Monday
Oct252010

Life Gets More Feral

Wow, a wolf! I came to a halt so as not to frighten him but he was already scampering down the trail away from me. It is extremely difficult to come upon a wolf; their sharp senses allow them to see you but you rarely ever see them. In this particular case he was distracted as he was creeping up on prey before I rudely interrupted him. In addition, he would not have been expecting me as I was on a trail that was closed to the public (obviously rules are for other people). This meant the single-track around Richmond Peak was fast becoming thick with wild-life and bush as nature relaxed in the absence of humans.

The Montanan weather was proving to be very Irish with scattered showers and sunny spells. For someone spending all day and night in the elements it was proving more difficult to handle than the actual biking. The weather, while being typical of the mountains, was considered "unusual" for the time of year. If I had a dollar for every time I've heard that on my round-the-world trip etc. While I don't mind the rain at all, I do mind the challenge of trying to stay dry as drying clothes and a tent out in the wet weather is simply impossible. It was as much about the mountain dew as the rain. However, as long as temperatures didn't drop any further my good mood somehow remained impermeable. This is likely due to the promise of better and warmer weather further south. Thus, I decided to bike hard to Wyoming where the sun would hopefully shine as the route there is away from the peaks.

With an escape plan hatched I pressed on to the tiny town of Ovando as opposed to resting up in Seeley Lake. Ovando has a population of about seventy people although you wouldn't know it on arrival. There was no life at all but for Skip who showed me where I could camp for the night; either the museum lawn or the exhibit to the Lewis and Clark expedition. Lewis and Clark were the national scouts who mapped out North America for the white government. It is difficult for a European to conceive of the frontier that existed here. At one point no-one (except the native Indians) knew what lay out west. The frontier in Europe only ever really existed at sea along with the fear of sailing off the edge of the earth.

Naturally in such a small town I became Skip's friend for the evening. Skip, who had placed duct-tape over the rip in his puff-jacket (fashion crimes don't exist in small towns), came across as the kind of guy who has watched too many seasons turn while sitting on his front porch. Either that or he is a little too, what Americans call, 4:20 friendly. His slow drawl perfectly matched the local pace of life. While I was happy to chat and was thankful of Skip's help I wanted to be left alone. It is a little annoying to have company when you are trying to pitch your tent and cook dinner, kind of like when somebody is at your desk chatting to you when you have lots of work to do. What is the protocol, is a starving cyclist supposed to share his gruel? His dog finally caught my drift by panting for his dinner when he saw me eat mine and so I was finally left in peace for the rest of the evening. The best part about Ovando was that I woke up to a great cafe on the door-step of my tent. Such convenience made my day and it had barely even started. Cafes and bars along the route turn into incredible sanctuaries. Not only do they let you off the hook in terms of carting more food, cooking and washing-up but they get you out of the elements. Living out in the open one quickly learns to appreciate Man's instinct to put a (nice) roof over his head. Of course, they provide a great opportunity to chat to the locals as having a UFO propped up against the railing of a cafe will inevitably draw curious conversation. Such places are great for learning more about the area and the road ahead. The pancakes weren't the only treat; when you are chuffed to have wi-fi over breakfast you realise that you may have wandered a little too far from civilisation.

Inevitably there was another climb on the road to the town of Lincoln but I was looking forward to it as it was called Huckleberry Pass. Huckleberries are amazingly sweet and when your tooth is as sweet as mine the promise of a natural mid-afternoon sugar rush was good for morale. You can imagine how disappointing it was to discover that the locals, as opposed to the bears, had picked the whole mountain clean. Humph! At least the climb was straightforward.

More soon

´╗┐Holland Lake is now behind me

where is this going?crikey!Lewis, Clark & Gill exhibitOvandoclouds rumble as I make my way to Huckleberry Pass in the distance

Wednesday
Oct202010

Around the Camp-fire

Pushing over the top of a 5k climb I managed  to catch up with Eric and Erin from Seattle. They were sensibly taking it easy on the descent whereas I was trying to make the most of gravity being in my favour. We were riding through the Swan Valley, although we were not exactly in the valley. The Great Divide route takes a bit of getting used to as it tends to detour up and over mountains on heavy trails as opposed to taking the more direct asphalt-friendly route through the valley. I'm sure the temptation to short-cut befalls many cyclists having a bad day. In most cases there is a point to the detours. They typically avoid traffic-heavy roads, they incorporate scenic areas or they simply seek to make the marathon route even more challenging.

We camped together in a small informal camp-site commonly visited by fishermen. In the US there is both formal and informal camping. The formal camping tends to be either private or else public on state-owned US Forest Service lands. It is in fact possible to camp anywhere on forest service lands once you are clear of the roads, thus, a lot of informal dispersed camping is available as fishermen, hunters and hikers find suitable spots to camp in more isolated country. These are typically near a water source and are often only evident because people have created fire-pits with a ring of stones. Fatty Creek was one such camp ground. However, we were not totally in isolation. Up the road a family from the eastern part of Montana was vacationing in a couple of trailers on their own land. The normally serene country ambience was being shredded by two ATVs (quads). The harsh roar of an engine is always disconcerting in the countryside but these are typically brief encounters with man as he overtakes or passes you. These engines were roaring up and down the road repeatedly, as men would do when playing with a new toy. In this case however, the throttling was the work of two girls. It got to the stage where Erin, Eric and myself were looking at each other as if we wanted to throttle them. Just then, we heard a crash and the engines cut out. One of the girls had managed to clip the guard-rail on the bridge, which knocked her into the path of the other girl chasing. We rushed out to the tears and squeals. Thankfully not too much blood was spilt and it was more a case of cuts and bruises. Eric ran up to the trailers but the parents were already hurtling down the hill. I guess we weren't the only ones who could hear the sudden silence. The girls were only twelve and thirteen and had finally succeeded in wearing their parents into submission to allow them to ride the four-wheelers. Needless to say I'm sure the girls now fully understood their parents' initial hesitation. Thankfully the situation was not serious enough that it required our intervention but while the mother was patching up the girls the father rolled down to us to express his gratitude. I have never heard a man express the word thanks so many times through the puffs of a cigarette.

