Wyoming and Montana by the Stars

Star Days, 2009: Yellowstone, Beartooth and Beyond

As far as places to visit in July, Salt Lake City, Utah, is somewhere near the bottom of my list. It's not that I have anything in particular against it; on the contrary, it's refreshingly clean and orderly, and located in one of the prettiest parts of the country. And it's certainly not the people; the locals sure seem friendly enough. But let's be blunt - in the summer, the place is hotter than the gates of hell (and twice as dry), and I don't care what anyone says about dry heat: 100 degrees in the shade is hot, and I was having a tough time dealing with it, especially since it had been in the high sixties when I'd flown out of New York City that morning.

So why was I in Salt Lake on this smoking hot afternoon? The short answer is: 'waiting to leave', but more accurately, it's because I was waiting to meet up with two other journos and Yamaha's Joe Dagely so we could pick up a brace of Yamahas and head to Billings, Montana, for Yamaha's 2009 Star Days rally.

Since the heat was having a deleterious effect on my health, I decided to find the nearest cantina and cool my heels. It looked like a long hot night was coming and I needed all my strength for the coming trip.

We met up early the next morning but by the time we loaded up the bikes (I drew a nicely equipped Road Star, which Yamaha had shipped to the local dealership) and headed out, it was about noon. Which suited me fine; I like an early start but there's no sense in overdoing things, especially when you've stood the late watch. The plan was to take an easy ride north to Jackson, Wyoming, where we'd hunker down, and have a decent feed and a good night's sleep, then hit the road in earnest and do some serious traveling through Yellowstone Park into Montana.

Since I was following the group and not the map, I can't give you chapter and verse on the first day's route. Essentially, we headed north and east, paralleling the Oregon Trail on routes 30 and 89. To say the scenery was overwhelming would be both trite and an understatement, but nonetheless accurate. I could live out the rest of my life in the Teton National Park and die a very contented man.

We spent the night in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and did the whole tourist thing, including Buffalo steaks and ice-cold cerveza at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar. Frankly, the place struck me as being a little over the top, but it was an interesting take on the faux and somewhat pricey cowboy lifestyle.

The second day's ride began at the Southern entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Since we hoped to arrive in Billings before dark, we rode at a brisk pace. Let me point out that while the roads through the park are absolutely mint, there can be a fair amount of traffic, especially during the tourist season, and there's also an enormous amount of wildlife roaming about, including some good-size herds of buffalo. The thought of clouting one of those furry buggers - some of which weigh upwards of 2,000 pounds - let alone an oncoming Winnebago, was enough to keep us all on our best behavior.

We gassed up and ate a light lunch at the Old Faithful tourist center. Unfortunately, we arrived just as the geyser had finished erupting, and didn't have time to wait for its next performance. Frankly, that was the only disappointment of the trip. We rode through the Mammoth Hot Springs area, the region Mountain Man Jim Bridger called "the place where Hell bubbles up," then headed over the Beartooth Highway, Route 212, and through the pass towards Red Lodge.

We been advised to dress warmly for our trip over the pass, as the summit is 10,947 feet high and snow storms, even in the middle of summer, are common. With that in mind, I was more than a little surprised to see so many local riders wearing just T-shirts and jeans, but probably not nearly as much as they were when a sudden squall on the far side of the summit drenched the road in freezing rain. Fortunately, by the time we'd hit the far side the sun had returned and temps were back to sweltering.

We arrived in Billings late that afternoon. Much larger than I'd expected, Billings is equal parts gritty railroad town and modern urban center surrounded by majestic scenery. Bright and early next morning, we were back on the bikes, with the first order of business being a parade/charity ride through town with twenty thousand of our new Star friends, to the local racetrack where volunteers from Star and Yamaha would be handing out "care" packages to the area's needy. The volume of donated stuff boggled my mind, and the enthusiasm of the STAR riders was contagious; all in all it was a very good example of what motorcycle clubs at their best are all about.

After the Star festivities, I was free for the afternoon, so I rode out to the Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument. The ride itself isn't much, especially compared to what we had seen on the way to Billings, but if anyone can tour that battlefield and not be moved, they've got no soul. Ironically, it was the hottest place I've ever been to, 105? in the shade, so I can only imagine how hot it was on June 25, 1876.

A year later I'm still itching to go back, as it was some of the finest country I've ever seen and a superb area to ride through, so somewhere down the road I plan to return, and yeah, I'll probably start in Salt Lake.

I hear it's beautiful in the fall.

The 2010 STAR rally takes place in Chattanooga TN, July 20-23. It's open to all brands and riders, as is the organization.

For more information, visit:
Star Touring and Riding Association
www.startouring.org

Yellowstone National Park

Beartooth Highway
www.beartoothhighway.com

Wyoming and Montana by the Stars