By Martin Kidston

LOLO – Hundreds of bicyclists road the land once claimed by Coyote in Native American legend to arrive at Travelers Rest on Saturday, where they celebrated the anticipated opening of the Missoula to Lolo Trail.

Completion of the 8-mile section of paved pathway completes the missing link in a larger 50-mile stretch of the Bitterroot Trail, which now extends along U.S. Highway 93 from Missoula to Hamilton.

“This is really the culmination of a really long dream,” said Ginny Sullivan with Adventure Cycling in Missoula. “It's for those of us who travel great distances by bicycle, and it's for those of us who just travel from our back door.”

Cyclists arrived on road bikes, tandem bikes and recumbent bikes to join the festivities. Some towed toddler chariots and mounted the silhouettes of horses on their handlebars to commemorate the day's historic location, that being the 1805 campsite of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

The area's rich Native American history wasn't overlooked. It was through this valley that Coyote passed to make it safe for human occupancy, according to Tony Incashola, director of the Salish-Ponderay Cultural Committee in St. Ignatius.

“July 16 is a very important day for my people,” said Incashola. “This is the day the (Hellgate Treaty) was signed in 1855, right up the road. Sometimes it's hard to imagine the past, because we live so much in today, but imagine what this place might have looked like.”

Tony Incashola offers a Native American prayer during Saturday's festivities. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

Over the past several years, completion of the M2L trail hung just out of reach. Missoula County received a $4.5 million federal grant to construct the project, though it initially came in over budget. The project was redesigned and bid a second time, and construction began last year.

For advocates, however, the effort dates back more than two decades and marks the achievement of numerous community groups, advocates and local officials. U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester also helped pull strings, advocates said Saturday.

“For me, the trail began as a 26-year project in 1990, when my student Rachael was hit by a truck in front of the Lolo Community Center,” said Jean Bellangie-Nye, board chairwoman for the Bike Walk Alliance of Missoula. “The first week after the accident, 3,500 people signed a petition for a sidewalk.”

That effort grew over the next 26 years to include the 50-mile Bitterroot Trail that now connects Missoula with Hamilton, and passes through several communities along the way. A $4.5 million pedestrian bridge over S. Reserve Street in Missoula is now under construction, marking one of the last pieces needed to complete the trail.

The effort up and down the Missoula and Bitterroot valleys has won the support of state and federal transportation officials, who were on hand Saturday to celebrate the trail's opening.

“This is a shining example of a project that provides users options in their transportation choices, because highways aren't the only way to travel,” said Kevin McLaury of the Federal Highway Administration.

McLaury, the only one in a crowd of several hundred dressed in a suit coat, credited the bicycle for giving birth to the nation's networks of roads and highways. Back in the 1880s, he said, a group dubbed The League of American Wheelmen lobbied federal officials for smoother roads.

The effort paid off.

“In a way, bicycling gave America the 4.1 million miles of paved roads and interstate systems that's now the backbone of the world's strongest economy,” said McLaury. “We wish more communities would strive for a more balanced approach to personal transportation as you have here.”

Riders came from across the country to participate in Saturday's event, itself part of the larger Montana Bicycle Celebration. Several also came to commemorate the 40th anniversary of “Bikecentennial,” a cross-country ride that passed through this location in 1976.

Back then, Valerie Turtle, Wanda Freemont and Susie Graham started from Oregon and arrived in Virginia on the trans-American ride. They named their team ITWB611; that's “I” for international, “T” for trans-America, “W” because they left from the West Coast, “B” for biking, and “611” representing their date of departure.

“Eighty two days later we're in Yorktown, Virginia, dipping our front wheel,” said Turtle. “We dipped our rear wheel in the Pacific and our front wheel in the Atlantic.”

Members of a Canadian choir open the celebration at Travelers' Rest with song and dance. (Photo by Martin Kidston)