story and photography by Greg Hohn
As an inveterate lone wolf when it comes to motorcycling, I wasn’t sure a group tour was going to be my cup o’ Clorox. In my 200,000 miles-plus of riding experience, I’ve learned I like traveling at my own pace and stopping as physiology and scenery demand.
Still, riding a BMW R1150GS Adventure on- and offroad in Montana with a guide and possibly good tour companions was appealing, particularly considering it wasn’t on my dime. The most alluring vision I had was of jouncing down a deserted dirt road in the middle of a wild western nowhere with no time pressures.
According to Scott Elledge, the tour’s highly competent and personable leader, the basic idea behind Edelweiss’ Western Tour Centers is for American cyclists to fly in for short or long spans of riding without the difficulties of securing a bike, lodging or appropriate route. Between the time I attended and writing this, the Montana Center has been temporarily decommissioned, but this story should be representative of the experience you might have at one of the remaining Touring Centers.
Missoula was the base of Edelweiss’ Montana operations and I arrived there from Raleigh-Durham via Salt Lake City before noon. Scott met the other two tour members and me at the airport. Tour HQ was the Double Tree Inn on the Clark Fork River. The accommodations were very comfortable, the food was excellent—I don’t use that word lightly—and the list of beers available on tap at the bar was so lengthy and impressive that I freaked out and ordered a gin and tonic before our first dinner.
No riding was planned for that first day so I wandered around Missoula, a great city for walking. Downtown is less than a mile away from the inn along the pedestrian-friendly Clark Fork, and the University of Montana campus is right across the river. A highlight was hiking almost 2,000 feet up from the valley floor, past the giant “M” on Mount Sentinel, to the top of the mountain, which afforded an impressive view.
Over drinks and dinner at the hotel, Scott went over Edelweiss’ approach to touring and our plans. We would be expected to ride in full gear, not to drink alcohol until after the day’s tour, and not to ride like yahoos. He added that, however, spirited riding was allowed. “Ride your own ride,” we were told. If anyone fell far behind, Scott would return to get him or we would meet at a predetermined rendezvous point.
We also got to know each other over our repast. Darrell and Alex, a father and son from Richmond and Little Rock respectively, were the other two tour members. Both were capable riders. Alex, in his 20s, was relatively new to touring, while Darrell was returning to the saddle after decades away. Most of his previous experience had been offroad.
We were on the road before nine on our first riding day. As was the case each day, it was deliciously cool in the morning before turning into a blast furnace around 1 p.m. Despite wearing mesh gear, the heat in the afternoons was just, well, hot. At speed it was like riding through a giant hairdryer.
Northwest of town, we took our first stretch of unpaved road, which connected U.S. 93 and MT 83. Having never ridden a bike with offroad suspension, I was astounded at the way the GS soaked up the bumps. Washboard surfaces and potholes disappeared and the view from the saddle was like that from the top bunk.
That long suspension and tall seat made for a challenge when we weren’t rolling, though. Standing on tiptoe at stops didn’t bother me much but there were times when I really doubted whether or not I’d get the beast off its sidestand despite having a 32-inch inseam and being a pretty strong fellow. It reminded me of riding my older brother Joe’s Huffy when I was about eight.
We encountered a lot of dust on that first dirt road but then we stopped alongside a stream and watched the fish darting in the water. There wasn’t a man-made sound to be heard. As the morning sun filtered through the trees, I thought, “This is exactly what I came for.”
The unpaved road wasn’t all that challenging save for a sand trap or two, one of which was about 10 yards long. I just stayed on the gas, tried to keep the GS going straight, and focused on where I wanted to go. The case of the sphincter-clappers I got wasn’t too bad.
As an inexperienced off-road rider, I later asked Scott the appropriate approach to sand. He said it was about what I did with the addition of prayer.
Once we hit Highway 83, we headed north toward Glacier National Park, stopping for lunch at a roadhouse. The scenery was pleasant but that road was straight. Man, was it straight. Many of the area’s roads offered a profound dearth of twisty stuff. While that gives riders an opportunity to get a feel for their rented bikes, for me it was way too much droning for a riding holiday. At least it was much prettier than your average slab.
Glacier was hot and crowded. I had ridden through the park before and had opportunities to explore the challenges of the Riding to the Sun Highway. It is theoretically a great road. Given the traffic, the stunning scenery and the frequent stops for photos, exploring and hiking, I’ll confess I’d have probably been as happy on one of the park’s restored 1930s convertible tour buses.
