Saturday, November 12, 2005

Circling Missoula

If Missoula had been built about 15,000 years earlier, it would have been under a lake about half the size of Lake Michigan. Pretty lousy spot for a city, all in all. Glacial Lake Missoula left its legacy in a smooth valley floor, weird old rocks, and high water marks on the rounded old mountains east of town. Except for the water, it turns out that a glacial lake bed is a lovely place for a town.

Missoula lies mainly in the smooth, flat lake bed--an important reason we have such a thriving bike culture at our latitude. The city is bounded on all sides by impressive mountain ranges of various ages. Kindly, aging grandparents of mountains, the Sapphires, rise in the south and east. The Sapphires almost meet the bitterroot Range and its solid, craggy front that rises to 10,000 ft peaks behind in the west. To the north, the nearly impenetrable Mission complex protects a thousand hidden lakes and a vast wilderness.

There are only four narrow escapes from the valley, one in each direction. For most of my rides, I have to pick an exit, making loops nearly impossible. Today, though, I was riding my newly built fixed gear bicycle. Essentially, it's a bicycle that doesn't shift or coast. Since I hadn't tested the bike much yet, I was hesitant to take it out of the valley. I instead took the opportunity to do something I'd always wanted to do but never got around to--circle the valley.

I left in the afternoon after packing a small bag with early winter necessities: heavy mittens, an extra wool shirt, extra lights, a wool cap, camera, lock, and the all important PBHR. The PBHR is a family secret energy food that has yet to be seriously rivaled by "energy bars" in any category except squish resistance. When the temperature drops to freezing, there is no bar that can top a Peanut Butter Honey and Raisin Sandwich.

The weather was promising, if by promising one means portending wind, cold, snow, and great skies. Our little apartment happens to be a couple of blocks from the Sapphires that rise east of town. I ride those blocks and begin following the contour of the mountain's foot. I have to pause and track down a rattle, which turns out to be loose bottle cage bolts. Working on bikes--and especially building them--tends to make one hyperaware of anything out of place. Bolts tightened, I pedal north.

It doesn't take long to run out of roads in this direction. I turn west on an old, mostly forgotten road between I-90 and the railroad tracks. A brisk wind is now in my face and soon begins sending tiny ice pellets bouncing off my helmet. I turn the gear over slowly and begin looking at the valley ahead.

I know the southern half of the perimeter well, but I rarely ride the northern side. I don't know exactly how I'll get to the western edge. Being unusually bad with maps, I've more or less abandoned them for riding. I have a good sense of direction, and when that fails me, I follow the Dirk Gently model of navigation--just follow something else. Today, I decide to aim for the plume of smoke above the Pulp Mill. Dirk commented that he didn't always get to where he was going, but he always wound up where he needed to be. I agree.

Riding the northern edge of the valley brings to mind a theme that seems to tie a lot of blogs together these days--the potentially abrupt end of cheap oil. The edges of cities are a good place to see those things that every town needs, and no town wants to actually see much of. I pass a bottling plant, the landfill, and then begin rolling past a strip that is almost entirely devoted to transporting goods. Huge, identical warehouses with a staggering number of loading docks. Even on a Saturday, trucks are loading up to take our goods elsewhere or else unloading elsewhere's goods here. Diesel truck sales, repair, a UPS depot, and behind them all the Montana Rail Link yard. On a daily basis, most of us see maybe 1 percent of the work that goes into just shuttling stuff around. Not owning a car, Rachel and I seem less exposed to rising fuel costs than the faces on the news, but the truth is a bit less reassuring.

Fortunately, at 26 I still have a lot of kid in me, and I don't dwell on serious matters for too long. I'm riding a bike after all! Pretty soon, I'm mesmerized by the big trucks and railcars shuffling around to get their loads. The scale is almost hypnotic. I'm snapped out of my trance by North Reserve Street. This road was a small, mostly desolate two-lane affair when I moved here 7 years ago. Now, it's a hundred feet wide with glittering signs and flashing neon in either direction. It feeds a thousand or more new houses up Grant Creek, at least a 10 mile drive from downtown Missoula. One has to wonder if we know what we're doing. Are we just building stone monuments to the gods?

I have to ride over to the sidewalk and hit the pedestrian crossing button to change the signal. Once across, I'm on a pleasant road cutting through an industrial wasteland ("Demolitions, please check in at main office, thank you," a sign reads). Now farms begin to intersperse with industry--not exactly pastoral, but if they ever need anything blown up around the farm...

Finally, I hit a "Road Closed" sign. No matter. This happens even more often when I use a map, and, besides, these signs are rarely terminal for a cycler. I ride cautiously around the sign and stop at a three foot drop-off down to the railroad tracks. The road picks up like nothing happened on the far side, so I shoulder the bike, ease down onto the tracks and cross three tracks to the far side.

It seems my luck has run out for the moment, and I concede the fight, riding the broken shoulder of Highway 10 out toward my guiding star--the distant rising puff of acrid smoke. Eventually, I reach the crossroads with the northern route out of town. A local bike club used to put on a huge supported tour that went up that way but had to change the route as the road became more dangerous. The smoke leads me west, and I follow.

I start to get the feeling that I'm where I need to be today--on a quiet country road that belies the fact a huge mill lies at its end. I've been thinking a lot about the contradictions inherent in our modern lifestyle, and this road and that mill and the mountains rising behind them all state it more concisely than I ever could. Several large trucks pass with loads of fragrant logs heading for the mill. They're unusually friendly, giving me the whole lane as they pass. I wave, breathe deep and continue. I've always been a sucker for the smell of freshly cut wood. It brings back fond memories of chopping firewood with my dad when I was little.

