“I sat at the Canadian border alone with a bicycle and a hammock, trying to remember a time when I still thought this was a good idea…”
This is a long, meandering summary of my experience planning, executing, and reflecting back on a 500+ mile solo bicycle tour through the Montana wilderness. At just over 9,000 words, it would take a slow reader about 45 minutes to read the entire thing. If you’re not big on reading you can skip that part and watch some videos from the trip here, or you can just scroll through and check out the photos.
Each post stands on it’s own, but as a group they form a narrative. This isn’t just about some long-ass bike ride, but also self-reliance, uncertainty, and making difficult decisions.
As you read this I hope you will catch the itch to move, to explore with curiosity, and to do. Read this if you want, but regardless of how much you read, I want to encourage you to make the mistake of action. Let’s do something. Not something planned out, organized with a neat little spreadsheet and fee schedule. No, it has to be something untested and uncertain. In other words: Let’s create an adventure for ourselves.
I’ll be continuing this bike tour in the summer of 2012, would you like to join me?
The Big Plan
(written February 3rd, 2011)
“I want to ride a bicycle across the country.”
It started with one stupid idea. Originally I was going to try riding coast-to-coast, but it turns out riding a bike with skinny tires in tights isn’t as appealing as scaling mountains in the mud.
So I started looking for more info. I’d never heard of anyone doing it, I half-thought it was impossible. If not in the general sense, certainly impossible for me.
Then I found out about the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route; a series of trails stretching from Canada to Mexico loosely following the Continental Divide.
50% of the people that attempt the route don’t make it all the way. And me, I didn’t even have a bike. But I started reading and thinking about my finances, health, and capabilities. Nothing I could come up with would kill the idea. The more I read the more it seemed like I might actually be able to pull this off. So the plan was born:
I am going to attempt to ride the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
– Henry David Thoreau
Clearly, this isn’t in line with any type of typical motive. One big motivator is that I know I’ll learn a lot. I also like the whole minimalist student naturalist philosophy thing a trip like this has going for itself.
But no, it won’t help my career or relationships. It’s not profitable, it won’t help other people and it isn’t part of any big master plan. I simply believe that life is short, and this fits who I am today, so I’m going for it.
Why the gdmbr?
I try to use the 10-year rule when big decisions come up. For those who aren’t familiar, the 10-year rule says that whenever you are presented with a choice, you choose the option you would prefer to have taken ten years later.
The GDMBR is the longest off-pavement bike route in the world.
Whether I make it or not, this is sure to be one hell of an adventure. Right now my priorities are arranged in a way that puts this journey at the top of my list.
The Fear Questions
“What about gear/supplies/logistics/solitude/etc…?”
The simple answer is that I don’t know. I am comfortable with that, but many people shake their head at an answer like that. The bottom line is that those questions stem from the fear that people feel when they consider themselves trying something like this. If I wait until I have all the answers to all of the details I will never do this.
“What if you don’t make it?”
I have no commitment to the outcome, but I have 100% commitment to the journey. That alone should take me pretty far. If injury, equipment failure, or trail closure keep me from making it the entire distance, I will be disappointed but not crushed. I may try again another year, or not who knows.
Image courtesy of the Adventure Cycling Association.
“It feels as if the whole world has turned against me, and started pushing in.”
(written 9 days before leaving on my trip)
Preparing for something that is totally outside of your range of experiences is extremely trying. It’s hard to find support, and building the forward momentum from a standstill can really test your resolve.
Reactions from my friends ranged from chuckling disbelief to complete appall, almost no one approved completely. Over time, I got fairly good at selling my idea, and at least one person (thanks Jeff) supported my plan completely.
As the date grew near, the time came for a number of very difficult conversations. I had to tell my parents, and negotiate the time off with my boss. This was particularly trying since I had only been at my current job for 3 months.
The planned 10 week trip got cut down to 3 weeks, with the agreement that I would get one week paid in full, and I’d actually have a job to come back to (something I wasn’t sure of at the outset).
With no feasible way to ride the whole route, I was now free to leisurely explore the forests of Montana for 3 weeks. A slight disappointment, but by no means a failure.
Let’s Talk About Flow
I’m new to bike touring, but I understand it in a unique way because of my skateboarding and snowboarding background. All 3 share a central element that makes them very unlike other sports.
I’m talking about flow here. Media and advertisers love trying to convince the outside community that these sports are all about 900’s and triple corks, but that was never what it was about. Those over-hyped, ultra-competitive action sport celebrities are actually ridiculed in the subculture communities that they’re supposed to be representing. Similarly, bike touring is NOT about mileage, speed, or elevation stats. They are part of it, but they are an auxiliary to the center.
These metrics are used to measure progress. And it is progress, not the metrics, that matter. Pushing your own limits and exploring the boundaries of who you are is what it’s all about.
I’m sure some uninformed people will look at my stats page (coming soon) of how far I rode and what it cost and they’ll make some blanket “wow, that’s a lot!” or “meh, I’ve seen something more impressive” statement and move on. These people see the RESULT, but they never even glimpse the reality of what makes it attractive. Some people get it and understand the inherent awesomeness, and others just see some numbers and a bike ride and shrug, “gee whiz, that’s nice”.
