We have been seeing lots of small mammals the locals call ground griz. They are the color of grizzly bears and about eight inches long. They chirp at us as we pass and duck into burrows beside the road. Cute, but unfortunately not too smart when it comes to cars.
Today we rode up on one that had his hind quarters run over and was dragging himself around on the road with his front paws. I grew up on a farm in West Virginia. One of the first things Daddy taught me was you never let an animal suffer any longer than you have to. So, I dispatched the little guy with the heel of my shoe. Quick if a bit messy. Not an easy thing to do, but necessary. I have heard of people getting game department tickets for killing deer found injured on the road. As a consequence ranchers, who usually have a rifle in their truck, are now afraid to do the right thing and put the animal out of it’s misery. Too bad.
The guys at Big Sky Cyclery in Helena loaned us some tools so we could replace the middle and small chain rings on Zippy. All the pass-climbing has mushroomed the teeth until the sharp burrs pick up the chain and try and stuff it between the chain rings and the frame. This causes loud semi-bad words to come out of my mouth. All these miles and hills are hard on a bicycle. Our bodies seem to be able to withstand almost anything; steel and aluminum are harder, but don’t have our magical ability to repair themselves. We worked on the sidewalk, and answered so many questions from passers-by that it took all afternoon to do a half-hour job. We really don’t mind.
We camped at the headwaters of Missouri, and the mosquitoes were the worst of the trip so far. Lewis and Clark camped here too. I tried to imagine how they could stand the mosquitos before the invention of bug repellent. Bear grease?
Next day into Bozeman, seventy miles, seemed easy. We are both well and feeling strong. Getting muscles on top of muscles and brown as the Native Americans. Feeling good.
On the way to Yellowstone, a few miles out of Bozeman, it began to look bad. Thunderheads crowded the southern sky, boiling out of the mountains toward us. We noticed a few lightning strikes on a far ridge at least five miles away, but figured we were safe.
The rain began. At first a few large drops, widely spaced, erupted on the pavement around us and then began to find home; we’d been sweating, so they felt good, at first.
I could see a curtain of hard rain just down the road ahead of us, and was trying to decide if we should seek shelter under some trees a quarter-mile or so off the road.
I was looking for a break in the fence ahead, when, suddenly my hair prickled and my ears buzzed…
Flash Bang! A blinding blue white light and a massive sound wave slammed us. A huge bolt struck the road dead-center just ahead. I could see the shaft, and it was as big around as me.
The only thing I could think was to ride hard for that spot. Right or not, I guessed that the place where the charge had just been released would be the least likely spot in miles to get another strike.
Claire does not like lightning, and this one really scared her.
“What are you doing?” I yelled over the wind.
Zippy felt like a pogo stick back there. She was pedaling very jerky squares.
“We need speed!” I pleaded.
Boy did I get it. We shot forward, accelerating like we have never done before. I’m surprised we didn’t break the rear tire loose in the wet.
Near ground zero, was an empty log house with a big porch, a display model. We hugged on the porch until Claire stopped shaking and I relaxed a little. A lunch of carrots, cheese and crackers and apples, helped too. Then we explored the cabin inside until the storm moved well past us.
I’m proud of Claire. As frightened as she was, with very good reason, she was game to get back on Zippy and go. We learned something about lightning, and these Rocky Mountain storms; they move faster than we thought. We can’t outrun them all.
Later it cleared and we freelance camped beside the Gallatin River on National Forest land near Big Sky. There were a couple of other tents there. One of them looked like a long-term living arrangement.
The young man I approached, as he fished the Gallatin River just outside Yellowstone National Park, was well groomed and well spoken. He was a tradesman, working on a large project for a wealthy person from the entertainment industry, near the town of Big Sky, Montana. He made what he felt was good money and enjoyed his work.
There was only one thing unusual about him. He was what most people think of as homeless. He lived in a tent on the river. He would like to be coming home after work to a modest house or apartment somewhere, but it just isn’t possible here. If he could find an efficiency apartment, it would cost him $1,000 a month rent, but they’re all taken. This is rural Montana, mind you.
He has the skills to build himself a home, but he can’t afford the $65,000 to $250,000 a lot would cost. If he could get past all that and build even a modest home, he could not afford the inflated taxes on it.
Or he could drive 80 miles each way to work.
So he and his girlfriend and their calico cat, live in a tent on National Forest land.
He explains the problem. Wealthy people, by Montana standards at least, have discovered the state and are moving in large numbers to desirable locations, like Big Sky. They have the money to build large homes, taking advantage of lower lumber and labor costs here. After awhile land costs increase dramatically and closely following that, taxes increase. Soon labor prices increase also, but for tradesmen like him, and service providers like his girlfriend, not nearly fast enough to keep up.
So some people live in tents, or in trailers they haul in and pack together densely on the least desirable land, and pay high space rents.
In stable communities, these skilled and semi-skilled people would be solidly middle class. Here they have become the underclass simply because the newcomers are so wealthy by comparison. In more stable times, the couple could afford to get married and build a home, settle down. Here they cannot.
Most of Montana is not like Big Sky, but the trend is in that direction. Our tradesman does not dislike the newcomers. He says they are nice people and treat him with respect and pay him well. They are simply escaping from places where crime and crowding have left them seeking a better home. Who can fault them that?
Its a dilemma. Young willing workers need to be able to find moderately priced housing, or they might just give up on the system. The rest of us can’t afford that.