Day 85: Cruising 80 miles down I-90 to Missoula with insights and smiles

After breakfast at the Western Big Sky Inn and another morning scratching (and shaking) my head at US news I exited my room to see a welcome sight: a hippie van covered in Grateful Dead and Phish stickers with Kentucky plates. I waited a bit to see who was driving it, then met Trey, a guy living in Clifton in Cincinnati that was trying to make it to Spokane. I think he was my ninth or tenth Cincinnati connection since the tour began. 

We started talking, and he was a fun guy. And he had an awfully big van. My mind started wandering… Will my thirst for adventure be sated by asking for a ride to Missoula? He was going that way anyway and we could talk about the Dead for an hour and a half. But no. My tired lull the past couple days wasn’t enough to get a ride, adventurous though it would have been. I’ve gone the pure route this far and I won’t give it up that quickly. But I was close. Boy, was I close. I reluctantly shook the man’s hand and rode off to the frontage road for I-90 that would take me to Beavertail Hill State Park 56 miles up the road for the night, making for a short but hilly ride into the bicycle touring Mecca that is Missoula.

But right before I got on the road I started thinking. How far away was Missoula if I stuck to the interstate? I checked – roughly 83 miles. I remembered what a traveling construction worker told me in Butte – the interstate is all downhill to Missoula, whereas side roads would require a fair bit of climbing. 

I was feeling great after rest, food, and a short day yesterday. I was well within my rights to ride on the interstate and there was quite a bit of novelty to it as well. I decided to go for it. I lost a day by stopping short yesterday and I wanted it back. Missoula is the last big benchmark of the tour before the coast, the last city I really wanted to experience (no offense Walla Walla). And if I got tired? Well there was always the state park. So on the entrance ramp I went, and I felt pumped:

About seven miles in I felt nothing. No fatigue, no pain. State park nothing. I was going for it. 

It made me realize I had been playing it safe for a bit. Part of that had to do with good places to stop being closely spaced; I could have easily ridden on from Big Sky past Bozeman, but then I wouldn’t have seen Bozeman or fixed my bike and such. But Missoula kept feeling elusive, and by going for it, I made it mine. It was a bit of self empowerment right when I needed it. 

And then I saw the sign for the closed rest area:

Didn’t even faze me. No services for 28 miles? No problem. I was good. It was another indicator of how far I’ve come. I used to be tethered to service stops, always imagining them as becons. But I didn’t need this one. It felt fantastic. 

As did the riding on the interstate. It was some of the easiest riding I’ve done so far. The shoulder was enormous. Auto traffic didn’t have to swerve for me and I never once felt unsafe. The only thing I really had to worry about was shredded tires and the associated tire wire. Something told me I’d finally get my first flat on the tour. But I never did.

While riding on the interstate was a peice of cake, there were a couple small downsides. The first is that it’s a little boring compared to surface roads. You know how your mind can just wander when on an open highway for a long time? Well I found out today that pretty much the same thing happens when you ride on one. I just didn’t have to think as much about my riding. That downside had hidden benefits, as I’ll get to. 

The other downside is that it’s not as visually striking as riding surface roads. Interstates roll through the landscape like a juggernaut and leave behind a transportation corridor that isn’t as pretty as you get with the back roads. But I was still in Montana, and Montana is unbelievably beautiful…at least Western Montana is. And I still got things like this:

Another benefit of highway riding is that I got mile markers. 25 miles into the day I saw this:

And just counted down the miles into Missoula. I generally don’t like quantifying my touring (hence no daily milages, top speeds, etc. Who needs it), but I appreciated the mile markers today so I could gage how I was feeling compared to how I normally feel. 25 miles in I felt like I had just done only 5. It was a strong day on the bike. 

The Butte construction worker was right – it was pretty much a straightforward downhill all day, which was fine by me:

Wind still had to be reckoned with, but only a little. Gravity and my legs more than made up for whatever drag I experienced. And the mountains…. YES.

It was another day where the cliff side came right up to the road, and that was just fine by me. 

Ok, there was a river there too. But still. 

What I said earlier about interstates being uglier?

It’s not always the case. 

And then in no time I made it to the rest area signage told me about 28 miles previous. I felt like I just passed that sign, the riding was so easy. I breaked for lunch and people watched, where I saw this guy, who is the bull dog:

See? His shirt says so.

And then I saw something that got me very unexpectedly excited:

Regional hotel coupons advertising the Oregon Coast. My first cue… I’m close. I’m so, so close. 

I stopped in Drummond for a cold drink and thought about how glad I was I wasn’t able to make it there yesterday. The serendipity of today’s adventure was so much more satisfying…and Drummond didn’t seem like the greatest place to stop for a night. But then I got back on the interstate, crossing cattle grates:

These have been all over the place since Wyoming. I have no idea how they stop cattle from entering a roadway, I just hope it doesn’t hurt them. 

The gorgeous descent continued, and I was in seventh heaven:

But it got me to thinking. Why aren’t bicycles allowed on the interstate? I never once felt unsafe or like I was a burden to drivers. The convenience was just as welcoming as it would have been if I were in a car. It was easy riding, and while not necessarily my first choice for distance cycling, interstates would have been so helpful for certain portions of the tour to this point. I started imagining a pro-interstate bicycle advocacy job in the future, but on that front, I have to think more tangibly. 

But it was right around passing the state park I was going to stop at when I thought about the whole job/life thing, and I had to put that aside and think about my move for the rest of the day. 

I didn’t think much. At all. I was going to Missoula. I felt fantastic. 

So my mind went back to the job thing. I started this ride to look for a new life, whatever that would entail. For thousands of miles I kept self flagellating for not really coming any closer to an answer. But something about the interstate letting my mind wander, in conjunction with a few random, isolated experiences since coming through Colorado, and a lightbulb went off in my head. I think I may have a plan for life after this is done in a few weeks. It’s not a huge thing. It’s not revelatory. But it can offer some element of stability that allows me to make money, have a roof over my head, have food in my belly, and, if I can figure it out, allow me to keep adventuring on two wheels. But that’s all I’ll say about it now. I have to do a lot more research and thinking about it. 

But a lightbulb going off is a lightbulb going off, and it supercharged my legs. Which was great, because it allowed me to fly by this:

Before long I was on the outskirts of Missoula and stopped for a cold drink again (another hot, dry day in the mountains). But they had a F’real machine!

These things are fantastic. You grab a cup of rock-hard, frozen goop, stick it in this machine, choose how thick you want it, then whips it all up into a milkshake. Such a goofy novelty. They were peppered all over gas stations in the plains but I hadn’t seen one since Wretched Nebraska I think. Delightful. 

I eventually made it into Missoula proper, and got off the exit to the hostel in town…a statement that still makes me giggle. Getting off an exit while riding a bike. 

And then I saw some pretty over-dramatic signage:

Before making it to the hostel:

I came in and looked for the familiar work-away hostel desk jockey, and there was no one. I was confused. I asked another hosteller what the deal was and he said it’s all taken care of online. Huh. I went to the bunk room and saw a surprise:

    

Aw shucks guys. I’ve never felt more welcome in a lodging situation. But who is doing this with no one working here?

Can’t think too much about it. Tomorrow is a big, big day. Another in the handful I’ve looked forward to and fantasized about for years…

-J

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