My front bicycle wheel was shaped like a Pringles chip. It was unfixable and completely useless. A local told us that the nearest bicycle shop was no closer than 125 miles away. Dehaan, my co-adventurer, sighed.
We were stranded.
P.S. This post was originally published on August 25th, 2012.
24 hours earlier
We got off the Greyhound bus in Kalispell Montana. It had been a long ride. About 42 hours in all. It was now 4pm, and we arrived late. Our map directed us East to Glacier National Park. The sun was going to fall soon. Our hope was to make it into the park and over Logan’s Pass before setting up camp. Over the following 20 days, we planned to cover 2,000 miles on our way to San Francisco.
Dehaan (left) and me (right) heading towards the gap in the mountains, where Glacier National Park begins.
That first evening was damn cold. Even though it was July, we forgot that we were sleeping in the middle of a canyon known for its glaciers. The blanket I had was from the back of my dorm room couch in Chicago. Our bodies shivered through the night as we slowly resorted to laying back-to-back for warmth.
We were finally wondering if maybe this trip was a stupid idea. Either way, it was already too late. There was no other way to go but forward.
Hitchhiking over the top of Logan’s Pass
It was obvious that we wouldn’t feasibly ride our bicycles the entire trip. We had to arrive in San Francisco by a certain date and biking across Nevada unprepared could be deadly. Our plan was to start hitchhiking a few days into the trip if we were moving too slow.
We started the second day hoping to cover about 60-70 miles. After about two hours of uphill riding on Going-to-the-Sun Road, we relented and began putting our thumbs up to all cars that drove past. Soon after, a man from Carson City Nevada, on vacation with his wife and three kids, stopped his pickup truck and offered us a lift. We tossed our bikes in the back and jumped in. Twenty-minutes later we were at the top of Logan’s Pass eating lunch on to the Continental Divide sign.
Left: me in the back of our first successful hitchhike, on Going-to-the-Sun Road. Right: our lunch spot on the Continental Divide.
Next, we rode down the other side of Logan’s Pass. It was an exhilarating downhill ride. I can’t remember the last time I smiled so much, yelling like a kid on a roller coaster for the first time. The road took us to the other side of the park, past St. Mary Lake, and onto the only road out: a four-lane, all-uphill highway.
Holding On With Everything We’ve Got
A bicyclist friend told us about something he called “overdrive” before we set out on our trip. What happens is that your body digs in a kinetic groove where your internal gears crank away and you feel like you could ride forever. He said this phenomenon would happen on the third or fourth day of continuous long-distance riding.
Kicking into overdrive was an incredible feeling. I got there on the fourth day of our trip. Nothing could stop me as I rode headstrong, deep into the sunset.
For the first time in my life, I felt superhuman.
However, this was only our second day. We had barely been riding for five hours overall, were on a Greyhound bus for two days before that, and definitely didn’t have our road legs yet. We were dragging ass on this uphill climb on the highway out of the park. Getting over this hill would take us most of the day, which was already half-gone. We needed to hitch another ride.
Our thumbs were thrown up in the air as we heard cars come up behind us. Cars, trucks, and semis flew past at fifty miles an hour. The disappointment in our faces was palpable each time we watched an empty truck bed take off past us.
Then a blue Ford pickup truck did a U-turn and sped back towards us. A nice man and woman from Montana asked where we were headed. Towards Yellowstone, we said. They said this hill goes onward and upward, around the curve that we can see ahead, and even further uphill. We’d never make it.
Their truck bed was covered with a blue tarp, hiding a mound of junk. They had their young son and baby boy in the back seat, so we couldn’t sit there. Anything we can do to help, they said. Do you have any ideas?
Someone suggested that we sit on our bikes and grab the side of the truck bed. They would pull us uphill as we held on with everything we’ve got. Clearly not a great idea, but what other option did we have? Let’s try it.
Once we were tightly squeezing, the truck started moving. I’m on the left side, and Dehaan was on the right side. My arm was locked at a 90° angle and my hand was squeezing with its entire might. It slowly became too difficult to hold on, so I let my elbow go loose. My bike drifted away from the car. My arm was still holding onto the truck, so the top of my body started to lean inwards as my bike moved outwards.
BAM! I smacked the pavement and rolled.
St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park.
An 18-wheeler semi-truck was roaring up the hill right behind us in the left lane. My bike and I were laying directly between the two lanes. Luckily the truck had about 100 feet and no oncoming traffic to swing into the far-left lanes.
One second later and I was roadkill.
The pickup pulling us stopped when it heard the loud crash. Dehaan yelled to see if I was okay. There was no way this was going to work. We barely traveled 150 feet. We had to find another way to the top.
So we threw our bikes on top of the blue tarp and hopped onto the rear bumper. We ducked our heads down and tucked our arms in tight so we could hold on. The truck sped up to around thirty miles an hour. Our hair tossed in the wind and we laughed.
How the hell did we end up here?
They let us off at the top of the hill as we said thank you and goodbye. We moved our bikes to the side of the road, but my bike wouldn’t roll. Then I realized what was wrong. My front wheel was completely warped from the fall. It looked like a Pringles chip. There was no way in hell I could ride it.
Glacier National Park, from a bend on Going-to-the-Sun Road.
