Wind gusts killed any thought of making the Montana border by day's end. Pushing through the wind was like picking my way through ditches and barbed wire, slow-going and tortuous. I sheltered in an Arnegard picnic area. It had taken me six hours to travel six miles from Watford City to Arnegard.
Around 4:30 PM I decided to move on. The winds had lessened. The way had been cleared. I cycled fifty miles and by nightfall I had made it to Montana. I stopped at a gas station for water and junk food. The clerk looked at me like I was a vagabond. Or at least, I fancied that he thought I was a vagabond.
"What's Route 200 West like?" I dropped change into his open hand.
"It's desolate. Are you riding your bike out that way?"
"Jeeze," he said, "There ain't nothing out there. That's God's country all right. Because only God lives out there."
"Good." A veritable no man's land. That was where I wanted to go. In Fargo, Tom of Island Park Cycles had told me of Route 200. While he fixed my bike, I told him that I wanted better roads off the beaten path.
"Most people take Route 2, but Route 200 is the way to go," Tom had said. He looked like Mr. Clean, but with a Scandinavian complexion. "That's the road I take when I rack up my bikes and head out for Glacier. If you wanna get away from the traffic, away from the tourists, then that's the road you want."
"What about food and water?"
"You'll wanna make sure you're well-stocked."
"Ever ride it?"
"Me? Nah. Just in my jeep. I've just told cyclists about it."
"How'd they like it?"
"Don't know. They've never came back to tell me."
The next day I was on that fabled road. Traffic was sparse. The land was rolling and brown. I thought of it as Ragnarok Highway. Patches of white alkali littered the wayside like bleached bone dust. I rode upon a narrow strip of asphalt which cleaved through rugged hills, a study in dun. The air smoldered, but an occasional breeze smelt of sage, and a freshness that I could only call the fragrance of the desert. The hills had the texture of sun-baked mud, were highly weathered, and wind sculpted into highly eroded pinnacles like bunkers perforated with foxholes where soldiers laid low and prayed the rosary. They reminded me of the painted churches and underground labyrinths of Cappadocia in Anatolia.
In Richey, Montana I hid from the sun. I waited out the noon and refilled my water bottles from a spigot. I inspected my bike within the shade of a pavilion.
I checked the chain first, making sure it was clean and greased. I grabbed my tires. Their air pressure was good. Then I checked my spokes. I always saved spokes and wheel truth for last because they had given me the most trouble throughout my trip. It was my Achilles heel. Sure enough I had wheel problems. Two spokes had broken through the outer rim. I never felt it happen. I guess I had known for some time that something was wrong; perhaps that is why I really stopped. Sometimes as I rode I went into a trance, and it was easy to become negligent, to discount all the signs and symptoms of pathophysiology as just a bump in the road, or a chimera of the imagination. This was bad. If I continued and ignored the problem my wheel would collapse. This was worse than it ever had been, because I knew I couldn't repair it myself, and the nearest bike shop would be hundreds of miles away.
I walked my bike toward the center of town. The Big Sheep Mountains rose up from the south, ghostly and shimmering like a mirage on tarmac. Yeah, ghostly. Every mountain that I saw or read about was ghostly. Was it just melodramatic bullshit? Something to make life or a story meaningful-as if ghosts could remedy meaninglessness. On the edge of town I came to another crossroads. This time I didn't pull any of that archetypal bullshit, I already felt too much like Don Quixote, and just walked as fast as I could toward all the buildings. There was a grocer and a bank. I walked down the hot, dusty street. There wasn't even a street light. I looked for pay phones and saw none.
I parked my bike in front of the store and walked in. The air condition was like an arctic wind. I looked around for a payphone. The aisles were empty, and musical white noise trickled out of unseen speakers. There was a pretty blonde at the register.
"Do you guys have a pay phone or phone book?" I asked.
"Wuh have a phone book just for the town," she said. She shrugged her shoulders. Her pretty face creased and went ugly with apology. "You might want to ask the bank. They got a lot of phone books."
"Ah hope you find what yer looking for."
Bells jingled as I walked out, and the heat pounded me like a furnace. Yeah, I hope I find what I'm looking for too.
Down the street there was a bank. I walked there. An electronic sign said it was 103 degrees Fahrenheit. Somewhere a dog barked. I could hear the roar of tractor trailers from beyond. Otherwise, it was all quiet on the western front, but the bank was open. I walked in. It was well lit and cool. A couple tellers looked up from behind their stations.
"Hello," I said, "May I use your phone book?"
They looked at me with blank eyes.
I felt like an explanation was in order. "I'm riding my bike from Virginia, and it just broke. I need to call a bike shop or I'm stuck."
"On a motorcycle?" asked one of the tellers. Her tone was incredulous. She had probably never seen cycling gear, spandex shorts, or a bike helmet before now.
"No," I said, keeping my voice level so that nobody could interpret sarcasm in it, "Bicycle."
Another lady stood up. She fixed me with her eyes, and planted her hands on her hips. "We only have a phone book for our town. And there aren't any bike shops around here. The closest one is probably in Billings."
I knew of Billings from studying my maps, and I knew it was quite far, several hundred miles south and west by road at least.
"Look," she said, "We can call the operator and get you some numbers of shops in Billings or Great Falls."
There was nothing else I could do. I nodded as I processed the dilemma.
"You can use our phone." She dialed the operator and wrote down the numbers of several bike shops.
I called each, explaining my situation to the proprietor. They all said to bring in my bike, and they would see what they could do. They didn't seem to realize that I was stranded in Richey. One suggested I take a cab. A cab in Montana? Did they even have cabs in Big Sky Country? The concept of cab was so east coast. It was unfathomable. Plus it would cost a small fortune.
