Making it to Montana

“The greatest gift of life on the mountain is time. Time to think, or not to think, read or not read, scribble or not scribble – to sleep and cook and walk in the woods, to sit and stare at the shapes of the hills. I produce nothing but words; I consume nothing but food, a little propane, a little firewood. By being utterly useless in the calculations of the culture at large I become useful, at last, to myself.” –Philip Connors



5/20 –Leaving Salmon, Idaho with the vagabond tramp. 35 miles.

I had a strange encounter as I biked out of town which left my emotions mixed and gave me a lot to think about. I met a guy who had been travelling on a bicycle.

I was sitting at a picnic table, under a gas station awning in the cold rain. I was in Salmon, Northern Idaho, and talking with a group of young people who were locals in the town when this kid comes biking up. Apparently, he had ridden his bike here from Colorado… However, he had been beat up and robbed, some people had stolen his bike, his backpack and all his gear. He had acquired the bike he was currently riding, but it was a piece of junk. He was asking if anyone could give him a ride to Montana, as that’s where he was headed. I told him I had ridden here from California, and when no one could give him a ride he asked if he could bike with me. He said he was worried now about biking alone and also asked if he could camp with me. I said sure, I packed up my things and said let’s go! It was 3PM, I was pretty late to leave town but had been procrastinating in the rain. Let’s go mysterious kid, I’m sure I’ll find out the rest of this story on the way…

He was a real scrawny, small kid, pale with sunglasses. All he had with him was a hooded sweatshirt, cotton, and sweatpants. Not too good for riding in the rain, I was sure he was cold. Whatever his story was, I could tell he needed some help. Now to someone who doesn’t travel much, getting beat up and robbed sounds like a common fear. However, as a traveler myself, I know that actually… that’s a far-fetched story. Sure it can happen, you can also get attacked by a bear, but it is not something that happens often at all. I felt like he was trying possibly to steal from me, I had that vibe pretty quick. I didn’t trust him, but for some reason he had come into my life, I felt I needed to do whatever would be the right thing for him.

He didn’t talk much so I asked him questions. When I asked about his route to get here he didn’t seem to be able to give me an answer. It was soon clear to me there was no way he had biked here from Colorado. His face wasn’t tan, and I could sense he was having trouble riding; he wasn’t in incredible biking shape like I am. His clothes were streaked with mud, hmm, they were clean beforehand. Another clue… He said something as we were about a mile outside of town, “Wow we’re in the middle of nowhere!” he said. I said to him, “Oh yeah, just you wait!” The next town was 20 miles away, wait till we’re ten miles out in the middle of this canyon we’re headed for! Yup, he’s definitely got some fake stories, but I want to hear the real ones.

At some point he started opening up to me, after about 5 miles when he became fatigued and we were stopping often and riding slow. I rode alongside him and talked to him. It seemed like the main things which would peak his interests and get stories flowing were talking about drugs, and past experiences with drug use. Fortunately the rain had stopped by now. He said to me in a sudden outburst, “In Colorado, I had been living in the mountains, in the wilderness, for months at a time! Living on canned food, no contact with people at all!” When pressed where in Colorado he had been living, he said Springfield… Looking it up later, Springfield is a town way out on the plains near Oklahoma/Kansas borders. (Not in the mountains.) He told me he hated society, and basically wanted to live in a hole in the ground. To me it sounded like… yes you wish to be living in the wilderness for months at a time, but you have not actually done that. He said he was from Oregon, then he also added he came from an abusive home. I could believe that.

I realized this kid looked young, like he could possibly not even be 18 with just a wispy blonde mustache for facial hair. I didn’t know how he thought he was going to camp with me having absolutely no gear. All he had was a tiny backpack, containing not much more than a chicken sandwich from burger king and a half liter bottle of water. No layers save his sweatshirt and sweatpants. I asked him about it and he said he’d be fine just curled up under a tree. “You won’t be able to sleep if you’re cold.” I told him. He had the attitude like, everything will be great in Montana, it won’t be raining in Montana, Montana’s only 40 miles away we could bike there right now. But he also told me his crappy bike couldn’t climb hills, and I let him know there is a huge mountain pass between us and Montana called Lost Trail Pass. It would be the biggest on my route so far, and there was no way we’d be doing it tonight.

