Trail Angel Stories

Make America Bike Again

Day 24 –

Next morning Mayor Don of Mosby, Montana, stepped up once again, displaying his iconic trail angel colors. For a tank full of gas, he offered to take Robert and me to the nearest town with food and services. Thank you Don for your generosity. It turned out to be Glendive, Montana. More than 150 miles. Thank you Don. An interstate crossed the 2-lane highway there. Probably three days of travel on a touring bicycle. Thank-you Don from Mosby.

Glendive’s population is about 5,000. The next ride took us from one side of this fair city to the other. Not far in distance, but strategically significant because it planted us right on the interstate highway ramp heading east. I can’t even tell you the driver’s name. Robert didn’t write it down in his journal. I only remember that the back of his truck was full of supplies for muzzle loading rifles. It was about midday and warm for Montana. Traffic was light. In fact the next person to stop was a repeat appearance. A trail angel at heart, the previous driver was returning with a large piece of brown cardboard to aid us in getting another driver to slow down and look. On the sign he had written in big black letters: Bike Broke! Thank you, bearded, black powder rifle enthusiast.

A rolling bicycle can watch the landscape pass by at about 12 miles per hour with a light breeze blowing and a song in your head. It’s much more fun than baking on the stationary concrete of an interstate highway. Time crawled by, until, a small white GM sedan parked on the road and a lean looking stranger climbed out. It wasn’t the police. Instead, a talkative middle aged man walked towards us. He was a bicycle mechanic without any tools, but he wanted to help out. His name was Dave, the proprietor and Communications Director of Dave’s Mobile Bike and Golf Emporium.

According to trail-angel Dave, Glendive was no longer home to a bicycle repair shop. The latest one was another victim of the falling crude oil prices and a shrinking local economy. The city might be shrinking, but he was a fifth generation North Dakotan and…looking at my broken chain which he correctly identified as a Shimano…he believed that he could tap into a network of friends and acquaintances who would remedy our situation. He made some phone calls. Recommended a more universal kind of chain replacement. Sent some text messages.

This was not just an interstate highway ramp, this was a metaphorical folk in the road. Dave offered to install a new chain himself, if Robert would purchase the chain from his friends who ran a bicycle shop in Medora called Dakota Cyclery. It was several more exits down the highway and another 20 miles or so. We could all meet at a truckstop halfway in between, after the bicycle shop folks got off work. They would bring the new chain and some tools. Dave his expertise, and Robert would bring the credit card. In the meantime we all could wait in the shade of a friend’s storage unit, a few blocks away.

It was  choice: And with so much good fortune behind us that day, why not expect these people to be generous and kind? This was still southeastern Montana after all.

Robert and I spent the rest of the afternoon waiting in a well furnished storage unit in Glendive, drinking a beer…thank you Dave…and waiting for the sun to set on another day of business. The trickiest part proved to be transporting everything to the truckstop parking lot. For that, three adults and a disassembled touring bike had to pack themselves into a small GM car and drive about 15 miles down the road to the edge of a truckstop packing lot.

That’s where the deal went down, exactly as planned.

 

 

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Redemption on the Lewis & Clark Trail

Make America Bike Again

Day 23 – The search for beauty continues. It didn’t take long to pack up and get on the road that morning. We left the pine covered hills behind in a long, easy downhill through pastures and farmland, and out into a wide expanse of brown prairie. That’s where the guys were waiting, their bikes lined up and leaning again the guardrail. Robert and I brought up the rear. He rode past them with a greeting, slowing and stopping on the shoulder, a little beyond the guardrail. He unfolded the clickstand, set the padded end against the earth, and let my weight balance at the crossbar into the braced open end. On any other day, it would have been ideal for me, a fully loaded touring bicycle, to stand upright. That day, however, was the beginning of the time warp.

