July. Somewhere near Billings, Montana. 7:15pm. 83 degrees Fahrenheit.
It had been a brutally hot day. The brilliant blue sky conspired with the bright yellow orb to bake mid western North America. It had exceeded 100 degrees for most of Iowa and Nebraska. It only cooled (if you can use the word cooled in this case) to the mid 90s for much of Wyoming. There is nowhere to hide in those regions. The landscape is flat and relentless. The interstate highways that I had been forced to take in order to save time, felt like they added a few degrees to the temperature. For the first time in a few decades of riding motorcycles, I rode along for a few hours without my armored jacket. It was that hot. I really envied the few riders that I saw cruising along in shorts and tank tops. My own set of rules would not let me go that far, and I eventually had to stop and put my jacket back on. However, it was still the kind of hot where the breeze had no cooling effect, and just felt like rapidly passing air. Shimmering heat waves rose from the ribbon of asphalt in the distance making everything look like a desert mirage. It was the kind of mileage meant for a modern car with excellent air conditioning and a great stereo.
I celebrated crossing into Montana as if there would be some massive cold front waiting just over the border. There was no such thing. However, the sun had passed its zenith and was starting the slow decline which resulted in a corresponding decline in temperatures as I continued to make progress north and west. Eventually I found the campground and turned in with great relief. Riding that long, in conditions that hard was exhausting.
July. Somewhere near Billings, Montana. 7:15pm. 83 degrees Fahrenheit. I quickly got down to the minimum clothing necessary, pitched the tent, and headed to the shower. The water was not cold, but it was cleansing, and I was reluctant to leave the concrete stall in the wooden bathhouse. Eventually I did, and not being hungry, decided to try and get some sleep….
I awoke to the bright glow of light shining through the walls of the tent. I took a swig of water and crawled out of the tent eager to enjoy the light of dawn, my favorite time of day. Only it wasn’t dawn, it was night. A night illuminated by a spectacular large and brilliant moon. It painted the entire landscape in glorious black and white, like some Ansel Adams photograph, or a Humphrey Bogart film noir. No camera could have captured the 360 degrees of beauty and silence. And cool.
I checked my watch, it was 1am. There was no way I was going back to sleep, the temperature was perfect for riding. I packed as quietly as possible, and idled my way out along the gravel road. I was startled to see a couple outside their RV, just sitting silently enjoying the moment. I raised my hand toward the moon, and they nodded. There was no place for words in this scene.
Back on the road, the previously torturous and boring interstate became magical. Montana has a lot of open space, and moonlight accentuates this in a way that sunlight cannot. Cattle grazed. Rabbits darted. Owls swooped. The brightest stars sparkled. The Clark Fork river shimmered as it criss-crossed the road. But for the headlights of cars and trucks, you could see forever. Surreal foothills and then mountains appeared as I passed Bozeman and then Missoula, and then wound through Lolo national forest. ironically, I had passed close to Moonlight Basin, so Montana is aware that its’ big sky motto works just as well nocturnally. All while I enjoyed the best possible seat for this monochromatic movie. A motorcycle. Few people (including me) plan to cross Montana at night, but I highly recommend it if the moon is full and the sky is clear. It is one of the few times in life when I would have been happy to delay the arrival of dawn, and the onset of color.