I love spring. Emerging from the lethargy of our cold, dark winters in northwest Montana, I always look forward to the fresh smells, vibrant colors and returning sunlight ushering in the new season. I also love the traditions that mark this period of change, serving as welcoming portals to the next scene. Like clockwork, April rolls around and we begin to thaw out of our cocoons, swapping skis for bikes to seek out the exposed terra firma.
With the anticipatory consistency of Milan-San Remo, the warming days bring us to the majestic alpine scenery of the legendary Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, a serpentine highway bifurcating West and East, just as winter splits open into spring. Riding this highway is an annual tradition that I share with a handful of close friends. On Tuesday afternoons, we leave our jobs early, pick up grocery-store sushi, a six-pack of beer and head to our backyard National Park. Chasing the snowplows’ progression all the way up to Logan Pass along the Continental Divide, we ride and dodge debris, enjoying the breathtaking scenery, the awakening wildlife and complete lack of cars. Closed to motorists while road clearing and maintenance take place, we capitalize on the unique situation.
Despite our growing responsibilities of work, family and such, we make this a priority in our lives. We cherish and look forward to this season and treat it as a compulsory ritual, rain or shine, or even snow. Each year and each of these Tuesday rides are different, but the one constant is that we pedal north, upstream along McDonald Creek and climb without hesitation. We may have bad weather, we may run into a few bears or a stubborn moose, but one thing is clear—the out-and back route will take us from the ordinary and into the amazing.
OUR SPRING CLASSICS BEGIN
It has been a historic ski season. Snowpack levels have crushed records here in Whitefish, with all-time powder days enjoyed by many. But, honestly, I’m ready to move the legs in a different way. For weeks I’ve been looking forward to today. Four o’clock hits, and I’m out the door, feeling slightly guilty that I’m abandoning my co-workers. But tradition is tradition, like a hall pass chiseled in stone. I meet up with my good friend and photographer, Marc, load up our bikes and stop by the grocery store for provisions. Thirty minutes later, we drive through the un-manned entry station in West Glacier and continue on to our starting point at Lake McDonald Lodge.
Aside from the skeleton crew preparing the facilities and roads for the busy summer season, we see only a handful of cyclists gearing up—mostly fellow locals from the Flathead Valley. Our energy is high, and we move with procedural efficiency to get rolling, cognizant that we’re competing against the waning sun. From experience, we know we’ll be returning to the truck in near darkness, which keeps us on our toes for two reasons. One, we’ll really be “out there,” where any type of misadventure could spoil the fun in a big way. And, two, we’re putting bear spray in our bottle cages for a reason.
We move through the access gate and pedal onward, flanked by large cedars lining the drainage we gently ascend. Citadellike peaks dot the skyline in all directions. A light wind directs a slow flow of intermittent cotton-ball cumulus overhead. We ease into a cadence suitable for our spring legs and take in the incredible landscape, craning our necks upward to fit everything into view. About a mile in we run into wildlife—a black bear munching on fresh grass along the ditch, with very little interest in us. We cautiously work our way around, skirting the opposite side of the road and continue climbing.
The familiar landmarks greet us like old friends: the West Tunnel, then Heavens Peak, which is still covered in its snowy blanket. After rounding The Loop, the small talk is put on hold as I accelerate a bit, out of the saddle. To my left is an overhang, a hulking wall of dark red argillaceous mud rock. To my right is a stone barricade protecting travelers from an abrupt drop to the road below. Stacked and mortared, like well-aged strade from the old country, the barricades often require maintenance or replacement due to seasonal avalanches and rockslides. In some vulnerable areas, large wooden railings are designed to be dismantled during the off-season to avoid such trauma. Today, they are absent, so I must pay attention.
I experience a bit of vertigo as I ride over a gushing Haystack Creek, peering beyond the shoulder’s edge, focused. The dramatic intensity of the moment is hard to take in. I ride along, elated, full of life, but inches from disaster if I blink wrong or succumb to a mental hiccup. I begin to ponder. Life-death. Work-play. War-peace. Political division. Climate change. The prospective from behind my bar tape offers momentary respite from the complexities and challenges of the world.
