A couple weeks ago, I headed up to Glacier National Park to bike the Going-to-the-Sun Road from Apgar Village to Logan Pass. My friend and I had planned the trip nearly two months beforehand, had taken time off from work, had tuned up our bikes, aired out our sleeping bags, stocked up on granola. Because I’m a history nerd, I started researching the history of Glacier in preparation. How in the world did they manage to build the Going-to-the-Sun Road? How do they plow it? When did Glacier become a tourist destination? Who were the individuals that turned Glacier into the park we know today? And of course, that led to more questions. As usual, I began to explore Fort Missoula’s archives. While the archives focus mainly on the history of Missoula and Fort Missoula, I stumbled upon several old postcards, a few newspaper inserts promoting Montana as “Vacationland!” and this 1987 Monte Dolack poster featuring the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Commissioned by Bikecentennial (now Adventure Cycling, located in downtown Missoula), it was the perfect image to get me started on my research. I was giddy with excitement – I thought of the image as almost a foreshadowing of my own trip, a preliminary glimpse!
But I couldn’t have been more wrong.
But first, a little bit about the poster itself. In the foreground, closest to the viewer, we see three small, bright birds—a flicker, a tree swallow fly, and a scarlet tanager—that form a sort of triangle around a lone rider in a red shirt. His bike wheels are a blur of opalescent white and his shadow stretches to the bottom edge of the image. The Going-to-the-Sun Road stretches out before him, climbing slowly, laboriously, up towards the continental divide. The green mountain falls away steeply beside him and in the distance we can see rocky mountain ridges still dappled in snow. The rider is almost above the clouds that hover in the valley to the right of the road. There are two other riders ahead of him, just past the waterfall. The landscape is dramatic and the colors incandescent. But probably my favorite detail is the tiny rearview mirror clipped onto his glasses. This guy is one prepared rider! But who is he? What’s the story here? Monte Dolack’s a well-known name around Missoula, but what’s Bikecentennial?
On their website, Glacier Cyclery says that Greg Siple, one of the co-founders of Bikecentennial, posed as the cyclist we see in the Dolack print. I couldn’t find that report corroborated elsewhere, but the owners of Glacier Cyclery are familiar with Adventure Cycling and it does make sense that Siple would be the model. It was Siple, after all, who thought that the best way to celebrate America’s bicentennial in 1976 was with a bike ride from San Francisco to the east coast. The idea came to him in 1972 while on a bike tour from Alaska to the southernmost point of South America with his wife, June, and Lys and Dan Burden. Originally supported by National Geographic, one of their goals on the “Hemistour” ride was to promote the sport of cycling. While in Mexico, they began to solidify the plans for Bikecentennial. “My original thought,” Stiple says, “was to send out ads and flyers saying, ‘Show up at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco at 9 o’clock on June 1 with your bicycle. And then we were going to bicycle across the country. I pictured thousands of people, a sea of people with their bikes and packs all ready to go, and there would be old men and people with balloon-tire bikes and Frenchmen who flew over just for this. Nobody would shoot a gun off or anything. At 9 o’clock everybody would just start moving. It would be like this crowd of locusts crossing America.” (adventurecycling.org)
It wasn’t easy to gain the clout and financial support necessary to embark on such an endeavor. The Siples continued on the tour of South America, while the Burdens were forced to return to the US early because Dan had contracted hepatitis. While the Siples spent another two years on the Hemistour, Lys and Dan began laying the tracks for Bikecentennial. They sent a wave 10,000 flyers out to bike clubs around the nation and overseas, followed by another wave of 3,000; they continued to court individuals at National Geographic who expressed an interest in the adventure; they spread the word to old cycling friends; eventually, in 1973, Lys took on the job of researching the route—an enormous, time-consuming task undertaken in a VW bus. By January 1974, the Burdens found themselves in Missoula: “It was a logical place to start Bikecentennial, since I had many friends, a university from which to draw talent, and a place where we could live inexpensively, attending school on the G.I Bill during the day, working on Bikecentennial at night.” In the summer of 1974, they, along with another couple, road the route that Lys had mapped out on their bicycles. The following year, Bikecentennial gained an important sponsor in Shimano and suddenly, they had the kind of traction they needed to move forward (adventurecycling.org).
