Tuesday, October 11, 2005

A Ride up Lolo Pass

We all have heroes. Heroes do things that we thought were impossible. They achieve these feats usually not because of unusual talent, but instead because of unusual courage or tenacity. My heroes are inspirational cyclers--especially, randonneurs. Randonneuring is a French tradition of self-supported riding, epitomized in my mind by rider's like Kent P. (over in the links column).

There are no organized randonneuring events in my neck of the woods. That's alright; I'm really not an event sort of person, and bikes are so useful that they don't require an event to enjoy. We no longer have a car, and that has freed up a lot more time to explore my little corner of Montana, randonneur-style. In late October, I took my first ride in the randonneur spirit. It was a difficult enough route that I truly wasn't sure if I could make it, self-supported by a $10 bill and with no easy way out if things got rough.

After taking care of some obligations, I was pedaling south out of Missoula. The morning air was crisp, but the first small hill pushed warmth all the way to my toes. Excited about the day, I slipped south and watched the sun bob intermittently above the low peaks of the Sapphires to the east. Those wrinkled old hills catch the light in a gentle, confident way that shows they have nothing left to prove. I try to follow their example and move at my own pace up and down the steepening hills that separate my valley from the wide Bitterroot flood plain to the south.

I've ridden primarily a singlespeed bicycle over the past year, but I have recently started riding a geared bike again. All bikes are fun to ride. In my experience, differences only highlight how adaptable the human body is. I have no doubt I could do this same ride with one-gear, or two, or thirty. Today I have fourteen, though I primarily use two of them. The only time number of gears matters to me is when they detract from the ride itself. If I were a cycler because I liked shifting gears, I could save a lot of money by mounting a shifter to my work desk and fiddling with it.

Fourteen must have been the right number today. I don't remember shifting gears, but I do remember how the sun felt when it first hit my left side.

The outskirts of Lolo snap me out of my reverie and back into road awareness. I make the right turn onto Lewis and Clark Highway and immediately duck into the Super Stop for supplies. I decide on a ham and egg biscuit and a palatable looking energy bar, pay, take a bite of the biscuit, shove the food into my Hobo Bag and pedal off. I figure I can resupply at Lolo Hot Springs, which I remember as having a gas station/convenience store. I'll someday learn not to trust my memory.

I'm easing west now, sun at my back, with improbable Lolo Pass somewhere far ahead in this northern jut of the Rockies. I should know this stretch of road well, having driven it at least 50 times and having hiked sections of it, but I quickly realize how little I know. Even walking pales to bicycling for appreciating a road and its contours. Only on a bicycle does the world glide by on an even keel, view and senses unobstructed.

On my right, the sun is beginning to warm the brown hills that guide the ancient Lolo Trail. On my left the creek winds its way toward the Bitterroot River, eventually to meet up with the Columbia and find it's way to sea. Creeks are a bit smarter than the average cycler and always find routes that are all downhill. Beyond the creek, Lolo Peak looms over the valley, snow capped but somehow friendly this morning.

Very few cars are heading toward the pass, and with good reason. It's a long ways to anywhere this direction. Fortunately, I don't have anywhere to be, and so I decide I'm probably on the right road. My roving eyes catch on something unnatural in the landscape, glowing yellow-green. As I close on my eyes' new interest, I recognize cycling jackets, and then cyclers, and then loaded bikes. A pair of tourists stopped at a pullout! I wanted to stop and chat, but my legs were just warming up, and since there's only one way to go from here, and I don't ride very fast, I assumed we'd see each other again. They didn't hear me coming but cheerily returned my "Good morning!".

By now I'm used to other riders looking a bit cock-eyed at me out on the road. I freely admit I'm a bit of a sight. Probably, there is neither rider nor bike quite like me and mine anywhere, and I'm comfortable with that.

A few miles ahead, a bald eagle swoops out of the trees near the creek and passes right over me no more than 30 feet in the air. With wings extended, the bird looks cartoonishly large, and I can hear the wingbeats as it heads down the valley. On my right is a tiny, whitewashed school on a hill. It looks as though it's been here a while, and kids are swinging out front in the cool morning air. I immediately wished my own kids could go to a school like that someday instead of the heavy brick schools and blacktopped grounds so common. Surely these kids do better starting the day in the crisp, sweet air of this field. I'll bet they remember it, anyway.

I decided this spot might do me some good, too, and stopped to finish my biscuit and shed a layer. While I ate, the tourers passed by on the road and we waved. I was glad they had such a beautiful last day of riding in Montana. I watched the kids play until the first bell signaled them inside, and then headed off again up the valley.

