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Flagging Down the Great Divide

photo by Sean Girard:The Garden Wall

When I was around twelve years old, my friends and I would often take off on our mountain bikes from Whitefish, MT for a weekend of freedom and adventure. The whole concept of a bike designed for the mountains was still young. We'd ride to "The Clearing" where we could build a fire and eat beans fresh from a tin can. Or we'd head for Tally Lake to jump off of cliffs, swim the warm waters, and talk with other campers who'd driven in. Thinking back, I realize that we never strayed more than twenty or thirty miles from home. We rode along the same dirt roads driven by farmers and loggers every morning. We weren't pioneering new western crossings or scouting the far reaches of territorial boundaries. Those days were already long past. But we sometimes felt like no one had ever looked upon the world from quite the same place that we were seeing it. Back then, we didn't have a name for what we were doing. We didn't even think about it.

Adventure Cycling Association photo Today there's a new word in adventure travel. "Bikepacking" combines extended touring, long known to cyclists of the paved road, with the rugged solitude once enjoyed only by venturesome backpackers or crazy kids on their new bikes. The Adventure Cycling Association or ACA (formerly Bikecentennial) is a non-profit organization based in Missoula, MT seeking to promote safe, responsible, and enjoyable two-wheeled exploration. Founded in 1976 as a mass cross-country bike ride in celebration of America's bicentennial anniversary, it is the nation's largest organization of recreational cyclists. With the addition of the Great Divide Route to its existing network of roads and trails over 24,000 miles long, the Association gives cyclists a new way to navigate the West.

Adventure Cycling Association photo Upon inception, the Great Divide Route gained immediate popularity as a unique journey. Maps of the trek sold out during the route's inagural summer of 1998. "The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route does for mountain bikers what the Appalachian Trail does for hikers. It opens up a whole new world for mountain bikers," says Gary MacFadden, executive director of the the Association. Wind and water have deposited vivid colors and carved intricate patterns from the jagged peaks of northern Montana all the way to the exotic outcroppings of the American Southwest. Thousands of plant and animal species- the Bald Eagle for one- still follow ancient migratory paths along these mountain chains each summer. While most of them will be heading north for our temperate season in the Rockies, the ACA is leading a small group of bikepackers from Eureka and the Canadian border at Roosville, south, through the high plains and the red desert, to Antelope Wells on the Mexican horizon.

Adventure Cycling Association photo Although I've been reading up on the Great Divide Expedition for the past few weeks, I didn't grasp the scope of the ride until I was at the border myself. (No, I wasn't there with my bike.) Driving from Eureka to Whitefish I passed a group of around fifteen cyclists, each equipped with reflective triangles and saddlebags or small trailers. They were scattered along a three or four mile stretch of road. Some were clustered together, slowly carrying a conversation. Others were stopped, alone, and enjoying lunch with the squirrels at a much more natural pace than my 70 miles per hour. I don't think these folks were headed down the Divide. They'd prepared for paved roads, not for single-track trails. But passing their entourage, I noticed something peculiar:

Adventure Cycling Association photo The lead rider had tucked an American flag into one of the many bundles attached to his bike. It was just a simple flag, like you might find for sale in a grocery store around Memorial Day. Remember that in preparing for extended outings, especially those fueled by muscle power, travelers are forced to be selective about what they pack along. This rider had obviously chosen the flag for a reason. He chose it as a symbol. The image reminded me of a trip I once made down the coast of Turkey. Along the way I slept in trees, soaked in mudbaths, and ate fruits fresh from the orchard. Occasionally I met with a winter snowstorm or a cold bath in the sea. But even wet feet or soggy clothes rarely soured the taste of the day. When it was all said and done, and I arrived back in Istanbul, the only momento which really interested me was a small Turkish flag I later sewed onto my pack. I must have felt as though I'd earned it. Now, after watching the Stars and Stripes wave in the the wind down the Pan-American Highway, I recognize the allure of the Great Divide. I know how long it will take the days to roll by and how far they will eventually seem to stretch into the memory of anyone setting out to cross this country via bike and path. At summer's end, no doubt, they'll have earned the right to carry our banner of American pride.

Adventure Cycling Association photo The Great Divide Expedition is a 75-day 2,500-mile tour of the Continental Divide. The route was reportedly concieved "over a platter of nachos and a pitcher of margaritas." Expedition members will click off 695 miles in the Treasure State alone. Those in the know warn that this trip is not intended for inexperienced riders, as the route crosses the Great Divide 26 times- mostly on backroads. Cyclists will average over 40 miles a day, camping and sharing cooking duties along the way. They'll pass by Glacier, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton National Parks. What's more, the carefully designated route will reward them with remote vistas nestled into one of the world's most spectacular mountain ranges. Scouting over a three year period, route coodinator Mac McCoy worked closely with the Forest Service, BLM, and other public lands agencies to insure an ecologically sound corridor of travel. He notes that the entire project was supported and financed by private donations and through the Trailblazer Program; a sort of adopt-a-mile approach to fundraising.

The Adventure Cycling Association does not limit its influence to the West. It also maintains the Great Rivers Route in the Midwest, the Atlantic Coast Route in the East, and serves as an information resource for bicycle enthusiasts throughout the country. Each summer, the ACA leads several tours along portions of the Great Divide route, three of which cut through the alpine wilds of Montana this season. All three Montana legs originate in Whitefish, where participants will catch a shuttle to the Canadian border. In addition, the ACA offers an annual Introduction to Mountain Bike Touring. This short tour teaches newcomers the essential bikebacking basics and introduces them to its potential rewards. It too begins in Whitefish and winds through the surrounding area with pristine Glacier National Park as its constant backdrop. Whitefish is accessible by Amtrak, Glacier International Airport, or US Hwy. 93. Once there, just ask around for a good bike mechanic should you happen to need one. Of course, if you're going to be out on two wheels anyway...

Grab your pack, jump on your bike, and get ready to gear down for springtime in the Rockies!

Find out more about the ACA, its members, and the Great Divide Route by visiting