The Fall Run to Montana, September 2-23, 2010

This is getting to be a pattern. It seems to take me a month or more to get around to writing up the road report. Next time I’ll bring an air card for the MacBook and file the day-to-day as I go. Strive for immediacy.

I left Rhode Island for Montana on September 2. Rode 17 days out and back then spent four days in Philadelphia with family and friends. Rode 6,801 miles, more than half in the rain. Often a punishing rain. That’s why I don’t have many pics of the first week’s travels, camera’s not waterproof.
Big rains in Ontario for the first few days
Back in the U.S. at the thousand-mile mark.
Crossed over at Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
Headed west across the Upper Peninsula, Michigan.
Starting to lose the light.

As always, I slept wherever I happened to be when my day was over. I don’t mind a campground if one is handy, but a town park will do, an athletic field, a turnpike fuel plaza, a patch of weeds somewhere…

I listen for a whisper in the ear. If it says, No, not a good spot, I go down the road a bit more. That happened just once on this trek, in Iowa. Hours after dark I pulled into a county park on the Maple River.  Nobody there. (Nobody I saw.) It probably would have been fine. I could have slept without anybody whacking my skull with a bat, Easy Rider-style. Still, those particular woods didn’t feel right. I have no idea why. But I heard the whisper, saddled up, went down the road a little more that night.

I stopped for gas in Holstein, Iowa, a pretty little town, asked the guy behind the counter where I could camp for cheap, or better yet, free. (The night fuel guys always know, they’ve been asked before.) He told me about an American Legion property a few towns over, in Ida Grove, said he rode by it that day, saw a few people camped there. So that’s where I ended up. A sign asked travelers stopping for the night to throw $7 in the till, an iron pipe with a cash slot.

I’m getting a little ahead of myself: It was hot in Ohio and Indiana when I set out from Rhode Island so I went up over the Great Lakes, for the Canadian air. Up over four of the lakes, that is. I cut under Lake Superior and crossed into Michigan on the South Shore. The heat had been brutal on Day 1 in Massachusetts and New York. I didn’t know I had a week of cold rain ahead, all the way out to the Montana/Idaho/Alberta line.

I often slept in wet clothes. Didn’t stop until late at night, too beat to fix a meal, just get in the tent and sack out, recharge for the next day’s ride.

Slept in wet duds… zzzzzz….
Up into the high plains. Somewhere in North Dakota
Montana line, about 50 miles south of Saskatchewan.
Lots of bugs in northeast Montana
They’ve got flies that eat the guts of other flies off your windshield
Grain elevators from the Way Back.
Standing relics on the BNSF line.
Closing speed of 150mph with the haul-ass industry
Try not to get splattered while goofing off taking pictures

I’m all disorganized today. Need to back up yet again: A few weeks before I left Rhode Island, I rode down to Philly to see my friend, Kevin Diegnan. We were born 10 days apart in the same hospital, 1954, grew up together on 64th Street. We lost touch in recent years but it was one of those friendships where you just pick up the conversation where you left off.

Kevin had been fighting cancer for six years, had numerous surgeries, never said a word about it in our occasional emails. Well, when the news got out through a classmate of ours, I got on the bike and rode down to see Kevin, in Broomall, PA. He heard the motor when I pulled up in the drive, came to the door with a big smile I’ll never forget. He was on oxygen, had a chronic cough, had gone through chemo a few hours earlier but was game for a visit.

To Kevin and his doctors this looked like another episode he could beat. I told him I was riding to Montana soon, I’d route my return trip through Philly so we could spend another day together catching up.

On the way out, I slept in a town park in Grand Marais, Michigan, on Lake Superior. Kevin Jr. called early the next morning, a Sunday, to tell me his dad was gone. Needless to say, a lot of things were on my mind in the days ahead, for thousands of miles. All the big questions. How is it my friend got the deal he did, a tough six years at the end, meanwhile I’m out here goofing around on a motorcycle?

Destiny? Accident? It’s all a mystery to me.

I dedicated the ride to Kevin at that point. Thought about him quite a lot, and about Fran and their sons. The family was with me across Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana…

It was a somber ride for many days, and the rain seemed to suit it. But I smiled, too, at the many good memories that came to mind, our growing up years on 64th Street, long-ago days at St. Donato’s School, St. Tommy More…

Kevin and I both got booted out of Tommy More in freshman year. Me for the accumulated weight of many minor demerits, and then finally not showing up anymore;  Kevin for counterpunching when a priest took a swing at him. POW! Always a stand-up guy, he had a stand-up exit. From that school, and from life.

It dawned on me, on some lonely road somewhere, that my friend didn’t lose his fight with cancer. He won it. For a very long time.


