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Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The Great Divide - Trail Angels Marlene & Paul

In ways I can't explain and can't deny
The little that I have He multiples
Just when I feel He won't show up on time
God provides
God Provides, Kirk Franklin (2016) 

 From Left to Right:  Our hostess Marlene Fifield, Marlene's sister Roberta,
Marlene's husband Paul Fifield, and Roberta's husband George. (photo by Paul Brasby)

Filet mignon grilled to order, sautéed fresh mushrooms, baked potatoes with sour cream and chives, fresh corn on the cob, huckleberry coleslaw, fresh picked cherries, bottomless glasses of ice water (declining the red wine), and then vanilla ice cream topped with homemade huckleberry sauce.

Does that sound like your typical dinner on a bikepacking trip? Not mine, either. Well, that was our dinner on the evening of Day 4 of our ride of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, thanks to Trail Angels Marlene and Paul Fifield of Montana. And that gourmet meal was just part of the story.

Paul documents the scene where Paul Fifield, California Ken, Marlene Fifield, Paul and I
sort out just where we are and where we need to be. (photo by Paul Brasby)

Day 4 of our Great Divide ride starts from Wayfarer's State Park near Big Fork, Montana with the relatively ambitious thought of riding about 75 miles to the Owl Creek Packer USFS campground near Holland Lake. If short of that, we'll disperse camp somewhere along the way.

After warming up on some pavement, we climb steadily on two-track logging roads into the remote backcountry of Flathead National Forest. Always on the lookout for bear and other wildlife, we catch occasional glimpses of big mountains on the horizon and of Swan Lake through the dense vegetation. Stands of Western Larch tower 150-200 feet above the lush forest floor and hug the road to frame our narrow path. Always above is the big, blue Montana sky. I lose track of how many times Paul joyfully exclaims, "Now, THIS is what I came out here for!"

So we don't miss another turn, Paul Fifield positioned tree branches to point the way to his house.
I say we go that way, while California Ken stows his map. (photo by Paul Brasby)

Paul chases down another southbound GDMBR rider, California Ken, and the two of them immediately talk themselves off the route by missing a turn and plunging down a steep hill. Despite my screaming from behind, they quickly drop out of sight. Glancing at the map, I see that their road soon ends at a campground, where they would probably recognize their mistake. So, I find some shade atop that hill, grab a snack, and wait for them to return. Within about 15 minutes, they come charging up that hill.

Back on route, we roll up, up and down, and through big time logging country, with countless tantalizing rough roads veering into the forest. In the mid-afternoon heat, we're over two miles up a steady climb when we realize that something's wrong. Paul rides ahead to look for a sign, while I pull out my map, cue sheets and book. Eventually, we both conclude that we somehow missed a turn at the bottom of that climb and turn back toward an intersection down there.

Preparing to sleep in a luxurious man-cave garage.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Then huckleberry hunters Paul and Marlene Fifield pull up on a side-by-side ATV.  Marlene says, "You fellows look lost." Grateful for help from locals, I ask if they'd look at my map to confirm where we are and where we should be. They do so and follow us back to that intersection to make sure we don't miss the turn again. Then they insist that we sample from their buckets of freshly picked huckleberries. Sweet.

With the time and energy lost climbing those errant miles, on a hot day already a bit ambitious, we conclude that it's unlikely we'll reach Holland Lake that night. That's OK, we'll ride for awhile and find a nice place to disperse camp. California Ken thought he'd do the same. Overhearing that discussion, Paul Fifield says, "There's a lot of bear out here. Why don't you stay at our place? We're just a few miles away."

Our host Paul Fifield works his magic.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

We're not about to turn down that offer and neither is California Ken. Early on, Paul and I agreed to prioritize secure sleeping arrangements in grizzly country where possible, even if it meant riding a bit less, or a bit more, than circumstances might otherwise indicate. That is, where possible, we seek to sleep indoors or in a developed campground with bear bins. In our final tally after 20 nights in grizzly country, we slept indoors 7 times, in developed campgrounds 12 times, and at a dispersed campsite just once.

We soon learn that we would not be sleeping just anyplace, but inside Paul's enormous, luxurious man-cave garage. Nice. We set up, clean up, and charge devices. Then Paul returns to invite us to dinner. Wow. Yeah, that would be great. He then asks, "How would you like your steak?" Are you kidding? Steak?

Marlene Fifield serves her gourmet dinner.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Yeah. Steak. And all the other delicacies noted above. Amazing dinner. Amazing company. Paul, Marlene, Marlene's sister Roberta and Roberta's husband George want to hear all about our ride. Paul, California Ken and I want to hear all about living in the beautiful Montana backcountry. Time flies by.

Near the end of the meal, Marlene quietly shares her experience from earlier that day. She had invited Roberta and George to dinner and, before leaving to huckleberry hunt, she removed steaks from their freezer for dinner for four. Then her husband invited these three cyclists to stay the night. What to do? Invite them for dinner, too? Driving back to their house, Marlene wonders if there's any way to stretch those four steaks to feed seven, now with the addition of three hungry cyclists.

Returning to the steaks she removed from the freezer, Marlene discovers that, somehow, there are seven steaks thawed. How did that happen? She does not remember removing seven steaks, but reasons that she must have. She cannot fathom why, since she only planned four people for dinner, but here they are. Seven thawed steaks. How can that be?

Marlene simply says that God provided steak for seven.

Then she realizes that there's so much more. God brought these seven people together for that night through a sequence of events unplanned by any of us. He provided guidance to three wandering cyclists to find their way back on route, a secure place to rest for the night, and a home cooked meal. He provided an opportunity for two huckleberry hunters to serve some weary, wayward travelers. And He provided company for everyone to share a special evening together. We listen in awe and give thanks. Amazing.

In the morning, Paul Fifield leads the way back to the Great Divide route.

Reluctantly, we retire for the night and sleep comfortably in our spacious accommodations. In the morning, Paul Fifield brings hot coffee and cinnamon rolls for everyone. To top it off, he hops on his bike to lead us to our route. A few miles later, we're back on the Great Divide, with hearts full of gratitude.

Trail angels, indeed.

God provides.

God Provides, Tamela Mann (2016)


  1. That arrow was still in the road when I passed by on my own bikepacking tour. Must have been just a few days after, because it still looked exactly the same.

  2. I thought I had removed that arrow from the road, but I was pretty shelled at the time.

  3. Wow, what a great interaction! Thanks for pointing this out in your comments on YouTube!!

  4. Thanks for including the video and audio clip with Paul & Marlene. What a fun surprise this morning for me to be watching your video through central Montana and see Paul talking with you! And then to hear him telling of his interaction with Paul Brasby and me. What are the chances of all those things happening? I sent a link to your video to Paul Brasby, who enjoyed it as much as I did. Trail Angels and Trail Magic live on!