Today I entered into the collective mind of touring cyclists. I did so by paying a visit to the Adventure Cycling Association's headquarters in Missoula. It was truly stimulating to get a behind-the-scenes look into the operations of one of the country's leading bike advocacy groups. To some extent I felt like (a male version of) Dorothy when she followed the yellow brick road all the way to Oz where she met the great wizard.
For the past two years I had understood the Adventure Cycling Association to be the authority on transcontinental bike touring in the US. Perhaps its greatest contribution to the cycling community was the development and stewardship of turn-by-turn bike maps which safely guide thousands of cyclists coast-to-coast each year. These easy-to-use and thorough maps literally brought me to where I was standing in Missoula.
Quite frankly, I don't know that I would have had the confidence to embark on a solo tour were it not for the excellent resources and guidance that the Association had provided me. During this trip I followed the Underground Railroad (Pittsburgh Spur), Northern Tier, Route 66 and TransAmerica Trail bike routes. After touring the Association's headquarters today, I would be setting out on the Lewis & Clark Trail map to guide me to the Pacific Coast. I was thrilled to be seeing the human side of an organization which was so instrumental in helping me to pursue my goal.
After a deep sleep in my hotel room, I departed from the DoubleTree en route to the Association's headquarters downtown. I was surprised to find that the organization was located inside of a renovated old church. The first thing I noticed when I walked in was an expansive wall featuring Polaroid pictures of cyclists who had passed through this year. I scoured the wall, snapping shots of many of the great characters I had encountered over the past few months.
And, of course, the kind lady at the front desk took my picture to be added to the bunch.
Then a young guy, Nathan, took a few of us on a tour through the building. This impromptu tour was fascinating. It felt like a chronology of adventure cycling in the U.S. There were press clippings of the founders' PanAmerican journey, images of the 1976 "Bike Centennial" and funky old bikes all over the walls. Being an amateur photographer myself, I was enthralled by this visual representation of life on the road and the adventurer's spirit.
After the tour I debriefed with Nathan. I wanted to voice a few of the safety concerns that I had experienced on my tour. It was really impressive how susceptible and responsive this guy was to feedback. The guy didn't need to make time for me. He would have received his paycheck whether he listened to me or not. But, quite frankly, he really seemed to value my input. I first expressed concern over the safety of the Underground Railroad route leaving Pittsburgh. He knew exactly the stretch I was worried about and ensured me that they were on top of it. Then I vented my anxieties about the conditions of Montana's roads and, more importantly, the reckless habits of many of its drivers. This concern seemed to perplex him a bit more, understandably. I was voicing a concern about a region's culture. He nor I had any immediate solutions to reforming a culture of aggression and entitlement. He did, however, provide me the contact info for someone in the advocacy group and urged me to get in contact with her.
As Nathan and I conferred, we were joined by a gentleman who appeared to be fresh off of the saddle. He took a back seat to our conversation, chiming in at times to share some insights. I quickly perceived that this guy was an experienced cyclist. I also sensed that he had been here before. Nathan was unperturbed by his presence. As my talk with Nathan wrapped up, my talk with this fellow took off.
His name was Billy Montigny. This was something like his 15th cross-country bike tour since 1983. He fell in love with touring as a young fellow in his 20s and has since oriented his life around it. Ever other year or so he hops on his bike and peddles his way across the country. Each time he rides he chooses a slightly different route, though there are some staple friends and restaurants he makes sure to visit each time. Billy said that he was, "fueled by a sense of wonder and intensity and curiosity, a huge heart, and tireless legs." Man, I get that.
I truly admired Billy. Despite my admiration, I don't think I'll ever be like him. I get the sense that for him, cycling is both the means and the end. I find that for myself, cycling is the means but not the end.
So you might ask, "A means to what end?"
And I would respond, "Discovery."
You may then retort, "Discovery of what?"
And I would tell you that, "I don't know."
I found consolation in my talk with Billy. He seemed to recognize the distress that was on my face as I recounted my ugly experiences with Montana drivers. Not only his words, but even his presence, were reminders that my experience; the highs, the lows, the struggles, the frustration, the pernicious loneliness; had all occurred before and were bound to repeat ad infinitum. Knowing that I wasn't the only one to experience both the wonder and torment of life on the road was comforting.
Don't believe me that this stuff plays out over and over and over? Well, here's a picture of Billy holding an old picture of Billy holding an old picture of Billy holding an old picture of Billy holding an old...
I really enjoyed my time at the Adventure Cycling headquarters. I felt so comfortable there that I ended up preparing myself a lunch in their kitchen, then taking a seat to enjoy it in their courtyard. My behavior didn't disturb the employees one bit. As a matter of fact, a few of them even expressed how stoked they were on my generic lunch choice (tunafish, pickles, chips and fruit).
Just before I left I bumped into a young woman who had moved to Missoula within the last year from Washington DC. She knew I was a Washingtonian because of my Bike Rack jersey. I got caught up in a nostalgic conversation about DC with her. It seemed we both were missing the paved bikeways and vibrant social scene of the nation's capitol. Now equipped with a smile on my face and light thoughts on my mind, I headed out for the Pacific.
Today was a solo ride on route 12. I started by backtracking about 10 miles South to the town of Lolo, then riding uphill a good 40 miles towards Lolo Pass. I was initially apprehensive as I climbed towards the Pass. The road was rather narrow and I had not heard any feedback, positive or negative, about the route. Luckily, I grew very comfortable with this segment of route 12. The traffic volume was low, freeing up my mind to occupy itself with the inspection of the tall cedars which became more dense by the moment.
Arriving at Lolo Pass was triply climactic. First, I had arrived at the top of the mountain. This always put a smile on my face. Second, I was entering in the Pacific time zone! I had made it to my final time zone of the journey. It's funny, because jumping from Mountain time to Pacific time felt much more pronounced than any other previous time zone change. It now felt like I was in a completely different time space than my friends and family back East. The third and final accolade was that I had made it to Idaho! Had I ever been to Idaho before? Obviously not. Did I know anything about Idaho? Potatoes. I was excited to enter into this 14th and very unknown state of my journey.
I coasted down this sunset-accented descent. As far as my eyes could see in any direction were layers upon layers of heavily-forested mountains' silhouettes. I found harmony between gravity and the Earth below, effortlessly bending the curves of this windy mountain road.
That night I stumbled into a rest stop in Powell, the Lochsa Lodge, which allows cyclists to camp out. What did you know? My buddies, David and Marion, were already there. They were accompanied by two other adventuring cyclists. Hmmm. This felt like deja-vu. After a long day on the road I again found myself in an unfamiliar place with familiar people. And they, too, were having similar but unique experiences. That night I passed out beneath the stars with an emerging realization that I was just a conduit for a sentiment far greater than myself.