Nowhere Slow

A Bicycle Journey across Montana
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Welcome to Glasgow, MT.
Getting the big picture (Anne Sherwood)

My chain, freshly lubed, threads through the derailleur with a pleasing, clicking backbeat. Though I am not a tall person, my seat tube is raised to nearly maximum height, allowing me to feel perched upon my bicycle rather than merely seated. The view is grander up here. When the road dips low a hint of refrigerant spray from the Kootenai River prickles my legs. The wind rustles hoarsely through the bear grass; the mentholated scent of sagebrush is thick in the air.

I ride a 21-speed Trek 240 touring bicycle, accessorized with four stop-sign-red panniers. The frame of my bicycle is covered with a montage of gaudy stickers, one for each state I have cycled in. There are nineteen of them. But on this trip, though I'm planning to ride more than 700 miles, there will be no new stickers. I have decided to explore Montana, the state where I live.

The course I've chosen is both simple and, I feel, perfect: Route 2, which skirts the northern part of the state and is better known as the Hi-Line. It begins at the Idaho border and ends at the North Dakota line, passing through one national park, three Indian reservations, and virtually every aspect of Montana — urban, rural; mountain, prairie; booming, busting. I am traveling with my friend Anne, who is on a sticker-free bicycle borrowed from my father. This is her inaugural long-distance bike trip.

A friend drove us up from our home in Bozeman and we began at the bottom — the lowest point in Montana, 1,820 feet above sea level, with our back wheels in Idaho. Twenty miles later, cycling side-by-side, we are both ecstatic. Anne is already hooked. She sees: There is no barrier between a bicyclist and the outside — a cyclist is outside. My senses feel sharp. A yellow butterfly flitters about Anne's head, then moves to investigate mine and soon lands, Anne reports, on my helmet. We are cycling up a long hill, moving at precisely butterfly speed. I like moving at butterfly speed.

We cycle forty-three miles the first day — an easy workout, to allow our bodies to adjust to new demands. Our ride ends in Libby, where the hair salon is named"Curl Up & Dye" and the barber shop is called "The Clear Cut." We stomach the bad puns and pitch tent in the city campground.

A town's essence, Anne and I agree, is found in its cafis, which is why we've left our camp stove behind. We plan to eat our meals in the most local-looking restaurants we can find, no matter how cheeseburger-centric the fare. This plan, as we discover while eating scrambled eggs for breakfast in Libby, means the scrutiny will be two-way. "You're rigless?" asks a man who has given our bicycles the once-over before approaching our table. "Rigless in Montana?" He folds his hands on the shelf formed by his stomach and walks away shaking his head.

Our goal for the day is Kalispell, but with more than twenty miles to go the light begins fading fast. We are in the middle of nowhere. The cars switch on their headlights. We are stubborn: Unless it's an emergency, we've agreed, we will not accept a ride. I think that a packet of peanut M&Ms and six Starbursts as dinner for two qualifies as an emergency. Anne vetoes this. We're going to camp here, she announces, and make do. I'm certain a cafi is just up the road and I beg for one more mile. We ride a mile — nothing. I'm desperate. Then we ride around one final bend and out of the dusk, like a holy vision, shines a neon Miller Genuine Draft sign. The kitchen is still open. We're saved.

About the Author : Michael Finkel is the author of Alpine Circus: A Skier's Exotic Adventures at the Snowy Edge of the World, and his work has appeared in National Geographic Adventurer, Audubon, Outside, Skiing, and numerous other magazines. Michael's adventures in ice biking and snowboarding, and his discussion with GORP readers, have been featured on GORP.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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