Copyright (c) 1998 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.
Chapter 54 - June 14 to July 4, 1998 Garden City, UT to Missoula, MT 20,374 miles (32,861 km) cumulative
>From Garden City on we seemed to find ourselves riding through worse and worse weather. Mornings would start out looking fairly nice. Our hopes would raise that at long last summer weather would find its way to our riding path. These hopes would be quickly dashed as dark clouds gathered overhead, temperatures would plummet, and rain would fall. We'd try our best to ride between cloud bursts, taking shelter where we could. But, rain would still catch up with us, getting us good and soaked. Locals kept complaining about the constant rain, it seems it's been raining every day for nearly 2 months. The rain has been so heavy even the Idaho potato farmers were concerned about losing their entire crops to root rot and/or freezing temperatures. The tent was wet, the tarp well used, the sleeping bags damp. It was wet, cold, and almost miserable. More like early spring, not mid June. We just kept our hopes up that mother nature would change her mind and decide to give us some sunshine and warmth. But it seemed almost as though each day got worse and worse.
One night while camped at Falls Campground in Targhee NF, we just managed to get our tarp tied over the picnic table and the tent all staked out when the skies opened up and it began to pour. It was a site that was extremely flat, too flat in fact. Water quickly filled the area around one spot where we'd staked the tent. We moved it to what higher ground we could find. But that was soon inundated as well. Finally we had to place the tent in the middle of the driveway as that was the only spot still above water level. The area around the table flooded. One, two, then four inches of water quickly built up. Thunder and lightning filled the skies. We began the evening sitting on the benches. But as the water level rose we worried about our feet sitting in water while lightning flashed all around. We knelt on the benches then finally wound up sitting on the table, huddled under the tarp, our feet on the benches all the while worrying that at any minute the next flash of lightning would be too close for comfort. We wondered, where can we go next. "The latrine", I said. Brian said he didn't think it'd be any safer. "Have you ever heard of a latrine being hit by lightning." I said. Brian replies, "No, but I've heard of houses being hit." He's right. My parent's even had a house hit by lightning when I was too young to remember. After about an hour of this the storm finally passed us by, unharmed, somewhat dry, but surrounded by mud.
Enough was enough. After over a week of this daily rain we finally cried "uncle" and stayed in a hotel as news of an approaching cold front with frost and possibly snow greeted us again. It was here we heard our first glimmer of hope. Maybe, just maybe we'd start seeing summer like weather by summer, Sunday June 21. Summer in the mountains doesn't necessarily mean no rain, just not continual all day rain. There'll still be afternoon thundershowers and even all day drizzles. But, it'd get somewhat drier and warmer at long last. We looked forward to it, but as the promised day came and went we saw an occasional day of warm sunshine. However, there was still plenty of cold wet days. I just kept thinking, it's still only June. July and August still are the driest and warmest months of summer. There's still hope.
We continued around Bear Lake, through the town of Montpelier Id, population about 1200, where we lamented at the fact that their Oregon Trail Center, a living history museum dedicated to pioneers along the Oregon Trail, was not quite finished. It looks like it'll be a neat museum with live people play acting different aspects of a night wagon camp. On up Rt 89 toward Wyoming, Jackson Hole and the gateway to Yellowstone National Park. We were being passed almost continually by RVs, cars filled to capacity with baggage, and tour buses all heading to our oldest and most famous of National Parks. Everyone seemed to be rushing by in such a big hurry, yet the scenery along the route was certainly worth slowing to smell the roses. From the green, fertile Bear River Valley, we climbed in between green pine covered mountains and rocky cliffs, first up one low pass of 6900 ft and then up a second slightly higher, 7600 ft. We then descended into the long and green Star Valley through which the salt river lazily meanders. Known as Little Switzerland for it's similarity to so many of the low Swiss valleys, it's a place of small towns. summer vacation homes, and cattle ranches. Dairy cattle range throughout the valley and cheese factories and shops abound. A grilled cheese sandwich at the Star Valley Cheese factory is inexpensive and well worth a stop. And we couldn't resist partaking of many free cheese samples. The rugged mountain ranges lining both sides of the valley were all still topped with a fairly deep layer of snow and the continual cold fronts passing through made sure they stayed that way. Jutting out from the main valley are dozens of canyons that snake their way into the hills. I eyed each one longingly thinking that'd be a great place to put our cabin, some day, or there, or there. Apart from the constant stream of summer traffic going along Rt 89 to Yellowstone, this is a nice, peaceful, country valley where I think we could feel right at home.
Near the town of Afton, Wyo is one of those rare and strange features of nature. It's a natural spring that turns off and on every 12 to 20 minutes. Most noticeable during low water levels, not during this super wet spring, it's been a fascination to locals and passers by since way back in pioneer days. It is the largest of only 3 such springs known worldwide. Scientists believe that somewhere behind the spring, in the hill, is a large underground lake. The path to the spring is a crooked one, acting like a natural siphon. Water trickles into the lake and it gradually fills until it exceeds the height of the crooked siphon. Suddenly the water releases through the path and out the spring, the lake level drops, and the whole cycle starts over again. Unfortunately we couldn't see this effect as the creek was just one big, high, muddy flow of spring snow run off and rain catch.
