Somewhere in Montana.
When our alarm went off at seven a.m., the motel room in Sandpoint was already bright with sunshine. I groaned, but Adrian hopped out of bed as if he'd been awake for hours.
"Come on!" he chirped. "It's our first day of riding! It's going to be glorious!"
I couldn't help laughing. I was excited, too. The brief time on the bike to and from dinner last night had reminded me how much I loved it, and I was eager to be back on the seat, casting my eyes around a world that would become more and more new to me.
Adrian dressed quickly and went out to load the bike while I geared up. This would be the routine every morning: while I finished dressing, he would take the panniers back to the bike and clip them in, then strap on the soft bags and camera gear, making sure everything was tight and immovable. My bag went last, strapped on top of the right pannier, and the Camelbak Adrian had bought so I would stay hydrated was strapped on top of that. The idea was that I'd be able to pull the straw and drink water at any point in the ride. I still hoped to minimize my fluid intake so as not to inconvenience the group with pit stops, but like a security blanket, it gave me comfort to know that water was there, right within my reach, should I start to feel the telltale burn inside my body. (If you haven't read the first post in this series, you can find it here.)
The morning was non-Texas summer perfection: temperature in the sixties, topaz sky, sunshine already cutting through the coolness. I was the last to join the group, and my Nanny's teasing voice rang through my mind: siempre la ultima! she would call when I ran to the front door, my dad honking the horn of the Suburban on a Sunday morning, the family inside and dressed for Mass. Always the last one. I vowed to not always be the last one on this trip.
For the next few minutes, everyone checked their bikes and pulled on helmets and gloves as Mark finished a conversation with another biker, a burly bearded man with an open, friendly face. Then we congregated around the bikes as Mark told us the plan: we would ride out thirty or forty minutes to this Mennonite bakery he'd heard was legendary. We'd get coffee and breakfast there, then ride another couple of hours to a town called Kalispell. We'd eat lunch there, fuel up, and ride to our spot for the night, a KOA campsite where Mark had reserved two cabins for the group.
"Sound good? Everybody good?" Mark asked. Like all of us, he talked loudly with his helmet on, his cheeks slightly squished by the cheek pads.
"All good!" we affirmed. "Let's do this!"
"We're doin' this!" Mark said, and I laughed at the refrain from the day before. Mark was like a little boy who'd carefully planned a present we would unwrap little by little, and he couldn't wait to see our faces with each new reveal.
On the road, I blinked in surprise at how cold the air became once we were in motion. I was wearing a three-quarter sleeve Triumph tee and my riding pants, jacket, and gloves. The wind cut through my pants and gloves, chilling my thighs, seat, and fingertips. Before we'd left home, Adrian had asked whether I wanted to get a new pair of gloves, more suited for colder temperatures. I was still in sticker shock from how much we'd spent on everything else related to this trip, so I shook my head. "I'll be fine," I told him.
Now he came over the intercom. "Are you cold?" he asked in my ears.
"A little," I admitted.
"Mostly my legs and hands."
He shook his head. I hate when he does this. "But I'll be fine," I said defensively. "The day will warm up."
"Yeah, well, it's only going to get colder from here as we go north," he said. "If you're cold now . . . Do you want to see if we can find somewhere to get you a new pair of gloves?"
"No, honestly," I said, hating the idea of holding up the group for my inadequate forethought. "It's fine. It's not a big deal."
"Okay," he said, pressing the button on the side of his helmet to end the conversation. My music came back on. Matt Nathanson, one of my favorite singer-songwriters. "Kill the lights," he sang, "I'm afraid of nothing . . ."
The bakery was called The Bread Basket and adjoined Sharon's Country Store. It was warm inside, the air sweet as powdered sugar. The women behind the counter all wore plain, floor-length cotton dresses. The girl who took our order was stunning, tall, her dark hair pulled into a teased bun, with smooth brown skin and almond-shaped brown eyes. I'd never seen someone so beautiful dressed so modestly. When she smiled at us, her teeth were straight and white. Her name--because Mark always asks for servers' names--was Jacqueline.
