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Essay—Here Comes The Ride

When the wedding chapel is a lakeside beach and the route to get there requires a three-day bikepacking mission, you saddle up and ask questions later


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I love weddings, but this was pushing it. Mosquitos filled the dim trees. Thick, northern-Montana mud squelched underfoot. Sweat ran into my eyes. At least one member of the wedding party was crying, and the bride was nowhere to be seen. I did the math as I pushed my heavy bike uphill, trying to ignore the hunger, nausea, and prickling of a dozen simultaneous mosquito bites. Forty-three miles and 3,900 feet of gain already today, I calculated. That meant 7 miles left to go. God help me. 

After 100 more feet of vert, the 20-percent grade finally leveled out and the trail cut a hard right through the trees. I looked ahead, looked back. No one. Wondering how I’d lost all 14 members of the wedding party in just a few minutes and worried about getting left behind, I hopped on my bike and started to roll down the rocky singletrack. Just as I was picking up speed and congratulating myself on surviving the worst—SLAM. My left pedal connected hard with a rock, catapulting me over the handlebars and sending a tangle of bikes and legs and panniers skidding off-trail through the leaves. When I came to a stop I looked up—and peered over the edge of a steep drop-off into a gorge. We’ll pretend I didn’t whimper. Some bachelorette party, I thought. 

Lila, my college roommate and one of my dearest friends, first invited me to her wedding in mid-2020. Back then, she was planning on something a little more traditional. Or at least, traditional by Montana standards: ceremony in a little country barn near her home in Belgrade. Casual reception at a brewery. Family, friends, cake—the works. 

A few months later, the pandemic struck. Then the barn burned down. As the virus hung on into late 2020, Lila and her fiancé Noah decided they’d had enough of rescheduling. Pandemic or not, they were going to get married, and they were going to do it on their own terms. Because they figured few would travel all the way to Montana for a tiny, unconventional wedding, they decided they’d sweeten the deal and turn the whole thing into an adventure vacation: one day for the ceremony preceded by three days of bikepacking through tamarack forest and subalpine fir just south of the Canadian border. Bliss, right? 

To be honest, I had no way of knowing; I’d never been on a bike trip before. So when I read the itinerary—three days, 150 miles, and nearly 8,000 feet of gain, mostly split between two big passes—I shrugged. How bad could it be? 

“I’m not going to say I’m a genius,” Lila had told me while planning. “But I’ve always wanted to do this loop, and this time no one will be able to leave me behind because I’m the bride.” 

But that wouldn’t be an issue, I was sure. This was a wedding. Tons of people would probably come. There’s no way we’d be moving at anything other than a casual pace. Right? 

 

When I read the itinerary—three days, 150 miles, and nearly 8,000 feet of gain, mostly split between two big passes—I shrugged. How bad could it be?

On June 20, I flew to Bozeman, Montana, met up with groomsman Stan to pick up our rented mountain bikes, and repacked all the touring bags I’d begged, borrowed, and bought second-hand. My setup was a jury-rigged mess, but at least it wasn’t as bad as Stan’s, which only accommodated his panniers if he hung them upside-down and zip-tied them to the frame. He stood in Lila’s yard in his Hawaiian shirt, nodding at his handiwork. I could feel my confidence growing.  

The next morning, we packed up the truck and drove north to Polebridge, a little outpost just south of the Canadian border. Home to the famous North Fork Hostel, which has hosted bike tourers and thru-hikers since 1978, Polebridge sits right at the crossroads of the Continental Divide Trail, the Pacific Northwest Trail, and the Great Divide Mountain Biking Route. We pitched tents as, car by car, the wedding party trickled in. 

That’s when I realized what I was up against. These weren’t ordinary wedding guests. Half of them had met working on a glacier in Alaska. The other half were guides and ski patrollers. Claire and Dusty were serious cyclists with matching bibs and bikes that probably weighed less than my helmet. Liz works five months out of the year in Antarctica. Geoff had guided on K2. 

I made a comment to Lila on the impressive cast she’d assembled, and she shrugged. 

“A lot of people told me I was crazy for doing this trip, especially since most of the people here have never bikepacked before.” she said, “But the itinerary makes it pretty self-selecting.” 

This far north, the sun set around 10 p.m., bathing the tundra in pink and gold. The 14 of us walked down the dirt road, wrapped in duct-taped puffies and old fleeces, to watch the day fall away over the peaks. This was the first bachelorette party I’d been to where I didn’t feel underdressed. It was also the first I felt undertrained for. 

I tried to immerse myself in the sunset and ignore my nerves. 