We stayed at the Forest Service campground near the mouth of the spring where we met perhaps one of the most eclectic campground hosts we've ever seen. In the first campsite on the left tucked among some tall pine trees were 2 tents, a couple those blue tarps covering some area, and piles of wood and other stuff scattered in what appeared a helter skelter pattern. Some of the sticks were stuck vertically in the ground making what almost looked like rustic fences. It looked sort of like a transient had moved in for the summer. We were quite surprised to see the "campground host" sign posted in front of this site. It poured all night so we didn't actually meet this host until the next morning. Yet the next morning as we took down our wet tarp and rolled up our wet tent, in strolls this woman wearing jeans, one of those puffy jackets decorated in chess piece patterns, and blond hair, carrying a very smooth well used walking stick. She was followed by a man carrying an equally well worn walking stick with an old red flashlight case taped to the top, upside down, to act as a handle. We got to hear the story of how this odd woman managed to become a campground host. "This is only my second year as host. Last year I was down in Utah. Beautiful park. But, they're tearing it apart now for the year 2002 Olympics. It's a shame." She had moved into one of the Forest Service campgrounds for the summer, collecting her sticks and wood, building what she calls a living room, entry, sitting room, kitchen, bedroom. But, most National Forest campgrounds have a 14 day stay limit, you have to move and you can't come back to the same campground for the rest of the year. "Why can't I live in the mountains for the summer? Why do I have to move?" She had asked the sheriffs who showed up to kick her off. Finally, one day she found herself completely surrounded by sheriffs all toting guns, trying to get her to leave. Fortunately one of the sheriffs took a liking to her and said, "Call this number in 1/2 hour." And that's how she found herself campground host for the summer last year. She must have been well liked, despite her rather eccentric campsite, as she got a recommendation to be host again at a new site in Wyoming.
It was the first year Swift Creek Campground had a campground host and they really needed one. It's located no more than 2 miles out of the town of Afton and it's been a favorite party spot for the local kids for years, as we could tell by some of the broken bottles found in the campfire pits. Vandalism and garbage were a major problem. So this woman puts these teens straight, "You're welcome to come, party, have a good time. But, when you leave I expect you to clean up. If you don't it's your license number I'll have and I guarantee you won't be back again." She say's it's worked so far. She gets along with the kids and they leave everything clean and as they found it, generally. So I guess the Forest Service gets what they need, someone watching over the campground and this woman gets to live in the mountains in her own eccentric way. She told us that at the end of the season she gathers all her pieces of wood, the ones she hasn't named or aren't in some way special, piles them into a fire pit, invites the folks who've been regular campers all summer, and has a big pot luck picnic. Nice enough lady but Brian kept wondering if this rather odd looking campsite might turn away many of the more traditional campers. Maybe so, but does it matter. At least now the vandalism problems are minimized for this year.
When we arrived at the town of Alpine we had a decision to make, turn right toward Jackson Hole and head on into Grand Teton and Yellowstone parks or turn left to bypass both parks. Now we've been to both Yellowstone and Tetons on several other occasions. One thing we've noted about Yellowstone in particular is how narrow and twisty the roads are. These are roads built probably back in the 30s when cars were slower and smaller. They were in no way designed for these huge RVs that are a good 40 ft long and 10 ft wide. Riding these roads could quite literally mean risking your life. We've heard tales of bikers being knocked off their bikes and even one woman was killed last year near the Fishing Bridge area by an RV mirror. As the ranger said, "I don't think the guy in the RV even knew he'd hit the woman." To be fair, we do have to say that the park has been working to improve the road conditions. There are many places now where the roadway has been widened and 3 ft shoulders added on both sides. But, there are large gaps between these areas of good road and you still have the problem with vacationers who are too busy watching that buffalo out in the field rather than paying attention to what's on the road. There are many bikers who do the Yellowstone ride, but we hear again and again it just is not an enjoyable experience. In fact they often describe it as being just awful and they can't wait to get out. So this made our decision fairly easy. We turned left away from the parks.
The ride was actually quite beautiful despite the rain. Leaving Alpine we rolled up and down the gentle hills along the route following the edge of the Palisades Reservoir. We quickly left the wonderful wide shoulders of Wyoming, returning to the narrow Idaho shoulders. On our left side was the long, long lake. To the right rugged pine covered mountains. Cabins large and small, many of log construction, dotted the mountain side. We had a little downhill ride as we passed by the damn and a flat ride to the Swan Valley intersection. A stop at the Swan Valley commissary is a must as they have a large ice cream counter where they sell square ice cream cones. It's not the cone that's square, but the mold they use to dip out the ice cream. We sat around there for several hours waiting to see how the weather would behave so I got to watch all the excitement the cappuccino machine, just being installed, caused. We concluded the weather wasn't going to clear and we'd have to tackle the next mountain pass over to the town of Driggs the next day. In fact, this was our sitting on the table under the tarp night so the weather really did get a whole lot worse.
Weather the next day was patchy sun and rain as we climbed one more 6900 ft pass over to the towns of Victor and Driggs. The valley is primarily a farming/ranching valley, but it is touched just a bit by the tourist industry. There are several expensive hotels in both towns, restaurants, and quite a few real estate offices. Driggs has a ski area nearby so it has a reasonably healthy tourist industry both summer and winter. But it's not overly tourist, like Jackson hole. In fact one of their main products is potatoes of which they are quite proud as attested to the gigantic brown future French fry mounted in the back of a pick-up located just in front of the Spud drive-in movie theater, it's not real I'm afraid, and the family of giant spuds parked also in a pick-up in front of the Laundromat. We spent the afternoon in Driggs, drying out in the Alpine guest house, getting the clothes washed, filling up the food bag.