This is the whole “it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey” cliche in action. If you only focus on the destination, you miss the entire point. The point is to loosen the reigns of control, make decisions on the fly, and learn something about yourself and the world you live in. When you pop up, drop in, or ride out alone for the first time you have no choice but to say “I don’t know what is going to happen. I’m scared. I’m going to trust things will work out anyway.”
First you learn the technique, then eventually you realize that is not a skateboarding skill, it is a life skill. This is why flow people say things like “This isn’t a hobby, it’s a lifestyle”.
The “ball sports” lifestyle is about community, teamwork and sacrifice for the group.
The “action sports” lifestyle is about individuality, spontaneous creativity, and trust in yourself.
Each type of sport mirrors a personality type, the trick is aligning who you are with what you do.
Image thanks to macropoulos
“…a lot of emotional difficulties this first 24 hours”
We arrived at the Canadian border and I unloaded all my gear. I struggled with the load and the rear rack, which I had never used before. After a quick goodbye, I pedaled off awkwardly down the road, with a flood of things going through my head. Most of them went something like:
“This is crazy! I’m going to be doing this for how many hours!? Calm down, there’s still a long way to go… It’s so far!” and so it went.
I pedaled down back county roads, along a highway through a small town, and then began climbing into the wilderness. I fought with my anxieties and tried to find a rhythm, but mostly I just fumbled for some kind of grasp on the situation I had found myself in.
Then the fatigue set in.
After 40 miles of pedaling, I was exhausted. I had been climbing for a few hours, pace slowing along the way, until I turned onto a rocky side road with no sign. My trail book simply said “Turn right off main road onto FR 114. Uphill grade steepens.”
Grade steepens? Seriously? After around 4 miles of straight-up mountain scaling, I collapsed beside the trail and passed out. I’m not sure how long I slept, maybe an hour. I was startled awake by a truck that passed by, and with a burst of energy from my nap I continued pedaling to the top of the pass.
I don’t know if it was worth it, but once I reached the top, this was my reward:
At the base of the hill I found my first campsite, Tuchuck Campground. It had 26 sites in all, and I was the sole occupant.
I had just enough time to set up camp, figure out how to cook a freeze-dried meal, and desperately try to hang a bear bag before it was completely dark.
The bear bag rule says to hang your food and scented items 10’ up and 4’ from any vertical support. Unfortunately, I was in the forest of limbless trees so my food was left hanging pathetically from a dead twig 8 feet up. I went back to camp discouraged, slipped into my cocoon of warmth and fell asleep immediately.
Then the animals came.
I awoke to a large mammal sniffing and snorting somewhere right next to my hammock. it was a loud inhale though the nose, then a rough exhale through the mouth that rattled in its throat. Like the sound a dog makes when it’s trying to catch the scent of something, but bigger. Terrified, I reached for my knife and said in my best mountain man voice “Hey bear, back up. I got a knife.” (seriously) but I still heard big, heavy footsteps circling my camp.
Somehow I fell asleep, and woke up again to the same noises. This time I jumped when I woke up, and heard the tell-tale sound of an elk bounding away. Relieved that it was elk and not a bear, I drifted off.
This happened at least 4 times that night.
To understand what this was like, it’s important to understand a few things. This was remote in the extreme. No one, and I mean no one was around. I have camped alone many times, but usually there will be some other campers down the trail somewhere.
This was also right in the middle of an area that contains 98% of the lower 48 state’s grizzly bear population. Not just grizzlies, of course black bears too. It’s pretty bad when you hear a rustling in the trees and hope it’s only a black bear.
Oh yeah, and there’s also the fact that I WAS IN A FUCKING HAMMOCK. Don’t get me wrong, for setting up/breaking camp and for getting a good night’s sleep hammocks can’t be beat, but for escaping a midnight attack with your life they are easily the worst. At least with a tent you have the comforting 2’ buffer around your sleeping limbs. At least sleeping under the stars offers you the possibility of getting up and running.
A hammock is like a straight jacket. Even with my bear spray, I would still have to get out of my mummy bag and roll out from underneath the tarp to use it or I’d just end up with a face full of pepper along with my mauling. It’s basically a death-prison, albeit a comfortable one.
What I’m trying to get at here is that mortality becomes very real. It’s the kind of real you feel when you barely escape a car accident, except it looms over you for as long as you’re willing to pay attention to it.
This, I decided, was going to be harder than I thought.
“I cannot describe how tired I am…”
My first morning on the trail started with wandering back to my bear bag, absolutely positive that some beast had shredded it in the night and left me without food. In the light, it was almost comical how poorly I’d hung it, and I decided that I positively had to get better and the whole hang-a-bag-in-a-tree thing. You wouldn’t think it would be that hard, but it isn’t always easy to get a 10lb bag 10 feet in the air and 4 feet from any tree. The good news is that as the trip progressed, I consistently found ways to hang it higher and further out each time.
As I walked back into to camp, I noticed that my hammock was hanging directly across a game trail. My visitors last night must’ve stumbled across me while they were trying to make use of it.
