Sturgis SD – Missoula MT
Sun Sept 20, 2020
Any fond memories I may have still harbored of sleeping on my family’s spare cot as a kid when company came over can now be considered fact-checked fake news. I managed a few uncomfortable hours of interrupted sleep prior to waking for good about an hour early, before the alarm had even thought of going off. To improve my mood further, I had a pretty good nosebleed going on and so I sipped some room coffee, checked the weather, generally tried to pull myself together until the others got up.
We didn’t want to get moving too too early. Despite the long slog ahead, today’s route was to begin with a nice loop southwest through the Black Hills National forest, just to get a flavor for the area and provide some welcome contrast to all the interstate travel. Some daylight was necessary to get any enjoyment from our scenic side trip.
The hotel was only providing COVID-era bagged breakfasts, so we drank some coffee to kill a bit of time until kickstands up around 06:30 MDT. We rode one exit down I-90 then veered off into the hills on US 14A. Since I wanted to take a few photos, Marc took the lead going up some nice sweepers and called out several deer by the roadside, just waiting to sabotage someone’s day.
Even though we didn’t stop, getting to ride through the historic town of Deadwood at first light was pretty cool, and went quick as the town was still sleeping. We quickly passed through tiny Central City and then Lead, getting into some great scenery, enjoying the curves and splashes of fall colors on the surrounding hills. We had started the morning at a comfortable 58F but the temps dropped as we gained elevation, making me wish I’d plugged in my heated liner.
We continued on 14A onto the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, with steep rocky bluffs to either side, perfect pavement curving in front of us and bright yellow aspens marbling the evergreen landscape all around us. This side loop was turning out even better than I’d thought! After passing several stunning views, we finally pulled over to get a couple photos.
Although I had added this short fun detour to the route before the Butt Lite rally book was released, having a rally bonus to visit along the way lent a further sense of purpose to it. We turned off 14A onto Roughlock Falls Road and followed a well-graded gravel road, winding up a side canyon next to Little Spearfish Creek. Though still muted by the wildfire haze, the autumn color around us became even more plentiful. It was tough to focus on handling the heavy bike on slippery gravel when surrounded by such beauty.
After a mile, we pulled into the parking area and took in our surroundings with delight. Steep forested canyon walls all around, with the creek babbling nearby. It was a treat after getting beaten up on the long ride yesterday, and we knew it was just a taste of more incredible scenery as we rode further west. The only vehicle in the lot turned out to be one of the park maintenance staff. He recommended two other waterfalls in the area before driving off with a wave.
The creek gurgled along gently near the parking lot, as we were currently above the falls. Rally flags in hand, we followed a sturdy boardwalk along the water to a platform by the uppermost cascade of the falls. I perched my little cell phone tripod precariously on one of the posts (no wind this time) and we took our Butt Lite bonus selfie to post back to the Team Strange crew.
The falls continued to drop quite a bit more from what we could see, so I started to hike further down by myself in hopes of a couple more good photos. However, once I saw the steep elevation change and thought of getting all sweaty in my gear before the long day ahead, I turned around back to the lot. Further exploration will have to wait until next time.
Back on 14A, the remaining miles of Spearfish Canyon were incredible – dozens of nicely banked fast sweepers along the stream with distracting scenery all around and only a couple vehicles on the road, which were passed easily. I stopped taking photos and just focused on the road for the next 15 minutes of bliss. This was definitely one of those roads that you want to turn around and ride again several more times. I imagine you could just have fun going back and forth on it all day, learning the curves and getting in the zone.
When we rode into Spearfish, Garmin played a few tricks, trying to make us ride directly through an elementary school on a road that is not (no longer?) there. Without too much trouble, we figured out how to get to the biggest road around (I-90), which is visible from just about everywhere across the open terrain.
Another 10 miles, we crossed into Wyoming, our ninth state. Our fuel stop in Beulah was only about a mile past the border and we took care of business quickly, since we’d stopped for a while back at the falls.
Heading back into South Dakota, we chatted about making an unscheduled stop at the marker for the Geographical Center of the United States. A fellow LD rider who was following our progress had messaged Ken last night to bring it to our attention, since it was along our route. Sounded like a neat thing, but we weren’t sure exactly how far off route it was. Marc plugged it into Google and as it turned out we would be going right by the marker along US 85 in the town of Belle Fourche SD.
Route 85 between Spearfish and Belle Fourche is fairly urbanized with lower speed limits, but it was still too early for much traffic. We arrived at the little visitor center museum and got a few photos of the historical markers.
Then there was this:
…for a good long while! Just open plains and grasslands as far as we could see. We spotted occasional patches of ground covered in white, guessing they were salt licks. We caught distant glimpses of antelope along with plenty of cattle and even some domestic bison. As we approached the town of Buffalo, I was caught off-guard passing this amusing intersection road sign. It could lend some pause to a bigger believer in fate than I. Is this what they mean by no-win scenario?
