barb and John is one of hospitality, generosity, and kindness. They welcome everyone, offer provisions and accommodations to rest, and accept no payment or donation. They live a life of service deep in the Montana wilderness.

Barb notes that all they ask is that you pay it forward in kindness. John adds that they think of the Lost Llama Ranch as 5 acres of love and kindness that they hope will spread all over the country and around the world. They are certainly doing their part.

Thank you, Barb and John.

Try A Little Kindness, Glen Campbell (1970)

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The Great Divide - Small Town Stoke

No, I cannot forget from where it is that I come from
I cannot forget the people who love me
Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town
And people let me be just what I want to be

Small Town, John Mellencamp (1985)

Stray Bullet Cafe owner, cook & coffee re-filler Colleen starts our morning right in Ovando.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

I spend a night in the Ovando Jail and snag a shirt to commemorate it. But I'll remember most the people who make this a must-stop on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Leigh Ann at the Ovando Inn and Blackfoot Commercial Company, Kathy at the Blackfoot Angler, Colleen at the Stray Bullet Cafe, and Howard at the Ovando Museum. Small town America at its best.

Whatever your mode of travel, stop in Ovando for a treat. Better yet, treat yourself to a night in Ovando.

Dogs outnumber people in Ovando.

While researching the Great Divide route over the past two years, I identify a handful of places where I am determined to stop for some serious time, hopefully for a night. The Ovando Jail, Barb's Lost Llama Ranch, Kirsten's Brush Mountain Lodge, and Nita's Toaster House top my list of must-see places that cater to Great Divide cyclists. I suspect other hostel-like places will pop up over the course of the ride, and they do, but these four in particular I am determined to experience.

First up on the route, and first in my heart, is the Ovando Jail.

Paul turns himself in at the Ovando Hoosegow, an antiquated name for Jail.

Shortly before 6 pm on Day 6, we roll into Ovando, Montana and head straight into the Blackfoot Commercial Company general store. We're just in time, as it's about to close. While resupplying from their well stocked inventory of good stuff, I notice a handwritten note that the Ovando Jail t-shirts are sold out but that the cafe might have some. I ask about that note and Leigh Ann, the owner of the store, says that she hasn't had those t-shirts in awhile but that the cafe will open tomorrow at 7 am.

OK, so no t-shirt, but breakfast is set. What about the Jail itself? Is it available tonight? Before Leigh Ann can answer, a friendly voice behind me chirps, "Nobody's there now, so if you'd like it, you got it!" I turn to face Kathy, who watches over the refurbished town jail that is part of the Ovando Museum and is open for Great Divide cyclists to stay overnight. How's that for timing? She had just closed the Blackfoot Angler shop and happened to stop in the general store. I'm staying in Jail tonight!

Before booking in, we arrange with Leigh Ann to shower, launder and recharge devices at her Ovando Inn. Although it's only been three days since our last shower, that always feels good. We then stash our supplies in bear bins by the Jail and ride up the hill to Trixi's Antler Saloon for a feast of big burgers and fries. We're living large tonight!

One cell sleeps two in comfort and style.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

The Ovando Jail offers two bed frames hanging from the wall by chains. The thick rope webbing is not very comfortable by itself, but when we add an inflatable mattress, it sleeps like a hammock. This small building is solid and secure. No grizzly is breaking in here tonight.

All the town asks for a night's stay in Jail is a free will donation to the Museum and an entry in their journal. I jot a few notes and enjoy reading the earlier entries of many others. This Jail journal itself will likely be part of the Museum some day.

Officer Groseth logs his security rounds.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

After a safe night in Jail, we're ready to roll early, but not before breakfast at the Stray Bullet Cafe right across the street. This is an honest to goodness, authentic small town cafe serving a scrumptious, hearty breakfast and great coffee. Colleen, the owner and cook, brings smiles and good cheer all around as she greets everyone and refills coffee. Colleen's mother and daughter also help out with this family business.

By the way, Colleen says that the cafe's name comes from the building's history in the Old West as a rowdy saloon. Fights often broke out and shots fired. A stray bullet from the late 1800's is still embedded in the building's walls.

Kathy of The Blackfoot Angler also manages the Ovando Jail.

As we're leaving the Stray Bullet Cafe, I mention to Colleen that Leigh Ann at the general store noted that she may have Ovando Jail t-shirts for sale. Colleen says that they haven't had those in years. OK. Thanks.

Abruptly, a now familiar voice from behind pops into the conversation. "I don't have any Jail shirts left in my shop, either. But there may be some in the Museum. I'll call Howard." It's Kathy, again. She's opening the Blackfoot Angler shop right next to the Stray Bullet Cafe when she overhears my question. I tell Kathy not to have this Howard come in for me. With a ready smile, Cathy quips, "The Museum should be open by now. Howard needs to get to work!"

Ovando Museum curator Howard opens up for us.

Within a couple of minutes, Howard pulls up to the Ovando Museum in an ATV.  "No trouble. No trouble at all," he says as he unlocks the front door. "I think I saw some of those shirts back here somewhere a while back."