I packed up muttering to myself “Stupid newbie mistake. Jim, you suck at this.”
I set out and the first 15 miles or so were great. I pedaled down a gradually descending path in amazingly wild surroundings. I came across an old forest service cabin with a well that I graciously used to refill my water supply.
I met back up with a larger dirt road and rode along a ridge with views for miles in every direction. It was on this ridge that I first noticed the dark clouds swallowing up the sky.
When the rain started I didn’t worry much, I just threw on my rain gear and kept moving. It didn’t bother me when the rain picked up ether, or even when I turned onto a long, climbing side road that took me up toward the mountaintops. But when the streams started flowing down the trail, when my wet pack started falling off my rear rack because the water weighed so much, when the lightning started flashing and the cracking thunder followed less than a second afterward; my high spirits from the easy riding a few hours before had been spent.
I found a big tree with some dry ground underneath, and again I fell down and passed out. I awoke to a slightly less aggressive downpour, soaked and cranky.
From that point on, each pedal, each tire revolution, was a challenge. I’d promise myself 100 pedals, then 50, then 20 pedals and I’d rest. I would stand straddling the bike, chest resting on the handlebars, nearly falling over while the rain beat on the back of my hood and fell onto the ground in front of me. I stood in this resting position often, and for longer and longer each time.
Somewhere after my 5th wind, after all sense of time and distance had passed away, I came to Red Meadow Lake. It was an incredible sight, a giant lake on the top of a mountain, hillsides rolling with fog that had woven itself between the trees. The rain stopped and steam rose from the ground as the sun peered through a tiny gap in the clouds.
It was beautiful, but I was wet, spent, and completely defeated.
I found a campsite, paced around in a confused daze, then changed my mind on the campsite half-a-dozen times. In a haze, I finally gained enough sense to setup my hammock, and hung my rain gear to drip out a bit.
I was thrilled to find a bear box at this site, which would spare me the humiliation of going through the “simple” task of hanging a bag in a tree. I made dinner, washed up in the surprisingly warm lake (fed by hot springs maybe?), and went straight to the hammock.
I was a fragment of my normal self; the hollow shell of a man. I was convinced that I wouldn’t make it to Whitefish the following day, where I was scheduled to arrive and check-in with my roommate. The pace, weather, and terrain had beaten me. I decided that I wouldn’t even look at my proposed route for tomorrow. I’d head back the way I came and take an alternate path to Polebridge. There I could stay at the hostel, and then make arrangements to go home.
During the night, the rain poured so hard it pooled up an inch deep under my hammock where I had set my rain gear to dry. Also, my Thermarest sprang a leak, and I had to blow it back up 4 times.
One positively amazing thing is that during all of this, I stayed very dry and warm.
Days 3 & 4
“The idea of a ‘big trip’ and the reality of it are very, very different…”
On the morning of the 3rd day I got up and broke camp in the rain. I made my breakfast in a small square covered slab in front of the outhouse (really) and reluctantly grabbed my map to stare at while I ate.
To my surprise, the trip log said “The roads today are quite moderate …and mostly downhill to boot …You’ll lose half a mile of elevation en route to Whitefish.”
Slowly, I realized that I might actually be able to continue forward. I had mentally given up, the whole idea of moving forward with my plans was completely out of the question last night.
Then as I gathered my stuff and packed up it hit me: I can adjust the pace.
Obvious? Maybe, but I had been focusing only on getting to Whitefish on schedule. I’d given my contacts instructions to call the Forest Service if I didn’t call by 9am the next morning. But once I got to Whitefish, I could change the schedule however I wanted. That changed everything!
I finished packing and set out on the trail, where I was rewarded with a 30 mile downhill ride back to Whitefish. Check it out:
[Video coming soon]
I was so stiff and tired I fell twice for no reason on my way down the hill, but it didn’t matter. I was filled with hope …Maybe after I got to Whitefish, I could clean/dry my stuff, fix my Thermarest, and actually continue on after all.
Last night, I had given up. That second night turned out to be the lowest point of the entire trip, and the third evening was one of the highest. The range of emotions I felt over that 24 hour period were astonishing.
At home, you’re fairly insulated from disaster. (It’s probably a safe bet that you’ll have 3 meals today and shelter tonight.) At the same time, you’re kept from the deep sense of appreciation that you get from little things when they’re not immediate and abundant. You exist in a sort-of emotional purgatory.
On the trail, that flat-lining emotional life is history. You experience shattering lows and mind-blowing highs.
I suppose it is better experienced than explained, so I’ll just point to this fact and leave it as encouragement for everyone to try it sometime.
I pulled into Whitefish feeling like I could conquer anything. The following day I would rest, repair my Thermarest, and readjust the mileage to a more manageable pace. Win win win.
“When you have a valuable experience, in a sense, you become more valuable to those around you, because you have more to contribute.”
After a day of rest, I set out for Bigfork. Today’s route was along mostly unused county roads. I zigzagged south, got lost for a while, then rode along the Flathead River into Bigfork. I had covered 53 miles by 4pm. So much for a ‘more manageable pace’.