The fuel stop in Bowman was unremarkable except for the noticeable lack of masks on people’s faces (it seemed to be discretionary here). We had hoped for some hot breakfast food at this stop, but there didn’t appear to be much available for the morning crowd. So we secured our receipts, made pit stops as needed, and turned west on US 12.
A few miles out of Bowman, we wound through some pretty bluffs and came down into a little wooded valley of the Little Missouri River. All of a sudden, we were riding through the tree-lined trappings (more like remnants) of a town called Marmarth.
The sun/wind shelter of the valley and trees was quite pleasant after being out on the open plains for a few hours, and I commented that it felt we were in some sort of oasis. it seemed peaceful, but as we came to the quiet center of town, it also seemed abandoned and slightly spooky – we didn’t see another soul besides the occasional vehicle passing through like us on US 12.
This was fascinating for some reason, so we stopped in the quiet crossroads to look around. With all the brick buildings, including an auditorium (!), there must have been a significant number of people here for some reason at some point in time. In the east, the closest experience has been riding through some of the old coal towns in the West Virginia hills that continue hanging on to their population and existence by a thread.
I looked the town up following the trip. Wikipedia‘s first sentence says a lot: “Marmarth is the largest city in Slope County in the U.S. State of North Dakota with a population of 143 as of 2014.” It was founded as a railroad town on the route between Chicago and Seattle and reached it’s peak population of 1300 in 1920, in decline ever since. Teddy Roosevelt stayed near here and shot his first bison and grizzly bear in the area.
Now, you can buy rocks there. And “stuff”.
A couple miles later, we crossed into Montana for the remainder of the day’s journey. We spotted some oil derricks, and were soon rolling through the somewhat more populous town of Baker MT. I was chatting on the phone with Char when the guys suddenly pulled over to do a uey.
Guided by empty stomachs, they’d spotted an open cafe, so we pulled in for a timely meal break at the Red River Bistro & Coffeehouse, which is inside a local modern-looking hotel. It was late morning, so we’d apparently missed the local breakfast crowd. We all opted for one of their substantial breakfast burritos, which were very tasty, though somewhat lesser in size than a full-term baby ;).
We had the place almost to ourselves and chatted up the friendly proprietress, asking about the area and noticeable effects from the pandemic on business, etc. Of course the politics of it all crept in a bit, but the conversation stayed friendly. When we jokingly asked about night life back in the near-ghost town of Marmarth, she told us there was a small bar/restaurant there worth going to. We weren’t totally convinced. 🙂
Now well-nourished, we continued west on US 12 across the wide Montana landscape.
We turned onto I-94 near Miles City as the westerly winds began picking up, making for a stiff headwind today. Looks like it will be another battle to make our way westward, and we could kiss our gas mileage goodbye for a second day. At least we weren’t getting battered sideways quite as much as yesterday.
We began catching occasional glimpses of the Yellowstone River off to our right, adding some scenic distraction.
Because of the poor fuel economy we were getting, we made made a quick unscheduled “splash & dash” fuel stop in Ballantine, pumping just a gallon or so of 87 octane (all they had) to get us to the scheduled fuel stop mid-way across the state.
We merged back onto I-90 near Billings and crossed the Yellowstone, enjoying the view of Sacrifice Cliff to the south, where the river has cut away the hill to create impressive vertical sandstone walls.
We reached Columbus and secured our Montana documentation receipt without any issues. Temperatures had risen into the 70s and we saw at least 80F at some point along the way before gaining elevation into cooler temps.
Our first distant views of the Rocky Mountains began creeping out of the wildfire hazed skies. A magnificent sight, and a sign that we’re finally getting closer to the most anticipated sections of the journey.
Although we’d ridden a lot of interstate today, there is a lot worse you can do than the highways across Montana. This morning’s side loop in the Black Hills had broken things up a bit and an epic day over Lolo Pass lay ahead for tomorrow. We were having a tremendous time, though as can happen on extended trips, some differences of opinion and in travel style had emerged over the past couple days. It was time to change things up a bit, and as we made our final approach into Missoula, I bid my companions a continued safe and fun journey. I would be breaking off to ride solo for the remainder of this giant lap around the country.
I pulled into my EconoLodge and killed the engine with relief after a 13 hour day that somehow seemed a lot longer. I looked forward to having a read bed tonight and ordered take-out from the local MacKenzie River Pizza Company. The restaurant was a short walk away, under the interstate, and the stretch felt good. Craving greens, I brought a decent salad with an order of delicious pesto breadsticks back to my room. I spent some time tweaking tomorrow’s route and making hotel arrangements, before eventually drifting off, still later than I should.