On the second day of a four-day tour in the remote Little Belt mountain range in Montana, I suddenly felt that I jettisoned some of my baggage on a long descent. Panic set in…
Little Belt Mountains
Before we get into this bit of Reportage, let’s look at the setting. Montana is comprised of a series of small mountain ranges, with the mighty Northern Rocky mountains acting as the backbone for the state. However, the horizon is littered with ridgelines and peaks from just about any vantage point. Located northeast of Bozeman is the Little Belt mountains. This mountain range is unique in that a semi-arid sagebrush steppe ecotone predominantly surrounds it. In contrast, the mountains are blanketed with thick forest, large rivers, lots of drainage networks, and a healthy population of Lodgepole pine, Whitebark pine, Douglas fir, and Ponderosa pine.
Due to the Little Belt mountains’ unique geological construction of mostly metallic minerals, the area became a hot spot for mining silver and sapphire in the 1880s. The remnants of mineral extraction are still very much visible today. This ride takes you by a mining hotspot at Yogo Peak and alongside the Yogo sapphire mines. After heavy rains, you’ll see prospectors panning in streams and digging through scree fields. It was this mineral abundance that brought great wealth to the area, as mines popped up all along this relatively small mountain range, resulting in a myriad of trails, tracks, and roads, making it perfect for a bike tour.
The Little Belt Mountains are on the ancestral lands of the Salish, Pend d’Oreille, Kootenai, Blackfeet, and Cheyenne.
Reportage: Unraveling Identity and Lost Baggage
A few weeks ago, Adam Sklar emailed twenty-something friends, inviting us to do a tour in the Little Belt mountains. Having never been to the area, I was immediately committed as the past few months have been very demanding at work, and I was hankering for a good, hard summer bike tour.
Physically, I felt like I was in great shape, but mentally, I’ve been struggling with some major life changes. The most obvious and impactful change being the partnership with The Pro’s Closet. My therapist helped me identify a point of subconscious contention: I had sold the company that was intertwined with my identity. Like unraveling a knit blanket, I had to figure out how to separate my identity from the brand that is no longer mine and, with it, still feel relevant and confident. As you can imagine, this has not been an easy process. The Radavist is still a huge part of my life and will be for a long time. I can’t imagine doing anything else! It’s been my life’s work and one of my proudest accomplishments, but I have to learn how to exist symbiotically with it. This autonomy is something I’ve been working on, but it’s been compounded by world events.
Leading up to the trip, we’d been cranking hard on our Summer launch, the Mosaic project, and planning future stories, not leaving me much time to work on this metaphorical “unraveling.” The day we launched our product and the bikes, I was in Bozeman, and the next morning, we were heading out to our base camp for this tour. While I felt fulfilled creatively with our project launches, my mind kept winding a tight knot around my professional life, how it relates to my friendships, and my love of bicycle touring. I began to mull over this conundrum as we were about to embark on a four-day tour.
Thirteen people started our ride, with a few heading back during day two due to previous obligations. We were a mob of casual tourists, slowly pedaling our bikes across pine forests, exposed scree fields, rushing rivers, and up moto tracks. We’d stop at each climb summit or turn to regroup and carry on casual conversations between ripping and stunning descents. We took it slow and steady; tortuga-pace.
By the end of the first day, the group dynamic was strong, yet I was still working on my unraveling, feeling like I was only partially present in the moment.
It wasn’t until the second day’s initial climb and subsequent descent that my mind presented an epiphany. As we regrouped at the bottom of the jeep trail, I kept digging through my seemingly empty bags, feeling like I had jettisoned some important piece of cargo. My sleeping kit was still there, as was my food, tools, camera, and my clothing. So why did my bike, or my load, and my cargo feel lighter?
Somewhere on the hot, exposed, and steep climb, I had made a breakthrough. All the pressure I feel going into trips like this – pressure to document the ride, make new friends, nourish existing friends – was baggage I didn’t need to bring along with me on this 160-mile, 20,000′ tour. (Contrary to the RideWithGPS data, our GPS watches all recorded over 20,000′!) Since my personal and professional lives are so intertwined, I feel immense pressure to produce work that captures the vibes of bike tours like this, thus fulfilling my standards of good work.
This builds like a monsoon and eventually erupts in quite the deluge of emotions. Yet on this climb, this soul-crushing, steep, chundery chute of an old mining trail, I had finally let go of that emotional baggage, leaving it on the roadside, or perhaps in that last spring where we filled our bottles and cooled off…
My brain told me: “exist” in the moment, let go of emotional baggage, be with your friends, be there for your friends, and shoot photos at your leisure. Dammit, John, enjoy yourself! We’re our worst critics, and this ride brought about the realization, albeit subconsciously, that we carry excess baggage to the detriment of our love for ourselves and the experience of those around us.
At the bottom of that descent, it hit me like a bee on the forehead: the baggage I had lost on that climb wasn’t physical. It was mental, and my friends being there at that moment enabled me to finally begin unwinding those strands just as I’d been discussing with my therapist. Be kind to yourself, folks. Surround yourself with sincere, loving people who aren’t afraid to go deep with you on this journey we call life.
Enjoy each trip. Relish the experience and shoot some photos along the way. Pressure is for tires, not for our expectations in this environment.
About This Route
This is a “suggested route” and should not be taken lightly. These are remote areas, with a few towns (Sapphire Springs and Monarch most notably) for resupply, plenty of water, and abundant places to camp. But you are in bear country here, as in Grizzly territory, so bringing a bear-proof stuff sack, 50′ of paracord, and bear-appropriate behavior isn’t suggested, it’s required! We did see a black bear in the middle of the road on this tour and evidence of larger animals was always present.
There are large expanses of exposed and hot roads. As a general rule, if you see water, top off always. I carried 5 liters and never ran out, while having enough to fill my comrades’ empty bottles. Each night we camped by water, but as you climb higher in elevation, the streams disappear. There are lots of active mining claims, so please take note of private property signs. Also, summer storms frequently roll across these peaks, so try not to camp above 8,000′ as a lack of trees leaves you exposed to the elements and lightning.
We encourage you to use this groundwork to form your adventure. As drawn here, this route “goes,” but you could easily add on more and subtract some miles as needed. It took us four days to complete the ride, with each day varying from 30 to 60 miles and 3,000′ to 7,000′ in elevation gain. Five or six days would make it much more casual. Oh, and leave your fishing pole at home, many of these drainage networks are without fish, and the main fishing rivers are only accessible from private property. Wah wah.
While you could do this on a gravel bike, a klunker/rigid mountain bike or hardtail is recommended. Brian crushed it on a Crust Evasion with a classic touring setup. Bring your compact gearing, as no climbs are easy on this route.
As always, please observe the Leave No Trace Principles. Our campsites were remarkably clean this trip; let’s keep ’em that way!
A note on helmet use. The lack of helmets on this ride wasn’t planned or a statement. But we all felt like it set the tone for the trip: slow and steady. If you want to wear a helmet, by all means, do, but let individuals decide for themselves. We value personal autonomy here. Thank you.
Many thanks to Adam Sklar for pulling this trip together and for all the wonderful souls who endured a tough four days on the bike. Love you all. xo