Sunday, September 1, 2013

Glacier to Lewistown

The border crossing into the USA was going to be difficult. Many Canadians we spoke to said they didn't go to the USA anymore, simply because of the US border guards. It was going to take forever, we were told, and the US border guards were considered as unreasonable and horrible people. On top of that we had another issue. Technically speaking we had used up our 90 days on our visa waiver. Yet we wanted another 90 days for the southern part of our USA trip. Everything we had read about it, basically said that it was impossible to get. There were no options for an extension and there were no options to get two visa waivers. Again, all the information given on the web by the so called 'experts' turned out to be wrong!

I wonder why I still try to find any information on the web at all. According to the Montana US border guards you can get two visa waivers within one year. The limiting factor being that within 365 days you cannot stay more than 180 days in the USA. We didn't know that, as we had based our info on what we had found on the net… We used another option, on which you won't find any info on the web either, but it does work: dual nationality. As we have two passports, we used one to enter Alaska and another one to enter the lower 48 states of the USA. In theory we could have stayed 360 days this way. However as the NSA seems to 'tap' everything, no doubt they have read this before you do and will have closed this option already :-) Still you can get a second visa waiver as long as you don't stay more than 180 days per year in the USA. According to the US border guard renewing it can be done at any border control, like international airports, actual border crossings and ports.

The border crossing did indeed took a long time… as there was a queue of cars and trucks waiting to cross! Once it was our turn, the process was relatively quick and simple. The guard asked me where I was from, where I was going and if I had been in the USA before. I said no to the last question as I had not been in the USA on this passport. Having learned in Alaska not to come up to them as a family but one bike at a time, I explained that on the other two bikes were my wife and son… upon which he told them to join me…! We filled in the green cards and were explained that we had to leave within 90 days several times, to make sure we'd remember! Wondering what they could possibly do if I overstayed, I asked them. After all, they could only throw me out, right? "If you overstay we'll throw you in jail" the US border guard said, so I asked the obvious question: "how's the food in jail?" They responded somewhat surprised :-)

Our first stop was Whitefish. Months ago we were in Whitehorse now it's Whitefish maybe we'll reach WhitePelican one day too. Whitefish seemed friendly enough, so we decided to camp there before going to Glacier the next day. The campsite had only one spot left. How lucky we were… or were we? Nice spot, right at the lake, no traffic noise and only neighbours on one side and a steep mountain on the other. We couldn't believe our luck! But, there was a big but… at 8 pm we discovered that the beautiful tree covered mountain next to our campspot also held a major railway line… Trains thundered along with 10 minute intervals… and all night long. The tracks weren't even 7 metres away from us and right above us. A derailment would have had them crashing upon our tent, and they carried all sorts of nasty chemicals too… To top it off, a bit further on was a party going of some sort. Loud music filled the gaps between the raging trains. At 3 am we heard a loud argument, followed by a gunshot, more arguments, followed by 3 more gunshots and then an eery silence… Welcome to the USA, we solve issues according to the law of Winchester here…!

In the past I had liked the railways. The more trains, the less trucks and congestion I always thought. Canada Rail changed that and now we had found that US Rail is just as bad. Apparently I had looked at the railways through rose tinted glasses, glasses that were by now well and truly shattered by the absurd amount of noise railways make. Maybe, just maybe, it's about time railways become bound by noise and pollution requirements as well?

The ride from Whitefish to Glacier is through a rather densely populated area where everyone seemed to be in a hurry. Big pickup trucks roared past, scantily clad girls on the back of shiny Harley Davidsons roared past and trucks and busses roared past too. In-between all these shiny expensive vehicles were 3 decidedly scruffy and weary looking motorcyclists that didn't fit in this picture at all. One of the many Harley-pillion-girls was taking photos with her smartphone as they drove past at 70 mph… I guess those pictures will have some serious motion 'blur' automatically build-in.