As Dehaan attempted the impossible task of beating my wheel into a rideable form, I stood by the road and thumbed for another ride. Numerous cars stopped to asked if we were okay. It was a friendly gesture, but it only frustrated us further. None had the room to hold two bicycles. We were completely stuck, and had no idea where to go next.
We needed to get to a bike shop, but we didn’t know how to find one. Finally, a construction worker who had been paving a parking lot in Glacier National stopped and gave us a ride. He suggested the town of Browning, on an Indian reservation, as the best place to drop us. Cars earlier had mentioned that it was the yearly pow-wow in Browning, and that we should stop in for the party. Sounds fun, we thought.
“Get Out Of Here Before Sundown”
Our new construction worker friend dropped us at the gas station on the main drag in Browning. We popped inside to get some snacks and to ask if there was maybe a bicycle shop in town. Nothing. We had no luck.
The gas station on the Indian reservation in Browning Montana is fairly unexciting. Dehaan and I us sat there with our bicycles, a few days’ food, a small tent, and some supplies. Since it was the yearly pow-wow on the reservation, a lot of people from neighboring towns were passing through.
People continued to stop by and ask if everything was okay. The locals said we should camp overnight at the pow-wow. It will be fun, they said. The visitors from neighboring towns were different. They leaned in, quietly saying:
“You better get out of here before sundown.”
For the next couple of hours we spent our time sitting outside the gas station, taking turns trying to true my wheel. Neither of us were idiots. We knew that this was a fool’s errand, but what else were we supposed to do?
Hitching a Ride to Great Falls
Throughout the day, we asked almost everybody that stopped about the nearest bike shop. The only place anybody mentioned was in Great Falls, about two hours away by car. There was no way we’d make it there without a ride.
After hours of talking to people, we didn’t have a ride or any idea what we were going to do. At the very worst, we would just get as far out of town as we could and pitch camp on the side of the road somewhere.
A father and his teenage son stopped for gas. They were from Great Falls and drove in to hang out at the pow-wow for a few hours. They said they’d stop by the gas station on their way out of town at sundown. If we were still there, they would give us a ride to Great Falls. We finally had an option.
Harley Motorcycles, Peanut Butter, and Crown Royal
A deep, belly-rumbling roar consumed us as three large, tattooed, bearded bikers on Harley motorcycles rode up. We exchanged courtesy head-nods as they walked inside. They seemed friendly.
They came back to their bikes a few minutes later. We noticed something was wrong. They seemed flummoxed about the back wheel of one of their bikes.
It turned out that one of them got their rear wheel replaced the day before. Somebody at the shop forgot to put the seal on the wheel that protected the inner tube. A spoke dug through the wheel and deflated the tire.
They were now stranded too.
Within a few minutes, the three large, bearded, heavily-tattooed bikers asked us to throw a frisbee with them. We made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for everybody. They shared their Crown Royal with us. The whiskey didn’t make the heat any better, but definitely made the day a bit sweeter. Again… how the hell did we get here?
While hanging out with the bikers we learned they were from Great Falls. They had called a buddy of theirs to drive his pickup over so they could put the busted motorcycle in the truck bed. If we still needed a ride, they offered for us to put our bikes in the pickup with the motorcycle. There’d be no room in the pickup, so we’d each have to ride on the back of the other two motorcycles.
About two hours later, their friend drove in with his truck, and we began to help them load the motorcycle onto the back. Right as we got it in the truck, the father and his son stopped by and asked if we still needed a ride. Our sense of adventure was trumped by the thought of riding on the back of motorcycles without helmets for two hours. We took them up on the offer of a ride inside a truck.
Camping in a State Park
We were dropped in the middle of Giant Spring State Park at about midnight. Giant Springs was suggested as a potentially legitimate spot to camp where we wouldn’t have any trouble. Plus, it would be an easy trip to the bike shop in the morning. Great Falls was over 100 miles out of the way from our original plan, so we had to roll with it.
We walked out into the middle of a field, using our headlamps to find anything legitimate to hide our tent behind. We found a seemingly large tree that would work. Within a few minutes, our tent was setup, our sleeping pads unrolled, and we were knocked out.
The next morning we woke up and poked our heads out of the tent. What originally was thought to be a secluded spot to camp turned out to be about thirty feet off a running path. As my eyes adjusted to the sun outside, I smiled at the early morning runners passing by. They probably assumed we were homeless.
Our equipment was purposefully slim, so we packed up quickly. The park was right next to a river which was perfectly situated for the baths that we both definitely needed. We made a quick, refreshing stop for a dip and set out to the main road to find a ride.
Once at the main road, we didn’t have to wait very long until someone stopped. Luckily, we only needed a lift about five miles, and it wasn’t far out of this guy’s way. Within a few minutes, we were outside Scheel’s sporting goods store, which seemingly had the only bicycle shop within two-hundred miles.
[Well, that’s what we thought in those pre-smartphone days. I did a Google search recently and found numerous other bike stores.]
One hour later my bike was totally fixed. I had a shiny new wheel on the front, and a solid tune-up for the rest. We were ready to continue onward. The first two days were cut short by a late bus and a stupid accident. Finally, the trip was ready to begin.
We set off again…
- Never freak out. It solves nothing. Spend your energy on fixing the situation.
- Be okay with uncertainty. You’ll continue to get stronger because of it.
- Take most risks. The failures likely won’t affect you & the rest will pay off big.