Wide spot in the road, Shelby, Montana
Eventually the plains start to play out…
…then up you go, into the Rockies
Two Medicine River, Glacier National Park.
Saw a bear come up off the river and cross the road
Rez buffalo, Shoshone Nation.

As noted, lots of rain on the road West. I spent a little time up around Glacier. Beautiful scenery, lousy riding. There was another big rain coming, days of it, so I split south for Helena, then farther south to Butte. There would be rain there, too, but I didn’t know that yet.


Choteau, Montana
A Harley bro running around town in a rat rod
Headed south to Butte
Got there late.
Came out of a turn and saw lights in the valley.

A very tough ride that night. Heavy rain, high winds, poor visibility. I talked to a guy at a fuel stop, biker, Native American, he said, Man, I never ride at night anymore, too many animals on the road. You’re going to hit an elk. You’re going to hit three elk!

Didn’t see a single one that night. And when I did almost hit an elk a few days later, it was an antelope! In broad daylight, too, 11 in the morning.

I fortified the ride to Butte with a much-needed KFC dinner in Helena. I had been eating out of the saddlebags for a week: oatmeal, lentils, rice, tuna, baked beans, black-eyed peas, pasta, potatoes… I got the meal to go and ate it sitting on the curb outside, because I knew I’d wolf it down. Didn’t want to offend others by eating indoors with the outdoor SMACK! SLURP! CHOMP! SNARF! of an extra-hungry motorcycle rider.

Hot chicken fat tastes so good when you’ve been wet and cold for a week.

Running on fumes the next morning.
I got lazy about the See-Gas-Buy-Gas rule.
Made it to Dell, Montana, Population 35,
with about a cup of gas to spare before I was walking.
Filled up and headed south to Idaho
In Jefferson County, Idaho, I saw a sign for a skeet-shooting club. Big acreage and a resort-like clubhouse, funded by the very rich I imagine. There were a few employees around, setting up for a big event that weekend. They said I could camp there, throw $10 in the kitty. The name of the club was “Westward Wings.” In my journal I dubbed it “Camp Duck.”

That was the first day I got off the road early. Made grub and slept from light to light. Skies were clear briefly, at dawn. The morning star was in the west. I heard a wolf howl, very distant, also west. The sun was a welcome sight, even if it didn’t last long. I felt I might actually dry out for once. And then I didn’t. (Dry out.)
Camp Duck (quack!)
Nice to see the sun! For all of an hour.
After endless days of rain, my own glove gimme the bird.
Old iron.
Snake River, Wyoming
Rode down to Idaho Falls, then east along the Snake River, took a blast up through the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. Yellowstone, like Glacier, was a disappointment as far as the riding is concerned. I’m sure the parks are lovely if you go there to hike. Maybe someday I will. But the roads are crowded, even after Labor Day, especially in the tourist traps just outside the parks, pretend-Western towns like Jackson, Wyoming. What a cheesy cowboy disneyland that is, one big outdoor shopping mall. And in the parks, if you want to ride the road at all, you immediately catch up to the next parade of gawkers led by an RV. Passing is dangerous. Drivers go diving out of line at every cutout and turnaround, cameras at the ready.
I already know to avoid places like this, don’t know why I went to begin with. That event you’ve “got to do,” that place you’ve “got to go,” that road you’ve “got to ride,” again and again I find they really don’t interest me. If I’ve seen it in a book or on TV, or heard friends rave on and on about it, the place is usually a disappointment, so much less than you expect. I’m much more interested in the America that will never be on TV, and no one you know will ever go there.
Snake River snakes along that tree line.
Grand Tetons, Wyoming
Besides a waterproof camera, I need one that can take in a panorama
Headed north to Yellowstone
Mid-September snows at 7,000 feet and up.

Okay, been to Glacier, been to Yellowstone, saw their tame elk, tame bears… So it’s out  through the west gate, back into Montana, then north through the Madison River Valley. A wonderful road, all but empty. I found it without meaning to or even knowing it was there. The serendipity of the wrong turn! It’s what I love best about traveling without GPS telling me what to do.

I saw a line of fly-fishing cabins across the river, a store, flagpole out front. Rode over there on a one-lane steel bridge. Guides were camped for the season, in trailers and pickups. At the store I asked if I could pitch my tent in the field out back.
I put all my food in the store before it closed, didn’t want any bear bait in the tent with me while camped so close to the river. Passed a quiet and restful night. Awoke just once, at 2, when a pair of hoot owls struck up a conversation for a while. Other than that, I slept to the sound of the river, and of Old Glory snapping in the wind.
Time to head out!

