Out West Last Winter – Part One
The Ambassadors of Missoula
I awoke to a world transformed. My tent sagged ominously, its roof and sides weighted by some unseen external force. I lined my shoes with plastic bags, pulled on winter mitts and went out to clear off three inches of heavy snow. All about, the ponderosa pines sloughed off their own snow load. At intervals their branches bounced back into position like unweighted diving boards releasing flurries of flakes. I called time on my Great Divide ride. This was a sign of things to come if I stayed in the Rockies. It was time to turn west to the Pacific Coast, to better weather and a change of scenery.
By the time I broke camp the snow was already melting, turning the dirt road into a mudbath. I cursed the loss of my front mudguard again and added it to the list of things to sort out in Missoula, my goal for the day. By the time I reached the paved highway, I was splattered with mud from head to toe. I was splashing through squally rain when twenty kilometres of out town I was overhauled by a tall fellow on an old-school steel-frame road bike. He squinted into the rain through thick glasses, face set in determination, long legs pistoning away under bony hips. He acknowledged me as he passed, but didn’t seem keen to chat. Clearly one of those old salts of the road, who does 50 miles before breakfast come rain or shine.
I kept him in sight, using my momentum to stay on terms. He took side roads to avoid busy intersections; obviously a local. At a light-controlled junction I had somehow overtaken him and was looking at my phone when he rolled up alongside. I asked the best way to downtown. The light turned green and he told me to follow him. He didn’t let off the pace for a moment. When I could draw breath to speak, I asked if he knew about a couple of places I wanted to visit. A bike cooperative that might furnish a replacement mudguard, and the Adventure Cycling Association, based in Missoula. The latter had been pointed out to me by trail maintenance volunteers near Seeley Lake, who had been curious about my trip and urged me to call in.
My new friend and guide, John, knew both places, and spent the next hour guiding me round back streets, patiently waiting while I scavenged a mudguard at the bike co-op. Then to the ACA offices – closed because it was a Saturday afternoon. No matter, the ACA’s co-founder is his neighbour, John tells me. We can call at his house. He will want to meet me for sure, added John. As with the trail workers, I wasn’t entirely clear why that should be, but I’m not immune to the flattery of attention.
In a leafy suburb we knocked on the neighbour’s door, but no one was home. We repaired to John’s house across the street to warm up. The afternoon was drawing on, so I searched on my phone for Warmshowers hosts. No need, said John. He and his wife Kristina would be delighted to have me. They hadn’t heard of Warmshowers, but I was welcome to use their basement sitting room, there’s a bathroom down there too. Kristina hasn’t entirely lost her Eastern European accent. She tells bawdy stories and makes hot chocolate while John and I replace damp layers of clothing with dry. “I’m an awful cook, isn’t that right Johnny?”, she boasts, stirring milk, cocoa and sugar in a saucepan for 20 minutes. Finally it is served with an unapologetic warning that it’ll probably be disgusting. And indeed, inexplicably, it is almost stone cold.
John’s house is from another era: timber framed, 1950s kitchen, windows single-paned and mullioned, antimacassars on wing-back armchairs. He inherited it from an elderly relative, a dowager aunt or some such. Its faded, anachronistic elegance suits him. A retired botanist, John has the gentle, deliberate manners befitting his profession. He was a lifelong scholar and bachelor when he met Kristina one afternoon in a local park, where he was doing a spot of guerilla-gardening. In Kristina’s version, she observed John from a bench as he painstakingly weeded a herbaceous border. “This was a huge, municipal park”, she explains. “And he’s on hands and knees pulling out tiny plants one by one. I thought he’s either completely crazy, or extremely rich. Maybe both. I want to meet him”. John gives a plaintive shrug. “They were invasive species”, he says disapprovingly, as if no more needed to be said.