We just had a couple more days to get to the town of West Yellowstone, the oldest entrance to the park, along some forest service roads and then finally up Rt 20 which is another of those roads filled with the large RVs driving as fast as possible toward the park. It's particularly worrisome when one gets to the state of Montana. Back a couple years ago the US congress reversed its 55 mph nationwide law and allowed the states to set their own maximum speed limits. Most states went to something like 65 or 75 mph outside congested areas on interstates. Montana came up with something more unique. Essentially there is no posted speed limit during daylight hours. Not just for interstates but even for what seem like country roads, such as Rt 20. As you enter the speed limit sign simply says, "reasonable and prudent". Reading a sign at a rest area it says that you must be the judge of what is "reasonable and prudent". Imagine taking this before a court judge should a cop decide to give you a ticket. It's your word against his and you can bet the judge will side with the cop. It's a terribly ambiguous law. In general people seemed to be going anywhere from 55 to 65 mph. But, every now and then there'll be someone going much faster. It's these folks that get us worried.
Of all the major entrances into Yellowstone, West Yellowstone seems to the the nicest. It seems more like a real town rather than just a place for tourists. Granted there are hotels, restaurants, and gift shops and the town's only real economy winter and summer is tourism. But it's quieter than the other towns, smaller, has nice wide streets, is laid out in a regular rectangular pattern, has a nice town park, and doesn't have any wax museum, Ripley's Believe it or not, bungee jump, or any of those other crappy attractions that seem to plague so many other park entrance towns. West Yellowstone was established in the 1880s purely as a town to service visitors to the park. It was established in Forest Service lands and has since gained independence. Since it is surrounded by Forest Service lands its future growth is severely limited. It was located at the end of the railway coming up from Ashton. Visitors would take the train to West Yellowstone then take a 2 1/2 day horse carriage tour of the park. Cars were not allowed into the park until 1917 at which time the horse drawn carriages were replaced by the open roofed yellow buses. Back then the number of visitors to the park numbered in the thousands, 10,000 or so, not the millions that visit today. After 1917 the use of the railway for park visitors declined as the auto became more and more popular. It continued in use for logging until the 1970s when it was finally abandoned. The right of way and the old rail bed still exist and one evening we took a stroll along a section. Just imagine what it would have been like to take the train past just wilderness for mile after mile after mile. Within West Yellowstone the beautiful rustic station and employees dining room have all been preserved and now serve as a museum, library, meeting hall. We haven't been to West Yellowstone in about 3 years and there've been a few changes. There are now fast food restaurants like McDonalds and Burger King, a few new large resort hotels, and a new bathroom in the city park. But, much is as we remember from our first visit some 8 years earlier.
Brian kept thinking, "Gosh we're so close to the park and might not be back for a long, long time, it'd be a shame not to get in at least for a while but not on bike." From previous experience we knew of a small, "rent a wreck" type car rental place where we knew we could get a tiny rental car for a relatively cheap price. Better still, they even said they'd store the bikes for us while we were in the car. So we picked up a car and headed off for 2 days exploration of the park. The most unique features to see in Yellowstone are the geothermal sites. We all know about the very famous Old Faithful which is famous because of its regularity and eruption height. But there is much, much more. Yellowstone has the worlds largest concentration of geothermal sites. So just about anywhere you go you'll see steaming vents, bubbling mud pots, crystal clear pools of boiling hot water, and geysers. Take a hike along the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone or through the meadows in the central caldera region and soon your nose will pick up the unmistakable sent of rotting eggs, sulfur, in the air. There's always a surprise or two awaiting you along the trail. Add to that the wildlife, such as the big bison which seem to be everywhere and the bears which we always do our best to avoid, moose, elk, eagles, ospreys. It's an animal lovers paradise. There's far more to do in Yellowstone than one can do in just 2 days. But we've been there before, back packed in on 4 separate occasions, seen all the turn outs, overlooks, self guided trails. So this was just an opportunity to visit a few spots we hadn't been to before, such as the south rim of the canyon.
Although Yellowstone is a national park with lots and lots of visitor services and facilities we always have to keep in mind that it is still a wild and natural place, a fact that many a city visitor tends to forget. I read a few tales in a book titled something like "Deaths in Yellowstone Park" which describes some of the unbelievably stupid things some people will do. For example, one ranger tried to patiently explain to this woman why there was a regulation not allowing her dog off its leash. She kept going on about how the parks seem to have regulations about everything and little Muffy'd been tied up all day. He tried to explain that there were "bears and they might". Before he could finish she says "Oh, Muffy won't hurt the bears." She unsnaps the leash and old Muffy runs off right toward a mama bear and her cubs. Needless to say the dog got a good cuffing by the bear which sent it flying and broke its back. The horrified woman then goes on to cry, "How could you let dangerous things like that run wild. They should be in a cage or something." There are stories of parents putting young children on the backs of buffalo to get their photo, or the young French man who walked within 5 ft of a buffalo to get his photo and wound up being gored, or the two men who made an illegal and very messy camp behind the Old Faithful geyser field and wound up being attacked by a bear, or the woman who fed candy to a bear and ended up with huge scratches across her breasts. The all time stupid act happened just back in 1983. These two guys from California came out with a dog. While they were exploring the Midway Geyser field the dog escaped from their truck and bounded right into the crystal clear blue waters of Crystalline Geyser. Hearing yelps from the dog and an onlooker exclaimed "Oh the poor thing" the dog's owner goes up to the edge of the geyser pool and makes ready to dive in. Every one around tells him not to do it and his reply was "Like Hell I won't". He dives right in, head first. Right into boiling 200 degree F water. They say he managed a few strokes, got his hands on the dog, let go, and returned to the edge to be dragged out by his friend. Needless to say he did not survive the night. Some of his last words were, "That was a stupid thing to do."
