Sometimes lack of planning and unexpected misadventures make for the most memorable stories.
Story and Photos by Emily Roberts
“I didn’t think I’d get stuck in snow this time,” I pondered as I sat at my public park campsite in between the ball diamonds and a splash zone in Wolf Point, Montana. I also didn’t think I’d get into a bar fight, become stranded in the wilderness or sleep on someone’s front lawn, for that matter. But sometimes that’s just how things go. Often our all-time favourite trips consist of things that didn’t go exactly to plan. We tend to dwell on the ultimate goals, allowing them to steep in our minds and take away the moments in front of us – like putting a fogged lens on a camera that inhibits you from taking in the full picture.
One of my fondest memories is from a 2015 trip I did from British Columbia to Ontario. My planning for this didn’t include accommodations or a diligently mapped route. I was more focused on packing a set of clean base layers with a slight concept of my route and, of course, a can of beans in case I became lost and hungry.
I rode south through the ever-expanding landscape of the Kootenays from Revelstoke, British Columbia, enjoying every curve to the U.S. border. I crossed into Washington state and continued my ride into Idaho. As the sun sank, I approached the lighted urban nightscape of Coeur d’Alene. My stomach was telling me I couldn’t avoid heading into town, where I spotted a bar with the roadside lined with motorcycles.
The First Unexpected Challenge
Good food and good conversation were had as I sat on a sidewalk patio and chatted with other riders. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a group of girls who looked like they had taken advantage of happy hour and now had their sights set on the lineup of bikes. One girl jumped on a custom Suzuki GSX-R1000 parked beside my bike and posed while her friends snapped photos.
My enraged stare must have burned holes in the back of her head and she turned around to exchange words. She stumbled toward me tripping on the raised curb. I proceeded to remark about her troubles walking as she brushed herself off and within seconds she had my hair in one of her hands as the other was throwing a misaimed punch to my forehead. My survival instinct kicked in and my fist was simultaneously returning her punches.
As if a grenade had dropped, everyone jumped back and started cheering and yelling! Fists met faces! The bouncer barrelled through the crowd and threw an excessively hairy arm between us and broke up the fight. He gave me a high-five after everything settled down.
Riding solo allows you to portray a side of yourself that doesn’t often shine through. For me, on that night, it was badass biker woman – a force to be reckoned with.
The next day I awoke with a new sense of myself as I left Coeur d’Alene with the Idaho sun beating down. I pulled into a gas station to have a look at my trusty paper map to look for fainter lines to follow to continue my journey east. Being fed up with cottagers and other impassible traffic, I decided this would be a good day to take the road less travelled.
I was heading home to see my parents and help them to move, so there was a definite deadline. My parents were packed, ready and waiting for me. My options were to continue on the tourist-ridden road or take a small spur off the main road. I found a faint line on the map that weaved through the forest in the right direction for about 65 kilometres.
I followed a side road following the path of the running water beside me, gravel in the corners, no lines on the road . . . and no cars! As I rode farther away from civilization, I came to a fork in the road. Eeny, meeny, miny, moe was my first tactic to settle on a route. If it didn’t take me where I was planning to go, I knew it would at least take me somewhere, and sometimes that’s enough.
I embarked on my journey down the forgotten road. Within moments I was in awe of an immense tunnel blasted through a rocky ridge. The tunnel was originally built for loggers to pass through instead of building a road over the ridge. The single-lane road curved alongside a kinked river and mountainside, and the wilderness was humbling and breathtaking. The “road” turned into a gravel trail that wound up into the mountains. I strategically made my way along the rough road, finding enjoyment in the slow riding while taking in the vistas of the untouched wilderness that surrounded me.
As I made my way through the trail to about the last 10 km, I noticed the elevation climbing higher and patches of snow were getting larger. I suspected that the ride was about to get unexpectedly interesting.
The End of the Trail – Almost
The patch of snow was nine metres long and about a metre deep with a deep rut already cut into it. I knew this would be a troublesome task, but my bike was up for the challenge and I wasn’t about to give up easily.
