gravelcruiser: Patience isn’t necessary when planning an...


Patience isn’t necessary when planning an adventure, but if there
is enough, it becomes a virtue. The last minute, under the gun, overnight jaunt
can be forever memorable. Luck can be in the back pocket when the alarm goes
off the morning of a multi pass ride with a cloudless sky. The weekly fat tire
shred fest finds hero dirt all the way down the mountain after it had been
raining all week. More often than not, those stars don’t align and the hand is
forced. But when the cards have been being counted for long enough, it is as if
there isn’t any chance being taken at all.

My family had two cars stuffed to the gills as we moved west
three years ago. Halfway through our journey, we figured it would be nice to
take a break from driving and visit Glacier National Park for a couple days.
Hanging out in East Glacier, watching the Empire Builder offload at the Amtrak
station, an idea took root that I knew wouldn’t relent until it was completed.
In fact, as I crossed off more recent goals of mountain peaks and remote trails
surrounding Seattle, Logan Pass in Montana remained at the top getting dusty
with age.

It had been three years since we drove the Going to the Sun
Road and the recent wildfire that burned a swath across the lower east side of
the pass made for a perfect opportunity. Not only would it be the off season
when the national park allows bikes to ride the entire length of the road, but
they had many parking areas in the area of the wildfire closed to cars. This
made for a few empty areas and increased wildlife spotting opportunities and a
little extra tranquility. The only hitch this year, was that on September 20th,
the East side of the pass would be closed for construction. This allowed only
one full weekend this year to ride it in its entirety.

The schedule from Seattle is almost perfect if everything is
on time. The Eastbound Empire Builder leaves just before 5PM, arriving at East
Glacier the following day just after 9AM. Westbound, the train arrives just
before 5PM and wraps up its journey in Seattle just after 10AM the next morning.
This allowed me to leave Friday after work, arrive Saturday morning, and ride
over Logan Pass to the west side to camp. Then, Sunday I’d return to East
Glacier back over the Going to the Sun Road and be home Monday morning for
work. I felt like it was putting new meaning to making the weekend count and
with clear skies forecast for the weekend, Thursday morning I bought my train

Big sky country welcomed me with high, wispy clouds, bright
sun and a steady breeze. East Glacier has checked baggage, so I conveniently
rolled my bike out of its’ gigantic box and threw a change of clean cloths
inside before pushing it into the station for its one night stay. It was all so
easy that I rolled out almost before the train pulled away.

I had 65 miles to travel each day and even though the first
eight are a pretty substantial climb I finished the first leg, arriving at
Kiowa, feeling fresh. The following eighteen miles were to be a punisher of the
legs as the road to Saint Mary has three rises of exponential height. The
payoff for those two thousand feet of elevation gain is a ripping fast six mile
descent to the gas station hotdogs I could almost smell from the pass. The
lodge and its amenities in Saint Mary were an oasis for my wind battered legs.
At the checkout counter, my pile of junk food was being rung up and I asked the
clerk if she could just add on an extra hotdog and beer, telling her that I’d
be back for them when I was finished with what I had. The look I got was either
one of admiration or disgust. I’d hope for the first, but knew it was the
later. I wasn’t even half finished with the day and the ride had already become
a battle of wills that I was losing.

This was it though. As bad as it felt to pedal, it was just
one last, long, big, gradual climb until I practically coasted sixteen miles to
camp. Climbing Logan Pass from the East Glacier National Park entrance. A ride
I had been looking forward to for years. It is beautiful as the road rolls
along Saint Mary Lake for close to 12 miles. Fresh pavement in and out of the
recently extinguished Reynolds Creek Wildfire. As the road hooks around the
South shoulder of Going-to-the-Sun Mountain it begins its’ climb to the pass in
earnest and I was crawling. My pace allowed for extra time to soak in the
beauty of Gunsight Pass. Slow enough to spot bear tracks in the soft gravel of
the shoulder. Turning squares as I take a long look to try to spot some goats
at Siyeh Bend. I may not have reached the visitors center at Logan Pass in
record time, but most of the work for the day had been completed and it had
been beautiful thus far.

I had my picture taken with the sign at the pass and started
asking people if they would be headed back to town. I really wanted to find a
phone and write my family a text message letting them know I was okay.
Successful in that regard, I put my bike on a negative incline for the first
time in two and a half hours and began chasing traffic down the pass. Catching
a line of cars was often convenient as it gave me excuses to stop for pictures
when I would have typically buzzed right by. What took me two and a half hours
to climb I descended fifty percent more over the same distance and accomplished
it in about 45 minutes. I had been on the bike for nearly seven hours and
turned into the campground tired and hungry.

