After three informative, if a bit restless days in Billings, Day Four of Cycle The Rockies finally marked the beginning of our bike tour across Montana! Although we arrived here with similar interests, specifically in climate change and sustainable living in the state in which most of us live, we come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Among us are a rock climber, a bike mechanic (thank goodness!), several non-traditional students, a wilderness EMT, and an expert on dirt…err, soils. A few of us are either WRFI or bike touring veterans. I, for one, am neither.
This being my first opportunity in experiential education of this nature, I am thrilled to have held a class discussion next to the Yellowstone River, and made lunch in the shade of a generous cattle rancher’s home while over-looking a 360-degree horizon which would only intensify in watercolor-esque shades of orange and pink between late afternoon and dusk.
This morning Peter, the WRFI intern, addressed me as “City Slicker”. It wasn’t a fully warranted title, but reminded me nevertheless that like moving to Montana in the first place, beginning this tour brings on a sensational mix of nerves and excitement that is sole property of adventurous discomfort.
Indeed, uncomfortable is definitely one word to describe the day. As we loaded up our panniers, hitched our trailers, and rode out of the Billings KOA, I re-assessed what I had signed up for. Not that I really wanted anything but to ride east toward Roundup. I had anticipated this moment – finally on the bike for the long haul – since I heard the WRFI program pitch last semester and decided how I would spend my summer. We turned the wrong way out of the parking lot and road a quarter-mile before making a U-turn, gingerly, to be sure everyone was more or less comfortable with the weight we carried. In one way or another we had all been working up to this for weeks. In my case, it was the second time I had ridden my bike with a full load. How could I possibly be ready for this?
We only rode about twenty miles our first day. Alan, our instructor and most veteran rider, kept reminding us to enjoy our environment – we wouldn’t get a chance to see anything twice on this trip. When we arrived at Steve Charter’s ranch north of Billings, I realized I had paid close attention to the Highway US-87 mile-markers and very little else.
Steve Charter is a cattle rancher who grazes about three hundred strictly grass-fed cows on eleven square miles of pasture. He lives in a beautiful passive-solar home dug out of a hill on his property that he built thirty-five years ago. By most standards his ranch is uneconomical, but he uses methods touted by articles in our coursebook as healthy, sustainable, and ethical. Steve was running his ranch this way decades before these articles were published. I was as interested in Steve’s story as I was in the ride to his ranch, but also equally as ill-prepared. After two and a half hours pedaling a steel fram through headwinds, I had a hard time mustering the energy to fully engage with Steve and take advantage of yet another well of information.
Walking through his pasture trying to retain some of what Steve said (or at least to appear a bit livelier than a flat tire) I noticed that most of my classmates were struggling in the same boat. We are just beginning a month-long marathon of hands-on education both on and off the bike. None of us is fully prepared for this, but it wouldn’t be the adventure we crave if we were.