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Reminders of Home

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESI’m always startled into nostalgia when I come upon fireweed growing in Missoula. It’s such an Alaskan connection, my favorite wildflower and a vivid reminder of the decades I spent making the Last Frontier my home.

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The alleyway that divides Missoula Textiles from Adventure Cycling is decidedly industrial. Walking back from my usual morning coffee I was delighted and surprised to spot this tenacious pioneer, struggling up through cracks in the hardscape. Like Alaskans, the fireweed is blossoming in a harsh environment, bringing beauty and a resolute spirit into the world and making me smile at the persistence of life.

 

Hitching a ride

Hitching a ride

A flotilla of butterflies passes me going uphill;

The four-mile-per-hour breeze behind me chills my back;

That cheeky ground squirrel 20 feet ahead of me ambles across the road.

This first day of summer saw my average speed recorded at 8.6 mph. Now, that average includes my top speed of 33.6, so you know it was a slow ride. For at least an hour of tire-turning time I pedaled at under 4, and that’s when the butterflies—hundreds, maybe thousands of them—passed me. They covered the shoulders of Deer Creek Road, resting on the damp sand and I think soaking up moisture there.

Clark Fork panorama along the Kim Williams Nature Trail

Clark Fork panorama along the Kim Williams Nature Trail

That 26.5 miles took me far longer than the 3 hours that my average speed would suggest. I left home at about 10 am and returned at 4. The original plan was a simple jaunt to the Saturday farmers’ market down on the banks of the Clark Fork. Mmmmmm…cheese curds, iced mocha, and barbecued brisket breakfast burrito. All the hallmarks of a great morning.

Crowd? What crowd? We don't need no stinkin' crowd!

Crowd? What crowd? We don’t need no stinkin’ crowd!

Once enfolded in the crowd, I plummeted into a very Alaskan emotional pit—holy shit, there are way too many people here! I grabbed my breakfast and sprinted to the margins, to eat and observe, and acknowledge my small loneliness. Boy how I wished that Tom or Sharry were along to elbow through the crowds with me!

 

I subscribe to the philosophy that I’m only one bike ride away from a good mood. Circumnavigate Mount Sentinel to sweat away the blues? Sure! So off I spun along the Milwaukee Trail, the Kim Williams Nature Trail, the single track behind the Deer Creek Shooting Range and up Deer Creek Road. And up. And UP, puffing and panting to pause at the Milltown State Park Overlook. Then up some more, down a half mile at 33.6 miles per hour, and then…you guessed it. Up. Just me and the damn butterflies.

Hitching a ride...

Companionship

Not Meant To Be…

Yesterday afternoon at work we were all discussing our weekend plans. Lydia would run, Mike would bike–no surprises there! My usual partners in crime are all out of town, so I was at loose ends until a casual Googlemaps search for something else entirely turned up a great campground and a very cool rail trail in Great Falls.

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“Isn’t that, like, 3 hours away?” asked Mike. He’s from Maine–in three hours’ drive time you could be six states away. I on the other hand have more of the Alaskan (or Montanan) viewpoint; 175 miles of driving doesn’t really get you much of anywhere.

We quickly determined that Mike, the cross-country bike tour leader, could probably ride that in two longish days. I on the other hand would much prefer to take four. Interesting to compare our viewpoints on distance when talking about driving as opposed to riding…

I rolled out of the sack this morning eager to pack up and be gone. I called the campground to make sure they had a spot for me, my tent and the Jeep.  I put some bratwurst, a couple eggs and the leftovers from last night’s dinner in a cooler. I gathered up my cookstove, camp chair, new bedroll and the borrowed camping pad and marched down to the garage.

**77–no dice. Hmmm. **77 again. Blank. One curse. **77 on the DAMN keypad and it still won’t roll up the garage door. Crap-a-rama. Yank the battery and march upstairs. No 9 volt to be found. Two curses.

Into the other car, down to the 7-Eleven. ( I couldn’t get into the garage to get my bike out or I would have ridden the 3 blocks…) Six bucks for a battery! Which, when I put it into the keypad, does NOT work! StompStompStomp back to the apartment, where I called the after-hours maintenance number. Wait for a call back/get a call back/ go try what the gentleman suggests/which does not work/so I call him back. Again.

Wait an hour for him to come to town and to my place, where he calmly uses the key I’d had for months, not knowing what it was, to unlock the super-secret emergency garage door release and roll it up, revealing my two bikes, my tent and tarp and my ignorance. Profuse thanks ensue, and probably a big bill will follow in the mail.

Hurray! I’m on my way! But wait, I need gas. So I go back to that same convenience store, where gas is cheaper than anywhere else in Missoula. I pop the cap open, stick in the nozzle–and promptly pump about a cup of 82 octane onto the ground. WTF?! I drop to the dusty cement and peer under the rear wheel. Oh yeah, now I remember. Tom’s duct tape repair of three years ago, to a fuel tank hose cracked by age and disuse, had finally expired.

The bike won’t fit into the Camry’s trunk. The old car’s bike rack will not fit on the new car either. Having been eagerly looking forward to new scenery, new campground, new ride along the Missouri River banks, I am finally stymied.

