First Rain

From a cyclist’s perspective, Eastern Montana and Eastern North Dakota have a lot in common. Both are predictably flat, and both are unpredictably windy. Near perfectly straight roads connect small towns, and our routes look like they were drawn with a ruler. We left the Badlands and Medora less than a week ago and rode steadily across the 350 miles of North Dakota, staying in Richardson, Bismarck, Gackle, Enderlin, and now Fargo.

For the first time of our entire trip, we encountered rain. Up until our final morning in Medora our summer had been exceedingly hot and dry–so dry that burn bans were in effect for the entirety of our route after we crossed the North Cascades. Through sheer luck we avoided several fires in British Columbia and Montana, although my pictures from Glacier are blurred from smoke that blew east across the mountains.

This summer I opted to travel with a bivy sack instead of a tent. Bivys are nothing more than a waterproof tube with a zipper at one end, slightly larger than a sleeping bag. They are light, compact, and quick to set up. I almost always sleep with mine fully unzipped to improve circulation, so that final morning in Medora I woke up to light rain on my face and a slowly dampening pillow/jacket. Unfortunately crawling inside a closed bivy isn’t much better than getting wet; they are hot, sweaty, and provoke the intense feeling of claustrophobia that one would expect from being sealed into a waterproof bag. And the activities that are possible inside are the same as those possible inside a fully zipped sleeping bag–which is to say, not many.
After the initial storm the rain gave way to a cool, overcast grey characteristic of Seattle, we packed our still wet gear, and we rode out of the Badlands. Around Dickinson a second Thunderstorm stalled overhead, and this time we got drenched. My swift panniers shed water, but both my the thermarest and my bivy (which I packed externally) got soaked.
Bike touring is the art of unpacking and packing efficiently. We don’t have the luxury of extra items or extra space, and rarely do I go more than a few days without using something I’m carrying; unused equipment quickly gets donated or shipped home. As a result, almost everything gets packed and unpacked daily, and systems develop to do this quickly (my father and grandfather would be so proud). For instance, the stove, fuel, and sleeping bag go at the bottom of the panniers because I won’t use either between breakfast and dinner. The bivy and thermarest get packed on the handlebars because balancing them is annoying, and I only want to do it once a day. The phone charger and wallet stay in an external pocket because we could find an outlet or a snack at any moment.
Sudden changes–like a downpour after a month of drought–force us to adapt these systems, and the first time I usual get them wrong. We were lucky that we had a warm showers host the night after Dickinson, otherwise I would have spent the night in a very wet bivy sack. We got lucky again our morning in Gackle–that night we stayed in a bike hostel and waited out a thunderstorm indoors. I expect the first time we hit cold weather this fall will also require adjustment and reorganization as a dig my warm clothes out of the depths of my panniers.

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