We stopped just outside of Glacier National Park for lunch. Somewhere along the line Jeanette had been bitten by a 'Yellow Jacket', some kind of wasp with a yellow raincoat I presume. Her cheek had swollen to the point where she looked like a hamster, a hamster with a helmet :-) She was advised by another motorcyclist to go to a doctor for an injection of steroids…?!? It brought images of Soviet weightlifters to mind, hmmm. I'd rather see her as a hamster with a helmet! Glacier National Park has a couple of campgrounds, and in good US National Park tradition they are fully booked! We are in luck though, someone had just left and we thus had the last spot in the park! We assumed there would be plenty of room the day after, when everyone went back to work again, but were wrong. As early as 7 am in the morning people were driving around over all the National Park campgrounds hoping for a vacant spot… Madness, utter madness but at the same time very poor management by National Parks which resulted in this situation. When we were in the US 14 years ago, it was already virtually impossible to get a campsite and nothing seems to have improved. US National Parks claims that it's their way to reduce traffic, which is somewhat odd as the National Parks were supposed to be for the people, not just part of the people.

We decided to book an extra night, now that we had a spot, and did a daytrip up and down through Glacier. The road through Glacier NP has several names, depending on which map you look. 'Going to the Sun Road' seems the most appropriate one as it's a steep climb up. The actual climb is a bit further down the road, but as soon as we left the campground the spectacular views started rolling in! Getting those landscapes on your camera isn't always easy though… Like this morning when virtually the whole river I'm trying to photograph is 'blocked' by a woman the size of a hippo. Yes I know, I shouldn't write this… but she really is the size of a fully grown hippo. It's too big to simply remove with Photoshop. Besides, I didn't really wanted to look at her again, full screen, on my computer! When she finally decided to get out of my picture, the earth started shaking. I only wish I had filmed it! Each step sounded like a hefty pile driver on full steam and resulted in every lump of fat bunching up and down in her massive, tent size, T-shirt. How did she even got into this park, I wondered, there is a width limit after all… The moment she's finally gone, she's instantly replaced with a bean-pole coming from the other side in the brightest pink shirt ever made…

The 'Going to the sun road' is truly amazing. We have seen so many wonderful landscapes that it's hard to imagine we could find something new, but in Glacier NP we did! It's a 25 mph road all the way up. The only thing to remember, especially on a motorcycle, is to make sure you have plenty of room between yourself and that big crawling RV in front of you! While we think 25 mph is somewhat slow, the RV in front of you won't have any hope at all in getting anywhere near that speed.

Why people want to do this road in an RV at all is beyond me, the smell of burned brakes and the terrified 'eye-popping' looks behind the windscreens give me the impression it's not something they seem to enjoy. We enjoy it to the full! A motorcycle is the best way to see this landscape, the best way to see any landscape! And this one is very high on my list of the most beautiful landscapes on earth. The other advantage is being able to stop everywhere for photos as most of the car parks are full. Close to the top is a group of disfigured goats. According to the brochure they seem to be typical for this area, which sounds about right as they look like a goat that fell down a cliff and landed on it's head…! The neck has a big lump, like a crumple zone and the head has definitely hit a rock too many as well. For those that feel uncomfortable riding along a steep cliff road with a couple of thousand metres drop on one side, there are buses to get around in too. Buses made in 1936, completely renovated, full size open top and now running on natural gas.

At the top is a visitor centre. They are clearly not setup to handle the volume of visitors they get, and remember we were well outside the school holidays now… Instead of expanding the parking area they employed a couple of parking-bouncers…! Luckily they have motorcycle parking only spots! Did I say a motorcycle is the best way to get around in Glacier National Park? Of course you have the best view possible, parking is not an issue, no overheated brakes, just fun and more fun!

