“Come to the shop, yo.” was the message that I received at 1pm from Emily on Saturday. After the overwhelming homecoming parade (parades are just odd), I went home, packed my final few things, and headed to the shop. Emily was repairing her rear wheel, and after trying to bring it back into true desperately, eventually a new wheel was used. While Bob and Emily fiddled with the new wheel and their panniers, I moseyed around the shop, occasionally answering questions and feeling an anxious excitement build up inside of me. We were about to leave for a tour from Missoula, MT to Glacier National Park with the intention of riding over Going to the Sun Road under the light of the Harvest Moon. We had questions to ask each other and ourselves along the way, and the desire to find answers was as strong as our desire to pedal and breathe.
After a brief shopping run at the local health food store, we fueled up on picnic tables outside. Swedish meatballs and roasted brussels sprouts. Emily giggled at the sheer amount of food that sat before her. This would not be the only time that would happen.
We began to head out of town, and as per the nature of any good adventure, the beginning wasn’t easy. A strong headwind and an unattractive stretch of road battled our ambitions to leave town, and lost. As we crested the hill that would drop us out of view of the mountains of our home valley, the feeling set in. Time would be different for the next few days.
Climbing Evaro hill on bikes is a mildly arduous process, but honestly seems to take nearly as long as it does by car. Emily passed me as I added a few PSI to my rear tire, and Bob stopped near me to relieve the side effects of his ambitious hydration. When he returned to our shoulder, our tiny patch of solace and safety just to the right of whiz and bustle, he noticed a reminder of the relativity of that safety; a dead raptor. Sharp, strong and delicate talons clasped air in rigor mortis, and even in this frozen state displayed their power and precision. The bird's head was gone. We sat in silence for a moment, took three feathers as a reminder of mortality and an inspiration to move swiftly, and moved the bird into the trees to decompose in peace. I placed a feather on my saddlebag, Bob into his derailleur clamp, and Emily into her hair.
That evening brought dark roads, bright headlights and small shoulders. Roughly 5 miles outside of Arlee, we decided to call it a night and avoid the risk of becoming closer to the raptor. Bob instinctively turned down a gravel road, and as we discussed our options, he flagged down a vehicle headed towards a group of small farmhouses tucked near the cottonwoods that sprung up along the Jocko river. The driver told us of a fishing access site that would be a great place to camp, and warned us of bears.
The Jocko is a quiet, humble river, with a welcoming air about it. As we set up camp near a few large Ponderosa pines, I watched the bright, waxing moon play off of its mild surface. After some snacks and a beer, we took on the task of a bear hang. Without rope, we would have to get creative. We loaded all of the food into a pannier and attempted to simply toss it into an overhanging cottonwood snag. The bag arced up, and then promptly down, bringing a few broken branches with it. We would have to be gentle. After some trial and error, we settled on a leverage system using a large log with the pannier on one end and my body as a fulcrum on the other, and hoisted it into the snag, leaving the log there. In the morning, we would just shake it and have our food. Hopefully the bears wouldn't figure it out first.
We awoke at 5 am and hit the road feeling motivated and potentially intimidated by the day to come. In our minds, what lay ahead was going to be a massive day; 150 miles including Logan Pass, a 3200’ climb over roughly 14 miles on Going to the Sun Road. As we crested the first hill of the day, we watched the sun rise behind the Mission mountains.
On this side of their wildness, they rise thousands of feet above the tranquil valley in which St. Ignatius rests, shadowed by their grandeur. The sheer face of Grey Wolf and the false summit and plateau of McDonald became apparent as the light changed, reminding us that there are always bigger hills. We stopped for a quick diner breakfast. Emily ordered the “Hash #2” which was explained by our teenage waitress as “literally just a huge pile of hashbrowns and veggies and cheese.” She was right. Bob and I got an espresso from a small stand, and the girl didn’t charge me.
From here we would push on through the Mission valley to the south shore of Flathead Lake, and the town of Polson. We used the smaller roads and paths where we could, and were pleasantly surprised at the pedestrian and cycling infrastructure in these small reservation towns.
Riding the narrow Highway 35 on the east side of Flathead lake would be the smallest shoulder of most of this trip, and we were all nervous of that. Roughly 26 miles along the shore to Bigfork, we wanted to get through it. We also needed lunch. After about 5 miles, we pulled down an unmaintained driveway overgrown with wild chamomile and bunchgrass down to an empty cabin with a for sale sign. We followed a game trail for another hundred yards to the shore and sat down to snack, swim and rest the legs. I made coffee for us, and after 2 cups shared, we motivated and hit the road.
