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Well, I made it to Montana. And I made it in a fashion slightly elevated above ‘just barely’, even. So this is good news. Let me tell you about the last section.

Wow.

I very much doubt that I will see anything as beautiful on the rest of this trip. The trail leaves from Sparwood, home of the world’s biggest truck, a giant earth mover that burns 80 gallons of gas an hour that it is in use.

The Big Truck. It's Big.

It’s used for mining, a very popular activity in the areas around Sparwood and Elkford (both still in Canada). There are numerous mountain-top removal mining operations, and if you are unfamiliar with this type of mining, look it up here. Regardless of how one feels about the importance of mining for energy, for jobs, for fun, it simply takes the breath away to see a mountain taken down by the shovelful. From Sparwood, the route travels up a little-used paved road headed for Corbin, the site of another, vast coal mining site. It was still the day we went through, however, because the coal miners are all on strike. Now, the road to Corbin is beautiful, following and repeatedly crossing a lovely river, each bridge with it’s own fly fisherman in waders peacefully casting in the water. However, it started raining shortly after we turned onto this road, and continued raining as we climbed higher and higher into the mountains. Rain on the paved road is annoying but ultimately non-threatening. Just wait, though.

From Corbin, we turned off rode along a dirt road, a very very rough dirt road, that climbed up and over Flathead pass before dropping down along the fledgling Flathead river. It was still raining. And now it was somewhat more than annoying: the road turned to a bog of gritty paste that stuck to everything. We climbed for hours in the rain, to cold to stop and rest for any part of the climb, fighting our bikes up the mud and through puddles.

Oh, we, you ask? Yes, in Elkford I met another pair of through-riders, Sara and Tom, a lovely couple from Australia and England, respectively.

Sara and Tom, in sun hats.

Through a fortunate error in communication, they were able to abandon plans they had to meet a friend along the civilized Fernie alternate and join me for four days of wild backcountry riding. It was excellent to share their company over those days, and it allayed much of my concern about bears. They will be riding the entire route, all the way to Mexico, as well, so I anticipate crossing paths with them again. They also, most excitingly, plan to keep on riding once they get to Mexico, riding for the year they’ve taken off from work. We had a great time comparing the differences of our bike set-ups over the last few days, since we each have a different rig. I’m doing the classic panniers and rear-rack set-up, Sara has no racks and is pulling a trailer, and Tom is riding Surly’s Big Dummy (it’s basically like an Xtra Cylce, for those who know). All three of the bikes are hardtails with front suspension, though theirs have newer, arguably better components than mine.

Which brings me to the inevitable problems that cropped up while we were in the middle of nowhere. We rode down from the pass, fast and wet and very cold, passing an RV mired in mud and surrounded by men armed with shovels. Really, I have no clue how they even got it up there, but they were determined to dig it out and make their way down to the Flathead river. We sopped into a campsite and had a respite from the rain during which we were able to erect camp, eat dinner, and bear bag our comestibles and likewise scented items.

The double rainbow over our camp in the break from the rain

The next day, Lolita was sick with a bad case of the-handlebars-won’t-turn-itis. With a bit of help from Tom for my first foray ever into a threadless headset (I’ve only ever worked on threaded before, iconoclast that I am), I took apart the headset and cleaned out all the grit from the day before, but the headset definitely needed to be replaced. So I had three days ahead of me with a bum headset. This is not the end of the world, but it is mighty stressful, since we had more mountain passes to climb, which means fast, rocky, muddy, pot-holed descents on the other side. It is nicer to be able to steer through those sections. And Lolita’s front hub needs help. And her brakes were pretty trashed by the grit. But after a good scrubbing daily, she rides right enough the next day. After all, it isn’t grease that’ll keep her on the road when she’s keening, it’s love. Pure, hot, sweaty, grinding up one hill after the next love. Apparently I’ve got enough of it, since she got through, but it was bleak there for a minute.

From the Flathead river, we climbed over another rocky, steep pass:

The road to Cabin Pass

From there, we dropped down to the Wigwam river, home to some world-class fly fishing, or so I was told by a young, soft-faced french-canadian who had driven hours to get some time in on the river. I believe him about the fishing,as the river was wide, shallow, and gurgling, and otherwise rather appealing. We rode alongside it for a while, through hot and unseemly clearcuts when we came upon a bear cub. Damn. This is, let me tell you, the last thing you want to ‘come upon’ when you are in the middle of nowhere, on a mountain bike, and carrying nothing but aerosolized bits of a vegetable in a can to protect yourself. The cub was in the road, and Sara, Tom, and I stopped three abreast and waited. The cub was very cute, in a way that  made you want to chew on it’s ear or something. It ran off up the hill, and we never saw it’s mother, thankfully. But the next few miles felt like we were about to be ambushed at any moment by a gang of armed bears.

The last fun bit of the section was the brief bit that we had to hike since we couldn’t ride it. It was really a mud-filled trench, unbelievably steep, and thick with flies. We had to shoulder the bikes, take the bags and trailers up separately, and it took us several hours to go just one measly quarter of mile.