After returning the car to Randy's Auto Shop in West Yellowstone we rode north and then west along Lake Hegben. Here we passed through what the Forest Service calls their Earthquake Area. At 11:37 PM on August 17, 1959 this area experienced the largest recorded earthquake in the Yellowstone area. We have to remember that all those amazing geysers, hot mud pots, warm springs are due to the unstable geology of the area. In fact if it weren't for the earthquakes the geysers would fill with lime and debris and would no longer erupt. The earthquakes help to keep the hot water vents clear. Earthquakes happen daily in the area, usually small in magnitude 1 to 4 on the Richter scale. But this one in 1959 was a whopping 7.5. The evening was a quiet, hot August night. Campgrounds in and around Yellowstone were all full, including the campgrounds along the Madison Canyon beside Lake Hegben and below the damn. Folks had retired for the evening when their lives suddenly were shaken apart. Two faults shifted, one 3 seconds after the first, and the results on the land topography were stunning. The north shore of Lake Hegben dropped some 18 feet dumping several cabins and 3 sections of Rt 287 into the lake. Huge winds were created and the entire lake sloshed back and forth like a bowl full of water. The damn cracked, but fortunately the interior clay core held. Otherwise the towns downstream would have flooded and loss of life and property damage been significantly more. The most devastating and destructive effect was an entire mountain side came sliding down. Some 80 million tons of rock slid down the mountain into the canyon effectively blocking the Madison river all in a matter of one minute. The saddest part of this was, there happened to be a Forest Service campground right under where the mountain slid. They describe it like a big bowl of oatmeal sliding down one side of the canyon and up the other. 28 people were killed 19 of which are still buried somewhere under all that rubble. Interestingly they talk about how this earthquake "shocked the world". Yet when compared to other earthquakes in countries where building codes are not set up with good earthquake standards, the loss of life was negligible. For example, the recent quake in Japan where some 3500 people were killed. Or the big Mexico City one where 25,000 died. Somehow this Yellowstone quake doesn't quite compare. But it makes for a good story at the visitor center.
For over 6 weeks since leaving Silver City, NM we'd been essentially following our own routes with the aid of good maps and a couple of biking books. Consequently the number of cyclists we'd seen could almost be counted on one hand. There was Kathe in Arizona, two Japanese cyclists in the Navajo reservation, 2 Germans at Bryce Canyon, and 2 others just south of Bear Lake in Idaho. That's it. But once we left West Yellowstone we got onto the Adventure Cycling Association's oldest and most popular coast to coast route. Our timing was such that we would be at the peak time for meeting folks heading west to east, mid June. So from the day we left West Yellowstone we started seeing group after group after group. We'd see a minimum of one couple per day and our all time high was 15. It's an interesting bunch, but most can be grouped into one category. They're mostly young couples or single men, usually in their 20s and just out of or still in college. They all seem quite well off as they had brand new bikes, bags or B.O.B. trailers, brand new lycra shorts and bright colored shirts, the latest camel water bag back packs and wore clipless pedals. Some carried the latest in computer equipment supplied by a University for some supposed research project whose benefit we had a hard time seeing much relevancy in modern day society except to make for a class project. One man, Ben was studying and discussing building architecture across the country. Neat idea except for the fact that he had only 2 months to get to Virginia. Seems to me that's simply not enough time to really get into depth and I recall that during our first crossing, done in 2 months, we were so pooped most of the way we wouldn't have had the energy to do any kind of serious study. Another group was wired to send heart rate, speed, respiration, altitude, and other physical and environment data to MIT to be loaded on the Web. The objective wasn't for a medical study. It was just to see if it could be done. That's been shown many times before to even more extremes, for example Steve Roberts and his microship. So we don't quite see the point other than to make for a fun school project. Imagine getting school credit and computer sponsors to ride cross country. Wouldn't that be great.
Most of these college kids traveled in what I'd call relative luxury and hurry. They ate in restaurants a lot, stayed in hotels a fair amount and they all seemed to be almost completely and solely focused on getting across the country. They rarely stopped to see points of interest along the way. For example, right off the road in Montana was the Big Hole National Battlefield and just 4 miles off route was the neatest ghost town we've ever seen, Bannock State Park. Yet most just pass these sites by in their determination to make an 80 or 90 mile day. Their sole objective seemed to be to ride across country, period. Forget seeing it in the process. This was often their first ever long distance bike tour and sometimes even their first camping experience. I suspect in many cases it will be their last as some seemed to be rather discouraged even after just 2 weeks. We had to wonder what the quit rate would be once they meet the fickle headwinds of the plains. I also wonder if many years from now when they think back on their experience if they will finally realize just what they missed in their haste. They tended to bunch into groups that traveled at the same rate and spent several nights together. They'd form sort of a club and we, as outsiders, were not overly welcome. I was surprised to find that even with our 3 years traveling experience they seemed to have little interest in our activities. Oh well, different ages, different objectives, different lifestyles.
