With enthusiasm overflowing from the overall excitement of the beginning of the journey, I tended to catch people off-guard when I would ask them a question beyond the typical “How are you?”. This state was a learning experience of how to approach the locals without scaring them off from my inquisitiveness. Northwestern Montana and into the Southwestern parts, I realized, while home to beautiful views and copious wildlife, was also home to some of the most historic small towns in the state. As you can imagine, with small towns, come eclectic locals, and with the locals, come the stories.
Rita & Chuck
My friend and I arrived in Whitefish the day before the Grand Depart and decided last minute we would stay with Rita and Chuck instead of camping due to cold and rainy weather. We figured it would be nice to start the trip off with a good night’s rest. Rita & Chuck are Warmshowers Hosts, an app that allows cylists who are embarking on long journeys to connect with locals for a place to stay and you guessed it, a warm shower.
Ironically enough, we said our goodbyes the next morning thinking we wouldn’t see Rita & Chuck again. WRONG. We had planned to camp at the top of Red Meadow Pass the first night, but after a grizzly decided to waltz in front of our small group 30 miles into Day 1, I called up Rita for a place to stay after a 100 mile first day. They welcomed us again, and our thank you to them included setting off the fire alarm at 10:30pm cooking frozen pizzas we bought from the gas station down the street. Oh well – at least we weren’t bear food.
The night before the big depart, my friend and I had dinner downtown Whitefish and we had an amazing waitress. She was so kind and of course we asked her 100 questions. She bounces up and down the West with the seasons.
“I spend my summers here in Whitefish working as a waitress and my winters down in Death Valley working at the park. I go there for the sun. One piece of life advice I’ve got for you – start saving early. It adds up by the time you’re my age.”
With temps in the upper 90’s, the ride to Ovando was quite a challenging one. With 10 miles to go, the clouds began to darken in the distance, and I put my head down and booked it towards town. Wind & dust blowing all around me, I made it just before a massive storm overtook the small abode. Inside, John greeted me and pointed out the ice cream available.
“So Ovando had 5 bars, 3 hotels, and a bank during the early 1900’s and had a population of about 1,000. Today’s population is about 50. This was a depot for mining and lumber industry materials coming from Drummond, MT.”
Big Fork, MT
Big Fork sits on the GDMBR between Whitefish and Holland Lake. The craziest part of this day was passing 2 female cylists going north whom I had met on my way up driving through yellowstone a week prior. Just a random road in MT and we found eachother. Echo Lake Cafe was a poppin’ spot on the corner of a small intersection that served us some beverages and coffee cake. I met Bob as he was asking our group of cyclists that had congregated there where we all from. In turn, I asked him.
“I’ve lived in Big Fork for 24 years. I’ve owned Echo Lake Cafe for a long time. The only thing I wish is that I had discovered this place sooner. There is adventure everywhere you look.”
Barbara & John
Stemple Pass, MT
Barbara has resided in her home in the valley beyond Stemple Pass for 33 years and has been hosting cyclists since the creation of the Great Divide Route in 1998. She has created an oasis that is home to a bunch of llamas, 4 tiny cabins equipped with all your basic needs, a tepee, and an outhouse. We arrived around 6pm and were greeted by John with ice cream and our choice of pop or beer. We all gathered on the front porch to chat and I got to listen to the story of how these two met and have maintained the legacy of Llamaland.
John: “I was riding a version of the Great Divide route 5 years ago from Denver, CO. I rode through here and stopped to refuel for a bit before carrying on up towards the pass. I knocked on the door and Barbara opened it, and we ended up chatting for a little while. A storm was brewing in the distance but I decided to carry on, though with the thought that if it started storming within 5 miles, that I would return back to Barbara’s home. Well, it started storming at mile 4.2, so I turned around, and that was the start of our wonderful 5 year partnership. Everything here is free and we do this because we just believe in kindness and we hope that the kindness we show people will be paid forward. That’s our #1 hope through doing all of this.”
