My First Brigade - 3 Ranges in Cowboy Country
When you hold an open call to complete strangers to come and join you on multi-day trips in remote places around the world for a Search Brigade you never know what you are going to get. Through the years we have been fortunate to attract awesome people and Tom Orton is no exception. He comes by way of Melbourne Australia and he exemplifies that Aussie spirit in every way. He was great company and every mile spent with him was a joy. His tale of riding his first Brigade is below:
This is the story of my first real bike packing trip. This piece has been sitting half-written on my computer for a while and sitting here in lockdown Melbourne, Australia, unable to venture beyond my own suburb to exercise, it seemed like the perfect time to finish it.
It’s 2 years now since the trip and I still remember it very fondly. I had been following the Search and State Search Brigade trips for a couple of years on social media and had always been keen to join a trip. Their trips always seem to have this epic sense of adventure attached, I really connected with the concept of the singular collective experience; you do the trip together, but you each have your own adventure. Leave when you want to in the morning, get to camp whenever you get there; you each ride the same route, but do it your own way. During my time in New York I'd never been able to find the time to attend one of their trips, it was only until my partner and I were planning to leave New York for a 6-month road trip that I was able to finally join one. The trip that I chose, or really the trip that I was able to join, was what Search and State was calling the Seven Summits; a ride through Montana and Wyoming that would take in three different mountain ranges. If you study the course closely, it’s hard to really find seven ‘summits’ but there was still a hell of a lot of climbing. I was fairly (read very) inexperienced at bike packing having only done a long 600km 2-day trip in 2017 where I stayed in motels and packed very light. So taking on a trip like this, 8 days, 1000km, 16,000m climbing, with lots of gravel and some hike-a-bike, it was going to be a big step up for me. I knew I had the fitness for this sort of trip, but I definitely was lacking in the bike packing experience department. I didn’t really let on to Daniel at S&S how much of a step up it was going to be, taking solace in the fact there would probably be others on the trip in a similar situation tome. I was a bit wrong on this account. I arrived into Billings during the late afternoon, on the day before the start of the ride on Saturday morning. Just as I was finishing getting my bike built I got a text from the organizer, Daniel, and went down to meet the group I’d be riding with and head out for dinner. I got to the lobby and met with Daniel and his good friend Brian who was also joining the trip. For those playing along at home, Brian is the lean brooding bearded model you see on the S&S website in the new kit that’s just been released. I asked if there were more people coming down to meet us, or were still flying in, and was informed that there would only be one more person joining us - and that was the route planner and bike packing expert, Joe Cruz. So the group would be 4 of us - Daniel (founder of Search and State and the Search Brigade), his friend Brian (another experienced bike packer), Jose Cruz (route planner with 25 years of experience bike packing), and me (have been bike packing only once where I actually camped and that was for 2 nights, and I didn’t even carry the tent). So this was going to be it. It was at that moment that I realized I might be the odd one out on this trip...by a long shot. We spent the evening after dinner putting together our bikes and packing up all the bags. I had a rear pack that I had used a few times, but all the other bags, frame pack and front roll were brand new Apidura bags I’d bought specifically for this trip. When Daniel asked for my thoughts and my experience with the Apidura bags I waxed lyrical about them for a while before slowly trailing off and changing the subject, I couldn’t tell if they were seeing through my bullshit or not. I also didn’t tell them that the only time I’d hopped in my bivvy was 2 days ago the hotel room after I bought it from REI...
Range 1: The Beartooth Mountains Day 1, 2, 3.
We rolled out at a very civilized 8am on Saturday morning after I took full advantage of the free hot breakfast on offer at the hotel. I also made sure, to load up snacks from the buffet, filling my bag with additional sausages and potato muffins for eating during the day. Day 1 on the map looked like a bit of a warm-up day. We were heading south from Billings towards Red Lodge which sat at the bottom of the Beartooth Highway. It would be about 120km of false flat riding with the elevation profile always heading up but without any major climbing. I found that I was able to sit with the group without any problem and even sit on the front when it was time to roll some turns on the highway sections, I was loving it so far. We maintained a comfortable pace during the day and got into Red Lodge at a good time. We had heard about some fierce weather coming the next day and I was a little apprehensive about the amount of clothing I was carrying. I did some panic buying at the only outdoor shop in town and we had Mexican for dinner before riding a few kms up the road to camp. I’d learn quite quickly that Mexican was a Joe Cruz favorite for dinner. We would have it every time we hit a new town for the next week, and I certainly wasn’t complaining. The first night was also the first time I would get to set up the bivvy. It was much more confined than the spacious Big Agnes tents that the other 3 gentlemen had, and I learned pretty quickly into the night that even though I was a layer short in terms of warmth, it kept me dry, so I counted it as a win.
