Russ Ringsak


August 23, 2007

First, the Swifties. I was informed there's a website full of 'em, which of course I could have thought of but didn't. But y'all sent me some good ones:

Terrell sent two from Georgia: "I have a split personality," Tom said, being frank. And –: "I have only diamonds, clubs and spades," Tom said heartlessly.

From Kay, at an undisclosed location: "I dropped my toothpaste," Tom said, crestfallen.

First prize, from Bob of Georgia: "Here comes the prisoner down the stairs now," Tom said, condescendingly.

And I felt obligated to make one up: "That's one mangy-lookin' dog you got there," Tom muttered.

Our annual expedition out west has become larger and tamer over its 25 years. As have the riders. It began in the early eighties as two new Harleys heading to the Sturgis rally in South Dakota, from where we naturally found the Black Hills, Deadwood, Lead, Spearfish and Belle Fourche. The faint blue trace of the Bighorn Mountains murmured to us from the western horizon and after a few seasons of Sturgis the ride opened into an ongoing discovery of the Montana mountains and saloons.

In those days the rodeo in Livingston was a weeklong Fourth of July exuberance of wild cowboy pickups roaring the streets and leggy cowgirls dancing on crowded barroom tables. A massive country music shook the walls of the Longbranch Saloon. On the street there may have been an occasional shot fired into the air, such was the prevailing enthusiasm, but if it happened the overall ruckus was loud enough to cover it.

In the nineties the trips sometimes had five or six Harleys running over Beartooth Pass down into Wyoming, or west and south to Idaho and western Colorado. Twice we took our own blues band in a van plus a pickup and trailer. These raucous frenzies we remember the way the High Renaissance is remembered in Europe. With reverence.

This latest time we were again four motorcycles — three Road Kings and a '95 Bad Boy — plus a Jeep, a sedan and a pickup camper pulling a trailer. A plumber, a stable owner, an architect, a nurse, a horse trader, a retiree, a production artist and a truck driver. Five males and three females, on 22 wheels. Demographically we ranged from the low 40s to the low 70s with a collective 21 direct descendants and none of them along. Eight cell phones and a laptop. Multiple credit cards and pharmaceuticals. The riders wore the usual black leather jackets and chaps, cutoff gloves, skullcaps, goggles, bandannas, earplugs. The others looked like ordinary summertime Minnesotans. Lots of stops along the way.

At 10:30 Thursday morning, August 2nd, we met at Frieda's Cafe, where coffee is 50 cents a cup and you can get eggs, bacon, toast and hash browns for less than 5 bucks. This was on old U.S. Highway 12 in Willmar, 96 miles straight west of Minneapolis. We gassed the bikes and sailed through the summer morning to Ortonville, on the South Dakota border. The Bad Boy has short legs, like bad boys do, so out on the prairie we look for fuel after 110 miles. We packed the leathers away there and rode in sleeveless shirts.

It looked lush, that hot prairie, and long trains of new-harvested grain attested to a decent rainfall in that part of the state. There were longnecked birds standing in the sanctuaries west of I-29 in South Dakota, where I also saw a herd of Herefords, maybe twenty, gathered in a tight circle near a waterhole. They were all facing inward, as if in a football huddle, about to call the next play. Not far down the road there was a tight circle of pelicans in the shallows, about the same number and also calling a play. I guessed the dark and heavy Herefords to be a running team and the flashy white pelicans to play more the aerial game. Going for the bomb on every play, and not much on defense.

Cranes and egrets and herons seem to decorate every reedy shoreline in that beautiful stretch of waterways and fields. Must be an entertaining place to farm, if there is such in all the world. 'Entertaining' and 'to farm' are seldom seen in the same sentence. The profession tends to run more to 'deeply satisfying' and 'hell on earth,' involving both heavy lifting and high-stakes gambling. But I've seen it up close and I know it can be entertaining. Sometimes. In short stretches.

