Campground offers bicyclists warm showers, camaraderie, sleeping quarters
Writing and photos by Eliza Donahue
Touring bicycles might seem out of place in a rural agricultural conclave like Beaverhead County. But in Dillon, Bike Walk Southwest Montana co-founder Larry Volkening says the cowboy town had a bike shop about 20 years ago, and before that, a local hardware store sold bicycles.
Larry Volkening, 71, has biked since he was a kid, when he cycled 20 miles to his grandma’s house in rural Illinois. Years later, he cycled across America with his son, Kevin. Bike touring — a long-distance form of bicycle tourism — appealed to Larry because it is self-sustaining, which means riders carry all their own gear. Cyclists riding through town are like gold nuggets floating by in the stream – you just have to take them in. The experience opened Larry to the possibility of starting his own bike campground in Dillon, Montana.
Last March, Larry and wife Lois Volkening opened the Bike Walk Southwest Montana camp with local members of the organization they co-founded, Bike Walk Southwest Montana, to address the unique needs of rural communities in their area. The organization is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and public charity that hosts bike education events, helmet giveaways, and a bike recycling program that provides bicycles to locals in need. It has about 30 members, six regulars. Larry serves on the board of Bike Walk Montana, a separate statewide organization.
Cyclists riding through rural communities must understand a unique set of rules – such as sharing the road with farm vehicles. Welcoming newcomers, he says, involves education and a preservation mission.
“Here’s what we do and here’s how we do it, and here’s why it’s so fun the way it is. So don’t come here and try to change it, but help preserve it,” says Larry. Luckily, “If you’re smart enough to travel and survive in this country, then you’re probably the kind of person who’s already living here … you’re going to respect the environment that’s already here. “
Plenty of bike traffic hits the county, as four major cycle touring and cross-country mountain biking routes go through Beaverhead County:
The Continental Divide Trail, the Great Divide Mountain Bike Trail, the Lewis and Clark Trail and the Trans America Trail. The Bike Walk Southwest Montana camp offers safe, affordable bicyclist lodging, as the University of Montana Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research identified in a 2013 study: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1UbF8cJ5c4U51lLQzspgLkaWMQ5MNSXlmyPQOlngUzDA/edit?ts=5d260c5e
The bike camp sits on nine acres northeast of downtown Dillon, off Overland Road. Previously, Larry and Lois took in cyclists at their home outside town via the website WarmShowers.org, which connects cyclists to a warm shower, a place to sleep and a campsite host. Eventually, the couple decided they could better serve visiting cyclists at their own campground. They began work on the camp’s structures last year.
Their Bike Walk Southwest Montana camp includes a shelter complete with a bathroom and shower – with plenty of hot water. There is a refrigerator, table with chairs, local maps and information and a porch. Cyclists may choose to sleep in the shelter or outside, where raised tent sites sit beside a gravel path and spigots provide potable water. A wood pavilion on the other side of the property will include lock boxes for valuables, electric charging stations and places for visitors to sleep under the roof.
Though Larry has led construction, three other locals have assisted him, all Bike Walk SW MT members: Ken Scalzone, Joe Catten, and John Garry. John started cycling while living and working in California.
“I always thought people were crazy who would get on a bike for eight hours and do a century – only to find out that a century was just the beginning,” says Garry. At one point, he logged over 100 miles per month.
After moving back to Dillon with his wife, John started working with Larry on the Bike Walk SW MT property.
“Larry would’ve done it all by himself if I hadn’t been here to help him,” John told Prairie Populist. “He’s out there right now.” John gestured out the shelter window, watching Larry worked on the pavilion. “He put all that stuff on the roof, that plastic, all by himself. I kind of worry he’s going to hurt himself one of these days. It’s not like we’re spring chickens.”
The Volkenings tout the benefits of the Dillon campground. For one, visiting cyclists spend money at local businesses in town, such as Sweetwater Coffee, located on South Idaho Street. Owner Sara Zitzer says visiting cyclists have gathered over coffee for years in her shop. She estimates that about 50 cyclists visit during the summer. She once kept a visitor log to record their stories.
“There are times in the summer where we’ll have more than a couple of them in here at the same time, and maybe they haven’t seen each other on the road, but they come in here and they start talking. They visit about where they’re going, and look out for each other,” she said. Cyclists also visit the Patagonia outlet located next door.
The African Oasis is another unique Dillon business that survives and thrives when cyclists spend money in its store. A buzzing coffee shop and museum, the store sells African-made items and serves as headquarters for the African Hunting Gazette.
“The community overall has really broadened in the options of what it offers to the people who live here,” says African Oasis manager Kim Gattone. “New park, more stores. People come in and say, wow we can’t believe what Dillon has.”
Bicycling touring is a growing trend, as riders spend 40 percent more than car tourists, according to the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research. In Montana, cycling tourism seemingly has economic potential.
Larry says his No. 1 motivation is sharing a slice of Montana with others, plus connecting good people with good people. “When you ride cross country on a bicycle and you see another bicyclist, they’re automatically your friend. It’s that camaraderie which I really crave. Nice people. They’re still out there.”
The Volkenings approach work “the Montana way,” which means leaving the front door of the camp shelter unlocked 24/7 with their personal cell numbers displayed. They welcome anyone on two wheels. Camping is donation-based, so visitors contribute what they can in a green container in front of the shelter. Donations cover utilities and building costs and helps with community charity projects.
The Volkenings warm welcome was not lost on visiting cyclists Tony Andrews, Ken Barnes and Patrick Quealy. Tony is riding from Iowa City, Iowa to Seattle, Washington; Ken and Patrick are riding from New York City to Astoria, Oregon. The three landed at the Dillon camp after Tony saw Larry’s listing on WarmShowers.com and told Ken and Patrick about it.
Tony Andrews said he was “amazed” at the amenities after exchanging emails prior to the trip.
“I was like, thank you so much Larry, you’re a legend. You’re an absolute legend. I was so excited, I was like, this is so perfect.” He adds “That’s when I knew, I’m about to enter into a special community.”
Traveling bicyclists spread the word and the website keeps growing, as it tallied 1,300 hits recently. Other upgrades are in the works, says Larry.
Bike Walk SW MT will eventually add a community garden and a “bike kitchen,” where visitors can do mechanical work on their bikes.
“We’re going to build something here long term,” adds Larry, former high school physics teacher in Moscow, Idaho. “This is going to be a county park bigger than just a camp. With that long-term vision, everyone is saying, cool, go for it. Because the bottom line, when I’m gone, this will still be a park for everyone.”
For more information: To access Bike Walk Southwest Montana from downtown Dillon, drive north on N, Montana Street, which turns into Montana Highway 41. Turn right on Nissen Lane. Take an immediate right onto Overland Road. The camp is about half a mile down Overland Road on the right.
Websites: see the Bike Walk Southwest Montana website at bikewalkswmontana.org. You can join the Warm Showers network of bicyclists and hosts at warmshowers.org.
Eliza Donahue, a junior at Montana State University, is pursuing an interdisciplinary degree in human geography, environmental history, writing and Native American studies. A New Mexico native, she works as a peer writing tutor and teaches outdoor recreation at MSU.
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