Nate Hegyi, rural reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, is embarking on a 900-mile cycling trip crisscrossing the continental divide in August and September, interviewing and listening to Americans ahead of the 2020 election. You can follow Nate on social media, an online blog and this “Where Is He Now?” map.
August 28: Hamilton to Sula, 40 miles
An important note here: These are my first glance takeaways. Think of this as a reporter’s notebook. A mosaic of voices over the next few weeks, cycling 900 miles across four states and dozens of small towns.
My first night on the road, in Hamilton, I can’t sleep well. There’s the ding-dinging of a Taco Bell drive thru and a motorcycle cruising around town. Soon the first light of morning is washing the Bitterroot Mountains in a warm glow and the sound of morning commuter traffic fills my ears. I camped at the Ravalli County fairgrounds – it’s a mainstay for cyclists riding along two bicycle routes that cut through town: The TransAmerica and the Lewis & Clark Trails, established by the nonprofit Adventure Cycling Association.
The fairgrounds is listed as a camping spot by the organization, so groundskeeper Josh Soller isn’t surprised to see me. He’s 28 years old with a ballcap, some stubble and a gentle smile. He and his wife moved to Hamilton about a year and a half ago from Fort Collins, Colorado and they recently bought 3.5 acres of land to begin an organic farm. They’re having a baby in a few months.
“Starting a family – that’s the biggest thing on my mind,” he says. “[health care] is something that’s going to continue to be a struggle for us.”
He’s on the county health care plan but his wife isn’t, and her Affordable Care Act insurance isn’t cheap in Montana.
“She’s paying out of pocket. And as we add a kid to that it’s going to get more complicated,” Sollar says.
He’s also worried about bringing a baby into this world during the pandemic – they’re working with a midwife to have the child outside of a hospital.
I know this is going to sound strange, but it’s refreshing, as a journalist, to hear Soller worry about something else besides the political divide or growth in the West.
As he leaves, I begin packing up my camping gear but I’m stopped by a commercial truck driving instructor, Curtis Bunton, and his middle-aged student, Richard Roznowski, who are both curious about my adventure. Bicycles are strangely magnetic. Folks get excited about your rig and it’s a good way to start a conversation. Before long, Bunton and Roznowski have agreed to an interview and we chat about politics, Trump and, most importantly – Kevin Costner.
His hit television show, Yellowstone, recently moved production to the Bitterroot Valley. It’s brought a lot of business to restaurants and hotels and has led to a surge of demand for housing, according to locals I spoke with.
Roznowski moved from Denver to Hamilton recently after losing his job because of the pandemic. He was excited about the valley’s relatively inexpensive housing options, “but unfortunately with the movies and all that going on I can’t find anything.”
Yellowstone is essentially a soap opera set in the modern West. I don’t really like the show but I imagine it’s had a hand in driving people to move to western Montana during the pandemic. After all, some of their dream homes are similar to Kevin Costner’s ranch kingdom, seen in the show.
Riding out of Hamilton, I see manicured green lawns surrounding two-story log mansions with big windows facing the Western skyline and overlooking Trapper’s Peak, a jagged shark’s tooth of a mountain that juts up from the Bitterroot range.
For 8,000 years, that view belonged to the Salish. But waves of white settlement eventually drove them out. First, there was the lapping tide of fur trappers and missionaries. Then the fierce storm of the U.S. army and pioneers, followed by miners, loggers and ranchers. By the late 20th century, however, industry was swept away, in part, by the environmental movement which re-beautified the West and led to the greatest population boom it’s ever seen, culminating in a new gold rush – one where the money is pouring into the hills, not out of them. These multi-million dollar fantasy cowboy spreads are the result. Two centuries of abrupt change and violence ending with a view of Trapper’s Peak from your own back porch.
As night falls, I camp a few miles south of this peak. I bathe in a creek and wash the sweat and salt off. It’s too hot to climb Lost Trail Pass, I figure, so I save the hard riding for tomorrow. That’s a mistake.