After dinner, we try the neighbour again and John introduced me. “I met Dan on the way into town, he’s cycling round the planet”. “Which planet?”, the neighbour shoots back. I fill in the backstory and John leaves us to tea and talk. The neighbour tells me about the ACA’s photo wall, with portraits of cyclists who have passed through on tour, all photographed by him. Maybe you could take one now, I suggested. Nope, they all have a matching background and my equipment is in the office, he said, as if any variation would be an affront to adventure touring. We chatted a while about his friendship with late British adventure cyclist Ian Hibell, but mostly about his own trip down the Americas in the early 1970s. He calls it ‘the hemistour’, an awkward term that fortunately hasn’t caught on.
As I walked back across the road to John’s, I reflected that the neighbour hardly asked me anything about my own trip. In fact, from the prickly reception onwards he had seemed indifferent, although to be fair I had just doorstepped him. It mixed with a growing sense of de-motivation I’d felt of late, that I was wasting my time with outreach, making videos, writing stories and such. Kristina laughed when she heard this. “Oh what a sorry story, it’s so hard being you, isn’t it!”, she teased, making the baby voice. I reddened and started trying to explain, but she cut me off. “Listen, go your own way, make your films and write your stories and don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks, or doesn’t think. Do it because you love it, and so when you are old and grey and your balls are hanging down near your knees you can remember how fun it was when you were young and beautiful.”
In the morning John and I worked on fitting my replacement front mudguard. As I was about to depart, the neighbour appeared on his cargo bike laden with empty beer cans he’d collected to recycle for cash. I asked if we could take a photo together, one for the memory banks. As I set up the shot, the neighbour tried to direct me on how to frame it with trees behind. I bit my lip, and asked him to please just stand next to John while I set the timer. I checked that the snapshot had worked, and the neighbour leaned in for a look. “Oh, I thought you would have oriented it in portrait mode and defocused the background”.
They say you should never meet your heroes, because they always disappoint. I’m not sure I even have any heroes in that sense. The only people I could describe as my heroes are people who I already know anyway, whose human failings I am acquainted with. Achievements and status cut no ice, whereas skill combined with generosity and humility never fail to impress. I didn’t get my photo on the ACA Wall of Fame, but I left in no doubt as to the real hero and ambassador of Missoula.
The Illustrious Mr Le
Mr Le’s reputation preceded him. “He’s cycling across the USA, and he’s leaving Missoula tomorrow too. He’s very … enthusiastic. And he always wears black.” I’d taken a note of his contact details and considered sending a message. But I figured we’d meet if we were meant to.
I was, as usual, late getting away. After errands in town, it was mid-afternoon by the time I was heading towards Lolo Pass. It was well into October now. Shadows lengthened and a there was a chill in the clear mountain air. The road snaked uphill between stands of tall pines. The gradient was easy and I made good progress up to the Lolo Hot-springs Resort, thinking to ride a little longer before looking for a place to camp. As I drew alongside the office I saw a loaded touring bike leaning against the fence. The first cycle tourer in six weeks (I’d seen none on the Great Divide). I went inside and immediately found the owner of the bike, a small fellow with neatly trimmed grey beard and sparkling eyes. I had the advantage of him. “The illustrious Mr Le, I presume!” I grinned. “Huh, yes, how did you know?”.
Mr Le was cycling from his hometown of Boston, Massachusetts, across the width of the Lower 48 states of USA to San Francisco. His afternoon was not going as well as mine. He’d stopped for a snack at the hot-springs, then discovered his second puncture of the day, and decided to call it a wrap. He was arranging to stay in a cabin when I had arrived. Immediately he asked the desk clerk if it was okay for me to share his cabin, his treat. He seemed like a friendly sort, so I accepted.
In the tiny cabin we chatted and I showed Mr Le a few tricks for fixing his puncture more efficiently. At over 1200m elevation, the temperature plummeted below freezing as soon as the sun went behind the mountain. I was glad of the heated cabin to relax in, but another treat was that as guests we were entitled to use the hot-springs facilities too. We wallowed and chatted in the thermal pool and swam lengths in the outdoor pool under a silver sickle moon.
