Billings here we come!
We left early on a Friday morning, my dog and I, cutting across the southern Adirondacks to I-90, then continuing west on the Thruway to make the best time possible. We made it past Cleveland, OH before rush hour, then pulled into a rest area to let the traffic subside a bit. I had hoped that packing cargo in front of the passenger seat to enable Barley to stretch out full length on his memory foam bed would let him sleep for much of the trip, but that was not the case. Barley is a very inquisitive traveler. He sat up to see where we were going, even when so exhausted that his little body leaned heavily against me. And he regularly demanded that his window be lowered so he could catch the scents. And there is a LOT of wind noise in a truck rolling down the Interstate with the windows down!
Another reason for taking the truck was it would allow us to nap more comfortably in the bed at rest stops, sparing us the expense and lost time associated with staying in hotels. That was also a good idea that didn’t work out. Thanks to recent storms, the heat and humidity of the Midwest was oppressive even at night. Like other motorists, we napped in the cab with the engine and air conditioning running. We had a ninety minute nap just across the Indiana border with Ohio, then another two hours just across the Illinois border. In eastern Iowa we left the Interstate and angled northwest to pick up US 20, then continued west across endless farmland. My GPS, purchased just for this trip, at some point advised me to “Continue 396 miles, then turn right onto unpaved road.” Barley smiled tiredly at me; back home the longest straight section of road was about five miles. We stopped for the night just across the Nebraska state line. Barley, still feeling the lingering effects of his last chemo session, was not getting the sleep I’d hoped he would find in the truck. Truth be told, neither was I. The air conditioned truck was simply not as comfortable a ride as our sidecar rig.
We reached our trailering destination late Sunday morning. My friend, Dan, would watch the truck and trailer while Barley and I continued west on the sidecar rig. Thanks, Dan! Transferring our gear to the rig, we looped north to see the southern edge of Badlands National Park – the part we had missed on our last time in the area. I considered incorporating a loop through the park, but construction near the entrance at Interior, SD, had traffic backed up for miles. We rode instead to Scenic, confirming that there was in fact nothing scenic about Scenic. We stopped briefly at Wounded Knee, a place so lovely it was hard to imagine the violent massacre of so many innocents had once taken place there, then angled back south to a real hotel in Chadron, NE. Barley fell asleep right after his dinner and slept clear through the night.
We were up before dawn the next day, as is our custom. I fed Barley and took him out to take care of business, then packed as he gnawed on a rubber ball. There were several Harleys in the parking lot, as the 75thSturgis rally was coming up in a couple of weeks, and I wanted to hit the road early. Nothing against Harley-Davidson, but it represents a completely different style of riding – slow and in groups that are difficult to pass – and I wanted to be out of the Black Hills before they filled the roads. We had breakfast at the diner adjacent to the hotel, then paused when our waitress ran out to ask for a photo next to Barley. Seeing the joy he brought to the young woman, and the joy he obviously felt interacting with people he met on the road, reaffirmed my decision to attend this year’s rally with him. Sick he might be, and the odds might be stacked against him, but for now he is alive. For now we ride.
The Black Hills. Magic. Sacred to the Lakota and to the tribes that preceded them, but stolen when gold was discovered at French Creek. Barley and I touched just a part of the southern Black Hills this time, a bit of the Wildlife Loop and the sensational Needles Highway. We paused in a meadow to watch a small herd of bison; unlike our 2013 experience, this time Barley had no issue with the giant beasts. Up into the Black Hills we went, turning left onto Needles Highway, stopping now and then so Barley could play in clear running streams. At a couple of stops other BMW riders would recognize Barley and pull over to greet him, to wish him well in his battle with cancer.
We had lingered too long, and by the time we reached the Eye of the Needle traffic was gridlocked. There is a narrow tunnel at the summit, barely wide enough for most cars to get through, and the funnel shape of the approach on both ends makes it challenging for motorists to back up should two cars reach the narrow at the same time. At one end of the tunnel was an elderly couple pulling a popup trailer with several cars behind them. At the other end of the tunnel was a stubborn ‘Murican woman refusing to back up. After several minutes of this standoff, a skinny woman with bright red curls and a vocabulary that would make a drill sergeant blush bullied the ‘Murican woman into backing up. Barley and I slipped through the tunnel, passed several cars on the twisty road, and dropped out of the tourist-clogged Black Hills. We rode through increasingly arid land to I-90, turned west and sped across the state line to Buffalo, WY, where we stopped for dinner at a barbeque place with a nice outdoor patio. The heat of the transit had taken a bit out of both of us. The waitress brought Barley a huge bowl of chilled water and me a cold beer. I don’t drink while riding, but the beer looked inviting so I accepted and found a vacancy at the adjacent Super 8. By morning Barley was back to his old self. He had had two good nights sleep and the lingering effects of the doxorubicin were gone. We grabbed a quick breakfast then followed Hwy 16 into the southern Big Horns, with a side trip down Crazy Woman Canyon. It was quite pleasant at six thousand feet and the views of the higher peaks to the north of us were spectacular. At one stop we met a newlywed couple who fussed over Barley, then a retired Marine traveling the Rockies with his grandson in a Miata convertible. Well met, both of them.
