Missoula, MT to Powell Junction, ID. 55.56 miles, cum 2,947.57, elev gained 4,006.6
Sit down everyone. Take a breath because…
“Today”. (July 10, 2018.) Is. A. State. Line. Crossing.
Yes, I know! Brrreeeeeathe innnnnnn and ououououout. We’re about to cross the border out of Montana where we’ve been for 13 days—or 1,619 days if you’re counting from the day we crossed into Montana from North Dakota until the day this essay was unleashed on the public. We are heading into Idaho, another US state inaugural visit for me.
As reluctant as I am to leave my Missoula pals, the next couple of days will be the most Rocky Mountainous of the journey. Super classic, like soooo HBC ’09. This section of the Rockies is the Bitterroot Mountains. The ACA bike map gives the intrepid bike traveler two options once you hit the town of Lolo—10 miles from the morning’s start yet still in the Missoula Metropolitan Statistical Area (Cute. Missoula is a metropolis! …a fact previously unbeknownst to all except Missoulian transplants from smaller Montana hamlets, data people, and now me and you.) The first choice of route is along the main highway Route 12 for the regular-level intrepid traveler. The other is the Lolo Trail that more carefully approximates the route through the Bitterroots that Lewis and Clark took. “From a loaded bicycle/pulling a trailer perspective, this is difficult terrain. Cycling will consist of either climbing or descending steep grades or primitive roads,” so sez the ACA cartographers. Umm, I don’t think I’m down for this. “Primitive,” you say? Having just relived my impossible passage over gravel in Iowa (I wrote and posted Day 23 while in Missoula), I was not feeling any more intrepid than regular-level. [Wait…do I regret not doing this? *checks in with self* Hmm, nope, not on the surface…*digs deeper* Is there any guilt or shame or regret down there? How bout embarrassment? Nope. Not there.] To be honest, I still don’t know what type of tire would have gotten me over those hills in Iowa on that dirt road. I just went into my bedroom where Whitey Jackson idles and examined his tires. They don’t seem super, um, robust. So maybe it was impossible to ride that road on a bike. I’ll never know. Unless someone reads this and learns me.
[CUE: TIME MACHINE SOUND EFFECT]
So here’s a timeline voice-from-the-future-but-which-future-exactly mindfuck: As it turns out, I am the “someone” who is gonna read this and learn me! Me! *everyone’s heads explode*!! I wrote that last paragraph, hmm I dunno, likely sometime in the summer of 2021, before I set off on my HBC ’21 journey. Since then, I have figured out through new-day-dawning cyclist osmosis that, yes, bubbleheaded Danny, there are tires in existence that would get me over gravel and dirt more easily and such tires are those generally used for mountain biking, fatter, knobblier tires I could be using on Whitey Jackson (as long as they clear my fenders). Now, upon closer inspection of the Field Notes and Riding Conditions narrative sections of the map, the ACA cartographers are much more specific about the Lolo Trail in terms of what type of setup a traveler should be using when opting for that route, and mine ain’t it. To ride the Lolo Trail I should have front suspension and a trailer hauling my shit, not panniers, and certainly not ones like mine that are low to the ground. And there are no services during that stretch. Could I have even carried enough water? Sure, dip into the streams, they say, but not without a high-quality water filter to prevent the “severe intestinal illness giardiasis.” (I am not in possession of such a filter, never thought I’d need it.) Also they write, “Our 145.3-mile Lolo Trail is for the fat-tire enthusiast” which I have been misreading for 4 years as “Our 145.3-mile Lolo Trail isn’t for the flat-tire enthusiast”—as if there are flat-tire enthusiasts out there! In all my years of cycling, I have never met one. While Whitey Jackson’s tires are fatter and have a busier, more ingrained tread pattern than the narrow, lightweight ones on my regular road bike, they aren’t, by mountain biking standards, fat. At all. (From the other room, Whitey’s like, So, you’re saying I’m fat?! And I’m like, No I’m saying the exact opposite! He can be so sensitive!) In the end, I suppose I interpreted the way I misread that sentence in a similar vein to how it was intended—if that weird syntax makes any sense at all—and I chose to skip the Lolo Trail. I find it rather comical to think that I was contemplating whether or not to go that route, based on the fact that it was technically difficult and I was afraid I might not be able to handle the terrain, like it was a preference I was expressing (hmm, I don’t reeeeeally consider myself a ‘flat-tire enthusiast’ per se), rather than the absolute FACT that I would have been COMPLETELY FUCKED if I’d tried. Feels great to laugh at myself and emphasize my ignorance, rather than trying to save face by deleting the above paragraph or editing it to sound like I knew what I was talking about in 2018, or 2021 for that matter!
