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.

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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.

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.

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.