Photo: Chris McNally

We woke up early the next morning, stuffed dewy tents into panniers, and set off down the gravel road heading southeast toward Whitefish. The uphill started almost immediately. By the time we reached the first pass, I was exhausted. By the time we got to the top of it—1,000 vertical feet later—my legs were jelly. Then there was the mud, the mosquitos, the wipeout. There are only two types of people who self-select for a bike trip, I thought, picking myself up out of the foliage. Athletes and idiots.

As I limped back to the trail, Liz rolled up and asked if I was OK. I mumbled noncommittally, testing out a sore knee.

“Did you do a body check? Hands and wrists OK? Falls can be so scary,” she said. I did a double-take. So kind, I thought. So validating! 

Shortly after, Ainslie, another bridesmaid, pedaled up beside me and said much the same. “That’s really tough,” she offered. “Falls can really shake up your confidence, you know?” I nodded, grateful.

At other weddings I’d been to, the interactions between bridesmaids had always been underscored by a quiet sense of competition, a catty game of who knows the bride best. Something about the shared experience of launching off a bike cut through all that.

The next morning I found my knee miraculously cured. Lila gave me a hug and asked if I had just been tired and in need of a snack. I shrugged. I guess I haven’t changed that much since college after all.

Day two was a cruiser if you don’t count the rocky declines and deep mud puddles, which pulled one bike down and devoured a shoe. On day three, the rain started just as we rolled out of camp. By now, all we could do was laugh.

Partway up the first hill, I heard a buzz on my walkie talkie from Chris, who was riding sweep.

“Daddy Long-Legs to Hornet, do you read me?”

“Copy,” I said. “How’s it going?”

“My butt hurts.”

Me too, Daddy Long Legs. Me too.

The final pass wasn’t long in coming. But this time, there was none of that bitter silence that happens when everyone is siloed deep in their own pain caves. This time, cheers and groans bounced from bike to bike. We were all in this together.

We spent that afternoon rolling fast through moss-draped tamarack, everything greener in the post-rain dimness. Instead of cheering when the Polebridge sign came into view, I felt my heart sink. It was almost over.

That night, after hosing off bikes and bodies, we snuck down to the river to catch glimpses of the full moon flickering in the dark water. Eventually, Stan said what we were all thinking.

“That was brutal,” he laughed. “If I had known what this really was, I don’t know if I would have come.” Me too, I thought. But I’m so glad I did.

My setup was a jury-rigged mess, but at least it wasn’t as bad as Stan’s, which only accommodated his panniers if he hung them upside-down and zip-tied them to the frame. I could feel my confidence growing.

The wedding took place the next day on a small pebbly lakeside beach in Glacier National Park. We all got lost on the way there. Even Lila was late. But when she did show up—hair curled into soft ringlets, courtesy of an unmanned RV hookup—she looked as beautiful as I’d ever seen her. 

I cried through the whole ceremony. And I cried again the next day when we all hugged goodbye. I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t crawling out of my skin to escape a wedding by the end of it. This was different. If weddings are about bringing two families together as one, and if friends are our chosen families, then her friends were my friends now. We’d been thrown together in the worst of conditions, and left with bonds that can only be formed in the rocks and mud of a true adventure. We hadn’t even left, and I already felt pangs of loss. 

Back hatches clicked and slammed, our tiny village of tents now condensed into bags in the beds of Tacomas. All that remained was our tire tracks, the dripping grass, the baking sun. 

And maybe that’s the way it should be. No cleanup. No makeup to remove or high-heel blisters to attend to. No hangover headache or family stress or lingering guests. 

At other weddings I’d been to, the interactions between bridesmaids had always been underscored by a quiet sense of competition, a catty game of who knows the bride best. Something about the shared experience of launching off a bike cut through all that.

In a lot of ways, Lila’s wedding was a last-ditch plan forced by a worst-case scenario: a global pandemic, a nationwide venue shortage, and travel limitations for elderly relatives. Covid-19 has forced us to reconsider our priorities in so many ways, to strip our lives of the fluff and drill down on what we really value. 

Why should weddings escape that scrutiny? If two people are going to begin a life together, it seems fitting to start it in the way they hope to live that new life: to the fullest. 

I hopped into the truck behind Lila as Noah revved the engine. As we pulled out of town, I glanced back for one last glimpse of Polebridge. That’s when I noticed the message on the back windshield, traced carefully through the grime. “Just Married.” 

I smiled as we turned onto the dirt road. At least for them, this wasn’t the end of an adventure. It was just the beginning.  

Illustrations: Chris McNally