We were up early, even for me. Mike @Digiratus apparently rolled out of his tent at 5:30am, and Dan @drr and I followed not long after around 6:00am. We had a long day ahead of us to reach Cooke City by our agreed upon rally time of 6:00pm, and we knew that Zane @Speedytech7 was already there, having arrived the previous evening - now bored out of his mind.
Being up early also meant that we got to put our tents away wet from the overnight rain - it wasn't much, but that's of little consequence when the sun's not up and there are still clouds in the sky. Not that it wasn't a beautiful spot to have camped along the Selway River.
It didn't take us long to be ready to hit the road.
As we headed south from Paradise to the Magruder Corridor, our speed picked up - a silver lining of the previous night's rain being less dust than we'd had the previous day. Still, that didn't keep me from falling behind - a perpetual problem as I soaked in the sights along the way.
My pace is always something I'm aware of however, and one of the benefits of being last (or at least not first) is that I can go fast without worrying about oncoming traffic - or at least, I'll hear about any oncoming over the CB so I can be aware of it. And so, by the time we hit pavement again, I'd caught up to Dan and Mike and we broke out our equipment to air up.
While airing up - and still before 7:30am - a USFS Ranger pulled into the lot where we'd stopped and started chatting us up. Clearly interested in our rigs and what we were up to, it turned out he was from Montana and was familiar with many of the places we were headed over the coming week. We talked for a good 15 minutes before he hopped back in his truck to continue on his way; clearly a bit jealous of the trip we'd embarked on.
We too pulled out a few minutes later and headed on our way. Within a mile or two, the pavement turned back to dirt - a point that Mike and Dan (having driven the road before) conveniently remembered after airing up!
Though dirt, the road was very nicely graded and we made good time, reaching speeds of 60mph with ease, eventually finding ourselves back on pavement and on our way to Wisdom, MT.
As we fueled up in Wisdom, we had a decision to make - we could head south, along the route Mike had planned from the start, or we could head north - via freeway to Butte and then east along I-90 to meet up with Monte and Zane.
Zane was bored and texted that he was heading north towards Red Lodge; Monte had texted to let us know that rain and snow were expected in Cooke City that evening and into the next day, and so ultimately we made the decision to forego the scenic route and head north to Butte - saving two hours in the process and hopefully meaning we would all be headed the same direction - perhaps to rendezvous in a warmer, drier location than Cooke City.
We were most definitely off to an ominous start of the Re-Tour.
Travelling north under cloudy skies, the scenery was still beautiful, the air crisp and smelling cleaner than it had just 24 hours earlier. We slowed only once along the way, careful of the horses being cowboyed along the highway.
A sit-down lunch in Butte at the MacKenzie River Grill was I think fancier than any of us expected, but quite tasty as well - a reminder of the civilized world we'd be leaving behind for the rest of the trip. And then it was back into the trucks to head east - to Bozeman for our next pit stop: Go Fast Campers (GFC) global headquarters.
OK, it's their only location.
But it's GFC, and they are all the rage right now - having developed a camper system for Tacoma's that solve a lot of the problems that persist with existing setups. We had our fingers crossed that they might be open on Sunday, cranking out the large number of back-orders that they've got lined up, but alas, the gate was closed and they were enjoying a well deserved day of rest. Lots of identifiable parts in the lot though!
Too bad really, since my money was on Dan ordering one on the spot if we'd been able to see them in person.
By now though, it was nearly 2:00pm and we had a good four-hour drive to Cooke City. We'd be right on time...assuming no traffic through Yellowstone NP and if not for the hour we'd lose to the shift into Mountain time from Pacific. Skinny pedals pushed down, we were on our way; sights we recognized passing us in the opposite direction.
We made good time to Yellowstone, where we played tourist for a few minutes. No, strike that - I played tourist. Mike and Dan weren't impressed - or at least, they played it cool.
But we had a date with Zane - and we were already going to be late - so before long I was left playing catch-up again. Of course, in Yellowstone, that didn't take long - since in the distance it's easy to see the wildlife: indicated by traffic stopped in both directions, in the middle of the road. Today, it was bison.
We made our way slowly by the first few blockages with just a bit of joking about how cows on pavement could be oh-so-interesting to someone in a rental car. But by the time we hit what turned out to be the last traffic jam, we were ready to get going. Finally, I announced over the CB radio that I thought people were stopped even though there were no actual bison on the road and I was going to pull around into the oncoming lane and just slowly make my way through. "Follow me." I said.
And Mike and Dan did. And the good folks in the rental cars, who wanted their cows-on-pavement photos, cussed us out. Clearly we were wrecking their up-close experience with "nature." Sorry (not sorry) folks.
Finally through the metropolis that was Yellowstone, it was already past 6:00pm and we rolled into Cooke City to find Zane just chillin' at the community center. We said our "hellos" and "where the F#*% have you guys beens?" and immediately headed out of town - the sun lowering itself in the sky and all of us keen to get to camp before dark.
We weren't waiting for Monte @Blackdawg. He'd texted to say that he was going to be late - as usual - and that we should go on without him, leaving our APRS on so he could find us. So we aired down and headed up Lulu Pass.
The drive up Lulu was gorgeous. I mean, it'd been great last year in the snow, but it was great to see things we hadn't before - even if it wasn't sunny and bright. Mountains in the distance, snow patches hanging on through the summer near the peaks, and dirt roads off into the distance. Knowing what the forecast had in store, we took our time and soaked it in. Mostly. Except for our small rush to get to camp before dark.
As we crested the top of the pass and started down into the meadow leading to Lake Abundance, we spied some switchbacks in the distance - the Henderson Mountain switchbacks Monte would later tell us, for UTV's only - but for now, they looked like a fun trail to take the Tacoma's up, if we had time the next day.
The trail to our camp site was fun - water crossings and steep sections, rocky terrain and whoops - and the Beartooth Mountains all around us. As Mike said, "this is a special place." And Mike clearly had fun getting there.
We got to camp just as the sun was setting - no amazing colors due to the clouds in the sky, but that didn't make the setting any less beautiful. We all setup, finding level ground to deploy our tents, and get what we hoped were the best views of our surroundings in the morning.
Of course, it'd have been impossible to not have a great view in a place like this.
Camp setup, the next order of business was of course to build an amazing camp fire. We weren't sure when Monte was showing up, but we knew that this could be our last huge fire of the trip - depending on how he and Dan got along from a "tending" perspective - and so it was out with the chainsaw and axe again to cut up a dry, downed tree we found nearby.
Fire raging, we made dinner and chatted around the fire for a few hours before we saw a light on the horizon. And not just any light, it looked like a small sun was cresting the pass, accompanied by the sound of a Toyota V6 making it's way down into the valley - Monte was clearly on the gas.
By the time he arrived in camp, he was right on time - it was 10:00pm, witch is 6:00pm somewhere, I'm sure.
Oh, and it was raining, and getting colder. We once again said our "hellos" and "why the f#*% does it always rain on us when we come to Montanas?" and stoked the fire with more wood. By midnight we were all soaked, but in good spirits - happy to be together once again, excited for the trip ahead.
One by one we called it a night and headed to bed, snuggling down in our tents and bags as the temperature dropped. Hoping it would stop raining (and not snow) so we could actually enjoy ourselves this time.
One can always hope, right?