Outside a middle-of-nowhere gas station, a construction manager from Eastern Colorado pointed at me and said, “Climate change is real and we have to get serious about it.” I thanked him for his thoughts as he climbed into his SUV.

“We gotta stop messing around with these little solar panels and windmills - we need nuclear power!” he pronounced before speeding off toward Laramie.

I met that guy a few weeks into a climate-themed bike tour through the West. I left Missoula on September 1st rode my loaded mountain bike over to Yellowstone, past the Wind River Range in Wyoming, through the high peaks of Colorado, and down to Santa Fe. After a train trip to California’s Central Valley, I pedaled through Yosemite, up to Lake Tahoe, and finally stopped riding in Southern Oregon due to a “Bomb Cyclone”.

I timed this tour ahead of the UN COP26 meetings in Scotland, which may be the best chance the world will ever have at effective international action for a livable climate. The regional effects of climate change are already difficult, to say the least, and look to get harder. I wanted to go and see firsthand how the West is responding.

 On the road I talked about climate change with all manner of people. This often felt like a risk, because climate change is pretty much a taboo subject in polite conversation among strangers. This reticence halts most useful airing-out of this critical topic among Westerners.

That allows political polarization machines to fill the conversational void with angry half-truths. My ride, which in a slightly grandiose moment I dubbed the “Climate Courage Tour,” was a small effort to pry the lid off those canned conversations.

 Why choose to ride a bike thousands of miles to have these random climate conversations? Well, compared to motorized travelers, cyclists are not threatening; we are incredibly slow, highly identifiable, and unable to carry off much of anything.

We can appear hapless, and maybe daft, as we labor through mountains, storms, and winds that most Americans breeze through with only a toe on a gas pedal. Thus, motorists and townspeople often approach cyclists with a mix of pity, awe, and cautious offers of assistance. 

So, as I biked through the grand landscapes of our region, I was able to eavesdrop on the climate conversations people here are having with each other and their places. Everyone I spoke to agreed that many climate-related things are changing quickly, but had diverse opinions about why, and what if anything to do about it.

 I have far too many stories to share here, but here are some vignettes (and with links to fuller stories): 

  • On the first night of my ride, I stayed on the beautiful Mannix ranch in the upper Blackfoot. Along with many ranchers, they are striving to maintain their heritage on the land with a set of new (and renewed) ideas called “regenerative agriculture” The goals are to support water and nutrient flows and to keep biodiversity intact while dealing with climate-influenced stresses like droughts and weeds.  
  • Also early on, I met Wilmot Collins, a Liberian refugee and the Mayor of Helena, randomly on my way back to my in-town campsite. Collins has advanced strong climate policies for Helena as he runs for re-election.  He agreed to sign a letter I had drafted supporting the goals of the UN COP26 meetings in Scotland this November. 
  • One afternoon in Yellowstone, a Buddhist campground host woke me in my hammock after hearing that my ride was focused on climate. He laid into society for not getting on board with ammonia as a transportation fuel. It can now be made using renewable energy and used in existing vehicles with relatively small modifications. Despite studying energy issues for a decade this was a brand new idea to me. 
  • In Leadville, CO I stayed with Fritz Howard, who founded a clothing company there 25 years ago. It has recently and unexpectedly exploded in popularity - which was not entirely welcome for this low-key entrepreneur. He mainly enjoys a quiet life skiing with his retired sled dogs. But Fritz feels a deep responsibility to his employees and the town. He’s working to build affordable and energy-efficient housing so his workers don’t have to pump their pay into insane mortgages - or propane heat into leaky trailers. Better homes will help his business, local families, and the climate. 
  • People often directed to me meet with hardy climate activists in their towns. In Lander, WY I ate lunch with the Lander Climate Action Network. They are pushing for electric vehicle charging stations and better solar power policies. In Crested Butte I marched with the Gunnison Valley Climate Crisis Coalition, who advocate removing fossil energy from their utility and supporting regenerative ag., among many other priorities. These small-town activists are often swimming against the tide politically, but find common ground with conservative neighbors on the direct climate impacts on water, weeds, storms, and fire. 
  • Speaking of fire, I saw recent burn scars in every state I visited, especially California. For two days I rode through areas scorched by the enormous Dixie Fire, including the destroyed town of Greenville. I stayed with a firefighter who told me, “I was in Greenville the day before it got nuked. Hell of a fire-fight but we were able to hold it. The fire retreated, realigned, and then came down Main Street like a burning bowling ball.” I also talked with workers logging the vast roadside areas of burned hazard trees. Everyone was dumbfounded by the severity of fires lately. 
  • Water issues were another constant subject: I talked with a longtime Hispanic farmer in New Mexico about the mountain snowpacks he sees declining decade by decade. A bike shop owner in Gunnison lamented the amazingly low level of the nearby Blue Mesa Reservoir - which has been tapped to keep the air conditioners humming in Phoenix. A water manager for the Southern Ute Tribe struggled to advance the idea of restoring beavers to keep water on the landscape longer in an extreme and ongoing drought. I could go on... 