I camp with my family almost weekly during the summer and I
know what it looks like to turn into a full campground. This one was full. The
first hint is that the site near the entrance, next to the highway, was already
occupied and completely set up.  I
immediately started to think back along the road of good spots to pitch my tent
and hope the bears wouldn’t carry me off into the woods. Luckily for me, there
was Fran.

Fran, from Albuquerque in her mid-sixties, spends weeks at a
time traveling the West camping and photographing wildlife. She was in route to
Banff and invited me to share her campsite. It was wonderful as we swapped
stories of adventure. As it turned out, she had ridden across the country in
the eighties and knew exactly what it looked like when someone needed a few
square feet of ground to pitch their tent on. The stories continued as I ate my
meager dinner and drank the two, warm beers I had been carting around with me
since Seattle. I was introduced to the phrase critter jams* of which she was an
expert. She was also an expert of all sorts of close encounters with bear and
bull elk. Had I allowed she would have told stories late into the night, but as
it started getting dark, I started falling asleep at the picnic table. She’d be
getting up before dawn to go “watch critters” so I’d be awake early as well. I
dreaded the thought in the four seconds I was lying awake in my tent, but it
turned out to be the most fortunate timing of the whole trip.

I awoke to her rustling in the gray light of the predawn.
The forest was so quiet and still my stove heating water for coffee sounded
like the roar from a jet engine. She left camp before my breakfast was even hot
and once again I was alone. It made for quick work of finishing breakfast and
breaking camp. I was cold and knew to be on the bike would warm me up, so I
hustled. As I rolled back onto the road, my heart sank as the sun was already
breaking over the top of the mountain and casting shadows of the eastern peaks
onto the bare spots of mountain to the west. I was convinced I had missed the
sun cresting over the mountains, and that sunrise was a huge part of why I had
made this trip.

It took me 45 minutes to make the 180 degree turn into the
sun and start climbing eastbound at Crystal Point. Just a few minutes earlier,
I was shown through a break in the trees that I wasn’t too late, rather right
on time for one of the best sunrises of my life. The light cutting streaks
through the draws of the mountains had me stopping every ten feet to take
another picture over the edge of the road. I couldn’t get enough of it. The sky
appeared even larger than before and the gradation of blue across the horizon
repeatedly failed to be captured accurately by my camera but was being burned
into my memory. Traffic was light and I took my time soaking it in.

It could have been the can of corned beef hash fueling my
legs. Maybe it was the warm, full night sleep on a bed of soft pine needles and
sand. Or it could have been the ecstasy induced by my surroundings, but the
three thousand foot climb was over before I wanted it to be. At the pass,
looking West was bluebird clear, but looking East the road plowed straight into
a cloud about 100 yards from where I had stopped. I wrapped myself in a jacket
and dove into practically zero visibility. I was enveloped in a bright glow of
a wet blanket. My speed was difficult to discern lacking visibility of just
about anything. Then as suddenly as I entered it, I was below the cloud, a
patchy, three hundred foot thick dividing line between sky and earth.

I alternated between screaming down the pass and skidding to
a stop to photograph things that caught my eye. Everything looked different in
the morning light and good spirits. It wasn’t long before I was cruising back
along the lake to Saint Mary where I was looking forward to the café at the
lodge. Here, I was able to experience my first critter jam and give wide birth
to a small black bear. Leaving the lodge and cafe meant trudging up a six mile
climb, but first another few random asks of cell phone service to let my family
know I was okay and on schedule.

The top of the climb out of Saint Mary marked the last “big”
climb as far as I was concerned and even though I could see the next pass far
ahead in the distance it seemed a world closer than it had the previous day. I
stopped to watch some range horses graze. Stopped again at the road junction in
Kiowa for a snack and some time on a rope swing. I was on the final leg back
into East Glacier and was ready to eat everyone out of house and home. Back in
town hours before the train arrive I had a leisurely lunch at a bar-b-que place
and then continued on to the mexican place where I was able to take a margarita
to go. The trip was ending on a high, slightly drunken note.

Back on the train in my seat as I watched the National Park
roll by outside the window I couldn’t help to start thinking of how to do this
again and where. It may have been the first time, but definitely not my last.

*A critter jam as it was explained to me by Fran
is when “a bunch of city vacationers see an animal on the side of the road,
usually a bear, bison or elk, and stop in the stupidest place to get out of
their car and take pictures.” The result is any car that comes upon the first
is stuck and can’t continue down the road and the passengers of these cars also
usually get out to watch. Thus “a traffic jam is created as a result of the
critter.” Critter Jam. She spends a bunch of time in Yellowstone and claims
this is where they are the worst.