The cross into Montana went unnoticed, lost within the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park – I had to settle with a picture of the northern gateway in Gardiner, MT.
We hopped on highway 89, the road we would take all the way up to Glacier National Park, and took a short day to Livingston, glad to be rid of the family-packed congestion. Little did we know what lay ahead…
After a stop at the local coffee shop, we set up camp at the Livingston Fairgrounds beside an empty sheep barn. As we were finishing dinner, gusty winds began to pick up, a tell-tale sign of an approaching storm. We immediately engaged in our well practiced ‘weather prep,’ eventually climbing into our warm tent with our gear covered and secured. A performance of lightning and thunder could be seen and heard in the distance. The wind danced around us, taunting the trees to take a bow. The rain never came.
Eventually, the wind calmed, with just enough energy left to whisper what it had done. Smoke filled the tent, sirens filled the air. The lightning had caused a fire only a few blocks away. Smoke could be seen billowing from a second fire further away in the path of the wind. The groundskeeper came out to warn us of the potential danger, telling us where the hose was in case the flames came too close. We sat in our smokey tent, tired from having to breathe so much smoke in the last month. We might as well be smokers.
We awoke the next morning in a smokeless tent, our bikes still standing under the little white gazebo. We downed some bars and were on our way. After about 30 miles, I began feeling a bit woozy. We pulled over in the tiny town of Wilsall, where I promptly fell asleep on a bench in front of an old gas station turned Historical Center. While I slept for a good half hour, Ben enjoyed some coffee from across the street. By the time we got up and left, we were both feeling a bit better.
We pushed our way toward White Sulfur Springs, where we stopped for our second lunch at a place that conveniently also served ice cream. Can you guess what happened next? It’s happened before, and it happened again. Ben left his wallet on the bench in the tiny town of Wilsall, 50 miles away. And if that wasn’t enough to put a damper on the situation, it looked like rain, so we cut our day short only to find out that the “white sulphur springs” was really just a hotel that charged $20 to experience their sulphur spring heated indoor pool. Bollocks.
As we headed over to an RV park, we saw a local woman fall over on her bicycle into a ditch with her baby (don’t worry, both were okay) and a pack of 4 young boys riding the Northern Tier to the east who were very glad to be done with the mountains we still had yet to conquer. We assured them of flat riding till Yellowstone and went on our way, only to find them setting up their tent at the RV Park moments later.
After showers, realizing I had left my favorite necklace on the gazebo in Livingston, mowing down on Ramen Supreme, and suspiciously walking around the ice cream social only to return to our tent after deciding it was rude to eat the ice cream without socializing, a tottering couple stopped by for a chat and made it clear that they thought a British couple the had met travelling around the country with their tiny European car stuffed full with their lives was much more impressive than what we, or the 4 boys just across the way, were doing. We should have gotten ice cream.
The next morning, Ben called the bar across the street from where I napped in Wilsall in hopes that someone had turned in his wallet. As soon as he introduced himself as Ben, without yet mentioning his lost wallet, the woman on the other end asked, “Ben Blue?” Hooray for small towns and their honest inhabitants; this kind of thing wouldn’t fly in San Diego. Ben eventually organized a mail drop in Libby, MT at the house of some friends of friends we were planning on staying with, who to my delight, read our blog and noticed this wasn’t the first time this sort of thing had happened.
Originally planning for a 100 mile day all the way through the Louis and Clark National Forest to stay with a Warm Showers host in Great Falls, we quickly traded in our mileage pride for an opportunity to stay at the hosts cabin at the far end of the forest. After walking our bikes up the most ridiculously treacherous driveway (think vertical, no joke), we spent our evening envisioning America before white people (Ben was reading 1491), watching the bike-friendly comedy Breaking Away, sipping on a well deserved 6-pack, and playing a very long and inaccurate game of scrabble. Can you find the mistake?
It was hard to leave the next day, both mentally and physically (that driveway was way harder going down), but the riding into Great Falls was pretty easy, though as ugly and boring as urban gets. Just as we were about to leave Great Falls forever, Ben ran into a parked U-Haul trailer and somersaulted over his bike while looking up the next few turn-by-turn directions. Lesson learned? Don’t text and ride.
While Ben jumped back up with no more than a scratch on his elbow, Ben’s bike did not bounce back so quickly. Can you see it?
Look at the fork, on the front wheel. You can compare with the one below…
The impact bent his front fork back a good 3 inches. Luckily the wheel itself was not damaged, but Ben’s bike was no longer safe to ride. And it was 6p.m. in Great Falls on a Friday.
We had 3 options. Find someone who would bend the fork back in place, buy a replacement fork, or buy a ticket home.
We called around and pretty much everyone wouldn’t bend Ben’s fork back – it was a liability, and the only person who was willing to do it was 250 miles away. To buy a replacement, we would have to wait till the next morning to order the part, then pay a ridiculous amount to get it shipped overnight and pick it up on Monday (because Sunday is, well, Sunday) then pay someone to swap the parts out. Buying a ticket home was hardly an option. Also, it was getting dark.
