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Apr 19
The phone rang in Red Lodge.  The sun had already faded behind the mountain, and the street outside where the bike was parked was covered in darkness. Only the glow from the quarter moon allowed the bike to be visible from my vantage point inside the Pollard’s Lobby.  The hotel manager told me I had a call coming in and it was from Cooke City.  By the time I got to the phone at the front desk, they had hung up. All that the manager had heard from the caller was that I was needed in Cooke City just before the line had gone dead.  Because of the weather, my cell phone reception was spotty, and the hotel’s phone had no caller I.D.

Cooke City was 69 miles to the West, a little more than an hour’s drive under normal circumstances.  The problem is that you can never apply the word normal to crossing Beartooth Pass even under the best of conditions, and certainly not this early in the season.  I wondered about the call and the caller, and what was summoning me to the other side.  There was 11,000 feet of mountain in between the towns of Red Lodge and Cooke City, and with a low front moving in from the West, all signals from the mountain were to stay put.

Beartooth Pass is the highest and most formidable mountain crossing in the lower 48 States.  It is a series of high switchback turns that crisscross the Montana and Wyoming borders, rising to an elevation of 10,947 ft.  If distance can normally be measured in time, this is one of nature’s timeless events.  This road is its own lord and master. It allows you across only with permission and demands your total respect as you travel its jagged heights either East or West.  Snow and rockslides are just two of the deadly hazards here, with the road itself trumping both of these dangers when traveled at night.

The Beartooth Highway, as gorgeous as it is during most summer days, is particularly treacherous in the dark.  Many times, and without warning, it will be totally covered in fog. Even worse, during the late spring and early fall, there is ice, and often black ice when you rise above 7000 feet. Black ice is hard enough to see during the daytime, but impossible to see at night and especially so when the mountain is covered in fog. At night, this road has gremlins and monsters hiding in its corners and along its periphery, ready to swallow you up with the first mistake or indiscretion that a momentary lack of attention can cause.

The word impossible is part of this mountains DNA.

: Impossible- Like the dreams I had been recently having.

: Impossible- Like all of the things I still had not done.

: Impossible- As the excuses ran like an electric current
                         through all that I hated.

: Impossible- Only in the failure of that yet to be conquered.

: Impossible- For only as long as I kept repeating the word.

Now it was my time to make a call.  I dialed the cell number of my friend Mitch who worked for the U.S. Forest Service in Cooke City. Mitch told me what I already knew and feared. There was snow on both sides of the road from Red Lodge to Cooke City, and with the dropping temperatures probably ice, and possibly black ice, at elevations above 7500 feet.

Mitch lived in Red Lodge and had just traveled the road two hours earlier on his way home.  He said there had been sporadic icy conditions on the Red Lodge side of the mountain, causing his Jeep Wagoneer to lose traction and his tires to spin when applying his brakes in the sharpest turns.  The sharpest corners were the most dangerous parts of this road, both going up and even more so when coming down. Mitch warned me against going at night and said: “Be sure to call me back if you decide to leave.”

The Red Lodge side of the mountain would be where I would begin my trip if I decided to go, with no telling how bad the Cooke City descent would be on the Western side.  This is assuming I was even able to make it over the top, before then starting the long downward spiral into Cooke City Montana.

The phone rang again!  This time I was able to get to the front desk before the caller got away.  In just ten seconds I was left with the words ringing in my ears — “Everything is ready, and we implore you to come, please come to Cooke City, and please come tonight.”  

Now, it was my time to choose.  I had to decide between staying where it was safe and dry, or answering the call and making the journey through the dark to where fate was now crying out to me. I put the phone down and walked out the front doors of the Pollard Hotel and into the dim moonlight that was shining through the clouds and onto the street.  The ‘Venture’ sat in its soft glow, parked horizontally to the sidewalk, with its back tire pressed up against the curb and its front tire pointed due North.  The bike was not showing any bias either East or West and was not going to help with this decision.  If I decided to go, this choice would have to be all mine.

The original plan had been to stay in Red Lodge for two more days, awaiting friends who still had not arrived from a trip to Mount Rushmore. Then together we had planned a short stopover in Cody, which was not more than ninety-minutes away. From there we planned to take the ‘Chief Joseph Highway’ to Cooke City, which is both a beautiful and safe way around Beartooth Pass. Safety drifted out of my consciousness like a distant mistress, and I looked North and heard the mountain call out to me again.

