Day 108: East Glacier Park, MT to St. Mary Campground - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

July 29, 2011

Day 108: East Glacier Park, MT to St. Mary Campground

When the tent gets too hot in the direct morning sunlight I escape into the house, where I stay until after noon. I only leave the property to walk two blocks to the restaurant, where the waitress brings me a massive plate of chicken fried steak and french fries.

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"Are you on a bike ride?" the guys next to me asks, in between his young daughter smacking him in the face.

"I am. How can you tell?"

"Well, you just kind of look like you're traveling, and also you look pretty skinny to be eating that much food."

I make a mental note to crank it up to four candy bars a day instead of two.

We talk a bit more and eventually he tells me that I'm welcome to camp on his property 15 miles outside of town if I'm interested, even though we've known each other for less than five minutes. That's awesome.

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I really want to take a day off and rest up, but then I look at the elevation profile for the stretch between East Glacier Park and St. Mary, the town that sits just outside of the park's east gate. It climbs 2,500 feet over 30 miles, which isn't bad on its own, but would make tomorrow a long and tough day with the big push over Logan Pass added on to it. I may be in the best shape of my life, but I'm still the same lazy guy I was when I left Seattle, and I want to make the riding as easy as I can. I force myself out of the house and onto the road at 3:00.

Not far out of town the road starts heading up. It's narrow and shoulderless and the signs make it seem like the most dangerous route in the world. Within half a mile I see warnings announcing "Steep Winding Road," "No Trucks Over 21 Feet," "Slide Area," "High Wind Area," "Loose Gravel," and "Rough Road." My legs ache as I shake off the rest rust, but soon the wind picks up and gives me a hand and I pull myself slowly up to the top. I look out on a long alpine lake that rubs up against the bottom of rocky peaks topped with giant sections of snow towering thousands of feet above in a bluish haze off to the west and the north. I also think about how it's so much more rewarding to crawl up toward a pass at six miles per hour than to inch across the prairies on the flats at the same speed. I feel strong and powerful and badass.

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The descent is pure insanity from the very start. The wind that helped me up howls and snarls and blows both from behind and across. The road drops steep and turns tight and chunks of rocks sit along its edges. All of the signs I passed on the way up start to make sense. Soon I come across giant breaks in the pavement that drop more than a foot and send me and the 75 pounds hanging onto my ass airborne. Then I pass through long sections with a wall of rock on one side and a massive dropoff of death on the other. At one point a surging gust of wind picks me up and helps carry me to 35 miles per hour. It's so strong that it cancels out all of the noise from the wind blowing over my head and I ride with only the sound of two tires screaming across the pavement to fill my ears. It's at the same time absolutely amazing and completely unnerving. My world becomes one of intense focus—I watch the surface for cracks and gravel, balance against the blasts of wind, check my speed, and pull and release the brakes at exactly the right moments. I also wonder whether or not my health insurance is paid in full.

In the words of Louis C.K., it's fucking bananas, man.

And in six minutes it's all over.

Mistakes are not an option.
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The afternoon runs into the evening with long climbs broken up by fast descents that end too soon. Eventually I ride surrounded by the tan-colored trunks of trees burned to almost nothing by a forest fire. Flies swarm and start to bite every time I stop, so mostly I keep moving.

The moment I realize that I'm the thing that smells so bad.
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As I speed through the steep and sweeping curves that wind down the long hill to St. Mary, two stunning lakes and a dozen soaring mountains spread out before me and a huge smile spreads across my face. I think about how far I've come, about how I couldn't be in a place more opposite than the boardwalk overlooking the ocean in Key West, and about how all of the hills and wind and awful drivers of America can't change the fact that there's no better way to see this country than from the seat of a bicycle. Right now everything is so good.

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At the campground just inside the park gate I set up at the hiker-biker site next to a friendly English couple who are hiking around the park for a couple of weeks, and also three girls and a guy from Chicago who just graduated from high school. From inside the tent I hear kids scream, cars drive by every five minutes, and some goofball in a nearby campsite singing opera—just in case I forgot I was in a National Park.

After dark I lay in the sleeping bag and listen to the teenagers talk about college around the campfire 30 feet away. Mostly it's about majors and classes and professors and the relative prestige of the schools they applied to. I laugh a little. I want to tell them how little all of that will matter in the end, that it's the friends, the mistakes, the late nights, the low-level illegal stuff, and the loves that don't last that will make the next four years of each of their lives amazing and memorable.

And then I feel old.

Today's ride: 34 miles (55 km)
Total: 5,525 miles (8,892 km)

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