Relatedly, I have been proper mountain biking. Once.
[CUE: ANOTHER TIME MACHINE SOUND EFFECT GOING EVEN FURTHER BACK. MUCH, MUCH FURTHER.]
It was the summer of ’93 after graduating from University of California, Santa Cruz. I was living in downtown Santa Cruz and got a job busing tables at one of the upscale seaside restaurants in town. I was the new guy, felt pretty awkward there still after a couple weeks, and hadn’t connected with anyone yet. None of my coworkers were associated with the university or any of the off-campus stuff I was involved in; they were all local surfer-dude types, both the women and the guys. I happened to be babysitting a friend’s very basic Specialized mountain bike (with very basic tires) for the summer which was my transpo to and from the restaurant. “You ride?” asked this one dude Keith, the bro-iest of all the bros, Bro among bros, King of Brolandia, and I cautiously answered, not really believing that my version of “ride” (i.e., riding a couple miles to and from campus, rehearsals, work, etc.) was the same as his (i.e., …I sincerely had no fuckin idea what he meant by “ride”). “…Yeah …why?” And he goes, “A bunch of us are going on a ride this Sunday, wanna check it out?” I was like, “…Hell yeah…? Let’s go…?” And he was like, “Stoked, dude.” And I was like, “Cool, man!” And after a few secs more of standing there contemplating whether the next appropriate move was bro-handshake or bro-hug, he goes, “Okay, bro, can you bread table eleven?”
Despite being in that town for almost two years at that point, I hadn’t really been exposed to the Santa Cruz bro culture—surfing and mountain biking and mountain climbing and hiking in the redwoods and more surfing. A) I had an independent major in, basically, queer studies. And B) my non-UCSC-campus-related Santa Cruz experiences had thus far been my breaktakingly boring work-study job at the Santa Cruz County Historical Society, volunteering at the Santa Cruz Needle Exchange Program doing harm reduction home visits and handing out syringes and safer injection equipment on the ho stroll, distributing condoms and safer sex info at the gay cruising beach north of town for the Santa Cruz AIDS Project, and acting in a downtown community theater production of the Joe Orton play Loot. So, yeah, my bro-cultural exposure was minimal.
At that time I didn’t know what “mountain biking” was, as such. I had never ridden on any surface that wasn’t paved. I had no other gear besides the loaner bike, not even a helmet, which at that time I was totally fine to forego but one of the larger restaurant bros lent me his extra. I looked amazing with that giant spaceship balancing atop my pinhead. I was nervous, unsure of what I was getting myself into, too afraid to seem lame or uninformed or oblivious, so asking any questions was off the table. I just wanted to fit in with the crowd, with this particular crowd of bros.
Just before we headed out on the trail, a few of the bros were passing around a joint. Drugs, thank god! I know how to do those! And I proceeded to get high. Very, very high. And PARANOID and PANICKY and TERRIFIED while desperately aching to seem chill and copacetic and be in harbronious accord with my new friends who were all experienced mountain bikers and for whom consumption of weed only added to their enjoyment of the experience, not turned it into a SERPENTINE UNDULANT GRUELING OBSTACLE COURSE OF ABJECT TERROR.
