Small Towns, Big Welcomes

My route guy and I walked into the store/motel/bait shop in a tiny town with a business district consisting of this place, a saloon and a fly-fishing-guide shop. Three fellas were standing around the cash register, casually shooting the breeze. I caught enough of the conversation to pick up that it was about guns.

I stepped up in my cargo shorts and perky BRNW polo and tried to find some kind of common ground into the conversation. That didn’t work. So I just went ahead and said we were in town scouting bike routes for a tour of 300 mostly liberal, Lycra-clad, tree huggin’ cyclists who were probably not NRA members. (OK, in reality I left out all the descriptive parts and just said “cyclists.”)

“Hey, we love cyclists!” was the proprietor’s response. Then he showed us the brochure for his establishment, which featured a photo of six or seven riders posed in front of the entrance. “Anything you need,” was his response to our inquiry about coming to town.

Not one of our actual host towns.

Same trip, different tiny town. We were in a parking lot outside the community center, trying to poach some WiFi so we could see if the mountain pass up ahead was snowed in or not. We couldn’t get into the network, so I moseyed on into the meeting hall looking for some intel. Twenty local ranchers-and-wives looked up from their Sunday supper gathering. When I explained that I needed some information, the nearest local said, “It’s gonna cost you… you’ll have to sit down and have a free steak dinner with us!”

I shouldn’t continue to be surprised by scenes like these, because I’ve been part of so many. But I also don’t want to ever lose my appreciation of the towns and people we encounter along the way on our tours. The majority of our staff, crew and riders come from cities of some size, so it’s not always a familiar environment when we’re out in small towns.

And yet I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve gotten a cold or indifferent reception when I’m scouting. Yes, tourism dollars are a universal language, but there are inevitably some significant differences between us and our hosts, whether they be demographic, political or just recreational.

Also not one of our towns, but a nice setting.

But what comes through so well in these situations are the commonalities. Good people are good people. In the end, it kind of boils down to locals inviting visitors into their home(town) – something that has been going on for centuries.

I used to interview people from various host towns for an event’s newsletter. My joke was that, when I asked each local rep to describe their town, they ALWAYS said “It’s a friendly place, where everyone looks out for each other. We don’t even lock our houses or cars.” But that attitude is exactly why most of those folks live there, and it’s no less special in each town just because it’s found in so many towns.

One of the things I tell people in the towns on these planning trips is that it’s not all that difficult to find a scenic route in the Northwest – so it’s kind of an assumption that the riding will be good. But I tell them the magic – often the source of the deepest memories the riders will carry away from the event – is in the moments in the towns. The connections with the people who’ve welcomed you into their village.

My job means I don’t have a choice whether to meet people in each town we stay in. As a rider, you can float along in your bubble of tour support and bike friends, or you can tune in to what makes each town unique, and the people who treasure that place. I encourage you to really focus on that the next time you’re out with us.

Also not… well, you know the deal now.

Same trip, talking to the proprietor of the town’s general store about how the heck we were going to fit 300 people into the minimal available open space. In walked a youngish woman in pajama pants and a sweatshirt, wearing flip-flops, looking for an onion and some milk. “Oh, you should talk to her,” said the store owner. “She owns the land up behind the community center.” We introduced ourselves and told her our quest. “Well, sure,” she said of the prospect of a few hundred people camping in, essentially, her backyard. “I can mow that area down for you, and if you need to run power or water we can run it off my house. It’ll be fun!”