We did meet a few travelers with whom we had more in common, very few. There was Bill who we met in the town of Ennis. He's the same age as Brian and, like us, has given up the 9 to 5 lifestyle in favor of traveling. Right now he was headed to Denver. Interestingly he did not carry any cooking equipment. He either eats out, snacks, or eats cold canned food. Somehow we think a stove and hot meal is much more palatable. Then there was the couple from New Zealand we met in Nevada City, his name Arnold and I'm afraid I didn't get her name. What a couple of characters. They're very much into riding with minimal weight. Definitely not the B.O.B. trailer, camel water bag toting types. They did everything on the cheap, free camping nearly every night, rice and pasta cooked in a small stove comprises most meals. I was freezing yet here they were in shorts wearing sandals and socks on their feet. They'd be a fascinating couple to spend more time with. And then finally the couple we met at the fancy KOA in Dillon. These folks looked a little like left over hippies or a couple of homeless people you'd see standing on the corner holding one of those "will work for food" signs. She wore long skirts, loose blouses over the top and bandanas and he had a long scraggly beard, blue jeans, and ragged old shirts. Edde, her name, was in sore need of some dental work. Yet they had brand new 1998 Raleigh bikes, B.O.B. trailers, and the camel water bags, equipment the young college tourists have. They've actually spent some time among the "homeless" and told us a bit of how that "homeless" scam works. Down in Winslow, Az they found a guy who'd ride up to his corner on his bike, hide the bike in the bushes, pull out a crutch and sign, stand on the corner looking totally pathetic for the day, then reverse the process at the end. He was raking in $200 a day doing this. Somehow I just can't feel too sympathetic for "homeless" people when I hear this stuff. Oddly they were the third set of people we've met in 3 years who are into the "survivalist" stuff. Somehow they've become convinced that there's some big conspiracy among a small group of very rich individuals to take over the world. According to the latest theory the trap is set to spring in the year 2000. The stock market will collapse, the world will be thrown into complete chaos, and a worldwide dictator will take control. So better enjoy now. Yup, the older bike tourists we meet may not all be the kind of people you'd want to spend a long time with, but they are certainly a lot more interesting and varied than the college aged tourists.
You might say that the state of Montana was born in the 1860s with its first major gold rush. Prior to 1862 it had been the hunting grounds for the Indians, later the French and English fur trappers, and then just a place to pass through on the way to the California and Idaho gold fields. But in 1862 gold was discovered on Grasshopper Creek and Montana's roll in the gold fever began. Within just a year the town of Bannock grew from nothing to over 3000 people, established its first businesses, church, hotel, shops, school, and even a Masonic lodge. It was established as Montana's first territorial capital in 1864. But, the rough and tumble days of placer mining around Bannock was short-lived as the easy pickings along creek beds were quickly depleted. Large companies and partnerships moved in to set up major sluicing, quartz, and dredging operations effectively putting the individual prospector out of business. It wasn't long, however, before a more profitable strike was found in Alder Gulch. The population of Bannock dwindled sharply as people flocked over the mountain range to the next valley to the east where the towns of Virginia City and Nevada City were founded. The territorial capital was moved to Virginia City in 1865. But as with most towns with economies based on gold mining it also lost its prominence when the easy pickings played out and the population went elsewhere. The territorial capital finally wound up in Helena. Mining continued in the Bannock, Virginia City, and Nevada City region in fits and spurts well into the 1960s. Activity would increase whenever new technology provided an easier way to extract the ore from new or previous "diggins" as they are called. Even today there are major mining companies searching the hills using helicopters and the latest technology once again.
The early days of Bannock, Virginia City, and Nevada City were filled with excitement, difficulty, color, danger, and even terror and murder. These three cities were the site of one of the west's most notorious gangs, so notorious in fact they were even the subject of an Unsolved Mysteries TV spot. As with all major gold strikes, the Grasshopper and Alder Gulch finds attracted people from all walks of life, not just the hapless prospector looking to get rich quick. Shop keepers providing the mining equipment and daily necessities of life, bar keepers pouring a good drink when times were good or bad, ladies of "negotiable affection" alleviating some of the loneliness, and ministers tending to the miner's soul and morality following visits to the bar and brothels all were drawn to these towns. However, in addition men and women of evil and vile ways were also drawn to the easy money. One of these was a man named Henry Plummer. As the town of Bannock became more established its citizenry decided it needed some sort of law and order. The miner's court, some sort of adhoc group of miner's who set down laws for their own kind, decided that only one sheriff should have jurisdiction east of the continental divide, which included all three towns. They elected Henry Plummer who was described as a good looking man, very polite, and well respected individual. Law and order had come to Montana.
Maybe not. Unbenounced to the citizens who elected him, Plummer was an excon who just recently spent 4 years in the new California jail, San Quentin. He saw his position as sheriff as an ideal cover for his more profitable activity, robbing the miners. He became the ring leader of a band of road agents calling themselves the Innocents. They went around the region killing and robing miners out at their claims and robbing the stage coaches ferrying gold between Bannock and Virginia City. Being sheriff, Plummer always knew the stage schedule in advance and could organize his group for the attack. Terror, violence, and death reigned in the mountains for some 18 months. Finally when the body of one of the latest victims was discovered the citizens had had enough. They formed their own posse, called the vigilantes, and started rounding up the gang. It wasn't long before one of the members, with a rope around his neck awaiting a good drop at the gallows, fingered Plummer. Plummer was quickly routed out of his house, given a very abbreviated trial, and marched up to the very gallows he had built earlier. He pleaded for his life right up to the end, even making a strange request to be given 2 hours and a horse after which he'd return with his weight in gold. They hung him anyway. Hence the mystery, is all that gold still buried somewhere in the vicinity. There are still people out there looking.
After the entire gang was rounded up, killed, or run out of town the vigilantes slowed down their vengeful activities. However, if you were a trouble maker and the numbers 3-7-77 mysteriously appeared on your doorway you knew you'd better shape up or ship out or else the next appointment at the gallows will be yours. The best theory for the numbers is it may be the dimensions of your grave, 3 ft by 7 ft by 77 inches down. Needless to say life settled down to regular town life soon after.
