Refuge

A gravel adventure south of Billings, Montana, left me questioning what uncomfortable days in the saddle are all about.

This story was originally written for the 100% analog cycling ‘zine Bikes R Freedumb*.

A couple Augusts ago, I decided to ride forty-five miles for my forty-fifth birthday. It was ninety-seven degrees. The sun pounded down like a fast-food heat lamp, so angry that I felt it reflecting back at me from the dusty gravel road. My tires bucked and kicked under me, pin-balling off the loose river rock spread over the surface. I’d planned the route south of Billings with hopes that it would deliver beautiful eastern-Montana scenery as it wove through undulating grassland and topping out at an overlook with the Pryor Mountains in the distance. It turned out to be a chonky slog that drained my water bottles at the half-way point. By the time I made it home, my throat was so parched that I couldn’t speak.

A year later, because of misguided optimism or because it takes me several times to learn simple lessons, I found myself back on that rugged track. I’d since traded my ‘ cross bike for a proper adventure rig with tires wider than a garden hose. The temperature was expected to be an almost cool (for eastern Montana) mid-eighties. The sun was even tempered by a haze of wildfire smoke.

I can pretend that I was, again, looking for a challenge. But in truth, I was looking for redemption. I wasn’t going to let this ride beat me. There are way better reasons to ride a route; there are worse ones, too.

I can pretend that I was, again, looking for a challenge. But in truth, I was looking for redemption. I wasn’t going to let this ride beat me.

As I hit the first section of loose, marble-sized gravel, I started second-guessing whether this was the best use of my limited riding time.

In the distance, tractors groaned through fields. Birds wheeled overhead. I picked up an asphalt road and cooled off with a quick, winding descent into a narrow drainage with a trickling creek hidden by cottonwoods and underbrush. The road began to slowly gain back the elevation I’d just lost. Soon, I was back on dirt, grinding up a dry gulch.

Gravel climb up into the hills south of Billings.

I stopped for a snack at the top of a climb surrounded by sun-baked grass and a nice view back down the valley. When I get out on gravel roads, my main goal is to find something beautiful. Sure, being outside and getting my heart pumping is nice. But if there’s not a good spot for snacks with a great view, then what am I even out there for? With south Billings spread out before me and black-eyed susans lining the road, this spot more or less fit the bill. It was early, and I was lulled into thinking this might be a nice little jaunt.

Back on the bike, I climbed back onto the wide, flat expanse of dry grass and barbed wire fences. the hum of insects competed with the crunch of gravel under my tires. The stiff breeze brought waves of sagebrush and alkali. I dug in as the road steadily climbed.

A few miles of somewhat monotonous climbing brought me to a place where the farmland seemed to fold in on itself, resulting in a steeper ascent. I passed another cyclist coming down the hill toward me.

“I never go the way you’re going,” he said. Before he pedaled off, he vaguely described what I can only assume was the “fun” way. As he continued downhill, I wondered what I was doing out there. It wouldn’t be the last time I’d ask myself that.

The landscape tipped more steeply skyward, but continued to appear deceptively and demoralizingly flat. More dry grass. More wind. More dust. More golf-ball-sized gravel.

Grain silos stand in the expanse of the Montana prairie.

After climbing a few more hills that somehow never yielded a descent, I stopped at the top of a narrow valley. The road I was on dropped a few hundred feet and snaked along the bottom. If it weren’t for getting the full brunt of the sun and wind, this would have been an ideal snack spot. I instead let go of the brakes and plummeted down a raucous, hard-leaning thrill ride. At the bottom, I skidded to a stop under one of the few trees I’d seen all day. The wispy, chattering cottonwood stood alone on the bank of a dry creek. It was a good place to catch my breath before climbing back up to the wind-scoured plateau.

A slow, hot breeze rustled the leaves of my little oasis, but the shade felt cool. I savored the warm water from my bottle, knowing I’d actually brought enough this time.

In the end, it’s challenges like these that give me the stamina to live our pampered modern life.

Looking up at the switchbacks I was about to climb, it made an odd kind of sense that I was drawn to this route. It showed eastern Montana’s rugged and unforgiving nature. But it was more than that. This ride was hard. I still had 2/3 of the route left with no real bailout option. I was in it. And even though I’d prepared better this time, I was going to be uncomfortable for a while.

I don’t know if I believe that being uncomfortable in the elements makes one appreciate the amenities of modern life. Often, when I’m sitting in an air-conditioned room, I long to be outside. What I do know is that spending the day hungry, thirsty, and mostly exhausted, with the sun hammering down and the wind sapping all momentum makes it easier to sit through Monday’s interminable staff meeting. It gives me the mental strength to continue working on a project long after my brain and body want to drift to Netflix.

My refuge from the blazing eastern Montana sun.

In the end, it’s challenges like these that give me the stamina to live our pampered modern life.

I sucked down some more water and climbed back on my bike, easing my sit-bones, beaten from miles of washboards and river-rock gravel, back onto the saddle. I shifted down and began the slow churn uphill. I found myself enjoying the sensations of legs and lungs burning. I took in the steep-sided valley from the top. I tried to memorize the view of my cottonwood refuge knowing that, as good as the discomfort of this ride was for me, I’d never do it again. New challenges awaited.


*This story was written for the analog-only cycling ‘zine Bikes R Freedumb on a 1932 Remington Model 5 Portable typewriter.

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