I pulled into what was clearly a tourist town. Bigfork sits at the shore of Flathead Lake; the biggest lake west of the Mississippi. I found a small park to rest in, and my plan was to find food and a campground, in that order.
This is where I met Alan. He was a large man in his mid 40’s, who had come over to see what I was doing hovering over a map and sitting next to a bike with a giant trailer attached. After a short exchange, he invited me up to a pot luck they had going on. There would be Sloppy Joes, Canadian Corn, and live music.
I felt awkward about the situation for about 5 seconds before my stomach made the decision for me, and all of the sudden I was sitting at a packed picnic table eating Sloppy Joes and talking with a bunch of strangers and their families.
It turns out Alan is a lawyer, educated at Cambridge who has traveled a lot himself. We had an interesting conversation that wandered between travel, politics, faith, and of course food. He even offered to let me camp in his back yard!
At one point I asked about campgrounds in the area and found there was one close by. Since it was Labor Day weekend I decided to head over to make sure I could get a spot. I thanked everyone and set out toward the huge lake.
I couldn’t find a spot at Wayfarer’s State Park, but they were overpriced anyway. I rode three and a half miles down the road to Outlaw Campsite, and spent a pleasant evening reading and reflecting on my adventure so far.
This day was something of a turning point in the trip. The first 3 days were defined by trying circumstances, and a difficult transition. From this day through the end of the trip, things got easier and more pleasant. I fell into a sort of rhythm with the pedals, and just sat staring at the landscapes.
“Swan Lake is a beautiful place.”
The next morning I found that Outlaw campsite provides showers, the kind with mechanical quarter receptacles by the spout that you feed every five minutes. I took advantage of this luxury, packed all my stuff up and then left only to find that my front tire was completely flat.
I took my bag off the trailer, dug out the patch kit and pump, and set to repairing in the morning sun. It didn’t take long, and I was more upset that I didn’t notice before packing everything up than I was with the actual flat.
5 miles in, I joined back up with the actual route, and started moving south. I changed the route at the last minute and took the forest highway down to Swan Lake.
Montana has a lot of lakes. A LOT. So after I’d seen a dozen, one of which was the largest in the state, I wasn’t expecting much. That said, Swan Lake was probably the most scenic place on my trip. Second only to Glacier National Park, which doesn’t count since I went there by car on my rest day in Whitefish.
I recorded my total daily mileage at 26.2 miles, which by this trip’s standards was incredibly light. I pulled into town in the early afternoon, with lunch already in me and nothing to do. I had called ahead to find a campsite, and the guy assured me they had a spot and would “probably be around here somewhere at some point.”
In rural Montana, the demand for customer service is second to the demand of community. When I pulled into town, there wasn’t a soul. I eventually learned that there was a wedding going on, which everyone was attending. I found the restaurant, the trading post, and the casino/bar all empty, some with hand-made signs that said “gone to wedding”.
I didn’t mind much, as I had all day so I found a spot along the lake and spent most of the afternoon reading.
This was also when I started recording audio on my Mp3 player. For the first few days, it was all I could do to survive and keep moving. By the 5th ride day, though, I had internalized some of the skills and didn’t have to concentrate as much. My mind was free to wander and I captured some ideas that I’ll sprinkle in here throughout.
As the sun dropped lower and lower, I decided it was time to claim a spot to sleep for the night, trading post or not. I pulled into the trading post and again it was closed, but this time there was activity around the pond behind the building.
I went around and found some people building a foot-bridge, who pointed me to a trailer where the owners lived. After a knock at the door and a long wait, a visibly intoxicated man stumbled to the door and slurred out an apologetic greeting.
I spent some time comically trying to explain that I needed somewhere to camp, and found while he was staggering around looking for the bathroom/shower key that they have cabins for just $20 a night. “ssfull” he said with a shrug so I took my key and set up camp.
I had just set up camp and was walking around the pond when his wife pulled in and assured me there was a cabin available, so I packed up my hammock and moved into the nice little cabin for the night. It didn’t have plumbing or electricity, but it did have a roof and a floor that wasn’t dirt, which is pretty extravagant when you’ve been outside for a few days straight.
Recorded inside the cabin:
Wife: “Knock Knock!”
Me: “What’s up?”
“I was right, we do have the cabin rented out!”
“Sweety, I’m sorry I didn’t go back and look at the book, we’ve been at a wedding, and well, they just came.”
[Her husband whispers to her]
“Well, yeah, you know what we got a house with a bed. It has a bed and a chair and you can just, you can do that. On the house”
“Yep. Come on”
“Are you sure? I can just camp you saw how quick I can set up my–”
Husband: “You got the house come on! it’s got a shower and bathroom, a bed, way better. “
Me: “Well, there’s a lot of confusion here today guys,”
Wife: “Yeah, you know it’s– it’s because we’re— we’ve been at a wedding.”
Husband: “Put it in your blog man.”
Wife: “…and you know we just– I feel so bad!”
Me: “Okay well let me get my stuff so they can get in here.”
And that’s how it went. I found myself in a double-wide trailer, empty except for a single chair and a bed with no sheets. This was probably the strangest thing that happened on my trip.