To this day the town of Virginia City has remained a viable community. Instead of digging the surrounding hills the citizens dig into tourists pockets. The downtown has become a semi ghost town with some buildings still occupied by thriving tourist oriented businesses and others turned into mini museums containing goods typical for a late 1800s business. There's a modern candy shop offering savory sweets of all sizes, shapes, and flavors, a couple of operating restaurants, some bed and breakfasts, gift shops, and even the old and posh Fairhaven hotel is still open for business. Yet in adjoining buildings you'll find the dusty shelves of the old variety shop, milliners, blacksmith, dentists office, and wood work shop. Entertainment is provided in the form of old time theater in some locations and you can even take a town tour aboard a horse drawn carriage or a vehicle made up to look like an old fire engine. Normally there is a small, narrow gauge train that takes you to the site of the town of Nevada City, but due to liability issues it's closed for a while. Many of the rail ties and the two bridges have to be replaced.
Nevada City hasn't fared quite as well, at least not the original buildings. Nevada City is pretty much a museum of structures moved from various places in Montana to this one location. Some are in very good condition, such as the mansion that is said to have been Montana's finest building at one point. Others are quite run down such as the few shacks that were taken from a Chinatown somewhere. Some of the original commercial buildings contained some items relating to a specific business such as a tailor, general store, and the ever present blacksmith shop. But for the most part the town is simply a bunch of empty, rundown, buildings. It needs a lot of preservation work. One item of interest was the 2 story outhouse behind the old hotel. The upper level was reached by a second story balcony. You can't tell from looking at it, but I suspect the crap and stuff from the second level runs through a fake wall at the back of the first level. Now, imagine you're sitting on the lower level john and someone has to do a number 2 upstairs at the same time. Plop, plop, plop.
Bannock is fabulous. It's located up over the mountain range in the next western valley from Nevada and Virginia cities. It's tucked way up a canyon through which runs the Grasshopper creek where Montana gold was first discovered, a full 4 miles off the main road. There are no major towns or development of any kind in the entire valley. It was occupied by a small population right up until 1941, the state took over the site in 1954, someone ran a small lodge, renting out some of the cabins until the 70s, and two sisters continued to live in the town remains until 1981. Today just the state park employees occupy the few buildings with modern accoutrements, like electricity and indoor plumbing. Consequently the entire town is in excellently preserved condition. As you walk down the board sidewalk past the gray colored buildings, peer into vacant windows staring out onto the dusty street or step into one of the small houses to admire the layers of peeling wallpaper or linoleum or spin yourself on the whirling dervy in front of the school house or ascend the formerly grand circular staircase of the Meade hotel you can almost hear the echoes of those long ago boots on the floors, on the sidewalk, on the dirt road. It's almost as if one day everyone just decided to leave, packed up their furniture and belongings and left. Only the ghosts of the innocents, their victims, Henry Plummer, and other inhabitants of the "boot hill" cemetery on the hill trod these empty halls and streets.
Of all the ghost towns we've ever seen throughout the west, Bannock has to be the most memorable. Yet it's visitation rate is incredibly small. We're surprised that the Germans, who seem to love anything dealing with the American west, haven't discovered it and that the bike tourists an the ACA middle route pass on by. It's an entire street of vacant buildings about 1/4 mile long with well over 30 different buildings. Most were wood many being log home construction and others frame. The Meade hotel, being the poshest place in town, was brick. None of the wood houses retained any indication of paint, that is if they were ever painted at all. Windows and doors were skewed in their frames due to years of settling, floors were uneven and rickety, walls were cracked, peeling and full of holes, doors creaked on their hinges and screen doors banged shut when we entered. A lot of the small homes looked like they started out as a tiny, one room cabin. Over the years as the family grew or the house changed ownership, additions would be built on back, side, or front making for large, maze like houses. What looked like a tiny cabin from the front would go on and on and on in the back. In the back of each house is the remains of the outhouses, small gray wooden tall rectangular boxes with the tell tale bench with appropriately placed hole. As an interesting contrast there's one spot where there are two of the old outhouses next two modern-day fiberglass outhouses dressed up to look sort of old, an attempt that fails miserably. Somehow despite the change in material the basic shape and appearance are unchanged. An outhouse will always look like an outhouse I suppose. Off in a field a replica of the gallows at which Henry Plummer was hung can be found. His body is said to be buried nearby and perhaps even all that gold. We may never know. Digging is not allowed anywhere on park grounds.
Climbing over one more pass we came to what we'd heard was supposed to be the most mosquito infested place ever to be found, We'd heard horror stories about how every inch of your body would be covered with mosquito bites, they'd swarm all over you, couldn't even stop to take a photo. Ok so the mosquitoes in the town of Wisdom were bad, but not that bad. Certainly not as bad as what we encountered at Wonder Lake in Denali National Park, Alaska. However, that's not to say they weren't annoying. We had to wonder, why would the mosquitoes be particularly nasty in just this valley and not the one before or after. Turns out they do flood irrigation. So those swampy bogs we see on both sides of the road are not natural or an accident. They're made on purpose. You might say the local residents make their bed and then get to lie in it as well. I keep trying to come up with a song about mosquitoes. It goes something like
Wasting away again in mosquitoville. Looking for my can of bug spray Some people say it's a boggy swamp to blame But I know, it's this wet rainy day
So I'm not a poet or song writer and never will be. It does give me something to work on as I try to out run the little flying syringes.
