After a long camp fire, sleep came easy on the edge of the field, 8,000 feet in the Flint Creek Range. And, with Mike @Digiratus and Zane @Speedytech7 tucked into the trees, there was plenty of time for me to send the flying camera up into the sky for an early morning flight before either of them got wise to my shenanigans.
Turns out the meadow in which I'd taken up residence was a little more interesting than it looked from ground level.
Fred Burr Lake was glassy as I searched for signs of fellow campers. I found none.
Back on the ground, nothing was stirring, not even a mouse
(that'd nibbled on Mike's bread overnight)!
After hanging around camp for a few minutes - wondering if the clicking of my camera would rouse my compatriots - I headed back to the meadow to check out the meandering waterways that I'd spotted from above. To my surprise, the water in these was actually moving - fed by a series of springs that were bubbling away - though this late in the year, the flow was reasonably low.
Even with all the water, there wasn't much green in the meadow. What little there was, was close to the ground and covered in frost.
By the time I wandered back into camp, Mike and Zane were both up, preparations for breakfast underway. Mike, cutting potatoes - a key component of the bacon, eggs, potatoes, and salsa that has become a tradition - shared his memory of the first time such a shared breakfast had been assembled. To my surprise, it was when he, Monte @Blackdog, and I had been atop Dome Plateau on one of the final mornings of The De-Tour. It was a morning I've long remembered - having no idea that it was the first shared breakfast - as it was both my first trip with these guys and perhaps the most spectacular camp site I've ever experienced.
Pan roasted potatoes in the making.
With everyone contributing, we timed delivery to Zane's tailgate - our makeshift buffet table - almost perfectly!
Mine. And then, seconds.
It was not early when we wrapped up breakfast and finally got on the road. In fact, on any other day at noon, we'd be looking for a place to stop - but not on this day! Today, we were hoping that the road that had foiled our progress to the east would present less difficulty to the west. If not, we'd find ourselves retracing the previous day's path, significantly reducing the ground we'd cover over the course of our adventure.
I felt much more comfortable bringing up the rear, more easily able to stop for photos without feeling as though I was slowing down the speed demons.
The road slowly improved as we descended towards Georgetown.
Hitting pavement at Georgetown, we had 50 miles of highway travel before our next trail - a distance that's right on the edge of how far we like to travel with our tires aired down. Ultimately, Mike decided he wanted to put in a few pounds of pressure while Zane and I chose the lazy option, keeping our tires in the 18psi range.
Zane and I putzed around with our cameras while Mike's compressor hummed along next to Georgetown Lake.
And somehow, Mike managed to get this onto my truck without me noticing.
Under sunny skies, we covered ground quickly along MT-1, the Pintler Memorial Veterans Highway, towards Deer Lodge. No longer was Caruthers Lake on our list of destinations for this trip, instead we'd continue east - along Boulder River Road through the Elkhorn Mountains - to check out a remote mine and a mile-long tunnel, before heading north towards Helena where we'd evaluate the weather and decide on next steps.
Of course, I'm getting way ahead of myself as usual - we had more than a day of travel, and some big surprises in store - before any decisions of that nature would be ones we needed to make.
Through Deer Lodge, we headed for the mountains, their low-lying hills covered in the golden blanket of fall.
Even the aspen were getting in on the show.
With two possible routes out of Deer Lodge, we opted for the one we'd never traveled before - the excitement of the unexperienced enough for us to add a few miles to our overall route. First though, one of us needed to air up.
That's right, it's 2x less work being lazy.
Makes less sense when he's actually driving the Tacoma.
The roads along the Elkhorns were significantly smoother than those we'd been on out of Granite. Not only that, but with a patchwork of trees and grass, the views here were significantly better than the narrow, rocky tree tunnels - which are fun but not very photogenic - we'd picked our way through the previous day. Speeding along, Mike piped up over the CB radio that, "These are the Montana views I remember." And he was right.
The clouds were cooperating as we looked out over the Deer Lodge Valley.
Someone's personal little piece of paradise.