Eastern Wyoming’s geography is one of metamorphic rock, layers of sedimentary deposits forged into stone by immense heat and pressure, then lifted skyward by cataclysmic seismic events. As we dropped out of the Big Horns into Ten Sleep Canyon to the west this was plain to see in the sheer rock faces all around us. It was incredible, a climbers’ paradise on the ochre side of the artist’s palette, but as we dropped into the desert approaching the town of Ten Sleep, the full heat of the summer bore down on us. We stopped at the local brewery to visit an online friend and fellow rider, but the brewery was not yet open. With the heat building I elected to press on to the Bighorn River to the west of us, following the river north to provide Barley a means of cooling down if needed. I shouldn’t have bothered. After traveling through some of the most tortuous arid terrain in the country and turning north at the river, we found the water uncomfortably warm. We rocketed north to Graybull, then east toward Shell Canyon and the more comfortable temperatures of higher elevations.
Like Ten Sleep Canyon, Shell Canyon was an unexpected and very welcome surprise. The well-maintained pavement wound through sharp curves bordered by steep cliffs and marked by light midweek traffic. We stopped at the falls where Barley soaked up more affection from total strangers, but it was still uncomfortably warm at that point so we soon pressed on.
Just as we crested a large cloud blocked the sun and the temp dropped nearly thirty degrees. It felt delicious! Riding across a series of high elevation meadows, we pulled into the Elk View Inn for lunch. I ordered a buffalo burger which I shared with Barley. It seemed the right thing to do given his encounter with the huge bull two years previously. Barley approved of the choice. We pressed on. Every year a sub-group of BMW rallygoers participate in a fun, skill-building event called the GS Giant. Online friends had informed me that the group was camping for the night just ahead at the Bear Lodge Resort. We were invited! It seemed like a good place to camp, and a good place to meet new and old friends. But as we pulled in it was plain that there was just too much chaos, too much motorized adrenaline, to let Barley safely off lead. West again, we investigated a string of lightly used campgrounds in the northern Bighorns. We checked out Bald Mountain, then Porcupine Mountain, settled on the first but decided to visit the Medicine Wheel just to the west before returning to the campground to set up our tent. Medicine Wheel is about a mile from the parking lot. Barley and I hadn’t made it more than a couple hundred yards when I heard the first clap of thunder. To the east, and coming our way fast, was a string of huge black clouds. Enormous bolts of lightning sprang from them, a couple appearing to have hit the ground near the Bald Mountain Campground.
We ran back to the rig, suited up and – with lightning and fat raindrops chasing us – fled downhill into the Bighorn Basin to the west. The basin, of course, was desert. And hot! Decision time. I could make it to the coolness of some of the campgrounds along Chief Joseph Byway or even the base of Beartooth Pass in three hours. But it had been a big day and Barley was tired. I cuddled him for a while. The trusting look in his eyes told me he would be game for whatever I wanted to do. That he knew I would do the right thing. One cannot take advantage of trust like that and still call himself a man. I found a hotel room and fired up the air conditioner after filling his water bowl, unpacked and checked the rig, and finally peeled off my sweaty gear and took a refreshing shower.
Dog, bike, self: the pattern we had followed for five years and over fifty thousand miles.
Morning dawned fresh and clear. We shared breakfast, refueled, then headed north up Chief Joseph Highway. I love this road for its twisties, its scenery, and its history. We studied the retreat of the Nez Perce tribe in the Marine Corps. For nearly 1200 miles the Nez Perce fought their way toward asylum in Canada as the US Army relentlessly pursued them. The tactics of Chief Joseph, the skill and endurance of his warriors, were the stuff of legend. And then we came to Beartooth Highway, a road Barley and I had taken before and vowed to revisit. We stopped at the scenic overlooks, skipped the tourist traps, and explored dirt roads to the north and south. Once more my dog was able to pee two miles up, an act he takes considerable pride in. Once more he stalked fingerlings in mountain streams and drank his fill of the pure water in Beartooth Lake.
We dropped down the north side of Beartooth Pass, crossing into Montana. Once more the heat built as our altitude dropped. I pulled over in front of a small diner in the town of Red Lodge to shed a layer. Guests seated at the tables outside abandoned their meals to snap photos of Barley. With a wave and a smile, we pressed on. Through construction, across a parched land to the Interstate, then east to Billings and the annual BMW Rally.