I went to the bar for dinner, where a cute girl served me drinks and food. She was wearing those little Victoria’s Secret shorts that say “Pink” on the ass, and I couldn’t help but wonder where she got those shorts. There isn’t a Victoria’s Secret within 100 miles of this place.
After a nice dinner, a few beers and good company, I headed back “home” for the night. I sat on the back porch and watched the sun fall. A few deer made their way through the forest in front of me, cautious and meticulous.
After dark I went back inside the trailer I’d accidentally rented for the night and slept like a rock.
“I just saw a very large old guy riding a 4-wheeler side saddle down the highway.”
I woke up early and thoroughly enjoyed my hot shower, packed up and headed to the trading post to drop off my keys. When I walked in, they welcomed me with fresh coffee.
There was a small group gathered around a table in back, reading the paper and casually conversing. This was a slow-paced, aimless, open discussion, the kind of conversation you’d hear between a group of retirees.
I sat and listened as they went back and forth about shooting pack-rats that had gotten into their trucks, about only dating women who “Have a 4WD and know how to gut a deer”, and about how there was a pending investigation into whether Gibson Guitars was using illegally imported wood.
On my way out I thanked them and tried to pay for my lodging last night, but was politely refused on account of yesterday’s inconveniences. These were real people; not polite out of some sense of obligation, but because they chose treat me that way.
For me, that is seriously refreshing. In the city, you can count on generic impersonal politeness, but “How are you today?” isn’t a real question, it’s just part of the script. “Thanks, have a nice day!” is merely a social cue to move aside for the next paying customer.
Personally, I’d prefer a genuine, honest clerk over a fake “polite” one any day. Sure, they may be gruff, but at least they’re not bullshitting you.
I continued pedaling down forest highway 83 until I reached Holland Lake where I had planned to camp for the night. I stared up the path for long enough to decide that I still felt strong and didn’t want to stop moving, so I kept right on going all the way to Lake Alva.
It turned out to be a great place to camp for the night, I wandered along the trails for a while (video below) and spent the rest of the night reading and resting.
I ventured into the wilderness partly because I wanted to get away from all the people. Along the way I learned that it wasn’t all the people I was trying to get away from; it was just the assholes.
After all, we want to feel human. We don’t want to be transaction machines who are bid for and treated as dollar signs or votes or statistics, marginalized and squashed down into some happy, predictable, manageable average.
In the morning, I went through the new normal routine of grabbing my bear bag, packing up camp while my breakfast cooked, eating, washing up, then rolling out into the cool morning air.
The ride was very short to Seeley Lake, and when I pulled into town in the early afternoon I spent some time riding around and getting familiar. I found the post-office, scouted the town for any sign of a shop that may have bike supplies, then checked into my hotel.
I had used a small adjustable wrench and a ball-point pen to pry the tire off back in Bigfork (take that, MacGyver!) and I scuffed up the rim in the process. I was worried that using this approach more than once could damage my rim or ruin my tire, both of which would be a huge problem.
There wasn’t a single place to get bicycle supplies in town, so I decided to stick to the highways again on my way to Lincoln; a 3-day ride from here.
This was one of my bounce towns, so I was able to grab my supply box from the post office to resupply. I suppose this is a good place to explain the Bounce Box Strategy:
When you are carrying everything you need to survive, every ounce matters. Ask any backpacker. People have been known to drill holes in their toothbrushes, remove cellophane packaging, and do pretty much anything to reduce the weight of the gear they carry.
I read an account of one GDMBR rider who freaked out and sent most of his gear (including his warm clothing and first-aid supplies) home after a long day with a heavy pack. In Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods his walking partner freaks out and throws away food, water bottles, and coffee filters out of frustration with the weight. Twice.
Needless to say, when you can’t lay the burden of tow onto an engine or animal you realize quickly how much a pound really is, and after a few hours you start to wonder if you really need that chain tool, that fleece you haven’t even worn, or that extra water that you were told to always bring.
Enter the bounce box.
I stole the bounce box strategy from through-hikers on the Pacific Crest, Continental Divide, and Appalachian trails. The idea is simple:
- Post offices provide a service called General Delivery.
- There is a lot of gear that will be needed sparingly, supplies that can’t be bought in small towns, and consumables (coffee, mixed nuts, chain lube) that can be rationed into smaller portions to save weight.
- This extra stuff can’t be left out, but it can be shipped to the next town.
- General Delivery to the rescue!
So that’s the basics of the bounce box concept, and I used it to the fullest. I planned hotel nights in advance, and each time I came to a hotel town I’d stop by the post office and grab my box to resupply.
By the time I shipped it home, my box was ragged, scribbled all over, and nearly empty. I was very happy with how it worked out.
So anyway, this was what I did in Seeley Lake. I took multiple showers, re-packed my gear, and planned on an early start the next morning.
Before leaving Seeley Lake, I decided it would be a good idea to book a hotel in Lincoln. Since it was the next (and only) town on the way to Helena, it was fairly important to secure a bed/roof/shower on my way through.
The first hotel I tried was booked solid. So was the second. And the third. Apparently there’s a car show in Lincoln every year, and the attendees like to book their hotels a year in advance. Great.
