The North Dakota Gap
Garrison, ND to Williston, ND via Minot, ND
August 18 - 21, 2012
The Oil Boom has changed many aspects of northwest North Dakota. It has brought a crush of people, overwhelmed the existing infrastructure, made housing scare and expensive, and raised prices for everything. But for the most park...the air is still clear and the countryside is still sublime.
I'd booked my flights into Minot months before my departure. I only learned of the impacts of the boom a week before my departure - when I started making the final arrangements for my trip. First, I tried to find a place to stay in Williston, ND, where I planned to end my ride, ship my bike back to Washington, D.C., and a head on to Glacier National Park, Missoula, MT, and the Salmon River. (More on all this later.)
I thought I'd sleep in the city park as I did in 2003, a courtesy usually extended to all through-cyclists on the Lewis and Clark Trail. NO MORE CAMPING in Williston City Park; not for through-bikers; not for anybody. Too much trash, too many RVs, and too much wear and tear from the "boomers". The Chamber of Commerce gave me the names and phone numbers of the "bike friendly" residents who welcomed bikers into their back yards. Two called back, said they had recently moved away from Williston, and wished me luck. All private campgrounds and RV parks were fully booked.
Next, I try to find a hotel room. All sold out per the travel websites. I start calling hotels - no vacancy, all full, no rooms. On my third day of calling, I telephoned the worst, most rickety sounding hotel on the list -- the El Rancho Motel -- figuring they might have a room. They are booked through Christmas, "but you might try the Hampton Inn, it just opened last week, and most folks don't know it is open yet." Bingo. I got a room for one night for $360. WOW.
Next I discover there are no bicycle shops left in Williston. After many calls, I finally get a call back - from a bike shop owner in Bismark, ND. He had to close his store in Williston because his rent quadrupled. Plan B - take the bike on the train to Whitefish, MT and ship it back home from there.
Most alarming: I check the Adventure Cycling Association website to get updates for the original bike route they mapped for 2004-2006. I find two different routes referenced, one heading north and west of Minot (a temporary route, later abandoned), and a newer preferred route that runs west from Bismark, ND, via Dickenson, ND and Glendive, MT to Circle, MT -- 60 to 90 miles south of the original bike route and 40 to 60 miles south of the Missouri River. The new route joins back up with the original route at Flowing Wells, MT where Montana Route 200 and Route 24 intersect. ARRGGH. I remember Flowing Wells, a small highway rest area with a water fountain, a little shade, and a picnic table, because it marked the end of a 60 miles stretch of road south from Fort Peck with no water and no services. The North Dakota Department of Transportation website specifically recommends against bicycling the original Lewis and Clark bike route which hugs the north side of the Missouri River to Williston. I brace for the un-enjoyable and gritty work of filling in the North Dakota Gap.
I depart from Washington National and land in Minot, North Dakota about 1 PM. I re-assemble my bike, repack my panniers and gear, and head south to downtown Minot and re-visit the one wet cold night Richard S. and I spent here when my first attempt to bike across North Dakota was cut short by snow.
North Dakota Gothic
At 3pm I head south out of Minot; it's 75 degrees, partly cloudy. I bike 40 miles down Route 83 surrounded by buttery brown wheat fields and pothole lakes. There are many more wind turbines than in 2006. Traffic is light; the road is good; the first 22 miles are a gentle slow climb; the last 25 miles a gentle downhill. Tailwind! A rare and a good omen.
I stop at Six Mile Corner (aka Max or Garrison), where US Rte 83 and ND Rte 1804 meet. In 2006, Richard S. and I grabbed drinks at the
old gas station, now closed, and found a large pile of grain being stored outdoors because
the granary silos were full. The granary has since been expanded; no outdoor storage now.
We turned north here in 2003 to Minot from our planned route west to Williston to avoid the forecasted snowstorm.
I have dinner, bike west on Rte 1804 for 5 miles to Garrison proper, and head south, arriving
at Fort Stevens State Park about 8pm. I set up my tent, get cleaned up, and watch the sun set about 9pm.
Fort Stevens Park is nestled up against a bay that is now part of Lake Sakakawea, the Missouri River backed
up behind Garrison Dam.
51 miles today. 51 miles total.
Back on Rte 1804
I'm up early, and leave camp (and my bifocals) at 7am. Grab breakfast in Garrison and am on the road by 8am. It is perfect riding weather, 55 degrees and sunny, with a light wind from the south east (tailwind!). The traffic is light, the terrain is flat. While there is a nice 18 inch shoulder between the white line and the edge of pavement along this stretch, the 6 inch rumble strips, ground out to the right of the white line makes it safer to ride to the left of the white line - in the traffic lane. Who are the traffic engineers trying to protect??
