This past winter in Montana was a long one. So when the forecast called for sunny, warm temperatures last weekend, we scrambled to action. We robbed the cabinets and stuffed bags of camping equipment into the van. After a quick review of the Gazetteer, we decided to try to bike camp up the West Boulder. We would have a short ride Saturday afternoon to the campground and ride back “down” to town Sunday. Our two year old labrador, Blue, was more than ready and willing.
After a beautiful picnic at Natural Bridges with Mark’s folks, they dropped us off at the junction of the West Boulder. The weather was beautiful. We happily rode in our t-shirts and shorts and marveled at the snow capped peaks and greening landscape. The kids had good energy, and the anticipation of a campout fueled each pedal stroke up the gravely road. Our daughters Eva and Clara were equipped with new bike racks and were feeling empowered to carry loads of their own. Emmett, the youngest, bounded around on his new ‘plus’ tired adventure bike. Blue ran two miles for every mile we rode. A bald eagle took an interest and soared around our family, ultimately perching himself on a nearby boulder.
Once to the West Boulder campground we joined ranks with a small community of early spring campers. The kids made new friends with an intrepid family with an enviable adventure rig and threw sticks in to the blown out river. Our first bike overnight of the year was off to a successful start.
When the sun dipped below the horizon a storm system descended on the little valley. We went to set up our tent. Somehow, we’d forgotten the tent poles.
Not to worry. As the wind picked up we took inventory of what we had and in cordage. A half hour and a few lessons in knot tying later, the kids had helped us construct a Picasso-eque interpretation of our tent fly. The body of the tent itself became the footprint to protect our sleeping pads for the night.
With the periodic rain, wind, and a full moon spotlighting our tent fly, none of us enjoyed much sleep — but the morning calm was a welcome one. Mark had brought the espresso pot and we enjoyed real coffee (totally worth the extra pound of weight after a sleepless night). Although significantly cooler outside, the rain had passed. We spent a couple of pleasant hours getting to know our neighbors and their two boys.
The idea was to ride back to Livingston to Oma and Opa’s house where our van was parked; a 26 mile ride that I assured the kids was ‘mostly downhill’. We were in the mountains and live in the valley at lower elevation, right?
Turning off West Boulder Road, we hit our first huge incline. Nearly a thousand feet of climbing in 3 miles.
Bicycling with loaded panniers is the real deal when it comes to climbs and descents. The climbs can be disproportionately slow and grinding, and the drops can be fast and technical; even on a friendly gravel road. The serpentine roads conceal the big picture and to a small kid that is tired, hungry and either sweaty or cold it must seem like some sort of hell. “You should have researched this better!” scolded one daughter. “Stupid! Stupid hills!” the other said. Mark and I kept making thin promises that inevitably we were going to be headed downhill — probably just around the next bend.
I was too busy coaxing the kids with toot jokes and honey shots to notice, but I think it took us two hours to get up the first pass. Once on top we scarfed crackers, cheese and snack bars. But then the weather set in again. First wind, then rain, then sleet. This little surge of adverse weather pushed everyone a bit over the edge. Our oldest had a fit with her rain jacket zipper, our youngest wept as we tried to force his gloves on his stiff, wet hands. Our middle maintained her composure for the moment and offered her gloves to her brother. We were taking this a handful of minutes at a time.
We never seem to take photos during these moments of the journey.
Now going downhill, we thought things would improve. But all the brake action down the steeps was tough for the little guy. His fingers were cold and his arms ached. He broke down again. This time inconsolably bawling.
I pulled off the road and held him in the dirt turnout. We had hit rock bottom. But that is when the magic tends to happen…
Not a minute later, as if they had been cued by a stage director, friends drove around the corner in their truck and pulled over. “Hey guys.” Said Ivy, rolling down the passenger window. In the backseat were Devin and Alice, some of Emmett’s best buds. “Do you have any sugar?” I blurted before saying hello. We had a laugh and pleasant exchange on the side of the road when Ivy’s husband brought up the grand carrot: they were heading to a birthday party, and Emmett was welcome to join. With zero hesitation, Emmett popped into the backseat of the truck with his pals. Bike loaded into the back, they cheerfully drove off and out of sight.
With Emmett in good hands and our girls somewhat uplifted by M&Ms and Lifesavers Ivy had pulled out of her glovebox, we pushed on. There was another killer climb out of Mission Creek Drainage but it was a sure sign we were getting close to home and ICE CREAM.
We had crossed the delicate parenting line today. We hadn’t done enough research, or brought enough treats, or the tent poles, and the weather sucked. “I’ll admit” I said to the kids “I had no idea how hard this was going to be”. As I watched them struggle and resent the hills I wondered if they were going to hate bicycling — they were definitely hating me in the moment.
But the girls managed to dig deep, and I was deeply impressed by their effort and sticktoitness. Once we got back into cell reception we asked the girls if they wanted us to call Oma and Opa for a rescue. Grumpy and tired, Clara shouted back. “No I made it this far, I want to ride back to town!
The descents became more frequent and eventually the steppes opened up into the Yellowstone River valley. Home was within sight. Blue was showing signs of sore paws so once we hit the blacktop we stopped, and called the grandparents for a vehicle assist. We had covered twenty miles of steep gravel climbs, descents, rain, wind, sleet and sunshine. We would ultimately join the birthday festivities too, exhausted but accomplished. These Montana kids are tough.
The following Monday, Eva said to us around lunchtime: “You know our bike trip last weekend? Can we ride something easier next time?”. “Yes.” I said. “Do you want to help with the research?”
“Definitely” she said. I gave her a hug and we both smiled.