“Have you got a gun?” asked the rancher from the rolled-down window of his pickup truck near Sheridan, Wyoming after I waved at him to stop to inquire about the condition of the road ahead.
“What’s a gun got to do with the road out that way?” I responded.
“Out where you’re headed on that motorcycle you might need a gun to keep unfriendly animals away at night, or shoot back when shot at. One hundred fifty years after the Indian Wars it’s still a harsh country along the Bozeman Trail out there. Some two legged and four legged local residents don’t cater much to visitations.”
“Maybe I’ll fly a white surrender flag on my motorcycle,” I joked.
The rancher laughed and said, “Bears don’t know what a white flag means.”
Sometimes the Bozeman Trail can be seen but not driven over, like here on a Montana section.
The Bozeman Trail was scouted by John W. Bozeman and J. M. Jacobs in the winter of 1862-1863 as a quicker and shorter route for gold seekers and emigrants from Missouri to the gold fields in Montana. Eventually thousands of horses, oxen, cattle and people trampled over what became known as the Bozeman Trail, principally from Ft. Laramie in Wyoming to Virginia City in Montana. In places running along the eastern side of the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming and Montana the track was hundreds of yards wide.
During the modern era, where we’re mounted on top of horsepower and not a horse, the original route is often well marked and paved, easily done with side trips to historic points in two to three days. For the more extreme two wheeled adventurist, finding and following some of the unpaved sections easily consumes a week and is best done on a dual-purpose motorcycle.
Over a 10 year period I have driven over all of the easiest sections, like Interstate 25 and 90. Often signs alongside the roadway show where the pavement crosses part of the Bozeman Trail. Once the pavement diverges from the original tracks the steepness of the adventure curve increases, becoming at times impassable as the Trail crosses private or closed lands. In some cases permission to follow it can be acquired, at other times a NO TRESSPASSING sign means what it says, enforced by a gun the rancher implied could be fired at humans venturing too close.
One thing I learned about motorcycle travel along the Bozeman Trail is to be as self-sufficient as possible. In some places there is no cell phone or Internet connection to plead for help if I have a mechanical breakdown, and often there’s not another traveler or vehicle to come by for hours or a day.
This would have been a long day in the wilds of Montana had I not been able to fix my flat tire with the new inner tube, tools and hand operated air pump I carried.
A flat tire on one BMW owner’s front wheel brought him to a halt in the middle of Wyoming. He had everything needed to make the repair: tire irons, spare inner tube, tools and a 12-volt electronic air compressor. When I stopped and asked if he needed help, he said he was OK, that he had connected through the Internet and called his roadside assistance plan. The operator informed him aid was on its way. He needed help because he had been unable to lever the front wheel high enough off the ground to pull out the axle and slide the wheel from under the fender. He ended up waiting three-and-a-half hours in the hot July sun for the promised truck and trailer to arrive.
I had been in a similar situation some years before, but was well away from any cell connection and had no roadside assistance plan to call if even if I could connect. Faced with a long wait, I opted to flop the Kawasaki KLR650 on its side to remove the front wheel. When I suggested the same to the BMW owner, and offered to help him lay it down and pick it up, he chose to wait for the broken motorcycle ambulance, seemingly aghast at the conjured image of his BMW horizontal instead of vertical.
I had three flat tires exploring the Bozeman Trail, all off pavement and each while solo. Having aluminum panniers made up-righting the flopped motorcycle much easier, the BMW R100GS more so due to the cylinder heads as well as the aluminum panniers acting as leverage points. Any scratches on the motorcycle I considered merit badges or patina, the trade-off for not having to wait for hours or days for help to come along.
Part of the adventure of exploring the Bozeman Trail are the unmarked sections that leave a wondering person to conclude that there likely would have been no other passable way through the area.
Going off pavement on the dirt or gravel sections of the Bozeman Trail has also taught me to carry a lightweight tent and sleeping bag for those times an all-too-often sudden rain shower makes the tracks impassable. It was into one of these areas the rancher was suggesting I avoid if I was not well armed, a 20-mile dirt track along the base of the Big Horn Mountains.
The rancher was right to warn me. During the night I heard my camping area being sniffed by something that sounded larger than a field mouse and not nearly as friendly as a milk cow. Rather than opening my tent and pointing a flashlight into the night or its eyes, I yelled like a chimpanzee being chased by a hungry lion and smacked my open hands on the sides of my tent. The sniffer ambled away, but left me its calling card which I found in the morning, a pile of bear spoor near my parked motorcycle.
Darkness, while traveling by motorcycle over the Bozeman Trail, has been no friend of mine, to the point where I don’t do it, whether on pavement or off. I once visited a veteran long distance rally entrant in a Montana hospital who had T-boned a deer on a four lane paved section of the Bozeman Trail one night. He had vectored into the left lane of Interstate 90 to pass a semi-truck at speed. The deer scampered in front of the truck from the right side and into the motorcyclist’s lane just as the motorcyclist zipped past the front of the semi. Wham!
- One of the Army forts to protect travelers along the Bozeman Trail, Ft. Fetterman, is easily reached by paved road just north of Douglas, Wyoming, open only during warmer months of the year.
- Fort Phil Kearney, south of Sheridan, Wyoming, is another fort along the Bozeman Trail, easily reached and historically interesting for the famed Fetterman Fight of December 21, 1866.
- A good reason not to drive at night, where no amount of lights would show these free roaming cows unless right on top of them at the last second and they turned to look at what was about to slam into them.
- This turtle on a paved section of the Bozeman Trail would have been more than a slight bump in the road at night. I stopped and hand carried it across the road.
- Rough camping along the Bozeman Trail. No wifi, no shower and no generator running from a RV parked within 20 miles.
- A nocturnal visitor to my campsite left a spoor calling card, letting me know what the bear thought of my motorcycle camping for the night.
- One hundred fifty years earlier the wagons, cattle, horses and people had to find a way across the Big Horn River where the Bozeman Trail crossed it.
- One hundred fifty years later some sections of the Bozeman Trail can be a serious challenge.
The motorcyclist lived, luckily. He said that the night rally riding headlights on his motorcycle made the deer appear to be the biggest deer on the planet when he caught sight of it at the last second. I imagined the same was true of the cows, coyotes, antelope, elk and horses I saw wandering freely over much of the Bozeman Trail at any hour of the day. The most valuable lesson I learned about night driving on the Bozeman Trail is that it’s best done while dreaming in a sleeping bag or on a motel bed.
The Bozeman Trail has offered an interesting mix of history and challenging adventures. History has names like Red Cloud and General Custer wafting through the winds. The ease of being able to explore much of the Bozeman Trail on pavement makes it doable on any size or type of motorcycle. For the more adventuresome there are sections that are as difficult and inhospitable as they were 150 years earlier.
If adventure seeking to, from or on the more difficult and unpaved sections of the Bozeman Trail I would still not carry a gun, but would heed the Wyoming rancher’s lesson about bears not knowing the meaning of a white flag.