The weather had turned unfavourably overnight. I awoke to thunder-claps and so I jumped out of the tent to get up the road ahead of the lightening storm. The tent was wet but the showers were intermittent allowing me to sneak away just in time. The route was not too arduous in terms of topography but it did include the first sections of single-track riding of the whole route. This inevitably slowed things down and in inclement weather made life quite difficult. In such scenarios it is important to keep pedalling as once you stop your core temperature drops being potentially dangerous. Thankfully, I managed to ride away from the storm and after 60k I was riding under blue skies with steam rising from me. I pulled in at the camp ground in Holland Lake to take advantage of the sunshine so I could dry my tent out.  To get to Seeley Lake I still needed to get over a fairly big climb on dirt. It was while the sun was splashing rays on my wet tent that another Eric came over to me and started chatting. Very soon I was invited to stay and join in his family and friends' Labour Day weekend annual gathering. Presented with the choice of climbing a mountain or eating a mountain of food I naturally opted for the respite.

Once I washed the crud from my clothes and my bike and jumped in the lake for a bath I could relax and enjoy the party. Erin and Eric had arrived and joined in the fun also. With our bellies full and the micro-brews flowing it was time to sit around the camp-fire and enjoy the blaze. Riding solo I never bother making a camp-fire as I prefer to rest prone in my sleeping bag to keep warm. However, the camp-fire is the heart and soul of the American camping experience and so it was a real pleasure to experience such amazing hospitality from such friendly and funny Montanans. The previous year an English cyclist had joined them for their feast. They found him in the outhouse trying to stay out of the rain;looking after cyclists riding the Divide was fast becoming a tradition.

Across the lake we could make out a wedding party at the lodge. There was nothing left to do but crash it. Some of us walked the few miles to the lodge in the dark to check out the party. Unfortunately it was the lamest wedding ever and the crowd was quite preppy. It is difficult for mountain men to integrate with such a crowd and so we had a couple of beers on the fringe of the party hoping that curious types would realise that we were the real party but sadly the crowd was bland and so we hit the road with some PBRs for take-out. It was worth the try.

While the weather in Montana was not proving kind the people were proving overwhelmingly so. It is so difficult to experience such hospitality on the beaten path or when you don't have the language. It is these experiences that make up for any of the isolation one experiences while travelling solo. The Great Divide is undoubtedly proving to be the most fun part of my round-the-world adventure.

Hope you are all well

Mark

Holland Lake

Saturday
Oct162010

The Dividers

The grey cloak that was thrown over me was eventually lifted. It was time to pedal on and tackle the climb to Red Meadow lake for a second time. The promise of a gentle down-hill ride to Whitefish once over the top suggested that I should have a relaxed enough ride. Naturally, climbing with a fifty kilo ball and chain up a gravel road took longer than expected but the weather had cleared and so there was nothing particularly pressing to worry about. I simply had to get to the bike store in Whitefish for some maintenance and then it would be a case of figuring out where to spend the night.

As scenic as back-country roads are it is always nice for the legs to have an easier ride on asphalt, which I hit for the beautiful section around the lake before dropping into town. It was slightly odd to find the mechanic in the bike store wearing a green t-shirt with Ireland emblazoned across the chest but Montana has strong Irish roots. It was also quite a shock to be in such a nice store, considering the racing scene is thin on the ground and the fact that a cold winter will inevitably slow business down. The guys in Glacier Cyclery were great and happy to chat, which is unusual for a bike-shop as the pressure for sales tends to reduce idle-chat with people who are not going to spend much money. Typically bike shops' policy is unless you are talking sales then you don't talk at all - really annoying. It turned out the guy I was talking to is a UCI commisarre and is very knowledgeable about the US bike scene. We must have talked for an hour. One never factors in such conversations into the plan for the day but it's amazing how much time you can drop just talking to the locals or walking around in circles in unfamiliar supermarkets.

I decided to sneak another 35k in for the day by riding to Tom's house past the next town of Columbia Falls. People along the route are familiar with the cyclists that are riding it and as Tom is a cyclist himself he makes his lawn available for Dividers coming through to camp on. Tom Arnone (79) simply has cycling and bikes coursing through his veins. He was a B-52 pilot and retired from the force in the seventies. The free-time outside of some farming allowed him to spend many an hour in his work-shop designing and crafting frames. I regret not making the time to take photos of the art I saw. Indeed, Tom has designed an array of exquisite steel frames for track, road, and mountain. While he rides them himself they were mostly for his son when he was racing and a few local riders who sought him out. One rider managed to time-trial his way to an incredible sub 50 minute twenty-five miler on one of Tom's bikes (30+mph). Tom's frames were fascinating to look at. The craftsmanship of the welding was second to none and the designs were ahead of their time. His time-trial frames had one-piece cock-pits and a head-tube that pivoted off the frame. This design has only recently incorporated by some of the top bike manufacturers in production. Tom also built his own suspension system for his mountain bikes. Looking at his mountain-bike the suspension he built was similar to Specialized's much coveted 'brain' system.

