Secondary Roads

My life on the road, exploring, adventuring and experiencing. Part journal, part travel guide, part history lesson, part stream of consciousness. The world is my bucket and the list is endless!

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White Butte

When I was at Pompey’s Pillar two days ago it was 102 degrees. That’s 38.8889 C boys and girls. Today, it’s 56 degrees (13.333). It’s been a long time since I’ve played on a cloudy, rainy day such as this, although to be truthful, I didn’t actually get rained on. It has been showering on and off but I managed to pick the perfect time window.

White Butte, near Bowman, North Dakota

Continuing in my quest for state High Points. Today, White Butte. The Highest Point in North Dakota.

Everyone says that North Dakota is dead flat. Well around here it is pretty flat (I’d say more like rolling)……. except for these fabulous buttes and gullies which pop up all over the place. Remember that this area was under a vast shallow sea that divided what is now North America only 65 million years ago. All of this part of the country is silt compacted to sandstone which has since been eroding.

Near White Butte trailhead

It’s a short and mostly easy hike up the butte. A couple of steep sections but at less than a mile long it’s hard to even classify it as a hike.

View from the trailhead

I’ve was told that I picked a good year to come. There’s been more rain here than last year and things are green. The last few years of drought have been hard.

What a gift to have the trail and butte to myself. Wonderfully quiet except the light breeze.

Of course, the USGS marker at the top. I love that “they” provided a handy little sign for photos.
Beautiful views from the top

That’s High Point number 18. The adventures continue!

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I Thought He Meant the Other Pompey

In 1806, while returning east from their journey of discovery to the mouth of the Columbia River, Lewis and Clark split up for a short while and explored divergent rivers. While Lewis headed north to explore the Marias River, Clark took a southern route along the beautiful Yellowstone River.

Pompey’s Pillar

Along their float downstream, Clark and his party came across a large sandstone formation which Clark named Pompy’s Tower, after the infant son of his Native American guide, Sacagawea. Until I read that little tidbit on one of the signs, I’d thought it was so called for Pompey the Great. You know, Gneaus Pompeius Magnus, member of the First Triumvirate along with Crassus and Julius Caesar. Anyway, it wasn’t. It was named for Sacagawea’s little boy, and it’s name was later changed by the original editor of the Lewis & Clark Journals to Pompey’s Pillar.

The beautiful Yellowstone River

This is actually a National Monument and part of the National Park System. One of the hundreds which few of us, including me till a few days before, have ever heard of. It’s a beautiful and interesting little stop the next time you find yourself in south-central Montana.

It is quite a unique formation and has been a focal point for many throughout the eons. Native Americans left their mark in the form of pictographs. Early explorers, trappers, pioneers and settlers did so as well. But perhaps the most interesting part is that, when William Clark and his party stopped here on their float down the Yellowstone, he also left his mark.

Signature of Clark carved into Pompey’s Pillar, July 25, 1806

This is supposedly the only place where you can say that you followed exactly in the footsteps of Lewis & Clark. Except that Lewis wasn’t here and you can’t actually get to where Clark stood when he carved this because that portion of the mount has eroded away. But you know what I mean.

View from atop Pompey’s Pillar

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Lower 48……✔️

Earlier this afternoon I crossed from Montana in to North Dakota. I have now been in all of the 48 contiguous states. Not in my motorhome, mind you, but in my 54+ years of existence.

That just leaves Alaska. One of these days. I’ve been to Hawaii, but obviously not with the motorhome.

Actually, with my motorhome I have been in almost all of the lower 48, but I have not checked many of them off my list because I was just passing through. My criteria is going to a state specifically to visit.

As of today, the states I’ve “VISITED” in my motorhome

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Battle of the Greasy Grass

Most of you likely know OF this more familiarly as The Battle of Little Bighorn, or Custer’s Last Stand. However, I’m willing to wager that, like myself, you know very little ABOUT this. Until a week ago I can honestly say that what I knew about this event was that George Armstrong Custer (I could never get straight if he was a general or a colonel) attacked a superior force of Native Americans and was wiped out. Literally, that’s what I knew.

