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Biking beyond the edge of the village

by Matt Maynard

In the weak afternoon sunshine of late September 2014, I fingered my British passport at the top of the Flathead Valley before rolling down towards the US border at Eureka, Montana.

Village 3

After three days alone in the only uninhabited valley of southern Canada, I was looking forward to some human interaction with the border guard. At the very least I hoped my dishevelled appearance and curious form of transport might raise some eyebrows and I could smooth my way into the country with smiles and anecdotes about my journey, as I had done so many times before in Latin America. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be.

“Have a nice stay,” said the man behind the dark sunglasses before handing back my passport and turning away.

It wasn’t the first time I had ever entered the US. But this time I was dirty, unemployed and carried my home on my bicycle. None of this however was questioned. Instead, the freak of my birth country and the current spin of geopolitics, was seemingly sufficient proof of the quality of my character and the unchecked contents of my scruffy panniers. You are British, was the message. Your white skin, common language and the wet cross drawn on your infant head gives us nothing to fear. You are one of us. Riding on to Eureka through the empty plains and somber evening mountains near the US border, I admit it though. I didn’t really feel too American. I felt a long way from the edge of my own distant village, where everything was safe and familiar.

Village 2

The view from the lonely road into Eureka

That night I’d hoped to stay for the first time in my life with an American family, and had received an invitation back in Banff to come and stay at a Warmshowers bike host in Eureka. Yet after a two day delay in a snow storm on the Alberta border with British Columbia, I sent an apologetic email explaining I wouldn’t be able to make it after all. An email was fired back however, “we’ll see you when we see you.” And so so I cycled on through the dusky streets of Eureka, past clapboard houses and a man burning rubbish in the street. What kind of hospitality, I wondered, would I find in this brave new country?

The well-appointed home stood out from its neighbors as I pedaled the last few strokes up the hill. Louise casually let me in, showing me where to park the bike so I wouldn’t get mown down by the soon to return Hummer belonging to Marshall her husband. Whilst eating the simple and delicious plate of salmon and rice offered, I learnt how as well as working as a family practitioner doctor, Louise and her family host up to 150 cyclists a season at this busy cycling crossroads of Trans-America and The Great Divide. The single criteria for sleeping under this family’s roof was ownership of a bicycle.

For the next two hours I tip-toed around the spacious ground floor, examining artefacts, trying to work her partner Marshall out. I found a selection of wall mounted bullets, sea shells and a shelf of well thumbed books in a place where you might otherwise have installed a television. There was a flicker of a stereotype here, but it didn’t all quite fit.

“Imbeciles. IMBECILES” were the first words I heard from the man of this American house.

These imbeciles, I would shortly learn after Marshall’s Hummer came powering into the downstairs garage, were the people who had disagreed with him that evening at the City Hall. As he climbed the stairs, his great rage and physical presence threatened to swallow up the wooden house. After a minute or so of cursing to the walls, the ceiling and at the dog (Louise had made herself scarce) I decided now was the time to introduce myself, in my most polite, and rather high-pitched English accent. “Hello, I am Matt.” With a bone rearranging handshake he greeted me gruffly before retreating to the kitchen and serving himself a bucket sized tumbler of red wine. Marshall’s show, it seemed, was now over.

Village1

Bike and body on the day I arrived into Eureka

For the next 36 hours, Marshall and I jammed our alien lives together, trying make sense of how the other one lived. The bullets were indeed for a favored handgun. As a vegetarian, bicycle riding Brit, from a country where not even the police carry firearms, these both terrified and fascinated me. The sea shells belonged to a small quietly spoken daughter. Running her hands through a Tupperware box of black beans, scrunched up parcel paper and these lovely sea creatures, the six year old child invited both Marshall and I to examine them. “They make you feel relaxed,” she smiled. The books on the shelves proved to be a curious mixture of exotic travel guides, American hiking compendiums alongside weighty texts on krav maga. Without the dampening presence of television, we talked late into the evenings, opening several bottles of wine. We talked about gun laws, we talked about travel and we talked about the culture and people of my fiance’s Latin American country of Chile.

