Archive for the ‘Small town life’ Category

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.



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.


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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...


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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.


“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

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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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Highbush cranberry

Highbush cranberry

I had a dog who smelled like this when he was wet. Not completely unpleasant; the iconic fragrance of Alaska autumn.

Iconic, because the odor is wild; tangily sweet-tart, musky, a little doggish. It smells red. I envision the bears feasting, the ptarmigan and their offspring gorging, the kuspuk-and-raingear clad women braving wind and wet to bring home a harvest of these fat, succulent packets of concentrated vitamin C.

It is the overriding aroma of my cycling forays at this time of year. Especially on sunny days the crisp air is pungent with highbush cranberry and wet, decaying leaves, that winey fall essence of change. In the year’s dying I am energized, deeply alive to the wild beauty that is my privilege to call home.

I ride.

I breathe.

I smile.



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July 4 at Summit Lake on Hatcher Pass

Let’s go to the lake on the 4th, OK honey? What?! It’s still frozen?!

I have to laugh when people who live in the 48 contiguous states–variously known to Alaskans as the Lower 48 or Lesser 48–tell me about their Fourth of July celebrations. I’ve been gone for so long that it sounds like tales from a foreign land. Trips to the lake, shorts and flip flops, crepe paper decked floats, picnics full of ants and honey bees, spectacular fireworks viewed from a blanket on the grass–all but dim memories from childhood. The 4th in Alaska is very different.

Take, for example, the photo above.

Friend Sharry, husband Tom and I drove up to Hatcher Pass today to do some hiking. We woke to cloudy skies today and temps in the mid-50s, a huge difference from a week ago when it was relentlessly sunny and in the high 80s. Oh well, we are now back to normal I guess. Anyway, since it has not shed a drop of rain in the last week of cloud cover, I didn’t think much about our plans.

I dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, taking my rain coat, another shirt and a fleece vest in my day pack, “just in case”. Oh yes, a hat (I hate having my head dripped on), sunscreen, bug spray, sandwich and water.

Following Sharry’s truck, I knew I was in trouble when we passed the 1000 foot elevation level and went from sprinkles to needing the fastest intermittent setting on my windshield wipers. As we climbed into the gray mountains I removed my sunglasses; I glanced at Tom, a reluctant companion today anyway. When we arrived at Summit Lake, elevation 3800 feet, I got out and told Sharry that we were not going to hike. Neither of us had really brought enough clothing to be comfortable at 40 degrees in the rain. No rain pants, no gloves, cotton jeans–what had we been thinking?

She, brave (read prepared) soul, slipped on her Helly Hansens, pulled up her hood and bounded off into the fog. We slithered back into the warmth of the car and made our slow, picture-snapping way down the Willow side of the pass. And what a breathtaking ride it is, even in the dim.

The view from the top of Willow Fishhook Road

The view from the top of Willow Fishhook Road

Crossing Willow Creek

Crossing Willow Creek

That side of the Palmer to Willow road is all gravel. Willow Creek and its small tributaries, which drain the steep-sided valleys, are full of gold mining claims, both hard-rock and placer. At this time of year, regardless of the weather, and because Alaskans really ARE tough, the valley was full of folks camping too. Sopping dogs and kids in shorts and parkas, grownups wearing camo hoodies and rain gear, tents, RVs, fifth wheel trailers, ATVs and any number of non-motorized water craft parked cheek-by-jowl in the few small pullouts along the roadside. There is plenty of private property in the lower reaches of the valley, all marked with No Trespassing signage. The road right of way is often the only place to camp.

Summer camping in Alaska...

Summer camping in Alaska…Note the warm clothing…

Camping. In 40 degree temps. In the rain. I can’t count how many times I have been a part of that scene. The smoke from the campfire hugs the ground, the thin heat from damp wood unable to lift it more than head high. Hot dogs take an eternity to cook on willow sticks held over such fires, and end by tasting like spruce boughs. Don’t even think about S’mores; the marshmallow’s pitchy flavor does not do justice to Hershey bars and graham crackers. Our only consolation is that the dark, cloudy skies will allow us to see those midnight fireworks after all.

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“Riding trails with your dog restores a bond lost in some evolutionary
belch. You travel at the same speed, over the same terrain, neither of
you slowing to compensate for the other. You’re equal playmates with
mud in your teeth.”
–Allison Glock

I’ve been thinking lately about just how lazy I have been about updating this blog. Many reasons occur, none of them able to stand up to any real scrutiny. Then, like an arrow from the Muse, I get my bi-weekly Bike Bits newsletter from Adventure Cycling. Lightbulb; each issue they begin with a cycling-related quote. So will I do also, and see where it leads me. Therefore, this view from the seat of my bicycle.

Faithful Companion

Faithful Companion

Roxie was the fastest dog that my husband and I have ever had. Tom swore she was part greyhound, and not just because she could run. Billed as a full-blooded Labrador when we got her as a pup, she grew up a long-legged beauty with absolutely no use for her nose. You know how, if you’re riding in the car with your retriever, and you roll down the window-even a little bit-the dog will be in Heaven? Not our girl. She insisted on sticking her head right between us, peering out the windshield, intent on whatever it was she thought we were chasing. You couldn’t make her lie down in the back; you would think she was lying on a bed of nails, whining and yipping and generally embodying misery, her own and ours. But boy, did she like to run. Did I mention she could really run?

So, the quote above really brought back memories. I started taking Roxie out with me on the bike path in Valdez when she was just less than a year old. She was far too young to run with the bike, especially since I always wanted to ride the whole 14-mile round trip. So instead, I donned my in-line skates, and away we went. At first she was on the leash-after all, she was young, and not completely voice-trained yet. I worried that she’d be forever tripping me up, questing back and forth across the path, following her nose. She soon proved that was simply not in her repertoire. And she was very smart-it took only one instance of rolling over her toes before she kept completely out of my way.

When I finally felt she was ready to accompany me on the bike, I bought one of those spring-loaded leash holders, the kind that mounts on the seat post or chainstay. Mistake. Have I mentioned that Tom taught her to skijor the winter before? First time out on the bike she must have thought we were just going on a faster, warmer pulling adventure. We both did some major freaking out. All told, we fared much better with a length of rope; I could steer with one hand and hold the rope in the other, and she learned not to get too far ahead. As I said, smart girl.

With both the skates and the bike Roxie and I eventually graduated to untethered travel. Man, would we fly down the bike path, both of us grinning, the wind in our ears and our tongues lolling! She kept one eye out, getting to the other side of the path when I pointed, heeling when we encountered other traffic and blasting through the ponds and wet spots along the entire length of the trail. She was a tireless and uncomplaining companion, a treasured playmate when I went solo on the trail. We’d ride the out-and-back in about an hour. Once home, after a drink of water and a quick nap she’d be back at the door, begging for a repeat.

Boy did she like to run.

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