I am making good time and I find North Dakota still a mix of big blue sky and large yellow brown fields.
I start a riff on all the different words I can think of to describe the colors of the wheat fields I see. Honey, toast, cardboard, coffee, cinnamon, cardamon, cream, sunshine...
I start writing the words to a sad country song, "I Like to Follow the Old Roads", to the rhythm
of the bearings in my front wheel clicking and grinding(!) Hmm. I maintain a fast but easy pace
covering the first 55 miles.
Burning off natural gas
I see my first oil rig just south of Parshall, where I stop to grab lunch at a small burger stand. I chat with four locals, as they order and eat their lunch in the shade on an adjacent picnic table. One takes a shine to me, but it is not to be. All four hop in their car and head back to work. The two of us exchange final goodbye glances and smiles.
North Dakota Sunflowers
The farmland and countryside are just as beautiful as they ever
were. Most views are still un-marred.
Next stop, New Town, 15 miles west. Here we go. Turning west on Rte 23 I hit my
first heavy truck traffic
and my first road construction. I feel safer riding down the middle of the road, though it is noisy.
I can't remember a lot about the countryside, but I survive, and pull into New Town
for a long slow early dinner and some quiet. 75 miles down. The weather is still good, sunny and in the
I set off again, just after the sun settles past the hot part of the day. I don't know how far I can get or where I will sleep, but believe that a Sunday evening will have less truck traffic than a Monday morning. There is a moderate amount of truck traffic, but not a continuous line, and almost every truck driver thoughtfully pulls into the other lane, when possilbe, to pass.
Quiet Dakota Sunset
Just after sunset, while there is still a little light left, I enter Williams County and see a sign: "Campground - 3 miles". Smile of relief. Thankful of good karma. Off down a dirt road I go toward the Missouri River. In some places the gravel is pretty thick and I do an excellent skid and face/bike plant. Ouch. I pick myself up, brush off the rocks stuck in my leg, swat off the dust, turn the brake handle back to its proper position, and start again.
I end up at a little grass field next to Lake Sakakawea/the Missouri River and overlooking Little Beaver Bay (a Lewis and Clark campsite). I set up my tent and set down for the night.
The maps say I've covered 110 miles today. If so, this is my longest ride so far
on my cross country trek. I'm tired but proud! It doesn't feel like 110 miles, but
that's what good paving, lots of relatively flat road,
a favorable wind, a reasonable pace, and beautiful scenery can do.
110 miles today. 161 miles total.
I slept well last night, am up by 7am and heading out by 8 am. There is a chill
in the air and
I only have 40 miles left before Williston. It is hillier than yesterday. There is much
less truck traffic this morning. About 10 miles of road has no shoulder, about 10 miles has good
shoulder, and the rest is mixed. I cross crop lands, rolling pastures, and badlands, but it
is all pretty. I arrive in downtown Williston at noon. I check into my $360 a night hotel
(OK it is a new, and fresh, and nice high-rise Hampton Inn). I shower, do laundry, nap, and start
planning and packing for the Amtrak train from Williston to Whitefish, MT and Glacier National Park.
I wander down to happy hour in the lobby and meet a lot of oil boomers working in the Balkan Shield. It is a clean cut group that reminds me of any hotel lobby filled with travelling businessmen after a long day at work. I bike downtown to a local BBQ place (20 plus dollars for a BBQ sandwich, a pill-cup-sized container of beans and another of slaw). While there are lots of new hotels and Applebee's type restaurants on the bypass, Williston, inside the bypass, still looks the same.
Despite my pre-departure fears, the trip turned out great. I got lucky with the truck traffic and had fine weather and an easy route.
40 miles today, 201 miles total.
The train is due to leave at 11am. The station opens at 10am. I purchased my packing supplies at the 24 hour gun and gas store, which conveniently offers Tasers for sale at the check out counter as an "impulse" item. I have an hour to dis-assemble and box my bike and organize my panniers.
This is what I learn talking with folks in the line waiting for the station to open. Beginning salary at McDonalds: $16 an hour. You can always get a job cleaning trailers at the man camps for $18 an hour. Williston has the richest homeless population in the country. The Wal-Mart parking lot is full at night with RVs - completely full. The Wal-Mart shelves are picked over by 10am each day. There are good boomers and not so good boomers. One hung-over guy was trying to figure out if he wanted to head east or west on the train; his entire crew showed up at a rig for work on Monday drunk and was fired. Get your foot in the door, any door, work hard, don't show up drunk and you will move up fast and get paid well. Williston had its first rape last year. Folks have come from many places and over great distances to just get a job and earn a living (after the 2007 bust). The boom is good news for them. The locals, though, have had their world turned upside down; many can no longer afford to live here and reluctantly leave. I hope that the state is piping out some revenue from the oil boom and investing it for its future.