Turns out it’s not difficult at all to learn much more about this famous battle. Don’t worry, I’m not here to play the role of your horrific history professor. I will have to elaborate a few points in order to have this post mean something, but I have no intention or desire to describe or relate all the bloody details (pun certainly intended).

I found these statistics very interesting. Good thing we don’t trust immigrants.

First, a few important things to understand, setting the stage:

  • The battle is just one of several in the greater campaign now known as the Great Sioux War and the commander of the campaign is General Terry and it’s aim is to track down and compel a large force of Lakota Sioux to the established reservation to which they have been “ordered” under the Grant Administration.
  • At this time, June 1876, he was Lieutenant Colonel Custer, commander of the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the U.S. Army. During the Civil War he had attained the temporary rank of Major General, but that of a Volunteer Cavalry Division. After the war he reverted in rank. It’s actually the Battle of THE Little Bighorn. It’s the name of a river, not a place.
  • Custer is ordered to take his regiment, totaling about 600 men, and scout Rosebud Creek and continue towards the Big Horn River, while Gen Terry joins with Col Gibbon and proceeds down the Big Horn River valley, hoping to locate and defeat the Sioux.
  • None of the U.S. forces are aware that the Sioux have been joined in a loose confederation by Cheyenne, Arapaho and others equaling a force of 5000-7000 natives meaning 1500-2000 warriors. The numbers vary and are greatly disputed to this day

That is a very rough and under-detailed outline of the situation when Custer heads south along Rosebud Creek. Below shows the route each of the Army units take to what will become the battlefield. Essentially, the native forces are already encamped along the banks of the Little Big Horn River.

Around noon of 25 June, Custer sends Capt Benteen with a “battalion” further south to scout the hills across Rosebud Creek and towards the Bighorn. Not long after, Custer’s scouts climb to the Crow’s Nest and report evidence of a native village in the Little Bighorn Valley.

The Crow’s Nest, in real life. I tried to get to it later in the day. It’s 13 miles as the crow flies, but about 30 by car. It’s also on private property so I got to within about 5 miles before the gravel roads brought me to places I felt to be trespassing and decided not to continue.

He divides his regiment again, sending Maj Reno with about 100 soldiers to cross the Little Bighorn and attack the village while he (Custer) keeps his remaining 225 soldiers on the east side of the river, but in support of Reno.

As Maj Reno approached, a much larger force rushed from the village and attacked. Reno set up a skirmish line but within a few minutes realized he wass being overwhelmed. He shifts his force closer to the river, into a stand of timber, but as the native warriors soon begin to penetrate he realizes they are in an untenable position and calls for a retreat back across the river. On the other side, those who make it scramble desperately up to the bluff through steep ravines to eventually form a defensive position.

All locations are my approximation, except the position on the bluff.
From atop the bluff, Reno’s soldiers in complete disorder and being savagely cut down as they retreat, crossed the river to scramble through these ravines to reach the hilltop in the distance. During the fight and retreat Reno lost 40 men.
Diorama of Reno’s retreat across the Little Bighorn to the bluff

Not long after most of Reno’s surviving men made it up the bluff, Capt Benteen and his men arrive, having received Custer’s message. Reno and Benteen are subject to further attacks on the bluff until dark. They spend the night attempting to establish a defensible position and do manage to fend off relentless attacks from dawn on the 26th till late in the afternoon when the native forces suddenly desist, return to and dissemble the village, and retreat off to the south and west into the Bighorn Mountains. Thinking it a trap, Reno and Benteen remain vigilant for further attacks throughout the remainder of that day and night, not knowing the natives have fled having discovered Terry and Gibbon approaching up the Bighorn Valley from the north.