Taking turns drafting on this road went smoothly, and though I set the pace for much of it due to my unfortunate gearing (lowest being 42x28) we all found a rhythm with each other, and hardly had to communicate the desire to pull down a small driveway with a sign that proclaimed apple cider. The farmer, whose name shall remain untold, was a short man with a grand white beard and wild crows feet alluding to decades of laughter in sunshine. He moved deliberately through the orchard to greet us. He spoke with the same deliberation of his movements, seeming to not waste a word but not sparing the details either. After completing the task at hand, which appeared to be sorting apples recently picked, he offered us a half gallon of freshly made cider. We gladly filled our bottles. Crisp and sweet, but not overly spiced or cloying, this would be the perfect fuel to get us through highway 35.
The East side of Flathead Lake is dotted with fruit orchards, and not 10 minutes after leaving the first stop, another man of the land ran out too the highway with three apples outstretched for us. The empathy people have towards cyclists will never cease to amaze me.
Another hour or so of lake vistas and laughter brought us to Bigfork, where we found good beer and an abundance of food to fuel the next leg of our journey. We had put in 70 miles already, and still had 70 to go to the top of the pass.
From Bigfork we rode straight to Hungry Horse with one stop to buy food and gloves. It was going to be a cold night. The sunset over the plains of the northern Flathead valley played off of the west aspect of the Swan range bordering Jewel Basin. The roads were straight and the tailwind strong.
Just before pulling into the small town of Hungry Horse, a large semi passed us. Close. We felt the air hit our backs before the beast was upon us, and as it hurled within a foot of our bikes, it’s air horn roared and we swerved into the sand off the side of the highway. We paused after it passed and contemplated what had just happened. A brush with mortality. Though it left us physically unscathed, hearts and minds were rattled and pounding. I saw some of the last bit of sunlight glow through the raptor’s feather still in Emily’s hair, and was reminded further of the fragility of life and how organisms’ interactions with a place affect each other so intricately.
We regrouped in Hungry Horse and noticed that the sun was gone, but the Moon had begun to rise, and was already beginning to glow orange and become eclipsed by the shadow of the Earth. We stood for some time and watched this display. We stretched our backs and shoulders using each other’s hands as support, and sat in silence for some time like this. When the moon began to wax from our shadow, we decided to keep moving as it revealed itself.
The push to Glacier was a dream, but a lucid one. We had a path for a considerable portion of this ride, and after that the highway had multiple lanes and a decent shoulder. We used our lights only to alert others of our presence, and rode under the abundance of stars and the glimpses of white moonlight on the pavement. We coasted down a final hill into West Glacier, and continued to ride towards Lake McDonald.
As we cruised along the beginnings of Going to the Sun, things became more and more dreamlike, and less lucid. The moon was bright enough to trick our eyes into seeing headlights on the trees ahead, when in reality it was simply beams of reflection being focused by the glacial carvings in the mountains around us.
We stopped somewhere on the shore of Lake McDonald and took in the grandeur of where we were. Everything was illuminated in crisp, white light, and the reflections of the mountains coalesced with circumstance on the perfect mirror of the lake. After a few minutes and an addition of layers, we pushed onward.
Before approaching Lake McDonald lodge, we had commented on all having slight visual hallucinations, and Emily noted that her eyes had become tough to keep open. We stopped at the lodge hoping for hot chocolate. We were greeted by a bellman and security guard who were skeptical of our very existence, yet still sympathetic. We used the bathroom and gathered around a table to discuss our current state, and the bellman brought us a plate of saltines and peanut butter. We were tired. Emily needed a power nap, and I needed a hot cup of coffee. I inquired about this need at the front desk, and after chatting with the sympathetic cracker bearing man about what we had done and a bike tour of his, he made a pot of coffee for all of us. We drank it while Emily napped. Bob and I took a walk and discussed our options.
It was still roughly 20 miles to the top of the pass, and the last 14 would be climbing. It was roughly 35 degrees, and I expected it to be down into the low 20’s up top. It would take us roughly 3 or 4 hours to reach the pass in our current state, and it was midnight. Though I wasn’t skeptical of our mental ambition and physical ability, safety was becoming a concern in my mind. We would expend a significant amount of energy climbing and most likely sweat, then descend in cold air for roughly 45 minutes to a lake where we would have to set up a bear hang. Hypothermia and exhaustion induced crashes were our primary concern. After thinking about it for some time, we decided to look for other options. Bob worked his magic while inquiring about a place to camp nearby and we were offered a floor to sleep on in the reading room of the lodge. We would be able to catch 4 hours of sleep, and we accepted.
At 545, we left the lodge. As we flowed with fresh minds through the lingering moonlight, a collective smile began to rise as the sun did, illuminating the fall colors and sheer cliffs with golden morning alpenglow. We stopped at a tunnel with a large overlook away from the road and watched the sun rise on Heavens Peak as we made our coffee.
