Twin Bridges: Rural Friendliness Pays Dividends

story by Alan Kesselheim with photos by Thomas Lee

The following story was originally published in the Fall 2010 issue of Montana Quarterly magazine.

Photo left: The sun sets and the bugs come out as a cyclist heads into the screened-in building, where her gear is safely stored.

One summer day, Robin Saxon went outside the Four Rivers Fishing Company building, which she runs with her husband, Greg Smith, in Twin Bridges, Montana. She noticed a couple of bicycles leaning against the attached laundromat that they operate as a seasonal sideline. She poked her head in the door. A couple was discussing their dilemma. One of their bike pedals had broken. They hadn't been able to repair it in Dillon, there were no bike shops locally, and they couldn't go on without a new pedal. She went back in to the store and mentioned the couple and their problem to her husband. "Hell, give them the keys to the truck," Smith thought. "There's a shop in Butte that will fix them up."

A simple kindness; people in need and someone else responding. Not a big deal in the cosmic context, but pretty huge if you have the broken pedal. It's the kind of thing that happens in places like Twin Bridges. And it's been happening a lot more since the Twin Bridges Bike Camp went up in the local park in the spring of 2009.

The bike camp was the brainchild of local resident Bill White. He doesn't like to hog the credit, but it's a fact.

White is an energetic man in his sixties who was attracted to the charm of Twin Bridges and decided to retire there. He enjoys talking with people and has an infectious entrepreneurial energy. The idea came to him at The Weaver's Studio -- a place that teaches weaving, sells tapestries, art, and coffee -- where he hangs out.

Photo right: An outdoor sink allows campers to wash and cook, while keeping the inside of the building clean. Camper Steve Alvarez says he and his girlfriend spent an extra night in Twin Bridges because of the showers and hot water available at the camp. "You couldn't ask for much more than this," he says.

"It's not about me," he insists. "I just got fascinated by the strange folks with funny clothes who would occasionally come through town," he remembers. "A few would stop in for coffee, and I started talking to them."

Once he got past the Lycra veneer, he was pulled into the stories. Parents and kids going across the country, bonding over the days and miles. Solo riders leaving a coast-to-coast wake behind them. Retired couples cruising wherever fancy led them. He discovered Twin Bridges is located at a crossroads of sorts, an intersection of two Adventure Cycling Association long-distance touring routes: the TransAmerica Trail (section 4) and the Lewis & Clark Bicycle Trail (section 5), as well as local trails. He began to appreciate the grapevine shared by the cycling community, woven together by roads, scenery, and word-of-mouth lore from Tennessee to Seattle, Calgary to Austin, Harlowton to Dillon. Although he isn't a cyclist, he caught hold of the appeal of the lifestyle and the off-the-grid enthusiasm of the long-distance bicyclist.

The more he talked with people riding through town, the more he thought about how Twin Bridges might engage with them. He realized that everyone rode through, stopped for a cup of coffee or a burger, but then head down the road.

"All the bike riders passing through were like gold going by in a river," he says. "I started thinking about how to make Twin Bridges more than a place to get a cup of coffee."

Photo left: A sign solicits donations and suggestions from cyclists making use of the bike camp. "It's the people of Twin Bridges that make this work," says Bill White.

His conversations with cyclists became more pointed. He asked what sort of amenities would make them spend some time, and about the services that would make the difference between a quaint town to ride through and a place to spend the night, or linger for a couple days.

Jessen Park sits just across a bridge over the Beaverhead River, on the edge of town. A standard rest area -- parking lot, a few picnic tables, a bathroom. Nicer than most, with the river current chuckling past and the headwaters of the Jefferson River a mile downstream. White began focusing his efforts on building a structure in the park that would draw in riders. It had to have a shower. It needed to be screened, with a table and benches. Nothing fancy, but a clean shelter and space outside for riders to set up tents on the grass.

He talked it up with the mayor, Tom Hyndman. A few locals were swept up by his enthusiasm and agreed to help. He developed a proposal, started putting plans together.

"This is a place where common sense is still alive and well," White says. "It was an unproven concept, a bit of a leap of faith, but once things got going, people came on board.

"Twin Bridges is forward-thinking enough to do things, but laid back enough not to be in a big rush."

White met with local politicians, got a building permit through the state, and raised $9,000 for materials. They broke ground in April of 2009 and had the small building ready for riders by June. Then he held his breath, hoping the scheme he'd been promoting wouldn't fizzle.

Despite White's energy, the inevitable nay-sayers thought the camp would bring the wrong people to town, or that the building would attract vandals and become an eyesore. It was one thing to have riders pass through, quite another to invite them in and have them stay, who knew for how long and with what manners. White admits that he had a few wakeful nights fretting over what he'd started, imagining the worst.

He didn't have to wait long.

Photo right: Bill White uses his hat to swat a fly that has made its way inside the screened-in building, which gives cyclists a place to wash, sit, eat, camp and work on their bikes.

"The grapevine within the cycling community is unbelievable," White says. "Once a few riders stopped in, found out what we had, word spread like you wouldn't believe. Cyclists are used to being treated like second-class citizens, being run off the road, paying top dollar at RV campgrounds. To have a community solicit them, to encourage them to stay, and to provide the basics of shelter and a shower for free É they couldn't get over it."

The logbook at the camp is full of that sentiment:

"Thanks so much for the shower, toilet, outlets, tables, magazines, sink, grill!!!!"

