Three right hand turns off the interstate brings us to our first stop on this year’s Cycle the Rockies course. The Bonogofsky ranch sits on 100 acres, not to far from Billings. The boundaries of the property are clear enough. The trailer court on one side, where Alexis and Mike’s herd of goats have been known to escape to, prompting phone calls complaining of “goats gone wild.” Blue Creek, where Alexis and Mike once thought the goats would never have the gumption to cross (the goats did), a fenceline (“Make sure you have good fences before you get goats” Alexis tells us), and the only boundary it seems the goats haven’t breached: the river.
The Yellowstone River. It pushes on the banks now, the level down even from higher flows earlier this month. And down further still from when the river flooded in July 2011, bringing water into the lower pastures. That high water, paired with an inconveniently timed puncture of the oil pipeline six miles upstream (likely caused by fast-moving debris), left Alexis and Mike with a sheen of oil covering many acres of their land. Today, three years later, Mike is replanting those fields. Fields that have been largely depleted of native grasses and nutrients as a result of the flood, the subsequent cleanup, and a harsh winter wind that scoured away what was left of the topsoil. The cleanup itself involved the removal of the majority of oil affected vegetation. The machinery involved in the cleanup likely brought in the waves of weeds Alexis and Mike have seen since the spill.
We walk by the river, swatting the evening mosquitos and keeping a close eye on our legs, watching for the ticks we have been warned about. The students are enthralled by the story Alexis tells, hungry for this style of learning: understanding current events and issues on the local level, meeting the people involved and entrenched in these issues, and doing it in a way that puts us on the ground in a physical place, walking alongside the people that stand on any and all sides of an issue.
Tomorrow will bring a new personality with a new story, as will the next day. The people that are suing the BLM over the coal mine, then the people at the coal mine, and so on. But first, we will have to pack up those panniers for tomorrow’s ride, our first big step in our 650 mile journey.
-Ben Johnson, Instructor