At the end of the road I have also changed my opinion on National Parks camping. Because it's such a mess, we had decided to leave the tents on the spot we were and therefore we had to ride the same road again! :-)

The next day we were awoken by he sound of slamming doors… slamming toilet doors! Why do people have to do their wee so ridiculously early in the morning... and slam the doors about 8 times per session? Aaaargh!!!! What happened to waking up with the birds? 
The campground madness from yesterday also continued. While we're still having breakfast, cars drive by continuously looking for camping spots, stopping at each site and inspecting the tags. Is that good for the National Parks? Our camping site has already been scooped up by desperate campers before we had our plates on the table.
We rode back up the mountain again. While riding and looking at the landscape around me, I was wondering how to describe this. It's the second time I was riding this road and I still could't find the words for it. After giving my brain a hard time for 10 minutes, I decided to give up and let the photos do the 'talking'. The people that made this road have done an amazing job. They've even thought about parking areas and the road itself is just heaven for a motorcyclist. Jeanette thinks it's one of the best roads this trip. I don't know, Valdez was pretty impressive too, Denali as well, the Dalton has it's remoteness, the IceFields in Jasper… we have seen so many incredible places that it's hard to compare. After the top of the pass starts a new part for us, as this is where we turned around yesterday. It's another beautiful and impressive part of our trip. A valley well worth seeing.

At the end of Glacier National park is a small town, 'petrol and a lodge' style. I don't like it much but a park ranger we met told us they sell the best burgers and apple pie with cream in the area, which doesn't mean much as it's the only town for miles. 10 Minutes later we wondered if we were in the right town and if there might be another one after all, as there is no burger place and no apple pie there… It's full of Harley Davidson types in leather pants with a hole in the back… They call them 'chaps'. It's not something we are used to in Europe or Australia and we wonder what the hole in the back is for… According to the dictionary, the word 'chap' means: 'skin becoming cracked, rough, or sore, typically through exposure to cold weather. Which is understandable with pants that have such big holes in it I guess, but still didn't explain why they have the holes. According to the same dictionary it can also be: a friendly form of address between men and boys… Hmmm. When I find myself in the toilet, somewhat later, surrounded by those Village People types in their leather seat-less pants, I'm beginning to feel somewhat uncomfortable… :-)

Montana surprised me by having desert like landscapes as well. As soon as we headed east we entered Indian territory. Desolate and dusty landscapes inhabited by the Blackfoot Indians. We were heading for Lewistown to visit a friend. He is with the Wildlife Refuge in Lewistown and looking around us we wondered if he would be home or fighting fires as there were some huge fires burning towards the west of the state. The vastness of the landscape we were going through is impressive. This isn't called Big Sky country for nothing! At a little grocery shop, in a town where 99 percent of the people are Native Americans, we collected our digital mail. The Nomada panniers we had ordered when we were in Jasper, were already in New York we read. That was good news, the race was on! Who was going to be in Lewistown first; the panniers or us? More good news came from JT Sprockets, who had managed to find us a much needed sprocket set for Mike's Yamaha!

Later that same day, in Choteau, we read that the panniers were already in Montana… it seemed we were losing this race! From Great Falls to Lewistown is 170 km of dead straight road. Not much to see, not much to do. Mike's chain is rattling so loud that I can hear it while riding behind him. It was bouncing and swerving over the sprockets, the o-rings had departed us in Canada already and the sprockets looked more like saw blades. It was the result of not being able to get the sprockets for it anywhere in Canada. The closer we got to Lewistown, the more I was wondering what I'll find there. After all, we knew nothing about Mike Granger.

We only met him once, close to the Alaskan border, and talked for 10 minutes… that was it. Yet the plan was to service 3 bikes there, fabricate a pannier rack, replace tyres, replace chains and sprockets and strengthen the rear carriers. Maybe he didn't have a shed, no tools and no space… He had told us we could use the welder at the Wildlife Refuge, but who knows it was one of those Chinese cheapies?

Mike asked us to meet him at work and we followed him to his home outside Lewistown. We turned in a gravel road, 'that'll be fun on a sports bike!' I thought, just at the moment on which Mike's Buell started wagging his tail like a young puppy. There are a few houses scattered along the road and we were heading for the biggest one. Only an hour or so ago I wondered if Mike had a shed, I needn't have worried he has a triple garage and in it a toolbox the size of my last shed! To make it even better the panniers had arrived too! No need to setup the tents as we had our own rooms, bathroom… Was I dreaming? That night we slept in a bed again for the first time in over 3 months!