"Heading east on the TransAm. This is great! Twin Bridges is our favorite town so far. P.S. Your mosquitoes are nothing compared to Wisdom's!"

"Wow! We had no idea this existed. Thanks a ton."

Riders pass through from Calgary, Texas, Seattle, Tennessee, France. "You never know what language you might need over here!" White says.

"Almost everyone leaves some donation," he adds. "The money pays for utilities and cleaning supplies. Cyclists asked for the cleaning supplies so they could tidy up after themselves. We've had donations up to $100, and as little as 76 cents with a note saying sorry, that's all they had."

More important, with the small investment in a no-frills building, an economic engine hummed to life. In a town the size of Twin Bridges, and in an economy under duress, any commerce is a gift. What makes the bike camp elegant is its simplicity. There is no infrastructure to speak of. It maintains itself. No significant capital investment was required. The economy is a closed loop, a win-win. cyclists come. They need things the town can provide. Then they move on. They leave behind their stories, sparks of human connections, and some cash. The more it happened, the more businesspeople in Twin started paying attention.

Photo left: Gayle and James Real own the Blue Anchor restaurant and say they have noticed an uptick in business from the cyclists.

"I can't tell you how often I come out of the fishing shop and see a bike leaning against the laundromat," says Robin Saxon. "The laundry is going, and they're checking email."

Roger Hutchinson, owner of the Main Street Market, praises the cyclists' friendliness and gratitude. He's started to collaborate with a bike shop in Dillon to carry common bike parts. He put a road map up to help people plan their itineraries. He's reopened the store after hours when cyclists were out front.

"Cyclists grab vegetables and drinks, supplies to cook their meals, those little wine packets. They'll come back two or three times," he says. "If it's a group, they might spend a couple hundred dollars over a day or two. It would help if I spoke four or five languages!"

At the Blue Anchor Bar and The Shack Restaurant, cyclists indulge in a meal out or a beer and use the wireless connection. "One of our waitresses was emailing back and forth with one rider for quite some time after he rode through," says Shack owner, Valery Orrin. "Those cyclists have some really solid appetites! You can count on a meal or two when a group stops at the camp. We let them put their bikes inside the door if they're worried about them."

"Somewhere close to 300 riders used the camp the first summer," says White. "And by the end of June, 2010, we were up by more than 50 riders from the same time a year ago. They make suggestions and we keep tweaking things." They've added a clothesline, an extra power outlet, hung a mirror over the sink, and are working on putting up highway signs. The high-school shop class designed and built a permanent bicycle stand/work station mounted outside the building. "It's already part of defining Twin Bridges. The bike camp draws people we'd never get otherwise."

Adventure Cycling is a national organization that maps safe touring routes across the U.S. for cyclists. After an Adventure Cycling crew of 14 stopped over, they added the bike camp to their official tour maps. More immediately, they spent $200 on groceries, all 14 riders used the laundromat, they all went out to the bar, and then left a $100 tip at the camp. Adventure Cycling's e-newsletter, Bike Bits, helped spread the word, logging hundreds of hits on the bike camp link. As the reputation of the amenities and friendliness of Twin Bridges spreads, cyclists stay longer. Some rent canoes and take a day to float the Jefferson down towards Silver Star. The milkshakes at The Shack have become renowned along Adventure Cycling's cross-country routes.

"More and more you hear people say that they changed their itinerary to stay here," says White.

The growing friendliness of locals towards cyclists reinforces that impulse.

Photo right: George Dixon of Sacramento, California, checks out a message board inside the bike camp building. Dixon says he and his brother are cycling from Jackson, Wyoming, through Yellowstone and Glacier national parks and on to Jasper, Alberta, Canada. He says he and his brother had planned to stay in a Twin Bridges motel but camped instead when they saw the facility, and then went out to eat.

"The second we rode into town, people were waving at us," wrote Zach Hall, a rider from Texas, in the camp journal.

Mid-afternoon one day in early August 2009, five cyclists wheel into the parking lot. They scan the scene, look at each other. Too good to pass up. They dismount, stretch sore backs, stroll around the building, assessing.

"We came over from Norris," one says. "Someone told us to check this out." The grass lawn quickly sprouts a crop of tents. A bike goes up on the rack, tools come out, some tinkering begins. A couple pores over the highway map spread on the table inside. One rider heads across the bridge with a sack of laundry. Another collects money and makes a grocery list before strolling towards Main Street. The shower runs, rinsing off layers of road grit and sweat. The sense of relief and contentment is palpable. For these travelers of the highway shoulder, the next camp, the next shower, the next sanctuary of comfort and security are always a niggling anxiety.

Bill White hovers in the wings. He stops in whenever he notices riders at the camp. White snags their story, where they're from, where they're going. He samples the chemistry, listens for the trip theme. He doesn't claim credit for the bike camp, but he lingers, eavesdropping politely, gaining information that might be useful. Sometimes he makes suggestions about places to eat, the possibility of renting a canoe for a float, but this afternoon he is content to wander around the camp, taking it in, seeing his vision fulfilled, like the proprietor of a country inn making sure his guests are properly taken care of.

Alan Kesselheim, tapped into the long-distance cycling community with his own regional bike tour from Bozeman, Montana, to Lander, Wyoming, last June with his wife, Marypat, and 15-year-old daughter, Ruby. Bill White is compiling notes for a how-to guide for communities that want to copy the Twin Bridges bike-friendly model.

Copyright 2010 by Alan S. Kesselheim