Robert had been using that clickstand everyday since the start of the trip. But as he stepped away that morning, to lean against the guardrail and share a bite with the boys, a slight gust of wind hit me broadside. I started to rock, to lean toward the steep embankment. Robert rushed back, grabbing for the rear rack. The clickstand fell to the ground. Heads turned as I began to fall, rolling down the embankment in a perfect 360 spiral. Don roared with laughter. Frosty joined in. Good thing bicycle’s can’t feel embarrassment. Instead, I lean against the hillside, wheels slowing spinning as if they were searching for pavement.

It only took a few seconds for Robert and Gerry to reach me. By the handlebar and the rear frame, Robert pulled and Gerry pushed me back up onto the shoulder. We touring bicycles are a hardy bunch. Everything seemed to be working. Wanting very much to get going, Robert said goodbye, lifted one leg over the crossbar, and climbed onto my seat. He just wanted to get away and down the road, and leave the noise and laughter behind.

There were prairie fires ahead, a small town and at least one roadside cafe. Places to rest, refill water bottles, and wonder how far to the next city with a bicycle shop. The map indicated that there was camping at Mosby, a small place where the highway crossed the Musselshell River and few permanent residents.

 

This part of eastern Montana was one rolling hill after another. In our haste and near the top of one of them, my chain broke. We didn’t carry a chain tool or a replacement link. Robert put the pieces into a plastic bag, pushed me to the top of the hill, and put out his thumb…

It wasn’t long at all before a quintessential Montana rancher named Don stopped and picked us up. He had a pick up truck and a generous spirit and said that he would take us as far as Mosby that night. With a grin he said that in addition to being the mayor, he owned the whole town. A few miles later it was apparent that his town consisted of an asphalt pad, the RV that Don called his home, a well stocked tool shed, a warm shower, and a hardy patch of green grass. Don proudly asserted that his dream was to turn it into a bicycle hostel for passing cyclists. That’s where the boys caught up and camped. Don even loaned us his truck so that we could run to a MiniMart…down the road about 10 miles…for pizza and beer. It would be Robert’s goodbye party. Don was on his way to becoming an icon among trail angels.

Closing on the Time Warp

Make America Bike Again

Day 22 – Eastern Montana awaits.

Followers of this trail diary know that the regular blogs began about half way into the journey, on day 24. Robert was taking pictures all along, making handwritten journal entries too. Creating a readable blog meant switching from laptop to smart phone and dealing with erratic cell phone service in Idaho and Montana.It was a steep learning curve for an aging cyclist, one who learned to write in an analog world. Since returning to Denver a few weeks ago, he has faithfully documented those early pages, starting from Pre-Launch and continuing to the present.ouroboros

The result is a trail journal that starts in the middle, reaches a possible ending, but comes back around to pick up what was left behind. An inefficient use of linear time? Definitely. Differing  perspectives aren’t necessarily in conflict. Not according to the wisdom of the Ouroboros; that ancient symbol for the fusion of opposites, continuous renewal, and the dual nature of life. It’s the way of the natural world. .

Day 22 was for traveling from Stanford, Montana to a wild camp just beyond Lewiston. Here are some pictures.

 

 

Pictured above is a 3d sculpture from the legend of Medusa in Greek Mythology. She was a Gorgon, a dreadful monster of the feminine persuasion, with the power to turn anyone into stone, if they looked into her eyes. Maybe that’s why Robert has his back turned to her in the picture above.

In any event, we were dealing with the Local Gods in this section of Montana. By the end of that day, they were definitely exerting their influence. At the end of the day and right at the top of a long hill, the place where we planned to camp in order to start the morning with a long downhill run, my front tire went flat.

 

 

 

 

 

How Safe Is It?

Make America Bike Again – Day 21

Rush hour on Friday afternoon was probably not the best time to be riding a bicycle down the main street in Great Falls. The city’s downtown commercial center hadn’t aged well. Population was on the decline. Parking spaces that once lined both sides of the road were gone. Gone to accommodate more lanes for cars and traffic. Today there were four lanes filled with cars and trucks, a couple feet of shoulder and a high curb. A motorist probably wouldn’t even notice that kind of detail. A bicyclist would.

