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Montana is My Favorite Playground

The story of my first Picnic.

Photo: Evan Smith

My wife does this to me all the time. She signs me up for races, adventures, big days of climbing or skiing that she hears about, without consulting with me at all. She keeps doing it because she knows that I shake my head at first, but then I always thank her after it’s all said and done and I’m drinking a beer. But The Picnic was too much. I was absolutely confident I would not be thanking her this time.

I knew a lot about Picnics, which is why I was hesitant. My friend David Gonzales came up with the idea to bike from a town to a lake, swim across said lake, climb a mountain, and then do it all in reverse. They always seemed mildly appealing to me and this one even more so, because it was in Montana. But there’s one catch—I don’t swim.

But my wife didn’t care. She had heard that David was orchestrating a Bozeman Picnic and that a few of our friends were coming from out of town to do it, so she told them I would join. I had been looking for an excuse to spend a whole day exploring in Hyalite Canyon, so before I knew it, I was agreeing to the inaugural Montana Picnic. I had five hours to pack and sleep. We met at 4am at a coffee shop. Running on an hour and a half of sleep, I was even more skeptical if I could do this. I checked my pannier to make sure I had everything. David encouraged us all to bring costumes for the celebratory bike ride back into town. I looked at this ridiculous dinosaur costume in my bag and shook my head in embarrassment, thinking, “I’m not going to be able to do this. I’m never going to put this dinosaur thing on.”

All seven of us made it to the meeting spot. I met three new friends and as soon as we ended introductions, we started pedaling towards Hyalite.

In the calm of the dark, surrounded by six other cyclists panting and gearing down, Montana never felt wilder to me. The stars shone bright and we all shared this beautiful moment. My heart pounded from the uphill cycling, but beat even harder at the thought of the upcoming swim. Every pedal stroke, every deep breath, I couldn’t stop thinking, “This is a bad idea, Evan. You don’t know how to swim. This is a bad idea.”

Then we arrived at Hyalite Reservoir and everyone was smiling and high-fiving and the view was just incredible. The joy of being in the mountains motivated me to keep going and I started putting on my wetsuit. Soon the reality of this one mile swim sank in. Our faces faded from smiles to glances of concern. David reassured everyone that we were in this together and that we all had it in us. In my head, I replied, “You’ve never seen me try to swim, dude.” My heart dropped as we all headed to the water. I was terrified. But I was quickly and pleasantly surprised by how warm the water was. I waded along in the shallow water while others started swimming, being thankful that with every footstep the swim became that much shorter.

Within five minutes, I was the last in the pack. It was evident to all of us—especially me—that I  was the weakest swimming link. My instinct was to try and feel bad for myself and bad for this team of people, but everybody with me would not lend me that opportunity. The encouragement coming from every angle was out of control.

The canvas of water seemed to go on forever in front of me. I would pause to catch my breath and take in the beauty, the fog rising from the still water while looking to the mountains for encouragement. But inspiration always came from seeing those six bobbing heads and twelve stretching arms making it happen, moving forward.

If you would have told me a week before The Montana Picnic that I had to swim a mile, I would’ve told you, “There is absolutely no way.”

When I stepped out of the water at the end of the swim, I was baffled at myself. “How did I do that? I just swam a mile.” Thoughts of the return entered in my head. “There is no way I can do it on the way back. This is silly. I’ll just keep my running shoes on and run back around the lake to my bike.”

Last out of the water, I made sure everyone wasn’t upset that they had to wait on me. They weren’t upset in the least. They were elated at my accomplishment. Every high-five escalated this excited feeling within me of, “I did it. Wow. We did it.”

When we started hiking up Blackmore, we were all wearing permanent smiles. The sun shined on us and we realized that this sunshine, these high-fives, these views, these miles, were the beginning of our victory. These were experiences and rewards in the same breath.

It almost felt like we were at the summit of Blackmore too quickly. The view from the top can only be described as spectacular. And the feeling of being half-way done with The Montana Picnic matched the views. We weren’t scared of the water anymore and we couldn’t wait for the downhill bike ride back to town. We high-fived some more, ate lunch, told some of our favorite(unrepeatable) jokes, and headed down the trail.

If you would’ve told me a week before The Montana Picnic that I had to swim a mile, hike a mountain and then swim another mile, I would’ve told you, “You’re insane. That will never happen.”

It happened. It happened because of my team of people, encouraging me the whole way. It happened because the sunshine and the mountains motivated me to dig deep for potential. It happened because my crazy wife knew that Montana is my favorite playground.

We got out of the water after the second swim and couldn’t get into our costumes fast enough. Laughing, I pulled the dinosaur costume out of my pannier to show everyone. “YES!” “That’s so awesome!” “It’s perfect!”

There was an Uncle Sam of sorts, a dignified businessman costume, glitter galore, a ton of neon, and a stoked dinosaur. We rode back into town on a route that was almost all downhill. As the sun set over Bozeman, we looked to each other, laughing at our costumes and silently acknowledging the presence of another experience/reward.

At the bar, my wife was there with a slew of people waiting to celebrate The Montana Picnic. She handed me a beer and looked at me with concern, wondering if this was the one time her over-zealous plans didn’t pan out. I took the beer and said, “Thank you. For the beer.” Panic set in her eyes before I smirked and added, “And for signing me up for a Picnic. It was amazing. Thank you.”

Evan Smith.