Friday, August 1, 2014

Montana: The Name Says it All

Montana in a glimpse, the name says it all!
There was something oddly familiar about Montana from the moment I entered. The name, derived from the Latin word meaning “mountain” and this state’s nickname “The Big Sky State,”  there isn’t a better way to describe this state.  Like Colorado, every where you look in the western portion of the state, there are mountains galore!  The sky is a never ending sea of blue with traces of clouds that look like elongated cat whiskers blown in the wind.  There is an overwhelming sense of solitude in Montana; there should be considering the vast land expanse and diminutive population.  The state is the 4th largest in the US in terms of land mass, but with a population slightly over a million people, it is ranked 44th in population and 48th in population density.

I love looking at maps, especially a vast state like Montana

Coming out of Yellowstone park on my way to Livingston, my first views of Montana were impressive

Upon arriving, Montana reminded me fondly of New Zealand, which also has a nickname regarding the sky, “The Land of the Long White Cloud.”  There is something about the sweeping white clouds in both Montana and New Zealand caught on the mountain peaks and the color of the bright vivid blue sky contrasted by the white clouds that make for a breath taking landscape.  Cycling surrounded by this grandiose natural paradise, you feel like an ant, a minute nothingness that is constantly looking up and around observing their environment in awe, admiration, and respect.

Nuri and Viçcens are in front of Flathead lake with a tyrpical Montana sky behind

Montana in a nut shell, river valleys tall mountains, blue skies with lots of white clouds

Mountains soar out of lakes, glaciers that formed many millions of years ago, still exist today, although they are few and far between!  Once again, The Rocky Mountains kept me company in Glacier National Park.  Looking at them, you can see the crevices  where water once flowed and carved out sides of rocks from mountains millions of years ago.  The melting snow and water flowed down to the river valleys, leaving the impressive landscape we see today.  The mountains look as though they are peaks draped in bed sheets, all different shades of green from vibrant fresh grass to a dark earthen blue. The clouds leave  even deeper green splotches on the mountains, shadows, almost black in color.  The Rockies are a massive solid wall in northern Montana that reminds me of the French Alps, or maybe even the Pyrenees.  I felt like I'd cycled here before.  Nuri, Vicens, and I took on Logan Pass, starting our ascent in 3.4C weather at 6:30 in the morning.  The climb wasn't that difficult, although it is 35 miles from West Glacier to the summit.  We stopped frequently taking pictures in awe of the landscape.  By the time we reach the top at 11 am, temperatures have gone up 25C.  No wonder they call this road :The Road to the Sun".  Glacier National Park is busy, but to avoid the crowds we did a full loop around to the south of the park to get a better idea of the massive size of the landscape.  

Every where you turned there were mountains in Glacier National Park, rugged and snow-capped

Too much gorgeous scenery to capture

The Glacier Rockies, reminiscent of the Alps, Pyrenees, or even the Dolomites

Logan Pass, quite an accomplishment on The Road to the Sun, Glacier National Park

Towns; there are plenty in Montana, big cities just don't exist.  My first visit to a civilized quaint community was in Bozeman, home to Montana State University (MSU), where I wanted to adopt the university slogan, Mountains & Minds.  It can't be put any more simply.  Caution!  A cluster of young ambitious curious minds in the mountains may be hazardous.  You never know what may happen when you combine free spirits and education with living harmoniously with fresh air, mountain scenery, and the wilderness surrounding you.  I can't believe I never considered going to school at MSU.  It is home to about 15,000 students, which makes for a lively little town with a decent sized campus.  Main street is cluttered with outdoors stores, one after the next interspersed with brewpubs, bars, and delicious eateries.  I arrived for the county fair and what is known as “Crazy Days,” where vendors line the streets trying to get rid of their summer inventory.  I never shop for anything on my trip, but I did find a bright orange long sleeve Merino wool shirt, ideal for cycling in Northern Canada and Alaska.  Bozeman also has trails galore around the city, which made for two nice days of marathon training.  I must say, Bozeman gives Fort Collins a run for it’s money as a close 1st place town on my list of places I could live in The United States.        