There were just a couple more blocks to go. Then Robert would turn right and be off the main drag. A horn sounded behind him. The engine accelerated and started to pass. Directly ahead a sewer grate lay embedded into the shoulder. The driver of the car wouldn’t even notice. Robert noticed. His hands gripped hard on the brake levers and the handlebars as my front tire, a Schwalbe Marathon, dropped from the pavement to the sewer grate with a thump. But that was nothing compared to the impact that rocked the bike when we hit several inches of asphalt ledge on the grate’s other side.

Coming into Great Falls that afternoon, Robert was several hours ahead of the boys. He went straight for the Missouri River and a grassy park on the eastern shore. There were Canadian geese, white pelicans, and cormorants on the water. Children played in a municipal swimming pool on the far side. I needed a bicycle shop. Robert wanted to find a sporting goods store. Great Falls had several of each to choose from. But first, we needed a place to camp. He tried texting the guys. No response.

It was getting late. Dick’s RV Campground had space for tent camping, and a laundry, showers, and internet connection. It would turn out that Bill and Ed and their Honda Goldwings were already there. Both men were traveling the country, including Alaska, from their homes in Florida. Ed was a gregarious man. He came over offering a can of beer as Robert set up the tent, proudly announcing that in his travels he had never met a stranger, just people he hadn’t yet met. When he wasn’t riding his motorcycle, he was a voracious reader, one who preferred hardbacks. It was alot of common ground. Robert had to introduce him to his latest book, Icarus and the Wing Builder.

While they talked, Gerry got in touch by cellphone. The boys minus Robert and Frank were downtown, having dinner at Buffalo Wild Wings, a national chain restaurant with a recognized brand and mediocre food. The campground was out on the edge of town. But, the panniers were off the bike and inside the tent, holding it down. Without their weight, pedaling the few miles to the restaurant would feel like flying. That’s how Robert found himself on Central Street at rush hour in Great Falls, surrounded by strangers in their cars and trucks.

When the front tire impacted the edge of the pothole, my forward momentum just died and I dropped towards the asphalt. Robert landed on the sidewalk, taking the impact on his right side. It all happened so fast. He wore a helmet, a polyester long-sleeved bicycle shirt, and gloves. I could hear him angrily cursing at the driver, the one who continued down the road without stopping. Robert was already on his feet, road rash on his forearm and a torn bicycle shirt. Cars behind us were already stopping, asking if we needed help. He bent down to pick me up off the street and stand me upside down on the sidewalk.

We never made it to Buffalo Wild Wings that night. I had a broken spoke on the rear wheel and a tear on the sidewall of my front tire. It was so much easier just to ride back to the RV campsite, a shower, and a hot meal.

So: How safe is this bicycle touring?

Answer: For an older cyclist, if the rider is reasonably fit with sound heart and lungs, then bicycle touring is about as safe as recreational skiing.

Even the best skiers fall sometimes. Usually, they’re having fun. Skiers pick themselves up after a fall and keep right on skiing. It’s the same for bicyclists. Even the most experienced cyclists fall. On this journey, we’ve been making 40, 50, and even 60 miles per day. And, having fun. After a fall you pick yourself back up, fix whatever needs to be fixed, and return to the journey. That’s what Robert did. He skinned his elbow. Got a bruise and a good story to tell. Our six week journey would eventually cover more than 2,000 miles. The fall in Great Falls was the only serious one;-)

Be safe. Put away the car keys. Rediscover the bicycle.

MAKE AMERICA BIKE AGAIN!!!

 

 

What If?

