Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Wolf Point, Montana

Friends: When I finished my photo shoot with Greg at Adventure Cycling and was ready to be on my way, he asked if he could give me some advice on the best way to head north to Route 2. How could I say no to the man who has mapped out a whole network of the most renowned and most traveled bike routes in America totaling thousands of miles--not only the Grand Daddy of them all, the 1976 Bikecentennial Trail from Virginia to Oregon, but northern and southern coast-to-coast routes as well, and routes down the Pacific Coast and along the Mississippi River and about the western National Parks and down the Continental Divide.

I pulled out my Montana map and let him guide the way. "It may seem counter-intuitive," he said, "to go a bit south at first, but if you follow the frontage road along Interstate 90 to Helena and then follow Interstate 15 to Great Falls, you'll be following a drainage and will avoid a series of nasty hills on highway 200. It may be a little longer, but it won't be as hard. You'll have to ride on the Interstate for a couple of short stretches, buts its legal to ride on it in Montana.

I noticed I'd be climbing to 6,325 feet to cross the Continental Divide his way, compared to a pass of 5,609 feet the other way. He said the steep hills would make more aggregate climbing. I was pleased to be able to take this "Siple option." I would allow me to pass through the state capital, Helena, and then to follow the Missouri River on to Great Falls.

It was a little after five when I bid Greg farewell. After sitting around all day and having only ridden twelve miles that morning after camping along the Lolo River the night before just outside of Missoula, I was eager to do some biking. Two-and-a-half hours of light remained, but first I had to swing by the Free Cycle bike co-op a mile away that fellow touring cyclist Nicolas had highly recommended to drop off all the water bottles and bungee cords and some stray tools I had collected along the road. Nicolas had spent a couple of nights there and said I'd no doubt be able to as well if I so desired. I didn't think I cared to linger, but I still wanted to see this non-profit operation that provided bikes and parts and repairs without charge, just a donation.

There was no mistaking Free Cycles as I approached it in a residential area on the outskirts of Missoula. A huge pile of bike frames stripped of their parts was in a lot beside the Free Cycle warehouse. Inside it was a clone of Working Bikes in Chicago with bins and bins of brakes and derailleurs and other bike parts and neatly organized clusters of wheels and handlebars and forks.

Free Cycles started up seven years ago and is so successful that it has expanded to an even larger warehouse across the street. There were a handful of volunteers working on various projects. The most ambitious was a "bike bus'--a large rectangular frame that would seat 21 people and would be powered by two cyclists.

I could have spent the night, but I was too eager to ride my bike and to spend the night in my tent off in a forest. When I mentioned the interstate route that Greg had suggested, I was told that the camping wouldn't be so easy along that way. As I studied the map, looking at the route I had originally planned on biking, I remember one of the reasons I was attracted to that route was that it took me through Lincoln, the town the Unabomber had chosen to live in after moving west from back east. Some steep hills couldn't deter me from giving it a look.

I had a superlative campsite twenty miles outside of Missoula along a creek. It was another 58 miles to Lincoln, in Lewis and Clark County. There had been a Lewis and Clark historical marker or reference every few miles since I picked up their trail in Salmon, Idaho. I had multiple opportunities to camp exactly where they had. Their pioneering trail of 1805 is quite well-documented. There was just one stretch over a pass up from the Salmon River, when the rapids became too intense for them to continue to follow the river, where there is no clarity as to where they camped for three nights.

I was welcomed to Lincoln with a sign that advertised itself as "Part Wilderness, Part Paradise." There was a series of small nondescript motels and cafes through the small town and a small grocery store. I took advantage of the laundromat alongside it for a quick wash. This one didn't have a shower, as some of these small western towns have, just a rest room. There was no reference to the Unabomber. I resisted asking any of the locals if they had known him. I knew he had taken advantage of the town's small library on its outskirts, but it was closed on Saturday, a rare small town library that had Sunday hours, but not Saturday.

It was a gradual 18 miles up to the Continental Divide. Though there was a pull-out for vehicles to put on chains, the grade never exceeded four per cent, making it not much of a strain. It was a much steeper grade on the descent, through a pine forest of mostly dead trees, victims of the gypsy beetle. The descent took me out of the forests of Montana and out into the plains of wheat fields and cattle grazing. No more bear worries. But then came a series of the killer hills that Greg had warned me about. They went on for 25 miles or so.

I found a somewhat protected gully to camp in a bit off the road, 38 miles from Great Falls. Out in the open I was able to take advantage of a southwesterly wind the next day, arriving in the large city of Great Falls on the Missouri River before noon. I went in search of its library, a Carnegie. It had been torn town and replaced by a large modern library. If it had been a week later I could have gone inside, when it began Sunday hours in October. One of the gray beards I asked for directions told me if I had been a couple hours earlier I could have had a free breakfast at the Salvation Army.

Out of Great Falls heading northeast to Route Two 114 miles away the wind had me romping along at better than twenty miles per hour. Forty miles away at Fort Benton another Carnegie awaited me, this one in fine shape, a white brick building with a matching expansion.  It resided a block from the Missouri and an old iron bridge that was now only available for pedestrian and bicycle use.

Four more Carnegies awaited me on Route 2, allowing me to check out eight of the seventeen built in Montana at the beginning of the 1900s. None of the four were still in use as libraries. The one in Havre is now an Art Museum as is the one in Missoula. Chinook's Carnegie, twenty-two miles to the east, was now occupied by the Bear Paw Cooperative and wasn't being well cared for. The one in Malta was vacant after having been the county museum for a few years. It looked most forlorn, though its grandeur could not be hidden. It is a gem waiting to be restored. Malta was a thriving community at one point with at least two movie theaters--one now a medical facility and the other an H and R Block outlet.

The Carnegie in Glasgow, like that in Great Falls, was no more, torn down and replaced by a characterless library at the same location in 1966. The contents from its 1908 cornerstone now reside in the new cornerstone. The library wasn't too far from the high school. Its mascot is the Scotties. The back of the team bus said, "You are behind the Scotties once again."

No more Carnegies now until North Dakota, less than 100 miles away. With the winds still at my back I'll be there in no time. Four of its eight are on my three hundred route across the top of the state. They no doubt will be as distinctive and majestic and worthy of preservation as all I have come across over the years.

Later, George

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