Glacier National Park bike tour, August 2001

Day 0: Kalispell, Montana

Flying to Kalispell, Montana, is not an experience with a lot of analogues in the typical bi-coastal life. Of course there’s no direct service from the Bay Area, so you transfer at Seattle to a crop duster that takes you out to Kalispell. A difficulty I hadn’t anticipated was that the plane from Seattle to Kalispell would be too small to hold the box my bike was in. I was in the last row of this tiny, cramped plane when they called me to the front to inform me that my bike wouldn’t be accompanying me to my final destination. They said it could fly on the next plane. (There are only about 4 planes a day into the Kalispell airport, which by itself gives some idea of the culture shock experienced by someone who’s accustomed to flying from San Francisco to New York or Los Angeles).

Having no other option, I bikelessly boarded the turbo-prop, and buzzed fairly uneventfully into Montana. Shortly before landing we got a good view of a huge column of smoke rising from the wildfires which would affect much of our trip. The smoke did not affect the flight, so we landed on time and I met the two Timberline guides, Julie and Nola, and explained to them my bicyclic predicament. I also expressed concern that I’d forgotten to pack my bike shoes. There’s always one packing mishap, and until it’s found, I’m always paranoid that I’ve forgotten something important. I had made a last-minute decision to wear my hiking boots on the plane, and I couldn’t remember putting my bike shoes in my luggage.

Kalispell airport (actual size)

When my bags arrived, sans soulier, I found my anxiety was well-founded. At least I had discovered my packing mishap early enough to do something about it. We waited around the airport for Paul’s plane to come in, hopped in the Timberline van and stopped by a bike store on the way to the Best Western Outlaw motel/sports bar/restaurant/casino/chapel/conference center. I quickly picked up a pair of Specialized Rockhopper shoes and a set of SPD cleats and we were on our way. Heading into town we saw a bunch of “only in Kalispell” advertisements for bear spray, elk scent, and huckleberry pie. (I had not previously been aware of the prevalence of huckleberry culture in Montana, but by the end of the week I’d be well indoctrinated).

After checking in at the Outlaw, they shuffled us into a back room for dinner and orientation. It turned out to be a fairly small crew, consisting of:

  • Nola, a diminutive but experienced guide, cyclist and climber from Canada.
  • Julie, from Colorado, who wound up accused of being Jeannie Longo traveling incognito.
  • Paul, also from Colorado, a tri-athlete, lawyer, and cancer survivor.
  • Nancy, an astoundingly fit grandmother from Boston.
  • Mark and Suzanne, a couple from Austin on their first bike tour.

We ordered dinner, and as the salad course arrived we had our official comic relief for the evening, as our waitress somehow wound up keeling over backwards and hitting the ground with an enormous tray of food. We hadn’t been riding yet, or hunger might have driven us to scoop tomatoes covered with huckleberry vinaigrette off the floor. As it was, the waitress was unhurt, and the rest of the dinner passed without incident.

After dinner, Julie drove me back to the airport to pick up my bike, which was supposed to arrive around 9:00 PM on the last flight of the day. It is a spooky feeling to walk into an airport which has all the lights on, all the doors open, but not a single person in evidence behind any of the counters. Eventually we made enough noise that a couple of folks from UPS popped out of their hole to open the baggage office for us. The bike was there and intact, so after a bit of mechanical tweaking, I was eager for the trip ahead.

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