If we met the kind of people we’ve met in Helena in every town, I don’t think we’d ever finish this trail! Today is our third and final day in beautiful Helena, MT, the capitol of Montana and home to some really fantastic folks who have made our stay here truly memorable. I’m getting sappy. Here’s the story.
We made it out to McDonald Pass (road to Helena) a day and a half after the last post on this blog. April’s knee held in there, but continued to be painful to walk on and swollen. My own knee continued to be testy as well. Our final night on the trail was spent in a downpour six miles from the pass on the north slope of Priest Mtn, a wooded, huckleberry-laden hill crowned with radio towers. Neither of us slept very well and the inside of the tent stayed dry with the exception of where the rain fly was leaking at its seams. April endured a slow drip on part of her thermarest. We arrived at the pass around mid morning and did have a few doubts about being offered a ride. The road through the pass is a busy, four-lane highway (no problems there), but we were both wet and I’m told that with black tights under shorts, a beard, and a crew cut I looked like a cross between a hobo and the escaped Arizona convict, minus the tattoos. I put on my baseball cap for better appearances. We waited only about 30 minutes and were picked up by an elderly couple on their way from the Tacoma, WA area to Colorado. They had four days to get there and happily offered us a ride plus a few Mirabelle plums for the road.
We were dropped off in town next to the CVS and the Van’s in a busy shopping complex along route 12. We had our town guide and decided to walk up to the Budget Inn to dry off and spend the night. We had a cozy night there and probably drank a pot of coffee each to warm us up from the chilly drizzly day we had spent going over Priest Mtn. Dinner/lunch was at the Windbag Saloon, a brothel-turned-bar with what I feel are the best burgers on the trail so far. (April’s heart lies with the Buck Horn in Augusta). Besides the usual town chores (buying food, eating hamburgers and ice cream, etc) we had to figure out where to spend a few days resting so that our busted knees could heal up a bit. Spending three nights in a motel is expensive, so our priority the next day was to figure out where we could stay for a bit less money. Our choices were to find a nearby park or campground in Helena or split on the 4:30PM bus to Butte, where there was an in-town KOA campground that charges $35 for tent sites; a bit pricey, but cheaper than a motel.
We spent the next day in downtown Helena, checking out some interesting shops and talking to a few folks on the street. After getting to know downtown a bit, we decided that we’d rather try to stay here than Butte. The downtown area has a pedestrian walkway with lots of park areas, picnic tables, and a long row of interesting shops featuring, to name a few, boutique coffee places, bookstores, homemade ice cream, some nice restaurants, and art galleries. The sun was out, so we enjoyed our day outside. As much as we loved spending time in Helena, we didn’t find too many leads on camping. I looked by the YMCA and the local school, Carroll College, but no luck. By late afternoon, we were looking at getting the bus to Butte. We decided to check out Base Camp, one of the outfitters in town. I spoke to one of the sales people who told me that if we walked a few miles outside the city limits, we could camp. But we couldn’t legally camp in town.
After, April and I sat outside the outfitter and talked about where we might go. We weren’t too keen on walking out of town, so we were leaning towards Butte. At that moment, a woman came out and asked us if we were looking for a place to camp. We said yes and she promptly offered us her backyard for the night. Sandra Jarvie and her husband John became our first Helena benefactors. Sandra had overheard me talking to the sales clerk and decided to take us in. We were delighted and April shook her head, saying this would have never happened in New York. The Jarvies had a movie to catch, so we had a little time to kill until their movie was out. I had overheard one of the sales people in the outfitter talking about a bakery down the street on Park Ave, so we walked down there to check it out. April’s always interested in checking out bakeries.
We found Park Ave Bakery just a block away and, as they were closed, we peered in the windows to see what they were offering (cakes, cookies yum!) As we were looking in, one of the staff walked out and asked us if there was anything we needed. We said, no, just looking, and we’ll be back tomorrow. I mentioned that April was a pastry chef and we were just curious. The girl walked back inside and moments later, Renee Kowalski, a smiling, charismatic woman and the owner of the shop, appeared. Renee came out to say hi, she said, “just in case she was looking for a job.” April and Renee chatted for a bit and Renee then insisted we come inside for a tour. We obliged and got to check out the inner workings of the Park Ave Bakery. Renee sent us away with a bag of cookies, crostini, a few danishes, and an invitation to come by her place if we were to stay another night. We walked away feeling like luck had truly come our way and how we really thought Renee was a wonderful person. I liked Renee because she laughs at her own jokes, which makes everything all the more funny.
John and Sandra picked us up at six and, after beers and wine, we had a quiet night on their back lawn under a sour cherry tree. I patched the holes in our rain fly and before bed April and I walked back into town for ice cream, passing some of the former gold mining mansions here on the upper west side along the way. The next morning, after coffee in their kitchen, we took the Jarvie’s to breakfast at the bakery, greeting Renee and meeting her husband John, a Montana boating, bird, and fly fishing guide. We said our goodbyes to the Jarvies and hung around for a bit at the bakery. We made plans with Renee and John for the day. They offered us the use of their van, which we used to go out to Wal Mart to buy food for our next 140-mile stint on the trail. We then met them at home and April, Renee, and I drove over to an outdoor jazz concert. The evening was spent at Renee and John’s home, a tall redwood house perched at the base of Mt. Helena overlooking the entire valley. We ate burgers, homemade pizza, brownies, raspberry blondies, and talked for most of the evening.
Today, April and I take an afternoon bus to Butte to pick up the CDT where I started it a month ago at Pipestone Pass (Route 2). We’re both feeling better and April’s wearing a knee brace. We’re both taking Aleve. In a few minutes we’re taking the van down to the bakery so April can check out the production there and we’ll be helping Renee with some deliveries around town. We both really loved Helena. It’s a great town and we can’t wait to come back. We never expected to be here for more than buying groceries and now we’ve made some good friends over three days. Part of the journey I guess.