Mr Le was born and grew up in southern Vietnam. He fought in the war there before moving to USA, where he married, raised a family and worked as a software engineer for forty years. It was hard to reconcile his lively appearance with his actual age, which he revealed as 68. No longer married and his children grown, he sought new ways to challenge himself in retirement. He had set off on a Trans-America attempt the previous year, amid much disparagement and kidding that he was crazy. An injury had forced him to bail out early then, but this year he’d stayed injury free during four thousand kilometres of hard solo riding. “I like the feeling that I can handle things on my own. It’s good to test yourself”, he confided. We were on the same page there.
If I’m honest, I had been slightly deterred by the warning about how ‘enthusiastic’ Mr Le was. I’m English, so high-fives and ‘hell yeahs’ aren’t really part of my culture. But I had it wrong. Mr Le regularly emitted a ‘yeah baby!’ followed by a high, throaty chuckle, but it was endearing, uplifting rather than irritating. So contagious was this catchphrase that I soon adopted it as my own. And while he was dressed in black when we first met, this turned out to be just a coincidence rather than sartorial policy.
We set off together towards the summit of the Lolo Pass and the long descent to the Clearwater valley. Although I climbed at a much faster rate, Mr Le was a human dynamo. He steadily racked up the miles, some days riding further than me in order to reach the next village with lodgings. He was travelling lightly loaded with a small tent and the thinnest of sleeping bags, unsuited to winter camping. It was going to be rooms all the way to the Pacific for him now.
At lunch he invited me to join him again as his guest at the next village, bringing the day’s distance to 125km. I declined. A hotel room once, on the spur of the moment, was a treat. But to plan for it seemed opportunistic and likely to foster bad habits for me. And I sleep better in the tent than in heated rooms. But we kept tabs on each other, and he repeatedly leapfrogged me at lunch stops and overnight camps for the next two weeks. He seemed to combine the best qualities of the Energizer Bunny, Mr Miyagi and James Brown. A few days later, as we enjoyed each other’s company and made fast miles along Hell’s Canyon on the Idaho-Oregon border, I played music from a portable speaker. We sang CCR songs at the top of our lungs, feasting on sunshine and cool air. “We’re the lucky ones, baby!” he proclaimed. I had to agree.
We both took a rest day in central Oregon. In the hostel kitchen was a bowl containing conversation prompts. For laughs, we took turns to read them out over breakfast. We’ll draw a veil over the question that prompted Mr Le to declare that “everyone can see you’re desperate”, and focus on his answer to ‘What’s the best thing about being __ years old?’. After the shortest of pauses, he said the best thing was not worrying any more; no point worrying about being in control, of not living your life to the full, just get on with it. He shared an incident from his time during the war in Vietnam. He was on a scouting mission in the jungle with two other soldiers, when they were ambushed by sniper fire. His two companions, standing on each side of him, were killed. Live every day to the full, he told me; you don’t know what’s going to happen next.
I last saw my friend on the day I left Eugene, where he treated me to breakfast in a café. An ankle injury had forced him to abandon his Trans-America ride the day before, tantalisingly close to the Pacific Ocean. He couldn’t have cared less. “I’m very satisfied with what I’ve done. It’s the journey that counts, not the destination. You have to know when to push it, and when not to,” he reflected. He’d hired a car to go and visit his son in San Francisco. I saw him once more after breakfast. He overtook me on the road and pulled over to offer encouragement and shake my hand one last time. “Hasta la vista, baby!”, he called. And my friend was gone.
Postscript: in spring 2019 Mr Le finished the Trans-Am ride, and continued down the Pacific Highway to San Diego.
The Strangeness of Kindness
On my first night in Idaho I camped at a fishing access point on the banks of the Lochsa River. Normally I avoid such places as they are generally too close to the road, or subject to other disturbances. Other campers for one thing, slamming car doors, running engines and playing stereos, dogs barking. Wilderness wins every time for me, but this was the start of a transition into new landscapes where ranch-land and private property dominated. I wouldn’t be able to be so choosy from now on. In any case, it was mid October, freezing at night, so the site was unoccupied save for a camping truck in a bay at the far end.