Most of us ordered breakfast sandwiches, and a couple of the girls ordered burritos. (Mexican food doesn't get any better than in South Texas, so suspecting I'd be disappointed by a burrito made in Idaho, I ordered a sandwich.) We filled our cups with coffee and sat around two square wooden tables pressed together. We were so new as a group. We chatted softly to whoever was next to us or directly across from us, until eventually only Mark and I were left at the table.
We started talking about his book, Love Loudly, and he told me about the conversations and connections it's prompted. He told me that his father-in-law, who was initially highly discouraging of the project and highly skeptical of RTC ("It's a pyramid scheme!") had read it, and afterwards, he'd apologized to Mark and they'd talked for two hours about some of the stories in the book. His father-in-law was in tears.
"My goal for writing the book has always been to change lives," Mark said as we were getting ready to leave. "To help families. And it's working, one at a time. You know, there's this story I like--this man is on a beach, and there are thousands of starfish washed up around him. Thousands of them. He picks them up, one at a time, and throws them back into the ocean. Then this guy approaches him, sees what he's doing, and scoffs, 'You can't save them all.' And the man picks up one more starfish and says, 'But I can save this one.' And he throws it into the water. That's what I'm doing," Mark said. "Making a change, one family at a time. It's how any change has to start."
I felt that old rush of pride and awe and humility I always did with our authors, and with my role in the change they're making. I've had a hand in so many books over the years, but mostly, I never know of their impact. It's a bit like hearing, years later, that a child you grew in your womb as a surrogate is a straight-A student, or a sports all-star, or best of all, a good person. Mark gave me an unexpected gift.
I ran quickly to the bathroom before rejoining the group outside--Siempre la ultima! Nanny sang again, her voice full of tenderness and humor--and we rode for the next two hours. The world around me was all tall pines, distant mountains, the smell of earth and wood. We passed taxidermy shops ("Living Art!" proclaimed one, without, I think, intending to be ironic), lumberyards, coffee shacks, and homes spread far from one another and farther from the nearest town. How did people choose or happen into this land? I wondered. So remote, so removed. It was easy to imagine that life was simple out here, though of course we drag our heavy shadows wherever we go.
We stopped in Kalispell for lunch, and it wasn't until I saw a flyer in the bathroom that I realized we were in Montana. We'd crossed state lines without my even noticing, which was strangely disorienting.
In the middle of the meal, a bald man sitting alone in a booth began making loud, admiring proclamations to his older dark-haired waitress, who seemed equal parts pleased and embarrassed.
"Isn't she beautiful?" the man asked the entire restaurant. "You are so beautiful! Hey! Hey, beautiful! Do you have a boyfriend?"
The woman disappeared into the kitchen, and the man continued to no one, or everyone, "I haven't had a girlfriend in seven years! Seven years, I've been single!"
Deb, who was sitting across from me, muttered, "Well, I can see why."
The man stood up, wandering over to our side of the restaurant and approaching the table against the wall to our left. He was rambling, maybe drunk, definitely a little unhinged. As he talked and laughed and gestured, I watched Mark's face. He maintained a casual, pleasant expression as conversation at our table continued, but there was an alertness there, a tension, and I sensed it in Jeff, too, though I couldn't see his face since he was on my side of the table. They would be the ones to intervene if the man took it too far, I knew, or suddenly seemed more threatening. What a responsibility, I thought, to know that wherever you are, you are the silent protector of strangers.
"Alright, alright," the man said, laughing. He held up his hands in surrender, turning 360 degrees to look at everyone in the restaurant. "I'm just havin' some fun." Then he ambled back over to his booth.
We left soon after that, but not before a woman sitting in the booth to our right noticed Mark's t-shirt. He was wearing RTC's Vulnerability is Sexy t-shirt, which never fails to draw notice.
"Where'd you get that shirt?" the woman asked as we were leaving.
"Me?" I asked dumbly.
"No, him." She gestured to Mark, who was standing right behind me. I felt like an idiot.
