The recipe for a soul cocktail
By Jimmy Lewis, Mountain Outlaw Contributor
The Treasure State’s big open country is crisscrossed with dirt roads and mountain trails, many of which lead to creeks and small rivers. I recently bought a “dual-sport” motorcycle with the intent to ride every back road and byway I could find in search of solitude and good fishing. Last August, I loaded up my bike with gear and headed out to ride, fish, camp, and repeat the process as often as my time and money would allow.
The key to planning gear for such an adventure is having a sense of what you want to do and how you want to do it. What do I need to wade fish on a hot day in August? Not much: quick-drying shorts, felt-bottomed sandals, and a fanny-pack full of flies. To ride? Suit, helmet, gloves, boots. To camp? Tent, sleeping bag, cook stove, freeze-dried meals, coffee and a water purifier.
Soon enough, I was headed north from my home near Middle Cottonwood Canyon in Bozeman and off down a series of dusty roads toward my first destination, Sixteenmile Creek. This was my first-ever motorcycle ride involving both fishing and camping. My feelings were a bubbling mixture of fear and anxiety, excitement and joy, a mix that remained for the rest of my trip.
Just a couple of hours into the odyssey, I parked my bike beside the first bridge on Sixteenmile Creek Road and stripped out of my riding gear and into my fishing attire. A few hours later, after I’d tussled with several feisty rainbows and browns, massive thunderheads began building overhead. Not wishing to get caught in the imminent deluge, I headed off aboard my trusty KTM toward my first planned campsite located on a small piece of National Forest Land nearby.
After riding past three steaming-fresh piles of bear scat, I wheeled into camp and set up my tent. Just after the final stake of the rain fly was in the ground, the dark clouds burst open into sheets of hard rain and hail accompanied by spectacular lightning and thunder. The storm raged, and I sat in my tent sipping from my flask and listening to my iPod. I drifted off to the cello of Yo-Yo Ma and soon entered the other world of my own psychological storms.
I woke when the sun crept into the canyon the next morning. Springing from my cocoon and into the morning light, I ran for the coffee and hastily prepared a cup of dark coffee along with a freeze-dried breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon. The cold morning felt invigorating, but I was a little worried about starting the carbureted four-stroke on my bike.
The KTM coughed to life though, and the engine ran with a warm, reassuring hum as I headed north through Meagher County searching for an all-dirt route to White Sulphur Springs.
As I cycled along the back roads through the cool late-morning air, I felt comfortable in my riding gear. Cresting a small hill, I looked west toward Mount Edith in the Big Belts. Edith, I concluded, looked a lot like Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro. Central Montana was lovely from the seat of a motorbike.
At about the halfway point between Ringling and White Sulphur, I found a charming rivulet full of brook trout identified on my map as “Battle Creek.” I parked my bike beside the dilapidated bridge and rigged my fly rod. I countered what I saw as a potential rattlesnake issue by wading in my motorcycle boots—a first. A few fish later, I resumed my peregrinations, noticing soaring raptors, grazing deer, and dodging the occasional gopher scooting along in front of me. I rode for miles without seeing another vehicle.
With just over 24 hours on the road, I was feeling heroic as I rode into the small ranching town. It’s not about the length of time one spends away from civilization, but rather the intensity of the experience that leaves you wishing to return, so I was eager to experience a bit of social interaction there, along with some freshly-cooked food.
After breakfast and a chat, I fueled-up my bike ($8.14 for nearly 100 miles of riding) and headed back out into the countryside to find my next campsite along the Upper Smith River.
Adventure riding on a lightweight dirt bike doesn’t allow for many luxuries. After touring on such an outfit, it was sweet indeed when a good friend spontaneously decided to rendezvous with me for some fishing and camping, arriving in his Suburban with fully-loaded coolers. The ice cold IPA’s were delicious after riding and fishing under the mid-August sun. And later that evening, we dined on mule deer steaks and scalloped potatoes, and my fishing partner, a musician, even pulled out his guitar to strum and sing into the night.
After fishing together the next morning through the black bear-filled canyon up river from our campsite, my friend said goodbye. I continued on up the river, tooling along on my bike between the craggy cliffs and dark timber, into the solitude and possibilities of the unknown upstream. Everything felt right there on the Upper Smith, and I decided to stay a couple of extra days there.
By the time I departed for home, I was feeling whole, satisfied and ready to return. As I packed up camp that morning, I realized I’d done more than just ride, fish, and camp—I had gained some wisdom, too. I had learned that when on a solo adventure, you are, for the most part, your only company, and the quality of the experience will largely be determined by how you treat yourself. The upshot of that is this: The same can be said for life itself.
Later that day, I entered back onto Sixteenmile Creek Road, this time heading west along its meandering path. Viewed from this perspective, it was the most beautiful leg of the journey. Riding under a warm sun and a deep blue sky, listening to my favorite tracks from Van Morrison and Coldplay, I thought for a moment I might somehow be entering into something like heaven—something transcendent and sublime.
Ironically, I began feeling disturbed, finally to the degree that I thought of pulling off the road and shutting down my bike to let some time pass by in order to thwart fate if, indeed, I was bound for the afterlife and my death was waiting for me around the next turn.
Something inside me, however, said keep riding. So I did, standing on the pegs and singing along with the music for the canyons and, perhaps, even the gods to hear.
Jimmy Lewis is a freelance writer, English teacher, and self-described omniventurer, meaning he enjoys a wide variety of all things outdoors, taking special pleasure in mixing his passions into a sporting soul cocktail. He lives outside of Bozeman with his family and a passel of bird dogs, cats, horses and other sundry critters.