In a way my whole trip is Steve Coackley’s fault. Or at any rate, his 2003 world bike tour has a lot to answer for. I was working long hours as a recruiter in the IT industry back then, paying off my student loans and buying a house. Steve was a friend of a friend; we’d met a few times when he set off on his circumnavigation. He wrote monthly dispatches to the local newspaper, which I read hungrily during my lunch-breaks. I was sitting in my kitchen eating beans on toast while Steve was in Western China getting arrested on suspicion of spying. His trip was just about the most adventurous thing I’d heard of outside fiction. It planted the seeds of possibility in my mind, but germination would take another decade.
By August 2014 those seeds had taken root. I was ready to take the plunge, but friends wiser and more prudent than me urged me to think it over for a few weeks before committing. I decided to make a test run for three weeks by motorcycle. I would visit friends around Europe, with whom I could sanity check my plans to go vagabonding for five years. Tellingly, everyone thought it would be a great idea if I buggered off.
It was during that test run that I found myself standing in the fast lane of a German autobahn next to my motorcycle, somewhere near Limburg. A pall of black smoke plumed across the evening sky, and there was a smell of burning asphalt and rubber that left a bitter taste in the back of my throat. There had been a colossal smash up somewhere up ahead. I’d filtered through five miles of bumper-to-bumper stationary traffic, until the lanes became too narrow and I couldn’t go any further. No one was was going anywhere for a while.
I sat on the crash barrier of the central reservation and opened my paperback copy of Mark Beaumont’s ‘The Man Who Cycled the World‘. Like me, Beaumont got his kicks by pushing his physical and mental limits. But the record-breaking scene didn’t jive with me. I wanted to understand the world as I explored it. And that would take time. Then I remembered Steve. Why was I reading a book with a jumped-up title, when I personally knew someone who’d done it? Although I hadn’t seen Steve for years, I was sure I still had his number. I patted the dozen pockets of my biker jacket until I located a phone-shaped bulge. When Steve answered, in one of life’s beautiful synchronicities, he was right at that moment driving to Northern Germany too.
We met up in the Mosel Valley a few days later, and since then Steve has been an endless source of support for my trip. He advised me about kit selection and life on the road, stored my remaining worldly goods in his loft space, sent and received parcels on my behalf. So I was thrilled when he said he wanted to join me to ride for a week or so in North America. I timed my ride across Canada to meet him in Banff. Together we would tackle the first part of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR), a mostly off-road route that follows the continental watershed to Mexico.
I cycled out of Canmore to our rendezvous on a crisp September afternoon with Bob Dylan crooning in my earphones. ‘Alberta, what’s on your mind?‘ he warbled, probably about a lover, but one could just as easily fall for the Canadian province of the same name. The sheer ramparts of the Rundle Range towered over my left shoulder, seven cuspidate peaks all in a row like a child’s drawing of a mountain range. A fresh dusting of snow traced the slantwise dips and folds in its colossal cliffs. In the autumn sunshine, the whole world sparkled as if made anew.
In Banff, Steve and I caught up while filling our faces with curry and naan in a surprisingly authentic Indian restaurant. After a long breakfast at the hostel, we set about rebuilding Steve’s bike and changing a few components on mine. For this section of more rugged riding, I was swapping to a lower gear range (12-36) and wider mountain bike tyres (2.5″). I’d previously run a 2.5″ tyre on the back in Central Asia, so I didn’t foresee any issues now. My error was in forgetting that I had never run one in the front before (one of the tyres sent to me in Tbilisi was lost in the post). I modified the mudguards to accept the new tyres, but for some reason I couldn’t get the front one to sit evenly in the wheel rim.
We set off late morning and my front tyre was flat within the first mile. Bizarrely, the tube had failed on its internal circumference. I swapped the tube and tried to get the tyre seated right again. Within a few hundred metres, another puncture, another internal defect. It was embarrassing to be holding Steve up before we even got out of town. I assured him that this was not normal, that I hadn’t had a puncture since Australia. But I needn’t have fussed, Steve is not the impatient type. He took out his phone and started making a video for his girlfriend, cheerfully narrating the story of our delay.
Finally we were away into the forest following the Spray River along the western flank of the Rundle Range. The scent of pines, the song of birds and the burble of rushing water erased my frustrations. So long as the tyres stayed inflated, they were a superbly plush ride on the stony trails. The traction was unbelievable after being used to slicker, narrower tyres for years. Although we’d barely started, we came upon a riverside picnic table too good to pass up for lunch. Brewing up, I was slightly envious of Steve’s proper ceramic tea mug emblazoned ‘Love You Dad’, a present from his two young daughters. Tea just doesn’t taste right in a plastic or metal cup.