I don’t know what this kid was trying to get from me, but I thought about it. What does this kid need right now. He said he had no money left. That much seemed obvious to me. What he needs is a job. I told him about Glacier and working there, I asked if he was going to get a job and he said yes he was going to try to. He seemed to be pretty open and responsive to my advice, I told him he should work for the summer then head over to the Mohave Desert for the winter. Save up a pile of cash here in Montana, then you can go and enjoy the desert and live in a hole or a cave all winter if you want. You know, find out the reasons why you DON’T want to live in a hole in the wilderness. I understood his dreams, his desire to leave society and seek solitude in the wilderness, as I’ve had those same dreams. And I’ve been living them and have spent some time in the wilderness. I know one thing, anyone with wilderness experience wouldn’t go plunging into northern Idaho in the rain without any rain gear, especially expecting to camp. But after we got to know each other better, after about ten miles into the ride when it became obvious he didn’t know what he was doing out there, he seemed to respect me and listen to the things I told him. I think anyway… When pressed more about his route, he mumbled he had spent some time in Boise. Well, Boise is not on route to Colorado, it is on route to Oregon. I asked if he has ever done a long bike ride between towns like this. “I’ve mostly just hitchhiked,” he said.

It sounded to me like he had run away from home, been on the road a while, and he thought he was going to become some kind of conman, vagabond type. Someone with the dreams of Alexander Supertramp just not the same integrity. I never found out the full truth, can’t be sure what stories of his were true and what were not. I would assume he had stolen the bike he was riding, he said someone gave it to him. Whatever the case was, there was no way he could be camping with me out there. When I pray to God, I ask for the things I need. Like shelter for the night and I always receive what I need. What does this kid need? Since he has been brought into my life, I’ll take it as my duty to help. I thought about it and decided what to do.

We made it to the tiny town of North Fork. I bought him a couple snacks and then sat down at a picnic table with him. I told it to him like it is. “Listen, you’re not going to be able to camp with me, you aren’t prepared enough.” “I’ve done it before!” he insisted. “I’m expecting this to be the most difficult night of camping I’ve had on this trip so far.” I told him and that was true. We were in the Bitterroot Mountains, it was supposed to rain for the next countless days. Tonight I’d be camping in the rain and it would be cold. That sentiment of it being difficult to camp tonight seemed to get through to him. If his bike can’t make it up the mountain pass, then riding more really isn’t getting him any closer to Montana, he’ll have to hitchhike either way. I told him he should hitchhike to Missoula, Montana, he could get there right now! Today! He could go around and make friends, try to find somewhere to live and a job. Probably someone would give him a trailer or something to live in, just explain he has no money and would pay once he is able to make some. I told him I wanted to give him some money.

As he sat there thinking about this new option, hitchhike to Missoula with “some money”, the sun opened up behind him and shone, the only three seconds of sunlight I saw all day! I gave him 80 dollars… more than I can really give, but obviously it was what he needed or I wouldn’t have done it! Then I said goodbye and biked off.

This incident left me feeling so strange. Good for having helped him, but strange. I met this kid, brought him 20 miles outside of town… So whatever situation he was in there I removed him from it, gave him some cash, and ditched him… I wonder why? I just can hope I did the right thing. Who knows where he’ll go or what he’ll do with the money, but hopefully at least it can get him by another couple days… It gave me a lot to think about as I kept riding, about advice I would have loved to give him. His path in life may not be a bad one, it doesn’t have to be. Whatever his story, he really is out here surviving. Hopefully he learns that doing people wrong is not the path he wants to be on, if doing wrong is in fact his intentions. If he can make some money legitimately, use it to live minimalistic in the wilderness, he will eventually learn a lot about himself and probably find himself with a successful life like I have found. Who knows…