I board the Amtrak train and head west across the high plains of Montana. The train is crowded with boomers, nice friendly boomers, going home to visit friends, girlfriends, wives or family. I brought a book along, thinking I could alternately read and look out over the plains on the 9 hour trip across Montana to Whitefish. I only read six pages. They are a affable lot, these boomers travelling on the train. I ask lots of questions about the boom and how they came to be a part of it.
The train is running a little late, so, after a lyric ride across the plains, we arrive at East Glacier just after sunset. We arrive at Whitefish, MT after dark.
Lewis and Clark - Outbound 1805
On April 7, 1805 Lewis and Clark sent one team of men from Fort Mandan, down the Missouri River back to civilization. The men carried dispatches, letters to friends and family, field notes and observations, and various collected items for President Jefferson. Most of the collected items ended up at the American Philosopical Society in Philadelphia. That same day, the bulk of the expedition headed north up the river. Lewis notes that they are now entering country unknown even to the intrepid fur trappers. On April 8th, the expedition camped just below what is now Garrison Dam. On April 13th they passed the Little Missouri River (opposite where Rte 1804 turns north, between Garrison/White Shield and Raub/Parshall). They travel through countryside that is filled with herds of "buffaloe Elk deer et Antelopes." Beaver are a common sight, and, as always, there are lots of mosquitos. The troop camps on the river, near Little Muddy Creek and present day Williston, on April 22, 1805. On April 25, 1804 they pass the junction of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers.
Lewis and Clark - Homebound 1806
Heading back in east in 1806, Lewis and Clark split up at Traveler's Rest (just south and west of Missoula, Mt). With Lewis exploring a more direct path back to the Missouri near Great Falls, and Clark exploring the Yellowstone River. They planned to meet at the junction of the Missouri and the Yellowstone. On August 7, 1806, after covering 83 miles,"at 4pm" Captain Lewis" arrived at the entrance of the Yellowstone River...and found Capt. Clark had been encamped at this place... and from appearances had left it about 7 or 8 days." They found a scap of paper left by Clark stuck on a pole with Lewis's name on it. The also found a tattered note under an elk horn in camp indicating that Clark had moved downstream because game was scarce and "muquestoes" bad. It wasn't until August 12, 1806 that Lewis caught up with Clark at Reunion Bay (southwest of New Town). They continued down river and camped at a site near the junction of the western side of Van Hook Arm and Lake Sakakawea. On August 13, 1806, Lewis and Clark traveled on, and camped on what was then the river bank just south of Fort Steven's State Park.
Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park
I am delighted to have two full days at Glacier National Park, because I covered
the North Dakota Gap faster than I thought. In a rental car, with my bike, I drive from Whitefish to
Glacier, get a back country permit at Apgar to assure a place to camp, and parked at the
Avalanche Creek trailhead. I unload my bike and pedal up the Going to the
Sun Road to Logan Pass.
Because they are rebuilding the Going to the Sun Road, cars are stopped for up to 90 minutes. They
let bikes pass through, though, so I had the entire lane most of the 16 miles up to Logan Pass
to myself (and an occasional bobcat loader or stone cutter or worker digging a trench.)
Logan Pass, Glacier National Park
I stayed up at Logan Pass all day, and roared back to Avalanche Creek campground at the end of the day - with barely a hint
of traffic of the day. The weather was perfect.
St. Mary's Lake
The next day, I catch one of the early shuttle buses up to Logan Pass. I glide down to St.
Mary's Lake and push on to the eastern entrance of Glacier National Park. Another beautiful day
with almost no traffic. I meet a guy in East Glacier who has an 8 by 6 inch map of the US.
All he needs is a general orientation of where he is going, he says. I ride back up the
Going to the Sun Road to Logan Pass (I was getting a little tired towards the top), and stand tall
in my pedal as I sail back down to Avalanche and continue on to Apgar.
32 Miles Wednesday, 70 miles Thursday, 102 miles total.
Middle Salmon River Trip
What better way to end a vacation than meeting old friends in Missoula,MT and starting another vacation paddling down the Middle Salmon River. Missoula and the Salmon River are always unbelievably and indescribably good. SeeSalmon River Trip 2012.