Steve didn’t have such luxuries on his world tour sixteen years ago. Age 28 he left home (Glossop, UK) heading east on a more or less direct line of latitude around the northern hemisphere, across Scandinavia, Russia, Kazakhstan, China, USA and Ireland. When his cycling partner (our mutual friend, Harry) had to drop out not long before departure, he advertised and found three other cyclists to team up with (a Scot, an Australian and a Chinese). Inconveniences and snags are water off a duck’s back to Steve. After his trip, the same calm, practical disposition helped him build a thriving cycle touring business. His company now runs supported tours throughout Europe, employing over thirty cycling guides. Thousands of customers take his tours in an average season. As well as designing the tours and logistical planning, Steve has to troubleshoot the inevitable snafus as they arise daily, from crashes to food poisoning to lost passports. It helps to have a cool head.
After lunch, in the woods I met a large tabby cat. Trotting a few paces behind came a black dog, and moments later a female hiker in her late twenties. “Beauty! Naughty cat! Come back here!” she yelled in a nasal voice that startled birds from treetops. The cat proceeded to chase the dog in circles around us, while Steve joined us grinning. ‘Are you … taking your cat for a hike?’ I asked. “Sure am. That cat’s hiked every province in Canada”, she squawked. “Is this the way to Banff Springs?”. Yes it is, we told her. But she was still a good 15 km out, so would have to haul if she wanted to make it in daylight. “Oh, we’ll be fine” she trilled. And off they marched.
Off Spray Lakes Road we found a plum stealth camping spot in woodland a few hundred metres back from the lake shore, carpeted with pine needles. Wildcamping is technically prohibited in the national park, so we resisted making a fire. It was fascinating to see my life through someone else’s eyes. Steve marvelled at the quantity of food I put away for dinner. I encouraged him to do the same, but it was the first day of his tour, so ‘the hunger’ hadn’t kicked in yet for him. Steve grappled with the tent loaned to him by one of his tour guides. I recalled his sage advice before I set off. “If you’re going away for years, do you really want to live in a tiny, coffin-sized backpacking tent? The difference in weight is nothing compared to the difference in comfort”, he’d said. I have never regretted heeding that advice, when otherwise I probably would’ve brought my smallest, lightest tent.
Next day the real fun started at the foot of Elk Pass. We scarfed sugary snacks to give us a boost up two steep rocky climbs. I took the first climb as slowly as would keep the bike upright, pacing myself and intently picking my line, years of cross-country mountain biking back home in the Peak District paying off. I was on my absolute limit to ride it ‘clean’ (without putting a foot down), both aerobically and in terms of bike handling skills. There was no chance to get started again on such a steep incline if I stopped. And I knew that if I had to dismount it would be harder to push the bike than ride it. My heart tried to burst through my ribcage and I could taste blood, and I rested a few minutes before the next section. The second climb was convex and even steeper than the first. I fixed on what I took to be the crux and hung on for my life. Over the hump the gradient eased and I knew it was in the bag.
We skidded and bounced down into Elk Valley where snow-capped mountains encirled us. The sky bruised in moody monochromes, the first grumblings of winter flurries threatening to the south. On this ride, the weather was more of a concern than skills or equipment. Winter had already put a warning shot across my bows when I cycled to Banff the week before. There I had been close to freezing, wet and on the limit of my energy reserves. I was in no hurry to repeat that experience in a true wilderness setting.
We came to a clearing with a small log cabin left open as an overnight shelter, what would in Scotland be called a bothy. Steve was in favour of making it our home for the night. I was not convinced. The cabin obviously saw a lot of use, but it hadn’t been well looked-after. It was a rather dirtier and mousier than I would have liked. (If this tour was the film of ‘The Odd Couple‘, I’d be Felix and Steve would be Oscar). But also, if we were going to make it for Steve’s flight in seven days while staying faithful to the GDMBR, then we had to go further each day that we had been doing.
I realised it was Steve’s call. He had come out to visit me, so if he was happy then I was happy. I pitched my tent next to the cabin and Steve set up indoors. We gathered firewood and built up a huge blaze. Before leaving UK, Steve had asked me if there was anything I craved from back home. Crumpets and Branston pickle I’d replied without hesitation. Steve had packed both in his panniers, so I fashioned a toasting rack and grilled the crumpets on the fire, and topped them with cheese and pickle. A bit smokey but a welcome reminder of home comforts.
