Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Montana: Full of Beauty and Kindness

West Yellowstone, Montanta to Sandpoint, Idaho (4,395-4,855 miles)

West Yellowstone, a tourist-mecca of a Montana town, is slam-full of Chinese walking the sidewalks and aiming their cameras like six guns. Draw, aim, fire. Draw, aim, fire. They take pictures of everything, scarf Big Macs, sleep in $300.00 hotel rooms, spend money as though they have endless supplies. I cringe at the grocery prices, expecting $10.00 potatoes, discover I'm not far off in my estimation. After buying as little food as possible, I seek out a laundromat and find one on the north edge of town. Surprisingly, the laundromat has reasonable prices and I wash my clothes in a small front-loader. Unsurprisingly, my shirts retain the stains of the last several thousand
Marty and Corky

Corky and Marty, two young cyclists I met on the other side of the park, are in town and they invite me to follow them to a forest service campground, where they have accommodations on the hosts' site for the night. Corky and Marty are good friends with the hosts' son, and I happily ride the wind-aided 20 miles to the campground. I'm looking forward to a shower and a free place to pitch, pedal up the final hill with a grin so wide it tugs at my ears.


There are no showers in this campground.

Double whoops.

The hosts, a retired man and woman from Wisconsin, charge us five bucks apiece to camp on their site, all the while explaining they are doing us a favor because there aren't any available sites within 100 miles of Yellowstone. I refrain from mentioning that we're in a national forest, and I can legally camp anywhere I want as long as I'm over a quarter mile from the campground. I mull over sleeping on free dirt without a shower or sleeping on paid dirt without a shower, swallow a grimace and fork over the money. We sit at a picnic table and they feed us a
Trader Joe's pie, then tell us stories that feature grizzlies in the area. My favorite is about a huge male with thighs so heavy he wobbles when he walks—basketball-size head swinging to and fro—and I glance into the pines now and then, hoping he wobbles past on one of his trails. I enjoy the pie and the stories, feeling better about paying to sleep on dirt, then the male half of the landlord coalition tells about shooting prairie dogs with high-velocity bullets. He and his wife spend the next five minutes rationalizing this activity.

"There are so many of them," she says.

"Hundreds of thousands," he says. "They dig holes that loosen the dirt, and that invites in the badgers that dig bigger holes, and those bigger holes are what the cattle and horses step in and break their legs."

I excuse myself mid-rationalization, get up, and pitch my tent. This is the west, where old-school ranchers and immigrants from Wisconsin kill animals that affect the bottom line. These killers provide all sorts of reasons about why these animals need extermination, but really, when you cut away all the bull, at least in this instance, our host, a human without vested interest in the cattle
business, kills prairie dogs for sport.


For sport.


I want my money back.


A pickup pulling a horse trailer rockets past, side-view mirror less than six inches from my arm. Adrenaline surges through me and I watch the tandem pass Marty, who is thirty yards up ahead. Like me, he's on the shoulder, and like me, he narrowly misses becoming hamburger under the churning wheels. The speed limit on this road is 70 MPH, and the pickup is doing at least 80. Did he not see the cyclists? Or did he see us and choose not to move over and give us ample room. Since there were no cars in the opposite lane, I give him the benefit of the doubt and prefer to believe he was pre-occupied and missed our presence.

In the course of the morning, four more pickups pulling horse trailers roar past, narrow misses all, none of the drivers giving an inch on the road. I don't know why some male pickup drivers ride so close to cyclists, think maybe seeing us somehow affects their manhood. Perhaps a cyclist on the shoulder causes a testicle to disappear or a penis to shrink a few inches, and the driver, desperately seeking his lost machismo, becomes an a-hole instead of a responsible citizen.


I'm done riding high-speed roads with small shoulders in Montana, head straight for the interstate. At least on the interstate the shoulders are wide enough to offer a margin of safety. I'm hoping for all downhill to Bozeman, am surprised when the highway begins to climb . . .

and climb,

and climb,

and climb. . . .

I don't have enough water, and I'm parched two hours into the ascent. Also, the constant spinning hurts my butt. The landscape is mountainous, arid, scrubby trees on both sides of the highway, but I still look for a stream or a spring, something that will allow me to fill my water bottles to the brim. My mouth turns cottony and I lose strength; before long I'm pedaling and resting, pedaling and resting, pedaling and resting. I'm hot and dehydrated, wondering if this ascent will ever end, have not been so tired in a long time. If I only had water. . . . I feel like a rookie for making this mistake, promise myself it will never happen again. If I had zoomed in when I looked at this route on google maps, I would have seen the interstate crossed the Continental Divide. I would have brought three extra liters of water, and I wouldn't be wondering if I can make it to the top without passing out.

