Day 46 — 07.07.18 — Lincoln, MT to Missoula, MT — 81.16 miles — 1,871.7 elevation gain
It feels like a weekend. It feels like summer.
The route I’m on, according to the Adventure Cycling Association Lewis and Clark Bike Trail map, is the “Blackfoot Option” that starts in Great Falls and ends in Missoula. Did a bit more than half of this section yesterday, and the rest will be completed today. The Blackfoot is, in this case, a river which unbeknownst to me yesterday starts its flow at the Continental Divide. I will be in its midst for most of the day. Today (aka Saturday, July 7, 2018) will be an overall drop in elevation but like anywhere that’s not flat, there will be plenty of climbing, so don’t think you’re getting off easy! It’s still gonna be the magnificent hardship we’ve come to expect here in HandlebarconfessionalLand.
The town of Lincoln—and all evidence of its existence—ceases three-and-a-half miles from the morning’s starting point at the Sportsman’s Hotel. Now it’s just me and the river (and trees and rocks and deer and the rest of the flora and fauna…and spirits). It’s pretty damn early on a Saturday morning. No cars. I can hear myself inhaling and exhaling if I focus, but it’s the motion of the Blackfoot’s cool waters that muffles the sound of my breath—not humans, not progress, not machinery, not rustling plastics. The sounds I’m hearing are what ambient ‘nature’ recordings try to capture, but this is The Real Thing! It’s serene. I’m serene. Which is rare. [This moment of peace has stayed with me, imprinted on my brain, since it happened all those months ago. I think some folx call this ‘meditation.’ … I hope I remember this moment the next time I’m asked to close my eyes and conjure up a time when I was at peace.]
Less serenity-producing are these white crosses that appear on Montana’s roads. After 10 or 11 days of riding in the state and seeing them periodically, I finally take a photo of one. These are “Highway Fatality Markers,” sometimes solo or in pairs, marking two deaths. In certain areas I’d see several sets. They are a solemn reminder for people to drive safely on these mostly low-traffic roads (certainly by the standards I’m used to). It’s cool that there’s a public awareness campaign…though it’s so sad and unsettling to contemplate, multiple times per day. I’ll usually espy their unmistakable red stems standing out against the rural palette in the distance, so I’ve got lots of time to ponder being struck by a vehicle or by lightning as I approach. Some of the crosses are very clearly marked with names and dates, festooned with plastic flowers, American flags, and other regalia. The American Legion started this project in the 1950s, as a way to give back to the community; that organization still maintains them. Every single person who has died in a highway fatality since they started this campaign has a marker. You’re supposed to slow down when you see one, y’know, to avoid ending up in the, er, same situation but also, I imagine, as a way to pay respect for the dead. Obviously, I did not die so no need to pray for me now, but it did occur to me that I could end up with a marker, like every day of the ride through the state. Overall, the roads I’ve ridden on in MT have felt reasonably safe, even when I was on I-94 for those brief periods. No ice or snow around definitely reduces the risk, but it is 4th of July weekend, so undoubtedly drunkenness is out for a drive…Anyway, dumb to contemplate now, 2.5 years later, and waste precious space on this page. But too late, already typed it. My delete key is stuck on nothing goes to waste here in HandlebarconfessionalLand!
I wanted to strike out early and decided to hold off on eating much more than some basic fuel until the next town. Nothing’s open anyway at 5:43am, and the meal I had last night at Lambkin’s Casino Restaurant and Lounge didn’t make me want to wait for breakfast.
[BTW, unfamiliar with the word ‘Lambkin,’ I decided to google it. Does that ever happen to you? Where you’re like, what is this word? is it some common word I should know? and you start tripping out on it? Is it a proper noun, or a regular word, or a composite of ‘lamb’s skin’? If you’re scratching your tripped-out head about ‘lambkin’ by now, here’s a bit of schoolin’: So yeah, according to Oxford Languages, it’s a word meaning a small or young lamb, or an endearment for a child or a particularly sweet and innocent person (presumably of any age). The example of word use that comes up on google first thing brought me some snickery joy: ’Hush, my lambkin,’ she said, rocking the child in her arms. #Classiclambkin!
Who might be the sweet lil lambkin that Lambkin’s Casino Restaurant and Lounge is named after? There has to be a story.
I’m gonna start calling people ‘lambkin’—whether they’re classically innocent or not. I mean, who am I to judge the purity level of another individual? ’Hush my lambkin,’ Danny said, to the angry driver of the car who cut him off and whose cold stare indicated a desire that this wretched moisture-wicking microfiber and elastic-clad dickhead with a padded butt be transformed into a white cross for.ever. Don’t be surprised if you find me on the road still trying to make ‘lambkin’ happen.