I found that while there wasn’t any vacancy in town on Friday, but there was one with an open room on Thursday. My three-day ride would now have to be done in two.
I rode out cold and discouraged, at a drudging pace.
Only a few miles out of town, I was passed by a couple European cyclists like I was standing still. They greeted me with an amusing accent and then pedaled up the gradual hill, leaving me far behind after just a few minutes.
I’m not sure why, but it was really motivating. This was the first time I’d seen loaded tourists on my ride, and I doubled my pace to try keeping up. They soon disappeared around a bend, and that was the last I saw of them.
Later I came across a large group of about a dozen cyclists, all riding uber-light road bikes without packs. We all stopped at a lake and I sat to talk with them for a bit.
They told me they were doing a supported tour on the Great Parks North route. One rider bashfully pointed out the supply van as it passed by toward the next checkpoint with all of their gear (read: weight).
I rode with them for a while, and we all stopped at a convenience store where highway 83 meets highway 200, where we would part ways.
I found one of the guys had done a lot of touring, in Alaska, Germany, and all over the US. He seemed impressed that I was doing my first tour solo, self-supported, and on the GDMBR. This gave me a huge sense of pride, since this guy clearly knew his stuff and was a part of the touring community.
With niche activities, you never know quite how you measure up until you talk with someone in the community. While I’d spent an entire year researching this online, I hadn’t had the chance to talk about it with any other distance cyclists, so I had no idea if I looked like a badass or just an idiot.
It was here that I realized that I really wanted a ride partner. Between the motivational boost I got from the Euro pair and the morale boost I got from the supported cycle group, I decided that I will do whatever it takes to get a ride partner for my next trip.
I rode through a “town” that proudly announced that the Population was 50, while the dog population was “about 100”. When the dogs outnumber the people 2:1, you know you’re experience will be a bit unusual.
Knowing this, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when I walked into the tiny deli and all 3 people just stopped and stared at me silently.
In a normal situation I wouldn’t hesitate to introduce myself, but when you walk into a place of service you expect –well, service. I literally had to say “I was hoping for some lunch” before one of the girls snapped out of it and rushed around the counter to get me a table. I’d like to think this was because I’m so ruggedly handsome, but somehow I don’t think that was it.
After a nice home-style lunch, I followed a seldom-used dirt road through empty fields to Brown’s Lake. It would’ve been a nice place to fish, but wasn’t the greatest place to camp.
I hung my hammock from the only two hammock-friendly trees in the tiny camping area while swatting away thousands of flies, then passed the evening reading, wading in the cool water, and skipping rocks.
Days 10 & 11
On my way to Lincoln, I had the privilege of conquering the challenging 5,994’ Huckleberry Pass.
I stayed in the Three Bears Motel; a small, 6 room place with a very home-like setup. The following day, I pedaled out to a campground outside town and hung my hammock there. This would be my second rest day of the trip.
The Whole “Hammock” Thing
For this trip, although I camped 11 out of 17 nights, I chose not to bring a tent. This invited plenty of hammock questions from my camping neighbors. Most seemed to think the hammock would be more of an inconvenience than a tent; I disagree for several reasons:
- You don’t sleep on the ground. Having spent plenty of nights on hard, uneven ground I know how disappointing it can be to set your tent up and crawl in only to find a giant rock in your back. With a hammock, this doesn’t happen.
- It weighs less, and takes up less space. I use a Hennesey Hammock, which weighs in at 2 lbs 9 oz. Tents pack up bulkier, and the poles make them heavier. Enough said.
- It is faster/easier to set up. I got to the point where I could hang my hammock and have it completely sleep-ready by the time my dinner water came to a boil. The hammock setup itself takes about 2 minutes, it almost always takes longer to find suitable trees than it takes to get the thing strung up.
Common objections I hear:
“It looks like it would hurt my back.”
You know those Tempur-Pedic mattress ads where they talk about removing pressure points? Well, a hammock naturally removes all pressure points. Once you learn to sleep on the diagonal, you can lay nearly flat. And remember, we’re comparing this to sleeping on the ground, that’s not too hard to beat.
“I can’t sleep on my back.”
Although I prefer sleeping on my back, I often rolled to the side, or half way to the side after a night or 2. In a hammock, you can lay in a half-back half-side kind of position which is pretty comfortable. I’m sure it’s not for everyone, but I’m not the only one who thinks it’s damn comfortable.
“What do you do when there’s nowhere to hang it?”
I go to ground, and end up with a bivy tent. Pretty simple really. I have to say I’d probably bring a tent if I was camping in the desert or the plains, but in the forest areas it’s pretty easy to find a suitable place. I went to ground twice on this trip, this is what it looks like:
So, I explored all of Lincoln pretty quickly, spent some time in Lambkin’s Diner talking with the 2 nice ladies who worked there, read a bunch, then went to the bar to close out the night.
I happened to sit next to a guy who I found was visiting from Denver. He had also spent time working in Brookings, OR, which I had too. It’s pretty interesting how often things like that tend to happen, he was an audio engineer which I was interested in for a time, so we talked about recording, music, Oregon and Colorado.