I sit on the guardrail and watch the sun ease below the mountains. Shadows creep my way, crossing the highway and cooling things down, and I go from thirsty and hot to thirsty and cold. Quitting, however, is not an option, so I continue upward until I reach the top of the climb. Which is none too soon. I'm seeing spots in front of my eyes, and my legs are more noodles than muscles.

I coast a long downhill into Bozeman, where I drink two Gatoraids and fend of a toothless homeless guy who takes a liking to me. He touches my arm a few times and strings some words together—least I think they're words. I listen for a while and eventually hear the word 50,000, then 100,000.

"Is that how much you lost in the casino?" I say.

He goes on another long incoherent ramble, touching my arm a few more times, and I begin to look for a way to extricate myself from this guy. Finally, I get up and roll my bike across the parking lot, glance back and see him watching me. He has a sad look, as though he just lost a best friend. I'd like to help him, don't know what to do, and leave him sitting on the side of the convenience store.


A day later, a zipper breaks on my tent and I give the tent to a homeless vet outside Missoula. The tent will no longer keep out the bugs but it will keep him dry, and I feel good about myself as I glide back to the road and pedal northward. I climb steadily upward, traffic on my left shoulder—

Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump.

Okay, maybe there were only five or six thumps before I stopped the bike and looked at my tires. Did I pick up some sticky mud somewhere? A thumbtack? A piece of glass?

Nope, much worse than that.

My rear tire is bulging.


I turn the bike around and slowly coast downhill, hoping I can get back to Missoula before—


The tire explodes.

Sigh. Another mistake on my part. I rode that tire to death, right down to almost nothing, should have changed it out when I had the chance.

I dismount and begin the 20 mile push back to town, hope someone will stop and offer help. Before long, pain creeps into my knees, barely noticeable at first, but then the pain worsens and I'm flinching a little with every step. Where is my good karma? I give a tent to a homeless vet and two hours later a tire blows out?


Several miles along, a man stops in an SUV and offers me a ride back into town. I take off the wheels and we slide my bike, wheels, and gear through the hatchback. He drops me at Bruce Anderson's house—a Missoula Warmshower's host—and I give Bruce my sad tale of woe.

"I've got new tires shipped ahead." I glance at the old bike tires piled against his garage. "You wouldn't happen to have a spare you can sell me?"

He nods at the old tires. "You mean one of these?"

"I just need something that will last 300 miles, hate to spring for a new tire."

Bruce goes into the house and brings me a pricey, new Marathon Plus. "Take it, it's on me."

I'm so amazed at his generosity that I post the day's events on Facebook, starting with giving the tent to the homeless vet and ending with the gift of a tire, am stunned when one of my friends, Cliff Garstang, begins a campaign to buy me a new tent. (He didn't like the idea of me sleeping under a tarp.) I hang at Bruce's and wait for my MSR Hubba Hubba to arrive by UPS. Bruce is a slight man with kind eyes and an unassuming demeanor and he's offered accommodations to hundreds—perhaps thousands of cyclists—who have knocked on his door. He's a world-traveler and cycling-tourist, highly-intelligent, and he's been on both the receiving and giving end when it comes to offering places to stay. There is no pressure to interact with him and his family, and you can stay in your space or become involved in theirs. He owns a gorgeous three-story house and thrives on diversity, cooks elaborate meals with the talent of a gourmet chef. I'm living with him and his family longer than the average cyclist, and I trade off my stay with a few house-hold chores each day. He feeds me one evening—rice and moqueca—a meal so delicious I don't want it to end.

But it does end, and so does my delightful stay. I pack my gear, including my new tent, ride out of
New tent!
town early one morning. I plan to exit Montana using roads that follow the Clark Fork River, spend my first night in my new tent on a bluff that overlooks the clear water. In the morning, I wake to the sounds of an animal crashing across the river, climb out of my tent hoping I'm not about to see a grizzly running my way.


Cow elk.

She veers to the left, long legs galloping, plowing a v through the water. I take a picture that turns out blurry, watch her for as long as I can. Which isn't long. Elks cover ground when they want to get somewhere quick.
Forest fire on the mountain

I cook grits for breakfast, take one last look around. I'm lucky to be here, in this blueberry field, in these evergreens on a brow overlooking a pristine Montana river. I feel humble and grateful for the gifts helping Ride between the Stars achieve its goal of raising awareness for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. I'm finally—after months of pedaling—closing in on the second star.


Here I come!


  1. what an adventure!! Damascus is the same, stop by when your in town Matt


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