In the morning a muddy pick-up truck stopped by. The driver was a young bearded guy, gold front tooth, tattooed arm hanging over the door. Which way were we heading? he asked. We told him south. “Well just so you know” he said, “we had to shoot a horse down that way. It’s in a clear-cut at the side of the road, about 20km away. There’s already been a bear on it this morning. So watch out!”. We checked our bear spray was at hand and splashed through the rain and mud, eyeing the forest with increased vigilance. Had to shoot a horse? Then just leave it there as bear bait. What the…?
But we saw neither horse nor bear. A soggy morning’s riding brought us to Elkwood. We found a service station where the Korean owner let us jet wash our cruddy bikes for free, while I regaled him with Korean phrases from my year teaching there. ‘Gamsa-hamneeda!’ To put us back on schedule we determined to take the road directly to Sparwood and stay in a hotel. Leapfrogging a blocked, muddy section of trail around Elkwood would buy us time for a scenic three-day meander through the Flathead Valley – known as Grizzly Alley for having the highest inland concentration of grizzly bears in the world. They must have been hibernating or on holiday, because we saw neither hide nor hair of them.
The hotel catered mostly for mining engineers. Dirty great pick-up trucks filled the car park. The hotel staff were entirely relaxed about us bringing our filthy bikes through the lobby and into our room. We stood out among the clientele for being the only male customers without bellies, beards and baseball caps. For all its rough and ready aspect, the hotel restaurant served up quality fare. Again Steve marvelled at my appetite. I inhaled a full-size pizza and a meal salad and could have easily polished off dessert too.
I did battle with the front tyre again in the hotel room, using shampoo to try seat it in the rim more evenly. It turned out to be another waste of time. Later that afternoon at the top of the Flathead Valley, I waited straddling my bike while Steve caught up. I’d been standing there three minutes, when suddenly, with no weight on the bike except the panniers, the front tyre hissed flat. FFS! It turned out to be another internal problem. We tried swapping Steve’s 2.1″ rear tyre with my 2.5″ front. We were both riding Thorn bikes (Steve has the Nomad Mk1), but the modification I’d made to my rear mudguard proved impossible with Steve’s. So after faffing for almost two hours we put everything back as it was in the first place.
The trail down into the valley became a rocky river bed. We hauled the bikes over boulders until it was rideable again. The last rays of sunlight dappled through the aspens and beeches that crowded the trail. We paused on an overlook to view a red and orange sky reflected in the Flathead River. The tyre faff had used up two hours of precious daylight, but were it not for that delay we wouldn’t have seen that unforgettable sunset from that perfect vantage point.
We had to find our way to our intended campsite in the dark; the the last six kilometres seemed to take an eternity. I had to check the GPS map several times to ensure we hadn’t overshot, casting about looking for the entrance to the recreation site near Pollock Bridge. We dropped straight into our by now well-drilled routine: scout the site, choose pitching spots, get the tents up, gather firewood, get the stove on to boil water, make a fire and kick back cooking dinner.
The next day was all long gentle climbs with views across immense forests to distant peaks. It ended with a fast descent down a long gravel road, which I took full throttle, taking foolish chances with grip and obstacles. The fatter tyres gave confidence; for a while I half imagined myself on my full suspension bike. But I had no suspension, and around 35kg of gear on a heavy steel bike. So when I tried to bunny-hop a water bar at speed, I landed with a sickening snap followed by a clattering, buzzing sound. I was lucky. I’d kept control of the bike, and all the only damage was a snapped front mudguard. “Who needs a front mudguard anyway”, said Steve, who was already riding without one.
On the descent, Steve spotted an object at the side of the road and picked it up – an ammunition case full of enormous rifle bullets. A couple of large women in an enormous truck stopped for a chat. An hour later, when we were setting up camp at the Ram Wigwam rec site, they paid us another visit. They were friendly, a little too friendly, and I was glad when they left. They took the bullets off our hands, though. I kidded Steve that he might have more than just grizzlies to worry about if he felt his tent shaking in the night.