I collected water from the river to filter, and scavenged along the pebble riverbank for firewood. As I was breaking some dead branches, a chap poked through the bushes and said hi! He and his wife were having a fire, and I was welcome to join them. He had a warm smile, neatly trimmed beard, and piercing pale eyes. He seemed curious about my travelling by bike, so I said I’d come over when I got my camp set up after dinner. As I was putting up the tent, his wife walked over and said they have food to share, roasted beets and other veggies if I like, so I was welcome to eat by their fire with them.
I added my firewood to their woodpile and got a cold beer and bowl of roast veggies in return. It had been a superb day on the bike: a cold start warmed up by a climb, then 100 kilometres of rolling descent through sub-Alpine forests and sun-dappled riverside. Now I had intelligent conversation, hot food and cold beer. The couple asked insightful questions, checking first if I minded talking about my trip, recognising that I must get asked the same questions all the time. They had travelled widely themselves, and we were in agreement about travel broadening the mind and crossing cultural divides. They’d taught English in Peru, as I did in South Korea, so we compared and contrasted experiences.
We kept the fire stoked, our faces warmed by the glow and the booze. Telling and listening to stories round a campfire is surely one of the most primitive and fundamental human pleasures. Hospitality on a cold night under a starry sky is a bridge across time, an experience common to travellers on every continent down the ages.
I took sustenance from my new friends’ enthusiasm about my travels, and enquired about their trip. They were on holiday from the next state, fishing in the river without much success, but enjoying the downtime in nature. Conversation somehow turned to hunting. I mentioned how the prevalence of guns in USA is shocking to visitors from other countries, and how when wildcamping in Alaska and Montana I could never relax during breakfast when there was rifle fire nearby. They sympathised, they were not part of that fraternity. But the man went on to explain that he’d done several tours of duty as a paratrooper the Middle East.
Firearms still held some fascination for him, a link with his military past, he said. But he was relieved to be out of the military, now enjoying a wholesome life in the mountains with his wife. Which is why the next thing he said almost left me speechless. “I have an AK47 in the truck. You are welcome to hold it if you want. I know some people have never touched a real gun and they’re curious.” I declined, explaining that it would give me no pleasure to handle something made for the sole purpose of extinguishing life. My companions understood, the matter was quickly dropped and we continued our conversation as before.
They say you should never discuss religion or politics in polite company. That’s generally good advice for travellers accepting hospitality. Almost as divisive and best avoided are how to make a proper cup of tea and how to pronounce ‘Laos’. I’ve learned to steer a discreet path around such conversational quicksands, unless I’m sure I’m among people who favour discussion over dogma. But nothing prepared me for the surprises I had in USA and Canada among people who after showing uncommon generosity went on to express deeply reactionary or chauvinistic opinions.
Like the host who, over a glass of wine, raved about the advantages of cycle touring in Cuba being the availability of cheap, young prostitutes. Another who extolled the virtues of beating children to discipline them. One who seemed insulted when she heard that I don’t eat meat. ‘Well our men go out and shoot elk for us to eat’, she retorted, emphasising the masculinity as if it were normal for subsistence hunters to live in luxury condos. Or the hunter I met who told me that unrestricted access to guns is perfectly sensible in a country where people grow up around guns; it was people who have not been raised with guns who were the problem. Pointing at me, “You shouldn’t be allowed a gun, because they’re not part of your culture. You would be dangerous with a gun”, he argued. I don’t want a gun, I said. “Exactly”, he replied, bewilderingly.
To some extent this is a factor of travelling in Anglophone countries. Where there is no language barrier, it’s easier to expose the rough edges of someone’s worldview. Differences of opinion are to be expected, at home or abroad, even among people who travel widely and share common ground. C’est la vie. But none of the above cases yielded a net increase in mutual understanding, or not much. I admit, it gets my hackles up when people start evangelising their own lifestyle choices, claiming categorical, universal truths.