I left with a pleasant buzz and wove my way back to the little campsite on the edge of town.
In the middle of the night, I was woken up by a guy on a 4-wheeler, saying that he felt bad that I had payed full price to camp off a bicycle. He told me to go up to an RV that just pulled up, and ask them for half of the nightly price.
As he left I just stood there in long underwear, half-asleep with no contacts in, yawning and blinking.
I decided to go up to the RV, just to shake hands and tell them I didn’t want their money. The man who came out to greet me looked like a real tourist. He had an ugly bright shirt on that his wife probably bought for him in some gift shop. He wore a safari hat, tiny khaki shorts, long striped socks, and Velcro shoes.
As was always the case on this trip, he asked where I was going and where I had come from. At one point he said “That big ol’ mill out West is somethin’ else eh?”
“hmm, I didn’t see a mill.”
“That big ol’ one just down the highway on the way in, you didn’t see it?”
“Oh, no I came in over Huckleberry pass, I think it joins the highway further in.”
“You what!?” He smiled and shook his head in disbelief.
He walked away still shaking his head and muttering “ Oh, you…”
This was a pretty rewarding experience, I always get joy out of completely surprising people by doing the unexpected.
Never let someone tell you that something is impossible. Most people are too busy being comfortable and pleasing others. Impossible is just the word they use to describe the things they’re afraid to try.
After leaving Lincoln, I came over the Flesher Pass (6,131’) Continental Divide crossing.
When I came to Canyon Creek I was hot and dehydrated. I found a house that had been converted into a general store, and had a “Campsites available” sign out front. A woman came out and informed me that the campsite would be her backyard.
With no trees or… anything really for miles I had no choice. I set up in her back yard.
It may seem crazy, but since I still had the rest of the afternoon to burn, I decided to go for a bike ride. At this point all I knew was movement. It felt strange to stay still, and when I set out without my trailer my bike felt weightless.
I found a stream and sat there for a very long time. When’s the last time you waded in a mountain stream just for fun? I hadn’t for years, and this was one of the better memories I have from the trip.
On the way back along some unmarked dirt road, some dickwad in a big truck almost hit me. After he passed, he sped up, spitting dust all over me. He did this twice (once going each way) pulling away in a fury of dust and diesel fumes.
I rode as fast as I could back to “camp” and stayed close for the night, leaving early the next day. As a lone traveler, safety is always a concern. Nearly everyone on my trip was nice, but nearly everyone in Montana has a gun too, so this was no time to mess around. I clearly wasn’t welcome in Canyon Creek.
My day started in Canyon Creek (population 82) and ended in Helena (Population 30,000). I was feeling so good when I pulled into town that I decided to just pedal straight through past East Helena toward a national forest ground. The plan was to find a place to camp on some side road.
On the way, I crossed the 400 mile mark, which was a nice milestone.
Unfortunately I spent too much time in the sun and came down with what I now believe was mild heat-stroke. I pulled into Devil’s Elbow Campground just short of the forest, and claimed a pathetic little spot right next to an outhouse.
The rest of this day is a bit fuzzy. I remember wetting my shirt several times, I remember the cool fabric against my skin. I drank water and pretty much stayed in the shade trying not to pass out. It was 97 degrees.
Why would someone do this?
The question crossed my mind more than a few times on this trip. When I was overheated and wishing for A/C, or under a tarp in the dark rain, or crouched along a rarely-used highway changing a tire, the thought would often push it’s way to the front of my thoughts.
The short answer is because I can. The long answer is that I see this as a celebration of freedom, an opportunity to learn, and an acknowledgment of the power each of us have over our lives. If we can dream it, we can do it. I truly believe this.
Assuming I’m right about the whole “we can do anything” notion (quite a leap, I admit) then it follows that we should also embrace the responsibility of taking that power and doing something with it.
After discovering this freedom I immediately realized that I had no idea what to do with it, so I simply decided to do something and then ran with it. It’s amazing what a new experience can do to fill those empty spaces in our understanding.
“What man actually needs is not a tension-less state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”
– Viktor E. Frankl – Man’s Search for Meaning
With these things on my mind I pedaled into the first city I passed through on my trip. It was dirty, loud and ugly. I struggled across narrow bridges without bike lanes and through traffic over pothole-ridden streets.
My experience was somewhat negative. I felt like I had found my way back to the land of box worship. All around me people were clutching these boxes, staring at them, working hard to buy more boxes so they could hoard them away like paranoid box-collectors.
Along the road were giant box warehouses disguised as friendly stores, where people could go to get newer and more fashionable boxes. I walked around for a while and couldn’t find a local deli so I settled for a Spicy Chicken at Wendy’s. It was about as unsatisfying as it was unhealthy, but I didn’t pay much and I left full which is the point of these places.
Don’t get me wrong, I was very happy to have the comforts of the city, I just wonder if the price we pay is worth it sometimes. Can we not live in luxury without also living in excess? I wonder if we’ve all crossed a line somewhere, paying high cultural prices for low cost products, cheapening our entire experience along the way. I continued to think on this as I cleaned up in my cool air conditioned hotel room.