A path from the main camping area led through the trees to a pebble river bank with a view to die for. I spotted the telltale outline of rocks revealing where other cyclists had had the same idea. To my surprise, Steve did not want to camp there. I hadn’t realised because, ever the stoic, he hadn’t mentioned before that he was not enjoying sleeping in the tent. While my four-inch thick air mattress smoothed out any lumps and bumps on forest floor or pebble beach, Steve was using the skinny old Thermarest from his world tour fifteen years ago. It offered nothing like the comfort that I enjoyed. I empathised, as I’m not the best sleeper. We split the difference: Steve camped on grass in the main area, and joined me on the riverbank to cook by the campfire.
We psyched ourselves up for our biggest day on the Great Divide route. We’d been warned about three challenges on this part. First, a boggy section of swampy stream crossings and close-grown, tough, shrubby plants that claw at your shins as you try to bash through one of the rare sections of singletrack. Second was a section of trail so steep it is known as ‘The Wall’. Third, the ascent of Carson Pass, the highest point on the Canadian Great Divide. To these, I was adding a fourth challenge – crossing the border into USA.
First up was the part I dreaded most: the Swamp of Doom. No one likes getting wet feet on winter rides. Now daytime temperatures were in low single figures, so my feet were already frozen without a wetting. And getting wet at the start of the day is the worst, you never recover. But against our expectations, the singletrack was more or less all rideable and the few muddy streams were low enough that we could ford them by using the bike to pole vault. Dry feet!
There was no mistaking the Wall. Around a bend in the riverside trail the path suddenly kicked up sheer, winding round tree trunks and between boulders. Hiking territory. Everyone has to push and carry there. I had heard about other cyclists teaming up, two people to push one lightly-loaded bike. But for us there was no chance of that. We would have to take the panniers off and portage everything. We put our backs into it, and within 90 minutes had completed the three stage relay of bike and all bags, reaching a point where the trail was rideable again.
After an enormous lunch of noodles, sandwiches, tea and chocolate, we got stuck into the long switchbacks of Carson Pass. I was in my element on this stuff. I threw some steady-rolling blues on the headphones and tapped away, eating up the climb. If I’d climbed a little quicker, Steve had the advantage of me descent, cornering as if on rails. I gave it full beans on the stony, occasionally snowy double track descent, but I couldn’t keep him in sight. For almost an hour we flew down and down. My feet and hands burned with an intense cold.
And then the day’s final hurdle: US immigration. I had heard of cyclists being given a hard time when entering USA a second time. I hadn’t obtained a stamp out of Alaska or into Canada, so I didn’t have official proof that I hadn’t overstayed. Instead, I’d printed bank statements to show that I’d been in Canada for the last five weeks and had funds to cover my stay in USA. The immigration officer browsed the dozens of visas and stamps in my passport and asked me the purpose of my visit. I told him I’m cycling round the world, and for just a microsecond a smile flickered across his poker-face. Then he stamped me into USA for another 90 days and that was that. No need for statements or receipts or interrogations. It was one of the easiest border crossings of my trip.
We had arranged to stay with Warmshowers hosts, Latimer and Kari in Eureka, just south of the border. They took good care of us and let us take our time in the morning. Steve confessed that the backwoods riding was getting a bit samey for him. With only a couple more days before he had to fly home, he wanted to see more of USA, its towns and people. He recalled his crossing of the Lower 48 states back in 2003, when people had suggested he change his route. He’d paid no heed and ploughed straight across the deep south, California to South Carolina. “I’d got so used to ignoring people who told me to avoid places. But that time they were right. That route was boring!”.
I’ve had similar experiences with day after day of cookie-cutter towns with the same brand name shops in strip malls. I understood Steve’s desire to explore, but it presented me with a dilemma. I was enjoying his company and grateful that he came out to join me. But I had just spent months pushing out big days on highways to reach the start of the Great Divide. Riding these remote trails was the pay off for me. We agreed to go our separate ways and reconvene in Kalispell the next day.
I climbed on quiet, leafy lanes then a rough, stony service road up to Whitefish Divide, where I crossed the continental watershed again. A farmer waved me down to tell me there was heavy weather coming. “You don’t want to be up there when the rain hits,” he cautioned, “you want to be down here in the trees”. I had a deadline to meet Steve next day, so I opted to press on while I still had daylight. My gamble paid off. At dusk I found a place to camp beneath the sheltering branches of a great fir tree, with a stream nearby to draw water.
Overnight the rain turned to snow and was falling as sleet as I packed up in the morning. I laboured up to Red Meadow Pass, a desolate spot that early winter day. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would be my last crossing of the continental divide in USA. The lower reaches of the pass were a slew of mud churned up by logging and construction traffic. I mourned the loss of my front mudguard. Wet, filthy and tired, I hunkered down out of the rain in a fire safety shelter, brewed up tea and ate the last of my rations. Cell service resumed near Whitefish bringing a message from Steve and the address of the hotel he’d arranged in Kalispell.