We got going early on Day 2 and the day kicked off right into a nice long climb up the Beartooth Pass. It was about 30kms with 1600m of vertical and started off the climb at a decent pace. We knew there was some weather in the forecast and it surely was in the back of my mind as we continued to summit this 11,000ft pass. I managed to get up there and spend a bit of time on top of the hill before heading on down the other side and finding the last store we’d see for the next 2 days, the aptly named Top of the World Store. Thankfully, the storm hit just as I rolled in and was able to sit on the dry porch watching the weather rolling through. I’d later learn the the other 3 were hit just as they crested the summit and were forced to shelter under some rocks. I waited for a little while hoping I'd see the other 3 guys come through but without any luck, I got back onto the road on my own. The first real example of the collective singular experience, I suppose. The afternoon was filled with silky roads and epic views as I worked my way down the other side of the Beartooth Mountains; this was the moment it felt like the trip had really started.
Day 3 was sold to us by Joe as a transition day, a 160km trip across the valley floor from the Beartooth Mountains to the base of the Big Horn Mountains. It was anything but a transition. It started nicely, a beautiful clear morning with a constant and relatively short climb before a long descent into Cody for lunch, which to no surprise was... burritos (of course). A quick glance at the map had me thinking that it looked like a pretty simple trip across the valley floor to Greybull at the base of the Horn Mountains for dinner. But, of course, Joe Cruz doesn’t like highways much, especially when he can find steep gravel roads. As we were riding along the highway after lunch, I was looking to the left, and far off in the distance, I could see a ribbon of gravel winding its way up what looked like a very steep hill. I was thinking that it looked like fun, but I was sort of glad that we were just heading straight towards the end of the day. Soon enough though a left turn popped up on my Garmin and we were turning off the highway onto the gravel. The afternoon was long, hot, and tough. It was glorious. It made dinner all the more enjoyable when we got into Greybull, I’ll let you guess what we had....
Range 2: The Big Horn Mountains Day 4 & 5
Day 4 was our first day in the Big Horn mountain range. We rolled out of Greybull after a leisurely breakfast at the local cafe. The cafe was like stepping back in time, it was exactly what the wild wild west looks like in my head. The timber laminate tables, the cigarette smoke hanging in the air (because you could smoke in there), the worn carpet, even the grits. We rolled along for 20-30kms before the climbing started and we slowly started making our way up. I was starting to feel the fatigue from the consistent days of riding and wasn’t quite as spritely as I had been in the first few days of the trip. The Big Horns were special though. The roads were this silky smooth, the white gravel that was a dream to ride, and there were even Moose roaming around on the plains. The only complaint that I think I had was probably the amount of locals driving around quite fast on their 4 wheeled motorbikes. But one of the groups did feed us some Peach Melba for dessert that night when we got talking to them at camp so I suppose I shouldn’t complain. I was off the front on my own for most of the day and starting to become aware of how my inexperience at bike packing was affecting how I approached the ride. This slight uncertainty and lack of confidence had me always pushing to get to the next ‘safe spot’ whether that be camp, or the next town, or the next spot where I knew water was available. Brian and Joe seemed more able to judge the day, enjoy the journey and take it in a little more. We dropped out of the Big Horns to the east on the morning of Day 5 into a quaint little town called Dayton. We lunched and loaded up on food before the ride back up a different hill into the Big Horns once again. It was another long climb, in the hot afternoon sun, that was a welcome relief as the temperature dropped as we climbed higher. The climb was about 20km long again, once we'd hit the top, the last 30k of the day was a pretty special ride across the plateau at the top of the range. I was again riding past Moose on the side of the road in the fading light. It was special, but the fading light had me pushing to hit camp before it got too dark. It was still only the 5th time I'd ever used my gear and I was probably a bit nervous about setting up camp in the dark.