As much as I wanted to see my friends, the voice that was calling from inside was getting harder and harder to ignore.  With the second phone call, my time in Red Lodge grew short in its importance, and I knew in the next two minutes I would have to choose.

I also knew that if I stood in the clouded moonlight for more than two more minutes I would never decide.  Never deciding is the hallmark of all cowardly thought, and I hoped on this night that I would not be caught in its web as victim once again.  

                                         My Decision Was To Go

In ten short minutes, I emptied my room at the Pollard, checked out, and had the bike loaded and ready at the curb.  I put my warmest and most reflective riding gear on, all the while knowing that there was probably no one to see me. No one on that lonely road, except for the deer, coyote, or elk, that would undoubtedly question my sanity as they watched me ride by in the cold dark silence.  I stopped at the gas station at the end of town and topped off the tank --- just in case.  Just in case was something I hoped I wouldn’t have to deal with, as the ride would at most take less than a half a tank of gas. It made me feel better though, so I topped off, paid the attendant, and rode slowly out towards U.S. Highway # 212.  

As I headed West toward the pass, I noticed one thing conspicuous in its absence. In fifteen minutes of travel, I had not passed one other vehicle of any kind going in either direction.  I was really alone tonight and not only in my thoughts.  It was going to be a solitary ride as I tried to cross the mountain. I would be alone with only my trusted bike as my companion which in all honesty — I knew in my heart before leaving the hotel.  

Alone, meant there would be no help if I got into trouble and no one to find me until probably morning at the earliest.  Surviving exposed on the mountain for at least twelve hours is a gamble I hoped I wouldn’t have to take.

I kept moving West. As I arrived at the base of the pass I stopped, put the kickstand down and looked up.  What was visible of the mountain in the clouded moonlight was only the bottom third of the Beartooth Highway. The top two thirds disappeared into a clouded mist, not giving up what it might contain or what future it may have hidden inside of itself for me.  With the kickstand back up and my high beam on, I slowly started my ascent up Beartooth Pass.

For the first six or seven miles the road surface was clear with snow lining both sides of the highway.  The mountain above, and the ones off to my right and to the North were almost impossible to see.  What I could make out though, was that they were totally snow covered making this part of southern Montana look more like December or January, instead of early June.  The road had only opened a month ago and it was still closing at least three out of every seven days.  I remembered to myself how in years past this road never really opened permanently until almost the 4th of July.

When the road was closed, it made the trip from Red Lodge to Cooke City a long one for those who had to go around the mountain.  Many people who worked in Cooke City actually lived in Red Lodge.  They would ‘brave’ the pass every night when it was open, but usually only during the summer months. They would do this in trucks with 4-wheel drive and S.U.V.’s but never on a motorcycle with only two wheels.  Trying to cross this pass on a motorcycle with high performance tires, in the fog, and at night, was a horse of an entirely different color.  

At about the seven-mile mark in my ascent I again stopped the bike and looked behind me. I was about to enter the cloud barrier.  The sight below from where I had just come was breathtakingly beautiful.  If this was to be the last thing I would ever see before   entering the cloud, it would be a fitting photograph on my passport into eternity.

I looked East again, and it was as if the lights from Red Lodge were calling me back, saying “Not tonight Kurt, this trip is to be made another time and for a better reason.” I paused, but could think of no better reason, as I heard the voice on the phone say inside my mind, “Please come,” so I retracted the kickstand and entered the approaching fog.

There was nothing inviting as I entered the cloud.  The dampness and the moisture were immediate and all enveloping, as the visibility dropped to less than fifty feet.  It was so thick I could actually see rain droplets as it passed over my headlight.  The road was still clear though and although it was hard to see, its surface was still good.  The animals that would normally concern me at this time of night were a distant memory to me now. The road stayed like this for what seemed to be another two or three miles, while it trapped me in its continuing time warp of what I still had to overcome.

