West Yellowstone, MT to Sandpoint, ID – That “30 Miles to Portland” Feeling and What I Learn Riding in Cars

22 Jul


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Both times I’ve bicycled to Portland, once in 2009 on a whim with a friend and this last May on my training ride to SF, I’ve had the same feeling 30 miles from the goal. By 30 miles to Portland I’m past the challenges of the route, far past the halfway point, but also past the novelty of the surroundings. The two hours of pedaling ahead is less a challenge than something to just endure. 

The “30 miles to Portland” feeling dogs me from the morning I wake shivering in my tent in Yellowstone and set out teeth chattering through the mists, past my last buffalo chasing her calf beside the river, to exit West Yellowstone and enter my 3rd to last state. Montana mostly looks like Colorado and Kansas had a baby and there’s nothing really new to see, so my surroundings become almost invisible as I’m stuck in my own head. The burn out lasts through a disrupted routine.   
I stay two nights in hotels until I can exchange my tent at REI. I had planned to make distance to Missoula and meet my friend Nita who’s got a day off to drive through Glacier, but feeling a little sick from the night in the damp tent, I take it easy on the miles for two days, fall behind schedule, and decide to thumb a ride. 
An SUV pulls over and an intense man, thick with age, gets out and asks where I’m heading. When I tell him Missoula, he reminds me it’s 140 miles away, I nod, then tells me to strap my bike on the roof and lets go. Alex introduces me to his wife Shae, a Creek Indian, and their autistic son Josh, tells me if I hurt either one he’ll murder me, and we head off. Alex’s intensity comes from personality and life experience. He served in the IDF, has “knife wounds from when I ran out of bullets” and his first wife and child were killed in a bombing in Tel Aviv. Currently he’s in the Bitterroot to find a plot of land for his family and teaches sustainable living. He’s recently been on the news for coordinating a massive transport of Hay to Colorado farmers, who’s own crop has burnt up in the heat. He’s kind at heart, accepting no money from me for the ride and making sure I get safely to my destination. He also is a “Republican Constitutionalist” birther who hates Obama for his “lies,” much more than he hates Bush for getting us into wars that have killed and wounded hundreds of thousands of people based on real lies, and continues to confuse socialism with fascism, even after I explain the difference. He insults my intelligence, my democratic beliefs, and jokes about chucking me out of the car even as he drives me to my destination and makes sure I get there safe. We hug it out after I’ve got my bike off the roof, and I think with no sarcasm “Thanks for everything, you dick” A year ago I’d hold these beliefs against him, but after months of meeting kind, thoughtful people who spout Fox news buzzwords every third sentence, I’ve a more balanced view of my Red State brethern. Generally nice people with terrible voting priorities.  
Nita picks me up in Missoula and we drive to Whitefish, catching up on our lives since we met years ago spinning fire at a house party, and then catching up on our pasts as we realize we don’t actually know each other that well. During the long drive up to Whitefish, and the long drive up to Glacier, we tell our stories. Most of hers ending with “And then I knew I had a friend for life” and mine ending with “and then the first sentence of that journal entry reads “Do I ever tell anyone this happened?” We share mistakes, sucesses, and both come away realizing how easy it is to forget how little your past self knew, and how much better a person they made you because of it. 
We’ve decided to hike the Grinell Glacier overlook, 7 miles up. I see the destination as we enter the park, stone plates jutting high out of the crumbling dirt mountain. The final mile takes us through a green praire flecked with yellow petals and steep climbs across red, green, grey, purple and tan confetti of sedentary rock shards where marmots warm themselves on rocks and surer-footed mountain goats graze. Exhausted, I sit at the overlook, the strong wind that carries a river of clouds to break on the stone plates above me blows a fine cool mist from the packed snow below into my face. In the distance a green slope disappears into the valley. Closer to me a sheer rock face looks like a brick sticking out of the frozen ground, surrounded by a deep blue glacier, thinning year by year, the last remnants of a dead Ice Age. A chipmonk nudges my ass to break me from my meditation. A marmot wanders around another couple resting here from the climb. Nita looks at our path back, uneasy at the prospect of the steep terrain on her reparing knee. I turn back to the overlook and keep staring, squeezing the last moments from this as I realize that this is the beginning of the end. When I turn away from here, the journey winds down and the “lasts” begin. The last Tuesday, then the last Wednesday, the last 400 miles, then the last 300. The last 2 states, then the last one, the last mountain, the last town, the last journey of a 20’s now past, then the last look back at an incredible 3 months as I dip my rear wheel in the Pacific. I’ll return home and for the first week people will ask about the journey and I’ll tell them what happened. After 6 months home no one will ask about the journey, when I can tell them what it meant. I visit Glacier again the next day and hang around Whitefish for another two days until my legs get itchy and it’s time to go. 
My final day in Whitefish is wistful but the further West I go, the sadness disappates. Two days ago I’m in Libby, MT when a Windstorm knocks out all the power, ruining my plans to see the Dark Knight Rises. I head to a bar and while on my first beer the power is restored and the movie is a go. As I wait in the ticket line I marvel that yet again, drinking has solved all my problems. Last night my Warm Showers host tells me he works in the local brewery and I get to sample amazing IPAs on their porch. It’s easy to appreciate days like this because I’m now at that “15 miles to Portland” feeling, when I realize that I have to be present in the moments now, because sooner than I realize, this will all be just memories and a sense of accomplishment to begin the next journey with.  

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