I didn’t get too many miles in today. I maybe made it 15 miles further from North Fork before setting up camp at dusk. I was at the bottom of Lost Trail Pass, in a dense forest of beautiful pines. Everything was wet as though perfumed with water and it was sprinkling as usual. I setup under a tree. I couldn’t have been more comfortable once everything was setup. I had a tarp over me, I was tucked into a little home. I cooked rice beside me, I was warm and dry looking out to the drizzly weather. I’m never pessimistic (I usually think ‘you’ll be just fine’), but I have to be realistic… If that kid had tried to camp with me he would’ve gone hypothermic. I’m wearing thick socks, leggings and pants, a tanktop, longsleeve, polyester sweatshirt and cotton sweatshirt, gloves, a buff, a ski hat, a 20 degree down sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, and bivvy sack, and a tarp. So long as I’m under a tree I won’t be cold, I’m truly comfortable, but just barely so. You think you can just lay on the ground out here all night? Well…

Anyway, it was a very interesting and beautiful day, the scenery had been glorious all day, and I slept perfectly.

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5/21 – To Montana! 70 miles               

I woke up to a rainy morning. I broke down my camp and left, I was feeling pretty good overall. The scenery was majestic right away in that wild, northern forest, and I began to climb Lost Trail Pass. The view only got better as I climbed and the rain had stopped. I was having a very good time.

The view was marvelous towards snowy mountains in the distance and all around me as I neared the top, I did a last couple of switchbacks and there I was! Pulling into a rest stop I had been to once before nearly three years ago and remembered vividly. I saw the sign, “Welcome to Montana,” it was a victory for sure.

I sat under an awning and ate some food at the rest stop. I knew it was a bad place to take a break because I was at a high elevation and it was freezing. Not long after stopping did the chill start to get to me. I had to stop though, I needed to eat something! But then the rain came. It started raining hard, and I took shelter. I guess I’ve learned since then not to leave your shelter if it’s raining, but at the time I figured I don’t know how long it will last, it could last all day. Maybe it could have lingered longer at the high elevation to let it pass, but I probably did have no choice except to ride in it. Anyway, I left in the rain…

I was already cold and knew this was going to suck. It really did… I started flying downhill, 7 miles of steep grade and I was immediately soaked through. I was being splashed in the face, the rain was coming down hard, and I was soaking wet. My fingers and toes went numb, it was just awful. I was hating it so much, I decided it was the worst ride of the whole trip! I wanted to pedal to try and warm up but I was already going too fast to pedal. I was pedaling a little WHILE holding the breaks! Finally at long last I reached the bottom, then I pedaled furiously but there was nothing I could do for myself to warm up, I was chilled to the core. I needed to get to a town.

The mile marker told me 11 miles, I thought I needed to get to 22 before I’d reach town. Then all of a sudden at 12 miles there was the town! A nice surprise, let’s stop. The small town of Sula, so small it was just a campground and restaurant. I went into the restaurant and sat down for a burger. I was SO WET. I had to go to the bathroom and change all my clothes, change my socks, and I stuffed my shoes full of paper towels. When I sat back down at my table I was drier, and I hung my rain gear on the chairs to dry. My burger was great, the lady running the restaurant was pretty cool, and I made some friends with other people eating there. I told my story, and then was surprised after they left to find out they bought my lunch! Well… there’s some karma already paying me back for my generosity yesterday… I felt so happy.

I left Sula and continued on biking. I biked through the afternoon and the rain had stopped. The sun was out and I took a few extremely relaxing breaks by rivers and among craggy rocks. The small town of Darby, Montana looked nice but I didn’t stop. However… I saw my friend again, the vagabond conman. He came up approaching me on his bike, he didn’t recognize me. He said, “Hey! I saw you riding earlier!” …Then he paused as he recognized me. I said something like, “Hey! …Looks like you made it here!” He went ghost white and stood rigid, obviously he felt very uncomfortable. He didn’t know what to say to me. Perhaps he thought he was going to try to get something new from a new cyclist? I’m not sure, all I could tell was that he was uncomfortable and did NOT want to talk to me. So I went on.