It then turned sharply right, and I heard a loud ‘wail’ from inside the bike’s motor.  My heart immediately started racing as I thought to myself, ‘What a place to have the engine break down.’  It only took a few more seconds though to see that what I thought was engine failure was actually the tachometer revving off the scale on the dash.  The rear tire had lost traction, and in an involuntary and automated response I had given it more throttle to maintain my speed. I now had the engine turning at over 5000 r.p.m.’s in an attempt to get the rear tire to again make contact with the road.  Slowing my speed helped a little, but I was now down to 10 MPH, and it was barely fast enough to allow me to continue my ascent without the rear tire spinning again.

                                  I Could Still Turn Around And Go Back    

I was now at an elevation above 8,000 ft, and it was here that I had to make my last decision.  I could still turn around and go back.

While the road surface was only semi-good, I could turn around and head back in the direction from which I had just come.  I could go back safely, but to what and to whom? I knew my spirit and my heart would not go with me, both choosing to stay on this hill tonight regardless of the cost.  “If I turn around and go back, my fear is that in my lack of commitment, I will lose both of them forever. The mountain will have then claimed what my soul cannot afford to lose.”  I looked away from Red Lodge for the last time, and once again my eyes were pointed toward the mountain’s top.

It was three more miles to the summit based on my best estimation.

From there it would be all down hill.  The fear grew deeper inside of me that the descent would be even more treacherous as I crested the top and pushed on to the mountain town of Cooke City below.  Cooke City and Red Lodge were both in Montana, but the crest of this mountain was in Wyoming, and it looked down on both towns as if to say … ‘All passage comes only through me.’      

This time I did not stop and look over my shoulder. Instead, I said a short prayer to the gods that protect and watch over this place and asked for only one dispensation — and just one pass through the dark.  My back wheel continued to spin but then somehow it would always regain traction, and I continued to pray as I slowly approached the top.  

As I arrived at the summit, the road flattened out, but the cloud cover grew even more dense with visibility now falling to less than ten feet.  I now couldn’t see past my front fender, as the light from my headlamp bounced off the water particles with most of its illumination reflected back onto me and not on the road ahead.

In conditions like this it is very hard to maintain equilibrium and balance. Balance is the most essential component of any two-wheeled form of travel. Without at least two fixed reference points, it’s hard to stay straight upright and vertical.  I’ve only experienced this once before when going through a mountain tunnel whose lights had been turned off. When you can’t see the road beneath you, your inner sense of stability becomes compromised, and it’s easier than you might think to get off track and crash.

This situation has caused many motorcyclists to fall over while seemingly doing nothing wrong. It creates a strange combination of panic and vertigo and is not something you would ever want to experience or deal with on even a dry road at sea level.  On an icy road at this elevation however, it could spell the end of everything!

My cure for this has always been to put both feet down and literally drag them on top of the road surface below. This allows my legs to act as two tripods, warning me of when the bike is leaning either too far to the left or to the right.  It’s also dangerous. If either leg comes in contact with something on the road or gets hung up, it could cause the very thing it’s trying to avoid. I’ve actually run over my own foot with the rear wheel and it’s not something you want to do twice.

                     Often Causing What It’s Trying To Avoid

At the top of the pass, the road is flat for at least a mile and gently twists and turns from left to right.  It is a giant plateau,10,000 feet above sea level. The mountain then starts to descend westward as it delivers its melting snow and rain to the Western States. Through mighty rivers, it carries its drainage to the Pacific Ocean far beyond.  As I got to the end of its level plain, a passing thought entered my consciousness.  With the temperature here at the top having risen a little, and only just below freezing, my Kevlar foul-weather gear would probably allow me to survive the night.  On this mountaintop, there is a lot of open space to get off the road, if I could then only find a place to get out of the wind.  

I let that thought exit my mind as quickly as it entered. The bike was easily handling the flat icy areas, and I knew that the both of us wanted to push on.  I tried to use my cell phone at the top to call Mitch at home.  I was sure that by now he would be sitting by the fire and drinking something warm.  This is something I should have done before I made the final decision to leave.  I didn’t, because I was sure he would have tried to talk me out of it, or worse, have forbidden me to go. This was well within his right and purview as the Superintendent of all who passed over this mountain.

My phone didn’t work!  This was strange because it had worked from the top last spring when I called my family and also sent cell-phone pictures from the great mountain’s summit.  I actually placed three calls from the top that day, two to Pennsylvania and one to suburban Boston.

                                         But Not Tonight!