I’m sure there were a lot of moments when the founders doubted their initial idea—putting together an unprecedented, enormous event that spans a continent is tough!—but in the summer of 1976, “Bikecentennial operated 300 trips servicing 4,100 men and women. All fifty states and several foreign nations were represented. Just over 2,000 bicyclists rode the entire length of the trail” as reported in BikeReport. Not only did the Burdens and Siples and their colleagues have to map out the entire route, but they needed to make sure that the cyclists had somewhere to sleep every night along the route and recruit the numbers to make the trip a huge (and safe) success!
Once I read up on the history of Bikecentennial, I started to wonder why Monte Dolack would have featured Glacier in his poster. I assumed that the poster was a commemoration of the original 1976 bike trip, but the route during that trip didn’t pass through Glacier. In fact, the route only touched the southeastern-most part of Montana. But after the 1976 ride, Bikecentennial continued to design bicycle tours around the country and, in the mid-1980’s, Michael McCoy and his wife led the company’s first mountain-biking tour….through Glacier County! Today, Adventure Cycling is the leading such company in the U.S., with 47,000 members and over 42,000 miles of bike routes mapped out across the country. If that’s not a lesson in dreaming big, I don’t know what is!
As much as I love bike riding, I’ve never been a bike tourist. Last summer, a friend from the east coast, a fellow cyclist, bought me maps designed by Adventure Cycling, detailing the Lewis and Clark Trail for bicyclists. I had never even heard of Adventure Cycling and I still haven’t had the chance to use the maps (yet!). I’ve never camped out on someone’s farm in Virginia or pulled into a campsite in Yellowstone with panniers full of food and clothing and a sleeping bag and a tent. While our trip to Glacier would barely skim the surface of such a venture, it was my own small foray into the world of adventure cycling and I was thrilled to follow in the footsteps of the giants who created this incredible culture in the U.S. (a culture based in Missoula, nonetheless)! I had Monte Dolack’s print in my head all week, anticipating the glorious views, the birds chirping, the contagious excitement of the other riders, all looking out over the river or up at the Weeping Wall.
But there were no other riders. Or, rather, very few. Over the course of 45 miles, we passed eleven people. And nothing I saw resembled the Monte Dolack print. Where was the Glacier I was promised?! Instead, a chilly rain fell for three days. The clouds obscured the mountain peaks and I wore layers of long sleeves covered by a thin rain jacket. I didn’t see mountain goats or big horn sheep or a grizzly bear. When we set out towards Avalanche at 10 am, after delaying our trip in hopes that the rain would let up, it was pouring. Then that downpour turned into a drizzle and the drizzle, eventually, petered out to nothing. We cheered whenever the rain stopped, despite the insistent dreariness. I can’t even remember if it was raining at the top of Logan Pass: we were submerged in the cold wet of the clouds and the only living thing we saw was an enormous crow perched on a stake in the snow. On the way down, we saw wisps of blue sky and thought, yes, this is it! But it never quite cleared up and we never quite saw what those Adventure Cyclists saw in the 1980’s, or what thousands of others cyclists see today. What we saw was, I think, infinitely more rare. It was surreal and unearthly; an unimaginable solitude.
For more on the history of Bikcentennial / Adventure Cycling, check out their website: http://www.adventurecycling.org/about-us/history/bikecentennial-summer-of-1976/
If you, like me, are curious about how they built the Going-to-the-Sun Road, check out this awesome video put together by the National Parks Service: http://www.nps.gov/features/glac/eHikes/gttsrhistory/gttsrhistory_final.htm
And if you, like me, have someone in your life (ehem, your dad) that loves to bike, check out Monte Dolack’s website for more on the poster! http://www.dolack.com/products/going-to-the-sun-poster-unsigned