It was while we sat on the front steps of the Wisdom store, having a cold soda and swatting away at the constant buzzing that we met Bob, a local rancher. He was dressed in the rancher uniform, blue jean coveralls and cotton shirt. The only thing missing was the baseball cap. He was not very tall, rather pale complexion considering he spent a lot of time outdoors, and white tufts of hair that stood almost straight up on his nearly bald head. We happened to notice that he had a US Coast Guard sticker on his truck and we wondered just how a Coast Guard person would find themselves so far from the coast. He's retired, natch, and has been for about 3 years now. Here's when the story got more interesting. During his working years he spent 1/2 his time in the Coast Guard Reserves and the other half working for the movie industry as a lighting director. He's been all over the world working on lots of those movies you and I saw as kids. The one he specifically mentioned was the old Dr. Kildare TV show which I recall was big back in the late 50s. I don't remember anything about the show other than its name. If I happened to see an old rerun today it'd take on a whole new significance. In addition to his Guard and movie work, old Bob was maintaining a huge ranch here in Montana. How he managed to do all this in one lifetime I'll never know. After retiring, well sort of retiring, he moved onto the ranch to become a full time, resident rancher. Since then he's had perhaps one week off. Some retirement. He doesn't want to travel, having already done plenty of that, so perhaps settling into a small town lifestyle is just perfect for him. The biggest shock, his income as a lighting director. In his last working year he got paid $150K for just 5 months work. That was enough for him, he'd quit for the rest of the year.
Just west of Wisdom is Big Hole National Battlefield, a location that saw the end of an era and beginning of a new. This region of Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon were the traditional hunting grounds of what the French trappers called the Nez Perce (pierced nose) Indians. The very same semi nomadic Indians who saved Lewis and Clark from death when they descended from the Bitterroot mountains into the Bitterroot valley back in 1804. Their hunting grounds were huge. However, with whiteman's ideas of "Manifest Destiny" settlers, stockmen, and some miners began to move into their claimed territory. Back when the Nez Perce were hosting Lewis and Clark they had become close friends. Then Nez Perce promised never to wage war against whiteman. In an attempt to keep this promise the Nez Perce signed a treaty in 1855 that ceded just a small part of their claimed lands to white settlers. Anyone wishing to settle on the remaining lands had to get their permission first, in theory that is.
In practice the treaty wasn't worth much more than the piece of paper it was written on. The day gold was discovered on the Nez Perce reservation the whole agreement fell apart. Gold greedy whites inundated the lands coming from the California gold fields where many had met dismal failure. Treaty or no treaty, they weren't about to be dissuaded from their objective and the Nez Perce had better move aside. The government was either unwilling or unable or perhaps a little of both to prevent this. On the one hand I can see the government's dilemma. The press would go on and on about all the riches to be had, people would swarm to the area in a haphazard , unorganized way and were totally out of control. Such cruel sayings as, "The only good injun is a dead injun" were popular amongst many folk. The Indians didn't vote, didn't provide wealth for the politicians, just basically did not count in the new order of life.
In 1865 the government forced the Nez Perce to sign a new treaty which reduced their reservation to 1/10 its original size. The problem was, there were several different bands of Nez Perce language speaking peoples. Some had accepted the Christian religion. These were the ones represented at the treaty signing. The remaining approximately 750 people whose lands were outside the new treaty boundaries and who had not converted to Christianity were not. These became known as the nontreaty Nez Perce. At first they refused to be moved onto the much smaller reservation. In 1877 troops under the command of General Oliver O. Howard were sent to make sure the Nez Perce moved. It was springtime and the Indian's horses and cattle had been scattered out across thousands of acres to forage for the summer. In addition, the rivers separating them from the new reservation where at their peak. So the Nez Perce pleaded with General Howard to wait until fall, when the cattle could be gathered and the rivers were low. Gen. Howard refused and, in fact, gave them a deadline of 30 days by which they had to be resettled. The Nez Perce started to comply, working their way along from northeastern Oregon and Central Idaho, across the Bitterroot mountains, making it to within a few miles of their destination.
It was here that plans went awry. As one might guess there was occasional strife between the white settlers and the wandering Nez Perce. More often than not if the white man were the instigator of the problems and had committed some sort of crime against these people, the white man would go unpunished by the US courts of law. Young warriors saw this as a travesty of justice and decided to take matters into their own hands. From June 2 to 14 they looted, burned, and harassed some of the settlers ending up killing some 17 men, note men only. This was the end of peace for the Nez Perce and the tribal leaders knew there would be no peace for them here and they decided to flee. They were chased by General Howard across Idaho into Montana and on into the Bitterroot Valley where the Nez Perce had hoped to hook up with their allies, the Crow. Here's where misjudgment and lack of understanding the white man by the Nez Perce leader, Chief Looking Glass, resulted in the disaster of Big Hole. The nomadic Indians of the northwest typically acted completely independently of one another. Alliances would be formed and broken as needed. But, generally the wants and desires of one band did not spill over into the next band's territory. The concept of a unified military spread all across the continent, transcending traditional tribal boundaries, was totally foreign to them. They thought that once they passed into Montana, a different state, they would be free of the military from Idaho. Little did they realize that General Howard had called upon Col. John Gibbon from Ft. Shaw in Montana to intercept the group. Gibbon finally met up with them in early August in the Big Hole valley when Chief Looking Glass made the tactical error of stopping to rest.