Back at the campsite in Idaho, I said my goodbyes in the morning. I’d enjoyed the company and appreciated my friends’ nuanced viewpoint. It had given me a glimpse into an unexpected reality – not one that I share or support, but interesting nonetheless. Most of us are walking contradictions in one aspect of our lives or another. Sometimes we use cognitive dissonance to ease the tension in our own minds, but we seldom acknowledge the influence of our backgrounds and environment. To be sensitive to divergent perspectives, and treat them first with curiosity, seeking understanding rather than judgement, is one of the greatest opportunities that travel allows.
I followed the Trans-America route through northern Idaho, along some of the most dangerous roads I’ve ever ridden. Highways 12 and 95 were both scenic, but narrow, twisty, often lacking a shoulder, and plied by logging and other freight trucks travelling at speed. Several times I was forced to bail out into a ditch to avoid being obliterated when trucks passed in opposite directions on tight right-handers. When I saw my opportunity to get off the 95 onto the Weiser River Trail I grabbed it.
I spent a pleasant evening with Warmshowers hosts in Cambridge, Bob and Leslie. Bob had made a late career change to teaching, and we compared battle scars from our bumpy experiences finding our feet in the classroom. Retired healthcare worker Leslie cooked delicious food, complemented by Bob’s outstanding homebrew beer. Bob is also an accomplished bagpiper and blogger on all matters relating to upland bird hunting with their two Brittany spaniels, Angus and Peat. We got on well and they invited me to stay another day and join them at the inter-town high school American football game the following night.
On the drive to the game, Bob explained the backstory. The visiting team was from Riggins, a town I’d cycled through a couple of days before – an unremarkable place except that there I rode through a plague of aphids that stuck to every inch of exposed skin, went in my ears, eyes, nose and generally made a nuisance of themselves. There was long-standing rivalry between the Cambridge and Riggins teams, bordering on outright hostility. The bad-blood centred on the behaviour of a quarterback on the Riggins team who had a history of attacking the home side’s players. In particular, he had it in for the Cambridge wide receiver. Hearing all this I pictured hulking musclemen, but when we arrived at the school sports field I saw that these were kids who looked barely in their teens. Their shoulder-pads and helmets only exaggerated their youth and fragility.
We were met by some of Bob and Leslie’s hunting buddies, up from Virginia to shoot pheasant, quail and chukar. I was introduced as being on a round the world bike tour. “How do you like Idaho? People round here work for a living”, said one of the Virginians pointedly. Bob went off to greet his students and their parents, leaving me with another of the Virginians, who drawled away to me unintelligibly. With his baseball cap, thick accent and verbal ticks he was Boomhauer from King of the Hill made flesh. At half time, he was still chuntering in my ear. I looked to Leslie for help. “He thinks you’re Bob”, she laughed, and I realised that we were actually dressed alike and of similar build and features. Later a student wanted to know if I was their teacher’s brother.
The visiting team scored an early touchdown, soon equalized then overtaken by the home team. Things briefly looked good for Cambridge, but it was a flash in the pan. Long before half time they were losing badly. Two home team coaches paced the sidelines shouting into headphone mics, waving their arms like demented windmills. One was so enormously fat it was hard to see how he had made a career in school sports. The first half had seen a few tense moments between the aggressive Riggins quarterback and the little Cambridge receiver, but so far the faster player had avoided getting pinned down.
The Cambridge cheerleading squad provided half-time entertainment. They were a hearteningly diverse bunch, of all shapes and sizes, including a boy. They took turns at the top of a human pyramid, although the bigger-boned cheerleaders were exempted from duty for that part of the routine. On the bleachers spectators huddled under blankets against the late October cold, while younger kids just ran around in T-shirts as if it were July. I felt the chill even in down jacket and wool hat, and resorted to stomping my feet and shaking my arms to get my circulation going.
