Day 109: St. Mary Campground to Hungry Horse, MT - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

July 30, 2011

Day 109: St. Mary Campground to Hungry Horse, MT

I take off my long-sleeved shirt too early and freeze on the last short descent before the start of Going-to-the-Sun Road. The route goes gently up and then slightly down for the next few miles, which makes for easy riding but leaves me anxious for the moment I round a bend and see the narrow line of pavement shooting up toward the sky.

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But what about Mountain Dew?
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When it finally arrives it's as tough as I expected—not the hardest of the trip, but steep enough that even after eight to ten Continental Divide crossings it still falls into the category of son-of-a-bitch. Off to my right, fields of grass and some scraggly trees crawl up the side of a mountain until it turns nearly vertical. It rises jagged and menacing into the cloudless blue sky above at such an angle that it almost hurts my neck to look up at its peak.

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The first part of the climb runs in the cold shade of a tunnel of trees, but the last four miles open up to reveal rushing streams, deep valleys of dark green mixed with spots of red, waterfalls that cascade down from sheer rock cliffs and soak the road's edge, and what little is left of the glaciers that give the park its name. Several times I have to stop and just stare at the unbelievable world spread out in front of me. I've seen beauty by the bucket load on this trip, but this part of Glacier National Park is the most impressive of all. It's lose-your-shit amazing.

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The visitor center at the top of the pass is not. It's a mess of minivans, tour buses, motorcycles, and hordes of tourists. They go bonkers when they spot a pair of mountain goats standing at the side of the road and chewing on bits of grass. The fact that the goats are in the road, next to the hugely popular visitor center, dodging cars, and surrounded by at least 50 people doesn't seem to detract from wildness of it all because, oh my god, mountain goats! I thank America and our guests from abroad for being so ridiculous. They continue to make an already great trip even more entertaining.

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It's slow going down the other side of Logan Pass, where I bounce slowly and carefully over a torn-up surface of gravel and potholes, chilled in the shade of the walls of rock that rise straight up off to my right, while looking out on a long and deep valley that's so staggeringly beautiful I can't find the words to describe it. A few miles on the traffic comes to a stop for construction, which brings the already narrow road down to a single lane. I wait for 15 minutes as a long line of cars passes in the opposite direction.

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It turns out to be the best construction delay of my life, because when traffic finally moves again, all of the cars head down in front of me. I slog down behind them through a thin layer of a mud for a few miles, but once we reach pavement the vehicles take off. After giving them a few minutes' head start I do the same. It's a ride of pure joy, leaning to the left and then to the right through tight corners bound by a wall of stone on one side and a tiny rock barrier that hides a killer dropoff on the other. I have the wind in my face, the sun at my back, and an entire lane of one of America's greatest roads all to myself. It's the most incredible stretch I've ever ridden—on this trip, or in my life—and the next-best road doesn't come close. Every passing mile fills me with more and more happiness and I worry that my head might explode because it's not designed to process so much awesomeness.

Heaven on Earth.
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As the descent starts to level out I cruise next to a river filled with perfectly clear water that rushes and churns a greenish-white as it flies past rocks and fallen trees and squeezes through narrow canyons. Like everything else in Glacier it's stunning.

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I stop for awhile at the lodge-restaurant-gift shop complex plopped onto the shore of Lake McDonald but decide to keep going because I really want pizza. It's one of the few ways Glacier National Park can't measure up. Under bright sunshine I fly west, just above the lake's edge, ready to leave the park and continue on and—wait, did that sign just say that this road is closed to bicycles between 11:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.? I read something about that a few days ago and I swear the website said it applied to eastbound riders only.

I don't stop. I don't turn around. I don't even think about it. At the rate I'm going I can pass through the eight-mile restricted area in half an hour. Besides, from crossing closed bridges in Georgia, to riding through construction zones on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and sleeping behind churches or in city parks or softball field dugouts without permission, minor civil disobedience has been a central part of this trip. America doesn't do much to help bike tourists, so sometimes it's easiest to help myself and ask for forgiveness later if I need to.

Four miles farther on I stop at a pullout to grab a drink and check my progress. When I next turn around I see that I'm not alone. It's the fuzz—the Park police—in a white and green Ford Crown Victoria with all of the lights flashing.


I don't look back, but instead use the mirror attached to my helmet to watch the officer call in on his radio and punch something into a computer. And then I crack a little smile.

"Hello. Do you know you're riding in a restricted area?" asks the officer, who looks like a ranger with a gun and reflective shades.

Time to play dumb.

What? Restricted? Are you serious? I had no idea! I thought it was eastbound only! That's what the website told me!

And so on. To me it sounds convincing.

"What did that last sign after Sprague Creek say?"

Sign? What sign? There was a sign?

"You're looking at a $125 citation," he tells me with complete seriousness and a stern look on his face.

It prompts a mix of excuses and apologies. I claim inattention and ignorance, even though I might be one of the most well-prepared bike tourists in the country. At first I think it's working, but then he asks me for my driver's license, takes it back to the cruiser, and spends five minutes calling in my information and waiting for a response from whatever central location processes data about potential criminals.

I look out toward the lake and calculate how many pizzas $125 could have bought.

When the officer steps out of the car he walks over to me very slowly. And then he hands me only my license.

"I'm giving you a warning," he says sternly. "But if you're caught out here again it's a citation. This road is very dangerous. I've seen the result of a car hitting a bike rider and you don't want any part of that."

I don't mention riding in Miami or St. Louis, the shoulderless and high-speed rural highways of Colorado, the 5,500 miles of riding with rented RVs and semis and distracted drivers that brought me to this spot, or the fact that the trip up to Logan Pass on the other side of the park had twice as many cars and yet I made it just fine. There's a limit to what being a smart-ass and proving a point is worth, and that limit is $125.

"So what do I do?" I ask. "Just stay here until 4:00?"

"Yes, that's exactly what you do. You stay right here. If you're out on the road it's a ticket."

Pizza will have to wait. I kill the next hour and a half along a narrow stretch of lakefront no more than a few hundred feet long. I write, I wade out into the frigid but pure waters of Lake McDonald, and I laugh out loud when I realize that I'm serving a 90-minute sentence in the world's most scenic prison. Mostly it's a good break—except for the flies. The flies are my punishment. Like a shark or Michael J. Fox, I never stop moving, because as soon as I do the two dozen flies crawling on my head, neck, hands, legs, and feet start to bite.

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I say one last "Fuck off!" to the flies and push the pedals again at exactly 4:00. Because it's both Saturday and the start of a three-day weekend in Canada, the roads are twice as full as before. Instead of making it safer to ride in the park, the rules put me in more danger. They also serve to send all of the bikers back to the road at the same time, forcing cars to avoid one rider after another within the same one or two mile stretch. It's a mess.

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I escape the park and the tourist traps of West Glacier and grind into the wind on Highway 2, which is a wide and loud turd of a road. But it brings me to pizza, and I'd be a real asshole if I complained about that. National Forest land is close, but not close enough, so I settle for an overpriced place not far from the highway that caters mostly to giant RVs. It's in a town of a decent size that's actually called Hungry Horse. A high-pressure shower blasts away the sweat and lawlessness from my body and I spend the rest of the night relaxing to the smooth, rich tones of diesel generators and passing traffic.

Today's ride: 62 miles (100 km)
Total: 5,587 miles (8,991 km)

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