The descent from Beartooth Pass is steeper and windier on the north side. Switchbacks are plentiful and cliff drop-offs complete. The first sign you see as you descend to the north is "Welcome to Montana" by the National Forest Service. We are in Custer National Forest, although at this altitude there are no trees. Just beyond the Forest Service turnout is a State of Montana sign, it reads: "Speed Limit 70 mph." Just beyond it is a larger sign that states: "White Crosses Indicate Fatalities. Drive Safely."
Accelerating to 70 mph on this road will earn you a white cross very quickly. Most turns are performed under 25. I caught up to a motorcycling couple I would later talk with in Red Lodge. He was riding a Triumph with a bright yellow waterproof bag on back. She had a Yamaha V-twin. He was way out in front. It was clear she was very tentative on the curves and along the cliff. When no cars came the other way she rode in the center of the road. When one came she moved over, but slowed down. That's why I caught up. Later, she would admit to being terrified by the cliff. She was an experienced rider too.
The cliff did not terrify me, but I did not challenge it in any way. I drove conservatively and safely. The tight switchbacks were a pleasure to navigate. The views spectacular. Beartooth Pass Highway is a road to savor.
Eventually you reach the bottom. You are in the forest but the road is relatively straight. A few miles on and you see a sign saying you are leaving Custer National Forest. The road rolls on to the town of Red Lodge. On my ride up the mountain I met a couple at a turn out who had motorcycled in from Chicago. The woman said she liked Red Lodge so much she could move there. That surprised her husband. It sparked my interest in the town. Would it be the kind of place I'd want to move to?
It had become a long day. I was tired. Dark clouds formed over the valley. I hoped to find a campground near town, set up, have a bite to eat, then get some sleep. Simple things. A left turn near the south end of town directed drivers to the ski areas. A sign said there were two campgrounds, 7 and 10 miles away. I continued straight into town hoping for a campground to magically appear.
The town of Red Lodge caters to both summer and winter tourists today. It used to be a mining town. They've made the transition well. Its main street, called Broadway, is filled with open and active businesses. Parking is at a premium. There are many motorcycles. I drive through slowly until I am out the other end and back in the country. No campground signs. I stop at a gas station to inquire about one. I'm told the nearest is a KOA, 4 miles north, otherwise, it's out to the ski areas.
I drive back through town noting all the happy people at cafés and walking about. I note how tired and hungry I am. I drive to the ski area road and pause. I really do not want to drive another 7-10 miles for a campsite. The motel siren calls my name.
I spotted many motel options in town. One in particular, given its rundown nature, may be in my price range. I doubled back and turned in its driveway. It was so rundown it was closed. Only the street sign made it look open. There was a reference to trout fishing out the back door. I turned off the motor and listened to the flowing water. It was very appealing. The drive turned into a small side street that would go back to Broadway or as I discovered, a public park.
I turned toward the park. It was small with trees and picnic tables. Three deer, one with large felt antlers, quietly ate leaves and grass. A sign said: "No camping." It was so inviting. I turned down this small street. It paralleled the trout stream. A man was buffing his car. I went over and asked if he knew anywhere I could pitch my tent.
His name is Dan Brown, not the author. Dan pointed down the street to a small garage with a large grassy area next to it. He said I could camp there. It was city land, no one would bother me. I was overjoyed. Then he said I should introduce myself to Clara Jessup who lives across the street. She might wonder about who was camping near her. "Tell her Dan Brown said it was okay."
I rolled down the street and parked by the last house. It had two out buildings with a small wire gate in between. A narrow concrete walkway to the small house bisected a perfectly level green grass yard. An elderly woman, about 5 feet tall was walking toward me. She had a small camera in her hand.
Before I could say anything she said, "Did you see the deer?" I told her they were in the park eating. "They were just here in my back yard," she informed me. I asked if she was Ms. Jessup. "Yes, Clara Jessup," she said brightly. I quickly told her my plans and dropped Dan Brown's name. She was pleasantly inquisitive. She had no objection to me pitching my tent next to the stream across the street.
We talked. She is 86 years old. She had been Clerk of the Court most of her adult life. Never defeated in an election, never opposed. She surprised me by saying, "You should put your tent in my yard." I said no, but was really attracted to that soft thick grass. She insisted. I caved. I pitched my tent in the back of Clara's yard.
I told Clara my plan to get something to eat in town and then go to bed. She asked if I would like to come in and watch TV with her. How could I refuse? I went downtown, ate at the Red Lodge Café and returned to Clara's. Her sister was visiting from Midland, Texas. We spent the evening talking about our lives. We never got to the television.
I went to bed satisfied on all levels. The tent floor felt like it was floating on a cloud.