My friends Dave and Brenda from Banff stopped through Missoula during their ski blitz of the state of Montana. In a regrettable stroke of luck, their home mountain was being slammed with fresh powder while western Montana was basking in temperatures more appropriate for April than February. Dave and Brenda spent the day navigating the slush at Lookout Mountain, then opted to skip Missoula's Snowbowl and flee north to Whitefish. Before they left town, we agreed to meet up for $1 Monday sushi rolls. We arrived at Sushi Hana promptly at 5:15 p.m. and were informed the place was booked up all night. Booked up? I mean, $1 is a good deal for sushi, but really? "Valentines Day," the server informed us.
"Oh, right, that's today," we nodded, deflated. So instead of having dinner in Missoula, Dave and Brenda decided to continue driving in an effort to join our mutual friend Danni for an obligatory Canuck visit to Famous Dave's (a BBQ chain that in Kalispell is famous for attracting Canadians down from Alberta.) I walked back to my office, where I discovered a pink paper heart threaded through the spokes of my Pugsley (aw, a little love for the commuter bikes on Valentine's Day.) "Well, Pugsley, I guess it's just you and me tonight," I said.
The evening light was particularly stunning, warm and rich and full of character, like a Valentine's dessert. I hadn't planned on riding tonight, but the spring-like warmth and earthy aromas were too enticing to resist. I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, but the temperatures were so warm that I didn't need anything else. I had a fleece pullover, hat and gloves in my frame bag — everything I needed. I punched the pedals and streamed beside the rush-hour traffic backed up on Higgins Avenue.
It's funny how effective tapering really is. I spent most of the weekend sleeping, relaxing and eating ice cream, and woke up on Monday feeling like I could do no wrong. It was all I could do to hold the throttle back and quell the urge to red-line it up the Maurice Avenue trail — slush, soft mud and all. I felt amazingly strong. The light of sunset only fueled my mania, and my bare arms glistened with sweat as I gulped down vast quantities of sweet, spring-tasting air.
In the back of my mind, the quiet voice of reason reminded me not to go hard because Saturday is going to be a physical effort unlike any I've ever experienced and I need to be as rested as possible. But Pugsley behaved more like a runaway elephant, charging full-speed up the hill, trampling slush and mud so enthusiastically that it drowned out the soft urgings of reason. I was having so much fun, fueled by so much energy, that I momentarily forgot about the low-level freak-out I should be having. For tonight, just this one night, this Valentine's night, it was just me and Pugsley. There was no one else in the world. (Except, of course, for my actual Valentine, Beat, who was back in California, dutifully working on his sled and preparing for the Susitna 100, nursing his own low-level freak-out while I played on my bicycle.)
But, oh, what a whirlwind night it was! Together Pugsley and I rounded the mountain to the Hidden Treasure Trail, where there was dirt, real dirt, and not just muddy dirt — DRY dirt, with the happy crunching of gravel beneath Pugsley's wide tires. When the ice became too thick we dropped down to Pattee Canyon and raced up the pavement — so fast and effortless that I felt like I was on a featherweight roadie and not an obese fat bike. We turned on the Larch Camp Road. I reasoned that I would only ride until the slush and ice became unrideable. But there was only wet gravel on the road, so we climbed. The moonlight glowed on the sun-crusted snow, adding startling definition to the surrounding forest. We climbed and climbed, and still the gravel road persisted. We rose out of the forest onto the open mountainside, with the city lights of Missoula glowing far below, and still the road remained rideable. It occurred to me that if I simply waited for the road conditions to shut me down, I might just make it to the top ... 6,200 feet ... not a good thing.
But the night was so magical, I did not want it to end. Reluctantly, I turned around and raced down the long, winding road, still wearing only jeans and a fleece — no gloves or hat — as the city lights, trees, shadows and snow blended like a daiquiri in the rapidly chilling air. A fountain of gritty slush sprayed in my face, but nothing could wipe my smile away. The night belong to me. Me and Pugsley. Happy Valentines.