This day held a near-encounter with a speeding antelope, which redefined and canceled-out all my near-miss experience to date. This was on US 287, rolling pasture with four-strand wire fences on each side of the road, maybe 60 feet off the blacktop. The antelope must have gotten between the fences overnight and was lying down in tall grass. When the sound of the iron piggy spooked him, he got up and ran perpendicular to the road. I was doing 65 or so, no room to swerve, not enough room to stop, I knew for certain I’d hit him or he’d hit me so… get on the brakes hard, bleed speed, what else? Just when I was about to hit him he turned right and ran with the bike, ahead a few lengths and a few feet off to the right. I put the bike on cruise, reached into my pocket for the camera — what a shot it would have been! But he broke left, crossed in front of me and hit the barbed-wire fence on the other side. Didn’t attempt to jump it, just plowed into it at a dead run. I saw him twisting in the wire, legs kicking, slashing, saw the white underbelly as he rolled, then he was through the wire and streaking away like a missile.

He must have been horribly lacerated, might have broken bones or been blinded. I wouldn’t be surprised if he ran off somewhere to die. But what a tough animal! Dumb as a sheep, runs like a bullet.
Guard dogs outside a bar in Two Dot, Montana

Later that day, I stopped in Two Dot, a town I picked off the map once and used in a screenplay I wrote. Had a beer at the only going concern in town, the Two Dot Bar. Three or four locals soaked up the heat of a wood stove burning winter-hot. Two young women were behind the bar, running the place. Maybe they owned it, I didn’t ask. One happily told me they were “drinking up the profits.”

I asked one of them about the antelope hazard on the local roads, told her my near-miss story. She asked if the antelope had hit the fencepost. I said, no, he went between the posts and hit the wire. Well that was a smart antelope, she said, they usually bounce off a post when they try to bulldoze their way through a fence like that.

Small-town hotels in the West. Wood frame.
I camped in Billings that night, at a commercial campground, mostly because they have washing machines and my clothes needed a dunk. Next day I rode south and east to The Little Bighorn, where Custer and the Seventh Cavalry got the What Fer. Oh well, listen to your scouts, Goldilocks, when they say they just saw the biggest Injun remuda ever disappear behind a hill.

A lot of those “fell here” markers are in pairs, so you can imagine what happened: Two soldiers surrounded, probably their horses are shot, one’s firing this way, the other that way, then the ammo’s gone, they get overrun and… Sorry ’bout that, troop. But wasn’t the West interesting while it lasted?
Four of Custer’s men made their Last Stand here.
Saw the battlefield (slaughterfield) then headed East into Wyoming.
Rode up through the passes east of Sheridan, along the Bozeman Trail. It was nice and dry. Had my jacket open, wore blue jeans with no long underwear under, no rain gear over. It felt great to get out in the air again.
Camped in a real run-down place that night, in Gillette, Wyoming. Lots of construction laborers camping there. Most of them working cheap, I thought, and not in a position to complain. Met a couple of bikers there. Technically I won the surgical hardware count with one of them, 15 to three. But he had me beat because 15 titanium screws don’t amount to much against three big pieces: left shoulder replacement, right shoulder replacement and a prosthetic leg! You win, brother.
Missing my bride…
Look at that cluttered-up Iron Piggy dashboard
Okay, saw some Presidents…
Father of His Country…
Next night’s camp, in South Dakota.
It was bona fide.
Had a swell outdoor kitchen.
I set up behind the kitchen
Flags, a cross, and a hangman’s noose
Better shot of the odious noose.
Guns everywhere at this particular facility.
They seem to think a crack division of Islamos is about to parachute in, maybe object to the beer or what have you
Met a strange young woman here. She was traveling cross country with an 11-year-old boy. Or said she was traveling cross country. The boy was her son, allegedly. He wasn’t in school because he “tests too high.” She gave her age as 30. I figured her for 20. They were from Seattle. She had been forced out of a good job at Microsoft (“because of my religious beliefs”), now she was headed to North Carolina where she had a nursing job lined up. Some time later she said she was a nursing student. She figured on covering the 1,800 miles in two days, her, her boy and a “Taser gun” I never saw.

They were not really equipped for camping but were camping nonetheless. She tried forever to start a fire with a flint striker. Our host, the open-carry camp honcho, finally strode over with a can of diesel and gave her firewood stack a good soak. I touched it off with a lighter. WHOOSH! As he went back inside he said to me, Could you keep an eye on them?

Next morning she told me she had been up in the middle of the night and had noticed a mountain lion stalking us.

So that’s the news from Fantasyland.

Anyway, the boy looked well cared for, seemed happy. He had many opportunities to get away if he wanted to. He told the same stories she did. So maybe she was his mom. His crazy mom.