While all this is happening, nobody knows where Custer is or why he has not provided his promised support. Shortly after he and Reno separated, Custer continued in parallel, but not directly in sight. During this time he sent two messengers back, in search of Capt Benteen. Once those two had been dispatched, both before Reno had made it to the bluff, everything about exactly what Custer did, exactly when he did it and his reasonings are lost to history since every single man with him was killed. The only documented and verified survivor of Custer’s command (having been actually involved in Custer’s part of the battle) was Captain Keogh’s horse, Comanche. He lived 15 more years and became the regimental mascot. No-one in Reno or Benteen’s battalions would know the fate of Custer and his men until nearly 2 days later, the morning of 27 June.

While it is known that the final portion of Custer’s fight, called the Last Stand, was over by late afternoon, soon after Benteen had rejoined Reno on the bluff 5 miles south, large parts of Custer’s battle can only be reasonably determined based on where the bodies of the men were found, slain upon the battlefield, and testimony of many of the native warriors who participated. However, there are apparently great disparities in those testimonies, and making absolute definitive conclusions is impossible.

Diorama of the Last Stand. The men shot 25 horses in order to use them, along with saddles and anything else that might deflect a bullet, as breastworks for protection.

About the battlefield now:

  • Small headstones are placed through the battlefield where each man’s body was found. When known, the individual’s name is given. Keep in mind, the field was not surveyed till the 27th, the morning after Terry and Gibbon reached where the native village had been. The soldiers were originally buried where they lay. Most if not all the officers were reinterred at various places around the country. Col Custer was reinterred with full honors at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
  • Among the dead were Col Custer’s brothers Boston and Thomas, his brother-in-law James Calhoun, and his nephew Henry Reed.
  • The locations where several native warriors fell are also marked with stones. All the bodies were carried off for native ritual in other locations, but many left stone cairns on the battlefield. The actual number of native warriors killed has never been known. The estimated figures are 40-100.
The battlefield memorial atop Last Stand Hill

Last Stand Hill. The dark faced stone in the center marks where Col George A Custer fell. The path running down the hill in the center descends to Deep Ravine, lined with grave markers.
Deep Ravine, running up from the river towards Last Stand Hill
The path from Deep Ravine up to Last Stand Hill
Part of the Indian Memorial authorized by Congress in 1991. The circular walls behind me are engraved with the names of many of the native participants as well as quotes.

As I stated at the beginning I knew nothing of the actual events which took place here. They turned out to be far more dramatic and fascinating than I might have imagined. My visit to the battlefield was incredibly moving and reverential. If you’ve been following my site for any length of time you’ll know that I generally fall on the side of the Native Americans when it comes to the history of our country. The Battle of the Greasy Grass, as it is known to the Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho and others who fought there, is no exception. That does not mean I consider the men who fought here anything other than brave and loyal soldiers caught in tragic circumstances. Everything I’ve learned about this has come from my visit to the battlefield and my reading of this book immediately before arriving here. It is a short and easy read, dealing only in facts of what happened without any effort to assign blame, interpret actions, or speculate on reasons. Written in 1926, the author, U.S. Army Colonel Graham is naturally imbued with his generation’s lexicon and attitudes concerning American western policy, native Americans and military victory and defeat. However, his rendition of the persons, places and events I found completely fair. If this subject interests you at all I highly recommend you start with this book.

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Beartooth Highway

I guess it’s actually a Scenic Byway, vice “highway” although not according to the all knowing Google

I believe this is the most spectacular road I’ve ever ridden, and I’ve ridden a fair number of roads. There are only two that compare, and come quickly to mind, but I still think this one top’s them. It certainly does elevation-wise. Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park is probably a VERY close 2nd. All things being equal, this beats it in terms of traffic (or lack thereof) and road conditions. A distant third, but still a fantastic ride is Sunrise Highway, east of San Diego, CA.

This isn’t a steep climb by any means, but it is LONG! This sign, I suppose marks the beginning of the “official” Byway, but the road climbs, albeit only 2-3%, from 7 miles back in Red Lodge, MT all the way to this point. Not wanting to ride myself into the ground this seemed a perfect place to start.

