Summer time—and the living is easy. At least that’s what Gershwin told us in Porgy and Bess. But some of us yearn for a different kind of living, replete with activity, natural beauty, and fun—and that also tests the limits of our physical ability. The latter is what I opted for in choosing a vacation—a term I use advisedly—in which I rode my bike for 10 days from Seattle to Glacier National Park in Montana, nearly 700 miles all in.
The writer on the road
Elli Sias and Dennis Hughes, proprietors of Cycle of Life Adventures (cycleoflifeadventures.com) deserve kudos for shepherding our group of six through the mountain passes to the promised land of Montana’s pristine Glacier National Park. The trip is not for the faint of heart, although our group, comprising those “of a certain age,” would impress people half our age. Long days, even longer miles, and in temperatures that approached 100 degrees some days were part of the deal. But we survived, and loved the experience and feeling of accomplishment when it was over.
Memo to ladies seeking male companionship: Cycling attracts men who are interesting, daring, and physically fit. Two guys from California and one from Seattle were in our group. (Alas, all three were happily married, but were gracious, fun, and encouraging). Dennis and Elli met on a bike trip, became an item, and are in their third year as partners in life and in business. It can happen.
After picking us up at the Sea-Tac airport, Dennis and Elli drove us in their luxurious, well-equipped van to Anacortes, two hours north of Seattle, where we stayed at The Marina Inn and dined at the Rock Creek Grill on fresh salmon and a luscious berry cobbler for dessert. The next morning dawned early, marked by the first of several calorie-laden breakfasts on the trip—something that cycling between 60 and 95 miles a day allows one to indulge in—oftentimes accompanied by homemade biscuits, fresh-baked cinnamon rolls, and other local offerings.
We were blessed with sunny skies, no humidity, and flat roads along the clear-blue Skagit River, until the Cascade Mountains confronted us, and we climbed, and then climbed some more, slowly and steadily (and sometimes painfully) to reach Washington Pass, an altitude of 5,477 feet. The pattern repeated itself for nine more days, getting a little easier as we became accustomed to the drill of pedaling the flats, relishing the thrill of the descents, and then gearing down to muster the energy to scale the next mountain pass. Often we were accompanied by logging trucks, some of which got a bit too close for comfort.
Most evenings I blew off dinner—a writer on deadline has to take advantage of quiet time and an Internet connection when it’s available. But the van always had fruit, yogurt, hummus and crackers, and Oreos, which was enough to reload the calories I spent each day. The scenery was lush—jagged mountain peaks, crystal lakes we wanted to jump into, abundant wild flowers, and fresh air (with no humidity) to breathe. For a couple of days we kept pace with a group of ten who were cycling from Seattle to Maine, supported by a trailer and RV full of every comfort known to man. And we thought WE were nuts! They were there to greet us at the top of Sherman Pass, Washington State’s highest, at an altitude of 5,575. Undoubtedly recognizing prudence to be the better part of valor, they then opted for a day of rest, so we remained well ahead of them for the duration of our trip.
We pulled off the road for lunch one day to park in front of Father’s Farm, a lovely agricultural complex that serves as a spiritually based healing center for women struggling with depression and addiction issues. They allowed us to use their facilities to freshen up, and were kind and gracious to a group of somewhat-bedraggled-looking cyclists. I found the experience to be touching—and could imagine the oasis’s restorative powers.
Traveling backroads in remote, scantily populated areas means a dearth of lodging choices. Each night we stayed in motels, ranging from a Best Western (that felt like luxury digs) to The Antlers Motel (whose redeeming qualities were limited to a bed, running hot water, and towels, the latter neither white nor especially fluffy, but they did the job). And it was here that I had a meltdown. After checking in at the end of a hot, 82-mile ride, I rushed across the highway to the local laundromat to wash a week’s worth of bike togs. The manager said it was closing in five minutes, and she exuded no sympathy for my plight when I begged her for a little more time. Nor did the motel’s proprietress, although she begrudgingly handed me a few extra towels so I could hand wash my bike shorts. Kept awake by the buzzing of flies in my room, I started the next day exhausted and irritable, and informed Dennis that this was not my idea of a good time, and that I intended to rent a car and drive to the nearest airport to fly home. On my cellphone, about to dial Delta Airlines to change my flight, it dawned on me that I had given my NYC apartment to a friend for the two weeks I was gone. He had planned a full social schedule, and I didn’t have the heart to renege. So, into the van I climbed to ride the first 15 miles and give my body a rest, and then it was onto the bike for another long day. No one twisted my arm—but it seemed silly not to ride; after all, I had trained hard and traveled across the country to do this trip. The least I could do was give it another shot.