Range 3: The Pryor Mountains Day 6, 7 & 8
The start of day 6 was another Joe Cruz special. We would be dropping out of the Big Horn Mountains and into Lovell before heading into the Pryor Mountains. There was an easy way downthe hill into Lovell for our last re-supply of the trip but Joe’s route took us along a road that quickly turned to singletrack. It turned into zero track at times, with a little bit of hiking before we had to give up and pick our way back to the main road for the rest of the trip down the hill. We rode into Lovell for lunch where we found a food truck selling, you guessed it, burritos. Unfortunately, the line was quite long and not moving, so instead, we settled for the local restaurant. After lunch, we hit the supermarket and loaded up with 2 days of food and water at the supermarket forour last resupply. With the long trip down the hill in the morning and all the stuffing around with re-supply, we didn’t start our trip out of Lovell and into the Pryor Mountains until mid-afternoon. The goal was Pen’s cabin at the top of a road called Syke’s Ridge road. That was 25km away and I thought with a good 2-3 hours of climbing we’d be at camp. That’s assuming the road is rideable, which about half of it wasn’t. Four hours later it was getting close to 8pm and I was only about halfway up the hill. I was out in front of Brian and Joe and with the light fading and rain starting to come down I decided to stop and wait for them. It didn’t seem smart to be on my own late in the day and that exposed. I joined the guys and we rode a bit further along the road, with the light fading and rain still coming down we made the call to find somewhere sheltered on the side of the hill to set up camp. I was asleep almost as soon as my head hit the ground. The next morning we finished the climb, the trip up the hill had some amazing views over Devil’s Canyon and the weather was perfect. It took us another 2 hours until we found Pen’s cabin, a great little cabin that would have been an epic spot to camp if we were able to make it to the top. Someone before us had left an unopened bottle of sprite in the cabin with a lovely note making it clear that it was ours if we wanted it. We devoured it. We were all pretty tired from the climb and it took us a while to get going and down the hill to camp. This was the most consistent riding I'd ever done and I was really starting to feel the fatigue. The trip down the hill was definitely fun but the gravel road certainly didn’t make it relaxing. We lost the road halfway down the hill and there was a bit of single/zero track to find our way to camp. I hadn’t been eating enough during the day and the fatigue was really starting to hit me. I was getting a bit grumpy, to say the least. Joe had said early on that ‘the real fun starts when you stop having fun’ and the Pryor Mountains was that moment for me. It was really hard and it was the first time on the trip where I felt truly exposed and on the edge. It was a scary feeling, but exhilarating to find a way through it.
Our last day was a little like our first, a bit of a warm-down after some heavy days in the mountains. We headed back north for about 100kms on a mix of dirt and paved roads back to Billings. It gave me a chance to reflect upon the trip and my enjoyment of it. I was chatting to Joe and trying to tell him what I’d come to understand about how he approached bike packing, and what I was looking for during the trip. I had this consistent feeling of needing to ‘get there', wherever ‘there’ was. Usually it was to the end of the day, or to lunch, or to the top of the next climb. In a way, this feeling stopped me from enjoying every moment of the ride, as I haven’t been on that many rides or in that many moments, where I've felt that exposed. That exposure is a powerful feeling. It's a feeling that I think I let crush me at times, instead of reveling in it and taking the time to look around. I want to be able to just let the time wander by, stop to look at things, stop to explore. Joe had this way of approaching things that seemed to allow him to get all of this. His years of doing this, his immense experience, had given him a sense of ease that made me jealous. You just knew that nothing was going to get on top of him. Whilst I was trying to get ‘there’, he seemed to know that 'there’ is wherever you are. So really you’re always ‘there’, and there was never any hurry to get there. It was just about keeping going. It was about the journey. That is the true reward.
We’ve all heard that before, but for me, it took up until the last kilometer, for this type of clarity to hit me. I knew I wanted to get to the end but I just didn't want it to finish. I wanted the sense of achievement, the beer at the bar to celebrate, the accomplishment of completing this incredibly demanding trip, but of course the bittersweet part of that beer is that it was over.
Bring on the next one.