It wasn't just the distant vistas that were mesmerizing. We hadn't run into a lot of color to this point on our route, but - having dropped in elevation - warmer temperatures meant that fall was still hanging on, in places, here in the lowlands. Soon, I was unable to keep up - my foot gravitating towards the brakes as the views unfolded before me.
A pop of color.
With liberal use of the skinny pedal, I was eventually able to claw my way back from "Ham radio range" to the more reasonable distances over which the CB radio could be used. That didn't mean I ever caught sight of Zane and Mike, but at least I knew I was still headed the right direction!
Up and over the Continental Divide at Champion Pass.
An old homestead, once with a commanding view.
Eventually, we interrupted our route east for what appeared to be a short detour to the north. As with our trail the previous day, distances would be irrelevant here - the terrain would dictate the speed at which we would travel. Our destination in this case was the old Leadville Mine, nestled under a ridge along the banks of Rock Creek. First though, we had to get there.
Heading up into the mountains, the road seemed reasonable enough as we got underway.
Three quarters of the way up we were still making good time - Zane and Mike waiting for me to catch up, only to pull ahead when I stopped to grab proof that there were three of us on this trip!
I must admit, I enjoy seeing other Tacomas in the landscape.
Back in my truck after watching the dust settle on two Tacomas, it wasn't long before Mike came over the CB to chuckle, "I can smell my exhaust. And you know it's bad when your exhaust is traveling faster than you are," to which Zane replied, "They weren't kidding when they said this portion of the trail is unmaintained." Not quite knowing what they were experiencing, I continued to follow, passing the sign Zane referenced a few minutes after another - more recognizable - marker.
It's always fun driving roads that crisscross some of our nation's great trails. I especially liked this carved marker.
So this is what they were talking about.
In and out of the trees we wound, the trail alternating between a rocky bumpfest and a more reasonable two-track several times over the course of the two miles we still had to cover in our quest to reach the Leadville Mine. Still, the Tacomas ate it all up, the only complaints coming from a few squeaky suspension bushings that could have used a bit more care on the greasing front.
Popping out of the woods, the rolling hills seemed to extend into forever.
Eventually - after a rocky ascent - we reached the summit of our climb, only a quarter mile until our destination. As I descended - nearing the waypoint that was marked on our maps - I was surprised to see an empty road next to an old log cabin ruin. It was then that Mike again crackled over the CB, "There's nothing here next to the waypoint we have marked."
"I think you guys passed it - I'm at the log cabin now," I called back, probably only a few hundred yards behind them at this point. "I'm going to get out and have a look around."
One of the old buildings at the Leadville Mine.
The cabin may be disintegrating, but the window construction has stood the test of time.
Fully expecting to hear a couple Tacomas come bouncing back up the road, I quickly opened the door to let the guys know that I was setting off on foot to see if there were any other relics or ruins along the maze of roads that led off into the trees nearby. The hunt was on, and I hoped - eventually - to find not just some old log cabin ruins, but hopefully the mine itself!
The next cabin I found was in even worse shape than the first, but at least there weren't trees growing in the middle of it.
A little further up the road, an old winch - several layers of paint fighting the good fight against time.
After wandering around for fifteen minutes or so, I was pretty sure that wherever the mine was, I wasn't going to find it. I was also a little surprised that I hadn't seen my buddies, because even though I'd set off on foot, I'd followed roads that were easily accessible via Tacoma. Surely Mike and Zane couldn't be far behind.
Then, I spotted the waste pile. And it was big. Much larger than I'd expected.
Bird's eye view.
Next to the waste pile, a jumbled mess of weathered wood and mangled machinery littered this little slice of the woods. Clearly the operation here had been substantial.
Despite the name, the Leadville Mine was primarily a silver mine - though some lead and gold were also recovered over the years. Winters have not been kind, and not much remains to explore. Even the old shafts - dropping precipitously into the mountain - are collapsing and have filled with water.
The only recognizable bit of the old machine shop was its door.
An old ore barrel - bands reinforcing its mid-section - was one of the coolest finds.
Ingersoll ... Sergeant? Who is this Sergeant and where is the Rand?
By this point, I realized that Zane and Mike were probably not going to join for this exploration. Figuring that they'd decided to wait for me a little way down the trail, I headed back to the Tacoma and gave a quick shout on the CB.
