Why do mishaps so often make the most memorable adventures?
It was an abominable trip. It didn’t start well, it didn’t end well, and the middle was a cruel lesson on how life can instantly go from Great to Wrong. Our goals readjusted hourly from ‘let’s have a great trip’ and ‘where are we going now’ to ‘I think we just might be spending the night here’.
Our plan was grand: my cousin and riding buddy Dave “White Girl” Wensveen and I would tour Yellowstone, Beartooth Pass and Glacier National Park in one giant sweep, gathering them all like kids plucking pastel eggs from the green grass on Easter morning. We crammed White Girl’s Dodge diesel pickup camper full of provisions, stowed our twin VFR800s in the trailer and pointed the Dodge’s hood east. Things went wrong as soon as we left the driveway.
My phone pinged, showing a picture of my wife holding a chocolate lab puppy. The day before I had taken her to see the litter of pups because it was her birthday and, well, she likes small brown snuggly things.
Now she was holding one. My house was in the background. She was in our front yard. A time stamp displayed 9:35 am. I had left the house at 9:00 am.
“Looks like you have a new dog,” White Girl laughed.
No, I thought. No way. The puppy was,… just visiting, just coming by to say hi, a rental of sorts. She must have arranged a playdate with our current chocolate lab. Then the puppy would go home. Yes, that was it. The puppy was definitely not staying. We didn’t need a second chocolate lab. White Girl just laughed.
“It’s your fault dude,” he said between belly laughs. “You took her to see a litter of chocolate lab puppies on her birthday. Did you really expect her to come home empty handed?”
Well, actually, yes I did.
Meet Daisy, the newest member of the family, I guess.
States of grief followed- Washington, Idaho and Montana- all rolling past the Dodge’s expansive windshield like a colorful documentary about the rugged west as I remained in my state of denial. Had she really brought home a puppy only 35 minutes after I left home? Somewhere east of Bozeman I finally reached acceptance.
Cody, Wyoming was our goal that day but my heavy thoughts burdened the Dodge’s thirsty diesel forcing us to sleep roadside. We decided to try for Cody in the morning.
We never made it to Cody.
Camping at a roadside rest area in eastern Montana was no way to sleep. Trucks pulled in and out constantly, some stayed for a few minutes while others spent the night next to us, generators purring like giant snoring cats as trucks and drivers slept. Lengthy road trains of linked trailers plowed forward into the bottomless black of the Montana night belching their Jake brakes as they descended the hill past us, ripping us out of our fitful sleep.
Sunrise pushed the darkness of night into retreat as Dave rolled out of bed and inserted the key into,… a dead truck. The Dodge’s starter had died. Dave panicked. We were in the middle of nowhere Montana, and how in the hell were we going to get out of here? Like the rising sun, I became a bright beam of optimism.
How in the hell were we going to get out of here?
We are in open country, I said, with no concrete plans, two motorcycles fully fueled and a pickup camper full of enough Fritos, chili, beer and gin to cater a roadside wedding. This, I informed White Girl, was not emergency, it was a gift, an invitation to relax, enjoy a leisurely breakfast, soak in the sunrise and enjoy life.
White Girl was not convinced; he was busy punching numbers into his cell phone, talking excitedly to people on the other end, his hands waving frantically in the air to emphasize his point. He and I have very different ways of handling a crisis.
A rescue mechanic arrived, almost welding himself to the engine block as he bridged the non-functional ground on the starter. The truck fired and we backtracked westward, tails between our legs, to get the most expensive starter in the galaxy replaced.
Now what? Beartooth Pass and Yellowstone were out of reach so we debated options as White Girl drove west because, well, that’s the direction we turned when we left the repair shop’s driveway.
White Girl’s spirits rose when I said the magic words: Lolo Pass. He had never been. I found the only campground near Lolo, Montana not shut down by the pandemic and Dave’s heavy right foot got us there by late afternoon. Needing a morale boost after two full days of driving we instantly unloaded the VFRs, skipped dinner and took off. After three states of new puppy denial, two days of driving and one dead truck we were finally on the bikes.
The sign is a liar. It’s actually over 120 miles. Dave pointing out the error.
Lolo Pass follows the Lochsa River as it meanders lazily through the Bitterroot Range, snuggling up to the burbling river and her evergreen lined hills, dictating the course of the road and the diameter of her curves. Most are medium radius, third gear turns but once or twice every mile there is a mind bending, endless, sixth gear sweeper stretching off into forever, reaching farther past the horizon than you can look. This is one of the longest stretches of perfect motorcycle riding in the United States and we released two days worth of pent up frustration on it through our right wrists, our stress shot out through loud exhausts, left behind where it belonged.
Back at camp we celebrated with a king’s feast of chili, Fritos and beer, agreeing that the crappy start to the trip could not continue. There was no way. How much bad luck could one trip contain?
A proper celebration.