Hauling my bike up the un-rideable rut they call a trail

I am having fun out here, let me tell you. It is beautiful, and wild, and full of life. I have pictures to post, but it will have to wait for Whitefish, several days from now. Until then, my lovely friends, here is a map of my future route:

The first part of Montana

I’m in Elkford! Where, you ask? Who knows! But it’s in Canada. Isn’t that enough? Canada, land of the metric system. Which, as we all are fully aware, is far superior to our puny and awkward english system , but when you’ve spent a lifetime cradled in the hard hands of miles and pounds, you come across as quite slow to everyone you talk to when they ask how far you’ve come or how far you are going. The nice thing about kilometers is they fly by like nothing else, but then you have more of them to cover at the beginning of the day, and it’s just numbers after all, but these things do have a psychological effect. The other day I was stopped at a small campground grocery to buy a bell and a whistle for my bike, when I was set upon buy a large group of spandex-clad, supported bike tourers, riding part of the same route as me. They were fascinated by what I was doing, and yet I couldn’t quite speak fluently with them about the trip because I was talking miles and they kilometers. It was quite funny, the way being inspected by a herd of spandex-wearing, italian-speaking antelope on mountain bikes would be funny.

When I left Banff several days ago, I was hoping for the best.

On my way: the first few feet.

It’s really all I can do. But as I was fiddling with my bike in the parking lot, a man came rushing off the trail on his bike, talking about the huge grizzly bear he had just startled around a blind corner, and he had dashed back to the trailhead. He confirmed that I had bear spray, said I’d probably be all right, and headed off. Bad omen? Do any of us even believe in omens? As soon as I started off, it began to rain, lightly at first but then turning into a proper, righteous sort of rain that lasted for over an hour. Bad omen number two? And, in the first hour, I lost a pair of underwear that I had washed that morning and strapped to my bag to dry. It’s now a muddy wad of cloth left along some single track outside of Banff somewhere, unless of course, it’s been eaten by a bear already. Bad omen number three?

On the subject of rain, it has rained off and on over the last several days. Lots of rain means lots of muddy single track and roads, means muddy Katherine and muddy Lolita. We look very trail-worn already, which makes us feel tough. You know, experienced (which we’re not, but no one can tell.). There are some problems with the rain though: my glasses don’t function in the rain so I can’t see, my bike bell is muffled in the rain so I’m quieter, and my bear spray is apparently less effective in rain. So on the subject of bears, I can’t see if I’m approaching a bear, I can’t make noise to scare the bear away, and I can’t deter the bear I’m inevitably going to startle as a  corollary to the first two. I thus sing, loudly, and generally on the theme of bears. ‘Katherine met the bear, the bear met Katherine. Katherine was bulgy, the bulge was the bear.’ As I have thus far seen neither head nor rump nor any other part of a bear (except for unimaginably large piles of berry-flecked bear poop), my bluff seems to be working. At any rate, I have bear on the brain, and I thus proceed carefully.

On the subject of losing things. I would lose my own head if it weren’t attached to my body. The first day I lost a pair of underwear. The second day I lost my padded cycling gloves which protected my ulnar nerve. The third day I lost my tent poles, realizing it four miles down the trail from where they lay in a ditch on the side of the road. This was too serious to lose permanently, so I turned around and rode 2 miles back towards where I had taken them off during a lunch break by a lovely river. I had two more miles to go to get them when a vehicle passed me and I flagged them down and begged a ride off them, which they graciously gave. After that little, very annoying hitch, I was on my way again with the poles safely retrieved. If this keeps up, I’m going to be in big trouble at some point, having ridden off down the road and forgotten my bike behind.

However, aside from all these minor problems, things have been really lovely. Breathtakingly beautiful. This is spectacular country with long views and big (big big) mountains.

Mount Shark over the Spray River

Some nameless mountain in the morning

All day, every day, I ride through rich valleys flanked by these behemoths they have for mountains around here. I love it, even in the rain, even at the blind corners thick with bushes dangling fat little berries. I love singing at the top of my voice here, for miles on end. I love that the Canadians I meet, some of the nicest people, tell me they thought I was American, and no it wasn’t my ineptness with distances that gave it away but rather my american accent. I love crawling into my sleeping bag at night and reading (The Catcher in the Rye, in case anyone was curious). I love that I had an entire bag of salt and vinegar potato chips for breakfast this morning. I was thinking about a trip like this, and how in many ways and especially when undertaken alone, it is a longterm commitment to practice denial of the id. You are always cold, hungry, tired, in pain, and you want one of those trailers with a flush toilet and a tv and in there the bugs won’t crawl on you and the bears won’t eat you. You’re often lonely or scared. You think about how you could be watching a movie right now, or reading the New Yorker, or sitting around surfing the sweet sweet internet. But really, who wants to remember a lifetime of doing that? In my two column checklist of time spent on the interwebs versus time spent out in the world, the interwebs are so far winning. So I’m seizing this bit of time, because after all, what the hell will the interwebs teach me any way? (Okay, a bit, like what the ulnar nerve is). Where is the wild, unfathomable, beautiful world in that?

The next part of my route takes me through the Flathead river valley, the last undeveloped valley in B.C., where the bears are sure to be aplenty. I thought about taking the paved, civilized Fernie alternate due to my being alone and minimally armed, and after hearing horror stories of bears and mountain bikers (and don’t worry, because they are all way over blown), but after running into Aaron Teasedale (sp?) and his lovely family (Aaron who worked at Adventure Cycling Association who wrote my maps), Aaron who used the hilarious and apt term ‘bear-anoid’, and after having several incident- and even sighting-free days, and after coming all this way to ride on the dirt in the middle of nowhere, I think riding on the dirt in the middle of nowhere is really what I’d prefer to do. The route I’m taking has no towns or services for 4 days. Just lots of trees. And mountain passes. I’m greatly looking forward to it.

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