The next morning I was invited in to watch the Vuelta (Tour of Spain) with Tom. His wife had cooked me some real oatmeal and so I had breakfast in front of the lap-top with Tom to watch that day's stage. We sat there glued to the screen like two bike-racing junkies getting their fix despite knowing that the stage would predictably end in a sprint. As I sucked on some juicy peaches I couldn't help but notice that his enthusiasm for the bicycle and the race has never waned. Indeed, he continues to ride his mountain-bike near his home.

Tom's hospitality and enthusiasm was such a treat. Indeed, between Oliver in Polebridge where I started the day, the guys in Glacier Cyclery and Tom's house where I finished, it has become clear that the Great Divide route is as much about the Divide fans along the way as about the people riding it. If only every day on the Great Divide could be like this.

Marco

the saloon type feel to Whitefishcamping on the Arnone's lawn

Tuesday
Oct122010

North Fork Hostel - Polebridge

 

The town of Polebridge in Montana acts as a gateway to Glacier National Park but there is not a whole lot else there. There are only a handful of homes that house the die-hard locals able to tolerate being up a mountain in the middle of a harsh winter removed from conveniences. There are a few cabins for rent for people visiting the park, there is a restaurant and unbelievably, there is a quality bakery. Oddly, there is also a hostel. Coming across a hostel in the wilderness in America is as hard as spotting a mountain lion. To come upon a town so far off the beaten track with both an amazing bakery and hostel is slightly bizarre to say the least. The random discovery of an oasis in the desert is one of the biggest pleasures of travelling.


In terms of hostels, I have seen my fair share around the world although I didn't really come across them in Nepal, India or Tibet. Accommodation there is usually in the form of a basic tea-house up a mountain or else a hotel room, which in euros costs very little. The hostel scene for back-packers is pretty big in Australia. These are mostly populated by young British, Irish, Germans and Singaporeans looking for work and living off Pot Noodles and pots of Nutella. New Zealand has a healthy hostel scene but one should really be experiencing the middle of nature in a tent when there. In South America there are almost as many hostels as back-packers and where there are none there is always cheap lodgings of some sort. Unfortunately in Latin America back-packing is a cruel business. Locals begrudgingly prostitute themselves to the young twenty-something back-packing class. These back-packers tend to have more savings at their young age than the locals but not enough that the locals can make any real money from. Of course, this drives the locals mad ... it drives them to drink in fact and so it is no surprise that drink-driving related issues are part of the back-packer tour experience there. Canada is home to the most expensive and up-its-ass hostel scene in the world (some exceptions aside) and America, while having hostels in bigger cities, tends not to have a real hostel culture elsewhere.


The hostel scene originated in Europe. Its remit is to provide a cheap bed for the night and to be a good place for travellers to meet and share experiences. While they are open to all, they are principally the domain of young people and travellers. Young people don't have the savings to afford a hotel room and travellers tend to be on the road for a while such that they need to spread their savings over a longer duration so they can travel some more. The real agenda is that travel broadens one's mind and so hostels are supposed to facilitate this by being accessible to young people and people of less means. Of course, hostels should be more than just a cheap bed in a dorm for a night. As hotels are typically very anonymous places hostels try to foster interaction. Indeed, meeting cool people in hostels and hatching plans with new friends is one of the high-lights of back-packing. Thus, while the brief of a hostel is quite simple they don't all succeed in fulfilling it.

The North Fork Hostel is the anti-thesis of most modern day hostels. This is strange because it stays true to the original concept of what a hostel is supposed to be about. While being a business, a hostel should not be viewed as a business opportunity. People who get involved in the running of a hostel to make money set the wrong tone. Like any organisation, the culture and atmosphere of the entity is determined by the founder and if someone establishes a hostel based on investment and returns then this becomes part of the guest experience. People who use hostels tend not to have much money so they react badly to a hostel where people sit in an office and think of ways to generate sales. Unfortunately, there is a lot of health and safety red-tape associated with the hospitality industry nowadays. This increases the costs associated with establishing and maintaining a hostel such that the owner is forced to look at it as a business. It is really the business angle which has transformed hostels into becoming quasi-hotels. Indeed, hostels are rarely small these days, which increases the anonymity they are supposed to avoid. In an effort to fill as many beds as possible they try to appeal to a broad audience; just as a house is painted in neutral colours when it is being dressed for sale so too are hostels. In an effort to be as inoffensive as possible they assume a vacant personality and ambience so that people don't get turned off. Naturally, people gravitate towards things that they identify with, which means these hostels attract predominantly bland and boring middle-of-the-road sorts. Such types rarely add to one's travelling experience and so these hostels should be avoided. However, finding a hostel that fulfils the original brief is very difficult these days.