This ride has been very near the top of my bucket list since I read about it at least 15 years ago. Back when I first started riding seriously. Like many of the rides out west, it’s just too darn long and too much climbing for me to ride the entire thing out and back so I cut it down to just making it up to the high point at Beartooth Pass. That also turns out to be just about the exact halfway point. At least of the more interesting stretch of the road. I believe it officially runs from Red Lodge to Cooke City. In another spate of fabulous luck, I also picked about as perfect a day as one could have. It was about 80 degrees when I started with no wind. Of course, the higher I got the cooler the temps so up on the heights of the plateau, just shy of 11,000 ft, it was a refreshing 65-ish. The day was forecast to get very windy in the afternoon, but if it did, I got up and down early enough not to suffer through that. There was some wind out of the west up top, so a few of the short, exposed sections I was definitely slowed by some headwind but nothing crushing.

Rock Creek, but WAY below the switchbacks

Even just looking at it you can see it makes sense to mentally break this ride up in to four sections. The first 7 miles, up to the first hairpin turn are a nice chance to get your legs a bit warmed up with grades of 2-5%. Really, almost the entire rest of the climb was an amazingly consistent 5-6%, with just a few short spells of a bit less and one short section on the very last bit of climb up to the pass where it gets to 8%. I LOVE climbs like this.

Section 2 is obviously the Rock Creek Switchbacks. 1500 ft of climb in 6.5 miles sounds pretty daunting, but again, not that steep. This section went much more quickly for me than that long straight drag of the first section to the first hairpin. It’s also where I really started to feel good as my legs had figured out that riding uphill was gonna be the order of the day.

At mile 12.5 (assuming you start where I did) is an overlook point, with restrooms and a walkway out to the Rock Creek Vista. Important safety tip, there is no water here so don’t think you can refill your bottles. I had 2 bottles and my 50oz backpack, enough for the entire ride, luckily. I didn’t go out to the Vista, but I know the views are amazing. I was on mission and I didn’t know the forecast was wrong so I really wanted to get up and at least be headed back down if/when the winds picked up.

Looking west from along the switchbacks

At 14.5 miles you pretty much break over the rim and section 3, the enormous high plateau, spreads out in front of you. I know across the gorge, on the other side of the river it is called Rip Roaring Plateau. I couldn’t find anything that told me it’s the same on this side, or just unnamed. 🤷🏽 Now just because I say plateau, don’t think that means it’s flat. There’s still 5 miles and a thousand feet to climb before you get to rest those legs for a bit.

The top, sort of. The road stretching off across the plateau.
And arriving…..where?

While you keep thinking it’s going to flatten out, or at least the grade will lessen some, it just doesn’t. Sometimes it looks steep and sometimes it looks flat, but your computer will confirm…….5-7%. After a couple of miles you cross the border. I found it strange there was no “Welcome” sign on the other side. Spoiler alert: you’re now in Wyoming. Guess they aren’t too fond of the border they share.

Finally, after more than 19 miles of going up, the road bends around the shoulder of a rocky knob and you see……… a ski lift on your right. Welcome to Beartooth Basin SUMMER Ski Area……because you can’t get up here in the winter. Once a private ski and snowboard training center, it’s now open to the public, WHEN there’s snow. I’ve seen brochures and signs advertising skiing into early July. You also see the road go DOWN. Not an illusion this time, there is a nice mile and a half of downhill, marking the end of section 3 and the last bit of climb up to Beartooth Pass.

As you make your way up these switchbacks make sure you glance across the gorge for your best view of The Bear’s Tooth, for which the highway/byway is named.

1.8 measly more miles and you’ve reached the top of the world.

The highest elevation to which I’ve ever pedaled

Now, turn around and do it all over again…….in the much easier direction. And just so you know I didn’t get stranded in Wyoming…….

Whew……made it back from Wyoming

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Grizzly Encounter

Making my way across the Big Sky state of Montana…..