I don’t know how technical or challenging the ride actually was, but it definitely was not for a too-stoned white-knuckling death-gripped first-timer. I wiped out at least twice, both knees bloodied. Kept getting caught in the wrong gear, frantically spinning my pedals with the chain in the lowest chainring at the bottom of a hill, Looney Tunes style (me as always-the-loser composite antagonist Yosemite Daffy Fudd E. Coyote), unable to use the downhill momentum to get me up the next one I was facing. So I had to get off several times and SHAMEFULLY walk the bike. I had started in the middle of the pack and was slowing the riders behind me who were unable to pass me easily on the narrow trail with a drop to the right of a hundred feet or more overlooking redwoods and firs and eucalyptus trees. Or whatever trees! I don’t remember the fucking trees, OKAY! I remember the adrenaline-fueled/-crashing exhaustion from the riding, from pretending I wasn’t FREAKING THE FUCK OUT. Frenziedly trying to exploit my acting chops, being like: No, of course I am not in any sort of mental physical or emotional pain or duress at all, dude, I am in fact loving every minute of my first mountain biking experience, bro, and I absolutely took the precisely correct number of hits off that not-too-too-strong Santa Cruz weed, man, and I’m totally totally toh-toh-lee okay that this is happening exactly the way it’s supposed to be because I am able to effortlessly laugh at myself just like I have always been able to do during times of feeling vulnerable—What? Did I say “vulnerable? Oh ho ho ho no no no I mean INvulnerable duh! And also like always and forever I possess this spontaneous, unforced ability to identify this a profoundly important learning experience during the exact moment it is occurring because I am DOWN FOR ANYTHING and JUST THAT COOL WITH MYSELF AND THE WHOLE WORLD AND EVERYTHING IN IT! I remember my fury at these bros (were they laughing at me? was this a set-up from the get-up? or were they pitying me because I was so unathletic?) and more so at myself for being myself and not someone better, more agile, athletic, manly, bro-y, able-to-handle-my-drugs-y, someone a million times cooler than me, feeling like that kid who in baseball 9 out of 10 times struck out or got struck with the ball because I was left-handed and standing on the wrong side of the plate and a garden variety faggot and who just plain old SUCKED at sports. I remember feeling abandoned while wishing more than anything that I was alone. …
WELL, LOOKIT ME NOW, SUCKAZ!!
And I have probably done more drugs than all those bros combined! (…though that didn’t ultimately turn out so fantastically well…)
Whew. Haha. Hehe. I guess I’m still working through some stuff.
ANYWAY, so yeah, bro, moving on from the 1993 reverie to 2018 riding out of Missoula toward the Idaho state line…
[CUE: TIME MACHINE SOUND EFFECT IN REVERSE WHICH ACTUALLY MEANS FORWARD IN TIME. GO FIGURE]
Whitey Jackson and I make our way out of the neighborhood and onto Brooks Street (aka US Route 93 running concurrently with US Route 12 which, according to a bit of research I just did, I’ve already ridden on [!], way back in Mobridge, South Dakota). Brooks is the main drag that leads me out of Missoula, along the Bitterroot River, and toward the mountains. The weather’s plan today is not quite as hideously hot as the past couple of days in Missoula. But a few degrees isn’t going to make a difference considering the pretty intense climb that awaits. I’m good and nested and rested and hydrated after the Missoula visit and it’s *only* a net 2,100-foot climb over about 33 miles, average grade about 1.6%. [As I write this, covering Whitey Jackson’s ears, I’m having a moment of how great would this be on my regular road bike without an 80-pound load. Easy-peasy-potatoey-cheesy, as we say in metropolitan Montana.]
At Mile 10, as promised, I arrive at the lesser city in the Missoula Metropolitan Area (easy-peasy already-spaghetti, City Boy, with yer jokes), the town of Lolo. Even though it’s been less than an hour, I use the facilities, guzzle some water, and replace what I drank already from the soda fountain in the gas station where I pee. And I crank my pedalers up the mountain. It’s a 30ish mile climb to the top, long and slow, until it steepens considerably over the final several miles. Any sign of civilization besides the road itself—never mind the mini-metro area I’d left behind earlier this morning—is absent. No more ranches, farms or livestock. Barely any cars pass me. It’s Rocky Mountain High central. A titan conifer orgasm. Spectacular.
The rest I’ve had in the past week (the two-day writing catchup at Jason and Ali’s in Great Falls and the two-day visit in Missoula) has done me good. I feel strong. The climb is hard, but not overly so. I actually felt like I was working out and could push myself and not worry about cranking myself ragged (short day).
Near the top I catch up to another rider. This is Frans from the Netherlands. We cross the Idaho border at Lolo Pass with him right behind me. (IDAHO!!!!!! Hello, I am sincerely honoured to make your acquaintance.) I of course really struggle with the idea of passing someone but it’s a hill and I want to get it done with! I’m not trying to race. Ugh, I hate that feeling of tension between not wanting to make someone feel like they’re slow (we are all slow with the baggage we carry) and just passing them without overthinking how it might make them feel, or to seem to possess a SHRED of competitiveness, or to admit that I have more than a shred, but really the prevailing feeling is that I can’t ride slower. I have to pass him, even if the unthinkable happens (I pass him and then he passes me cuz I don’t have what it takes to maintain the lead…in this race to the top that we are NOT having!) I pass with grace and encouragement and with an enormous helping of optimistic god this is hard not sure I’m cut out for this I’m almost spent or something…there’s a code of honor (?) with cyclists—well many of us—where we do whatever we can to let you know how badly we’re struggling too when we pass you on a hill, always say man this sucks or the sun is killing me today or something to let the person know we don’t think we are the better athlete. It’s politeness, I guess, driven by knowing that it never feels awesome when we’re truly struggling and someone whizzes by us and WE KNOW they’re doing JUST FINE when they can easily chat as they pedal by your slow and sorry ass. Some riders just pass you and ignore you. Fuck you, too, bro.