The North Fork Hostel is a rare exception. Unusually for a hostel it is not located centrally to lots of tourist traffic. A lot of hostels fall victim to the demands of tourists, which changes the ambience of the place. Tourists are typically looking to do many things in as short a time-frame as possible; this makes the energy of a hostel quite frenetic. In such places it is difficult to stay longer than the norm as there is such a high turn-over of people all repeating the same demands. This energy makes it hard to relax and catch your breath when you have been on the road for a while. Unlike modern hostels one does not find a lobby or reception area in the North Fork Hostel, rather a reception room. One simply steps onto the porch, through the front door and into what is effectively a home. A guest is unable to distinguish between Oliver, who owns and runs the hostel, and the other guests because he is likely sitting down beside them around the kitchen table engaged in their conversation. Oliver is the one sipping mate when others are drinking pots of hot tea.

Oliver, a seasoned traveller and bike-tourer, stumbled upon the hostel himself in the middle of one of his adventures. The inclement weather led him to ask around as to whether there was somewhere to get out of a wet tent for a while. He was directed to the North Fork Hostel, which was then owned and run by John. As John was getting on and did not have quite the same energy to be running the hostel and taking an interest in his guests as he had before, Oliver decided to work with John and eventually bought the place. The hostel benefits from his experience as a traveller but it is more because the hostel expresses a lot of what is already inside of Oliver that makes the place such an enjoyable retreat. Oliver enjoys the outdoors and has no desire for the busy lifestyle that has befallen most of us, he prefers to read and busy himself with projects he can do in his own time. Being drawn to Polebridge and falling in love with the place has meant that the hostel expresses both Oliver's personality and that of Polebridge's beautifully. They are one and the same thing and this is key to a great hostel. As I mentioned above, an entity assumes the personality of the owner and in most cases hostel owners are in absentia and the place is run by foreigners who have not been in town long enough or travelled long enough to be of any use to guests. This speaks a lot about the nature of these hostels. The North Fork Hostel is small such that it doesn't become anonymous, this gives it a very homely feel where you can't but engage the other guests in conversation. It is very affordable to the extent that travellers feel compelled to respect the hostel's ambience and state their graciousness to their host. This is always the case when ones experiences the hospitality and intimacy of a home environment as opposed to a hotel.

In essence, the North Fork Hostel is all that a hostel should be. It not only expresses Oliver's personality but the outhouses, propane lighting and cosy feel bring the Polebridge experience indoors too. Admittedly, this hostel has a certain appeal and it is only people who are interested in being in the remote outdoors and experiencing the less touristy parts of Glacier National Park who are drawn here. But that is how it should be; like attracts like. It would be more preferable to have a choice of a few hostels of differing personalities than one big bland catch-all hostel. This would more easily allow like-minded people to meet. It is the fact that the North Fork Hostel was already a going concern and that its remote location makes it difficult to source both unlimited amounts of power and electricity that enables Oliver to side-step certain things which are enforced as standard elsewhere. It is these common standards that are responsible for increasing the homogenisation of the hostel experience and one has to call them into question.

I hesitate in posting this review as the last thing I want to do is to attract 'tourists' to such a retreat. Drawing attention to something positive usually creates enough pollution such that it alters the original source of purity forever. I can picture Oliver reading this and frowning at the thought of having to run the hostel at full capacity to the demands of 'tourists' such that he gets no time to himself. However, it is worth using North Fork Hostel as an example as to how far hostels have departed from the original concept. In the current global epidemic of sameness there is an infinite need for difference as a tonic.

Long live the North Fork Hostel.

Marco

pot-hole-bridge

unbelievable cookies here 

Thursday
Oct072010

Soaked

I woke up in the town-park in Eureka to rain. Two other bike-tourers camped with me and we shared some good chats. They were riding part of the northern-tier route to East Glacier National Park and our routes crossed for about ten miles before mine turned onto the ominous Graves Creek Road. One was from Seattle and the other was from Portland and as I had been to both places it was nice to be able to compare notes. They were funny guys with some good stories and reminded me of how much I enjoyed being amongst good cycling stock. Both Portland and Seattle harbour a lot of hardcore cycling advocates; it's great to see bikes and bikers as the epitome of cool.

I am generally a late starter preferring to stay in my tent for as long as I can defend my brain from conscious thought. There is plenty of time to think when riding solo so I prefer to stare at the back of my eye-lids for as long as I can get away with. I am not one for getting out of bed early unless I have to, which is unusual for a bike-tourer. Most of them like to be on the road for 9am, which when you have to pack up a camp and cook breakfast generally makes for a 7am rise. If I am on the road by 10am I'm delighted. Often I can start as late as noon, which means going light on stops along the way. It's funny the contrast in mood between other tourers and myself; I'm over the moon at being on the road by 10am whereas other tourers can be flustered and annoyed at their delay.

While my route was headed south in principle I had to make a massive loop inland towards West Glacier. Glacier National Park is one of America's preferred parks and is connected to Waterton National Park across the border in Canada. The route does not go through the park itself but skirts it allowing me the chance to take it in if I wish. I had pretty much decided that the weather was too threatening to bother with delaying in Glacier. Normally I can ride through bad weather but the fronts here seemed to be much bigger than I had encountered anywhere else.