He steps inside and motions me to follow. While rummaging through an assortment of dusty drawers and stacks of cardboard boxes, Howard describes the history of the building that is now the Museum and points to a variety of objects and photographs. This place is a real treasure. The Museum itself could be in a museum.

Howard found this shirt buried in a file cabinet in the town museum.

Burrowing into the depths of an old cabinet, Howard exclaims, "Ah! What size do you want?"

"Large, if you have it," I say.

"Large is what I have," he replies.

All that for a t-shirt. 

Space is limited and weight is avoided when bikepacking, but I'll gladly carry this t-shirt home. 

Thank you, Leigh Ann, Kathy, Colleen, and Howard for making my time in Ovando memorable.

A final word from the Stray Bullet Cafe in Ovando, Montana.

Gotta love small towns.

Small Town, John Mellencamp (1985)

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

The Great Divide - Hey, Bear!

Look for the bare necessities
The simple bare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife

I mean the bare necessities
Old Mother Nature's recipes
That bring the bare necessities of life

The Bare Necessities, Terry Gilkyson (1967)

Many ask if I encountered any grizzly bears during my ride of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. No, I did not face a growling grizzly. In fact, I did not see any bear anywhere. But I sure saw bear habitat, bear bins, warning signs of bear activity, bear scat, and an endless array of bear related souvenirs in most every store throughout all five states. Just no live bears.

Not encountering a fearsome bear doesn't mean that I don't have a grizzly tale to tell.

Fresh grizzly bear scat on the single track through Grizzly Basin.

The most likely day for us to encounter a grizzly bear was Day 6 from our remote campsite beside Clearwater Lake, in the heart of Montana grizzly bear country. That was our first night camping dispersed in a national forest and our first night hanging food and other items in bear bags. We see and hear plenty of wildlife there, but no bears.

The next morning, we hike-a-bike 20 minutes up single track and then ride about 8 miles steadily up a good forest service road. Locals confirm our research that this area supports the highest concentration of grizzly bears in Montana. And just ahead lies the aptly named Grizzly Basin, where wildlife authorities relocate problem bears from other areas. Time to get that Timber Bell dinging.

First bear bag hang on our 2021 GDMBR ride.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

We top a ridge and abruptly turn onto single track. Oh, my. It's about 4 miles of gentle downhill, smooth, flowing single track along the shoulders of Richmond Peak. Steep slopes reach upward right toward a  ridgeline and downward left toward a roaring river. Hugging the narrow path, lush vegetation gives way to towering pine trees framing both sides. The surrounding mountains soar above it all. Wow.

We so want to rip down this stretch, but we also don't want it to end. We ride fast for a bit, stop, look around, take pictures, go slow, stop, go fast again but not for long, stop again, and go a bit slower. The views are simply stunning.

Dropping down sweet single track through Grizzly Basin on the Great Divide.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Then Paul stops again. This time it's not for the big views, but for the big pile of grizzly bear scat plopped down in the middle of the trail. The pile is so big that I veer off the trail to get around it. That gets our attention.

Now, the nearly continuous Timber Bell just doesn't seem enough. We ride on, regularly yelling, "Hey, Bear! Hey, Bear!" and fully expect to see a mammoth grizzly rising up to greet us around every turn. Instead, we get a "Hey, Bear!" right back at us. It's northbound GDMBR rider Michael Himes who is 4 1/2 years into a world-wide cycling tour. He shares some stories for a spell and then quietly pedals on his way.

Paul and I stop to chat with Michael Himes as we pass through Grizzly Basin.

The sight of that grizzly scat did not vanish from our thoughts, however. It couldn't. Over the next mile or so, we saw at least 15 more piles of bear scat right on the trail, a few of which were still steaming. Now, we're on full alert to our immediate surroundings. Hey, Bear! Hey, Bear!

So, what happened here? I conjure an image of one sociable grizzly finding a juicy huckleberry patch, calling all his friends, and throwing a big huckleberry party all night. Staggering home, the bears marked their trail on the only flat ground around. We're just riding through downtown after the parade.

Negotiating a slide area through Grizzly Basin.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Too soon, we pop out of the single track and fly down a hard gravel road toward Seeley Lake. We find no bear scat on this wide, relatively well developed gravel road. With bear spray at hand, we refill water bottles and eat lunch along Blind Canyon Creek. Then we roll another 26 miles on good forest service and county roads to Ovando for the night. 

Of course, we're not out of grizzly country. Not for over 700 more miles. But we're through the steaming bear scat of Grizzly Basin. And that's something.

Enjoy those roadside wild raspberries, Paul.
Just know that you're raiding a grizzly's pantry.

Addendum. Others have encountered bears on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, including two cyclists that I met in Montana. While filtering water from a stream in Montana, John watched a young grizzly eat beef jerky right off his bike before sauntering away. And Ron Kennedy scared off a black bear at night in a campground in southern Colorado. He wrote about it here. Ron's Black Bear Encounter. So, there you go. You have something besides poop for your effort in reading this.

The Bare Necessities, The Jungle Book (1967)