After passing through there I was in the Bitterroot Valley, the distant mountain peaks were pointy and extreme. However, the valley was all developed, with mostly what seemed like abandoned industrial businesses. There were farms, and run down farms. The place was a mess in my opinion. The land was denuded. Farms do that, I just don’t like them. They take what once was a beautiful valley, and completely destroy it. Now there’s no shelter where I can camp, just fences, all the “wild” land left has been once deforested and what has grown back is weedy bushes full of agitated ants and insects where I could only find a lousy, ditch-like shelter at best. And tonight I’m feeling a bit picky so I’m going to keep biking.

I even tried to get a motel room in this awful town of Hamilton, but all the motels in town were full… I went to a gas station and went to buy a personal pizza from under the heat lamp. “That pizza’s been sitting there a while, you can just have it!” The lady told me. Well, that’s pretty funny to me because now someone has bought my lunch AND my dinner today.

I biked into the sunset and saw the tormented thunder clouds obscuring the Bitterroot Range. There would be more rain coming, and I don’t have a shelter. I biked on and on, looked for a motel in the next stupid little town, but they didn’t have one. Now it was getting dark. In the end I picked my shelter just as the rain was coming in. It was a building, a business which I guess sold “Permachink and Stuccoflex.” On it’s side there was an awning, I also noticed the business hours said it was closed Saturday and Sunday, today was Saturday. So I should be fine then.

I setup camp on the concrete under the awning. No ants bothered me here fortunately. Spots like this generally suck, but actually I slept pretty well. It rained at night and I stayed dry, able to enjoy the rain from under my shelter.

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5/22 –The Bitterroot Valley to Missoula – 35 miles            

Got started at dawn this morning, only 35 miles to go to Missoula. It was a good ride but I was a little sick of riding today. I’d get a hotel room in Missoula and possibly even get two nights and take the next day off. I’m ahead of schedule, why not.

It was an uneventful morning as I passed through the small towns of the Bitterroot Valley. The scene got more and more city as I came closer to Missoula. Before long I was descending a mountain pass on the highway, and I arrived. Missoula, seemed kind of like another big landmark on my trip.

After some struggling in the rain to figure out the town, I found a fairly cheap hotel in the heart of the downtown! The city reminded me of Massachusetts, lots of brick, lots of delicious cafes and hipster food to “explore.” I got a pumpkin muffin with piles of cream cheese frosting at a café.

My friend Christa was passing through town today on a road trip and we planned to meet each other! It was awesome to see her! She came to the hotel room, she looked great, it was a fantastic reunion. We went out and got Vietnamese food and caught up on each other’s lives. After this road trip she’s moving to Ashland, Oregon, which is an amazing town. I’m happy for her.

We spent most of the day together going grocery shopping and walking around, it was nice to spend the day with a friend. We said goodbye and the rest of the evening I just relaxed in my room.


5/23 –Stayed in Missoula- 0 miles      

It’s amazing how much time I can kill in these hotel rooms. I got the second night so I could just relax, it’s worth every penny. Especially today, it rained all day. But this wasn’t just any rain… it RAINED. Nonstop rain, without pause, all day and all night.

I took the bike to the bike shop and they were able to replace the break. Woohoo, got two working breaks now. I got a nice bagel sandwich and some fancy, gourmet popcorn and a bit of gelato. I wandered around the rainy, brick downtown and got some free samples of food, and at the end of the day got a pizza with steak on it. I really like this town. It’s full of hipsters like the Pacific Northwest. I sat in a café most of the day in the rain.

It was a fantastic zero day.


5/24 – 50 miles to the Mission Valley.