My host in Bozeman, John, was the son of one of my followers, Barabara Faunce, who I’ve actually never met.  However, being from Eugene, and an avid outdoors man and cyclist himself, I knew he take good care of me! Barbara somehow failed to mention that John is also the creative type and runs a clothing company called Phar North that specializes in unique graphic prints on all American-made apparel.  I got to visit his studio/shop in town and drooled while he explained to me how they go about designing and making all their garments.  My creative juices started flowing, but for now, the only way they can express themselves is in the kitchen if people let me go all out and cook!  For two of the three nights I visited, I went wild making some delicious meals including collaborating on an enormous BBQ and making a typical Catalan sausage and bean dinner.                        .

I was in heaven at Phar North, printmaking galore with design transfers

John Faunce's clothing company, Phar North, based in Bozeman, MT

After Bozeman I visited Helena the capital of Montana, which was a pleasant, quaint town.  It has a nice historic downtown and lots of eateries and shops, as well as pedestrian streets.  Houses resemble those out east and in the older neighborhoods of Portland and Seattle.  Unlike a lot of capitals in the United States, Helena was a lively place, especailly the local ice cream shop I visited with my host!
You can always tell a good town by it's local ice cream shop!

Helena is a quaint capital
Missoula was the next "big" town I visited, home to Adventure Cycling Association (ACA), America’s bicycle travel experts with an established cycling route network with 42,180 miles of routes throughout North America.  Missoula was a bit out of my way and the folks back in Bozeman would be upset to know that I went to their rival town, but, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit the organization that has so greatly impacted my life and inspired me to travel by bike.  All the tour cyclists that pass through Missoula get their picture taken and added to the wall of visitors.  Plus you can use their free Internet, eat free ice cream, drink as many refreshments from their fridge, and if you are lucky like me, you get the leftovers from the lunch picnic they had for a tour group that passed through. All the employees ride touring bikes to work, and everything about the place alludes to passionate cyclists!
I've always wondered what the ACA offices were like in Missoula
From Missoula I headed up to north to western Montana with Nuri and Viçens.  We rode along Flathead Lake, the largest body of water in this landlocked state.  It was cherry and huckleberry season, which made it hard not to stop every 10 miles to sample or buy the fresh fruit and treats made with them. Cycling with Viçencs and Nuri, we had the lake or a river on our left and mountains to the east the entire ride.  There were a few small towns en route Glacier National Park, including Polson, Big Fork, and Columbia Falls, the latter being where we got to experience some amazing Montanan hospitality and culture, including a rodeo, lake riding and tubing on a platoon boat, and fire pits and delicious summer meals.  We went through Whitefish, a small resort town, and stopped and swam in a few lakes on our way to the Canadian border, again a serene environment.

We saw more than a half dozen different cherry varieties along Montana's roads

Tubing, we laughed harder than we've laughed ever before!  What a riot!

Plenty of mountains and plenty to do

Thunderstorms, typical in mountainous regions like western Montana

Montana, as I mentioned, shares a lot in common with New Zealand from a geographical perspective. However, the people in Montana reminded of my Australian friends.  Montanans, like Aussies, are humble and will never outrageously boast about their fabulous state.  It’s almost as if they keep their mouths closed on purpose, knowing that they live in one of the best-kept secrets states in The United States.  Their humble attitude keeps others from coming and spoiling their wonderful natural environment.  Montanans are pleasant, genuine, and peaceful outdoor enthusiasts.  Their are avid hunters, fishermen, cyclists, skiers, climbers, hikers, and everything in between.  Like in my own vocabulary, bored, is a word that is never used in Montana if you love the outdoors! 

One of the most pleasant country roads on my ride to Bozeman

This was the widest, cleanest shoulder we rode on in Montana

My only complaint about Montana are the roads; they leave little to be desired for a cyclist.  For being a state that strongly promotes tour cycling, I was surprised by the lack of shoulders, the treacherous road debris, and the absurd speed limits.  The state is so immense and sparsely populated, it is no surprise that there are also a lack of secondary roads, at least paved ones!  Montana may be a mountain biking paradise, but I feared for my life on the tarmac.  In fact, sadly, I felt the safest riding on Interstate 90, where the speed limit approaches 80 miles an hour, but a wide shoulder and minimal road debris makes for smooth, fast pedaling.  Rather than creating more national cycling routes, I would advise Adventure Cycling to advocate for a more bike friendly road network in Montana, starting with educating drivers regarding how to respect cyclists and  share the roads with them.  I'd love to come back and explore Montana further, but I doubt it will be on a touring bike!

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