Touring the Rocky Mountain Front
Photos and words by Locke Hassett
“Mel’s Diner, 9ish?” is the text I received from Cameron. The night before, he left in a frazzled state to go to the Rocky Mountain Front, and I followed the next morning. This vast expanse of abrupt cliffs where the Rockies meet the Great Plains spans much of North America, so I was glad that he specified a diner as a meeting place. We fueled up on strong coffee, plenty of biscuits and gravy, bought a map, two slingshots, whiskey, lemonade and a few cookies from the Augusta general store. A fine establishment that acts as the local liquor store, gun shop, grocery, outfitter and purveyor of homemade baked goods.
Whenever Cameron and I decide to go out for a quick bike trip, we make a point to make no plans whatsoever until after the first breakfast. We always bring more than one bike each, trying to keep at least a 2:1 ratio. After looking at the map and seeing that most trails that were decently maintained were beyond the boundary of the Bob Marshal Wilderness, we decided to load up our touring rigs and head out for an overnight.
Photo by Cameron Best
Nothing is spectacular, sensational or important about two young fellows riding bikes with camping gear. Although, in rural Montana, it is a rare sight. The people on the rolling dirt roads were courteous, albeit wary. The rattlesnakes were neither, as Cameron learned by photographing one that leaped up from its coil towards his lens.
Massive, blue skies betrayed the consistent 20 mile per hour headwind that made forward motion a challenge, and conversation all but impossible. Our first stop was a small lake on the prairie where we watched men fish with their dogs, and a mother watches the September wind whip whitecaps on the lake as birds took off. We added a bit more whiskey to our lemonade and shot rocks into the sand.
Crawling over this vast landscape into the Front made me thankful that I grew up on the other side of those mountains, sheltered from wind and agoraphobia. At the same time, the scale of such a place has a way of making bicycle travel feel so completely small. So inefficient and insignificant is a man and two wheels when he can see where he needs to go and feels just how far away the wind makes it. And to be humbled is part of why we explore.
We shot for a hole in the Front, where we would follow the same road behind the easternmost band of rock that rose over the prairie. Once behind this cliff band, the trees became thicker and the light less severe. The odd relief of knowing that the 100 ISO film I had loaded would be much less useful, and would allow me to worry less about documenting the trip than skidding around gravel corners washed over me. Cows walked freely on the road, and Cam herded them.
We rode until the light began to fade and the temperature dropped, and then followed a serendipitous old logging road that turned into singletrack. After a few miles of this and enough elevation gain to watch the sunset, we called it a day. We plopped down our camp, ate dinner, hung our food away from bears, and slept.
The wind whipped our tents loudly all night and the stressed creaking of lodgepole pine above and around us threatened my half-awake conscious with thoughts of catastrophe.
The next day we completed our loop, cruising through damp air and undulating rock formations of the Lewis Overthrust. Leaving the wall of mountains and returning to the plains whose beige horizon blended with the low hanging fog evoked sensations of approaching the coast. Mist condensed on my arms and handlebars, and the utter silence of a cold day on the plains was overwhelming.
We pushed through miles of dirt road without much of a concept of how far we had gone. Horses galloped in neighboring pastures, mule deer bounded across the road, and antelope sprinted for no reason, as they do. Eventually, we found ourselves dropping into the cottonwoods and concrete of Augusta, and it wasn’t far back to Mel’s where our vehicles had been left alone.
It is these trips, these pointless ventures into places close and familiar, yet completely unknown that keep my lust for adventure both alive and in check. One doesn’t need to go far to see much: just travel slowly and look closely when you get there. Stop and look at snakes coiled in the road. Talk to people collecting firewood. Drink whiskey, eat cheese and shoot slingshots. Never stop doing these things. Ever.
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