Finding God(s) on a Tri-Valley Tour: A co-narration

Tony: My toes were cold. The alarm rang again. “Too cold,” I thought, as I emerged from my protective cocoon, sprinting to ward off the certain hypothermia of a too-long bathroom visit. On the way back to my bed, I noticed that the thermostat read 60 degrees. After one more snooze button interval, I warmed myself by cooking breakfast burritos over a hot stove as I packed a few last things for the bike tour.

Justin: My roommate Tony and I were about to leave on what we had dubbed the “Tour de Gallatin,” a 103-mile overnight bike tour of southwest Montana’s Gallatin, Jefferson, and Madison river valleys. We named it the Tour de Gallatin because we did not realize beforehand that the route ever left the Gallatin Valley. Despite our geographic ignorance, we had both done longer bike tours before, and thought it would be fun to do an overnight before the onset of the notorious Montana winter. The route would loop through several small farming communities and over a couple of short mountain passes. Most importantly, the route passes by the “Water of the Gods” hot springs and campground in tiny Norris, for an ideal overnight stop.

Tony: We left the driveway around 9 a.m. Justin’s steed was the Green Baron, a (get this) green-colored, mid-1980s Trek 720 that he’d successfully ridden to Seattle over the summer. My weapon of choice was my 1988 Trek 900, a Craigslist clunker. I restored her at the Bozeman Bike Kitchen, a local nonprofit dedicated to encouraging the use of bikes as transportation in Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley. Although the bike had been my daily commuter for months, I was a little nervous about what sort of mechanical problems could arise under heavy load in such desolate country. The bottom bracket was already loose…

Justin: The air was cool and crisp, the sun was shining, and other clichés pertaining to pleasant weather were plentiful as we left Bozeman. We stopped at the Gallatin River to commune with nature and to replenish the fluids lost whilst communing. We observed some graffiti under the overpass containing offensive, subversive messages such as “I love you,” “God gave me you,” and “Worrying today won’t change tomorrow." These messages were well received and taken as warning signs to watch out for the notorious criminal gangs of rural southwest Montana. We trod lightly and passed briskly through the area, knowing this was somebody else’s turf!

Tony arranges his hands to form the "bike gang" sign before scuttling off dangerous turf.

Tony: The next town was Churchill, a farming community in the throes of harvest about 20 miles west of Bozeman. An endless stream of fully loaded potato trucks with stenciled-on names like “Spudnik” passed us. Seed potatoes for the famous farms of Idaho are grown in the Gallatin Valley, the idea being that any sort of disease or flaw in the crop can be quarantined “in the nursery” before it is spread to the main crop in Idaho.

Justin: We stopped in the thriving metropolis of Manhattan, population 1,520, to replenish some lost calories. Manhattan is a gorgeous town. One side of Main Street is shops, while the other side is a long, tree-lined park. What a great idea! Adjacent to the park runs a busy train track. As we ate, a train passed, causing my inner child to break out a horn-honk gesture, as so many passenger-children do on America’s highways, resulting in an acoustically pleasing, close proximity blast of the horn. (The blast probably had more to do with the fact that we were standing next to a railroad crossing than my childish antics.)

We continued out of Manhattan on the frontage road, blissfully far from the brutal I-90 traffic. We neared the headwaters of the Missouri river, where the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin rivers converge to form the head of the Missouri-Mississippi river system, the third longest on the planet. We didn’t detour to the headwaters proper, however, as we were enthralled by the smooth paved bike path that carried us to the town of Three Forks around lunchtime.

Justin avails himself of the bike infrastructure outside the town of Three Forks.

Tony: When the path ended in a neighborhood, we turned onto a random street that we were pretty sure would take us the way we wanted to go. This street took us past the local Methodist church, which lured us in with a sign reading “BAKE SALE” in huge block letters. If there’s a better way to get cycle tourists to stop, I don’t know what it is. Upon entering the church, we learned three things:

1. The bake sale had just ended. I was pretty sure we’d been lured in a la Hansel and Gretel until I learned that …

2. The church was, at that moment, having its semiannual fundraiser lunch of sloppy joes, pie, and coffee. At $6 per person, we agreed that this was an unbeatable deal.

3. Every single other person in the room was two or three times our age.

Tony enjoys pie and sloppy joes at the Methodist church in Three Forks.