Mark told the woman about RTC, helping her find them on Facebook through a spotty Internet connection as the others trailed out of the restaurant.
"I need that shirt," she said. "I'm divorced, you know. Just came out of a really vulnerable period." She nodded, blinking at us with wide eyes behind her glasses. She started to tell us more, and we listened politely. After a few minutes, at a natural stopping point, Mark tried to extricate us. But as we took two steps toward the door, she interjected. "Hey, where're you all heading?"
"Up to West Glacier, then Waterton Lakes tomorrow," Mark said. "Then Banff and Jasper."
"Jasper," she sighed. She looked at me. "The purest water I ever drank in my life was in Jasper. Straight from one of those glacial lakes. They say it's healing," she added. "That it's got healing properties, you know? I wish I'd bottled some of that up. You gotta try that water. It's just amazing."
I smiled. "Definitely. We'll do that."
We lifted our hands in a wave, took another step away.
"Where are you all staying tonight?" she threw out.
"The KOA," Mark said. I noticed that while he was just as friendly and inviting as always, he was only answering her questions, not offering anything more. We were both ready to go.
"Ah! That where that guy just got killed by the bear?" she asked. She took a bite of her sandwich, her eager blue eyes never leaving us. "You hear about that? He was on a bike or somethin'?"
"Yeah," Mark said. "That's right across the road from where we're staying, actually."
"Mmm," she said. "You know what happened?"
"I'm not sure exactly," Mark said. "Anyway, you have a good day!" He smiled, waved, and I followed him as he walked toward the door.
"I wonder what happened!" she called. We were now at least fifteen feet away from her. She had to nearly yell for us to hear her. "Somethin'. . . maybe he was feeding it or somethin'? Got too close?"
I smiled back at her, shrugging. Her desperation was clear and sad.
"I think he was actually a ranger," Mark said. "It sounded like he surprised the bear."
"Mmm," the woman said. "Yeah, I heard about that. You've gotta wonder what happened."
Mark and I nodded, edging ever closer to the door.
"Sad story," she called. And then finally, when she was out of options, "Well, you guys have a good ride! Be safe out there!"
As soon as we were outside, Mark let out a breath and shook his head. "She would've told us her whole life story."
"I know," I said.
The group was already helmeted and waiting on the bikes, and they laughed when we told them what had taken us so long. Then we were back on the road.
Stopping to stretch our legs and appreciate the view. From left, clockwise: Deb, Valerie, Jeff, Mark (hidden), me, Megan, center.
Jeff and Mark shared an intercom system, and one of them was always leading, one always at the rear, ensuring the group stayed safely together. At one point, Jeff signaled us to pull over. Mark was convinced we'd gotten off track somehow, but when Adrian entered the address into Google Maps, it seemed we were heading in the right direction. Jeff's GPS agreed with Adrian's, but Mark was insistent.
"I've done this ride," he said. "We were supposed to turn off back there."
"But look at this, Mark," Adrian said, offering Mark the phone.
Mark glanced at it, smiling. "Signal's off out here. Can't trust it. We're going the wrong way. We needed to turn off."
Debra, Valerie, Megan, and I shrugged at one another. Three men arguing over directions: best to just wait it out.
Eventually, Jeff and Adrian agreed to follow Mark, and indeed, we'd somehow passed a turnoff that would lead us to our campsite.
Mark had actually texted us about that bear attack a few weeks before the trip. The man was a law enforcement officer for the Forest Service in West Glacier, Montana. He'd been mountain biking with a friend along a forested trail, and the two had surprised a grizzly bear. The bear knocked the poor man off his bike and attacked, killing him, while the second bicyclist escaped unharmed to seek help. Mark had forwarded the information as an eye-opening FYI, a reminder that we would be firmly entrenched in bear country and would likely see more than one throughout our trip. The idea was impossibly foreign.