#rabbithole! Or… #Lambkinhole!
…But before we exit this lambkin hole, one more thing: did you know that there is a weirdo stuffed animal-like cat breed called a Lambkin Dwarf. O yes, and it is registered with the The Dwarf Cat Association (TDCA). I am 1,000,000% sure you were not aware of the existence of this organization until now. What you learn in and around bike travel is as plastically flexible as the brain itself.]
Okay, so before lambkins we were talking breakfast. Ovando, a town of 81 souls that’s 27 or so miles from Lincoln, has the star symbol from the ACA map legend which means that I’ll find all services here. I’m going to assume I’ll be able to get some sort of substantial second breakfast, like I did in other towns in MT (Wibaux and Ft. Benton). Ovando is off the highway about a half-mile, but I can easily spot it off to the left from the road, because, well, there’s nothing else to see. I pedal up to a restaurant, but it doesn’t open until 11. What?! A man smoking a cee-gar on his porch tells me to keep riding further into town and I’ll find the Stray Bullet Café, the origin story of which, I’m sure, is not lambkin-related. Unsurprisingly, the name is not random: this building was once a saloon catering to cowboys, ranchers, and boys-who-were-boys (and Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Katy Jurado, and Donna Reed progenitors) in the 1800s when stray bullets had an after-the-duel-dust-settles Western mythos, unlike nowadays when they nearly always kill real people who aren’t also holding a gun. (Best not to bring this up with any of the locals, I should think.) According to the menu and a sign with an arrow, there’s a stray bullet lodged in the wall from a shootout. Not wanting to call attention to myself (more than my gear-bedecked getup and my pannier-laden steed Whitey Jackson parked outside already do), I take a few stealth photos. Like, people don’t know I’m a tourist?! (I eschew that term! I’m a traveler. Big diff.)
I eat very well for a minimal price. The menu is hokey fun with names that don’t take the foot off the gas thematically, or whatever the horse-riding version of that metaphor is. (What is the equine version of this? I should ask Flint. *Asks Flint*…I just did, and she says, more or less, “It’s relaxing your lower legs so you’re not squeezing the horse’s side to say ‘go forward ,’ or it could be ceasing use of the crop or goosing the horse with spurs.” **Please note: no horses were hurt, or even slightly vexed, in the development of the previous sentence.) I order The Gunslinger (eggs, hash browns, bacon, toast) from the list of Saddlebags. From outside, Whitey Jackson grumbles, “Panniers!” Like many beasts of burden, he prefers this term over the olden-days saddlebag. He fancy. From the Watering Hole (don’t go there oh well too late), I order Black Powder aka coffee—it’s 75 cents!!
After the hearty meal and a poo thanks to the two-plus cups of Black Powder, I’m ret-to-go. The next big chunk of the day’s ride is largely peaceful. Hot, but not disgusting. Windy, but the elevation gain (1,621 ft) vs. the elevation loss (2,766 ft) makes it less insanity-producing than usual.
A few hours post-Ovando, I stop to refuel water at a convenience store, and I meet a fellow cyclist. Even though I’m near the bike travel capital of the US (sez me/unofficial), I haven’t been running into many these days. He’s lounging in the bit of shade near the entrance. Instead of the usual (telling me which direction he’s headed, which always seems to be the first question we ask each other when it’s not obvious), right away he tells me he ran out of money on his trip. Oh no! Maybe he’s stranded here? Immediately, I feel a sense of responsibility—that I don’t want!—to assist my road-brother. “When did you start?” I ask.
“Oh, a while ago. Summer before last,” he grins demoing a smile that’s been untended for longer, shrugs, smashes a bug with Giro cycling shoe that looks new.
…Oh, well, so maybe not stranded here? His setup is extensive; his black mountain bike is beyond fully loaded, bulky mirrors on both handlebars, a tattered seat cushion strapped onto his wide-comfort saddle (is that a neck pillow on there?), and he’s towing a muddied and worn, fluorescent-green cargo trailer, zippers aching to burst with his belongings. He isn’t asking for help, so I’m guessing this is a ‘lifestyle choice’ (which may sound condescending, but I don’t mean it to be). But how am I supposed to know? I live in a city with scores of thousands of unhoused people, and often journalists profile that “side” of the issue, which anti-homeless advocates gobble up, because it better fits their narrative of the transient person who chooses to live on the street, marring our otherwise flawless byways. Y’know, rather than focus on the fact that income inequality in progressive Los Angeles is among the worst in the country. And California laws that are distinctively pro-developer over pro-me-and-you. And soaring rental prices [which looking back to 2018 almost seem reasonable compared to now]. And an ever-unfolding history of gentrifying neighborhoods of working people of color, unjustly justified by a process of white-flight-then-unsightly-blight-then-white-reignite.