Thirty miles east of Bozeman is the small town of Livingston, one of the gateways to Yellowstone National Park. Unfortunately, this trip will not take me through Yellowstone. That ends up being a good thing because, as I mentioned a month or so ago, prior storms and the historic flooding of the Yellowstone River has kept access to the roads and park severely limited. I’m told that currently only guided tours are permitted in to the park, at least from the north entrance at Gardiner, MT, where the highway was completely washed out.

However, I never planned to go that way. Midway between Bozeman and Livingston, right along I-90 is Montana Grizzly Encounter. And you thought I meant an actual, out in the wild encounter, didn’t you? Thankfully not. There are only three animals in North America which I am quite content to not meet up with in their environment. Or at least, not at any sort of close range. One of them is a Grizzly Bear. Any Brown Bear really, as they are all the same. All Grizzlies are Brown Bears, but not all Brown Bear are Grizzlies. It’s one of those.

Instead, I’m more than happy to visit and support places like Montana Grizzly Encounter, a rescue organization, to see these magnificent creatures. They currently have 2 wild rescues and 2 born in captivity and rescued from their prior situations. So, meet Max………..

Max is three years old, rescued as a small cub in Alaska where he was either abandoned or his mother came to some other demise. He stands at over 7.5 feet and while not fully grown is upwards of 700 lbs.

Tough work tossing these logs around

That’s all. Just a great chance to experience his company.

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White Bird

It doesn’t look like much on the map, but this turned out to be one fantastic ride!

Yep, Grangeville, Idaho. Absolutely no reason to come here, other than U.S. Hwy 95 is a fabulously beautiful drive, and it was a convenient place to stop along my way. I knew nothing about White Bird, or White Bird Grade until a few days before, when I was looking at what I might do. Most of the ride is along the old Hwy 95, but I did the long descent from White Bird Summit on the current Hwy 95. There’s a nice wide shoulder, and the pavement is PERFECT so I was completely comfortable riding the highway. Traffic was fairly light as well.

Along current Hwy 95 is the White Bird Battlefield overlook. This is historically Nez Perce Indian territory, (today’s reservation is a little ways north) and White Bird was a Nez Perce Chief in the late 19th century. Like all the other disgraceful dealings with native Americans, greed, dishonesty and broken treaties eventually led to armed conflict with the Nez Perce, beginning here, on this lumpy plateau. While you can’t see the old highway in this photo, it also climbs up from the Salmon River along side the “battlefield.”

The Salmon River. Famous for its fishing and white water rafting.

The bridge over the Salmon River is about 2 miles south of the town of White Bird and clearly fishing and rafting are the “IT” things here. You can also reach the even more famous Snake River and Hell’s Canyon from this road on a remote trip through the mountains.

Downtown White Bird. Yep, that’s pretty much the whole town.

Time to head back UP from whence I came.

Impending road hazards
Get Out The Road!
A closer view looking back over the battlefield

The climb up is not very steep, but it is pretty long at around 12 miles. 5-6% the entire way, and the road surface is good. About 9.5 miles up from White Bird the road runs back in to the current highway, but again, there’s a good shoulder and you’re on it for less than a mile before a turn off takes you back on old 95 to finish the trip up and over White Bird Summit. I had the old highway COMPLETELY to myself. Well, myself and the horses. Only one car passed me on that road during my entire ride.

One last look down the valley before popping over White Bird Summit.

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Adventures In The Great Basin Pt 4

I wrapped it all up with, as you might expect, summiting Wheeler Peak. You may recall that riding up Wheeler Peak only takes you to Wheeler Peak Campground. I say “only” because it is another 4 miles and 2800 ft up to reach the summit. And the only way to get up there is on your feet.

Wheeler Peak Summit Trail
The profile stops below 13,000 ft, but the actual elevation of the peak is 13,065 ft.
I know, I look surprisingly happy for 7:30 am, but that’s mostly thanks to my coffee.

Whomever constructed this trail was uncommonly kind because the first mile is flat allowing me AND my legs a gentle wake-up and warm-up to the trail ahead. After that the trail rises to merely reasonable grades for another mile and a half before the really hard work begins. You also start off making your way through beautiful Aspen groves.