I didn’t agree with everything Marshall had to say. And there was a lot about my own lifestyle and way of thinking that troubled him as well. Marshall hadn’t welcomed me in with anything like the disinterest of the boarder guard. Instead, greeting me with roaring emotion, and justifiable suspicion. By being brave enough to open his home however, he created an opportunity for us both to run our hands through that calming shell box, to share our separate worlds and to quieten the fear of the stranger at the door.


The names in this post have been changed.

Call for comment

  • Ever had an interesting experience with a Warmshowers’ host?
  • Have plans to ride beyond the edge of your own village? What are your expectations for what you will find?

Next Month: The quest for the perfect touring bike

Matt Maynard is a British cyclist, writer and environmentalist. He is based in Santiago, Chile. Find more of his adventures on Twitter, Facebook and at his website Matt-Maynard.com

 
BOB Trailer x 2

6 Responses to “Biking beyond the edge of the village”

  1. SteveP says:

    Sounds like fun!

    I’m curious how you determined what “the only uninhabited valley of southern Canada” was? I’m also curious just how big “southern Canada” might be, given the US/Canada border is roughly 4000 miles (not counting Alaska, as it’s north) so there must be an awful lot of valleys for you to have checked 🙂

    I can tell you’ve been on the road a while because I assure you many UK police officers carry firearms these days, for better or worse (although I did read that in 2012,all the UK police forces combined fired their guns a total of THREE times…)

    And finally, my old editor persona – I wouldn’t say that US border guard showed you antipathy – more disinterest?

    antipathy

    noun
    a deep-seated feeling of aversion.
    “his fundamental antipathy to capitalism”
    synonyms: hostility, antagonism, animosity, aversion, animus, opposition, enmity, dislike, distaste, ill will, ill feeling, hatred, hate, abhorrence, loathing, repugnance, odium

    Happy trails!

  2. Matt Maynard says:

    Many thanks for your comments SteveP.

    I got the quote from Adventure Cycling – I misremembered it slightly from my trip. It should read, “This scenic area is called the ‘Serengeti of North America’ by biologists for its unrivaled wildlife populations; the Flathead Valley is the last major valley in southern Canada to be completely uninhabited,” said Carla Majernik, Adventure Cycling’s routes and mapping director”

    My understanding is that our regular police or “bobbies” on the street still do not carry guns.

    I used “antipathy” incorrectly and have now amended this error. Many thanks.

    Happy trails
    Matt

  3. Jeff says:

    That’s quite the adventure Matt :). I must ask, doesn’t that road bike get uncomfortable when the miles start rolling by? Was thinking a hybrid might be more comfortable on long distances because of the upright position…

    Also, being a Londoner, I can vouch that regular UK officers do not carry guns for the most part – a menacing can of CS gas is as scary as it gets. However you might see the odd holstered gun on inner city cops, although this is quite rare also.

  4. Fabien Beaufils says:

    Inspiring. I’ve always wanted to host but never had (or take) the chance.

  5. Matt Maynard says:

    Hi Jeff

    Thanks for reaching out. My bike frame is 55cm and at 5″11 with an inside leg of 32inches, I find that using the top handlebar position on long days of 5+ hours in the saddle is not too bad. You are right though, the geometry could probably be more relaxed to be honest. I very very rarely ever get down on the drops.

    The bike is not a road bike. It’s more of a classic tourer which takes up to 35mm tyres. When I had access to Schwalbe tyres in Europe I was running the Extreme in the back and the Marathon Plus on the front.

    Currently, after 6 years of happily being a one bike guy, I am thinking of buying a more mtb touring setup. I still haven’t quite taken the plunge, but it’s probably time to properly enjoy off-road trails without always fearing I’m about to bust my rims. The Salsa Fargo / Surly Troll or Ogre are looking really tempting!

  6. Matt Maynard says:

    Thanks dude. Get a Warmshowers login. I’m sure stinky bikers would really appreciate your friendly company in Curico ( :

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