I thought driving a sag wagon would be great; four bicyclists want to ride the continental divide from Banff, Canada to the border of Mexico, I would go with … but not actually have to pedal.
Each segment would be about ten days long, to be completed over several years. I would haul the gear and stake out our campsites every night. My husband, who we’ll call “Lars,” would organize it.
And so we start by landing in my hometown, Missoula, Montana. Lars knows I love and miss Montana. It’s where cool people have cool names like Tarn and Sasha and Cricket. Lars would fit right in, he just doesn’t know that yet.
My job would be to pack up camp, zoom ahead to claim a camp site, then have the rest of the day to hike or explore the gorgeous country on my own.
Well, beautiful it is, but time gets eaten up pretty fast when bicyclists miss the messages I leave on bulletin boards; decide to change destinations in the middle of the day; decide to stay in a motel; or miss the turnoff … and I have to find cell service to figure it out.
Did I mention that three of these guys are federal employees? Not relevant of course but … and I’m not sexist about communication either. Men CAN communicate. If they want to.
But don’t worry, this ends well.
It’s day seven and we’re within a bone’s throw of the end of the trail. The boys are still missing messages on camp bulletin boards and I am losing hair. So a visit with a friend near Whitefish, Montana, is not, by my sights, to be resisted. I met Sasha, a man with classic muttonchops, at my friend Tarn’s 20-Years-in-Remission Party last year.
So I make it clear to my four crazy boys—for at this point I’ve decided “crazy bicyclists” is redundant—that I’ll be at the Red Meadows campsite tonight. If they’re not there, I’ll backtrack. But I’m not—no way— giving up my visit with Sasha; not going another route; not waiting for them to drink their coffees in some café; and I’m not going to a motel. Period.
Sasha is just as full of interesting updates as he was when I saw him a year ago. He’s selling 1,700 organic head of beef out of southern Albert annually. He tells me where to get the best brew in the new Whitefish, a town I used to know but that has mysteriously become a metropolis. He tells us where to dine, should I be tired of cooking, where NOT to dine, how cold it’s going to get tonight.
And, “Oh,” he says, “be sure to check out the Whitefish Bike Retreat.”
His friend, Cricket, a former record-holder for the Banff-to-Mexico “divide ride” (she did it in 20 days, sola) built a cool resort for bicyclists. It’s right over there, he says, pointing east to an endless forest of dark evergreens. He gives me directions and Cricket’s phone number. I promise to check it out, but I doubt I will.
After I depart he informs me via text he has talked to Cricket and she’s looking forward to my visit.
He’s right, I will thank him later.
I find the place a few miles up a winding dirt road, a road hemmed by dark tree trunks.
A sign crafted from sprocket wheels greets me, so subtle and tasteful I almost miss it.
At the office, a one-room log cabin, I’m greeted by Zack, who, stepping out from behind a huge computer screen, offers a tour.
He points out the bikewash station as he pulls on the mountain bike handlebar that is the doorknob to the lodge. Once inside he points to the spacious kitchen where we are free to cook our own meals and use whatever the last visitors left behind. Cups, plates, pots, silverware and staples line the walls.
“We’re not allowed to sell alcohol,” he says, but the fridge is stocked with microbrews. He points to a place to donate to the beer fund.
Old bikes decorate the walls, mirrors are framed in bicycle wheels. The railings along the stairs are actually bicycle frames, leaving the impression there’s a mountain bike race going on right here in the communal living room.
Through the insulated top-of-the-line glass doors I see a fireplace surrounded by wooden chairs that look suspiciously as though they have been built from old skis. I detect Cricket’s second passion.
Photographs throughout depict mountain bikers, diminutive in the grandeur of their surroundings, framed by leaves and branches as though they are elusive wildlife, which perhaps they are.
Clutching a brochure, I thank Zack. Then I head up the long lonely valley toward Red Meadows Campground, stopping at every intersection to consult my map; one thing I know about Forest Circus roads, one bad turn and you’re lost for days.
Three hours later I am at an elevation of 9,000 feet. I’ve passed a meadow with red grass, there’s a dark brown government-issue outhouse. This must be it.
It’s been raining, which means it isn’t as cold as it feels. It’s four p.m. and no one, no one is at the campground. In fact, my tire tracks on the road are the only evidence of life since it rained. The silence of the place overwhelms me. I am at the tree line and a steep shale-fall looms over me to a peak south of a crystalline lake. It’s just stunning.
But where are my bicyclists?
I continue down the dirt road which quickly becomes so steep I use the manual gears so the brakes don’t wear out.
Twelve miles later I find them. Three of them look exhausted. The fourth, Lars, looks exhausted and hypothermic. I start to unfold the bike rack, informing them that they are not going to make it up the hill I just came down. But they are not so sure. I tell them it’s a 1,500 foot ascent and there’s a lake at the top we’ll be able to walk on by morning.
They’ve stopped moving and one of them, the one without the raingear, is visibly shivering. His teeth are actually clattering, his lips are actually blue.
I hand over the brochure for Cricket’s bike retreat.
The most senior of the federal employees cuts to the chase, “how far is this place from here?” he asks, indicating Cricket’s brochure.
“About two and a half hours,” I tell him. But I don’t know if she has any room and we won’t have cell service for two hours.
It doesn’t take long for them to make a decision. But just to be sure, I tell them they are not allowed to decide until they see the campground at Red Meadows. “It’s stunningly beautiful,” I promise.
He’s willing to risk it and begins loading his bike on the rack. The others have now seen the brochure and are eager to get to the hot showers too.
But Lars, the one shivering, is not ready to give it up. And neither am I.
“You have to see the campground … it is ssooooo beautiful,” I repeat.
I work on the boys some more, defining “retreat” as something only losing armies do.
By the time we get to Red Meadows the car’s heater has convinced us that enjoyment of the campground can be effected in a 15-minute stop, time enough to down a beer. We do this and move on, vowing to start from this point tomorrow morning. They don’t believe it’s two hours back to Whitefish and they are right. I scare up a bear as we rumble down the valley, not stopping at the intersections I now know. And convincing Lars the bear bell I strapped on can stay on his handlebars.
Cricket greets us in the morning before she takes her kids to school. One other couple shares our spacious, warm retreat, two young men from New York, driving a rental car, wearing tight jeans: posers. Well-educated and polite they are quick to move on, as if they know they don’t belong here.
But we do.
In the morning, the boys are still certain they want to go back up the mountain –yes, to actually retreat—to Red Meadows campground. But they will bicycle directly back to Cricket’s Retreat.
“Let’s start here next year,” the only non-federal government employee says.