It could not have been a more perfect day for hiking at elevation. Start temperature was in the low 60’s, with warm sun and cool air and not even a whisper of wind. It stayed pretty much this way the entire day. The temperature did increase during the day, but only slightly more quickly than they fell due to my increase in elevation. And except for a few short sections where you are exposed to the western valley from which there was a bit of wind, the rest of the hike was unbelievably calm. Even at the summit.

Despite a full parking lot at the trailhead it was more than a mile before I saw anyone else on the trail. Throughout the day there were maybe 20-30 folks along the way. Not crowded at all.

Idyllic open meadow on the slopes of Bald Mountain

At about 2.5 miles you’ve made your way up to the saddle between Bald Mountain and Wheeler Peak. Climbing up from the saddle is where the real work begins, especially since now you’re getting up above 11,000 ft and even as well acclimated as I was to elevation from the last 2 months, this is where I started feeling the elevation and noticing the thinner air.

making my way to the saddle

The tree line here is right at 11,200 ft. From here the trail is significantly more rocky. You’ll definitely want a pair of good sturdy hikers for this trek.

Bye, bye tree line. First views of the valley on the west side of the park.

Another thing you may notice from the elevation profile is that from here, the trail steepens and shallows a few times until you get to the very upper portions. Built in rest areas, so to speak. One of these flatter sections turned out to be a beautiful spot for some breakfast, overlooking the lakes and the road where it descends from the trailhead to Wheeler Peak Campground.

Some hardboiled eggs, Manchego cheese and an avocado for breakfast

The last mile to the summit is definitely the hardest. It’s steep, it’s rocky, it weaves back and forth along the ridge line all the way to the top. It’s something of a brute with the elevation.

The last mile up is a BRUTE!
Fun that the trail just happens to cross one of the small remaining snow patches

And then you get to the top………….

Dos Doyabi and the view north and east toward Baker, NV and Utah

Never official unless you get a photo with the USGS marker. For some reason there are 2 on this peak. 🤔

View to the south

The way back is pretty much the same, except, you know…………. downhill.

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Adventures In The Great Basin Pt 3

Grand Palace Tour Route

Technically, Adventures BENEATH The Great Basin. Spelunking! OK, so it’s a guided tour but why would you ever pass up the opportunity to use the term Spelunking? Lehman Cave is not nearly as well known as Carlsbad Caverns, Mammoth Cave or Luray Caverns, but it belongs on the list. I’ve not yet been to Mammoth, and while quite a bit smaller than Carlsbad, the formations in Lehman are just as fascinating and spectacular.

Millions of years in the making, while well know to the indigenous peoples of the area, the cave was “discovered” by Absalom Lehman in 1885. He began charging an entrance fee, allowing visitors to spend up to 24 hours in the cave. Thankfully, or perhaps partly because of this natural wonder, the caves were protected when President Warren G. Harding created Great Basin NationalMonument in 1922.

Like all caverns I’ve been in, the temperature is a constant temperature year round. This one seemed a bit cooler than the others I’ve visited, at 52 degrees. Bring a warm sweatshirt.

Also like most of the other caverns, it does have a population of breeding Large Eared Bats. Another part of the Good News story of protection, the bats have only just returned in recent years. Abe Lehman built a small hut over the natural entrance to facilitate entry to the cave for visitors.

This unfortunately blocked access for the bats. Now, while the natural entrance is still blocked for humans, the structure allows bats free access and they have happily returned. Not to worry if you have a bat phobia. They only nest a very short way in to the cave from the natural entrance and while you might, if you’re very lucky, hear them on the start of your tour, it is pretty unlikely you’ll see any.

The tour is fun and interesting, lasting about 90 minutes if you take the Grand Palace Tour. There are one or two first-come/first serve tours available daily, but if you want to be sure to get on a tour on any given day or time, purchase your tickets in advance at