Sunday, July 11, 2010

Butte ... Montana!

It was one of those moments I was never going to be able to explain. We nudged deeper into a sea of sweaty bodies as the salsa band's drummer stirred the beat toward a fever pitch. The horn section built to a crescendo and the three singers suddenly dove into the crowd with their microphones, not even missing a note as dozens of outstretched arms pulsated around them. Then the brass musicians plunged in next; the trombone player plowed right into the heart of the crowd and paraded through the mass, stretching his instrument high like the leader of a frantic marching band. It echoed a hundred moments of youth when the collective energy of a group hit a ceiling so high, with a peak so unified, that it felt like the entire sky would burst open. The singer yelled "Butte!" and the crowd answered in a deafening roar, "Montana!" "Butte!" "Montana!" "Butte!" "Montana!"

I glanced out over the city lights below the outdoor stage. They shimmered with a surreal intensity that I had seen before. It was another one of those moments I could never explain. When people asked me about my favorite descent during the Tour Divide, I would often think for a second and then answer, "Coming into Butte, at midnight, in the pouring rain, on I-15." They would always look at me with that incredulous smirk, as though to say, "You mean to tell me that you rode a mountain bike 2,800 miles across the country, and that's the most fun you had? On an interstate?" But I couldn't convey to them how cold I was, how tired I was after a 16-hour day, how hard the rain was falling and how long I had been pedaling through a bleak and black wilderness, only to crest over Elk Park Pass and plummet toward Butte, hitting 30 mph, 40 mph, with rain and wind roaring in my ears like a freight train, and the blurred city lights so bright, so inviting, so full of warmth and hope, that the whole world seemed to wrap its arms around me in a welcoming embrace.

And then I felt that embrace again, during the National Folk Festival, in this random town that was once the Superfund toxic cleanup capital of America, in front of a random salsa band who I had never heard before and whose name I didn't even know. I was never going to be able to explain it.

Geraldine and I headed out Saturday morning for a girls' weekend in Butte. Geraldine organizes Climate Ride. We would have been introduced through mutual friends in Anchorage, but we just happened to meet first in a more organic way - we participated in the same 50-mile solstice mountain bike ride. The plan was to ride singletrack in the morning and take in the 72nd National Folk Festival in the afternoon. Both of us had about the same level of experience with Butte and its biking. But instead of doing any kind of prior research, we just decided we'd pull off I-90 somewhere and hope we got lucky.

We did get lucky. Oh wow, did we get lucky. We just happened to turn off at the Homestake trailhead of the Continental Divide Trail. At the trailhead, a group from Bozeman told us it was their favorite ride in all of Montana, and it was easy to see why. The narrow trail climbed steeply, but not heartbreakingly, to a narrow ridge and then followed the Divide tightly on an undulating roller coaster trail that snaked through a maze of erratic boulders and sweet-smelling pine trees.

We topped out at about 8,000 feet and dropped into the next canyon through the lupine and pines, then curved around the highway and looped back through a rockier, chunkier "beaver pond" route. (I saw no ponds. Only rugged slopes.) Montana is quickly making me much better at rounding switchbacks (though still not good.)

While mashing our way up the beaver pond route, a classic Continental Divide storm bulldozed in and soaked us thoroughly. I am not entirely stoked to be back in the region of thunderstorms. Lightning is one of my biggest fears, and thunder booms always set off an adrenaline-charged stress reaction, especially when the thunder is booming as I pedal a metal bicycle, wholly exposed at 8,000 feet on the Continental Divide. That said, all of that adrenaline sure does make for a memorably epic descent.

Then, the National Folk Festival. It was an impressive event - six stages and tens of thousands of people milling around the turn-of-the-century brick buildings that dominate the downtown area of this old mining town. We met up with Geraldine's friends and ate horrible festival food. I thought of my former roommate in Juneau, Shannon, who spends his summer traveling around North Dakota with a gaudy corn dog stand. I was a little disappointed not to find him at this Folk Fest. It was fun attending the festival with other women, who we could giggle with about how sexy the 50-something Moroccan singer was, and no one would roll their eyes at us.

We left the festival late and didn't get into camp until close to 2 a.m. We didn't even camp at a real campground, just the Highland trailhead where we planned to ride the next morning. So we were more than a little dismayed when two vehicles full of drunk men and women showed up after daybreak at 6 a.m., parked literally 15 feet away from us, and proceeded to build a fire and party for two hours in the loudest way possible. One of the women repeatedly screamed "Wake up!" toward our tents, and started talking about "kicking in the doors" of "those dumb biker bitches." (How she knew or assumed we were women, I don't know.) I was genuinely afraid but I had left my bear mace in the car, so I just huddled in my tent and hoped they didn't choose to actually engage us, as I'm pretty sure Geraldine would have knocked in a few faces and I would have run frantically for my life. It always amazes me that people focus all of their camping paranoia on bears. I would take a bear in camp any day over a drunk Montanan, which seem to be much more commen.

We had wanted to get on the trail sooner, but we both didn't want to get up until the drunk people either passed out or left, which they mercifully did at about 8 a.m. We headed up the Continental Divide Trail again. This section was much different than the Homestake section. Steep switchbacks, mud, and more mud ... a little bit of Juneau in Montana.

The views were still incredible, though. I felt like roadkill, which I blamed on festival food and less than four hours of sleep followed by two hours of fearing for my well-being, which would sour anyone's stomach. It was still an awesome weekend! Yeah for Butte, Montana.