A few miles up the road, I passed the tourers' bikes propped up on the road but saw no sign of the riders. I assumed they were having breakfast on the creek and left them to their meal. A lazy hour went by as I followed the creek closely and felt the valley slowly close in around me. After the first bit of steeper climbing, I stopped at a pullout for a break. A sign explained one reason that the valley here was comprised mostly of small landholdings. The rights had been checkerboarded, with alternating pieces earmarked for private, public, and railroad land. The land granted to the railroad was in hopes of encouraging a line through here. Hopes of a railroad persisted despite the 1854 assessment by Lt. John Mullan of the land's suitability:

"It is thoroughly and utterly impractical for a railroad route [...] an immense bed of rugged pinnacles and difficult mountains that can never be converted to any purpose for the use of man [...] I have never met with a more uninviting and rugged set of mountains."

To Lt. Mullan's assessment I would add only "and a lovely place for a bicycle ride." Lewis and Clark had a less pleasant trip through these mountains almost exactly 200 years before mine. Native Americans had used the trail and country for centuries before that. History quickly put my insignificant ascent in perspective. I ate the remainder of my energy bar, my map showing I was only half an hour from the Hot Springs and more supplies.

The climb steepened until I emerged in a high grassy meadow. A strong headwind slowed my progess and gave the place an ominous feel. Perhaps because I wasn't raised in mountains like these, high meadows always have an unsettling effect on me. I can appreciate their beauty, but I don't feel invited to linger. I linger more than planned, but eventually push through the headwind and round a bend out of the meadow. According to my map, I should be just about to that store I remember.

I round another bend and enter another clearing with a desolate looking campground to the left and a few low buildings off to the right. Well, I guess there isn't a gas station there after all, but I didn't need that sort of fuel anyway. I poke around outside a motel and small cafe, but no one seems to be around. I decide to ride on up the pass, which by my map should only be 4 miles away. I remember vending machines at the Idaho visitor center. You'd think I'd learn.

The climb is tough, and the ruggedness around me makes it feel tougher. Wind seems to funnel down right at my bike as I slowly ascend. Despite the effort, I have to stop to add a layer as the wind picks up some bite. I'm getting hungrier and colder and beginning to wonder if I'll make it, when I notice that I should be a mile away at this point. Spirits up, I push a little harder toward the top. Then for some reason I notice a mile marker--"4." It takes a minute for my oxygen-deprived brain to process the meaning of this. If the pass is at the state line, and the state line is mile "0," then I have 4 miles to the top. My cadence dips with my spirits. I somehow had miscalculated by 3 miles. Six extra miles in a day won't sound like much, but at this moment 3 miles was unfathomable. My legs balked. I stopped the bike, downed my water, and searched hopelessly for some food in my pack.

After a minute or two, I felt a little better, and since climbing sounded warmer than descending, I decided to keep trying for the top. Painfully slowly, the miles slipped away, I saw the sign welcoming me to Idaho, and I coasted into the visitor's center, 44 miles from home. I immediately went inside and asked where the vending machines were. "Oh, we don't have any vending machines, but we do have hot coffee!." "Aaaaarrrrghhh!" I thought, if thoughts have sound. At this point, I was in a bit of a daze from the climb and lack of food, and I started to find the whole situation kind of amusing. I read a sign about Lewis and Clark arriving here, tired and hungry and worried by early snow. How funny my situation was in comparison. I imagined Lewis or Clark turning angrily to his guide and saying, "What, no vending machines at the pass! And this after the cafe was closed at the Hot Springs!! Aaaaaarrrrrrggggghhh!!!"

Smiling such that people started giving me funny looks, I filled my bottles and took off down the pass, confident that the Hot Springs cafe would be manned by now. The descent was a blast, even on an empty stomach, and as I swept down the turns I passed the two tourers, who must have made great time given their loads. The Hot Springs came quickly, and I began nosing around for food. I went into the interpretive center by mistake, but a nice lady told me there were vending machines just inside the doors of the cafe. I let my cravings choose as my hand deposited dollars, and out came a chocolate bar with almonds, a bag of chips, and a bottle of sports drink. I mixed the drink with half a water bottle, downed it, and tore into the snacks.

Feeling much better, I continued my rapid descent toward home, making one more stop for an apple danish at a gas station. On familiar roads again, I mused about how much better I understood the road to the pass I had so often driven, and how much more I appreciated the experiences of those who traveled Lolo Pass before the road, before maps, and, especially, before vending machines. I could not think of a better way to spend 8 hours of a fall day.

A few photos are here