While we bike, I think a lot about what it must be like to live in the houses and towns that we glide past. Many of the timber and mining towns look like skeletons of the towns they once were. Analysts at large grocery store chains decided long ago that these shrinking towns would never turn a profit. Instead, a stalwart local usually runs a small convenience store filled with items from Costco or Walmart for resale: packaged processed foods, toilet paper, motor oil, soda and light beers. The fruits and vegetables, if there are any, are shriveling or too soft to the touch; thick layers of dust sit on top of the cans of soup.
Decades ago, many towns throughout Idaho and Montana attracted workers to build dams and railroads, harvest and process timber, and extract minerals. But, the dams and railroads are built, the timber industry requires far less labor than it previously did, and there are far fewer minerals left to extract than there were several decades ago.
The booms are long over in many towns; the weight of the bust seems to settle in more with each passing year. Paint slowly chipping off hollow, abandoned buildings dot lonely main streets. An eery lack of people. Several homes for sale on every block. Yards full of broken down cars.
A newspaper in Libby, MT reported that a nearby mine–one of the few large employers left in the area–laid off 100 employees and shut down part of it’s operation that week due to rock falls and cave-ins in the mine. As always, the CEO tried to sound optimistic, “we believe in the Troy Mine and that one day we will resume production.”
The other headline covered the continued efforts to remediate asbestos poisoning in Libby and the surrounding areas. This is likely a tiresome headline in a town used as the textbook example of the negative externalities of mining. (1) I often wonder what keeps people in these towns: age, family, stubbornness, or poverty. My instinct is to bolt.
But, the inability to bolt is often what I like about cycling. We’re constrained to traveling a maximum of 60 or 70 miles in a day, and often we end up in unexpected, unbeautiful, or uncomfortable places. The constraints force you to see or create beauty and make yourself comfortable–at least for a night. We often are in awe of the number of places we never would go to, much less call our home for the night, if it weren’t for our slow pace. The city campground in Libby, wedged between a grocery store and a cemetery and across the street from a roadside casino with a blinking display board advertising slots and table games, is one of those places.
The campground had little appeal and we briefly discussed staying at one of the cheap motels in town, but decided we prefered our sleeping bags and tent over scratchy sheets and yellowing curtains. And, instead of watching HBO in a hotel room smelling of chemical cleaning products, we ended up walking through the cemetery. Much like HBO, cemeteries have stories to tell of love, loss, and the unexpected. The dates of birth and death, the wording on the graves, the signs of recent visitors–it all told a story. The heartbreaking loss of a baby or child. The immense, unending void left by a young couple buried next to each other with Mommy and Daddy engraved on the granite stone. An elderly husband and wife that died within weeks of each other, almost as if they took their marriage vows into the next life. Men who did tours in World War I & II, Vietnam, and Korea. An author with the name of his book on his grave (one final plug to read his book?).
It isn’t all busted towns. After only a day in Sandpoint, ID we were already looking for property and envisioning our life there. Sandpoint is a small town nestled a few miles below Schweitzer Mountain and between three different mountain ranges, but it has an urban feel with an abundance of quirky locally owned restaurants, bars, and wineries. Plenty of live music, artist studios, nonprofits, and even some well-known for-profits. It is the most bike-friendly, walkable place I’ve been since I returned from Europe. It doesn’t have much cycling infrastructure, but the sheer number and diversity of people walking and biking is amazing. Drivers are incredibly aware of walkers and bikers and they stop for you at crosswalks, immediately. We walked around town one morning and a hoard of energetic boys on bikes zipped past us, followed by a mom, with a latte in one hand, pedaling next to her young daughter. Then came a girl, dressed in pink from head to toe, on a pink bike unapologetically humming in a happy, spaced-out kind of way. It was the commute to school.There are tons of bike baskets and people don’t lock their bikes up. Our hosts, Chris and Kathy, explained that thanks to studded bike tires, bike commuting continues during the snowy winters.
A Sandpoint local that we met in a coffee shop, Larry, invited us to his house, told stories of his past bike tours, lent us a bike map, and advised us to “play like you are with Lewis and Clark” as we made our way through Montana.
We hit Glacier National Park on a sunny day when the Going-to-the-Sun road was closed to car traffic. The road was full of people on bikes, of every shape and size, busting their way up the narrow, twisting road to the Continental Divide. Everyone was encouraging each other up the pass and the mountains were so beautiful I wanted to cry. I felt like giving the entire United States a hug. An emotion that I believe is called patriotism.
(1) W.R. Grace and Company mined for vermiculite, an ore used in all kinds of construction materials (mainly insulation and plasters), for several decades in Libby. They closed their mining operation down in 1990, but in 2000 the federal government started to investigate the environmental impacts of the former mining operation. In 2008, the federal government launched a criminal conspiracy investigation of W.R. Grace and Company, accusing the company of knowingly exposing workers and residents of the entire town to asbestos contamination. The company (and individuals representing the company) were found not guilty, but W.R Grace was ordered to contribute over $250 million to the clean-up effort. Taxpayers picked up the tab for the rest of the roughly $300 million in environmental and public health remediation. About 300 people died of asbestos-related illnesses in the Libby area and asbestos contamination remains a problem today.