Barbara: “One of the greatest memories we had was when we made dinner for a group of cyclists on the back porch and we were all gathered around our table and I just looked at John and we shared a moment of deep appreciation for this life. We love hosting people and the conversations that come out of it.”
My friend who had planned on riding 10 days with me unfortunately had some bike and body troubles and had to be picked up in Clancy, MT. While she was waiting for her ride, she took the chance to share about the stories I was searching for along the Divide with a woman who worked inside the Pub we said goodbye at. Tammy and Deb shared tears for different yet very similar reasons, and Deb shared a quote she recieved from Tammy.
“Make everything fun. Life is hard, hurtful, and stressful — I’ve been through a lot and fun cuts through everything else to give you a little bit of life when it’s hard. I’ve worked since I was 15, and when you’re not making life fun, its just really hard.”
Butte is a super interesting city and after a couple days of camping it was nice to know that there was someone here that was willing to take our group of cyclists in for the night. John is also a Warmshowers host who goes above and beyond for his guests. He has an adorable dog named Roux who welcomed us with lots of licks and jumps. John even cooked us one of his signature homemade meals that he makes for folks who come by. In the morning he had coffee available for us and thanks to his generosity, we were filled up to the core, ready to take on the next section.
“I love hosting cyclists, last week I hosted 18. One time this french cyclist stayed with me and cooked a pound of bacon, 4 hard boiled eggs, and 2 frozen pizzas – all to be taken with him on the bike the next day.”
Connie & Danette
Wise River, MT
Wise River happens to fall right after one of the more iconic descents of the entire trip – Fleecer Ridge. Notorious for its steepness combined with a plethora of rocks, it tends to be traversed in multiple trips by cyclists, hence taking a very long time. Wise River Mercantile falls at an ideal point and is a wonderful spot to find pretty much all the food items Divide cyclists crave after a tough day on the mountain. Connie and Danette are sisters and really thrive working together at the Mercantile.
Connie: “I’ve lived here for 38 years and owned this place for 8. I love watching moose walk right by the front door.”
Danette: “Working with my sister is everything I could ever want in life.”
Doug & Candy
I ran into Doug and Candy towards the end of a long day that was spent winding through an open valley of MT with the sun beating down the whole time. I was in need of water pretty badly and I saw Doug’s truck as I was riding through the canyon. They quickly offered up some cold water and of course I got the chance to ask them a few questions. Married 45 years, these two retired teachers hail from California and spend their summers exploring the world together.
Doug: “We met at church 45 years ago, and if there’s one thing about life that I can tell you, it’s to stay faithful to your mate.”
Candy: “My life advice…well, manage your money and make your money work for you. We’re both teachers and we’ve made it work. We have traveled all over the world with our kids and managed to retire early on a teachers salary. But that said, do for a career whatever you truly love and if you don’t love it walk away from it. That’s my two cents.”
We rolled into Lima, MT, a tiny town with a population of 219. Home to an RV Park/Motel, gas station, renowned steakhouse, and Jan’s Cafe (they had the best pancakes of the trip so far). Lima also happens to be a converging point of the Great Divide MTB route and the CDT, so hikers and bikers are no strange site in this place. Doug has owned the RV Park/Motel/Campsite area with his wife since 2005.
“We moved here from Omaha in 2001 to be closer to our daughter who owns a ranch across the way. This motel was built in the 1960s by a local family who’s daughter actually owns Jan’s Cafe over there. Lima used to be a railroad hub back in the day, and we love to say our water supply comes straight from those mountains way up there. My piece of life wisdom – just don’t get too serious. Ever.”
Becky – also hailing from the small town of Lima, MT, was first our cashier at the local gas station. Friendly as can be, she joked with us about our caloric intake and the copious amounts of chocolate milk that were being purchased. Then, the next day I was collecting some items from the post office, and I thought that I was seeing double. Becky also works there (that’s her full time gig). They do it all in Lima, let me tell you.
“Yeah I work full time here at the post office, part-time as a clerk at the gas station down the street, and I’m also my daughter’s high school basketball coach. You have do a little bit of everything around here. Keeps things interesting.”