The battle of Big Hole took place at a traditional Nez Perce camping ground located at the base of some lodge pole covered hills along the north fork of the Big Hole River. The Indians arrived on August 7, 1877. They made camp, sent the horses and cattle out to graze, set up tipis, and began a victory celebration of sorts thinking they were at long last safe. Col. Gibbon arrived at the area the next day. Camping 4 miles west of the Nez Perce encampment, they made plans for a dawn attack on August 9. Gibbon lined his 162 men of the 7th Infantry and the 34 civilian volunteers who'd joined the chase without invitation along the hillside on the northwest shore of the river. All was set for the predawn attack. Soldiers were given instructions to run in, shoot low, scatter the horses, burn the tipis, and basically throw the entire tribe into chaos. This had evidently worked many times before. In this case, however, the attack was started a bit prematurely as one old man, coming out early to check on his horses, ran into the hidden soldiers and was shot. The sounds roused the sleeping village and forced the soldiers to start attacking before being completely ready. They ran into the village doing as they were instructed which often meant performing some terrible atrocities along the way. One of the first tipis they encountered was a maternity tipi housing the new mother, baby, and midwife. The women were shot and the baby's head bashed in. As hoped, chaos ensued among the Indians and the Nez Perce appeared to be on the brink of losing.
It was then, as all were running around trying to save life and limb, that Chiefs Looking Glass and White Bird, well respected among their people, urged the warriors to turn and fight, something the soldiers hadn't expected. Gibbon and his men were forced to retreat to the other side of the river, dig in for a siege, and send for help. The Nez Perce showed some tactical brilliance here. They stationed just a few snipers at strategic locations along the river just to keep Gibbon's men pinned down. During the next 24 hours the entire tribe packed what they could, buried their dead, and left. The next day when a messenger on horseback showed up on the soldier's side and a cheer went up, the Indian snipers knew help for the soldiers was on the way. They fired a couple volleys at the soldiers as a farewell, and left to catch up with the rest of the tribe. The Nez Perce knew that no matter where they went within the US they would continue to be hunted. They decided to head for Canada.
Unfortunately they did not quite make Canada. They continued across the new national park Yellowstone, yes it was a national park by this time, to Wyoming where their old allies the Crow said they could not join for fear of retaliation by those very same soldiers. They then headed straight north making it as far as the Bear Paw Mountains when the long tentacles of the US government caught up with them again. Col. Nelson A. Miles had been sent from Ft. Keogh to catch them in Montana. In a battle lasting from September 30 to October 5 the Nez Perce valiantly held their ground. But loses were great. Many of their warriors, women, children, and 5 of their chiefs were killed. Leadership finally came to Chief Joseph who decided that continuing on would only mean the killing of many, many more of his people. For the sake of his people he chose to surrender. In his speech to his other chiefs explaining his actions he was quoted as saying, "Hear me, my chiefs, I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever." And thus it was.
Here's perhaps one of the saddest parts of the tale, the one that shows the most cruel acts of duplicity on the part of the US government ever. Upon their surrender, Miles had promised Chief Joseph that the Nez Perce could return to that small reservation back in Idaho. But, General of the army William T. Sherman reversed this decision and had the Nez Perce sent to Oklahoma. It was a time of tears for the Nez Perce. They were in a strange land having to deal with a strange climate and environment. Many died. Through all Chief Joseph kept up his dream to return to his homeland. It took 4 years before the government would head his wishes, sort of. The Nez Perce were permitted to move back to the Washington area. Those accepting the Christian faith could move onto the reservation, the new smaller reservation that is. Those retaining their traditional faith were allowed to move to a place near Coleville, Wa. Chief Joseph moved to Coleville where he spent his final days. he really wanted to move back to his traditional home, land was even available to buy. But he was never allowed. He never returned.
Up and over one more pass, named in honor of this great peace maker and statesman, Joseph pass, and we finally found ourselves on the road to the great bike tourist mecca of the US, Missoula MT, home of the bike tourist organization Adventure Cyclists Association. The road leading to Missoula, Rt 93, was more like a super highway than its 2 lane width would support. Traffic was busy, busy, busy, much more so than we'd seen in over 8 weeks. If we had it to do over again we'd find some other, any other way to get to Missoula or just go around the city all together. But for the 4th of July weekend, Missoula made a great place to stop, rest, resupply, watch a few fireworks, and avoid 4th of July traffic.
Appendix A - Route
Rt 89 to Geneva
Rt 89 to Alpine Junction, Rt 26 to Idaho
Rt 26 to Swan Valley, Rt 31 to Victor, Rt 33 to Rt 32 to Ashton, Rt 47 to Rt 20
Rt 20 to West Yellowstone, US Rt 287 to Ennis, MT Rt 287 to Twin Bridges, Rt 41 to Dillon, Rt 278 to Wisdom, Rt 43 to Rt 93 to Missoula
Appendix B - Campsites or hotels
Montpelier Canyon Campground in Caribou Nat'l Forest
Swift Creek Campground in Bridger Teton Nat'l Forest ($), 3 Rivers Motel Alpine ($)
Falls Campground Targhee National Forest ($), Alpine Guest House in Driggs ($), Warm River Campground Targhee National Forest ($), Buffalo Campground Targhee NF ($),
Rustic Wagon Campground West Yellowstone ($), Tower Falls Campground Yellowstone NP ($), Rest area off Rt 287 west of Yellowstone 2 nights, Camper Corner in Ennis ($), Virginia City Campground ($), Madison and Jefferson County Fairgrounds in Twin Bridges, Dillon KOA ($), Bannock State Park ($), Jackson Lodge ($), Indian Trees campground in Beaverhead NF($), Anglers Inn RV Park near Hamilton($), LoLo camping ($), Missoula KOA 2 nights ($)
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.