Now, years later, as I write this, it wouldn't have been too bad. I would have changed into proper clothes, and stuck out my thumb and caught a big rig bound west. Surely, not an hour would pass before a trucker would lend me a ride. This would have been part of the adventure. I could see it now. A big red and white rig would ride past and slow down and finally stop about a football field ahead. It would be like B.J. and the Bear. That old 1981 NBC series. For fare I would spin tales of my travels.
Apparently the lady had overheard me. While I called bike shops, she made calls of her own.
"Any luck?" she asked.
"Got plenty of that. I just need a new damned wheel."
"Well, I have family out from Great Falls. We can give you a ride out after I get off from work. That'll give my parents time to come and pick you up somewhere in between. Then they can take you to the city and you get that bike fixed."
This was a clap of thunder to my ears. At once I was relieved and ashamed. "I can't accept that." It popped out of my mouth like a knee jerk reflex. This was all too nice. People out west were being too nice to me. I wanted to suffer, feel pain. She was making it too easy. But God damn it, I was in a fix and I needed help. An old joke surfaced from the depths of memory, the one that starts, "A man drowning at sea…." She must have read all this on my face. "Well… I can sure use your help."
"My name is Matt Muller."
"Jan," she said, shaking my hand, "Jan Hoffman. So, you're from Virginia?"
"You've come a long ways. Well, go ahead and have seat. You want a pop?" she asked pointing to a cooler in the hallway.
"Sure do." The cold sweet beverage would be refreshing, and something feral inside me was craving its high sodium content.
"Go ahead, take your pick. We're trying to get rid of them."
"They're leftovers from a town picnic we had a while ago."
"No," she said. She paused in recollection, "Something just as spectacular. One of the farmers got bucked off his horse in a rodeo. He broke his pelvis, so all the farmers got together and harvested his fields. It was impressive. Fifteen combines worked his field in one stroke. Then we all had a town barbecue to celebrate."
"That must have been awesome." I picked out a can of soda, and sat in the lobby.
A couple hours later, Jan, her daughter, Melissa, and I were heading west on Route 200 in her pickup truck. Melissa sat in the cabin and did her homework. The withered heath whizzed by. There was still a couple hours left of sunlight.
"I can't thank you and your family enough," I said.
"Well, you seemed like you needed some help," Jan said, "Besides, this is nothing."
"It's just that I can't believe somebody would go six hours out of their way to help me. Stuff like this doesn't happen where I come from."
"Don't thank me just yet. Wait to you meet my father's Chihuahua, Sparky. He's a mean little thing."
"I love dogs. We used to have a Siberian husky named Strider. And before him we had a chow named Bear. We called him that because he looked like a Bear."
The plan was for us to keep driving until we met her father, Jerry and his wife Gladys. They would be driving from Great Falls, and we would meet in between. The land was rugged and sparse, true to the words of Tom of Fargo. I was disappointed that I wouldn't be riding this on my own wheels, but as the miles sped by, I felt relief as the few trailers and homes clustered together corresponded to what my map referred to as towns--my bike was kind enough to break down in the most convenient place.
"Ever hear of the Freemen?" Jan asked.
"Yeah." I looked at her sidelong.
"They used to live in this area we're in right now."
"That was a long time ago."
"Back in 1996."
Everything before the turn of the century seemed long ago to me. "That's when I was in the Marine Corps." And started reading Emerson and Thoreau, but I didn't mention this to Jan.
We stopped at a gas station in a town near where the FBI besieged the Freemen ranch. I bought soda and sandwich, and tried to pay for gas and snacks, but Jan wouldn't let me.
"This musta been quite a boom town when the media and Feds came through, huh?"
"There wasn't a room you could rent in eastern Montana that spring."
We drove and drove, listening to country music. I was fascinated by the way the landscape raced by like it was televised, the windows of the car like television screens. I felt like I was watching the movie version of a classic novel; I knew I would miss the details and subtext.
"This sure is desolate country," I said, "But beautiful."
"It sure is. Even the jackrabbits have suitcases."
The land was getting greener. The Rockies loomed ahead. There were green hills clad in pines, like islands on a golden brown sea of ranchland. Somebody on the radio said that snow was expected in the higher elevations.
Just before sundown Jan honked the horn as another car passed by. We pulled over and the other car pulled a u-turn. It was Jerry, Gladys, and Sparky.
I was glum to see Jan and Melissa go, but at the same time I was getting restless and cranky from being cooped up. Besides, it was nearly past my bed time. Despite the omens, Sparky seemed cordial enough, nothing at all like the Taco Bell mascot from hell I first imagined.
We drove most of the way to Great Falls in silence. Jerry Greyn was a repairman from Conrad, Montana, and his wife, Gladys, was the President of the Montana Consumer Credit Services. They brought me into their home, fed me a late meal, showed me to the guest room. The bed was a pleasure to lie in, the way it cushioned my spine, and took the burden from my legs and back. I thought of Jan and Melissa who would still be on the road back to Richey. God's country. It was a strange and natural law that the saintliness and humanity of a land's denizens was inversely proportionate to its population density, so that in a land of six people per square mile it would be common to find kindness and compassion like the sweet water of a desert oasis, whereas in a region of two thousand per square mile, all was relegated via a diffusion of responsibility to a bitter deluge of bureaucracy and services. What a faulty argument, but one I can almost believe as I fell asleep in a warm bed east of the Rockies.