The next few hours are difficult to describe in words. We climbed the final 16 miles to the top of Logan Pass. Surrounded by timescales, dwarfed by the ancient and slow cataclysm that carved these U shaped valleys and moraine fields, the knife edge ridges and cirque born waterfalls. The succession of forests and their fires was evident from this vantage, and across the valley there was a single Larch that differentiated itself only by shape from the golden Aspens.
I reached the top of Logan Pass about 20 minutes before my partners, inspired by the sun to keep my cadence high and fast. I inquired about water and found that the running water was down at the visitors center. I sat down near the road, but away from the parking lot and began to boil water to rehydrate some black beans, and diced fresh garlic with my pocket knife on a piece of granite.
I listened to the water boil and watched the parking lot. I felt then, stronger than ever before, a massive dichotomy between that lot, these cars, and even my bike towards the surroundings. A place to visit, but not to stay. To facilitate this, we have carved an asphalt road through one of the most sacred and wild places in North America. The Crown of the Continent, stained by tarmac. Native peoples and early settlers alike were displaced for this, and so was their way of life and communion with this place. Yet without it, this ride wouldn't have been possible. At least not with this bike. There is the question that I began to ask myself the most. What does a place mean to be wild? At what point do human interactions with their environment rob it of its wildness or even chase it away? Or can it be chased off? People have been in these mountains for thousands of years. Was it any more wild then? Is it any less now?
We ate the beans and gathered our things. Before leaving, I had a brief interaction with a man taking a photo of the Logan Pass sign.
“This place sure has changed a lot. Especially that side” he said, pointing East over his shoulder.
“It has” I said, “But it will continue too. The glaciers will come back eventually, there might just not be people here to see them. Maybe that’s for the better”.
He paused and looked me in the eyes.
We had a big descent ahead of us, and we had been anticipating this flight for some time. We began to coast, the sound of the pawls in our freewheels becoming a constant buzz, no longer individual clicks. I passed one car after it pulled off, and didn’t have to let any pass me until the road leveled out and became less exposed. We rode through the recent burn of St. Mary and saw tiny bunches of beargrass returning from the ashes. Things will go on. Timescales prevail.
Arriving in St. Mary, we ate a mess of assorted salty and protein filled oddities. Oysters, jerkey, chips and rolos to name a few. We still had roughly 30 miles to go. It was 4pm. I recounted Bob saying the night before in the lodge something about the ambition of that day.
“It’s a long ride. 89 miles from here. The first 18 are uphill. The train leaves at 645. And we have to be there an hour early, because we have bicycles. 89 miles from 5 to 545. That's a good day.”
The reality of this began to sink in as we realized that to make the train on time to get to Whitefish that night in hopes of hitching back to Missoula by 3pm the next day for Emily’s class. We rode for a bit, and halfway up a large hill, bellies full of nonsense and legs tired, we decided to hitch.
We arrived just on time to box up our bikes and catch the 2 hour train that chugs along the southeast end of the Park. We sipped scotch in the observation deck and watched the sun fall behind the mountains as we laughed and recounted the little things.
We found solace that night in the living room of an old friend, Katie Williams, and left early the next morning. We ate some Amazing Crepes and headed towards Kalispell. We were picked up promptly by a gruff man in an old blue pickup who brought us to Kalispell.
We pulled up to a gas station to set up our hitching corner, and were all taken aback. On the corner rested the still warm body of a beautiful black and white border collie. Bob had placed flowers on it, and after some time he went to tell the folks in the station about it. While we waited, we saw a woman across the highway calling for her dog. Our hearts sank. As we began to cross to talk to her, we saw Bob run across the highway and talk to her. He walked her across the crosswalk, stopping traffic, and she began to wail. Emily was heavily impacted by this outpour of emotion, met it with an outpour of empathy. Bob and Emily carried the dog, Piper, to an open field near some horses. I walked the woman across and picked some flowers to place on Piper. She called her partner and soon it was all over, but the shock was still in all of us.
I took a short walk around the field, and when I came back, Emily was sitting with a bottle of cheap champagne, a corn dog, and a box of malted milk balls. We sat and talked and comforted each other.
The rest of the day was a blur. One ride brought us to the town of Big Arm, where we snacked and swam, and another to Missoula.
As we parted ways at the end of a pedestrian bridge in town, I truly felt that the tour was over. Though our original intentions to ride over the pass at night were not met, I believe that we all felt that everything worked in a way that allowed us to truly explore the questions we held. It was reaffirmed in us that it wasn’t the mileage or the goals, not the set expectations that we framed the experience in, but the moments that comprised the entire experience. Only 72 hours had passed, but each hour was full of expression and the necessitation of wildness. I suppose timescales prevail.
We sought out to push our bodies, sooth our souls, and explore the world with our minds and lungs. We had questions to answer, and people to talk to. We had mountains and plains, planets and their satellites to remind us of our place.
We found some answers to questions, but so many more were raised. And that, is much more meaningful.