We fuel in Aberdeen and stop downtown at the Drink Factory and wait for it to open at 4:00. We do this because it's cool and dark, the beer is two bucks, and it has a classic long shuffleboard table. I decline to play this year because last year I partnered with the plumber and he won his end of the board nearly every time and I didn't put up a single point, causing his heroic effort to go utterly unrewarded. Had I scored even once we would have won. The shame has followed me since and I may have retired utterly from a game I enjoyed and once could play.

We move on to Mobridge, our engines flushing pheasant and deer as fields of grain and corn give way to hay and grasslands, the land rising and falling in slow rhythms, flattening out at the distant demarcation of earth and sky. From the last curve into town the great valley of the Missouri opens and drops away to the left, hazy, mysterious, awesome. In no hurry to run down the length of the country to become gulf and ocean. Up here on the high ground with the far bank in late afternoon shadow, the compelling stillness brings on thoughts of Sitting Bull.

We stay at the Wrangler Inn, where white cloths sit on top of the water closet with a small sign: FOR YOUR CONVENIENCE WE HAVE PLACED THESE CLEAN USABLE RAGS IN YOUR ROOM TO BE USED FOR CLEANING YOUR GUNS, DRYING YOUR DOGS, POLISHING YOUR BOOTS, ETC. THE TOWELS AND WASHCLOTHS IN THE BATHROOM ARE RESERVED FOR PERSONAL USE ONLY. THANK YOU. I assume that if you don't have a fired gun or a wet dog or dusty boots, you are also free to use the rags to wipe the bugs from your motorcycle.

In the morning we cross the famous old bridge (famous because the town's named after it) into the Great Plains, technically defined by Ian Frazier as that part of the country seeing less than twenty inches of rain a year. A negative definition of a movable boundary, not unlike the old Misery Index of the Carter years. The Plains will run all the way to the Rockies, and not all plains are as great as some other plains. Depends on who's making the call.

These plains along the Missouri are moody. We head north near the river because some bikers tell us U.S.12 is all torn up, nearly impassable, and we should go north before we head west. It turns out to be a good ride based on bad information. We get back to 12 and still hit the construction but it's not that bad; 14 miles of gravel, mostly packed better than the driveway to the stable owner's place. But we see the southwest corner of North Dakota and it's serene and beautiful. The light gold of the freshcut wheat, the darker tans of the crops still standing, the black of the turned fields and the shocking bright yellow of the sunflowers. Entire fields of them all looking right at you. An immense Van Gogh.

With sunflowers come bees, the white-box hives stacked in rows here and there along shelter belts, looking like Mediterranean apartment houses. I am glad to have a windshield after all the years of getting hit with bees like slingshot stones. The architect on the Bad Boy gets peppered pretty good again, and I'm privately predicting this last man to ride west with a bare face will be behind a shield next year.

We stop for a midday beer at the Pastime Club and Steakhouse in Marmarth, after years of rolling right through town. We had assumed it nearly abandoned, judging by all the empty buildings on the main drag, but it turns out to be the biggest city in Slope County, with a population of 140. The entire county holds 767 residents on 780,000 acres, an average acreage for a Dakota county.

If some fool pop singer wanted to put on a free concert in Slope County to save the planet, half the world's population, 3.3 billion, would have ten square feet each to set their lawn chairs on. We're assuming she'd fly'em all in, and that the other billions, like me, would have to stay at work. But if it were standing room only, the entire 6.6 billion of us could attend, each with five square feet and sorely overloading the sheriff and deputies. But all the planets' teeming masses could stand in one medium county, just 2% of a medium-sized state. A little over a hundredth of one percent of the area of the U.S. Everybody. But not their dog.

We hit Miles City in late afternoon and all go straight to the old Montana Bar, upon whose beauty and significance I have previously expounded. The carved columns of the back bar, the mirrors, the brass cash register, the Italian floor tiles, the big leather booths. The great longhorns mounted above the booths. The old bullet hole in the cut glass by the door. We settle in, leaving only to sign in at the Olive Hotel across the street and return. Dinner is pizza from the waitress, and even that is good. The jukebox is good. It's all good.