Make America Bike Again – Day 20

Great Falls, Montana is a natural place to rest for a while and smell the roses. Lewis & Clark , Sacagawea, the 45 volunteers that accompanied them from St. Louis, and the three large boats carrying their gear, all stopped there. Geology and a series of waterfalls determined that the party would go no further up the Missouri River in their quest to reach the Pacific Ocean from St. Louis. They stopped to reflect on their choices, adapt, and change their mode of travel. The area became known as Great Falls, because of this piece of history.

 

That was two hundred years ago. The land was without roads or railroad tracks, and abundantly populated with Native Americans and buffalo…About one hundred years after that, a dam and power plant were constructed across one of these water falls by a business consortium to create electricity for a fledgling city, and in hopes of attracting a railroad into the area. Today, the City of Great Falls boasts an international airport, a railroad, and an interstate highway filled with air-conditioned RV’s and trucks. Today, the City of Great Falls is replete with bicycle paths lining both sides of the river. The Lewis & Clark Bicycle Trail follows the route of these early explorers and passes through the heart of the city. According to Wikipedia and US census data, the human population of Great Falls peaked after World War II at about 60,000 residents. It has been declining ever since. Whether these points of historical interest are judged good or bad, I leave to each individual reader to decide.

There are better questions, such as: Where does the City of Great Falls and the State of Montana go from here?

The jobs once created by the copper industry in Great Falls are gone. Most of the remaining ones are supplied by the military, government, and the railroad. These employers are fully staffed and budgeted. Where can the young people of Great Falls look in order to feel hope for the future? Here are my ideas and suggestions:

  1. Although the dam and its electrical power were once essential for Great Falls to grow and thrive, that is no longer the case. The dam are its technology are old. They have aged in place while other sources of renewable power have become available and cost effective. The dam across the Missouri River at Great Falls is no longer essential. Nor is it the highest and best use of the river.

2. The highest and best use of the site is to remove the dam and restore the falls to their original condition. These steps, properly marketed, could bring national and even worldwide attention to the city, the state, and the upper reaches of the Missouri River as tourist destinations.

3. Montanans should recognize the importance of bicycle tourism to their state, particularly along the Lewis & Clark and TransAmericaTrails with bicycle friendly shoulders and improved state park facilities.

Bicyclist Friendly

Make America Bike Again – Day 18

Context is important. The “Bicyclist Friendly” sign is posted on the wooden post of stop sign that marks the turnoff onto a dirt road on a remote stretch of Montana State Highway 200, somewhere in between Helena, Missoula, and Great Falls. It’s rather small and has to compete with other, more imposing ones highlighting the dirt road that leads to the town of Ovanda, Montana, population about 50.

The town itself is barely visible from the road. The passing traveler needs some motivation, a reason, to make that turn and come in off the highway. The signs do the job and the town’s engaging merchants do the rest. One informed us that over 1,000 cyclists come into town every summer. It’s right on the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail. Over the last several decades this bicycle route has gained notoriety as the classic route across this continent. For touring cyclists it can be a summer odyssey.

IMG_1411The signage by the roadside was more than enough to lure the boys off the highway for a second breakfast at the “Stray Bullet Cafe.” Good food, lots of coffee, and charm. The hostess boasted that three generations of family were at work that day. And, the place was packed.

 

 

 

Goodbye Idaho

Make America Bike Again – Day 15

Robert rose early. Packed, made coffee and oatmeal, and on the road by seven. He found good water at the old ranger station. There was more water at the Wilderness Access Campground, but Frank was already gone, heading east toward Lochsa Lodge.

We were closing in on Missoula, Montana, the navel of the bicycle touring world of North America. Both the Northern Tier and the Lewis and Clark Trails pass right through the city, and the Great Divide Bicycling Route passes very near. It is also the home of AdventureCycling.org. This has to be a good area for meeting other touring cyclists.

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First to arrive was Doug. As the distance narrowed Robert waved and applied the brakes. Doug did the same. I crossed the road onto the other shoulder. (Remember, I’m the bicycle that keeps Robert on the road.) Right away Doug informed us that he is in the race. Having no clue, as usual, Robert asks, “What race is that?”