We called the only people we didn’t really know, John and Kristen Judis, the couple who let us stay in their cabin the night before, and told them our situation. Of course, they helped us out, and were more than happy to do so. We jammed our bikes into Kristen’s blue subaru and were fed and entertained with a leftover keg of beer, s’mores, a snippet of the Tour de France, and a dog who liked to go swimming in the uninhabited coy pond. The Judis’ were also hosting a man who had been on the road for just over a year, touring around the country to visit every single national forest (not parks – he was very strict about the distinction) the US has to offer, with only 4 or so more to go.
That night, we made the best decision we could – we were going to rent a car and drive to Whitefish, MT to the frame builder who said he would bend poor Rosanonte’s fork back in place, 250 miles away.
$200 later + the under 25 fee (Ben still doesn’t have his wallet, remember?), we somehow managed to stuff our bikes into a Nissan Altima, thanked John and Kristen for their hospitality, and hit the road, although this time with an engine. It didn’t take long before my legs started cramping. Since we had been looking forward to the scenic ride all the way up the 89 to Glacier National Park, that’s what we took, and were bummed to find the rain clouds covering the supposedly stunning view of the Rocky Mountains. It took us 3 hours to cover what would have taken us 3 days, and before long, we were passing through the mountains into Whitefish, both of us dying to get back in our saddles.
We pulled up to Chris Boedeker’s house, a custom bike builder, and brought Ben’s broken bicycle into his garage workshop. After Chris assured Ben that it would either work or it wouldn’t, the boys began bending with all their might. And I say “their might” because, well, take a look.
As luck would have it (it seemed to have been absent the last few days after all), there were no ripples or crumpling in the steel and it was deemed good to go. After a few test rides we were on our merry way, although still with this damn car! (Check out Chris’s bikes, at Boedie Cycles)
We drove our car to a far away campsite where we had to pay the car entrance fee (even though we were waved through because we only had $5 in cash and the sites were $16) and we went right on car camping in the middle of our bicycle touring trip, and it was pretty strange. At least we didn’t have to hang any of our food bags that night.
The bent fork created a lot more problems than I had anticipated. Now that we were in Whitefish with Ben’s bike somewhat fixed, we were now at the opposite end of the Going-to-the-Sun Highway through Glacier, a road we had been fantasizing about riding since Ohio (perhaps a sentiment sustained by all the corn).
We returned the car early the next morning just as it started pouring rain, and waited under an awning in an airport parking lot for about an hour putting our bikes back together and waiting for the rain to subside. Of course, it didn’t. We hopped on our bikes, rain gear and all, and rode out onto the busy highway in the drizzling rain. Sooner or later Ben got a flat, and for the briefest of moments, standing there on the side of the highway, I thought of the Nissan Altima…
We watched the magnificent mountains looming above us get taller and taller as we rode toward the park entrance. There’s nothing like a good glacial mountain-scape to make you feel small and insignificant.
We had finally decided that we would ride in from the west entrance, take a shuttle that fortunately carried bicycles all the way to the east side of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, and ride it all the way back out the west entrance again – there was no way we were going to miss this.
And that’s exactly what we did.
McDonald Lake at Sprague Creek Campground – stayed at a hiker/biker campsite with a few hikers
Next morning, we took the bus over the pass, getting a chance to see what we were getting ourselves into.
We took the shuttle down to Sun Point, where we hiked around Saint Mary Lake and made jokes about getting eaten by grizzly bears.
What jingles and smells like peppers?
you guessed it, a grizzly bear! (think bells and bear spray)
We rode down to the Rising Sun campsite, making sure to pick up enough rations before settling in.
That night, we shared a hiker/biker campsite with some hikers, two boys just out of college, hiking around…wherever. As we sipped our not-so-frosty beverages and filled ourselves up on ramen supreme, the boys invited themselves over to our table with their boxed wine and we started to chat. They were on a journey with no destination, just wandering around exploring the great outdoors – apparently this was their second night at the campsite. The folks in the site next to us ended up cooking more then they could eat themselves and offered the 4 of us steak, salad, and a ton of bread; of course we said yes to everything. Somehow, even after eating 2 massive meals in one sitting, we decided we needed more wine, so we all trekked our way over to the general store, just outside the campground. Long story short, we stayed up and chatted for quite a while. I can’t remember exactly what about at this point in time, but a part of me wonders if they’re still hanging out at that campsite…
We packed all our gear at 7:30 the next morning and headed back over the pass. ~15 miles of steady incline, ~1,500 ft. elevation gain, all of it absolutely beautiful.