I turned into Flathead National Forest and started to climb. The road soon turned to gravel but the climb was not severe so it was just a matter of pedalling. The weather was weird, one minute I'd be well wrapped up to stay dry, the next the sun would scald me through the clouds forcing me to peel some layers. It was a stop-start kind of ride as I adjusted my clothing. Once on the North Fork Road I was skirting Glacier. It should have been beautiful but the low-slung clouds were cushioned on the peaks spoiling the vista. Instead I took to house-hunting. I was surprised at the amount of private residences along the road. I was not sold on the idea of owning a house here but to be fair the weather was not being the best of estate agents. It's quite the romantic vision; to have a remote log cabin in the middle of the mountains for which you have to chop your own fire-wood. Indeed, these homes were mostly home-steaded before the Park became state land. The romantic vision remains however, as these houses are now mountain retreats for city types as opposed to year-round residences.

The jarring North Fork road was ripped to pieces and sapped any forward momentum. Thankfully, I soon turned up towards Red Meadow Lake deciding to skip the hostel that was five miles off the route in Polebridge. As I turned onto the climb the rain started to cascade from the clouds above. Being well used to rain I normally disregard it but this was particularly bleak. Typical of mountain weather it was trapped between the peaks with nowhere to go but the ground. It was an agonising ten mile ride from the turn, not due to the severity of the climb but due to the internal debate I was having as to whether it was a smart move to camp at altitude in the rain or not. I finally concluded that it made no sense to camp on cloud 9 overnight. I was wet almost to the bone, I would be pitching a tent in the rain (a messy task) and if it stayed like this I'd be waking up to take down a wet tent with no promise of being able to dry it out the next day. While it is important to keep a dry set of gear for such eventualities it is not great for ones health to be camping in the damp in what are the early stages of a marathon. Thus, regretting my stubbornness in not abandoning my route in favour of the hostel earlier I pointed my horse back down the mountain. Of course, once back on the North Fork Road I was regretting my decision as the bumpiness made it feel like another climb. I was just getting wetter and would have been inside a wet tent by now if I hadn't retreated. Still, I held my course and headed for shelter in Polebridge.

It was the right decision as I would end up hiding out from the elements in what is probably the best hostel in the world.

I hope you are staying warm and dry

Marco

Bowman Lake - Glacier National Park (this pic is not in b&w!)

Sunday
Oct032010

Eh, Hello Again Canada

Having packed up a wet tent I cycled to the border in a downpour. I was only a short hop to the frontier and was hopeful that weather patterns also respect international boundaries. I made my way to the drive-through kiosk and was allowed through. However, when I started to ask questions about my visa the guy kept his hands on my passport and told me to head on into the office. Having already entered the US in Houston from South America and then exited via Victoria in Canada, I was trying to figure out how long I could stay for. Technically, I had exited the US and so I could get a new stamp but technically Canada is considered part of the same territory and so my month incursion into Canada might prevent me from obtaining a new entry stamp, in which case I was already two months into my six month tourist visa. This is exactly the reason why I got the six month visa as it would not have been possible to enter the US, travel into Canada and then complete the route in the standard 90 day no-questions asked ETA application. Of course, I had cleared all this up with the US embassy in Bolivia where I obtained my visa and with any border control people I had met in Texas. Here in Roosville it all depended on which technicality the border cop favoured. The guy was more than happy to oblige but then he stalled when he realised I didn't own a house. The fact that I wouldn't be able to do the trip if I did own a house didn't mean much, neither did the fact that not owning a house could be considered a good thing in these times. Being used to such bureaucracy from my time working in an American bank, I simply just tried to find a way. He was as open as I was about my situation and as I could satisfy him that I had enough savings not to be a burden I just kept at it. As far as he was concerned I should not have been allowed to get a visa without owning a house. He also felt that I should not have been allowed into Houston but should have been turned back to Lima. Jaeney macs where was this going ... I was starting to get concerned. He looked down on the US embassy's work in La Paz stating that 'anything goes' down there but the truth is that Bolivia has the second biggest US embassy in the world after Iraq. It is a virtual fortress in downtown La Paz. Travelling Americans are horrified by the signal it sends out and thus, one can be assured that they do their job properly down there. His attitude was just evidence of the kind of paranoid message the US administration delivers to its people about South America.

Having chatted to his boss, he came back requesting me to show proof of exit. One of the benefits of the visa is that you don't need proof of exit but without the ties of a residence back in Dublin I was left having to oblige him. Thus, he made me sign papers withdrawing my application to enter the US and sent me back to Canada where they just raised their eye-brows in annoyance. This left me having to cycle back in the pouring rain to the closest town for internet so that I could book a flight, which was Fernie, a whole 70k away.

I biked back to Fernie a little amused. If the cost of not owning a house in Dublin is simply two more days in Canada then I'd take that with both hands. This was the first time I had properly considered returning to Dublin. It is not that I don't want to return there but when you are in the middle of riding the Great Divide you are only one or two days ahead in your head. All I was thinking about on entry to the US was whether the weather would allow me to bike over the Whitefish Divide or not. Now I was having to think about exiting a country I had no intention of staying in but was unsure of when I'd be leaving. I looked into booking a refundable ticket but the price of them and the fact that they are more like 70% refundable meant that I skipped that option. Then I investigated what it might cost to have the flexibility to change dates and was surprised that the local Irish carrier was most favourable. I finally realised that it was possible to book a flight with Continental and cancel it at no cost in 24 hours. Thus, a plan was hatched. The following morning I booked a flight home for Christmas, printed out the itinerary and then I biked to the border. I met with the same guy again who was happy that I had sorted everything out and could continue with my trip. Once I had my passport stamped fresh for a further six months in the US I was on my way. Thankfully the nearest town on the US side lies only 14k away. I pulled over at the public library and proceeded to cancel my flight only six hours after booking it at no-cost.