“The ACA one,” Doug replies. “I’m racing across America, east to west.”

“How long have you been on the road?”

Six weeks,” replied Doug. “Technically, it’s already been won. Most racers go west to east. One of those racers has already finished. I just want to finish.”

The Adventure Cycling Association stated this race just a few years ago. The course follows the association’s TransAmericaTrail  from Astoria, Oregon to Yorktown, Virginia. Participants have to travel under their own power and self-supported. Most elect to go west to east, but a few, like Doug, choose the more challenging east to west route. You can read more about it on his blog: RideAllNight.wordpress.com.

Robert reached Lochsa Lodge by early afternoon. A breeze carried the smell of smoke and the sounds of not so distant helicopters. Frank was no where to be found. He must have taken a lunch break and kept right on going. For such a remote area, Lochsa Lodge was a busy place this time of year and a welcome stopping place for the traveler ready for a break and a good meal.

While Robert ate lunch, a large group of young cyclists arrived. They too were going east to west on a fully supported, charitable fund raiser. The earliest arrivals dropped their bikes, draping them over the grassy lawn, and close to the front doors, the bathrooms and the food.  Next came a hotshot crew, rotating out from their time spent on the fire line. They were followed by a small group of distinctly overweight motorcycle riders, dressed in Harley garb. Some carried sidearms.

Robert returned to the campsite just in time for an afternoon thunder shower. The tent and rainfly went quickly up. As the rain increased Robert grabbed his book and climbed inside for an afternoon snooze.

We would cross into Montana tomorrow. After the storm ended and dinnertime approached Robert found a meaningful way to honor the local Idaho gods. He donated a pair of Nike tennis shoes to the local lost and found, and lightened our load in the process. About 5 pm, who should roll into camp but the three lingering cyclists from our original group, Don, Frosty, and Gerry. We were back together again…minus 1.

 

 

 

 

 

 

No Services For 88 Miles

Make America Bike Again – Day 14

Imagine a stretch of two-lane highway so remote that there is no gasoline or diesel. No cell phone service either; at least not with Verizon or AT&T. But, if you’re on a touring bicycle carrying your own food, good water and camping gear, it can be more than enough. The scenery, serenity, and the wild freedom of solitude…can actually make it worth while.

After an early start at Kamiah, Idaho, Frank and Robert stopped for a second breakfast at a wide place in the road named Lowell. That’s where Frank discovered that one of the struts that held the front rack to the wheel axle was broken. He put together a band aid fix with zip ties, a needle nosed pliers, and lots of bicycling and engineering experience. Better add inner tubes and a few tools to the above list. And, soon we were off again.

IMG_1378The sign next to Robert and me commemorates a decision by the US Congress not to flood this area with water. This was one of the consequences of the passage of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, which kept the Selway, Lochsa and Clearwater Rivers flowing free. Congress does get it right sometime.

Frank and Robert rode together for most of the day. By mid afternoon the river’s many sand bars looked very inviting. Frank, with his broken front rack, didn’t want to take the time. If it broke apart on a downhill run, that could be dangerous. He kept going toward a campsite named Wilderness Access, while Robert took some time and went for a swim. It was only a day’s ride to the Montana line; time to begin making peace with the Local Idaho Gods.

 

So many sand bars and photo ops along the way. Maybe the other three cyclists would catch up. Instead, Robert met up with four Canadian motorcyclists, two-pairs of fathers and sons, vacationing on their BMW’s. It felt good to see the generations recreating together, and, easy for me to reminisce about my own son, Icarus, and good memories we made when he was growing up on Crete. If you’re at all interested in an exciting recreation of this enduring myth, or would like to know what really happened in the sky that day so long ago…then you should read my story. It’s very good. I know you’ll like it.

