This is an excerpt from my new book, Right Lane Ends.
Good comes to all who wait I guess because by late morning the rain had let up, the sky cleared and the sun came out. We’d left the Jax Cafe when the weather began to improve and riding in the fresh air seemed to cut our hangovers a little. The Bloody Mary’s had helped, too, but we still weren’t a hundred percent. I was shaky and sweaty and the sun was playing havoc with my dull headache. Thankfully there wasn’t a lot of noisy traffic; the blast from a Jake Brake would have surely pushed me over the edge. We spent the rest of the morning riding slowly nursing our hangovers and paying for our sins. Around noon we reached the turn off for the town of Fortine and on a lark we decided to take a tour through the little village. There was a flea market being held in the school and as I strolled among the tables piled high with old comic books, electrical appliances and rolls of carpet remnants, I struck up a conversation with a woman who had seen us ride in on our heavily laden bicycles. “Wow,” she said, when I told her about our trip, “I wish I could do something like that.” She was in her mid forties, slim with brown hair worn shoulder length.
“It remains to be seen if I can do it,” I said.
“Yeah, but at least you’re trying.”
As we spoke her husband walked up and introduced himself. “Couldn’t help overhearing,” he said, stroking his moustache and adjusting his cowboy hat, “around the world… man, that is something.” We talked a bit more then he glanced at his wife, and she nodded. “Look, there’s a bar up the road a couple of miles; why don’t you guys meet us there? We’d love to buy you a beer.”
“Sounds like just what I need,” I said, “we’ll see you there.”
We followed Jerri and Al’s directions and found what looked like a small market but there was no bar in sight. I went in the store and asked the clerk who directed me to a door back by the dairy section. “It’s right through there,” she said, “you can’t miss it.”
Al and Jerri were sitting at a table when we walked in and they waved us over. “Set us up,” Al called to the bar keep. There was only one other patron in the place besides the four of us; a drunk sitting at the bar mumbling to himself.
As we talked we discovered that Al was a retired California Highway Patrolman. They’d gotten tired of the L.A. life and moved here to the wilds of Montana where they kept a small ranch. “I’ve got a question,” Mike said, “we’ve been seeing a lot of road signs with bullet holes in them. Shot all to hell. What’s the deal with that?”
Al smiled a wry smile. He lifted up his jacket to reveal a small black automatic pistol in a holster attached to his belt. “Welcome to the West,” he said.
We spent that night at a state campground on Dickey Lake. Our plan was to reach Whitefish the next evening, take a rest day on Saturday then on Sunday Mike would take the train back to Seattle. It was our last day riding together and to commemorate the occasion we made a big dinner of pasta with smoked salmon and washed it down with a good bottle of Pinot Grigio.
The next day we pedaled beside rushing rivers and through deep forests stopping often to take pictures or to just soak up the fantastic ambience. We kidded each other and laughed and joked as usual but there was a sadness too. It would be our last day of riding together and neither of us wanted it to end. Especially me. Mike had been the navigator and had steered our course unerringly. He’d been there to support me in my many moments of doubt and to encourage me when the going got too tough. But after today I’d be on my own. And the hardest was yet to come. On Monday I’d be tackling the mother of all mountain climbs; the Rocky Mountains and the Great Continental Divide.
Around 3:00 PM we reached Whitefish. It had been a short ride; only thirty-seven miles, so before heading out to Mike’s friend’s place where we’d be staying the next couple of days we stopped at a pizza parlor and drank our last pitcher of beer together for God-only-knew how long. We sat and recounted our adventures and toasted to all the great people we’d met along the way then the glasses were dry and it was time to go.
Mike knew Don and Sharon from his days of selling X-Ray machines in that part of the West. Mike called them and got directions to their ranch a few miles out of town. Don was standing in his front yard waiting for us when we arrived. Don is about our age, in his early sixties, and is retired from his career as an X-Ray technician. He and his wife, Sharon, live on a twenty-acre horse ranch with a view of the nearby ski resort, Big Mountain. “Welcome!” he shouted as we rolled around the last corner of his quarter-mile-long driveway, “we’ve been waiting for you guys all day!” Mike hadn’t seen Don or Sharon for many years and we sat at their big kitchen table while the three of them caught up. At first I felt a little left out but they made an effort to bring me into the conversation and soon we were all talking and laughing like old friends.
The next day Don drove us around Whitefish and up to the ski area. The last time I’d skied there many years before it had been a rustic affair with a few slope-side bars and some small cabins. Now it had gone big time. We drove past multi-million dollar ski lodges and upscale bistros. I was glad to see that skiing was still a big sport in Whitefish but in all the development the down-home character had been lost. That night we got a taste of just how tony the little mountain town had become. We dined on grilled salmon at an upscale restaurant, had a nightcap at a happening bar, and then returned to Don and Sharon’s for some good conversation before turning in for the night.
The next day was spent resting and working on our bikes. Mine needed some maintenance and Mike had to disassemble his and put it in a box for the train ride back to Seattle. His train didn’t leave until evening so we had dinner at a restaurant near the tracks. As the hour for his departure drew near we drifted across the street and I saw him off at the station. “It’s been a great trip,” he said as he climbed the steps to the Pullman car, “remember to keep the greasy side down!”
I hated to say goodbye; there had been too many of them lately and I just waved him off using guy humor to mask my true feeling of loss. “Get out of here, you damn reprobate, I’m better off on my own.”
Mike just smiled, he knew the guy-code.
I spent that night at Don and Sharon’s and the next morning they sent me off with a big slice of banana bread that Sharon had made. Though we’d only known each other for a few days I felt we’d formed a lasting bond. They stood in their yard, waving, as I rode away. It was truly a sad moment but there was no time for tears; it was Monday, May twenty-first, 2012, and I had a mountain to climb.