While the whole experience might seem like a huge inconvenience it is easy for me to take such things in my stride. While it is generally better to say less than more in such scenarios the reason I was asking the questions is because I wanted to make sure I didn't overstay my welcome. I have family in New York and I would never jeopardise my ability to visit them freely. I respect that the lad was only doing his job and he was perfectly nice about the whole thing, it is more the message from the American Administration that he was delivering. While America is a great country it is a little offensive that I am assumed guilty of immigration before I have even entered the country. In being granted a visa I successfully passed the necessary background checks such that it shouldn't have been an issue as to whether I owned a house or not. To be clear, I have no desire to work under the radar for five dollars an hour nor do I have any desire to stay longer than I am welcome. If the minimum wage wasn't so high due to the cost of living in the US then there wouldn't be such a high influx of immigrants from countries where five dollars an hour means a lot to the immigrant and a lot to the US employer as he saves on labour costs. Believe me, I feel very fortunate that I have the option to travel around America for six months and return to Europe when I'm done. Having travelled so freely around the world as a European it is very hard to conceive of what it must be like to be somebody from Mexico who actually tries to walk across the desert illegally with nothing but a bottle of water. However, the two-faced nature of the whole thing is what is annoying; this is a country built by immigrants who sought greater opportunity and greater freedom of expression. It seems that when the capitalists succeeded in dismantling the Iron curtain in Europe that they simply rehung it at the Mexican border. While not all immigrants are illegal there are plenty who are and who can take cover among their respective communities in the US. It seems like once you are in you are in as it appears too big a task to keep track of people off the radar. Of course, being off the radar comes with huge risks. You have nowhere to turn when in trouble and you have no ability to return to your country as it is unlikely that you will be able to get back into the US. American efforts are particularly aimed at Mexico as it fits alongside the so called 'War on Drugs', however, there are still massive border controls at Canada. They have cut a swathe through the trees and there are plenty of motion detectors as well as regular border patrols. The back-country roads to the Canadian border are always ploughed during winter to maintain these strict border controls. There is no let-up it seems at the border but once inside I'm not sure how it is policed or if they even bother; it may suit a lot of people to have these immigrants here so it would not surprise me if it is not effectively policed within the interior on purpose. Assuming immigrants keep out of trouble there is likely no reason for them to bump into the law. I have not been in the US long enough to know.

The one positive thing arising from this whole affair is that I discovered that my six month visa is good for a six month period for each year for the next ten years. I had thought it was a single-entry visa but I was granted a multiple-entry one. I might have more fun at the border yet it seems  ... perhaps it would be easier if I bought a house though.

Hasta luego

Marco 'el hombre' Gilla

welcome to the United States - Big Sky Country Montana

Wednesday
Sep292010

O Canada! Farewell to Thee

While Fernie lies just 70k north of the US border my route, true to form, meandered and so I pulled up just short of the border to camp at Loon Lake. Here, I befriended five year old Daniel from the camp next door. I traded him some Lemonade (Gatorade) and cheese for some 'Smores (melted marshmallow and chocolate between two biscuits), which I failed to get. Little Daniel couldn't get over the fact that I was using a push-bike to travel. He couldn't get his head around why I would do that when I could use a motor-bike. He is probably right but I felt a little sad since he is only five. I would have hoped that we could chat about the one thing which should be common to both of us, bicycles, but it wasn't to be. I appreciate that Canada is the third largest territory in the world and also suffers from some horrendous snows due to its latitude but its car culture is a little overwhelming and particularly if you are on a bike on the roads. It is particularly problematic around the tourist areas as you have a whole load of international tourists renting unfamiliar motor-homes for their two-week Canadian Rockies road-trip. Still, camping in Canada is a far cry from the staking a tent into the ground that it is for me; it is more about how much of your house you can manage to pull on your pick-up truck or conversely how much of a truck you can pull on the back of your house depending on which RV set-up you choose. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't mind an RV myself, but the motor culture here is so pervasive that as a cyclist I feel totally lost as if cycling into a gale. Cycling is something that is best done off the road in Canada it seems.

My brief incursion into Canada (considering the size of the place) had been very positive. The warmth, earthhiness and worldly curiosity that I had found in Canadians outside the country was also reflected inside the country. It is mildly amusing that they try so hard not to be American but their efforts only make them even more so. This is evidenced by the aforementioned car culture and the staggering amount of Canadian flags in evidence. This is by far the most patriotic place I have seen, the maple leaf is on absolutely everything. I'm not sure if it is a symbol of how proud they are of Canada or of how much they don't want to be considered American. While I could pick up the route at a later date to complete a Trans-Canada I have no desire to do so due to the stress of biking in the lower more populated part of the country. Any biking should be done in the northern territories where there are a lot less people and greater possibilities for wild-camping. That being said, Yukon, Toronto, Montreal and in particular St John's in Newfoundland are places that I would be keen to explore so no doubt I'll be back at some point.