As I started my descent down the western *****, I knew it would be in first gear only.  In first gear the engine would act as a brake or limiter affecting my speed, hopefully without causing my back tire to lose traction and break loose. With almost zero visibility, and both feet down and dragging in the wet snow and ice, I struggled to stay in the middle of the road.  It had been over an hour since leaving Red Lodge, and I still had seen no other travelers going either East or West. I had seen no animals either, and tonight I was at least thankful for that.

The drop off to my right (North) was several thousand feet straight down to the valley below and usually visible even at night when not covered in such cloud and mist.  To my left was the mountain’s face interspersed with open areas which also dropped several thousands of feet to the southern valley below.  Everything was uncertain as I left the summit, and any clear scenery had disappeared in the clouds. What was certain though was my death if I got too close to the edge and was unable to recover and get back on the road.

There were guardrails along many of the turns and that helped, because it told me that the direction of the road was changing.  In the straight flat areas however it was open on both sides with nothing but a several thousand-foot fall into the oblivion below.

Twice I ran over onto the apron and felt my foot lose contact with the road surface meaning I was at the very edge and within two feet of my doom.  Twice, I was sure that my time on this earth had ended, and that I was headed for a different and hopefully better place. Twice, I counter steered the bike to the left and both feet regained contact with the road as the front tire weaved back and forth with only the back tire digging in and allowing me to stay straight up.

As I continued my descent, I noticed something strange and peculiar.  After a minute or two it felt like I was going faster than you could ever go in first gear.  It took only another instant to realize what was happening.  The traction to the rear tire was gone, and my bike and I were now sliding down the Western ***** of Beartooth pass.  The weight of the bike and myself, combined with the gravity of the mountain’s descent, was causing us to go faster than we could ever go by gearing alone.  Trying to go straight seemed like my only option as the bike felt like it had lost any ability to control where it was going.  This was the next to last thing I could have feared happening on this hill.

The thing I feared most was having to use either the front or rear brakes in a situation like this.  That would only ensure that the bike would go out of control totally, causing the rear wheel to come around broadside and result in the bike falling over on its opposite side. Not good!  Not good at all!

Thoughts of sliding off the side of the mountain and into the canyons below started running through my mind.  Either falling off the mountain or being trapped under the bike while waiting for the next semi-truck to run over me as it crossed the summit in the darkened fog was not something I welcomed. Like I said before, not good, not good at all!

My mind flashed back to when I was a kid and how fast it seemed we were going when sledding down the hill in front of the local hospital.  I also remembered my disappointment when one of the fathers told me that although it seemed fast, we were really only going about ten or fifteen miles an hour.  I wondered to myself how fast the bike was really going now, as it slid down this tallest of all Montana mountains? It seemed very, very fast.  I reminded myself over and over, to keep my feet down and my hand off the brakes.

If I was going to crash, I was going to try and do it in the middle of the road. Wherever that was now though, I couldn’t be sure.  It was finally the time to find out what I had really learned after riding a motorcycle for over forty years.  I hoped and prayed that what I had learned in those many years of riding would tonight be enough.

As we continued down, the road had many more sharp turns, swerving from right to left and then back right again.  Many times, I was right at the edge of my strength. My legs battled to keep the bike upright, as I fought it as it wanted to lean deeper into the turns.  I almost thought I had the knack of all this down, when I instantaneously came out of the cloud.  I couldn’t believe, and more accurately didn’t want to believe, what I was seeing less than a half mile ahead.

The road in front of me was totally covered in black ice.  Black ice look’s almost like cinders at night and can sometimes deceive you into thinking it holds traction when exactly the opposite is true. This trail of black ice led a half mile down the mountain to where it looked like it ended under a guardrail at the end.  What I thought was the end was actually a switchback turn of at least 120 degrees.

It turned sharply to the right before going completely out of my sight into the descending blackness up ahead.

My options now seemed pretty straightforward while bleak.  I could lay the bike down and hope the guard rail would stop us before cascading off the mountain, or I could try to ride it out with the chances of making it slim at best.  I tried digging my feet into the black ice as brakes, as a kid would do on a soapbox car, but it did no good.  The bike kept pummeling toward the guardrail, and I was sure I was now going faster than ever.  As my feet kept bouncing off the ice, it caused the bike to wobble in the middle of its slide. This was now the last thing I needed as I struggled not to fall.