Pulling out the Ham radio, Mike answered my call to let me know that they were waiting for me, "Just after the tedious stretch of trail" below the mine. No worries, I thought, they're probably just around a corner or two, so I let him know that I'd be there shortly.
In reality, they'd continued on more than a mile, the road rocky and wet as it followed Rock Creek down the mountain, the road and creek often indistinguishable from each other.
Even after half a mile, I hadn't run into anything I'd call "tedious."
I was probably going a little faster than the ideal speed in my desire to keep by buddies from waiting too long.
I did eventually find the tedious section. There, a large boulder in the middle of the trail forced a decision: take the high side - throwing the truck off camber until the rear driver side tire could climb the boulder, or stay left - squeezing through a muddy pit that was sure to be the gift that keeps on giving when it came time to wash the truck.
Initially, seeing the tracks Mike and Zane had made, I took the off-camber route. Unfortunately, a combination of my wet tires and their tire-spin digging out a hole in front of the mini-fridge sized stone, meant that I didn't stand a chance in gaining traction over this behemoth. Instead, the truck leaned precariously as it began to pivot, threatening to slide off the hillside and to rest with the boulder under the gas tank. And so, with a sense of mild defeat - and not wanting to repeat the rescue I'd been the recipient of a mere 24 hours earlier - I threw it in reverse and plodded through the mud pit.
Not long after that - as Mike had suggested - I found the two of them chatting on Zane's tailgate, and once again we were three. It was 5:30pm, and though we'd planned to make it much farther along our route - perhaps even through a tunnel we'd all been looking forward to - the Rock Creek Road had lived up to its name. It was time to find camp.
As the trail flattened out, a clearing afforded us the perfect opportunity to set up camp.
With the sun below our horizon, it was still strangely warm as compared to the previous two evenings. It was a welcome detail that we chalked up to our lower (6,000-foot) elevation.
As I transferred photos from my camera to the laptop, Mike whipped up a big old bowl of guacamole and Zane split a bit of kindling to start the fire. Soon, our chairs were out, the fire was crackling, and the usual race-to-eat-the-guac was underway.
If there were an olympic metal for guac-eating, I'd surely be in the running, and while I most definitely slow down whenever Monte's @Blackdawg not around, I'll be the first to admit that there's no way Zane and Mike got their fair share of the green stuff on this particular night. Or any night, really.
Thanks guys, and sorry.
Anyway, just as we were wrapping up the guac and I was bringing out the cookies, a treat that both Zane and Mike declined for the time being - as they were planning to make "real" dinners - Zane noticed a rather ominous looking cloud to the south. Partially obscured by a small hill, it was the perfect opportunity to send out the flying photographer to get a better look.
Well, that looks...wet.
Luckily (?) for us, Mike confidently stated that, "I don't think we're going to see any rain tonight," as lightning flashed on the horizon. Zane and I weren't so sure, but if Zane was anything like me, he was (a) hoping Mike was right and (b) wondering why in the world Mike would jinx us like that!
After seeing a few flashes, I setup the camera to try to catch some of nature's fireworks. If you look low on the horizon, you can see the - relatively small - bolt that lit up the entire sky.
A half hour later, all hell broke loose. The wind - which had been the warmest, gentlest, most fabulous little breeze blowing out of the north - flipped 180 degrees and whipped up into 45 mph gusts. Suddenly, sparks from the fire were blowing out of the fire ring and all the way through camp. Both Zane's tent and my own were folded up on themselves as rain started to fall sideways. The front of the storm was literally upon us.
Hastily, tents were reset and rain jackets were donned. After a short discussion, safety prevailed, and the fire was extinguished - a shovel and copious water ensuring that no embers would blow into the nearby forest. And without dinner, we all climbed into our tents.
It was 7:25pm. The weather had turned. None of us knew what was in store, but it most definitely wasn't what we'd expected.
As I tried to tidy up the tent from its unplanned closure, I couldn't find my socks no matter where I looked. They weren't buried in any of the covers. They weren't under the mattress. Had they fallen out? Blown away? Nope, they were just stuck to the ceiling.