That may sound heretical, but my ideal riding road is twisty, fun and challenging, with peripheral scenery to please the aesthetic sense. Glacier is so magnificent that to ride through it at anything other than a slow speed—if traffic allows it—is like running through the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And I never really got the point of riding a motorcycle slowly.
That night we stayed at Grouse Mountain Lodge in Whitefish. The lodge itself is very nice and I wouldn’t have minded an even longer stay there. We had a good meal and lively conversation about not only the ride but also a wide range of topics. I felt fortunate to have such interesting and convivial companions, but then every tour review seems to mention that. I’ve never read, “The Alps would have been much better had it not been for the blowhards.” Then again, maybe it’s the blowhards who are writing the reviews.
Day two started out great with a loop in the western side of Glacier that took us offroad along a fork of the Flathead River. The gurgling stream was so peaceful that we felt like lying down on the grassy bank and napping. The riverbed was filled with cold, clear water rushing over colorful stones.
After that promising start, we got a bit off track. We explored the Hungry Horse Dam and reservoir; however, our plan to ascend a peak on a gravel road was quashed when we found the road closed. We rode around a bit of the reservoir on a bumpy but curvy and fun road but decided to retreat to the main road. Scott acknowledged this was something of a “scout tour” and, as such, dead ends are to be expected. Still, for a riding vacation this was an unspectacular day of riding and we were soon returning to Missoula—this time on U.S. 93.
We stopped at a hole-in-the-wall along Flathead Lake for a good lunch, complete with a teenaged waitress who dreamily wished aloud that she were going to Missoula, hardly a city that never sleeps but one that certainly stays up later than much of Montana. Darrell and Alex were keen to cool off in the hotel pool and Scott needed to get his BMW F650C, which was leaking oil, to the shop. He suggested I stop at the Miracle of America Museum in Polson and this turned out to be a highlight for me.
The Miracle of America is part museum, part junkyard, part folk-art display, part political statement, and altogether worth a stop. Motorcyclists will be interested in some of the very rare bikes on display, like the Scott Squirrel and the Harley-Davidson XH the Motor Company built for the Army for World War II use. There’s much more to see, including a motley assortment of vehicles from steam tractors to helicopters, with military vehicles, snowmobiles and cars thrown in. There are also reconstructed buildings devoted to older times in Montana that feature displays on carpentry, metalworking, merchandising and more.
Blasting straight back to Missoula, I stopped at historical markers that explained the surprisingly recent settlement of the area. The GS was a fine highway bike and I put my feet up on the crash bars and rested my elbows on my knees. It felt weird and must have looked weirder but it kept me pretty cool and my back stretched out.
My midafternoon flight home cut day three short. For pure riding though, this was my favorite day. We rode Lolo Pass into Idaho on U.S. 12. It was beautiful, cool and twisty. Scott warned us of the zealous gendarmes patrolling the Idaho border but none of us received speeding awards.
Darrell and Alex continued on toward Kooskia while Scott led me back to oversee my departure. He was riding a BMW R1200C cruiser that day and as a former club racer he knew how to hustle it down that road. We wended our way back toward Missoula and I finally achieved two-wheeled nirvana, gobbling up the curves while steeped in bucolic surroundings.
Alex later e-mailed me that his dad and he had offroad adventures, including getting caught in a storm, in the days after I left. However, I was back in North Carolina, dealing with “real” life and trying to remember how to ride my R1150R, which suddenly felt like a sawed-off buckboard.
Had I paid for this tour, some of the roads that weren’t very stimulating and routes that weren’t well planned would have disappointed me. I expect that the wrinkles have been ironed out. August might be too hot a month for a Montana tour, too. That said, three days on two wheels in places like Lolo Pass, Glacier National Park and some nameless lovely gravel roads was a mighty sweet morsel.
And even though I could not have asked for a better guide or companions, conflicting agendas seemed unavoidable. Still, I’m independent to a fault and I think others might appreciate the guidance, company and unassailable convenience of the Edelweiss Western Tour Center even more than I did.
For more information on one of its Touring Centers in the United States and around the world or one of Edelweiss’ many motorcycle tours, visit www.edelweissbike.com.[From the February 2006 issue of Rider]