We left Sheridan WY at five o’clock the next morning. Hwy 14ALT turned out to be surprisingly close to our hotel; in retrospect we should have kept going the previous day, as we easily could have reached Sibley Lake before sunset. And Sibley Lake was beautiful! We rode past the campground – one of the nicer campgrounds we’d seen so far – and parked next to the mist-shrouded lake. Ducks swam lazily in the reflected sunlight as steam rose from the water. A fisherman stood on a short pier, not seeming to care if anything was biting. Barley and I shared breakfast, then played fetch a couple of times till he picked up rodent scent and started hunting.
We continued west through open range, slowing now and then for grazing livestock, a few horses but mostly cattle. The cattle were not very alert at the early hour, and a few times we had to slow to a crawl as youngsters stood in the road, their rumps facing the warmth of the rising sun. By mid-morning we began descending a long twisty section of highway into a vast desert visible beyond. Halfway down we were stopped by a couple hundred cattle being driven up the highway. I pulled to the side of the road and turned off the engine. Six cowboys – one of them a child of five or so wearing brand new miniature chaps and an equally new cowboy hat – were driving the cattle up the road from one pasture to another.
Barley watched carefully as we were surrounded by cattle that skittered past as they eyed us suspiciously. As the last beefer darted past us, the child rode up on his horse, tipped his wide-brimmed hat with pride, and motioned downhill toward the desert beyond.
“It’s safe now, mister,” he informed me with all the gravity of a first-grader. “You can go on.”
Hot. Dry. We pressed on at 80mph in a posted 75 zone, covering miles of high desert before I saw a large body of water ahead. Water in the midst of a desiccated landscape. But as I rounded the last corner and approached the lake I noticed a construction zone with warnings that delays may be expected. Sure enough, ahead was a flagger. Her sign read STOP. Crud! We slowed to a crawl, and stopped about thirty feet from her. She nodded at me, then peered through the nose-besmudged windscreen of the sidecar. A puzzled smile took form on her tanned face. Barley woofed a greeting. Her smile erupted into a full-scale expression of delight.
“Screw the traffic!” she said, abandoning her station. “Can I say hello to your dog?”
She fussed over Barley, her fingers tipped in yellow fluorescent nail polish that matched her safety vest perfectly. A big rig approached from behind us. She retrieved her sign and held it up just long enough to ensure the truck was going to stop, then returned to fussing over Barley. He wagged happily until her radio crackled to life, letting her know the path was clear and her traffic could go. Reluctantly she resumed her position and waved us on.
“You made my day!” she called after us. “Be safe!”
Riding with Barley is like spreading pixie dust. People react. Some with laughter, nearly all with smiles. And those smiles warm my soul. The fact that doing something I love, with such a fun and loyal companion at my side, creates joy around us just seems too good to be true. I grinned all the way to the high desert town of Powell, Wyoming, where we pulled into a McDonald’s for lunch. There was a large group of Harleys in the parking lot, so I pulled right up next to them. Harley riders seem to love dogs, and this group was no exception. We were peppered with questions; Barley grunted happily as a pretty woman scratched his butt. They watched him as I went inside to get some chow. Not the healthiest, but Barley loves their fries.
As I rejoined my dog the group mounted up and departed as a pack. Barley and I sat in the shade of a solitary tree and shared our meal. The small strip of grass bordering the highway is the only patch of green I can see. Anywhere. I read the headlines through the nearly opaque plastic window of a nearby newspaper stand: AREA GRATEFUL FOR RECENT RAIN: 0.1 INCH REPORTED. Back home in Vermont, my wife tells me, there have been torrential thunderstorms nearly every day since our departure. Three counties lost roads. Roads not just closed for repairs, but missing entire sections. But here it’s dry. Desert dry.
I could see mountains ahead. We approached Chief Joseph Byway by noon, turned north and began climbing. We turned right on 212 and began our ride to the legendary Beartooth Pass. The scenery got better the higher we go. We pulled in at Top of the World Store for the obligatory sticker. Barley was very well-behaved as we entered the store…then noticed stuffed animals which he immediately tried to retrieve. Stuffed animals are his Achilles Heel. I hurriedly purchased a sticker and removed my dog.
Outside were several motorcyclists, mostly Harleys but with a smattering of Gold Wings tossed in, all having a good time. Three more pulled up, scowling at the world as they did their vest-clad Charles Bronson stern and forbidding routine. The tough guy thing is foreign to me. If not for my full-face helmet the world would notice that I grin and laugh as I ride. Not these three. One takes a look at my protective gear and scowls even more.
“If I was so afraid of riding,” he announced to the world, ”I’d give it up”.
“If I rode as slow as you,” I responded, “I wouldn’t need any gear.” The fun-loving group behind me cracked up at that. I mounted up and moved on. A couple miles ahead we hit the dreaded CONSTRUCTION ZONE sign, followed by FLAGGER AHEAD. Just our luck, the STOP sign ws facing us! There was only one small sedan in front of us. Clearly we just missed our turn. I turned off the engine as it looked like we’d be there a while. Two more cars pulled up behind us, then the three scowling Harleys. They blipped their throttles to express their displeasure.
We were in marshy area. It was lovely, and the sky was an incredible cerulean blue. But there were mosquitoes by the thousands! As they swarmed around me I simply shut my helmet visor. After buzzing around me but finding no opening in my armor they gave up and moved to the Harley riders behind me. I watched the show in my rearview mirror as the riders began swatting furiously. It was hopeless, however. Their leather vests and branded doo-rags offered no protection at all. It would have made a great commercial for Off! Insect Repellent!
Finally, we were released. I quickly passed the sedan and left the crowd behind. We climbed higher and higher, the views becoming more breathtaking with each curve. Up, up, above the timberline and still climbing. I pulled over several times for photos and to let Barley stretch. He peed at one stop two miles up, oblivious of the view behind him.
We crossed into Montana at well over ten thousand feet, then started descending toward the town of Red Lodge. I can’t think of enough superlatives to describe the scenery we rode through. Let’s just say I would travel another two thousand miles for the chance to ride that stretch again!
Red Lodge. More high desert. More hot and dry. More dips in cool streams and rivers. We took the back way to the town of Columbus MT, and pulled over in a town park that offered free camping on the banks of the Yellowstone River. It was too early to stop for the day, however, and the park appeared to be occupied by long-term regulars, so we rode to nearby I-90 and slabbed another ninety minutes to the town of Livingston. Out came the iPhone, up came the Kayak ap. I found a fairly-priced hotel with decent reviews, called, got a room, and navigated the last few miles to their lobby.
Dog. Bike. Self. Uploaded the day’s digital photos. Bedtime.