´╗┐Regards

Marco

Sunday
Sep262010

Fernie

Fernie popped up on my radar pretty early on into my Canadian adventure as it has a strong mountain-biking scene. The way people described it made it seem like a cool up-and-coming town. It is in fact one of the best ski-resorts in North America with a pretty happening mountain-biking scene. It could possibly be the best snow resort but for the fact that it is a lot less developed and so is unlikely to compete on as level a footing as some of the more commercial ski-towns. The limiting factor for Fernie is that it sits at only 1000ms of elevation and so has a shorter snow season than the likes of Whistler, which while being at a lowly 600ms itself manufactures its own powder to keep business ticking over. In Fernie they rely on the real stuff and so the ski-lift operators only run the lifts for the four months from December to April as that is all they can make money from.

The thing about Fernie is that it is not trying to compete for the limelight. I don't know if it doesn't stack up commercially or if somebody just hasn't gotten around to stumping up the cash yet but the town is probably better off left alone. For eight months of the year it is a very small and practically comatose mountain town. Then, just as the animals are turning over in their deep sleep for the winter Fernie decides to wake up and goes wild from December to early April. Its ski-slope is only a couple of kilometres from town and as there are not a whole lot of hotels in the area it lacks the kind of congestion that makes getting to the top of the slopes in other resorts problematic. It seems to me that the Ferniens very much have their own vibe going and while they are very friendly and open you kind of know whether you fit in or not straight away. To appreciate Fernie you kind of already have to have some of that same vibe going on inside you. It's cool but it's not a brash cool, rather a very under-stated and humble kind of cool so it is possible that some people wouldn't quite get it. They are more than happy to share their town with you but it's refreshingly not in a way that they are trying to make money from you. The fact that it is a raw mountain-town where you can walk from the town into the countryside as opposed to having to drive makes it very appealing. It is great to be able to bike from your door to the trails in the Provincial Park or to the bottom of the gondola for some down-hilling. It is this natural setting which makes it so great; when you are riding it feels like you are discovering it just as the very first mountain-bikers did.

The great thing about Fernie is that the locals are proud of it and while they are happy to share it they are too busy trying to enjoy it themselves that they can't be bothered trying to sell it. I hope it stays this way as it is a place for the purists as opposed to the tourists who are likely better suited to nearby Banff.

I hope you are all well

Marco

800 year old cedar trees on the Old Cedar Growth trail

Friday
Sep242010

One Ski-town to Another - Banff to Fernie

The first leg of the Great Divide mountain-bike route lies in Canada. They recently extended the route as the Rockies do not stop at the international border and so there were calls to bring the route north into Canada. While the Rockies continue further north than Banff in Alberta it seems that the particular range that goes through the US and makes up the Continental Divide starts in Banff. There are mountains all around me so I'm not sure how they work such things out; I'm guessing the age of the rock.

Thankfully the skies were blue as I started the trail but I was a little blue too having had to say goodbye to a really great girl that morning. My distracted thoughts made me a little guilty of staring wistfully at the ground as opposed to taking in the impressive scenery around me. However, the terrain was a lot rougher than I expected and so ground-watching was probably no bad thing. The first section was through woods on a bumpy dirt track that seemed to have its fair share of ups and downs. Eventually it opened up onto a gravel road with any passing cars kicking up huge clouds of dust. Some drivers slow down for cyclists but others rip over the gravel totally oblivious to the fact that I would have to gasp their dust until it settled.

The route to the border of Mexico is a long one and so it is not really expected that a rider will be able to navigate every inch of the route successfully. This is due to the fact that the route goes through a lot of remote forest lands and over mountain passes meaning that nature plays a role in terms of successful navigation. One could potentially encounter forest-fires, rain-storms, snow-storms and even sand-storms. Thus, heeding the local weather conditions plays an important role in terms of advancing along the route. On the first day a Ranger forced me to stay on the main gravel road as opposed to detouring along the west side of the reservoir as the route prescribed. The reason was due to greater wildlife activity than normal and so I had to stay on the dusty gravel road as opposed to heading for another brief incursion into the woods. It was only a small detour so it wasn't an issue.

I eventually arrived at the Kananaskis Lakes where there are several camp-grounds. It is a pretty part of the country that Canadians like to visit as it suffers a lot less from the volume of tourists up around Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper. I was tempted to bike on but I thought it made sense to climb Elk Pass the following morning on fresh legs. Naturally the scenery was impressive although a little underwhelming considering its local reputation. I am unaware how the Rockies look further South but for certain the name is apt in Canada as there is nothing but bare rock faces overlooking you wherever you turn.

Elk Pass itself has a big reputation in the Tour Divide race as it tends to be snow-covered even in late June when the race hits it. This makes it difficult to climb forcing riders to push bikes over it. The ideal strategy in such a scenario is to climb it at day-break when the snow is still hard-packed. Most riders try to tackle it the evening of the first day but by then the snow has softened in the sun requiring huge efforts to push bikes through the snow. Even though it was clear of snow by the time I arrived, the fact that I'm carting a lot more than the 5 kilos the racers carry meant that I still had to walk up the part wall of the climb. This was mostly due to a mix of the gradient and stony road surface. It is rare that I have to push my bike  but even unloaded it would have been fairly difficult. Once back on my bike I followed the route of the power-lines for my first Divide crossing. The Divide is marked by the streams which flow into rivers heading either west to the Pacific or east to the Atlantic. In this case it also demarcated the boundary of Alberta with BC.