I guess it’s not illegal to have a screw loose and go wandering around the country. Hell, look at me.

Next day, I took a blast down through the Black Hills and headed east across Nebraska. West Nebraska is some sad-looking country. Lousy grazing land, thin soil, lots of blowouts in the hills, nothing but sand comes spilling out once the topsoil is lost.
Ay god, Woodrow, the livestock is looking poorly
Main Street, Johnstown, Nebraska
The increasingly depopulated American heartland.
Last stick-up here netted a buck twenty-nine.
Ghost rider in the window.
Look! He’s taking pictures with the ghost of his camera!
Town park at the four corners.
I had been looking for shade for hours.
I signed the guest book.
Here’s the box where the book lives. With a mouse.
Local tavern. The L-Bow Room Saloon.
Headed east.
Nebraska starts to green-up nicely around the Elkhorn River.
Back in crop country, got through the semi-arid grazing lands.
Iowa. Saw some real hobos out in the weeds.
Dirty range coats, fedoras, ZZ Top beards…
Saw a Harley dealer in Waterloo, Iowa.
Bought oil and borrowed a drain pan.
They let me work in one of the gravel bays out back.
Pushing on, across the Mighty Mississip.
Rode by General Grant’s house in Galena, Illinois.
Field of Dreams was filmed here, in part.
Galena stood in for Moonlight Graham’s Chisholm, Minnesota.
Losing the light in Illinois
Next day, a tunnel on the Pennsylvania Turnpike
A big jump here, on account of a big-mile day. I was eager to get to Philly to visit Kevin’s family and pay my respects. Started out just east of the Mississippi, near the Iowa/Wisconsin/Illinois line. At 1 a.m. I pulled into a fuel plaza on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Had 800 miles behind me, 200 to go. But it was a dark night, deer spatter everywhere. I decided to call it a day. Went out behind the fuel plaza, found a little open-air building where they have a farmer’s market on weekends, threw my sleeping pad down on the concrete, snoozed until dawn. Awoke to heavy mountain fog and a soaking dew. Made oatmeal and coffee, then back on the road.
My nephew Rob Thomas, USMC, Iraq vet. His daughter Cadie, nephew Dylan.
My brother-in-law Joe Celia, Havertown, PA.
A good egg, Joe.
Great-niece, Ava.
Great-nephew Dylan
My nephew Dave Craddock, Dylan’s dad.
Dave served with Rob in Iraq.
A big fish on a wall in the Fishtown section of Philly,
by the lovely Kristin Groenveld,
artist-bride of my lifelong friend, Frank Cellucci.
Frank and Kristin invited me and Joe to a Phillies game.
We saw the Phils whup Atlanta.
Terrific seats!
What a great game!
A fun night out with 50,000 friends in the old home town.
Frank, the Triumph Bonnie rider, on the Iron Piggy.
Tiny streets from the Ben Franklin era.
Frank and Kristin’s downtown neighborhood,
on the banks of the mighty Delaware.

So that was Montana! Iron Piggy turned six this year, 64,000 miles on the clock. Dunno where the piggy will roam next. We’ve explored 47 of the lower 48.

Somehow we keep missing Oklahoma. You have to be going to Oklahoma to pass through there.

Tony DePaul
Cranston, Rhode Island, USA
November 6, 2010


About Tony

The occasional scribblings of Tony DePaul, 62, father, grandfather, husband, freelance writer in many forms, ex-journalist, long-distance motorcycle rider, motorcycle wrecker, motorcycle rebuilder, collector of surgical hardware, blue routes wanderer, outdoorsman, topo map bushwhacker, handy with a wrench, hammer, chainsaw, rifle, former photographer, printer, logger, truck driver, truck mechanic, jet fueler… blah blah...
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7 Responses to The Fall Run to Montana, September 2-23, 2010

  1. Donn says:

    A great read as always, Tony. What an interesting and exciting life you've carved out!

  2. Steven says:

    Fantastic read for the transition from season to season. Thanks!
    Steve D., Yardley Pa… Up the road from Philly

  3. Ryan says:

    If you get to Oklahoma, let me know if the wavin' wheat does indeed smell sweet.

  4. Emery says:

    Blame Tom Brown for leading me to your site. Ida Grove and Holstein are great little towns. Did you make it close to Schaller, Early or Nemaha? We lived in Sac City and Storm Lake. Your stories are great.

    • Tony says:

      Yep, I went right through that whole area, Emery, came across west to east on US 20. I stopped in Waterloo to buy engine oil and borrow a drain pan, continued on to Illinois. Is Iowa your home state?

  5. Craig Bernadet says:

    Great Pictures, you capture the ride very well. Been through some of the Montana sites and it brings memories back. Your stories are interesting.

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