I wonder what horrible fate or gruesome accident awaited me on the road to Great Falls, that my guardian angel went to so much trouble to save me from it…

My guardian angel

Sometimes it’s good to go out riding on your own, just you at your own pace, not feeling pushed or held back. My back-to-back solo rides the past two days have both been enjoyable, strenuous, interesting–and a little lonely. Not to mention photographically frustrating. No one to take my picture standing by the awesome talus slope I rode past!

The trail was not quite this rough...

The trail was not quite this rough…

Yesterday’s road ride out to the foot of Blue Mountain took me along the Milwaukee Road trail and then onto some pretty quiet paved roads. There was the long haul up O’Brien Creek Road–clearly a training run for Missoula middle-aged male cyclists. Three passed me going in, and smiled and waved coming back down. Their skinny tires didn’t pass the end of the pavement, but I braved another half mile to make it exactly 10 before I turned back. The only surprise is how little wildlife I see in these quiet places. There were a few whitetail, far off in a field, but no turkeys, moose, bears on the upper slopes.

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Today was another in the series of blue-sky, mid-70s spring days that typify the Missoula area. Salsa Cycles, in conjunction with a  local bike shop, was having a mountain bike demonstration at Ten Spoon Winery, which is a mere mile from the Rattlesnake Trail trailhead. I have been somewhat less than thrilled with the fit of my own, relatively new mountain bike, and so pedaled the several miles up to the demo to see if they could do better. Alas, they only have bikes for folks who are 5’4″ or more–like most manufacturers, Salsa apparently believes that short women who would love to ride dirt don’t make a big enough demographic to build to. Damn.

I rode up the road, then the trail, disgruntled. But a funny thing happened on the way up to 4200 feet. I began to appreciate the bike I own. Yes, it’s too tall to stand over comfortably, and if I have to dismount fast I’m in trouble. But the gearing is a dream, the disc brakes could stop a buffalo in its tracks, and I was having so much fun screaming back downhill for 10 miles that I forgot to stay disgruntled. That’s what a bike ride does.

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Breathing Deep

In all my life I have never lived in a town that smelled so good in the spring. Now, granted, I’ve lived the past 40 years in the winter capital of the world–Alaska. There, after the snow melts and the dirt starts to thaw it smells of rotted grass and dogs’ calling cards. Sure, after the cottonwoods start to bud out the air turns sweet again. And in the small towns I’ve called home you can’t get air any fresher or less polluted with car exhaust or coal smoke. But still.

They don’t call Missoula the Garden City for nothing.

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For the first sixteen miles my teeth were cold, cold enough to make them ache a bit. But that small pain could not wipe the smile off my face, even as that smile caused the pain. Spinning along the road in the 45 degree sunniness, cold teeth were simply a byproduct of  my cycling happiness.

The road is flat, or nearly so, from Missoula out to the tiny hamlet of Clinton. Our turnaround point is really just a Conoco station along I-90, famed among the bike club members for its hot coffee, fried chicken and corn dogs–all satisfyingly greasy fuel for the self-propelled.

Riding out with a dozen other Missoulians on Bikes I had taken my accustomed position, at the rear of the pack. The gracious ride leader John, who “sweeped” me along, entertained me with stories from his 37 years in my new home town. The conversation included–as so many of my recent ones have–a common Alaska connection. He told me of riding the train from Fairbanks to Denali to Talkeetna; I regaled him with stories of bringing cruise ship guests up from Whittier on that same conveyance. We agreed that late May is the perfect time to visit–no bugs, few tourists, great weather.

I thought to myself, “those sessions at the gym are really paying off!”, as I whirred along at 16 miles an hour. Then we reached Clinton. And standing outside, stretching and having a snack with the group I became aware of the breeze. From the back. Unless I was facing towards Missoula; then it was coming from the front.

“This can’t be right” I thought to myself in confusion. “Sharry’s not here with me. How is it we have a headwind?”

For the last sixteen miles my teeth were cold, and again they ached a bit. This time it was from grinding in frustration and grimacing in pain. It turns out that the road from Clinton to Missoula is NOT flat, not even relatively so, at least not if you’re bucking a headwind. What took a joyous hour going out consumed more than twice that coming in. But. Still.

What’s that saying? A bad day of fishing beats a great day of working? Yeah, just substitute the activity. Today’s cold teeth were just fine, regardless the cause.

Making a New Home

We arrived in Missoula on November 13, just  when we’d planned, and with no breakdowns or collisions with wildlife on the lonely, snowy road from Alaska. We came with the clothes on our backs and what could fit into our modern equivalent of the Conestoga wagon…skis and snowshoes, bikes, computer, a few treasured photos and 12 cases of smoked salmon. The essentials.

I KNOW I can get one more case of salmon in there somewhere!

I KNOW I can get one more case of salmon in there somewhere!

A spritz at the carwash and they'll be raring to go!

A spritz at the car wash and they’ll be raring to go!

Within a week we were in a new place–barren but with lots of potential for becoming a home.

But, what do I sit on?

But, what do I sit on?

Oh yeah, we brought the camp chairs!

Oh yeah, we brought the camp chairs!

Stock up on the essentials first...

Stock up on the essentials first…

Much to our delight we found that the thrift shops here are treasure troves, not junk shops. 

Finally-enough seating that we can have a party!

Finally, enough seating that we can have a party!

It's all coming together at last.

It’s all coming together.

Tom is in his kitchen and all is right with the world.

Tom is in his kitchen and all is right with the world.

Yes. Home at last.

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