As I got close to the guardrail, and where the road turned sharply to the right, I felt like I was going 100 miles an hour.  I was now out of the cloud and even in the diffused moonlight I could see clearly both sides of the road.  With some visibility I could now try and stay in the middle, as my bike and I headed towards the guardrail not more than 500 feet ahead.  The valley’s below to the North and South were still thousands of feet below me, and I knew when I tried to make the turn that there would be no guardrail to protect me from going off the opposite right, or Northern side.

                   Time Was Running Out, And A Choice Had To Be Made

The choices ran before my eyes one more time — to be trapped under a guardrail or to run off a mountain into a several thousand foot abyss.  But then all at once my soul screamed NO, and that I did have one more choice … I could decide to just make it. I would try by ‘force of will’ to make it around that blind turn.  I became reborn once again in the faith of my new decision not to go down, and I visually saw myself coming out the other side in my mind’s eye.

                                        I Will Make That Turn

I remembered during this moment of epiphany what a great motorcycle racer named **** Mann had said over forty years ago.  

**** said “When you find yourself in trouble, and in situations like this, the bike is normally smarter than you are.  Don’t try and muscle or overpower the motorcycle.  It’s basically a gyroscope and wants to stay upright.  Listen to what the bike is telling you and go with that. It’s your best chance of survival, and in more cases than not, you’ll come out OK.”  With ****’s words fresh and breathing inside of me, I entered the right-hand turn.

As I slowly leaned the bike over to the right, I could feel the rear tire break loose and start to come around.  As it did, I let the handlebars point the front tire in the same direction as the rear tire was coming.  We were now doing what flat track motorcycle racers do in a turn — a controlled slide! With the handlebars totally pressed against the left side of the tank, the bike was fully ‘locked up’ and sliding with no traction to the right.  The only control I had was the angle I would allow the bike to lean over,which was controlled by my upper body and my right leg sliding below me on the road.

Miraculously, the bike slid from the right side of the turn to the left.  It wasn’t until I was on the left apron that the back tire bit into the soft snow and regained enough traction to set me upright. I was not more than three feet from the now open edge leading to a certain drop thousands of feet below.  The traction in the soft snow ****** the bike back upright and had me now pointed in a straight line diagonally back across the road.  Fighting the tendency to grab the brakes, I sat upright again and counter steered to the left. Just before running off the right apron, I was able to get the bike turned and headed once again straight down the mountain.  It was at this time that I took my first deep breath.

In two hundred more yards the ice disappeared, and I could see the lights of Cooke City shining ten miles out in the distance. The road was partially dry when I saw the sign welcoming me to this most unique of all Montana towns.  To commemorate what had just happened, I was compelled to stop and look back just one more time.  I put the kickstand down and got off the bike.  For a long minute I looked back up at the mountain. It was still almost totally hidden in the cloud that I had just come through.  I wondered to myself if any other motorcyclists had done what I had just done tonight — and survived.  I knew the stories of the many that had run off the mountain and were now just statistics in the Forest Service’s logbook, but I still wondered about those others who may had made it and where their stories would rank with mine.

I looked up for the last time and said thank you, knowing that the mountain offered neither forgiveness nor blame, and what I had done tonight was of my own choosing. Luck and whatever riding ability I possessed were what had seen me through. But was it just that, or was it something else? Was it something beyond my power to choose, and something still beyond my power to understand?  If the answer is yes, I hope it stays that way.  Until on a night like tonight, some distant mountain high above some future valley, finally claims me as its own.

                     Was Crossing Tonight Beyond My Power To Choose?

After I parked the bike in front of the Super 8 in Cooke City, I walked into the lobby and the desk clerk greeted me. “Mr Behm,

it’s good to see you again, I’m glad we were able to reach you with that second phone call.  We received a cancellation just before nine, and the only room we had left became available for the night.”

I have heard the calling in many voices and in many forms.  Tonight, it told me that my place was to be in Cooke City and my time in Red Lodge had come to an end.  Some may need more or better reasons to cross their mountain in the dark, but for me, the only thing necessary was for it to call.

                                               …  Until It Calls Again





Gardiner Montana- May, 1996
Kurt Philip Behm
Written by
Kurt Philip Behm  kurtphilipbehm.com
(kurtphilipbehm.com)   
259
   Nick Moore
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