February 1, 2012

Introduction - "this was the very poetry of cycling"

Bicyclists on Minerva Terrace; photo by F. Jay Haynes -
used by permission of Montana Historical Society-unauthorized use prohibited

The story of the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps is, in my mind, a quintessential American story. It seems there is something or another which resonates with every person who hears about the soldiers and their trips. It all ties together so many interests--and, therein perhaps, lies a clue as to why so many find it compelling--it can be enjoyed from so many different angles. It's about bicycles, road trips, black history and the West. There is the military, the rugged, beautiful and wide open landscapes of the West and late-1800's America on the verge of a mechanized society. It is full of paradoxes and incongruities such as a young, white, southern graduate fresh out of West Point, leading veteran black men. Soldiers riding bicycles, not horses?! It is also about struggle and hope; dignity and possibility; trudging on and reaching for more. Whether you stumbled into this site or found it on purpose, I wonder, what about this story resonates with you?

The blogpage you are on right now contains information about the first two long trips the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps made. Both were completed in the summer of 1896. The first was a quick, four-dayer from their post, in Missoula, to Lake MacDonald (which, I've discovered, has multiple spellings) in the Mission Mountains of northern Montana. This Lake MacDonald is not the same pristine lake that is part of Glacier National Park. Later that summer, Lt. Moss and the same eight soldiers made a longer trip from Fort Missoula to Yellowstone Park and back. This expedition started August 15 and was completed September 8, taking a total of twenty-three days.

The accounts I've compiled for the Yellowstone section of this blog come almost completely from a pamplet Moss wrote, titled Military Cycling in the Rocky Mountains. The pamplet was payback, I think, for the Spalding Bicycle Company, which not only published the book as part of their "Athletic Library" but provided the bicycles the men rode. Moss gives a ringing endorsement/testimonial of the "practicability" of the "fine machines" at the conclusion of the book. For all of the trips Moss made, the Army gave it's blessing--so long as Moss covered the major expenses, like procuring bicycles. Moss did write letters which provide more details about the Yellowstone trip. Snippets of his letters can be found in Linda Bailey's short book, Fort Missoula's Military Cyclists: The Story of the 25th U.S. Infantry Bicycle Corps, published by The Friends of the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula. Some of Moss's letters are at the National Archives. I will add them, in their entirety when I get copies of them.

One of my favorite entries is Day 11 of the Yellowstone trip. Moss, no doubt, intoxicated by the riding and the beauty of the Park, explains, "With its immense perpendicular walls of solid rock, rising from the very road on one side to three hundred feet or more above our heads and with its picturesque ravine far below on the other side, the Golden Gate is a sight that will ever cling to our memories...." He goes on, "Again and again would we stop along the road to look at paint pots, pools, springs, geysers, etc. Riding through the Gibbon Meadows we then turned off into Gibbon Canyon, deep, sinuous and picturesque. For miles we fared along the windings of the road, with the ever beautiful waters of Gibbon River at our side, now admiring this, then admiring that. Indeed, this was the very poetry of cycling" [emphasis mine].

Perhaps most valuable are the glimpses Moss gives us into the delightful personalities of the men, including himself. Moss, for instance: "A view into the throat of this monstrous geyser does indeed remind one of that nether region whose popular name begins with "h" and rhymes with "well".

A week after Moss's high of Day 11, the corps encounters head winds, rain, and mud on their way back to the fort. They are forced to walk their bicycles and fall far short of that days destination. Moss dejectedly concludes, "all the poetry of military cycling had vanished".

About the troops: "although the clouds obstructed all sunshine the sunny nature of these colored soldiers found an outlet in such expressions as... "A mule! A mule! My kingdom for a mule." At the end of the trip Lt. Moss tells us that, "the soldiers were delighted with the trip and seemed to be in the best spirits the whole time."

© Mike Higgins 2008