Our farewell night out in Kalispell became a mission to sample every one of the twenty beers on tap in the Moose’s Saloon. God knows how we made it back to our rooms. Next day, feeling exactly like ‘a pig shat in my head’, we malingered in the hotel lobby until Steve’s taxi took him to the airport and I was turned loose in Montana. Miraculously, after being at death’s door all day, half an hour of cycling brought me back from the brink. I headed to Bigfork, a recommended overnight in the GD route guide.
Bigfork is a swanky resort town at the head of Flathead Lake, below the snowy peaks of the Swan Mountain Range. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of paying to camp on a patch of gravel in the national park campsite, within walking distance of a lake or not. I reminded myself I’d been doing this for long enough now, if I headed out of town for a while I was bound to find a hideaway.
I moseyed along Electric Avenue, the main street of Bigfork, past expensive-looking boutiques and saloons. “Hey! Are you looking for somewhere to camp?” a voice called. A car had drawn alongside me as I cycled. The driver leaned toward the passenger window and called again, “You look like you’re looking for a place to camp, or would you rather have a hot shower? I’ve cycle toured too! You can stay at mine, but we have to go eat pizza first.”
Which is how I came to meet Kelly, free spirit, permaculture enthusiast and physiotherapist, resident of Bigfork. I followed her to the town’s best gourmet restaurant, where she insisted on buying me the best pizza I’ve had in a long time. Then to her nearby condo, where I was welcome to stay as long as I liked. A rest day is always hard to turn down, and somehow one more day kept getting added as Kelly introduced me to her sons, brother, mother, aunts and various friends.
Kelly’s brother, Todd, is a pilot, who along with wingman Gary, took us up in his microlight aircraft for a tour over the lake to commemorate World Ultralight Fly-in Day.
It was great to have a few days at Kelly’s, enjoying the company of good people who accepted me into their lives as a friend. It also helped that Kelly is a superb cook and great conversationalist! I researched and planned my onward route through USA, edited videos and got the bike fixed up (Steve bequeathed me his 2.1″ tyres, so I ditched the 2.5″s and got some new rim tape. Since then, zero punctures!).
It was hard to leave Bigfork, but winter was definitely on its way. I resolved to continue on the GD for a few more days to Seeley Lake, then strike west across Idaho and Oregon to the Pacific coast of northern California, to visit the coastal redwood forests. The next two days were a blur of green tunnels through the endless spruce and pine forests of Montana, with occasional glimpses of the Swan and Mission Ranges. Wildcamping was superb, but target-practising hunters firing rifles in the vicinity didn’t make for relaxing breakfasts.
I was on the verge of calling it a wrap with the GD and heading by road to Missoula. But the map notes told of a spectacular Alpine basin in the section before Seeley Lake. I decided to give it one more day. And wow, am I glad I did. After climbing through the snowline, the trail became true single track and descended through hillside woodland in full crimson and orange autumn foliage. The best section of trail I’d ridden in North America, it was over all too quickly.
Downhill footage starts here:
The downhill put me in such good spirits that I wasn’t ready to return to the blacktop. I opted for a few more days in the woods on the Missoula Spur. I wild camped near Lake Placid and made a campfire under cold, starry skies. Next day, a view over the valley I’d spent the last three days traversing brought that special satisfaction that comes from identifying your route from a distant viewpoint.
The Missoula Spur is a relatively new route and evidently hadn’t seen much traffic. Several times I had to remove deadfalls blocking the trail. Route finding required concentration. Without a bike computer to monitor distance from one known feature to another, I lost track of where I was relative to the turn I was looking for. Forest extended to the horizon in every direction, so I took a moment to compose myself and fix in my mind where I was last certain of my location. I backtracked, paid closer attention and eventually put myself right.
As the sun dipped below the horizon, I stopped to chat with a young bow-hunter out for a Friday night foray. We stood and gazed at the tamaracks* blazing golden in the sunset, dotted throughout still green trees (*a.k.a. Western larch, a deciduous conifer). I watched beavers repairing their dams next to Gold Creek. From the bridge I spotted a flat area on the bank that looked like my dream home for the night. I built up a great fire and watched shooting stars in the crystal sky. I fell asleep happy that I’d seen enough of the Rockies that we could part company on the best of terms.
Other videos from this part of my trip: