I guess to be truly accurate this wasn’t really just my second road trip ever. There have been many others over the years, from car camping in Banff to a frigid January drive down to Mexico to a group excursion to Delisle for licorice. Or maybe I dreamt that one. Either way, though, this most recent Montana road trip was the second annual installment of my solo journey to the hiking, biking and microbreweries of our big, empty – marginally backwoods – southern neighbour, Montana. Last year I focused on mountain biking areas – Helena, Dillon, Bozeman – with a bit of hiking thrown in and a solid, satisfying afternoon drunk in various brew pubs in Bozeman. This year I ventured farther west, starting in spectacular Glacier National Park, one of the many adventurous places to visit in Montana that we’d been to years earlier but seemed to require further exploration, moving on to a uniquely dedicated biking lodge in Whitefish, a place I’d never been and, frankly, was tired of being told I simply had to visit. After that a relatively random and, to that point, frustratingly fruitless accommodation search of western Montana and the Idaho Panhandle led me to an unquestionably odd but impressively scenic little “hostel” in Libby, Montana, a place I had barely ever heard of, and then really only because of their delicious baked beans, which I later learned were not even grown, canned or drowned in that special oil gravy there anyway. Huge letdown. Nice brewery, though. I even spent a bit of time in Idaho for the first time since visiting some of my dad’s relatives (I guess that makes them my relatives as well) as a teenager. All I remember is swimming in a really clear creek and that some distant cousin made bullet-proof vests (which I thought was pretty great). All I had time for were some scenic drives and a couple short hikes, running out of time before I got the chance to check out any of the vaunted Idaho hot springs. Anyway, the short version of my overall road trip: I hiked through a lot of amazing scenery, braved some formidable summer vacation crowds, also enjoyed some occasional solitude, pushed the limits of my legs on some tough bike trails and even managed to stay upright on both wheels all the way down from the top of Big Mountain. The longer version: the rest of this entry.
Much like the time we visited Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, my road trip just happened to coincide with a massive heat wave that seemed to affect most of the west, and during my long drive out to the mountains I got to enjoy the sun beating on me through the side window basically the entire time. Needless to say, the fact my A/C hasn’t been working in some time was, shall we say, noticeable. Heat aside, I found it both mildly intriguing and somewhat depressing that by driving from 9 am to 6:30 pm, following a leisurely breakfast and at a relatively relaxed pace, I covered almost exactly the same distance we hope to this fall on the Camino del Norte. Except that we’ll be doing that on foot, and instead of 9 1/2 hours, we are tentatively expecting it to take around 5 weeks. Filed under things that make me frown.
Strange Things Seen on the Road While Driving
Between Cardston and the American border I saw a Hutterite man standing all by himself on the shoulder, no vehicle in sight, staring intently into a field. Then, shortly after, I had to slow down while two high school boys chased each other around on the highway in just swimming trunks.
Lots of forest fire smoke. But only north of the border. Apparently smoke is among the many foreign entities no longer welcome in the United States of America.
I spent about half the time camping, fending off the mosquitoes and biting flies at Johnson’s Campground in St. Mary, and the yappy dogs of Creston who, luckily, only barked whenever, you know, someone moved, talked or looked in their direction, and the somewhat depressing farmer’s field campground near Brooks, AB where there were so many people set up for the long haul, obviously this being what passed for an actual vacation for them.
The rest of the time I stayed in places resembling hostels, at least in the sense I was staying in dorm rooms constantly under threat of sharing intimate moments with complete strangers. At Whitefish Bike Resort I was fortunate that my 4-bed room was only shared with Ralf from Frankfurt, who was in the midst of an epic bike journey from Connecticut to Seattle and was the perfect roommate despite his rather disconcerting orange biking goggles he had to wear all the time since his prescription glasses had been stolen a few campsites back. We also had in common the fact that neither of our wives wanted anything to do with our summer biking adventures. And he did my laundry.
The resort itself was pretty great, with the extensive Whitefish Trail system located right out the back door, and the entire lodge completely devoted to biking and all things biking related. As in, the stair railings are made entirely of actual bikes, every photo and decoration either features a bike or was formerly part of a bike, right down to handlebar toilet roll holders and bathroom mirrors framed in bike rims, and essentially every one of their epic magazine collection features a $5,000 bike and space-age aerodynamic helmet.. There is also a bike wash station, an on-site obstacle course, training ground and a few short, fun, fast trails, and even a fully equipped repair shop (or at least it appeared fully equipped – I , of course, could only speculate as to what any of those mysterious implements might be used for).
In Libby the sleeping situation got even better as I ended up alone in a 5-bed room in a nice house with an odd, but ultimately good, location with the beautiful Kootenai River running past right under the deck on one side, and the train station on the other (“75 steps to the Amtrak”, they boast on AirBnB). Things did take a slightly strange turn the next day when I returned to an impromptu chicken breast barbecue, followed by a nearby “tango party”, followed by sounds in the wee hours of the morning such as high heels in the kitchen, cowboy boots in the room above, then even more disconcerting sounds to follow. The “relaxation”, as it was sheepishly described to me by a head poking carefully out the door of the upstairs bedroom late the following afternoon, was still continuing in earnest when I returned after a long day of hiking.
Probably the main highlights of the trip, I would happily visit Glacier every year. I started off slow, with a nice, easy 10 km jaunt out and back to Avalanche Lake, just me and a thousand or so of my closest friends. The most popular hike in one of the best national parks in the US on a Saturday morning at 10 in mid-July? What were the chances?
Then I took my time over a long lunch and stopped at plenty of overlooks in hopes of arriving at the ever-popular Logan Pass late in the day, around 5 pm, when, theoretically, the crowds would have mostly dispersed and I would have the second-most popular trail in the park, Hidden Lake Overlook, more or less to myself. This also turned out to be false. Interestingly, though, almost the entire couple kilometres to the viewpoint was across heavy, wet, slippery snow that most visitors were clearly less prepared to tackle than those of us who have spent most of our lives dealing with the icy, snowy winters of Saskatchewan. It was a Bambi on Ice ensemble, times several hundred, involving mostly sunburnt foreigners in flip-flops and novelty Going-to-the-Sun-Road t-shirts. Which made me laugh, at least until a group of thirty-year-old guys asked me, “Would you mind taking a photo of us, sir?”
The next day I tackled the much more difficult 15 km Siyeh Pass hike and saw just twelve people all day. Stunning views the whole way – creek, shaded forest, flower meadows, barren climb to pass, lunch overlooking valley, long deceiving climb down to Sunrift Gorge full of snow, runoff, flowers, views.
My final hike in Glacier, one of USA’s iconic bucket list destinations, was the famous Highline Trail, a track Laynni and I had hiked years earlier but had the expansive views and relatively easy terrain to warrant a second go-round. This was a bit of an assembly line again, although with the shortest loop measuring around 18 km I was both surprised and impressed that so many casual visitors were both willing and able. A lot of families, too, all experiencing a wide variety of reactions from their children. Some seemed to be actually enjoying themselves, although the vast majority seemed rather befuddled by the facts that their parents were putting them through this, and incredibly enough seemed to think they should be thanking them for something. While resting at Granite Park Chalet one father, distressed by his 10-year-old son’s constant complaining, lamented “How will you ever make it through life?” Meanwhile, his daughter was busy trying to get her mom’s opinion on a possible blister, unsure as “I’ve never had a blister, so I don’t really know”. The one thing all the parents had in common was a general sense of irritation that their kids were not, in fact, soaking it all in and recognizing it as the single greatest experience of their otherwise sheltered young lives. Mainly they just wanted to eat things.
Near Libby, Kootenai Falls was pretty cool, Ross Creek Cedar Trail was short and easy and had some really big trees, and the Cedar Lakes were stunning, even if they were a full sweaty 900 metres of elevation gain higher than the trailhead. Plus, while hiking back down from the Cedar Lakes I met a guy carrying a large backpack accompanied by a rambunctious young black lab which he seemed to be trying to train, or so I interpreted from all his frustrated screaming while the dog completely ignored him in favour of jumping on my chest and trying to lick my face and crotch in equal measures. Once I was finally able to disengage myself, I noticed the really large cat on a leash, which turned out to be his pet bobcat, which struck me as pretty odd, and the whole scene was topped off by the large semi-automatic handgun strapped to his belt. I had a feeling it was about to be a wild night in the bush.
The Going-to-the-Sun Road
I spent several days taking advantage of the trails around Whitefish Bike Resort and, as always, I came away from my most recent biking excursions (did I mean exertions?) with renewed respect for serious cross-country mountain bikers. The amount of effort and skill it takes to handle even the “moderate” routes is sort of staggering, considering I was coming off several days of hiking 15-20 km per day without really thinking much of it. Top of the line bikes surely make some difference, and having legs more substantial than the PVC pipes I currently sport, but in the end I think it mainly comes down to skill and technique, knowing the route and having the balls/ability to maximize your momentum going downhill to make the rocky, rooty uphills at least marginally more manageable. I have slowly learned some methods of improving my performance, one being actually willing to take the occasional break for a minute or two, at least whenever my heart rate exceeded 300 bpm or thereabouts. However, I still have no intention of abandoning my other tried and true method – spending several hours following each ride lying motionless and defeated, and occasionally whimpering.
Besides cross-country, however, there is a whole different tactic for enjoying some time aboard your bike without putting yourself in imminent danger of heart attack or public vomiting. For a fair and reasonable fee the good folks at Big Mountain will let you load your bike onto the ski lift to be mechanically shuttled all the way to the top, a much preferable method for eliminating problematically difficult climbs without the need for improved fitness or excessive practice. Mind you, without a full suspension fat-tire bike or the imposing body armour favoured by the kamikaze teenagers flinging themselves wildly around the mountain with little regard for personal safety, I felt it necessary to limit myself to the easiest runs possible. However, 13 kilometres of downhill switchbacks, sharp rocks and acrobatic obstacles were more than challenge enough for me, especially with the constantly incredible views tempting me into dangerous bouts of inattention. So, to recap, I biked down a mountain, didn’t wipe out, didn’t flip, didn’t get a flat, didn’t have my head sheared off by some 12-year-old maniac going airborne across my old-guy trail and, maybe most importantly, didn’t die.
The Great Northern Historical Trail between Somers and Kila, on the other hand, turned out to be a rather underwhelming follow-up the next day. It was hard to find, intensely disappointing, sports an obviously hyperbolic name and, while it was nicely paved, it still meant spending 30 km biking alongside the highway (the same highway I had just driven down in my vehicle) and the only real scenery of note was the dead, bloated deer carcass I had to detour around (both on the way out and back).
Some Random Quotes and Encounters
While biking the Whitefish Trail an older Minnesotan couple flagged me down to ask directions and, after they got past their initial shock that I am “Canadian but don’t talk weird”, we ended up talking for an awkwardly long time, then they tried to convince me to come pick huckleberries with them, were very disappointed my schedule wouldn’t allow it, then listed all the many, many different things she is capable of doing with huckleberries (Bubba Gump style).
I just happened to be in Whitefish at the same time as some friends from Moose Jaw/Saskatoon/Africa who I had not seen in years, happily changing that number back down to “weeks”.
“A travel writer? What is that? Never mind, just go.” – American Border Official
After enjoying several excellent microbrews and the enthusiastic crooning of singer Sista Otis at the Cabinet Mountains Brewery in Libby, I went for a speculative wander around town. Along the way I passed a gym (that I later found out is owned by the owner of the hostel I was staying in), where a small, middle-aged biker in full Lycra and gloves (yet no helmet) was having an animated conversation with someone inside the gym. After I passed he chased me down to ask if I would come witness a fight between him and some really big guy in the gym who claimed he could beat him senseless while wearing a blindfold. The biker was offended and fuming and insisted he would kill the guy, but just needed someone to “witness” it. As curious as I was, it sort of smelled like a con, although I couldn’t think of exactly why or how, but at the same time I couldn’t think of any way this held a positive outcome for me. Meanwhile, it was all too easy to envision several scenarios which involved me either desperately battling some blindfolded ‘roid freak or lying face-down in the alley with no wallet or pants. I passed, and suggested the biker do likewise, as it seemed like he was being set up, but he seemed unconvinced by – and extremely skeptical of – this line of reasoning. Half an hour later I saw him bike past on the main street, seemingly intact, leaving me none the wiser. While it certainly had some elements that smelled like a con, in hindsight I am leaning towards a simple meeting of meatheads.
While eating and drinking at Jimmy’s Pub and Grill in Creston, BC I couldn’t help but overhear (slash eavesdrop) on the three endlessly fascinating men getting rapidly hammered at the bar behind me. The following are the main highlights from their clever and enlightening conversation, at least to the point I was able to keep up while typing on my phone:
“What’s up, dog?”
“Ha ha, not much dude”
“I could go back to working 40 hours a week but what’s that accomplish?”
“The second divorce is always rough”
“Remember that girl that wanted my balls? She paid for my whole lasagna”
“Like I said, my house is paid for, so… what was your question?”
“I had like a $300 tab that night”
“I want extra pepper on that, ok? But don’t pee in my food, tell him I’m a nice guy, ok?”
“I could actually get a girlfriend up here and get away with it.”
“Fuck, I love Calgary”
“How would you get away with it?”
“I just wouldn’t friend her on Facebook”
“No one drinks light beer. Why do you think they call it light beer?”
“My ads are killin'”
“Hey, watch this catch!”
“He didn’t hire me because he thinks me and a lesbian had sex with his wife”
“I don’t wanna rule the world but they signed me up for that shit.”
“You know Hemingway just wrote and traveled. When he retires I want THAT job.”
“That’s why they call me the captain. They were nibbling and I just picked them up off the shore.”
“You mind if I explode? I don’t mean explode, obviously. I mean, nothing’s gonna get on you.”
“Oh my god, are you after my heart?”
“Can I get a selfie, my girlfriend wants to know I’m not making this shit up.”
“Wait, I need to check my twitter”
“Every time I show girls my balls they argue cuz, like, no way.”
“If it wasn’t for my wife I’d be in charge of all this shit now.”
And on that note… talk to you from France this fall.
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