I pass the Missoula Trap and Skeet Club, a strange compound that looks like a movie set; boy, I have been missing a lot in this part of town. I cross a creek or irrigation ditch; I can't tell which, and I stop and snap a picture of the mill backed by picturesque mountains.

Pulp Mill

Despite the fact that there is absolutely nothing else around, the pulp mill straddles the road, and employees are walking from one side to the other in large numbers. I ride through slowly, underneath huge pipes and conveyors. To the right is an unfathomably large pile of wood pulp. On the left is a huge vat collecting drops of black sludge. The air is acrid and smells vaguely like a huge room full of cardboard boxes. Were Dickens riding with me, he would doubtless stop now and start scribbling earnestly in a little notebook. The mill makes the cardboard containers that ensure I have a steady supply of raisins and peanuts for my sandwiches. Moving stiff around constitutes 10 percent of US GDP and 1 in every 7 jobs (according to the BTS). How many jobs like these are indirectly part of the industry? Not much need for boxing something up if it isn't going anywhere.

Now the mill is behind me, and I've turned south to follow a new perimeter. Right now, the Clark Fork River is in my way, but I'll cross it in about 7 miles and start following the Blue Mountain complex. I haven't mentioned the bike much yet (It's a 1978 Trek; for those interested, some pictures are here). In fact, that's precisely how I would sum up riding a fixed gear--pleasantly invisible. On a geared bike, you have three main options just riding along: pedal, coast, shift. A singlespeed, which I've ridden a lot of lately, knocks that down to two: pedal, coast. A fixed gear makes the last choice for you and leaves you with: pedal. I always thought it would take a steely concentration to keep myself from accidentally coasting, but it really isn't that way after about 5 miles. You sort of steer the bike, drink, eat, and let your legs do what they have to down there. In fact, the riding itself requires so little thought, that a fixed gear is my new favorite "thinking bike." Although, if you've made it this far, you've probably already figured that out, gentle reader.

I roll through the river bottom as the sun sets, and a damp coldness creeps over the fields toward me. I mentally put off adding a layer. Soon, I'll be on familiar roads and climbing the biggest of the day's hills. The hills will warm me up. Sure enough, I approach a familiar road from an unfamiliar direction, turn west, and cross the Clark Fork River. I pass a large yellow real estate sign in a field proclaiming "Busy Intersection! Heavy Traffic!" Well, not yet, but I guess there are always dreamers among us. I hang a left and begin skirting Blue Mountain. Soon, the river crowds the road and forces it to climb upslope. I stand on tired legs and pound out the rhythm of the climb--OK, so it's not a rhythm so much as a wobbly spasm, more like modern music. At any rate, I pause at the top under pretense of snapping a photo of the dying light over the valley. I enter the woods, and the light is gone. When I re-emerge, the moon is out and easily overpowers my cold headlight. I switch it off to save the dying batteries for traffic later.

In the moonlight, I spy two young whitetail bucks who have the nervous look of hunting season in their movements. They recognize my bike as non-threatening, though, and resume their uncomfortable feeding. The moon reflects off the river and makes ghosts out of the slender birches. I notice an odd shape off the side of the road ahead and slow down. It's a highway patrolman, watching for speeders, I guess, and not negligent cyclers riding by moonlight. He lets me pass, or doesn't see me! I crest the hill beyond him, and the valley opens up in a glittering vista below. I lean the bike against the deep ditch, climb a little hill, and sit to enjoy the last of my PBHR and the view.

A few minutes later, a large truck barrels up the road. From behind, I hear the screech of tires and sirens. Whoops. The truck is pulled over 20 yards up the road from my bike. I decide now might be a good time to make haste, as much as I'm capable. I remount, switch on lights and quietly roll by the unfolding scene, bound for home. I skirt the south hills until they turn north and follow the base back home. It has been said, "You have to know where you are to know where you're going." It's true and not true, like most things. That said, I'm enjoying learning more about where I am. You can enjoy life where you are and where you're going, especially on a bicycle. Now, go out and circle your town, and write me about it. There are things to be learned on the margins.

A few more photos are here.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Enjoyed reading about your ride around the valley. I went to the U for a few quarters in '82 and it brought back a lot of memories. Unfortunately when I was riding those roads it was in a car while drinking Rainier and listening to Asia!

11:44 PM  
Anonymous Denny Gill said...

Joe: superb writing. I look forward to reading more.
Denny Gill
Chugiak, Alaska

2:07 AM  
Blogger Everett Volk said...

Fantastic ride report! I especially like the Dirk Gently reference. That alone should earn you mention in the blogger pantheon. I look forward to more posts.

5:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm 43 and still have a lot of kid in me. That's a good thing when you have kids too. I also like the idea of a fixie being a 'thinking bike'. I find that my fixie is very conducive to pondering life.

8:43 AM  
Blogger scott said...

Nice report--enjoyed reading it. And Everett's right--fitting Dirk Gently (and Dickens) should get you some sort of award.

I like your idea of around-town rides. The idea of circumnavigating Charlottesville has been on my list for a while--maybe this winter.

9:56 AM  
Anonymous mike said...

I had bookmarked your site a few months ago, and just got around to reading it (it's amazing on how many cyclists' sites you can find Kent P. -- one of these days, I'm finally going to get around to making my coroplast fenders).

You have quite a way with words. I'm really enjoying your posts.

Happy cycling.

10:58 AM  

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