Merry Sheils arrives in Idaho
That was the day that we crossed from Washington State into Idaho, where I was born and lived until I was a teenager. The scenery was as I remembered—beautiful lakes and mountains, and the deep blue Pend Oreille River, which we rode alongside all day long—accompanied by truck drivers who were a bit less aggressive. Lunch that day was in the carport of the Airport General Store, whose owner allowed us to set up our picnic table where we wolfed down sandwiches, fruit, and cookies.
Dennis and Elli did yeoman’s work behind the scenes each day. After launching us on our bikes, with one or the other accompanying us, the other made a beeline to the local supermarket to replenish our food supplies, gas up the van, and fill the cooler with ice and cold drinks. Both came in handy in the heat, and whenever we spotted the van ahead, we knew a brief respite was in store. Dennis was also an expert bike mechanic, and could change a tire in three minutes flat (pun intended).
Finally, we hit the Montana border, where Elli and I were greeted by an enterprising kid who offered to take our photo (using our iPhone!), and charged us a dollar for the privilege. I expect he’ll be a hedge fund manager one day. Riding along the breathtaking Koocanusa Lake, just a few miles from the Canadian Border, we had just three days to go before entering Glacier National Park in the town of Hungry Horse—aptly named, by the way, because 70 to 90 miles of riding made all of us hungry enough to eat one.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of our country’s national parks, so traffic was even heavier than usual, and July and August are peak months anyway. Because the narrow mountain roads are challenging for cars and bikes both, Glacier demands that bikes be off the road by 11:00 a.m. That meant we had to breakfast at 5:45, and then shuttle to the park gate before jumping on our bikes to scale the 21-mile climb to Logan’s Pass. Although I generally ride at a 15-mile an hour pace, all bets are off on mountain climbs—and our goal was a 5-mile per hour pace. It was comfortable at first, and then gradually became steeper and more arduous, especially when we were greeted by blinding rain and sleet and a 35-degree temperature for the last three miles. Nothing is easy, and my bike chain malfunctioned twice—meaning Elli and I had to jump off our bikes to make quick adjustments on the side of the narrow road. We briefly chatted for a minute with three (younger) guys—and were inspired when each of them gave us a thumbs up for pedaling strong as we left them behind.
And then we saw it: the sign for Logan Pass, at 6,646 feet, straddling the Continental Divide—we had made it! The first of our group to get there, we shivered as we insisted that Dennis take our picture before we climbed into the van, and then turned on the heat and shivered to get warm, made a quick tour of the visitors’ center, and then headed down the mountain for a hot bowl of soup. A lady from Tennessee stopped by our table, audibly in awe of our feat, as she and her friend had passed us in a car on the climb. Dennis handed her his card—perhaps a budding customer?
Then we were on our way to our final stop, the Glacier Park Lodge—by far the most elegant of all the places we stayed. Built in 1913 by the Great Northern Railway, it hearkens back to an earlier time, when gentlemen and ladies dressed for dinner, and carriages delivered them to the front door with their steamer trunks. The logs from the original fir trees that support the structure are visible in the vast lobby and dining room, which served up fresh-caught salmon and freshly baked desserts. My room had a balcony, with views of Dancing Lady Mountain. Best of all, it had an abundance of white, fluffy towels.
Blessed with sleeping in until eight the next morning, I headed back to New York from Kalispell, marveling at what we each had accomplished over the past ten days. It wasn’t easy, and at times I wondered whether I was crazy to attempt such a rigorous trip. But the memories of scaling the mountain passes and being rewarded with long, cool descents will be part of my permanent memory bank. Where can I go next?
Opening photo: the author, far right, with her fellow cyclists