From here the route opened up as I passed through some wonderfully lush countryside. The route was starting to charm me such was the appeal of the scenery and the silence. Passing through the tiny town of Elkford I pushed on through coal mining country along the Fording River. My route took me to the town of Sparwood, where I would make the first real detour of my trip. Some sections of the route offer an alternative route and while it would have been nice to explore the last undeveloped valley in Canada, I was keen to take the Fernie alternative to visit what is supposedly a great little mountain town. Fernie, only three days into my trip South, would mark my first rest-day.

Chat soon

Marco

Fairmont Springs Hotel - start of the Great Divide

Kananakis LakeElk Pass - first divide crossingscenic camping spot near Elkford

Sparwood - coal-mining truckbike in shot for a little perspectiveweather starting to turn

Candian farm-house near the border

Monday
Sep202010

The Great Divide - Introduction

The Fairmont Springs Hotel marks the trail-head for the Great Divide mountain-bike route that spans the Rockies from touristy Banff in Canada to the dusty Juarez on the Mexican border. The whole route is  2700 miles and while it follows the Continental Divide it does not follow the actual ridge that some people hike, rather it criss-crosses the eastern and western sides multiple times making for lots of climbing. 80% of the route is on dirt or gravel (fire-access) roads, 10% is off the off-road on more technical mountain-bike sections and 10% is on paved roads where a gravel road can not be linked with another gravel road. The appeal of the route is really that one should encounter very little traffic in a part of the world where both the volume of traffic and the size of the actual vehicles can make biking quite stressful.

The idea to bike the Divide was conceived in the late eighties but not actively researched until the mid-nineties. Since 1997 the route has been ridden and fine-tuned and now has its own race in late June where the victor somehow manages to complete the whole route self-supported in an astounding 17 and a half days. The route is not a hard-core mountain-bike route, rather a route than can be toured. Adventure Cycling, a Montana based organisation, is responsible for piecing this route together. This organisation has done a wonderful job of creating bike-friendly routes all across America. The result is that a lot of people in the US are now embracing bike-touring through purchasing their maps. They have made bike-travel a lot more accessible as their maps take all the guess work out of a trip. You are in effect riding the most bike-friendly route possible for whatever part of the country you wish to tour in. Such is the array of routes that one can do anything from a weekend tour carrying nothing but your water bottles to three month expedition tours such as Trans-Ams. The Great Divide route I am riding is likely their premier route due to the challenging mountain terrain, remoteness and the fact that it is by and large off-road and traffic-free.

For certain, the challenging nature of the route would be too much for some but true to form I have done zero homework and so I haven't a rashers what I am letting myself in for. I actually have no idea when I first discovered this route - possibly a few years ago when I looked into biking in Colorado and saw some photos of weirdos riding single-track with bags on their bikes. Further investigation at another stage led me to discover that the route was not just in Colorado but through the whole of the Rockies and so the Great Divide seemed to be the most fun way for me to bike to Denver.

The only preparation I managed to do was to order the maps online and to bike across Canada to the trail-head in Banff. The route is divided into seven maps of which I bought the fist five (omitting the last two for New Mexico). From first glance the route is far from direct preferring to meander its way through the Canadian Rockies, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. The maps also include a full service directory so that one is aware of where lodging, both informal and formal camp-sites, restaurants, grocery stores, bike shops, ranger stations and even bars are located along or near the route. Such detail is a luxury for me as I usually make my routes and organise things as I go based on conversations with locals. Thus, it is with mixed feelings that I head into the wild as while it will be very exciting and challenging it seems like I simply just need to follow the instructions. My legs and form are good, I'm pretty confident I have enough kit to handle whatever tricky mountain weather the Rockies throw at me and I have a new rear wheel on my bike. All in all, having ridden through the Andes I'm not sure if I could be better prepared. Indeed, I am feeling pretty relaxed about things before I set off. In defiance to some of the bike-touring nerds I am riding a cheap $19 tyre which I bought after my expedition Schwalbe tyre suffered a gash in the tyre wall. Tyre selection is something that bike-touring geeks deliberate for days over. For certain, my tyre is way too slick for the muddy and gravelly sections of the trail I am about to ride, however, I'm looking forward to seeing how it holds up and hopefully getting her as far along the trail as my bike goes. A pointless act of defiance in an age where people are more focused on their equipment than the actual riding. Naturally, I have a spare knobbly, which I can swap on at any point if I need to.

In terms of concerns, I am reading on my maps that it is not recommended to ride the route solo due to potential injury in the remote backcountry .... hmmm. I never really thought of that. I guess such worries never crossed my mind although I do carry a decent first-aid kit in the assumption that I will be able to use it should anything happen. The only real worry I have is if snow sticks early in Colorado and forces me to abandon the route. Even then, there will be some other way.

The last thought concerns my blog. The trip through North America has been totally different to South America due to the amount of camping I am doing. Instead of unwinding in the comfort of a hostel over some wi-fi I am losing two hours a day setting up and taking down my camp. Plus, my laptop is impaired with no ability to connect to wi-fi making updating on the fly problematic. Internet cafes don't really exist outside of cities as it is rightly assumed that everyone can avail of wi-fi. Thus, I am relying on library computers whose browser preferences are disturbing. I guess it would be nice to publish a daily blow-by-blow account of the ride but that is just not going to happen. Of course, I will do my best to convey the spirit of the Rockies and the Great Divide both visually and literally.

Right so, time now for the dude to head into the wild.

Marco