Missoula to Helena (or, The Camels Were Gone from Montana by 1867)

Well, my partner and I are back on our multi-year bicycle tour around the country. I will try my best to bring my posts from our travel blog (www.BarelyFunctionalAdults.wordpress.com) over here. If you are interested in more photos of our journey we have a Facebook page you can follow (www.facebook.com/shiftsandgiggles). I will try to post other personal stuff that comes to mind on this page as well but writing time is limited.


Saying goodbye is never easy.

As excited as we were to hit the trail again, it was hard leaving Missoula behind. We met so many wonderful new friends and strengthened old friendships as well. Missoula is a home to us now, a place where we feel loved and accepted. It isn’t easy leaving that, but, like most things in life, the easy way is not the way of growth or adventure… and we had an adventure to restart.

There are moments in life when language rings hollow. Trying to express how much we will miss this friend is one of those moments. Part of our hearts stay here in Missoula with her.

Our first day of travel was the perfect way to begin – exactly what we needed day 1 to be. We stopped at Black Coffee Roasters one last time for some world-class coffee and their batshit amazing avocado toast. Then, around 11 AM, we got on the road and headed east towards the mountains with wide shoulders to ride on and beautiful weather to boot. The terrain was uphill, but only slightly. This was a great opportunity for us to test out our new bike and trailer set-ups – prior to leaving we never got a chance to ride around with our trailers fully packed. (Smart, we know.) Turns out they are heavy, but not overly so, similar to our previous leg of the bike ride. The new bikes and trailers are incredibly stable and provide a much smoother ride than our old gear did. Higgins loves his new set-up as well. He doesn’t hesitate or resist getting into the trailer anymore and loves being able to stick his nose out the front to smell all the things. (Don’t worry, we have two leashes attached to his collar and the inside of the trailer to make sure he can’t lean too far or jump out and hurt himself.)

Higgs is ready to roll!

As our first day continued, we passed all the usual Montana things like a distillery, a bunch of farm animals, deer, a skunk, ghost towns, etc. We were lunching along the Blackfoot River when Anna’s front tube mysteriously went flat while her bike was just sitting there. I’m not sure why, the puncture was on the inner ring of the tube and this was the same tube that came with the bike to begin with. Oh well, it was an easy fix, and hopefully the flat was a fluke! The late afternoon brought some clouds and the threat of rain, but as we climbed to the top of our final hill the weather was still on our side. The original plan was to just camp on the side of the road but we found a campground in Lubrecht Experimental Forest that had unlocked cabins (which were furnished and even had electricity!) We weren’t sure if the campground was actually open…there were no signs to help us, and the only people we encountered just waved at us from a distance. We waited for someone to approach us so we could ask whether it was okay to sleep there, but no one ever did, so we just had a nice dinner, set up our stuff in one of the cabins, and went to sleep.


The night went smoothly, except for when we were woken up at 4:30 AM by a tow truck backing up near our cabin (we never figured out what it was doing there – there were really no cars there to tow). Morning came soon after that and we hit the road after donating a few dollars to the camp as a thank-you for such nice accommodations. The day started with a steady downhill along the highway. The shoulder started getting a little narrower and had more and more sand and gravel on it. It was still nice but the conditions were deteriorating slowly. We also had a lot of hills… and a lot of hill optical illusions (when you look ahead and it looks like a downhill but turns out to be an uphill, AKA why are we pedaling as hard as we can to go downhill?? Pretty frustrating). We took our time though and had breaks whenever we needed them. Everything was pretty much going according to plan until we hit the intersection of Highway 200 (the road we’d been traveling on) and Highway 141. The plan was to continue up 200 to Lincoln but the shoulder basically disappeared, traffic was zooming past at or above the speed limit of 70 MPH, and the road started winding up a mountain with a cliff on one side. It just wasn’t safe. So, we decided to have a change of plans, turn onto 141, and head directly south towards Helena instead of going through Lincoln.

Doesn't the

Highway 141 was probably the safest and best option we had, but it turned out to be a pretty miserable option. We quickly found ourselves in farmland facing a terrible headwind and crosswind. Apparently, when you destroy all of the trees in an area, it becomes incredibly windy. The climbs also continued with fairly steep rolling hills the whole way. I am beginning to think staying in Missoula for 8 months and storing lots of calories in our bodies for future use was not the wisest thing to do.


Anyway, the temperature started to drop and any time we stopped biking to take a break, the cold made us pretty uncomfortable. We were trying to make it to a lake in the hopes there would be camping options there, but as the hours passed and we got more and more exhausted, we realized we weren’t going to get to the lake in time. There weren’t a lot of other options for camping, but we eventually found a spot on the side of the road with some bushes where we set up our tent. We fell asleep quickly and slept hard, despite the cold and the occasional sound of passing cars or deer sniffing our tent.


The next day started cold and a bit damp. Since we had changed routes unexpectedly, we really had no idea what the day had in store for us, but we did know we had two days to go (about 60 miles) until we reached Helena. We started riding with the gloomy, overcast sky hanging above us, threatening to pour rain on us at any moment but rarely doing anything more than drizzling. The road was pretty decent with very little traffic and the usual hazards that come with rural bike riding… loose dogs running across the highway at us (luckily they turned out to be friendly), skunks hanging on mile marker signs, etc. By early afternoon we’d made it to the “town” of Avon where we stopped to rest on the porch of a building next to the local fire station.


