On Saturday night, I did what every newcomer to the Flathead Valley does to prove that they’re a local: I tossed a bike in my trunk and set out for Glacier National Park to bike Going To The Sun Road by the light of the full moon.
At about 9:30 pm I watched a shadow creep up the side of the continental divide on the side of Going To The Sun Road, and then hopped on my bike and joined the stream of bikers making the climb up the iconic road.
In the parking lot at the Loop, a hairpin turn that marks the start of the road’s more exposed alpine section, hordes of cyclists wheezed past.
Many bikers think the full moon tradition spans back to the inaugural opening of Going To The Sun Road in 1933. This is not a park-sponsored event. People from across the state and beyond just show up to ride the 3,000-foot ascent along the west slope of the Continental Divide to Logan Pass.
"What's so special about tonight? Full moon in cancer," Jennifer Roche told me. She and her buddy, Brandon Trust, both from Kalispell, are using this month’s ride as an excuse to get together.
"There's so much to see up there," Trust said. "So, ultimately what I like to do is go up in the sunset and come down in the moonlight, maybe hang out for a couple hours upstairs there at Logan’s Pass, maybe with 200 people that are going to be up there tonight. Should be a lot of fun."
Dave Nickelson pulls up with a posse of friends, some of whom he met on previous rides and some he encouraged to come on Facebook.
"It's another level of peaceful up here that you don't get to experience any other way," he says.
Nickelson, who’s been paralyzed from the waist down for the past 15 years, has already ridden his three-wheeled handcycle up the road 10 times this season. Tonight is his 50th time up.
"Halfway to a hundred tonight," he says. "Pretty cool. Spent a lot of time out here. When it's closed to cars it's the greatest bike trail in the world, and this is pretty close to that."
Nickelson settles into his bike seat, clicks on his safety lights, dons his helmet, and away we go.
We take off from The Loop around 10:30 pm. Eight miles of sustained incline lie ahead of our little pack.
In peak season, Going To The Sun Road is closed to cyclists during the day - the road is usually bumper to bumper with car traffic.
But at night, traffic slows and there’s space to breathe, and people in the cars that do pass sometimes offer encouragement.
By 10:48 pm the last little bit of sun is creeping behind the mountains to the west of us. We're almost halfway up. You can see little clusters of red blinking lights in front of us, and the stars are starting to come out.
We bike through patches of cold air next to waterfalls, and even see some wildlife - a bat.
As we round a hairpin turn halfway up, Nickelson calls from his handcycle, "First view of the moon, should be poking out just around Logan Pass up there, around the end of the Garden Wall."
I can kind of see the glow of it, and a few minutes later there it is.
We pass the Weeping Wall, getting dampened by a little mist. And round Big Bend, we catch a glimpse of moon-kissed mountains. The moon's casting shadows on Mount Oberlin.
A little before midnight with less than a mile to go, Nickelson says he’s starting to hit the proverbial wall.
"I'm gonna be glad to get to the top," he says. "Fortunately we are almost there."
About 500 yards from the top he says, "Right here you start to feel the adrenaline, because you can see the finish."
And at the top, "All that pain just kind of goes away once you get up here, once you hit the top," Nickelson says.
Dozens of cyclists with blinking red tail lights mill around the parking lot at Logan Pass. Someone’s blasting reggae as groups line up to take pictures in front of the brown sign that reads Continental Divide, Elevation 6,646 feet. The moon is a perfect glowing orb hanging above Mount Reynold’s triangular silhouette. As we get ready to head down, Nickelson tells us to turn off our headlamps. The moon is so bright we won’t need them.
In no time, we’re flying past familiar landmarks; Big Bend, the Weeping Wall, and suddenly, we’re back at the Loop.
The ride up took about 2 hours. The ride down? 28 minutes.
At 1:40 am I'm back at my car at the Loop. People are still showing up to begin their bike rides. The moon is still up high over the mountains, the sky is really clear. It's a beautiful night.