Day 13: Route 93 & Whitefish
Why are there so many roadside crosses in Montana? Maybe it’s because the American Legion commemorates every highway fatality. Maybe it’s because there is no speed limit on rural roads, or no law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets. Or maybe it’s because there are no shoulders on the highways. We rode from Eureka to Columbia Falls on Sunday the 24th, another 60 miles. Most of it was on U.S. Route 93, where the shoulder is less than a foot wide and the traffic moves at 70 mph. Fortunately there wasn’t much traffic, and there were several long alternative routes where the traffic was much lighter and slower. But I don’t have much to say about the scenery on U.S. 93, because under those conditions the best plan is to put your head down, pump hard, and brace yourself for the next RV.
Jim has a flag on the back of his bike, so he rode last and made “pull out” hand motions to oncoming cars. This helped a lot. When there was no oncoming traffic, most drivers gave us a wide berth. But there were a few who didn’t, and it made me wonder whether they didn’t see us or were intentionally trying to scare us. I think maybe there are some people in the world who are, as my good friend Wade says, “locked in the pissed-off position.” These unfortunate souls tend to be men who don’t have good jobs and are tired all the time. When they see a group of happy-looking men wearing funny clothes and moving slow, and those men are maybe a little bit in the way, it’s a convenient target.
But really, I don’t want to over-dramatize things. It wasn’t so bad, and we all made it through without a scratch.
We woke up at the city park in Eureka, across a footbridge from a bunch of old buildings they moved into a lot to make an “historic village.” This was a big effort for a town this small, and walking around in it you could see that Tobacco Valley people are proud of their past. Eureka had a decent coffee shop, a public library, several good restaurants, Chinese take-out, and more, all with a full-time population of less than 1,000. It exceeded our expectations.
We headed east on a rural road parallel to the highway and had a fine ride for an hour until we passed through the tiny and well-kept hamlet of Fortine. Then it was onto 93, where the ride was mostly flat through the pine stands of the Stillwater State Forest. This 60,000 acre plot was created by consolidating land grants the U.S. Congress gave to each township in Montana “for educational purposes” in 1889. The State Forester’s office was created in 1909, and the State Forest was approved in 1918. After a big fire in the 1920s, the state built a cluster of ranger cabins in the middle of the forest, and we stopped there for a breather. The Ranger Station is now on the National Register of Historic Places. I wondered whether they still cut trees and give the cash to the University.
Just up the road, Sara (right) and Catherine drove past us and filled up our water bottles once again. I have said this before, but Jim, Bill and I could not be doing this ride without the support they give us. They shop, cook, drive the rig, find the campsite, sew up torn clothes, run errands, and in general make the whole show run smoothly. As Catherine and Bill get ready to leave the expedition on Tuesday morning, it’s becoming clear how much we have come to depend on them.
We finally made it to Farm To Market Road, which took us off U.S. 93 for another ten miles or so. The buildings and people along the ride had been pretty much working folks until that turn, but then we entered a much wealthier neighborhood. The scenery improved. We glimpsed the peaks of the Rockies for the first time. The foothills to the west of them were easy on the eyes, and there were those golden hay fields again. There were also more than a few elaborate gated entrances to ranchettes. These gates probably cost more to build than the houses themselves had cost ten miles back.
After four more harrowing miles on US 93 we pulled into Whitefish, where real people buy their groceries while the play ranchers with the big gates buy bad art and ranch-style throw pillows made in China. Whitefish had a good bike shop (Glacier Cyclery), a coffee shop with free internet (Montana Coffee Roasters), and a bookstore (Bookworks), though, so we left happy. We rode a few more miles to Columbia Falls, then put the bikes on the truck to drive to Glacier National Park, which is 15 miles east of the route we’re following. We got a prime spot next to Lake MacDonald in the Fish Creek Campground, bathed in the lake, ate a fine meal, and drank champagne to celebrate the end of Bill’s ride. Tomorrow we rest.
Day 14: Glacier Rest Day
We woke up late and did nothing for a while. Delicious. Two weeks of riding without a real break had drained the energy from my legs, and the plan for today was to not move more than absolutely necessary. Bill packed up his bike while Jim and I puttered around for most of the morning. Sara and Katherine went off exploring.
It was easy to do nothing because our campsite was pretty close to perfect. It was just a few steps down to a rocky beach on a huge lake with the water at 70 degrees. You can sit there and watch the water and pretend to read for a good long while, and there aren’t many things that are better.
Around noon we went for a drive, up to eat lunch at the historic Lake MacDonald Lodge and then up to the Continental Divide on the famous Going-To-The-Sun Road. Both of these have been photographed and described so often that I won’t attempt it here, except to say that the road is head-spinning crazy great, and don’t look down. Here’s a shot of Mount Oberlin, named for the college my daughter attends. Like many A-list national park environments, however, Glacier was jammed with people. We were in the ost crowded parts because we weren’t doing any hiking, but it was beautiful anyway.
The Road is on the sixth year of a ten-year refurbishment project, so a lot of it was a single lane and there were lots of five-minute delays. The flagman at one of them told me he made $20.55 an hour, which was $5 more than you make working for the State, but that work couldn’t begin until snow was cleared on July 2, and that it had to end on September 15. We got back to camp and lounged around some more. Tonight we’ll say goodbye to Catherine and Bill, and tomorrow it’s back to work.