Thursday, June 23, 2005

A Ride on Red Shale

Rachel and I wake up early. There really isn't any other choice. There are so many songbirds in these woods that sleeping has to fit into their schedule. The unsolicited wakeup call is worth it, though. Aside from our winged chorus, the woods are completely silent. The sun is beginning to rise over a rosy pink bluff in the east. After two days of rain and snow across Montana, it is a most welcome sight.

I cook oatmeal, while Rachel packs up and starts airing out our soggy supplies. Morning finds us in Custer National Forest, back of beyond in the mostly forgotten southeast corner of Montana. We are worlds away from Missoula and enjoying the solitude of less populated parts of our state.

A ride this morning is a given. We need airing out, too. As we poke along (driving) through alternating patches of pine forest and open high plain, we both spot the little road at the same time. Brilliant red against the spring green grass, the little crushed shale lane winds intriguingly up a red shale butte and disappears behind it, leading into some place we've never been but definitely want to go.


I pull my bike off first and watch as what must be a pint of rainwater pours out of the chainstay vent holes. Rachel's bike either pre-drained or else is better sealed. We load a handlebar bag with camera and fig bars and head up the hill. We push some half-wild grazing cattle up along the road as we climb, and they are as out of breath as we are by the time they wise up and cross the road to get away from us.

Cresting the hill, we pause for water by the massive shale outcrop, pink and rounded by the weather. The view is incredible for what it lacks. We can see miles in every direction, but there is no sign of human settlement save the road and a few lines of barbed wire here and there. This is the Big Sky Country of the tourist brochures--blue, green, and pink in perfect contrast, a 360 degree canvas of color. Ironically, tourists don't see this part of Montana often.

We fly down the backside of the Butte--reward for the climb--and begin to twist through a series of high meadow postcards, wildflowers just beginning to show after the recent rains. Another month and we imagine that all of this will be brown and crisp, but the imagining is hard right now. The evaporating rain makes the air almost unearthly, heavy with moist scents of spring growth. We pass any number of tantalizing trails leading up cozy little draws, but time and my too-skinny tires keep us on track. Eventually, we come to a fork, and, apparently, pick a steep one.

The road narrows, ruts, and snakes through a narrow valley as it climbs up towards a pine stand. It's cool and fragrant in the trees, and we welcome relief from the sun, which is beginning to win the day here in Custer. The climbing ends with a flourish, a long hill that has us both in our lowest gears, but is happily shaded by a shale cliff to the east. I slip a time or two on loose shale in the steepest sections. The top rewards us with a view of the next little valley, where the little shale road narrows further. Though we've come far enough this morning, it's nice to know there's more waiting for us someday. We return by the same route and pedal hard for the shade before noon.



Blogger SC said...

Wow!! That photo is just amazingly beautiful...

Looks surreal.

Great blog!


9:08 AM  
Blogger Thomas said...


I just created a new web site where I am trying to get as many bike bloggers involved as possible. Check out and let me know if you'd like to have your bike blog included.

Have a good one,

2:59 PM  

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