We made it! (3rd crossing of the Continental Divide)
We had originally planned to do some hiking at the top to comply with the 11am-4pm bicycle restriction (due to insane traffic), but the one hike we were planning to do was shut down due to a recent snow accident so we decided to keep on rolling all the way down to Lake McDonald since we still had plenty of time. However, because the road has been undergoing renovation, our trip down wasn’t exactly smooth. We met a few cyclists on our way down and saw a whole load of them heading up.
We took full advantage of an all you can eat buffet at the Lake McDonald Lodge then sat watching the thunderclouds roll over the lake outside the hunting lodge where I slept off my lunch. Between the rain showers, we ate ice cream, met some cyclists from South America touring the western US, and shared a campsite at Apgar with one of the hikers we met on our first night at Sprague Creek. We discovered luck was back on our side when we heard there had been a mudslide on the western side of Logan Pass, causing the road to be closed around 1 in the afternoon for what turned into a few days. If we had decided to hike around, we would still have been up there and would have had to go back out the eastern entrance and all the way around. Phew!
We left Glacier in the morning using a secret bike path that could get any biker/hiker in without paying the already reduced fee (it’s right after the bridge crossing the Middle Fork Flathead River on the right side and takes you all the way to Apgar Village. If you’ve passed the “Welcome to Glacier” sign, you passed it!). We took the same road back into Whitefish, where we restocked on food and gear, then headed up the 93 on one of the worst roads of the trip. No shoulder, tons of potholes, and logging trucks going 60 miles an hour on a windy road. If I ever made any headway on growing some hair on my chest, that was the day.
We ran into a few cyclists headed to Glacier, 2 older men and an older woman by herself, all 3 of them in the silver fox stage of their lives – a good reminder that anyone can ride their bike across the country as long as you set your mind to it. Although, all of them seemed pretty burnt out from the mountains between us and Seattle.
That night we were lucky to find a hiker/biker campsite at Dickey Lake for only $2 that was set apart from all the car campers. We watched a beautiful sunset over the lake and had a campfire for the first time since Ohio!
We rode north to Eureka, about 10 miles south of the Canadian border, then south along Lake Koocanusa all the way to Libby Dam. The ride was hilly with spectacular views of the lake. We found a spot with easy access to the water for lunch and Ben took a dip while I examined the flowers.
We stayed the night just below Libby Dam at a free campsite with no running water. The air was hot and stagnant; we considered jumping in the lake, but the water was murky and had a sour smell to it, so we laid in the grass, choosing to be bitten by the growing number of mosquitoes over sweating in our jackets. A fellow camper gave us a gallon of water in a plastic jug with a hole in the bottom while his friend talked about how bad the skeeters were this year. We crawled into our tent early that night…
The next morning we rode into Libby, stopping for at a diner for the usual breakfast of champions (2 eggs over-easy, hashbrowns, 2 wheat toasts with jam, 2 strips of bacon, and cheap oj). Bellies full, we sped off to meet Randy, our host for the night, at Kootenai Falls, who insisted that we check out the falls before he drove us to his home.
Since we had already seen so many waterfalls on our trip, Ben and I talked about the qualities of a satisfying waterfall experience. This is what we decided: the most important factor is force; the more powerful the better, whether it’s quantity or simply a good rock bed to splash upon. The second is framing; any waterfall can be made more spectacular with some healthy natural foliage or a good vantage point of a tiered waterfall. Third is height; there’s nothing better than a far away view of a tall waterfall falling through a sea of green. Kootenai Falls, while short and framed poorly, was pure force, and therefore good enough for me.
We hopped into Randy’s truck and he drove us to his humble abode, the third house we stayed in that was built by its owner. Randy is a friend of Barney Sokol, a gentleman we stayed with in Asheville, NC, who is an old family friend of mine. Barney was excited to find we were headed in the same direction his long time friend lived and was eager for us to meet.
Not to long after we arrived at the house and just after we demolished the bowl of cherries (local, in season, and absolutely delicious!), a wind storm ripped through eastern Montana, blowing over a tree in the front yard before Ben’s very eyes. It’s a good thing we were aware of the upcoming storm – I’m not too sure our tent would have survived…
Randy’s wife, Judy, and their daughter and grand-daughter eventually arrived after having pulled over during the worst of the wind storm and then waiting while fallen trees were removed from the road (they were returning from a successful day of garage sale shopping) just in time for the power to go out. I knew we should have done laundry first!
After the grand tour of the library, kids rooms, and clothes line, admiring Judy’s quilting table, talking about how Barney married Randy and Judy just outside on the lawn, hiking out to the cabin on their property, and feasting on venison shot, cleaned, and prepared by Randy himself, we curled into bed, thankful to be out of the wind.
Next morning we grabbed our gear, which finally included Ben’s wallet, and hit the tree limb littered road, where I managed to get my very last flat tire of the trip. We also noticed my back rack was missing a bolt, so Ben jammed a piece of chip in the slot and we rode onward to Idaho and beyond.