I entered Wisdom at 4:30 p.m. A colorful road sign welcomed me to this small, rural, old western community: “Welcome to Wisdom & The Big Hole Valley—Land of 10,000 Haystacks.” A roadside marker described the area, which was first settled in the 1880s but was traversed by Lewis and Clark decades before.
Sacajawea, the Shoshone guide, had recognized the area she had traveled during her childhood and informed Clark that it was the great resort of the Shoshones.40 Clark confirmed the “wisdom” of the Shoshone tradition and further christened the basin Hotspring Valley, naming it for a hot spring near present-day Jackson, my home for the night. The name Hotspring Valley was eventually changed to Wisdom, based on the Wisdom River that passes through town (now known as the Big Hole River).41
Three hours of daylight remained when I entered Wisdom. My determination to exceed 100 miles a day influenced my decision to swing south on State Route 278 and push 18 more miles to Jackson, Montana. I knew of the challenging headwinds between Wisdom and Jackson in the Big Hole Valley and next to Big Hole River. Even with the advanced knowledge and time to prepare, the two-and-a-half-hour ride was trying, one of the most grueling stretches of the entire 4,200-mile journey. I lowered my head, gripped the handlebars, and powered through relentless headwinds.
Next to the highway, white, cone-shaped, black-tipped structures protruded a couple of feet out of the ground. I thought I’d stumbled upon missile silos. But actually, the cones (or beacons) mark runways for pilots who fly in the Western Montana backcountry. The runway surface made from clumped grass—not gravel, sand, or dirt—makes up most airstrips in the bush.
A storm was approaching. I could see dark, angry clouds slowly filling the sky. It was a race against time trying to reach Jackson before the skies opened. Three miles from town, a blue pickup truck going north on State Route 278 toward Wisdom decelerated from 60 miles per hour to a dead stop in the opposite lane of the two-lane highway. The driver, a man, leaned his head out of the window and asked if I planned to continue or stop in Jackson. I told him I hadn’t decided yet but most likely would stop. He said, “If you stop, you can stay at my hotel. It’s immediately on the right side when you enter Jackson.” It was an invitation I wasn’t expecting and one I couldn’t ignore.
The Bunkhouse Hotel, one of the few buildings in this sleepy getaway town of Jackson (population 38), was unlocked when I arrived at 7:00 p.m. No one greeted me, nor was anybody working to collect money—the honor system on full display. I chose a private room with a cozy bed. A “Welcome Cyclists! Ice Cold Budweiser Here!” sign in front was the only clue I hadn’t entered a time machine to the mid-1800s. The man who stopped me on the highway catered to cross-country cyclists. After settling into my room, I walked 100 feet to the mercantile next to the hotel. The owner, Maria, had recently renovated the building. She cooked a large cheese pizza and joined me outside the hotel for a much-appreciated conversation. The storm reached Jackson at 7:30 p.m., dumping buckets of rain for an hour straight. I watched the mean-looking clouds skirt through town with the determination of Olympic sprinters. What a brilliant decision to stop in Jackson, I thought, as I was now sheltered rather than exposed to wind, rain, and darkness on State Route 278 in the middle of Montana.
Nobody was in the lobby (or anywhere else in town) when I left the hotel at 7:18 a.m. I signed the hotel logbook, scribbled my credit card number on a piece of paper, and wrote the owners, Rick and Tammy, a thank-you note.
They left me a cordial note as well. “Hi, Larry, thanks for staying with us here at the Bunkhouse. Sorry, we couldn’t check you in and show you around like we always do, but our meeting took longer, and you already went to bed.” The mercantile (circa 1889), the Hot Springs Lodge, and the Bunkhouse Hotel made up all of Jackson.
The Big Hole Valley is one of the state’s most popular recreation attractions, making a name for itself as a winter sports destination. People come all the way from Norway and Sweden to compete in the annual Montana Snowkite Rodeo, the Northwest’s premier snowkiting competition.42 (Snowkiting is an extreme sport in the same category as ultradistance bike racing, combining snowboarding and kitesurfing.)
Big sky, big mountains, big trucks, big trouser belts, and big ranches go hand in hand with many tiny Montana towns—with a lot of nothing in between. Maria shared that the nearest Walmart or Costco is a two- to three-hour drive. Once a month, several families meet for a day trip to buy nonperishable goods. Yes, a unique way of life. My brief stay in Jackson was one of the top 10 most treasured places I rode through on my race across America.
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