Take a Montana Bike Trip This Year

Steve McGann

A number of years ago I rode my bicycle across Montana. During the trip, I kept notes, and on my return I composed a journal. I can’t find it. That is okay, because the experience was one I remember in great detail. The one thing I am not sure of is what inspired me to do it. Before retiring, I planned and fantasized about many things that would take longer than the amount of time I had to spend while working. Long backpacking trips, long road trips and, evidently, at least one long bicycle trip.

The Adventure Cycling Association is located in Missoula. Reading their magazine about bike touring all over the world made me want to try. My wife and I went to Missoula and rode bike trails there a couple of times in the spring, when the Gallatin Valley was still slumbering under snow.

I obtained maps at their headquarters. I asked my accomplished bike touring daughter-in-law Heather for advice. She said; “Keep Pedaling.” A few years ago in early June, we made another trip west; my wife Ruth dropped me off at the top of Lolo Pass on the Montana/Idaho border.

After a time spent loading and checking my bike, Ruth drove away and I dithered a bit, then set off. Within five minutes I was careening down the highway switchbacks from the pass faster than I had ever ridden a bicycle. I was terrified. There was not much room, but the traffic did not need to pass me since I was moving as fast as the cars. Finally, the slope leveled out, the road widened, and I coasted comfortably along. My bike had pedals, of course, but for the first ten miles I did not need to use them. Soon, I reached Travelers Rest near the town of Lolo. I had ridden over twenty miles in an hour and a few minutes. There was nothing to this bike touring; I would probably be back in Bozeman in a couple days.

After a quick coffee stop, I set off on a trail to Hamilton. This time, within five minutes I was ready to quit the whole ride, phone Ruth and go home. A rain squall had begun. The wind and water blew straight at me. I could barely make enough headway to keep upright. My entire ride across Montana of 800 miles in two separate trips was an endless combination of those two extremes. Wild, exhilarating runs downhill and slow, grinding slogs uphill into weather.

The farthest I had ever ridden in a day was 30 miles, so I had no idea of what distance I could cover. That first day I made it to Hamilton by late afternoon, about 80 miles. That was gratifying but I soon found out a peculiarity of bike touring. When people are asked for directions, they respond as if a person were driving. When I asked how far the KOA campground was, I was told ‘three or four miles.’ I asked whether it was actually three or four, and got a funny look. A mile makes a difference to a rider.

By the second day, which was going to be a tough push up to Lost Trail Pass, I had already established a schedule. I did not need to start riding super early, but wanted to make 30 miles every day before noon. Since it was June, I had plenty of light to ride on into early evening. Another aspect that quickly became established were the three things that bike tourers think about constantly: how wide is the shoulder, is the wind blowing, and how wide is the shoulder?

Seriously, the space available on the roads is essential, and the Adventure Cycling maps greatly helped with that consideration.

On that first segment, five days from Idaho to Bozeman, it rained every day or night, but that does not stand out in my memory. It was simply another part of the ride to deal with. On the long pedal up Lost Trail I ran out of energy and stopped for a snack. I sat under a tree but the rain was dripping off my nose and soaking my sandwich. I began to giggle, then laugh out loud. I was having a hell of a good time.

The riding was solitary but each day’s destination was a town; Hamilton, Wisdom, Dillon, and Cardwell. I stayed at commercial campgrounds and ate in restaurants. I ate a lot and often. Later, I said it was like backpacking with pizza. If I was not fixated on the width of the road, I was thinking of food. In the diners and camps, I chatted and visited with many people, being a bit lonesome from the road. They were all interested in my journey and offered help and encouragement. Not once did I feel really alone or uncomfortable.

After five days, I rolled into my own driveway in Bozeman. That day, I made the worst route mistake of the entire trip. The map wanted me to head south at Manhattan to Amsterdam, then on to Four Corners before turning east to Bozeman. In the homestretch, I could not make the detour. I rode on to Belgrade and had no issues. But it was early June and there were school buses everywhere on the Frontage Road, and heavy traffic all the way to town. I was both in danger and a danger to the drivers. It was a hectic hour.

I intended to rest a few days and resume the ride to the North Dakota border. Life happened, and my break lasted eleven months. Still, I did mount up and finish, leaving in early May rather than in June, reasoning that I would not be in the mountains and thus would not have weather worries. Well, it did not rain—but wind is also weather.

There were no mountain ranges or passes to cross, but eastern Montana is not flat. The miles came fairly easy, and on my third day out from Bozeman, on an afternoon ride after lunch. I realized that making Miles City would give me a Century, the biker’s dream 100-mile day. It was 98 miles to the campground, and I actually meandered around town to reach 100. Slept really well and rose to two flat tires. There is a species of grassy weed in the plains referred to as goathead. The seeds look like little land mines—and they destroy bike tires. I was out of tubes and pushed to a bike shop downtown. There, I encountered Miles from Miles City, a retired rancher who fixed bikes. He dropped everything to get me back on the road. Even so, his stories kept me there until near noon. I left with his phone number in case I had any trouble. I had no doubt that he would have rescued me anywhere. A few hours later, I felt like calling him.

That spring saw huge wildfires in Canada. One burned an entire town. The wind brought smoke hundreds of miles into Montana. The wind came, too. That day on I-94, I was heading directly into the northeast wind. At times it completely stopped me. I yelled at it. I yelled at the mile markers that seemed never to increase. I found out later that it was a steady 40 MPH, with gusts even higher. I rode 45 miles and was more tired than my 100 miles on the previous day. I spent the night in a little campground in Terry. I was not sure if I wanted to continue. The next day, there was no wind.

In the eastern part of the state there is not always a frontage road along the interstate. It is legal to ride on the highway. The traffic sped by at 80 MPH, but the shoulder was twelve feet wide. I got used to it. For days, every trucker who passed moved to the left lane. I was not sure if they were courteous, or worried about the paperwork [they’d have] if they blew me into the ditch. I decided they were concerned for me. Motorhomes were another matter. Almost none moved over, and some rode the line near me. But there was plenty of room for all of us.

I reached Glendive and was enjoying a tub of fruit, one of veggies, and a bag of chips when my phone rang. It was Ruth, on her way to pick me up. I took off immediately. I was afraid that if she caught me too soon, I would not want to do the last miles. She pulled over in front of me when we were two miles from North Dakota. It was on a hill. We hugged; I threw my saddlebags into the car, and she drove off. With my load lightened, I rode to the state line. She was waiting for me at the ‘Welcome to North Dakota’ border sign. I was alarmed at the speed of the car when we turned around. I had been moving at 12 MPH for a long time.

Eight hundred miles across Montana, 11 days during two different years. It felt good then, and it still does. Maybe it is time to head out again. I’m sure I will locate that old journal. Writing this and rereading that should provide enough inspiration to get back out on the road and keep pedaling.  

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