A gust of cold wind slaps me in the face, rousing me from my dialectic haze. I absorb the alpine environment. The road, now wet with runoff, littered with calving chunks of ice and an occasional rogue rock, is lined with growing walls of snow carved out by the intrepid plows. I stand up and do my best “dancing on the pedals” impression and imagine I’m crushing the top pitch of Alpe d’Huez, cheered on by the melted human-like figures. I continue up the increasingly narrow strip of tarmac, carefully navigating over and around a few sheets of melting ice and see the road-clearing vehicles at rest where they have stopped for the day.
I coast to a stop, alone, and wait in complete silence. I look to my right across the classic U-shaped valley, in awe, following the glaciated lines of Mount Oberlin over to majestic Birdwoman Falls, half-frozen, yet pulsing curtains off a nearly 500-foot drop to feed the upper reaches of Logan Creek. I spin around to gauge our remaining sunlight and spot Marc. I can tell by his smile that he’s found his zone.
It’s a week later and Marc and I pedal beyond our last high point. Road-clearing efforts have advanced several miles, finally cresting Logan Pass at an elevation of 6,646 feet. A high-pressure system has moved in and, despite the abundant snow at this altitude, I ride in short sleeves, which is refreshing but I feel a bit vulnerable. We’ve already ridden across several piles of avalanche debris on the road—one with fresh grizzly bear tracks through it.
I climb past Triple Arches and marvel at the aesthetic cliffhanging engineering and impressive cascade, which pierces the first arch before launching into the abyss. The entire scene bursts with the dynamic energy of spring. The sun couldn’t be brighter. The vegetation is exploding in an electric green and everything is melting. The movement of water through the streams and rivulets, off rock walls and even the road itself animates the landscape, driven simply by snow and sun. The massive white walls, cut into the side hill, resemble breaking waves and threaten to topple over with the afternoon heat.
Two cyclists suddenly fly past us on their descent. I’ve seen these characters before. They are regulars. One appears to be in his early 60s, wearing cutoff jeans, a tank top and a headband to keep his locks slightly contained. No helmet. He has a huge smile across his face, which is common to see on folks returning from the pass. His buddy has an air of one who’s just reached nirvana. While the ride is exposed and wild, it’s not incredibly steep. I love seeing the mix of people up here, especially those that have the telltale, mind-blown look of a first timer. The descending riders disappear from view and, once again, we climb alone.
My legs begin to burn. The perfectly engineered grade is consistent, but my early-season legs wish I had another gear between the one I’m in and the one below. A little less effort just sounds good right now. I look down at the classic, custom steel bike I straddle and blame my discomfort on the slightly antiquated cassette. I get critical for a moment and decide a new bike would be the solution. Then I do the unthinkable. I pedal harder! I realize, like my surroundings and carnivorous fauna of the region, my body needs to transition out of its own winter slumber.
I look up ahead to the rising peaks cradling the glaciated basin at the pass and push on to the large vacated parking lot. This time, Marc is already up top, gazing east across the divide to Going-to-the-Sun Mountain, the road’s namesake. The beauty is overwhelming, the air still and we are the only humans in sight. We can count on one hand how many folks we’ve seen this evening. In a month, it will be next to impossible to find a parking space here at the visitors’ center. The juxtaposition is a succinct reminder of how unique and precious this tradition is. Like a Formula One pit stop, refined and purposeful, we quickly transition into downhill mode, donning wind shells, wool caps, knee covers, gloves and anything to help us weather the descent.
A couple of weeks have passed, and the weather is angry. It’s storming and not exactly the conditions you would deliberately ride into. But the compulsory tradition has cast us into this story, which is turning epic. We have made it up to Logan Pass again. As per strict ritual, we celebrate the moment by cracking open the frosty barley pops we’ve hauled with us and give cheers to another great ride and the overall awesomeness of the experience. But enjoyable beer-sipping is curtailed into rushed chugging as we start to get pelted by wind and snow.