I pee inside the store (in a specified toilet, in case you were confused momentarily). I buy some sachet-tubes of mixed nuts, Nature Valley Oats ‘n Honey granola bars (the ones in the green and yellow wrappers that are the progenitors of bars as we know them today), and ask to fill my bottles of water from the soda machine (being supremely careful not to let a drop of syrup enter my bottle, lest I ruin this freebie for anybody else in future). I offer my nomad (?) friend some of the booty, not sure if it would be insulting to give him some cash. I mean like a twenty. I decide not to.
Briefly breaking bar together, he asks me The Burning Question on Everyone’s Mind: “Are you headed to Glacier?” Whether my trip is to include Glacier National Park (which I KNOW IS AMAZING I’VE LOOKED IT UP AND SEEN PICS PLUS YOU HAVE TOLD ME) has become, over the past several weeks, one of those thorn-in-one’s-side questions that everyone seems to ask and I find myself somewhat defensively—and regretfully and FOMO-ly, almost guiltily—explaining that, no, it’s not on my route this time. “Ohhhhhhhhh, tooooo baaaaad” opines every person in the State of Montana, and every person who’s ever been to Montana, and everyone who hasn’t but has heard of Big Sky/The Treasure State’s greatest treasure. “You’re missing out. It’s the most amazing thing. You’re route is bunk if you’re not doing Glacier. I went, because my trip was amazing, unlike your trip and you as a person, both of which pale drastically in comparison in my amazingness. In fact, your trip offers zero amazement without Glacier,” says the world. I GET IT. I SHOULD BE DOING IT. I leave this dude tsk-tsking at my terrible fortune of a trip across Montana without Glacier. No one seems to care about my defense: practically the whole reason I chose this route so was I could visit my actual friends in Missoula. And YES, I KNOW that there’s a route that heads due north from Missoula to Glacier, only a couple of days’ ride. [BTW I recently made a new Missoula-based friend through an online NA meeting and I told him that I want to do that ride. And yes, he also asked The Burning Question on Everyone’s Mind, but 2.5 years down the road, I’m a hell of a lot less worked up about it! Maybe he’ll even be game to do it with me. So wait for it. I will get my Glacier on, bears be damned!]
As I near Missoula, the Seventh-of-July traffic starts growing exponentially. Lots of camper vans, and RVs towing SUVs, and SUVs towing ATVs, and SUVs transporting racks of bicycles, and then there’s me. I pull over to the side of the road in Bonner, as my phone pling!s to life once again after a spell in the boonies. [I wonder if AT&T works in rural MT by now? Or if, like lambkin, AT&T is never gonna happen in rural MT.] I key Kathryn’s address into google maps. Ten more miles! After almost 30 years of friendship, I will be visiting her in her hometown where she and her husband Eric moved to (from LA several years ago—talk about a switch to a more affordable cost of living!) when Elizabeth was 5 and Michael a toddler. They’re currently camping with a few other families and will be back tomorrow, so I have the run of the house. My only responsibility is to feed/water Ace, their big black cat for the next 24 hours. [R.I.P. Ace, cause of death unknown (not on my watch!), probably a predator, now replaced by a dog.]
The house is really lovely, very open and welcoming. It’s also a haven from the mosquitos that plague the Montana atmosphere starting in the late afternoon, about the time I arrive to meet the very vocal Ace and let us in with the hidden key. Because there are other houseguests (also on the camping trip)—Virginia, Kay’s BFF from childhood (and who I knew when she came to visit us in Provincetown in the summer of ’91 when Kay and I and a bunch of fellow theater geeks did plays by Genet and Molière to a very scant audience), and her sons Kai and Beck—the guestroom is booked, so Elizabeth has (in?)voluntarily volunteered to cede her Harry Potter Hogwartsland of a bedroom to me for a few nights and will bunk with her brother. I have use of a car as well! After a shower, I take it for a spin, excited to drive a stick for the first time since the 2015 demise of my 1990 black Volvo 240 DL that I loved to death. I get myself to Missoula’s better, more humane, less corporate answer to a health food store, aptly but snoringly named Good Food Store—and then I head to an NA meeting. At 2,900 miles traveled, it’s my first on the road.
I am also insanely horny.