Highway 12 runs on Interstate 94 paving from Miles City to Forsythe, where it resumes its own course and crosses the Yellowstone River to follow Porcupine Creek for a while and then slide into the valley of the Musselshell River west of Ingomar, home of the remotely famous Jersey Lilly saloon. Another example of high plains excellence, with good food and a fine back bar. It has outdoor sanitary facilities accessible by boardwalk, including a wood fence open air sheet metal urinal, where I was peeing when a dog walked in and began sniffing my leg. The awkward moment could have made a good photograph.

The old town is listed as having a population of 90, although you never see anyone walking around. Upon leaving we are warned about antelope, and six of them escort us out the town's gravel access road, running on our left and then in a sudden burst turning and crossing directly in front of us. As if to prove these people know what they're talking about. We see dozens more on our westward run through Roundup and Harlowtown. In a green gully near a waterhole a half dozen pronghorns graze casually in a mixed herd of Herefords and a few horses. They are the fastest animals in the Western Hemisphere and can run 60 miles an hour but can't leap a fence. They go underneath most barbwire.

The sky is truly bigger there. Mountains in the distant west, cliffs and open prairie to the north. The big cottonwoods on the left along the Musselshell suggest these may be the last deciduous trees all the way up to the Canadian pinewoods. We fuel the Harleys at White Sulphur Springs and head south along the craggy Crazy Mountains to Livingston. After three days of urbanity, two bikes and the camper leave Tuesday for the Beartooth Pass and Wyoming and the Jeep and car and two bikes go west, to the M&M in Butte and the Oxford in Missoula, both of which are open 24 hours a day and have been for a hundred years. Missoula also has that marvelous city carousel.

My plan this year was to finally see Yaak, in the northwest corner of the state, more west and north even than Glacier Park, and I meant to do it if I had to ride there alone. I felt it somehow necessary to see the state from all corners. Four others figured it might at least shut me up and came along just to see if it would. We were all surprised.

The quick route appears to be to Libby and then straight north, but there is an irresistible 90 mile lake to the east of there, created by the Libby Dam, with roads along both sides. The western side is the more primitive and less taken and we find out why. A most dramatic ride, right up there with the Durango to Silver City road. Very little traffic, just an occasional oncoming pickup to startle you when you're leaning hard into a blind curve with a thousand vertical feet of rock between yourself and the gorgeous blue waters down there.

At the northern turn near British Columbia you are in an amazing tall forest of every specie of evergreen you've ever seen, only bigger: white and red pine, spruces, firs, tamarack. But you never take time for closeups, the pull of the road is so strong, and you flog the machine through one tight switchback after another, trying to keep the other bike out of sight behind you. And then the forest on the left opens to a most stunning and pristine valley, so broad and deep it fades to blue at the bottom. It must be fifty miles to the far peak. You find yourself hollering grade school expletives and exclamations into the air, as if anyone could hear them.

We arrive at the Dirty Shame Saloon in Yaak and take about thirty pictures before we go in. Like we'd finally reached the South Pole, or the Ninth Wonder of the World. A pleasant enough place with a big deck. A Catholic priest who is also a botanist tells us he collects orchid seeds in the woods. We have a drink or two and then take the southbound road through the forest, Montana route 567, back to the motel in Libby.

Thursday morning at breakfast at the very fine Libby Cafe we see three deer, a doe and two youngsters, trot right down the main street of town, walking the double yellow line and turning left at the corner to trot down the center of that street. We see the big falls on the Koootenai River and cruise the gloriously scenic highways 56 and 200 back down to Missoula. Stop at the home base Murray Hotel in Livingston Friday and ride the freeway home Saturday and Sunday. A most satisfying trip.

Couldn't find much about Yaak on the computer. I Googled yaak population and it went right to information about grizzly bears. It's not even on the Rand McNally motor carriers road atlas. But it's up there, and it is what it is, and if it's not for everybody at least it worked for me and you won't find many places like it and let's just leave it at that.

© R.Ringsak 2007

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