Our friend Jason has joined our suffer-fest, and the safety in numbers has given us an added level of comfort. With a hint of urgency, we give each other a nod and let gravity take over. Within seconds, we’re banking turns, flowing effortlessly across the mountainside we’ve become familiar with over the years. Mindful of the debris and cross-road runoff, we give each other space to safely navigate our lines and avoid the spray of the large rooster tails we’re kicking up.
As we accelerate, I feel my core temperature dip. Next, uncontrollable body shakes take over, translating into speed wobbles I attempt to control. Marc has stopped, so I check in with him. When you ride with someone long enough, their nuanced expressions and body language give a clear read into their condition. And Marc doesn’t look good. He explains that he can’t feel his fingers, which are locking up. He has to visibly monitor his brakes to see if they’re functioning. Not good!
I respond to the worried look from Marc with a few words of encouragement and suggest we take regular breaks to warm up. Later, he shares with me that he felt he might have made a mistake and pushed it too far. Coming here so often, we can get complacent and comfortable with our surroundings. But here’s the reality: These are unrelenting mountains, beautiful yet dangerous. The same could be said about the road. We fly down the perfect curves, familiar with each contour, yet razor-sharp rocks could be hiding around any blind corner… or a bear…or a mountain goat. Fortunately, we continue our deliberate descent to warmer temperatures and stop just shy of the Weeping Wall to regroup and let our fingers recover. Despite the light drizzle, everyone appears in good spirits; good enough, at least. Crisis averted.
It’s a week later. Marc’s hands have thawed out, mostly. We’ve summited Logan Pass and even explored a bit of the east side, going past the Big Drift and down to the East Side Tunnel, currently inhabited by a few mountain goats. Now up and back over the divide, we descend the road in perfectly calm conditions for the golden hour, chasing a dropping sun behind the craggy western horizon. My mind wanders as a warm wind blows across my face.
We’ve ridden this gem for years…over and over again. For me, the exercise of each ride is just as much mental as it is physical, the up-and-down route lending itself to consistent patterns of thought and emotion. For the lengthy climb, I tend to go inward, mind wandering, solving problems and exploring my complex cerebral topography. Reaching the summit, it’s a buzz of climactic elation—always a true moment to celebrate. On the descent, it’s a thrilling rush, almost surreal, given the incredible environment passing by. The entire sequence, for me, is a cathartic blowing-out of the carbon, a reset button I push every spring.
Circling around the Loop, the quintessential switchback leading back to our rig, I find myself deep in thought, but not noticing the surroundings…so I zoom out. I realize how small and minuscule I am in this immense space. Up here, the laws of nature ultimately run the show, like an alluvial code driven by the geological patterns of lift, gravity, the elements and time itself. Just like the annual runoff and receding of seasonal, or even glacial snow and ice, we all succumb to nature. Our bodies last only so long and this truth unites us all. Gaining speed into one of my favorite sections, lined with aspens, I gaze up to the pink, alpenglow-drenched peaks, sculpted over the centuries by elements beyond our human control, with lines and wrinkles as if from a face beautifully aged with crow’s feet eyes—and I smile.
Like horses smelling the barn, we accelerate our pace and big-ring it along McDonald Creek on high alert for wildlife. In a couple of weeks, our window of car-less rides will close. I reminisce about the season; and it’s been a good one. I feel recharged. And despite the rain, wind and snow we had to endure, we sometimes need ritual to face adversity. If our tradition never existed, or perhaps dissolved and caved in to life’s growing responsibilities, there’s a good chance we probably wouldn’t be here. Coasting back through the access gate to our truck, I feel grateful for friends and tradition and turn to Marc for a high five. Before loading up our bikes, we grab the cooler, unwrap the chopsticks and thoroughly enjoy our tailgate sushi—all part of the tradition.
This article originally appeared in issue 82