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Jay Wilker is one of 200 bicyclists in the "Big Ride," a summer-long bike-a-thon sponsored by the American Lung Association to raise public awareness and funding for respiratory health. This is the fifth in a series of letters that began in Washington State and will end in the nation's capitol. Writing for World Travelers of America, Wilker offers a unique view of America from across the handlebars. In his other life, Wilker, 56, is a litigation attorney with Oppenheimer, Wolff and Donnelly, LLP, in New York.

Bicycling Across America - Leg 3

Hi from Billings . . .

We still have several days to go before we hit Wyoming, and already we've been bicycling across Montana for what seems like forever.

Even so, our two-day layover in Missoula turned out to be well worth the delay. In addition to boasting a good Italian restaurant, Zimarino's, Missoula is probably the most bicycle friendly city in America, with bike lanes on every major road, bicycle trails going in and out of the city in all directions, and bicycle shops everywhere.

For some of our group, the first day off was a busman's holiday, spent peddling around the city, visiting some of the bike shops and bookstores and lunching al fresco at the Iron Horse. The same restaurant turned into a super bar that night, serving Fat Tire amber beer at $2 a pint.

The second day Howard (a brother lawyer, from Florida) and I rented an old Taurus station wagon and took three other guys about 150 miles north to Glacier National Park, near the Idaho border. The mountainous heart of the park is a massive, sheer rock cliff shooting straight up out of spectacular Lake McDonald.

Now we were back on our bikes for a 99-mile ride to Avon, a small hamlet west of Helena. Our route took us up from the mountain-girded Missoula Valley into high, arid desert ranch land that extends as far as the eye can. At best, we averaged 15 mph over the rolling hills, and once we left the outskirts of Missoula, we did not see a store or place to eat until Avon.

There are only a handful of ranch houses along this route, since the spreads are all so huge. I've been told it is considered rude in Montana to ask a rancher how big his ranch is, but the rumor on the road was that they are often 40,000 acres. This is real cowboy country, with Marlboro men riding along and repairing their fences - although more often in pickups and on motorcycles than by horseback. We rode east on Rt. 200, then south onto Rt. 141 where a good tailwind made the end a real joy. In Avon, we stopped at a cafe for cherry pie before heading to our campsite.

The next day was the shortest but toughest so far. We had all been warned about crossing the Continental Divide at MacDonald Pass, the highest point on our entire ride at 6320 feet; on the Big Ride in 1998, three quarters of the 700 plus riders got stuck in a blizzard and had to be evacuated by the local Red Cross. We were all dressed for the arctic as we climbed the pass, but we soon reached the top, where our only worry was whether we had on enough sun tan lotion. From there we enjoyed a long, easy descent into Helena, Montana's capitol.

Since we only had 30 more miles to go, most of the riders spent hours riding around Helena, visiting the city's sights (a western version of Albany, NY), eating lunch and relaxing. Five of us had our pictures taken on the capitol steps by a pretty bridesmaid in a wedding there, an idyllic setting on a hill overlooking a good part of the city.

However, by the time we hit the road out of town, a powerful East wind had arisen and we had to ride over 18 miles of torn up highway with huge tandem log trucks raising dust devils behind them as they roared past us. Our high spirits from crossing the Continental Divide quickly became low and there were moans and groans everywhere. The best line was from a Texan who said t his rear end was so sore that if he rode over a quarter he could tell if it was heads or tails.

The torn-up road finally gave way to regular highway, but the head winds never diminished and the shoulder where we frequently rode was entirely lined with "rumbles", warning groves in the pavement to wake up drivers who are wandering. We couldn't even hold a pace line, so with the temperature over 90 degrees, it was everyone for him/herself. The situation was made worse by the fact that so many of the riders had been dressed for a blizzard. Everyone was wiped by the time we got to our Townsend campsite.

The next day we had an easy (I don't believe I said that) 100 mile ride to Harlowton. The only surprise was that after the Continental Divide, where I expected the rivers to run east toward the Mississippi, they didn't. We climbed 1400 feet along a cascading trout stream through the Big Belt Mountains, which are covered by small evergreens and look more like the Adirondacks than the Rockies. I rode through them in a pace line with several of the faster riders, a frequent indulgence at the beginning of a ride, when I still have the energy.

Two riders in that group were Rob and Emily Bush from Atlanta, whose tandem was the fastest bike on the ride. They often cruised the flats at 30mph and descended at over 50mph. Although Rob is over 6'6'' and Emily only about 5'3'', they're the smoothest riders and everyone's' favorites, always smiling and saying hello as they whiz along like poetry in motion. Once we got to the top of the mountain, Rob and Emily took off and I didn't see them until Harlowton.

A former railroad town (the Milwaukee line disappeared from here some 20 years ago) with a lot of charm and solid turn-of-the-century architecture, Harlowton features a neat western museum, and just about the friendliest people on this planet. The town was celebrating its 100th anniversary, with former residents coming home from all over.

One returning family had rented a large hall for a reunion of grandparents, 16 children, 54 grandchildren, and an uncounted number of great- grandchildren. Most of them wore tee shirts saying "Not much wheat, but one heck of a crop." When a fierce thunder and lightning storm blew through, they invited us to join them in their hall. Over 60 riders joined the reunion where they were made to feel part of the family, and a number of other riders went into the local church where many set up their tents for the night.

I chose to make a dash to the Stockman's Bar just as the storm was hitting. It was a good choice, as the place was jumping with people from all over the country who had returned for the 100th anniversary celebration over the 4th of July weekend. (They take that holiday very seriously out here.) Their loyalty to their town and their willingness to include the few riders who got to the bar before the deluge was wonderful. Once the rain stopped, I returned to my flooded tent, but fortunately my sleeping bag was dry. I'm not sure I would have noticed the difference.

Yesterday we rode another 100 miles to Billings, and as we did the land became flat, dry and barren until the outskirts where we came onto a high rim overlooking the city. Perhaps not everyone would enjoy Billings as a tourist stop - although, to be fair, some14, 000 motorcyclists apparently found it irresistible.

Today starts a convention of Gold Wing bikers. The largest motorcycles made, Gold Wings are built by Honda weigh over 900 pounds, and cost over $18,000. I was assured that Gold Wings are driven exclusively by men; the women ride behind. Despite some dissimilarities, we found we enjoyed each other's stories - and we were especially delighted with the bikers' expressions of disbelief that we covered the same daily distances, on average, as they did. - but under our own power.

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Notice: This information is current as of Summer 2000. It is recommended that you contact the numbers, and/or visit the web sites above to determine any changes to the information.