Biking year-round in Dillon, Mont., means experiencing the extremes of August's suffocating heat and smoky forest fires, to January's sub-zero frozen nostrils and fingers too numb to grip. But the scenery and sparse traffic makes me appreciate bicycling and living in southwest Montana, even when the view is what I see from a mud-encrusted mountain bike.
Folks who hop in a car and travel only a few blocks continue to amaze me, especially ones like the Neanderthal in a Dodge 2500 pickup who pulled out of his driveway in front of me. He spewed a suffocating cloud of diesel exhaust as he traveled all of six blocks. I also notice that some of my colleagues drive their cars the entire grueling three or four blocks to the college campus. They're a lot like those able-bodied high schools kids I see who drive a quarter-mile to school in vehicles fancier than I'll ever be able to afford.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if communities across the West embraced the power of pedaling? Imagine glancing out your window on a sunny morning and seeing more people on bikes than those in cars, heading to work, root canals or IRS audits.
Standing outside my house, looking over the picturesque Beaverhead Valley, it's hard to believe that pollution or global climate change are major problems facing everyone. What I see are magnificent snow-capped mountain peaks in the Pioneer, Tobacco Root, Blacktail and Ruby ranges. It makes it an effort to care about melting glaciers, ozone depletion, running out of fossil fuels, or what my wife is hollering at me out the kitchen window.
But as caretakers of this Western paradise we live in, it's everyone's responsibility to minimize our impact on the environment. For my part, I'm leaving the truck parked in the driveway and saddling up the old bike. Slinging my right leg across my bike and settling down on that narrow seat, I'm taken back 40 years to George's Repair Shop, where I picked up my new, gold Schwinn Varsity 10-speed, with drop handle bars. Riding now revives that first feeling of freedom, speed, energy and being an irreverent -- make that obnoxious -- kid again. Besides reliving one's childhood, riding a bike means:
*A healthier you. Mine is an over-do-it, open-throttle kind of bike riding that can lead to profuse sweating and long days sitting in damp blue jeans. While I know staying hydrated with an inexpensive, mildly chilled domestic pilsner is prudent, my boss is still wrestling with the concept. Perspiration is your body's way of saying, "Hey, cut it out!" But don't let that discourage you. Regardless of how fast you go, cycling equals calories burned, which equals feeling fantastic.
*Sharper senses. Your senses come alive on a bicycle. Cycling stimulates a youthful adrenaline rush as you dodge crazed motorists with cell phones plastered to their heads. That's easily forgotten as you notice blooming lilacs, singing Western meadowlarks and the occasional, early-rising pajama-clad neighbor locked out of her house.
*Lower maintenance costs. Every time I turn around, I'm dumping money into our German-made wagon. Opening the hood I think, "This is more complex than fixing Social Security." A bike is a beautiful statement in simplicity with inexpensive parts and maintenance costs just a few cents more than a Happy Meal. Why, a set of tires costs about the same as an oil change for a behemoth SUV. Plus, the best fuel, served around 40°F, comes from a fermentation process involving barley and hops.
*Reduced impact on the environment. Bike excursions are environment-friendly and a great place to start rebelling against the pollution-belching vehicle, three-car garage mindset evident these days. Hopefully, when folks see me on my bike, they're reminded that there are better ways of traveling -- even during the winter when my balaclava makes me look like a conehead.
I love to keep on pedaling, morning and night. It's my way of making a statement about taking care of the environment I'm blessed to live in. So what if the mile-high altitude still leaves me gasping for oxygen? Think of it as a Rocky Mountain high that combines feeling really dizzy while sweating like a sumo wrestler. You just have to keep pedaling while humming "Take Me Home, Country Road."
Joe Barnhart is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He lives, pedals and writes in Dillon, Montana.