Riding in Montana

About Montana

The place

Okay, first thing: it’s big!

It’s roughly 500 miles wide and 300 miles deep – 145,000 square miles. It is the fourth largest state in the Union but only five other states have fewer people, which yields a very, very low 6.5-people-per-square-mile ratio. That also yields a very low car-per-mile ratio on our roadways. We like it like this. Just 990,000 souls make Montana their home. We have several counties larger than several states, and a couple of those counties have fewer than 1,000 people. It’s true, we have three times more cows than people.

Most of the population, say two-thirds, is in the mountainous western one-third of the state. As the west end population grows, the rural and agricultural east end declines.

We only have a few cities over 10,000 population: Billings at about 105,000, Missoula at 71,000, Great Falls at 59,000, Bozeman at 39,000, Butte at 32,000, Helena at 30,000 and Kalispell at 22,000. All have ample amenities and accommodations, including accessible air hubs. Because towns are so widely dispersed, you may be surprised at the accommodations even our smallest villages offer.

Montana is a place of extremes. The eastern two-thirds is big prairie and rich farmland, rolling hills of good grass pasture, and rugged badlands, underneath which lies vast stores of coal and crude oil. And the sky is really, really big! The western third is mountain foothills, productive river valleys and, well, mountains with plentiful timber and minerals and recreation opportunities. The highest peak is just under 13,000 feet above sea level. Ironically, the state’s lowest elevation is in the mountainous northwest corner at 1,800 feet.

The weather

The lowest temperature in the lower 48 states was recorded at Montana’s Rogers Pass – minus 70 degrees – and the highest in Montana was 117 degrees at Glendive and Medicine Lake. That yields an incredible temperature spread of 187 degrees! The greatest recorded temperature change in 24 hours was on January 15, 1972, in Loma, Montana. The temperature rose from -56F degrees to 49F!

And winds will gust over 100 miles per hour with 80 mph winds not uncommon.

Average precipitation runs between 11 and 15 inches per year, quite arid overall, but extremes are seen in Belfry at just 6.5 inches average, and 41 inches at Many Glacier. The town of Circle in eastern Montana holds the record at 11.5 inches of rain in 24 hours. You may experience violent thunderstorms that drop buckets of rain and bushels of hail, but they are usually brief.

Snow in July or August is uncommon but not unheard of. Snowpack may exceed 300 inches (25 feet) as it does on average at King’s Hill at around 7,000 feet, and some cities will see 50 inches in a season. Shonkin saw 48 inches of snow in 24 hours, the state record. Cook City once saw 418 inches (35 feet) of snow in one season.
It all says a lot about needing to be prepared for weather extremes.

The history, economy, people

Montana has seven Indian reservations that are home to the proud Blackfeet, Crow, Salish, Kootenai, Pend d’ Oreille, Assiniboine, Gros Ventre, Chippewa, Cree and Northern Cheyenne.

Some white trappers and traders were in the area well before the Corps of Discovery came and went in 1804-1806, led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. In 1858 gold was discovered on Gold Creek (of course) and the flood was on. The Bozeman trail was opened in 1863 and the first cattle herds came in 1866 as did the first telegraph. The loggers, sodbusters and merchants weren’t far behind, aided by railroads that were linked in 1881.

The state’s history and economy can be characterized by a long, and still occurring, series of booms and busts. A 10-year development and construction boom largely went bust in 2009 and shows no sign of recovery at this writing in late 2010. Montanans know to lay something aside in good times because hard times are sure to come.

In this rugged, harsh and unforgiving country, people grow to be tough and hard working; resilient, self-reliant and independent; perhaps reticent at times but gregarious and outgoing at others.

They tend to trust other folks and a handshake still means a lot here, and as much as a person’s word. They are generous and helpful; they still care about one another; neighborliness is the norm.
Montana motorcycle routes and roads

About the Roads

A lack of traffic

Montana is one of those rural states that receives more from the Federal Government than residents contribute – far more (thank you, urban states). A lot of those federal dollars arrive in the form of ag subsidies, but a sizeable chunk is dedicated to highway construction and maintenance, as well.

Highway money began to really flow in the 1980s. Many secondary highways that had needed major improvement for decades were tackled. Even the Interstates were finally finished in the 1980s.

And things have been steadily improving since. In fact, in the fall of 2010 an outfit that rates highway systems said Montana’s is second best in the nation. I’ve personally ridden about 90 percent of the highways in the state in the last few years and I can tell you the roads are fine.

Generally you will find Montana’s highways are smooth and safe, with the exception of a persistently high rate of DUI-related accidents and injury.

The surfaces

Montana’s roadways are generally in excellent condition. Nevertheless, with our extreme weather, surfaces can crumble quite suddenly and unexpectedly, especially after the first thaw. Always look well ahead for pavement problems.

Sand may be present on roadways, especially hazardous in turns. This may be the result of highway department sanding operations after snow or ice forms, or it may be washing off nearby hillsides and mountains.

When riding along steep terrain with cliffs at the roadside, be watching for rocks on the road. We’ve seen them from billiard ball size to the size of a refrigerator.

It seems a lot of drivers in Montana are hauling loads. In the west, those gathering firewood frequently lose a few blocks. In the east, we’ve seen where big hay bales, perhaps a half-ton, have let loose from the load. We’ve also seen sugar beets, from five to 20 pounds, falling from trucks after harvest has begun (September).

We see the evidence of the occasional diesel or cooling fluid spills, both highly anathema to traction.

