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.

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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.

 

 

 

Grateful in Montana

Make America Bike Again – Day 17

Lolo Pass was behind us. The land began to change. We were losing elevation, moving from mountains into high plains. IMG_1400We lost an hour, moving from the Pacific Time Zone into Mountain. We regained cell phone service. And, caught up with Frank! He was staying at a motel in Missoula, and close to all amenities a city has to offer. It was a great place for a wandering band of gypsies to reconnect. A good place to catch up on laundry, bicycle maintenance, and resupply.  It was also the right place for the sadness of our last dinner together as five.

Next morning we met up at the Adventure Cycling office space in downtown Missoula. This is a must see and do for the touring cyclist and bicycle. The office staff is professional, welcoming, and knowledgeable. There’s a scale out back to weigh the fully loaded bicycle. I topped out at 98 lbs. There are tools and a secure work space for the do-it-yourself bicycle mechanic. A large bulletin board to record this year’s catch of touring cyclists that pass through their doors. And, a business office for cyclists wanting to catch up with the outside world.

Robert rotated my tires and bought a set of maps for the rest of the journey. Frank was there boxing up his bicycle. He was shipping it back to his home in California, all except for the broken front rack. There were tearful farewells and Frank was gone, returning to the motel and his flight back home. The band of gypsies, now four, would pedal north toward Great Falls.

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We camped that night, next to Montana’s Clearwater River. Here’s a picture of the early morning mist rising on Day 18.

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.

Resist Mediocrity

Make America Bike Again – Day 11

Trail angels again. One welcomed us into Waitsburg, Washington yesterday evening. He showed us around the County Fairgrounds and we camped there for the night. This small town in western Washington lies directly on the path of the Lewis & Clark Trail. Every summer hundreds of touring bicyclists pass through.

Before leaving the next morning we rode into the commercial part of town for groceries. The city’s downtown is decorated with life-size bronze statues, setting the stage for some

significant photo ops. While Frank and Robert hammed it up, another trail angel appeared, a middle aged woman who had just moved to Waitsburg from Boulder, Colorado. She wore a big smile and a T-shirt that read, “Resist Mediocrity,” lending credence to the claim that she hailed from Boulder. When Robert asked her why she picked Waitsburg, she said because of the relatively mild climate, and because of her dream: which is to build a bicycle hostel on the Lewis & Clark Trail. He responded that it was a wonderful plan.

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Garfield County Fairgrounds

We made another fifty miles that day, as far as the fairgrounds at Pomeroy. There, Robert let the Local Gods know how grateful he was for the generous people of Washington and for the good roads, traversed without incident. Good timing, the Snake River and the Idaho line were just down the road.

How Will the Hidden Gem Appear?

Make America Bike Again – Day 9

 

We follow the Columbia River from one small town to the next. The splendor of the gorge and the imposing volcanoes are behind us. We’re on a broad plateau made of  basaltic lava, disected somehow by the erosional power of a mighty river with geologic time on its side.

 

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Traffic is sparse. The sun is hot. The channel of the river guides us. We’ve even got a bit of a tail wind. So much like yesterday! We cover fifty more miles and in good enough time to reach an eclectic hamburger shop with milkshakes handmade from real ice cream, still open and waiting for us in Umatilla, Oregon.

We stay the night in an RV campground. As we sit down to dinner with our propane stoves and our freeze dried food, the trail angel appears. Her name is Judi this time. She’s a walnut farmer from California, traveling the country in her RV. She offers wine, cheese, and of course, walnuts to share. All she wants in return is to be serenaded. Gerry gets his guitar and we sing songs together, long after the wine is gone.

It was an amazing evening, a hidden gem. Even the Local Gods were entertained and that’s a good thing, because the border with Washington is just a few miles away.

 

Columbia River Gorge

Make America Bike Again – Day 5

Touring bicycles travel close to the earth. Loaded with gear the days roll by at about 10 or 12 miles an hour. It is a relatively slow speed, perfect for unplugging from the digital world and just right for noticing the little things in the natural world, with all of the senses engaged. Maybe that’s why cyclists smile a lot. On day 5 we would make just 28 miles. The pace was particularly slow that, but IMG_1265it wasn’t our fault. We were beset with overflowing beauty at every turn. It was a day of climbing into panoramic views, followed by the twisting road of an inevitable descent into shadow, forest, and the scent of old leaves. We were touring the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. It is a must see and experience for the touring cyclist and bicycle.

 

By evening we reached another of Oregon’s fine network of campgrounds with hiker/biker sites in the town of Cascade Falls. An Adventure Cycling Association tour group of about 15 riders was already there setting up camp. We were right on the river, and a local brew pub a short walk away.

By the time we returned to the campground, the ACA group had already started a campfire. For the second time in as many days Gerry got out his guitar and many voices rose in song.

83-Mile Day

Make America Bike Again – Day 10

Before leaving the campsite at Umatilla in the morning, we stopped by Judi’s RV in the morning to say goodbye. Her friend and traveling companion stood inside the entryway and peered out, unwilling to leave its comfort and security, but still very curious. She asked, “Are you afraid of the wild creatures at night?”

There were some laughs in response and finally someone replied, “We are the wild ones.” But, she had raised an important question,”Is it really safe?”

In our earliest departure yet, we wished them well and said goodbye. On the way out of town we stopped at the grocery store for a few last minute items. Sipping on a cup of black coffee, Robert walked out of the store with a small bunch of bananas in the other. The rest of the guys were already on their bikes crossing the parking lot and heading for the highway.

I could feel his hurried rush to stow the fruit, take a gulp of coffee, and throw the rest away. Without the usual, “Bless all travelers on this highway today,” Robert gripped the handlebars and lifted his leg over crossbar. He hurried into the street with a vague sense of the direction, but there were no bicycles in sight. In fact there was no traffic at all. “Shit,” he said, turned around and returned to the grocery store parking lot. He went back inside the store looking for his sunglasses. Came out a few minutes later and found them in their case. That’s when he took a deep breath and sighed.

 

 

A few miles later a trucker passed us on the highway, moving completely over into the other lane. That’s rare. Sure, sometimes they sound a couple of short beeps in greeting. Other times, it’s a long blast of get the hell out of my way. The memorable one from that morning didn’t sound the horn at all. He just moved completely over into the other lane and even slowed down minimizing the slipstream coming off the trailer. Bless all travelers on this highway today, was the message.

In an hour or so we caught up with the rest, having an early morning snack. Touring cyclists eat often and throughout the day, usually healthy stuff. In the dry heat of the west they drink a lot of water. Not the sweetened drinks or the heavily marketed “high energy” drinks. Mostly water, by day. Beer, after the sun goes down. By mid morning we crossed the Washington border. The lava formed cliffs had given way to farmland. Mature alfalfa and wheat grew on both sides of the highway. With an early start to the day and the wind out of the west, we would make 83 miles that day, a stand out record for us, finishing in Waitsburg, Washington.