We turned onto a dirt road leading to the KOA, which included a general store, an ice cream shop, a row of small, rustic log cabins, and a campsite surrounded by pines whose tips I had to crane my head back to see. We'd reserved two cabins, which were each equipped with a bunk bed and a double bed with thin plastic mattresses we'd need to cover with our own sleeping bags. Bathrooms and showers were in a surprisingly clean building about a hundred feet away. Between our two cabins, three benches and a picnic table surrounded a spot to make a campfire.
After some deliberation, we decided that the guys would room together in one cabin and the girls in another. Megan and Debra volunteered to share the double bed, and Valerie placed her things on the bottom bunk. I bit my lip when I saw this. Since I drink so much water, I typically have to get up at night, and I didn't want to bother or scare her by fumbling around the tiny wooden ladder in the dark. I resolved to ask her later if we could switch.
It was four or five p.m., my first hint at how quickly the days would pass. We gathered at the picnic table, where Jeff unloaded the plastic bladder of boxed wine and set to making his spritzers. There weren't enough cups, so Mark and Adrian went to the general store, returning with copper mugs more suited for Moscow Mules, plus a bag of wood for the fire. Jeff made drinks and passed them around. They were surprisingly refreshing.
"Can you drink these?" Adrian asked. "It's red wine."
"It's blush," I said. "It's like rosé. It'll be fine."
So we sat around and sipped from our plastic (and copper) cups, talking about plans for that evening. Adrian wanted to take sunset photos, but the sun wouldn't set until 9:30. As we moved into Canada, it would set later and later. We decided to eat dinner first and then do photos, but we lost track of time. The conversation had gotten into the recent police violence and Black Lives Matter, which I'd known it inevitably would, with Mark and Jeff's jobs.
"The thing about police shootings," Mark said, "is that they always look bad."
"Sometimes they are bad," I said. We talked about body cams and cell phone videos and the role race played in Alton Sterling and Philando Castile's shootings.
"The thing you have to understand," Mark said, "is that traffic stops are the most dangerous things we do. We pull you over, we have no idea who you are, what you've done, what you've got on you. It's a totally unknown situation. The adrenaline is pumping through you. I mean, pumping."
"We've come up on criminals in routine traffic stops," Jeff said. "I mean, people who have literally just committed a violent crime, and we had no idea when we pulled them over. That's why we're on such high alert. We've seen everything."
"People who aren't in law enforcement, they don't see this world," Mark said, with a tinge of sadness. "They live in a different world than we do."
Then Mark told a story about a traffic stop that had nearly turned into a tragedy. It was midnight or one a.m., and the car had a broken taillight. In the glow from Mark's headlights, he could see a man moving around inside, leaning over to the passenger seat and fumbling for something in the darkness. Mark's first thought was, Gun. He shouted for the driver to stop moving, to put his hands on the steering wheel, but the driver didn't. He kept searching, his movements jerky with agitation.
"We're trained about the threat," Mark said. "We see videos of cops getting killed on T stops. It's in your head every minute you're pulling a car over. I can feel my heart pounding just thinking about it.
"So I'm yelling at him, telling him not to move, thinking he's going for a gun. But I had to close ground. Each step was heart-wrenching fear. I just kept thinking, 'When is he going to try to shoot me?'"
Finally, the man stuck both hands outside the driver's side window, trying to signal something.
"I didn't know sign language, but I knew empty hands," Mark said. "Hands kill us. So finally I got close enough that I could hear him try to speak. Only then could I see the fear in his eyes, and I realized that he was nowhere near the threat to me as I was to him. So he finds what he's been looking for in the passenger seat: a pen and paper. He writes, 'I AM DEAF.'"
"Oh, my god," I said. The whole group was silent, taking this in.
Mark shook his head. "The adrenaline."
"Adrenaline is the most powerful drug there is," Jeff said somberly.
"So what can be done about it?" I asked. "About cops making the wrong moves, the wrong assumptions, because of adrenaline?"
Jeff's answer was immediate: "Education."