I was close to a main road but figured there was one of two ways this could go. I could make it through the snow on my fully loaded street bike with balding street tires with great success, arriving in town and proving my father wrong about my pace. (He said I was travelling slower than Terry Fox.) Or I could get stuck and spend the rest of my day riding back on the road I had just taken only to end up at the gas station I was at hours before.
As I rode through the snow, my bike was fishtailing as it struggled to find traction. I had almost made it through when I was stopped dead in my tracks. My rear wheel couldn’t make it over a massive clump of iced-up snow. I tried pushing the bike back and forth to try to gain momentum, but it was a no-go. I was stuck!
I lost my footing and dropped my bike.
“Damn you, Idaho!” I yelled along with a few expletives, waving my fist to the sky as my pride deteriorated to dust and blew away in the warm Idaho wind.
No cell service and alone with my bike stuck in snow – this was not a situation I was proud to have put myself in. Discouraged, I unloaded my bike and picked it up, then pushed it back through the rut, sliding and slipping in the snow. After almost an hour of gruelling work, both wheels were back on dirt. I sat for a moment to think about this humbling experience, with its lesson to be prepared. Then I loaded my gear back on and reluctantly began the five-hour trek back to the gas station.
As the sun sank below the horizon, my “low fuel” light illuminated; it would be tight. I had to move quickly to ensure the gas station would still be open. I finally arrived at the same pumps where I had been several hours before. I breathed a sigh of relief as I filled up my tank, which had nothing left in it but fumes. I decided to make it as far south as I could to prepare for the Lolo Pass crossing into Montana in the morning.
Julietta was a quaint rustic town that lined the highway. Like a beacon shooting up in the night sky, an “open” sign was the only thing illuminating the town. I was in need of a quick bite before I settled down for the night. As I walked through the doorway of the almost empty pub, I immediately felt short of breath from the second-hand smoke that filled the room. With my eyes burning, I pulled up a stool at the bar; the two chihuahuas that were running on top of the bar, the town’s mayor, his girlfriend and the bartender all stopped and stared. They all sat at the bar with their extra-long cigarettes, extra-light beer and looks of bewilderment. For a split second, I thought about leaving, but if my day weren’t already interesting enough, this would surely make for a good ending.
I grabbed the small stand-up menu from the bar – Tater Tots or a turkey sandwich. The options were minimal, but there wasn’t a thing I didn’t like on the menu, so I ordered everything. Within minutes, a half-dozen locals began filtering into the pub: they may have been the rest of the entire population of the town. Bobby, a local, and I hit it off and, as the night went on, we talked about many things. I learned she has had a very hard life over the past three years, having battled cancer and lost several loved ones during that time.
I asked Bobby where I could set up camp and, after taking a longer than normal sip of her beer, she proposed I camp in her yard for the night. I left Julietta the next morning with a heavy heart, grateful for my encounter with Bobby and the other friendly town folk.
An Unforgettable Ride
I made my way down through Orifino and into Kooskia as the sun rose high, and I stopped for gas just before heading to the Lolo Pass. I was excited about this part of my journey as it would be the last bit of vertical land I would see before the mountains flattened into prairies and farmland. As if a child drew a line through a maze, the Lolo Pass is perfectly scribbled through the scenic mountains of the Bitterroot Range of the northern Rockies.
Over the past 48 hours, I had experienced being stuck in snow, involved in a bar fight, vast wilderness, kind people and kooky small towns. Most of all, I gained empowerment and confidence. My pace was slow, but it’s not always about the destination. What makes a trip unforgettable can be an experience that happens in a matter of minutes or through a span of a couple days.
Although I had been on the road for only three days, they held a year’s worth of experience and education. Those events would have made a perfect ending to an eventful trip, but the reality was my trip had just begun. I unknowingly set my fate for a long, hard and very worthwhile ride that involved ticks, unnerving camping spots, near misses with giant birds and silver-tongued answers to get out of speeding tickets.
But that’s for another time.