It’s fair to say that I have never understood the appeal of spectating sports, especially team sports. I have never attended an organised match of any sport: football, cricket, basketball, you name it (actually, I did once go to a charity rugby match, but was none the wiser during or after the event). Team loyalties, fandom, herd mentality, all of that stuff is alien to me. But this was clearly the place to be in Cambridge, Idaho, on a Friday night. It was the social event of the month in this farming community of 300 people, and in that regard it was fascinating. And while many people were there to see friends and encourage their kids, there was a sizeable element who took it much more seriously.
Riggins extended their lead in the second half. It was turning into a drubbing. Bizarrely, despite his team’s superiority on the field, the Riggins quarterback started showing his true colours. It seemed he really did have a vendetta against the Cambridge receiver. In a previous game he’d reputedly picked up the receiver and thrown him head first into the ground. Now the brute was body-slamming when they were nowhere near the ball. There wasn’t even the pretence of using gameplay to cover his misdeeds. You’d think, with four referees working the field, that this would be picked up. But foul after foul went unsanctioned and the home team supporters were getting agitated. “You have to get this kid off the field! You gotta shut this down!” shouted Bob.
Eventually a ‘personal foul’ was awarded against the offender, a technical fault that doesn’t lead to suspension from the game. Calls from both sides were getting heated now. Suddenly, the referees brought the game to a halt. Word went round that the sheriff had been summoned. Within minutes, an armed deputy was on the scene. Apparently, the parents of the Riggins quarterback had verbally abused the referees bitterly, allegedly yelling that ‘the referee should be shot’. They had refused to leave when asked to do so by school officials, but were now forced to do so by law.
In the end it was a rather tarnished victory for Riggins; the Cambridge boys jogged off the field to conciliatory applause from their families. I asked Bob and Leslie if this kind of thing was typical in high school football; armed police escorts, that kind of thing. Not so much, but these kids are farmers’ sons, every last one of them. They dream of a college sports scholarship, although statistically their chances of attaining one from a tiny school in potato country are virtually nil. Bob encourages the team with paternal goodwill, but can’t help saying they’d be better applying themselves to their studies. They take their sports seriously in Idaho.
Another Piece of the Puzzle
After a short detour south through the pan-handle of Idaho, I aimed west across Oregon for the Pacific coast. I wheeled through farming towns with delusions of grandeur names, like Prairie City, population 909. Fossil-bed canyons led up onto a high, wind-scoured sagebrush wilderness, by turns beautiful and desolate. This was ranch-country now, and camping required ingenuity. Fences abounded and warning signs were on every gate and fixed to trees, ‘Posted: No trespassing’. Occasionally a wise-ass landowner would post something more threatening, indicating they shoot first, ask questions later. ‘Warning, you are entering a moving target range. Hello target’. That kind of thing.
I had recently approached a farmhouse and been offered dinner, a place to wash up, filled water bottles, and a great spot to camp. But in Central Oregon my chances of repeating that looked slim. These were business, not family farms. Huge cattle sheds and silos. I would be dealing with a liability-minded manager, not a salt of the earth farmer. I rode into darkness one night, determined to find some public land, even just a roadside niche to place my tent, knowing that something always turns up. Eventually I admitted defeat and knocked on the door of a house, and the owners happily opened their grassy yard to me to stay on.
I battled a headwind over a sere plateau and descended to the tiny town of Mitchell in the late afternoon, a little jaded by the negativity of the constant prohibitions. I had contacted a Warmshowers host there, described as part hostel, part church. I found the building, Spoke’n Hostel, a converted timber-frame parish church. Instructions to let myself in led me to the main hall of the former church, now a softly lit dormitory, with solid wooden bunks, privacy curtains and comfy chairs. The place exuded cosiness, serene and soothing after the screech of wind in my ears all day and then a cold descent. I saw my name written calligraphically on a sign on a bunk, and brought my bike inside.