I nodded. This was a challenging conversation, and while I hadn't changed my mind (nor, I think, were they trying to convince me to) about the wrongness of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile's deaths, I was glad to hear a side I didn't ordinarily hear. I was also pleased that I'd managed to keep fairly level-headed, instead of becoming overly emotional, the way I can get on this topic.
Jeff noted that it was already 7:30--we should get going, or sunset photos weren't going to happen. So back on the bikes we went, down to the only restaurant we'd noticed as we passed. Not surprisingly, considering, it was packed. My resolve to eat a salad faded the minute we stepped inside and I smelled pizza.
From center clockwise: Deb, me, Valerie, and Megan. Chatting while we wait for our table at Glacier Grill and Pizza.
Maybe it was because it was our first full day together, or maybe it was the spritzer we'd each consumed, or maybe there's something about a long table and hands reaching over each other to grab and hand out slices of pizza, but this is the meal where I think we started to unwind, to be more comfortable and less careful with one another. The restaurant was close and loud, the food delicious, and we talked about our impressions of the day and what we should expect in the days ahead. Mark had booked a package in Banff that included a gondola ride up Sulphur Mountain, a lake cruise, a glacier excursion, and a walk on a glass bridge 918 feet above the valley floor. Most of us hadn't booked it yet but intended to, so part of dinner was spent passing phones around, navigating an unnecessarily complicated website to book tickets. Deb and I bonded over our reticence to do the sky bridge.
"I'm deathly afraid of heights," she said, shuddering.
"You know, they never used to bother me, but I'm more and more uncomfortable with them as I get older," I said. "We'll get through it together."
Adrian leaned over, saying so only I could hear, "And I'll be with you to make sure nothing falls out."
I burst out laughing. I'd confided in him (and I can't believe I'm about to write this) that heights give me the strangest feeling, a heaviness in my pelvis, literally as if my vagina is about to fall out.
"What?" Valerie asked, sitting to my left.
I turned to her and, red-faced and laughing, told her what I'd told Adrian. Surprised laughter overtook her, until we were both nearly in tears.
"I mean," she said, "I get a funny feeling, too. Like butterflies in my stomach . . ."
"Nope," I said. "Vagina. Falling out."
We laughed so hard we needed to catch our breath. It felt good, this laughter. We were halfway to Mark's promise of three days being when the group found its groove. Right on track.
After dinner, we returned to the campsite and Valerie started a fire.
"That's my girl," Jeff said proudly, nodding toward her. "I taught her how to do that."
Their family went camping nearly every summer, Valerie told me later. She loved it. Those were, she said, some of her very best memories.
We'd missed the opportunity for sunset photos, but Mark assured Adrian we had plenty of time and far more scenic locations. By 10:00, darkness finally fell and we all changed into more comfortable clothes, pulling on leggings and sweatpants and hoodies. The fire crackled, Jeff poured more drinks, and Mark and Adrian lit cigars. We lounged on the wooden benches and picnic tables, stretching our legs, bending our knees. Being on a bike all day takes its toll on the body. I felt stiff and sore, my knees aching, my shoulders tight. Valerie and I got into a conversation about Pilates and yoga, what each of these has taught us about our bodies. The conversation transitioned into books we'd recently read and loved--I told her about Salvage the Bones, and she told me about one called Redeeming Love, which, as a Christian book, wasn't her usual style, she said, but for some reason she'd loved it. Then it was onto shows we watched. Behind me, Adrian was telling Mark about Making a Murderer, a heated conversation that usually takes an hour because Adrian summarizes the whole show. They were talking about corrupt police departments, and Mark said, "Well. There's a lot you don't see."
"No," Adrian said. "But this one was. Watch it and see. It's disgusting."
It was nearly midnight by the time Adrian and I kissed goodnight and separated for our cabins. The girls were deliberating whether to shower then or in the morning. I was exhausted by the thought of either one.
"I'm just going to go to bed," I said. "Don't judge me!"
I asked Valerie if we could switch bunks, and she agreed without question. When they returned from their showers, we all settled into our sleeping bags. The room was filled with quiet rustling and sighs, dark as the night outside.