Now here’s another surface hazard that is entirely unnecessary and really pisses me off: soupy manure drained onto the surface from livestock hauling trailers. I’m sure it’s illegal but it happens all the time. Watch for it, avoid it. If you see it happening, report it!

The Riding

It’s mostly about superb riding and solitude

Other states and Canadian Provinces can rightfully claim they have more twisty roads, or higher mountain passes, maybe even superior scenery. I doubt they can couple those claims to traffic volumes as low as Montana’s (actually, I know for a fact they can’t).

I’ve found over the years that any piece of highway – even straight and flat – is a pleasure to ride. . . if there’s little traffic. Here, we often get all the best attributes of superb riding, but especially remoteness and solitude.Montana motorcycle routes and roads are often low on traffic and high on scenery

Yes, traffic volumes balloon considerably between school-out and school-in. It also seems the vehicles are bigger and the drivers less considerate during those times. Fortunately, those types largely favor the quick, direct route so they cleave to the four-lane.

We now favor riding a lot more in the spring and fall seasons. In 2010 we did our first day-ride in the first week of March (22 degrees in the morning but mid-50s by early afternoon) and our last ride the first week of November (32 degrees at the start and mid-60s at the warmest; it snowed two days later). True, in the “shoulder seasons” the days are shorter and the miles fewer, but sometimes that’s nice – sleep in and stop early. It’s simply about having the highways to ourselves.

There are anomalous days in November, December, January and February, too, where folks will roll out the cruiser and hit the street and highways, but they are darned few. Summer riding is fine, too, if it’s not too hot to be pleasant, which it sometimes is.

More attention to the weather is required, of course, during spring and fall, and a wide variety of apparel suited to a wide variety of conditions is necessary. We are often heavily layered at departure, then roasting and stripping it off at lunch, then getting chilled before calling it a day.

Still, we all know, any day of riding is better than any day of working …

The Hazards

Other drivers

My observation is that most Montana drivers are skilled and considerate, but I’ve also observed a decline with the advent of cell phones yakkers and texters, and perhaps with big-city immigrants who have brought their hurried and offensive driving habits with them.

Montana also has a drinking culture that results in high rates of DUI charges and convictions as well as DUI-related accidents, injuries and fatalities. Yes, we like to drink, but we’re still learning to not drive after a limit.

As always, assume every driver on the road is willfully trying to kill you, and your chances of survival will improve.

The wildlife

Montana, with its wide open spaces and plenty of habitat, hosts wonderful populations of every kind of wildlife, from big four-legged ruminants that exceed 1,500 pounds and stand seven feet tall, to all kinds of wild felines, canines, rodents, fish and fowl.

In our view, deer are the worst hazard facing riders. Whitetails and muleys are present in large numbers. Elk, moose and antelope are also factors.

Even bears present a hazard to riders. We once had a yearling cub chase us as we motored slowly in Glacier Park, and my sister in her station wagon hit a bear and another bear ran into her.

I’ve hit birds six or seven times, though none bigger than a pound. There are turkeys, geese, cranes, ducks, pheasants, grouse, partridge, eagles, hawks and more that could conceivably snap a windscreen or take a rider off his/her machine.

It helps to be able to recognize likely habitat – good cover, feed and water – and ride accordingly. Some terrain has natural game funnel features that riders can recognize, too, as likely crossings. The highway department posts game crossing signs where there has been a history of traveler and game collisions, so pay attention to the warnings.

The elements

Stay on top of forecasts, long- and short-range. The weather in this big, diverse state can be extremely volatile. Bring gear suited for all types of weather.

Early and late season (March-May and Sept.-Nov.) can see literally any kind of weather, from 80 degrees to sub-freezing blizzards. Early in the day riders should be wary of frost or ice in sections, especially shaded patches in canyons.

Mid-summer (June-August) can also be cold and wet anytime, but broiling hot as well. Hydration is always important to your good health and riding safety. Armored mesh apparel might help deal with heat while still affording some protection.

From May into October insects are a factor. Have plenty of bug remover for the bike and face shield. Bees and wasps may ram stingers into exposed skin if you hit them. I pack Clariton antihistamine because stinging/biting bugs cause bad reactions for me. Be aware of drowsiness with some antihistamines.

The laws

Montana traffic laws are fairly typical for the U.S. with perhaps a minor exception: speed violations.

We are allowed to travel at 75 mph night and day on the Interstates; trucks at 65. Most secondaries are posted at 70 mph and 65 at night, unless there are special circumstances necessitating further reduced limits.

We can live with these limits, especially given the law: any speed 10 miles an hour or less over the posted speed limit can result in a speeding ticket, but it is no-points and $20, payable on the spot. We like that policy and support its rationale. Of course, 11 mph over and you’ll get a hefty fine along with penalty points.

Prior to 2010, patrolpersons wouldn’t bother to stop and write the $20 tickets. Today, however, they are stopping 10 mph-and-under speeders and issuing warnings. They are probably also checking for indications of other violations such as intoxication.

We also notice the Montana Highway Patrol now seems to be using pack hunting tactics: see one and you’re likely to see several more in the next 20 miles.

Regardless, we have found the Montana Highway Patrol, almost without exception, to be decent and reasonable and friendly. I’ve found law enforcement officers of all types – city, county, state – seem to respect more, and are perhaps more lenient toward, the riders wearing full gear aboard full touring rigs. I’ve been warned when guilty more than I’ve been written.

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