The men talked for a time, long enough for the shadows of evening to creep into the canyon. Robert explained that he would be wild-camping that night. It simply means carrying your tent and gear into a remote place, camping out, and leaving no trace. He first learned about it as a young Boy Scout in Ohio. To assist with getting through until morning, one of the motorcyclist fathers provided a liter of water. Everyone said their goodbyes. One by one the power plants of the motorcycles came on, headlamps burned bright, and they were gone, leaving us to the solitude of the canyon and to our own device.

 

 

Separation

Make America Bike Again – Day 13

It would be a fifty mile day, ending at an RV campground near Kamiah, Idaho. The canyon opens up at Kamiah. The Forest Service has an office there. That’s where Frank and Robert waited for the others to catch up, to come riding through the last curve in the road. Still no cell phone service; not in this part of Idaho. When the last of the employees left the parking lot for the day, they did too.

The day had begun in Myrtle Village, a lovely USFS campground carved out of tall cedars on a bend of the Clearwater River. As the touring cyclists set up their tents Don asked the camp host about the possibility of buying beer from some of the RV campers. Without much of a reply, Norm climbed into his golf cart and left, reappearing with a grin and a bunch of beers on the front seat next to him. He passed them around and shared a good story about unintended consequences, having once won a camp host hospitality award and then had to travel to Washington DC to receive it.

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They didn’t have a campfire that night. Didn’t need one. Robert has a story he likes to tell about changing his name from “Bob” during one of those midlife challenges. Didn’t tell it. He had already told that one earlier in the trip. Instead he asked Norm, the oldest one in the circle, how he had become a man. Norm didn’t hesitate. He explained that it happened rather late in life. He said with pride that he had become a man by learning to love his second wife.

It turned out that most of these aging cyclists, manhood had begun with a similar kind of heart-opening experience. Gerry and his wife had adopted and raised a daughter. Frank had raised a son. For Don, it was winning custody of his son and daughter, and then raising them alone. Robert had a similar story about raising and emancipating his children. Frosty listened and then shared his view: that manhood had arrived through the exploits of his single years, after he and his first wife divorced.

They talked and laughed while the last beer disappeared. As darkness filled the canyon a group of coyotes raised their voices in song, messing with the camp dogs.  When things finally quieted down, everyone was ready to call it a day.

Frank is the group’s early riser. As usual he was first up, first packed and first on the road. Robert and I weren’t far behind. Gerry was next. Don and Frosty hung back together in the parking lot. We wouldn’t see them again for two days.

Hello Idaho

Make America Bike Again – Day 12

This picture was taken with Robert’s IPhone camera by an entrepreneur from the Washington side of the border. A techie from Seattle, perhaps?

No. He was a retail marijuana shop owner. He advised us to turn around and go back to his shop in Clarkson, Washington in order to stock up. “You’ll get busted for sure if you try to buy anything over here.”

As he returned the camera, Robert said, “Most of us are from Colorado. There’s plenty of pot back home. But, we only put good clean air in our lungs.” They laughed together, talked about places to eat in Lewiston, and went their separate ways.

Before Lewiston, the morning had been spent riding in the sparse traffic and warm sunshine of southeastern Washington. The hills wore a rugged beauty, draped in the colors of wheat or alfalfa.

 

 

 

After Lewiston, the highways became busy with construction and trucks for the first few miles until we reached Forest Service land. All the bikes carried long, flexible poles with at least one reflective flag at the end. That’s me on the upper left with the orange one. It can get quite creative. Gerry has the flag of Ireland. Frank, a string of Tibetan prayer flags. Don tops his array off with a US flag. Frosty has a sign. Five cyclists, all at least 60 in age. All in pursuit of good health and happiness and inspired living. For that to transpire, each one must be capable of being seen from a long way off by approaching traffic. When the shoulders get narrow and the traffic heats up, flags and reflective clothing are essential. Hello Idaho, were here, thousands of nonpolluting touring bicycles and their cyclists crisscrossing your beautiful state every summer.