At sunrise the next morning we rode it all over again because Lolo Pass, enchanting at dusk, is ethereal in the brisk morning cold, a chilly, quiet awakening to the idea that, once ridden over and back, you will have ridden 240 miles of curved glory. Naturally we lost track of time, arriving back at camp to an irate campground owner who had expected us to checkout hours ago. Oops.
With pandemic era campground spots hard to find another camper was parked by our campsite when we returned, tapping their fingers impatiently on the steering wheel, waiting for us to leave. The campground owner tossed very creative adjectives our direction, us “hooligan bikers” that had been reported “going in and out of camp at all hours” with our “loud exhausts”. Some campers had complained. A financial penalty was agreed upon.
This trip, this stupid trip kept getting worse.
We struck camp and White Girl waited by the idling (thank God it started) Dodge as I talked to the better half of the camp owner, prepared to pay our penance. But the owner never mentioned the fine. Odd.
I sprinted to the Dodge before she could remember. Like Bo Luke running from Boss Hog I ran to the Dodge (resisting the temptation to do a tucked leg slide on the hood) and told Dave to drive. Just go White Girl, go. Now. So he did, pointing the Dodge’s hood east because, well, we hadn’t driven that direction in a while.
Miles of discussion and many desperate phone calls landed us at friend Ron Pasma’s cabin on the shore of Flathead Lake, Montana, putting Glacier National Park within the next day’s reach. Whereas I had been to Glacier National Park many times, Dave had never been. Seemed like a good idea. What could possibly go wrong?
Worth it. Kind of…
No matter how inflated your ego, Glacier National Park puts you in your proper, insignificant place. You are nothing, a speck in comparison to the mammoth forces required to carve miles long gouges out of solid rock, like God’s fingers long ago plowed furrows into the hills, then left them alone to turn green. Logan Pass at Glacier’s summit has only three types of weather: ready to snow, snowing or just got done snowing. This meant my heated grips and heated jacket were always on high, draining my weary, six year old battery.
At Logan Pass, after a photo op with a mountain goat, I hit the starter button.
I looked at Dave and made a slash cut across my throat. His head drooped. This trip was cursed. I said expletives in my helmet that made the mountain goat blush.
Glacier National Park is stunning, but no place to break down.
Going To The Sun Road, the 50 miles of tarmac through Glacier National Park, is so narrow that side view mirrors on passing cars nearly high five each other. Few are the places to bump-start a dead sport bike and rare are the pullouts for the unsuccessful.
Bike in neutral I pointed the VFR downhill, thankful for the steep grade. Speed gaining I checked my rearview to make sure I would not be rammed from behind by a tourist gawking at the mountain goats. Toeing up to second I dropped the clutch and slammed my butt on the seat. Nothing. I clutched again, added more speed and tried one more time.
The VFR fired to life. Then it died again. Then fired. Then died. Then fired. Then died. Six times I bump started the VFR to life as I alternated between a running motorcycle and the worlds heaviest strider bike. Finally, at Lake McDonald, I cried uncle and parked the bike for good.
I cried uncle and parked the bike for good.
Battery gutted from the bowels of the VFR I handed it to Dave who rode into Columbia Falls in search of a replacement. Once again, our reactions to the emergency were as different as the hot and cold side of a McDLT.
Dave was panicked. What if he couldn’t find a battery? What if he had to ride all the way into Kalispell? What if he didn’t return by dark? What if a new battery didn’t fix the VFR and the problem was somewhere else? I however, was not worried.
I had food, water, layers of warm clothes and had climbed down to a gravel beach at Lake McDonald’s edge. Even among herds of summer tourists I had a pristine slice of Glacier National Park beach all to myself. I could sleep here if I had to. I even packed toilet paper. If Dave didn’t return by morning, I could hitchhike out and come back for the bike later. After all, the bike was not going anywhere.
One thing was for certain, this trip was doomed. It was unraveling faster than a cheap Christmas sweater.
Without a battery, this is just a big Strider bike.
Two hours into my wait, dozing beachside at Lake McDonald, I had reached Zen-like acceptance of the whole affair. I was done fighting fate. I was giving in. Tiny waves from the lake burbled their quiet song on red and purple rocks at my bootless feet. Far into the distance across the lake sharp peaks punched skyward in a fierce manner that only happens at Glacier. I had nowhere to go, no way to get there, and didn’t want to leave.
The epiphany hit me like a bug to the faceshield: I was trying to assume control for things not under my influence, things like fragile machines, unpredictable weather, impulsive girls and snuggly brown puppies. Experience was teaching me (and in future trips would continue to teach me) that the worst times are the best times, that the horrible trips are the ones we talk about the most, that misery is just a different type of fun and the painful squeeze of strife is worth the sweet juice it produces.
Dave arrived but I refused to move. I was busy doing nothing. He climbed down to my beach and I implored him to join my Zen. He refused. He had just spent two hours riding and hunting down my battery so sure, I suppose I could get up and put my boots on if I really have to.
There are worse places in the world to be stranded.