Frans and I chat at the Lolo Pass Visitor Center. We take some selfies (actually he does, longer arms) and he shoots a brief video of me saying my name and where I’m from, something which he’s been doing during his whole cross-country trip. We exchange numbers. I take off while Frans heads to the toilet. I’ll see him later as we both plan to be camping at Lochsa Lodge, another 13 miles or so, nearly all downhill—and I’m not crazy about riding with people as I’ve explained before, probably ad nauseum. I want to experience the downhill alone. What’s funny is that I have NO IDEA that I’m about to have one of those HBC—nay, lifetime—memories that is utterly indelible.
I’m not sure when the screaming started. Blood curdlingly, it rose from deep within my viscera, through every organ, bouncing between each vertebra and rib, reverbing through my sternum and out toward my clavicular joints, roiling my esophagus and intoning my larynx, escaping through my wipe-agape mouth, leaving my uvula flapping and twirling and twisting/untwisting in the breezes and my eardrums boinging and bongoing and my whole body resonating. Perhaps it was only yards below the summit or even a couple of miles. But this next 45 mins—about how long it took to ride down that mountain (including stopping again and again for photos)—is something I’ll never forget. Remember the moment I talked about a few days ago, just a few miles outside of Lincoln, early in the AM, when I felt that unadulterated serenity? I have never forgotten that moment. Same with this experience, just a vastly different color. The vertiginous thrill of the downhill on Route 12’s twists and turns made me feel like Jodie Foster in Contact as she lurches through the wormhole. The spruce, pine and fir of millions of unspoiled Xmas trees, the archetypical blue Big Sky, and paradigmatic white clouds, exhilarated and joyful I screamed at the beauty, with awe and gratitude and some disbelief, I screamed, I bellowed, I hollered, bayed, whooped, screeched, and yawped. I roared. And took photos. I even attempted to video some of it, yes, with my phone and yes riding with one hand and yes at 20mph or more. It was clumsy and scary and I don’t recommend it, for safety reasons but also because the output doesn’t do the experience justice. Video embedded below does not have any screaming unfortunately.
(This setting was one that I was so looking forward to experiencing again when, in early October 2022, I retraced my 2018 tracks because there was so much I hadn’t written about and feared lost—what is really important anyway? This. Was it the same in a car having already been devirginized by the vistas 4 years previously? No, that purity was lost but the memory wasn’t. It was still wondrous and I loved experiencing it another time, even in a car.)
At 55 miles, I make the left turn onto Powell Road and head a few hundred yards into Powell Junction which has a lodge with a restaurant, a one-pump gas station, and a tiny general store behind which cyclists were allowed to camp for free, according to the ACA map. Man, this place is in the middle of a forest. No cell service. Still just the road (as evidenced by the screenshot with photo of my tent).
As I set up camp, Frans rolls in. We have dinner in the lodge restaurant that night with a fellow cyclist named Carrie, about my age but she’s retired (!) Air Force. She reminds me of my sister-in-law Jinx and Nina M at the same time. And of me. She is competitive, does some really long days on the road, and is into her cycling data. She articulates something so directly that has since stuck with me (and can make use of immediately over the next several days and years): she likes to hang out with fellow cyclists in the evenings but wants to ride alone, to go at her speed, have her own experience, not have to compromise, or stop when she doesn’t want to, or wait when she does. I GET THIS. I. AM. THIS. (Most of the time…maybe I mean I. PREFER. THIS. BUT. I. CAN. ALSO. BE. UNRIGID. AT. TIMES.) Frans is a cool guy, a high school music teacher who has done several US cycling tours. Has an admirable capacity for moderation: each night of the trip he has one beer and one cigarette and clearly immensely enjoys these rewards for his pedaling labor. Me, I’d already popped into the Powell mini-general store and buy some sugar for the fruits of mine.
I am so ready for a night in the tent! I’m asleep before it’s all the way dark. Not because I’m tired but because it’s so damn late when the sun finally says see ya tomorrow, bro.