Missoula Shows Its Quality

Two quick pieces of background before I get to the point of this post.

Towns Change; We Change

You know that I lived in Missoula, Montana for grad school and loved it, but, when we visited a few weeks ago, I found it crowded, with terrible traffic. So we spent most of our time at the campsite, boondocked up in the mountains northwest of the town.

Now we’ve come back to try for a better experience. For one thing, the heatwave over the country’s northwest seems to have passed, so we can camp lower in elevation this time, closer to town. We’re a little south of Lolo, in Charles Waters Campground. No hookups, but widely spaced sites and lots of trees and hiking trails. Lovely place.

Missoula still seems to be crowded as heck, though. I should qualify: we’ve had to run errands where the traffic is the worst. Even when I lived here I avoided Reserve Street like the plague. It’s like Bethesda’s Rockville Pike and Richmond’s Broad Street in the West End all shoved into one stop-light-riddled, strip-mall-access misery of a highway.

But, after we did a hunk of errands yesterday and got ourselves all cemented into feeling like we’ve become camping hermits, we started in on the big errand: to find me a new bicycle, and that’s where I rediscovered Missoula’s special self.

What Happened to My Bike

This is about backing trailers, and if you’re a pro then skip it.

Back on Lake Koocanusa, Tracy had to do some heroic trailer parking, as he’s done all over the mountains of Montana so far. The picture of that campsite, below, looks like not a big deal: you back the trailer down the gravel road so it goes like an Z (cut it left, back down the steep part, cut it right, straighten it out up into the site).

The trailer follows the Z, but to make it do that, the truck has to make a S, since the truck wheels have to turn the opposite way the trailer is being pushed.

What happened to my bike is that the road was narrow, with trees and bushes hanging over it and ditches on either side. Tracy and I got the trailer where it should be, but at the cost of putting a front truck tire where it shouldn’t have been: in a ditch, so that the bike rack scraped against the ground, part broke off, and my bike rims scraped enough to bend out of being “true.”

I’m explaining all this in detail so you can imagine how freaking easy it was to screw up my bike while trying to park the trailer.

So, in Missoula my plan was to buy a bike. The one that got bent was a used one that had gotten rusty along the last year and a half and was not worth investing in.

Free Cycles to the Rescue

I freaking called a million bike shops and researched how to measure a bike and what size is best for me and bugged my cyclist friend Karen and looked on Craigslist and messaged about 20 people in Missoula with bikes for sale. Nothing was turning up. My old bike, a Trek mountain bike size XS, was exactly right for me, and no other bike was like it. I was losing hope.

Until we hit up this weirdly described placed called Free Cycles, which, from its website, I couldn’t quite make out. It is a social program? A bike store where the bikes are free? A repair shop? A school for bike repair skills? A dirt lot in town filled with bikes where bike people hang out? Of course it turns out to be all that and more.

Lucky for me, my friend David happened to show up on his bike right when we pulled up (he’s magic that way), and he gave me a quick run-down. It’s a non-profit with a few employees and a bunch of volunteers, teaching people to repair their bikes, helping them make themselves bikes from the organized bike graveyard, and simply giving away bikes they’ve repaired to children. And more, probably … they seem to do a lot there.

Dave got us through the gate, so to speak, where the traffic control person of the day determined my bike could be saved and set us up at a repair table with the attention of a few bike guys (and girls), moving from person to person as needed, giving advice, helping people find and use tools, etc. David had his own bike question and then disappeared back into his life, as magically as he had appeared.

This post is getting way too long, so I’ll cut to the chase: Tracy and I picked out two used rims (but in better shape than mine), and Tracy transferred the tires from my old rims to the new ones and put them on my bike.

Turns out one of the new (to me) rims is a little wobbly, so he took it off and was taught how to make it “true” in the True Dome (pictured at the very top and here.)

He’s now an official Monk of the True-making Meditation Technique. If you want to know more about it, he will evangelize. In fact, I think we’re going back there today so he can make true one of his rims.

The folks who helped us were—every single one—smart, patient, helpful, and very interesting.

And I have my bike back!

The part that made me realize, “this is the Missoula I used to love,” is that when I texted the person I had my next appointment with to try out her for-sale bike, and I told her I’d fixed mine at Free Cycles, she said, “Congrats! And hey, who’s the band there tonight?” (We’d seen a motley crew of folks riding bikes through town earlier, ringing bells and playing a boom box advertising a concert at this weird place. Now I knew.)

Apparently Free Cycles is part of Missoula, just like the University and the concrete M on Sentinel Mountain and all the dogs tied to posts while people go into bars. (Also special was a comment of David’s that he won’t mind me sharing: a young relative who is now deceased used to volunteer at Free Cycles and loved hanging there with like-minded people, and now David and his wife sometimes hang out there, too, thinking of him.)

Stay weird, Missoula.

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