I left the city in the morning and found myself pedaling along an I-15 frontage road. I decided to take the Boulder Alternate route, which adds a few miles but bypasses one of the hardest sections on the entire route.
Along the way I passed an older woman on a cruiser cycle, then shortly came to an on-ramp, where my map instructed me to hop on the interstate. I’ve never ridden a bicycle on an interstate freeway, so I just sort of stood there for a bit looking around, not sure of my plotted course.
While I was standing there scratching my head, the woman caught up with me and assured me that it was legal (if not pleasant) to ride on the freeway in Montana. As proof of point, while we were speaking a couple came up the off-ramp on a tandem bike.
It turns out they were the Eckels, a couple somewhat famous in the Helena area cycling scene, and they had won several distance races in the area, including the “double divide race”. Open only to tandem pairs, the race wound its way through the hills along the continental divide, loosely following my route but sticking more to pavement.
They pointed me to a side-trail that would meet up with the freeway 10 miles or so down the road, which would keep me away from the semi trucks and exhaust fumes of the interstate for a while longer.
As I left, the older woman’s husband came pedaling up too. When given a hard time about his slow pace, he answered “I don’t know how you’re going to get home with 2 flat tires and nothing but your big mouth to keep them pumped up!” I chuckled at this quip as I pedaled off toward the hidden trail.
After comically struggling with clearing a fence to get back on the freeway, (not easy with a fully loaded bike) I rode a few miles and pulled off onto a STEEP graded dirt trail that took me far above the continuing freeway.
After summiting the climb, I had no energy left. I was close to full exhaustion and decided I would camp at the first spot I came across as I wobbled down the road. The map reported “nice camping along the stream” after tunnel #9, a 100 year old tunnel. I won’t lie, it was pretty creepy.
In the tunnel, I found myself pedaling through pitch black, barreling over bumps and ruts while catching the occasional water drop on my head. Had I turned on my light, or at least removed my sunglasses, it would have been a bit less unnerving.
Shortly after a tunnel I stopped at an improvised campsite, which I happily settled into, ate dinner, and promptly passed out.
The Final Day
In the middle of the night, several cars came down the trail I rode in on and stopped right by my camp, scaring the shit out of me. There was nothing out here, and the only thing of interest in the area would be my vulnerable camp. I told myself stories of mountain folk who got their jollies off of terrorizing and robbing campers.
The next morning I packed up and made it 40 feet down the trail when I came to a cattle gate, which explained the strange car activity the night before. I had come quite a ways on this trail, and I wasn’t about to turn back, so I fumbled my gear over the rickety fence, and pedaled on what was now private property.
Soon I came to a bend that neared the interstate. I decided to clear one more fence, and traipse through a few hundred yards of brush down to a freeway pull-off, where I was rewarded with a completely flat tire for my efforts.
You can imagine the fun repairing a tube on the shoulder of a freeway. I did a quick, poor job and started down the other side of my final divide crossing..
The decent marked 2 milestones, my top speed for the entire trip (39.5 mph) and the 500 mile mark.
I pulled into Butte feeling somewhat depressed. I found a campsite on the edge of town and my neighbors were pretty impressed with my little journey. “Tim, come here! This guy came from Canada on this thing! 500 miles!” I explained that my little trip certainly didn’t set any records, and that this was something that anyone could do, but they still felt it was a major feat.
After getting to know my neighbors a bit better, I found this man who was so enthusiastic about my trip was on a journey of his own. Greg lost his son in a car accident and travels around North America giving speeches to teenagers about the responsibilities that come along with the privileges of driving. His story was a tragic one and I really enjoyed the few short moments I spent talking with Greg.
I arranged to have my bike shipped at the Outdoorsman bike shop, which was my favorite business on the route. Rob was astonishingly helpful, offering me a free bike box, assistance with breaking it down and packing it up, a “goody bag”, a ride for me and my bike to the UPS store, and a ride the following day to the airport.
I cannot express how hospitable they are at the Outdoorsman bike shop in Butte, I give this place my highest recommendation.
I awoke in a Motel in Butte, MT. My bike was on a truck or plane somewhere slowly making it’s way back to Colorado, and I had a plane of my own to catch.
The rainy night before had been spent in a casino. You can’t go anywhere in Montana without seeing a casino. Apparently it’s an easy way to supplement your business so you’ll see such ridiculousness as a Casino/Museum (on HWY 85) and the Suds ‘n Fun – Casino and Laundromat.
I figured I couldn’t take a trip through Montana without visiting one, so I spent my last sad night plugging money into a blackjack machine and sipping whiskey. I left with $40 more than I came after several free drinks.
The Butte airport was charmingly quaint, but my experience in it had a surreal hue that blurred out the details.
Over the following weeks, I sat restlessly at my desk job, trying to remember if it was as bad when I left, or if I had just changed somehow.
I think it was me that changed 🙂
I was able to re-live my trip by writing this story. If you actually followed along through the whole thing, thank you very much. I assure you, it was much more entertaining doing it than it was to write/read about it.
As I said before, I wrote this to encourage others to go on their own adventure. So go do something! Or if you already have, I’d love to hear about it. Just send me a letter or link.