Three other bunks were clearly taken too, but the place was as silent as the Mary Celeste. I went downstairs to the kitchen. There were signs inviting guests to help themselves to snacks and coffee, along with various positive aphorisms and axioms. I cooked soup and then pasta for dinner, my legs a bottomless pit for calories. I was sleepily browsing the guest book when the owners, Pat and Jalet, appeared and greeted me warmly. I enquired how they had come to this place. Pat was a successful photographer and church minister in his late forties when wife Jalet saw the derelict church for sale in Mitchell and recognised its potential to invigorate the declining community. Together they had done exactly that.
The hostel had become a must-stay place on the Trans-America cycle route, bringing hungry customers to the other businesses in town. Pat had immersed himself in community life, working as pastor, school bus driver, host, barber (he had a fully kitted out barber’s shop upstairs), and latterly mayor of Mitchell. Yet talking to him, he had the manner of someone with all the time in the world. More a connoisseur of vintage motorcycles than touring bikes, he nevertheless wanted to know everything about my rig and my trip. He suggested I might be better off in a room rather than the dorm, as the only other guests were elk hunters who would be making a very early start next day. And if I wanted a zero day to catch up on rest, that was okay too. “We want this to be a place of respite”, he told me (pronounced ress-puht in USA). And so it was, more or less.
After dark, the other guests – hunters -returned from their day on the hill. They were flushed with success and beer, having shot two elk, their reward for travelling from Maine. They had carried down some of their kill, but would have to hike back up the mountain in the morning to retrieve the rest of the enormous carcasses. I headed to the shower, accessed through a wooden gazebo outside. I had to squeeze past the hunters, who were using the gazebo as a butcher’s shop. “Want a steak buddy? Freshest you’ll ever eat” they offered. Thanks, but no fish no flesh for me, I replied and disappeared into the shower. When I came out, a scene like a mash-up of Psycho and The Godfather greeted me. At the centre of the fairy-lit gazebo the hunters had left the severed head of an elk, enormous antlers intact but flayed of skin, all bloody red flesh and purple sinew. A gauze bag containing cuts of meat was hung by a chain from the ceiling.
I drank a beer with the hunters in the kitchen while they polished off their steaks. They were friendly sorts, thirties, check shirts, full of rough-neck bonhomie. In the morning they missed their early start and offered me pancakes. When they left for the day I got the laptop out and started chewing through the difficult South Korea blog I’d been working on. Pat, as ever, was on hand to give counsel. He tendered the concept of a ‘mental housefire’, should I feel the need to skip writing about part of my travels and wipe the slate clean. That didn’t feel right, I was determined to finish what I’d started. “It’s good that it takes a long time”, he assured me. “It’s important to recognise that quality takes time in anything.”
The hunters came back for one last debauch before shipping out. Mr Le had caught up with me again. He was installed in the dorm upstairs listening to funk and soul tunes on the stereo. He turned it up loud for his favourite song, A Whiter Shade of Pale, the church organ intro reverberating through the building. At the pub I found Lish, assistant from the hostel, sitting by the fire outside reading Cormac McCarthy. A story writer herself, and a runner, she told me she dreamed of starting her own sangha. I was enthralled, but our every conversation was doomed to be hijacked and derailed by third parties.
Back at the hostel, Mr Le wanted a rest day for his ankle, and I couldn’t tear myself away. A young cyclist arrived on a cross country pilgrimage. Although not intending to spend the night, he was quickly induced to change his mind. A music scholar from Bend, Ryan was retracing his steps to where he’d had to terminate a previous tour. He told his story in a stream of consciousness that verged on the hallucinatory, but with such feeling and insight I was compelled to listen to the end. Afterwards he was visibly more relaxed, unburdened by getting it off his chest.
In the morning Mr Le was determined to make a go of cycling to the coast. Ryan was continuing on his own odyssey inland. Pat was away early driving the bus on a school trip. Jalet and Lish were nowhere to be seen. It was time to move on. But something about that place went with me. The sense of community in Mitchell was real. The spirit of radical generosity practised by Pat and Jalet brought people together, most noticeably in their generosity with time and attention. In my two-wheeled quest for forms of the good life, I now had another perspective on what I was looking for. Another piece of the puzzle.