On Buses

Trip Start Jun 25, 2008
Trip End Aug 02, 2008

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Flag of United States  , Montana
Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The other night we were invited to dinner at a house up Pattee Canyon. In case you're not familiar with Missoula's geography, most of town is a flat, flat, lovely, bikeable valley. The canyons on the edge of town - Miller Creek, Grant Creek, the Rattlesnake and Pattee Canyon - are not. They lead straight up into the mountains. And, by the way, most of them don't have bus service.

We wanted to go to dinner, for sure. I was game to bike up the canyon, but not with two kids on board. Joe's bike is impossible for me to ride. So, the afternoon of our dinner date, he went looking for a bike I could ride.

One of Missoula's many marvelous nonprofits is Free Cycles, whose website offers, among many other services, "several styles of bikes to loan out to visitors" for up to 4 weeks. Alas, when Joe arrived, all such bikes were checked out, and he was offered only bike parts, which he was warmly invited to assemble into a bike for me.

Sorry, no time for that.

Local bike shops wanted about as much as a daily car rental rate to loan me a bike. Finally, he ran into a fellow musician and traded bikes with her for a day or two. I had my wheels and we headed up the mountain. I was as proud to make it up the hill on my own power as Joe was to tote 75 pounds worth of offspring - but still, a bus would have been nice.

"Wow," said one of the other dinner guests when she saw our vehicles and heard our going-car-free-for-the-summer story. "I bet you know the bus schedule by heart."

Actually, no. At that point we hadn't been on one even once. If a bus could have taken us out of town, we would have happily hopped on - we were getting a bit stir-crazy in the valley. But no such service existed. We had to listen enviously to tales of this family, also month-long visitors and former Missoula residents, visiting the local fishing holes and tubing spots. I love Montana, and you can climb its hills and ponder its fast-flowing waters from right inside (or on the edge of) Missoula. But I yearned, and still do, to climb a mountain and see nothing but other mountains - not Ruby's Reserve Street Inn, or the train depot, or even the University.

Still, you might ask, what was wrong with the buses in town? Why not use them to get around?

Nothing was wrong. In fact, many, many things are right about the Mountain Line. Routes are well-planned to get almost anywhere you need to in town, from downtown to the mall to the University. A beautiful transfer station was built downtown several years ago. In addition to clearly marked, comfortable waiting areas outside, it has an indoor space where multi-trip passes are sold, change is made, and a comprehensive bus map and schedule is offered. Trips are organized so that almost every bus arrives at this transfer station at either quarter of or quarter past the hour. Worried that your transfer bus will leave before the bus you're on arrives? Never fear - the driver asks passengers which buses they'll be transferring to, and radios ahead to make sure those buses wait. Fare is 85 cents, cash, kids under 12 free. Or buy a monthly pass for only $24. University student? Ride free anytime.

Ah, if only my hometown Pioneer Valley Transit Authority were so well-organized (and well-funded). I still haven't managed to find a local bus there that fits my needs and schedule. Not to mention - how to put this delicately? They look rather old and grimy. The Mountain Line buses just scream, "it's cool to ride the bus."

And yet we aren't using the bus. Well, there was that one day that Ren fell asleep downtown and Joe opted to carry him home on the bus while I took Aislyn via xtracycle to the water park. (We didn't want to risk waking him by transferring him to the bike seat.) It was no easy task, though. Joe hadn't brought a second lock to secure his bike independent of ours. The Mountain Line takes bikes, but how could he unload it at his destination with a sleeping child in hand? Finally he rode the bike home, walked back to the bus station, took Ren from my arms and brought him home by bus. Ah, the crazy things one will do without a car. (The worst part was, Ren woke up the second Joe opened the house door. They hopped back on the bus and met us at the water park just seconds after we'd arrived.)

And there was the other time, when Ren desperately wanted to ride the bus and we promised him he could. We walked to the University district for breakfast - thankfully, by this time we had that borrowed stroller, which would have helped greatly during the Sleeping Ren Bus Incident. A few short blocks would have taken us to our next destination, the toy store - but we promised. Onto the bus we went. Only - wait - wasn't that our transfer point? Darn it. OK, we could transfer at the mall. Off we trooped. A five-minute walk and a 20-minute wait finally got us on the bus we wanted. It would have dropped us off in front of the toy store, but I misjudged and got us off half a mile early. We walked while the kids argued over who went on daddy's back and who had the privilege of riding in the stroller. Neither one used their own feet. And alas, by the time we reached the toy store, its biggest family proponent, Ren, was fast asleep.

There were a few more times when we would have liked to use the bus. July 4 was a haul, out to Fort Missoula, but the buses didn't run on Independence Day. Likewise the Sunday the kids wanted the water park and I felt exhausted.

But overall, I still can't get used to conforming to even a well-planned bus schedule. I like to come and go when we're ready, not rush to make the next bus or wait half an hour for one. Nor can I justify spending the better part of a dollar for a trip that's free on our fun and attention-getting Sport Utility Bicycle. Plus, even without hills, I'm in better shape than I've been in awhile.

Our family is certainly hoping that this summer's experience makes it easier to bike and bus back home. I'm light-years more comfortable on the xtracycle than I was three weeks ago, and the kids literally clamor for it. But will we shed our car for the PVTA? I'm not so sure.
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