While we were resting and eating lunch, a truck pulled up next to us. It was Old Bill. (Name changed to protect Old Bill’s privacy, and also because we don’t know Old Bill’s real name.) Old Bill asked us what we were doing and made general small talk. When he found out we were going through The Pass he let out a friendly laugh and told us to watch out for the snow. We chuckled along with him. Old Bill was always joking about snow. We were sure the weather wasn’t going to be THAT cold up on the mountain. Old Bill continued on his way and we continued resting. A few minutes later Old Bill came back, and told us about a great restaurant down the road where we could stop in to get some coffee and warm up. Then he laughed again and pulled away.


We hit the road soon after that and started heading east on Highway 12. The traffic was heavier but we had a wide shoulder to use as we crept upwards towards The Pass. The first 9 miles or so were pretty easy and we arrived at a gas station/convenience store in Elliston at around 6 PM. We stopped to get some coffee, use the bathroom, and convince our muscles they were ready to climb The Pass directly ahead of us. The next five miles or so were going to be hell already, so of course the clouds above us decided it was time to dump their load. We knew that waiting wasn’t going to get the job done, so we got back on the road despite the rain, quickly finding ourselves at the foot of the mountain where the following historic marker sat.

If I had a time machine I would go back 150 years just to see camels in Montana

The climb was terrible. It really wasn’t a ride, it was a walk. We pushed our bikes nearly the whole 5 miles. The 8% grade was just too much with the gear we were carrying and the days of travel behind us. It didn’t help matters that we had a very narrow shoulder and lots of wind, plus visibility had decreased dramatically because of the rain and clouds. We often found ourselves pressed against the guardrails when cars passed by too closely (GET INTO THE LEFT LANE, YOU FOOLS!) But, after hours of pushing our bikes, ignoring our numbed hands and feet, being blasted by strong winds and rain that turned to sleet, we managed to get to top of The Pass just before sunset. (Although the sun was nowhere in sight behind the thick clouds, we assumed it was setting somewhere). We set up our tent quickly, put the tarp over our equipment, ate some glorious baked beans out of a can with nutritional yeast and Frank’s hot sauce, and then fell asleep. Sleep didn’t last very long. The tent collapsed on us in the middle of the night because of the heavy winds (mental note #1: always stake the tent down, don’t be a lazy asshole) and I ran out into the cold sleet to fix it, breaking our food bin in the process (mental note #2: plastic food bins cannot support the weight of a full grown human being). After fixing the tent I fell back asleep quickly, but the morning came soon and with the morning came snow. Old Bill was right.


There’s something you need to understand about Old Bill: he is always joking but always serious. There are innumerable rumors about his origins. Some say that his Granny was a settler named Helen and the city of Helena is named after her. Others say that his great-grandpa was Sammy MacDonald who came over as a settler after the Civil War, and that the MacDonald Pass was named after him. Some others say it goes further back than that –  that Old Bill is the last direct descendant of the ancient Montanan Native American tribes and the state is named after his ancestors. Finally, some claim he has Elven blood in him, that his ancestors chose not to travel across the sea with the rest of his kind to the Undying Lands before the Dawn of Man.

Regardless, Old Bill was right. We got snowed on. A lot.

Due to the snow and our general tiredness we didn’t really get moving until about 1 PM. Luckily(?) our day started with a 7ish mile downhill. Normally, that would be awesome. But this wasn’t a normal day. It was bitterly cold out and we couldn’t ride for more than a couple miles before needing to pull over and stick our hands in our crotches to warm them back up, lest we lose any of our fingers to frostbite. The combination of strong winds, cold temperature, and wet conditions had taken its toll on us. There was an unexpected bright spot though when we pulled over at a scenic outlook. A nice elderly couple in a car had pulled over there as well and they were very excited about our adventure. They chatted with us a bit and kind of brightened our morning. We also met another cyclist who was traveling from Phoenix to Minnesota…he looked pretty rough. He was missing most of his teeth, had some pretty intense sun damage to his skin, was wearing shorts in 35 degree weather, and he didn’t have front brakes. The three of us took off down the hill at about the same time but he quickly passed us while yelling “Ho ho ho!” to Anna. It was weird.


Eventually we got to the bottom of the mountain and pushed on into Helena, where we found a Starbucks to sit down and warm our bodies. While we sat there a man named Fred Cowie approached us. It turns out Fred is a Professor of History at Carroll College in Helena, but his true passion is art. He chatted with us a bit about our lives and the adventures he has had. Just before he left the Starbucks, he gave us a beautiful small watercolor he painted and his business card. It was an amazing meet-up.

After we got a bit of work done at the Starbucks, we ran some last minute errands and then headed over to the home of our host for three nights. Nicolle found us on Couchsurfing and offered to let us stay at her place while in Helena. She has a beautiful house on a big plot of land with dogs and chickens. Overall it has been a great ride so far but we are looking forward to resting a bit, exploring what Helena has to offer us, and prepping for the next round of travel.

Missoula to Helena - Map

Missoula to Helena - Elevation

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