Being young, liberal, semi-non-religious, and dressed like cyclists, we felt a certain amount of trepidation as we smiled and made small talk with the other denizens of the church auxiliary building. No trepidation necessary! It was great! The pie was sweet, the joes were sloppy, and the coffee offered a nice mid-day energy blast. Who knew church could be so stimulating? The church basement meal felt like a throwback to my more Jesus-y high school days. A few curious church members stopped at our table to inquire about who we were, why we had stopped, and so forth. One woman told us that her husband used to do bike tours all over the country, but nowadays he just rides the aforementioned bike path in town. We were even gifted some bake sale leftovers! The people were wonderful and welcoming, but I wondered if the younger demographic had left the town for good. Could bicycles save this small town?

Justin: We meandered out of town on another fantastic bike path that delivered us unto US 287, where we turned south and pedaled 18 miles to the hamlet of Harrison.

Shoulder party! Justin celebrates the advent of a wide shoulder on US 287.

Along the way, we learned that the devil does indeed have horns and they’re mounted on top of a Peterbilt. US 287 had a wide shoulder for much of the way, with perforated rumble strips separating us from traffic. Views of the Tobacco Root Mountains were as plentiful as the snow adorning their majestic peaks. Harrison was colder, the ground was covered with snow, and we were tired after our hill climb into a headwind. Soon we saw a sign of our impending salvation: Norris Hot Springs, “Water of the Gods,” was only 10 miles ahead!

It's a sign! Salvation is at hand. Tobacco Root Mountains in the background.

Tony: We mashed out the end of our 70-mile day on rolling hills through snow-covered God’s country. As we arrived at the hot springs, our destination for the night, we yelled and high-fived and were looked upon with raised eyebrows. We were, however, granted free admission to the privately owned hot springs just for showing up on bikes. In fact, we learned that admission is always free for cyclists. Alas, any hopes of saving money were quickly dashed as we splurged on calories both nourishing (nachos) and non-nourishing (beer) while we soaked our tired muscles.

Justin: Sunday morning came early, as I had to be back in town for ice skating lessons. I’ve never ice skated before, but I joined a hockey league in an effort to avoid my usual winter hibernation. A tailwind from on high pushed us homeward on Highway 84 along the Madison River. We made good time on the 34-mile ride.

As we came into Bozeman, traffic increased as it seems to do any time one enters a town. Gravel and remnants of miscellaneous car parts littered the shoulder, requiring us to ride carefully. Despite this, we rode two abreast in what we called the victory formation. I wasn't the only one with plans awaiting in Bozeman: Tony was looking forward to a rendezvous with a lady friend. As we approached our turn we signaled our intentions, then executed a synchronous left turn boldly and with purpose. The road, or the God(s) thereof, had delivered us safely back to our neighborhood side streets, along which we cruised for the balance of our journey. Tired and hungry, we parked our noble steeds back in their respective stalls and immediately put pen to paper lest our epic odyssey be lost in the annals of time.

Get more information about bike overnights.

Tip for this adventure: If you stop at Norris Hot Springs (highly recommended), mention that you arrived on bike and admission will be free.

Favorite local bike shop: The Bozeman Bike Kitchen is a nonprofit community bike shop where staff will work with you to teach you how to fix your bike.

5 responses so far ↓

Jason - Oct 28, 2013 at 6:12 PM

The Tobacco Roots are amazing. Did the name of that hot spring used to be something else? Like a brown animal?

Jessie May - Nov 2, 2013 at 6:06 PM

Great story! Very well and enthusiastically written. I wish I had been able to do this tour with you two. Norris Hot Springs was a mid-day stop on day one of my tour, there's nothing like a soak after many, many miles in the saddle.

Michael McCoy - Nov 6, 2013 at 10:36 AM

Yes, Jason, I believe Norris H.S. used to be known as Bear Trap Hot Springs. The Bear Trap Canyon of the Madison River is not far east of there.

Jason - Nov 26, 2013 at 6:31 PM

Michael, thanks for the great post. I had some good times at the Bear Trap in my college days... what a beautiful area!

Paula Joy - Apr 11, 2014 at 10:04 PM

Hilariously told! I enjoyed the armchair journey -- and the humor very much! Got to ride near Whitefish area recently and loved it, but so glad I live in California, come winter!

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