Needing a breath of fresh air last week from the confines of COVID-19 concerns and widowhood, a Spokane grandma made a solo break away on her bicycle.
“I had an itch, so I scratched it,” said Sharlene Lundal, who wasn’t content to stay with the pack in her race against aging.
“I’ve just been dealing with this and dealing with that for the past two years since (my husband) died,” she said. “I have Spokane Bicycle Club friends who do a good job of pushing me to stay in shape, but at my age it’s tough to find somebody who wants to get out of Dodge.”
Especially when the 325-mile escape would feature carrying everything she needed on her bicycle, riding up to 75 miles a day, plus ascending several thigh-burning mountain passes over the Continental Divide.
“For 20 years after (my daughter) settled in Bozeman, we drove back and forth along the Clark Fork River and I told myself that some day I was going to explore it more intimately when I came to see her,” Lundal said.
Lundal fulfilled that plan by pedaling Interstate 90, which crosses the Clark Fork River 16 times in Montana from St. Regis to the river’s source near Warm Springs. By traveling on a bicycle, she often could be one with the river, sometimes sampling its insect hatches in her teeth.
A veteran traveler to destinations around the world, Lundal wasn’t deterred by going elbow-to-fender with RVs and 18-wheelers.
She said her age is a factor only because getting older motivates her to do more while she can.
She said she’s 79, but someone should check her birth certificate to prove she’s not a youthful 50.
“I see a lot of people my age getting e-bikes and girl bikes with drop-down top tubes,” she said Monday, back in Spokane. “I can still pedal, so I don’t want an e-bike: too heavy; too much trouble.
“And I can still swing my leg over my seat to get on my boy’s bike,” she added, demonstrating convincingly. “I make a point to alternate which leg I swing over the bike from time to time (demonstrates with other leg, equally impressively) so one leg doesn’t get more limber than the other.”
Lundal said she rides her bicycle because she can, and she knows that’s a gift.
“That doesn’t mean I don’t marvel at what other people my age are doing with their time and talents,” she said. “I so appreciate people who can quilt. I know Doctors without Borders; my god, the good they do for humanity.”
A friend dropped her off last week in Mullan, Idaho, where Lundal rode onto I-90 and immediately tackled Lookout Pass at the outset of her 54-mile first-day trek to Superior, Montana.
“Piece of cake,” she said about the challenge of spinning over the pass at elevation 4,725 feet. “I was mentally prepared for it.
“A few days later, even Homestake Pass (6,375 feet) out of Butte wasn’t bad because my head was geared up for it.
“But the day after that out of Whitehall, the grade up past Cardwell nearly kicked my behind because I wasn’t expecting it,” she said, noting that it’s not marked on a map as a pass. “I asked myself, ‘Where did this hill come from?’ I had to take a break at the top, rehydrate and get a grip.”
She exited onto frontage roads occasionally, but mostly she stayed on the four-lane interstate.
“I know it’s not for everybody, but I have no problem staying on I-90,” she said. “The noise and traffic doesn’t bother me. It has wide shoulders and almost everybody moves over a bit to give you even more room.
“And there’s a little bonus. Every time a vehicle goes by fast it pulls me forward a bit. I sort of looked forward to it.”
She rides a straight line and feels safe on her bike, which she named Boudica after a British warrior female folk hero.
“Frontage roads are nice, too, but you can’t just relax. Some of the people who drive them aren’t about to move over. They clip you pretty close.”
Based on a tip in Garrison, she ventured off I-90 with the intention of riding the Yellowstone Trail through the Deer Lodge valley. The trail is a remnant of an unpaved route established in 1912 as the first transcontinental automobile highway through the northern United States.
“It sounded pretty interesting,” Lundal said. “But it was horrible. Oh my god, it wasn’t suitable for a road bike. What was I thinking? It was the end of my day and when I had to get off and push my heavy loaded bike through the sand I knew I was in trouble.”
She had her camping gear packed on her bike just in case, “and I thought I was going to need my tent when I got bogged down. But I turned around and bagged it. I should have researched that a little better.”
Discovery, of course, is the intriguing part of travel. Being flexible makes bike touring especially appealing to Lundal.
“I always make time to explore towns and the people in them, places like the Wagon Wheel Café in Drummond, a place most people just drive by,” she said.
She spent two nights in Deer Lodge upon discovering a cultural attraction.
“I got a motel room the first night and learned about two things,” she said. “There’s a cowboy museum nearby, and the steak they were barbecuing outside the café smelled delicious.”
She devoted the next day to touring Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site.
“It’s famous for depicting the cattle industry and cowboy era of the late 1800s,” she said. “I felt some of that cowboy freedom on my bike.
“I had a ranger all to myself, touring the blacksmith shop, the chuckwagon and all the history including getting the cattle to market. And I had a hoot listening to Gene Autry sing cowboy songs.”
When she returned to her motel for another night, her focus shifted from cattle ranching to beef.
“I had made myself a sandwich for dinner, but all I could think of was the smell of that grill the night before,” she said.
“So I asked the motel lady if she would ask the man at the café if he would come outside and cook me a steak on the barbecue. He came out and said yes. Another young woman joined us. We were having a good time at the picnic table when he fessed up and warned me that he was a felon and he’d been drinking a lot.
“I told him, ‘That’s OK, honey, because you sure as hell cook up a good steak.’ We got along great.”
When you’re traveling by bike, people are good to you, she said.
“You’re not a threat. You’re easier to get to know.”
Lundal has a gift of gab that enhances her travels and sometimes saves her butt, as it was near Whitehall when her rear tire blew.
“It was my first flat in about eight years,” she said, “and I realized I’d left my bicycle pump at home on my mountain bike.
“It wasn’t long before a couple of ranchers in a pickup came by. I flagged them down and Cliff and Nancy offered to take me into Whitehall. We had a nice chat as they took me to a guy who fixed tires, and while he fixed my flat they took me to check into a motel. Later they brought the bike to me. They were all so sweet.”
Beyond her pedaling and social prowess, Lundal has a well-trained nose for sniffing out good bakeries from a bike saddle. Missoula and Bozeman, of course, are rich with good eateries, but finding small-town gems is like winning a jackpot, she said.
“Camp Creek Coffee Bar in Manhattan is fabulous, and I fell in love with the Bluebird Sky Coffee Shop in Whitehall,” she said. “It was precious. And so was the baker, Adrien. I got to know all about her, including her love life. It was a great stop.”
With overnights behind her in Superior, Missoula, Deer Lodge and Whitehall, she said made a fine discovery for her last night on the road: “I’m especially fond of the people and history I found at the Lewis and Clark Motel in Three Forks,” where the Gallatin, Madison and Jefferson join to make the Missouri River.
“I took my masks and wore them when I went into places,” she said, following the COVID-19 prevention protocol she’s adopted in Spokane. “A lot of people were wearing masks in Missoula and Bozeman, but in the smaller towns not so much. I saw men in some little cafés packing pistols, but not wearing masks.”
With the help of a grandson who shuttled her car from Spokane to Bozeman, Lundal was able to drive herself and her bike back home to end the adventure – and to begin planning the next.
“My rule is to think positive,” she said. “If you start thinking ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do that,’ then pretty soon you never do anything.
“I’m just getting back to who I used to be two years ago. At 79, I have to keep moving. I have places to see and people to meet.”
She said her ears perked up when she heard that a friend had found a way into Germany.
“I’ve always wanted to bicycle the Danube and explore it intimately,” she said.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.