The West I saw on this ride is on the edge of real climate mitigation and adaptation in more ways than I had imagined. I ended the ride sobered about the difficulties we face, but also encouraged by a variety of inspirational people and projects. I saw and heard more climate courage than I expected. 

The real reason for calling this ride the Climate Courage Tour came from climate scientist Kate Marvel, who wrote, “We need courage, not hope, to face climate change.” To me this means acting without any assurance of the outcome acting—because the work is necessary to have a chance at a livable future.  

To move toward that future we need to have more conversations about the climate challenges we face, and we need to celebrate the courageous people who are working on them in surprising ways and in surprising places. We need to push our leaders to take strong international action on climate change right now in Scotland, AND support this work in the long-term, right here in the West.

Dave Morris is an instructor with the Wild Rockies Field Institute/University of Montana, among other endeavors.

This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every week by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Sustainability Happenings

Here we offer ideas about sustainable ways to stay involved in our community. For more, consider signing up for Climate Smart’s eNewsletter here. And sign up for the Home ReSource eNews via their homepage here.

Nov. 6 – Saturday, 11 am - noon. Rally for COP26 Action. Join Families for a Livable Climate and Climate Smart Missoula to add our voices. It’s time to end fossil fuel financing. Missoula County Courthouse, 200 W. Broadway. Facebook event here.

Nov 8. A History of the American Bison. 7 pm. Presentation at the Five Valleys Audubon Society monthly meeting. Public welcome. UM’s Interdisciplinary Science building (room 110). Masks required. 

Nov. 9. Volunteer for our urban Forest. Noon – 4 pm. Help MT DNRC and Trees for Missoula sample ash trees for Emerald Ash Borer in Missoula and they need our help WHAT: Ash Tree Branch Peeling & EAB Detection. Lunch provided. 100 Hickory St. RSVP here!

Nov 10. Future Leaders for a Livable World. UM graduate students discuss the future of the environmental movement. 6:30 pm at UM’s UC Theater. Hosted by Faith & Climate Action MT and UM Humanities Institute. All welcome. Masks required in UM buildings. 

Nov 12 & 13. Zootown Climate Action Collective Workshop for high school students. Families for a Livable Climate, Home ReSource and area high school eco-clubs are hosting a 2-day leadership training. Free and lunch provided. Learn more and sign up here.

Materials donations to Home Resource keep the wheels of reuse spinning in our community; and remember that everything you need to know about what to do with your unwanted stuff is at www.zerobyfiftymissoula.com.

Find more local activities and events at Missoulaevents.net and on Montana Environmental Information Center’s Conservation Calendar. And you too can help organize events – here’s the 2021 Calendar of Environmental Awareness Days – month by month breakdown of world day campaigns.