Battery in place the VFR sprung to life and we rode back to the cabin on Flathead Lake’s shore for another proper celebration involving more chili, Fritos, adult beverages, backflips off the dock, a beach fire, questionable Reggae music and a hotly contested game of pinochle lasting into wee hours of the morning.
Next morning’s chilly air brought relief to my pounding temple as we headed to our goal of Lake Koocanusa and the enticing roads lining her east and west shore. Scouring the maps we had found a direct route to it but if you’ve been reading this story at all then you know what happened next.
We never made the turn. Blindly we kept riding and riding, looking for a turn we found on the maps but missed on the road until we arrived in Libby by accident.
How in the hell can you miss a 90 mile long lake?
Libby is idyllic western Montana: small streets, friendly people, clear rivers and a nearby ski resort in a perfect old west town preserved in time, then ruined by asbestos from the nearby vermiculite mines. Estimates claim that over the years about 10% of the population died from the contamination leaving scars to Libby’s residents and its reputation, scars that may never heal.
And there we were, living out one more answer to the question of what else could possibly go wrong. We just sat there on the bikes, staring at each other, our hungover minds sharing the same thought: how in the hell can you miss a 90 mile long lake?
Being in Libby accidentally was a metaphor for the whole trip: no matter what we planned, fate had other plans.
Determined, we backtracked to find Lake Koocanusa where for once, we got to ride. Koocanusa’s east shoreline dictated every curve of the tarmac, graceful uphill rounds, green forest on one side, blue lake on the other, exhaust echoing off the pines and hardly a car in sight. This was good. This was what we came to do.
Yes, we found the dam lake. Dave at the overlook.
But I couldn’t relax. In the back of my mind there was this lingering thought, this tiny nagging doubt, even mid-corner fully leaned over and on the gas there was this small, still voice reminding me that this trip was doomed, that fate, our cruel mistress, would not let our good time go unspanked.
So I began listening to the VFR, paying attention to every gear whine, every shift, every clunk, ping and tiny tinkle coming from the bike, wondering when and where the catastrophe would come from. Like a boxer, fate had known precisely when and where to strike. I knew the next punch was coming but I had no idea where from.
After looping up one side of the lake then back down the other we agreed to find the turn we missed because neither of us wanted to go to Libby if we didn’t have to. South we turned and found the road we missed. It was narrow, questionable asphalt, but not too bad. Then I saw a giant white circle spray painted in the middle of the road ahead. What the…?
It was a crater. A hot tub sized bomb hole directly in my path of travel. In my shock, target fixation set in. Staring at it only drew me closer. Like a moth to a porch light, I was being pulled in.
Snapping out of my trance I swerved around it. Dave behind me followed suit. I glanced down at it as I rode by. It was wide and deep enough swallow bike and rider whole. Putting a wheel in that crater would end the ride, the bike and maybe a life, especially at our speed. I slowed down.
Thirty miles of motorcycle dodgeball around bike-eating bomb craters.
It was followed by another one, and another, and another, each death hole had a white circle spray painted around the perimeter. What was going on with this road? Had Montana forgotten how to do road repairs? Did they lose the recipe for asphalt? Did the locals get tired of plucking travelers from craters and spray paint them out of frustration?
On it went, thirty miles of motorcycle dodgeball around bike-eating bomb craters. Then the road changed to dirt. Oh God no.
One hundred dirt yards later, dirt road met the main highway. Seriously? Just like that? Evidently the tiny dirt section was fate’s cruel joke to see how we reacted. But by then Dave and I had left our sense of humor far behind, somewhere east of Bozeman.
The next day we loaded the bikes in the Dodge’s trailer and headed home, giving thanks that at last, finally, we were headed home leaving the mess behind us.
Pulling into Dave’s place that afternoon we noticed the plastic top to the camper’s roof vent had been ripped off by the wind. Then, as Dave backed into his driveway, he jackknifed the trailer punching a huge dent in the front. Dave was not happy, so I gave him a Road Dirt sticker to cover the dent. Problem solved. But I still had to ride home.
It was late August which, in southern Washington, means temperatures somewhere between 105 F and broil. I mounted the VFR for my two hour ride home. At least it started.
All I wanted to do was get home.
I have ridden in hot weather before, mid-day Redding, California and the Nevada desert in July. Neither of them compares to what I did that day. The VFR’s temperature gauge climbed to the hottest temperature I have ever seen, 117 degrees. Roadside orchards multiplied the misery by driving up the humidity creating the perfect sauna.
Breathing was cumbersome. I got light headed. Briefly I considered stopping but decided that would only prolong the suffering. All I wanted to do was get home. Playing mental games I broke the trip up into tiny goals: just make it to the next exit, the next mile, the next turn, the next breath, the next suffocating inhalation of heat and humidity.
Two hours later I pulled into my driveway so dizzy and disoriented that I almost forgot to put the kickstand down, nearly dropping the bike. But I was home. Safe. At last, the trip was over.
I staggered inside the front door to greet my new chocolate lab puppy. She instantly peed on the carpet.