I finally left Missoula in the rain and was feeling a little down. Oh well, carry on.

Biking was easy for me today though, I just pedaled, content to go slowly. I watched the city as it passed and eventually it left me. Soon I was in the mountains. I relaxed under a tree, it felt good to be in the mountains again! The mountains are so great, they are never developed because they are just too difficult to develop. Because of mountains we are able to have natural, undeveloped space. Back in the day when they settled this country, they settled as much as possible. They could not settle the rugged mountains. Today, things are overdeveloped. Today what’s left untouched they try to conserve, and we need to conserve what still is wild and free. The mountains have given us these sanctuaries, but the mountains are also responsible for giving us the fertile plains to develop. They catch the water from the atmosphere, without them the middle of our country would just be a big desert.

I continued on. It’s interesting when you see something you recognize… from long ago. I saw a sign for the Jocko Valley Library. Underneath it was writing translated in the strange Salish Indian language. I had a photograph of this very same sign on an old memory card. When I saw the sign something clicked in my brain, oh! I know this sign! So strange… it happened a few times riding this highway.

I came to the top of a mountain pass with a sweeping view to the snowcapped, glaciated Mission Mountains and the town of St. Ignacious. I stopped in that small town and went to the grocery store, what a pleasant, quiet town.

I kept riding from there but as I saw I was in farmlands I figured I’d have a hard time camping again tonight. I rode but it seemed like I spent more time just sitting around in the tall grass and relaxing today. Among the foxglove flowers and looking out to marshlands in the valley. Or looking up to hills as the highway passed between them. I stopped to camp that night at a highway rest area, under an awning, by a picnic table. It was another lousy spot but it wasn’t terrible. I had enough privacy, but it might not have been enough for some people. I didn’t care, and slept soundly.


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5/25 – Flathead Lake and Kalispell -69 miles

I had 69 miles still before I’d get to the city of Kalispell today, but found it fairly easy to pull off. I was awake at dawn and hit the highway. By the time the sun was shining strong, I saw Flathead Lake. I suppose this means “I’ve made it” because Flathead Lake is on the west side of Glacier Park. Kalispell will be the nearest large town to where I will be living.

I came down to the shore of Flathead Lake in the town of Polson. From there I headed east, I’d take the scenic east shore route around Flathead Lake. It was a fantastic ride. I was a little lethargic this morning, until I started around Flathead Lake. Once I got to this paradise I found my energy, and was biking great. The lake is huge and a most incredible shade of turquoise. The little houses in this area looked like wonderful places to live. And the forest… it reminded me of Canada. It was green, bright, spring green. A sparkling, apple green, all the leaves fresh, usually glistening with drops of water. Wild roses grew among the green foliage, also I passed through forests of majestic pine trees. At one point the road followed right along the lake, with cliffs dropping down to the pure, clear water. It felt awesome to be here, this is Glacier! This is where I’ll be spending the summer.

The weather was finally good today, but the weather is an angry thing. It became very upset that it couldn’t rain today, and had to manifest in huge thunderstorms which darkened the opposite shore of the lake. Boom, thunder, woke me up from a peaceful nap I took in the grass in a forest of commanding pines. My patch of sunlight and warmth had been obscured by clouds. Time to go!

I saw the rain coming, but it never actually hit me. I fought wind on my last stretch of the ride as I left Flathead Lake behind. I was crossing farmlands in the valley, I could see the mountains of Glacier to the east. I made it to Kalispell right as the storm was opening up… and there was a motel 6! Okay, I’ll just stay! It was only 6PM. I got a room, and not a moment too late as the clouds opened up, lightning arced across the sky, and the rain came down in buckets.

The rest of the evening was fantastic, I got Mexican food. The next day I took a long time procrastinating before I left Kalispell… Currently a few more days have passed as I sit writing this at the lonely train station in the town of East Glacier. I’ve gotten a few more stories since then as well, hopefully I’ll find time to write them down soon! Thanks for reading

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