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If You Dream It, It Happens: Val Parsons And The Gateway To Glacier Trail Project
Montana Senior News, June/July 2013
The “P” in Val Parsons’ last name may stand for Parsons, but it also represents two other traits that describe this West Glacier cycling aficionado—patience and persistence. Most everyone who has been involved with building bike trails in the Flathead can attest to that.

Val’s present quest is to complete a pedestrian-and-bike-friendly pathway along U.S. 2 between Coram and West Glacier. This extension will link the existing trail, which begins at Hungry Horse, to Glacier National Park.
        
“The corridor leading to the park is beautiful. Zooming by in a car, you can miss how beautiful it is. It’s also neat to watch the trains while you’re bicycling,” adds Val. “Some day, I’d love to see people be able to safely ride their bikes from the valley to the park and then take public transit from there.”

Thanks to Val’s efforts and those of fellow members of the non-profit Gateway to Glacier organization, that goal is on its way to being reached. Right now, all but $115,000 remains to be raised of the trail’s million-dollar-plus price tag. The financial challenge, however, has not fazed this retired elementary school/special education teacher, who taught in Kalispell classrooms for three decades. During that time, she also volunteered for 17 years with the Rails-to-Trails organization and learned a lot about the virtues of patience and persistence.
        
“My mom never let me, my sister or brothers quit anything we started when we were growing up. She always encouraged us to stick with it, whatever the task at hand,” recalls Val. “If one of us joined something—4-H, the swim team, or took piano lessons—she wouldn’t let us quit after one or two years. We had to give each activity four to five years before moving on to something else.”
        
Considering it took Val two years to get permission to convert an old rail bed to a trail, you realize her mom’s approach to life left a definite impression.
        
“Once we had permission, the project required endless grant writing. But now people can safely cycle the 22 miles from Somers to Kyla. It was great to see kids out there. I know from my years of teaching that kids went from playing outside to playing with their phones,” states Val. “I saw a real shift from them being outdoors to being housebound.”
        
Although Val was raised in Cody, Wyoming, where she remembers pedaling “into the wind towards town and gliding nicely on the way home,” she stopped cycling when she attended college. It wasn’t till she was into her teaching career and seeking an after-work stress releaser that she reacquainted herself with bicycling in the early 1990s.
        
“Another teacher and I would ride an 18-mile loop three times a week. We kept it up as often as possible through the year,” says Val. “It made me happy to do it and to see families out riding and walking too.”
        
While she has always considered herself more of a recreational than a competitive cyclist, Val does take her cycling seriously. Ever since she and her husband, Larry, moved to the Half Moon Lake area by Glacier National Park seven years ago, she has pedaled several times weekly along a 90-minute route, provided the weather cooperates.
        
“Bicycling is a good solo activity,” says Val, who always carries mace and bear spray with her into grizzly country—just in case. “I’ve seen bears while I’ve been riding but never had to use either of the sprays. I also like to go for a ride when I’m feeling down. It elevates my mood and is an instant cure.”
        
From Val’s perspective atop her two-wheeler, the dangers of riding to the park stem more from highway traffic than unpredictable bruins. Vehicles have so often whizzed by her at such close proximity she felt impelled to do something to make this stretch of U.S. 2 a safe zone for bicyclists and pedestrians.
        
“It’s hell riding on the shoulder of this highway, especially when double-semi’s barrel past you at 70 miles per hour just three feet away. I sometimes wonder if I’m going to live when I ride my bike to the park,” remarks Val. “But this project is about way more than me riding safely to the park. My number one goal is to get kids away from the tv and computer and back on bikes.”
        
According to Val, it took her five years “to get up the gumption” to start a trail group here, hold meetings, and form a 501C3 organization. Initially, she met with three other people at the Canyon Community Church in Hungry Horse. Now they meet monthly at the Stonefly Lounge and count hundreds of names among their supporters.
        
The church and lounge connections may sound like odd bedfellows for a bicycling organization but they accurately reflect the widespread community enthusiasm this project has sparked. Ministers and tavern owners as well as quilters, innkeepers, clerks, longtime denizen, and big-city transplants have all sat side-by-side at planning meetings and enjoyed soup-dinner fundraisers together. To help raise the necessary dollars, even school kids have joined the effort by staffing bake sales, musicians have played benefit concerts for free, and cooks have donated dozens of homemade huckleberry, apple, and cherry pies for lively auctions.
        
“It’s been cool to form friendships with people of different backgrounds and ages who have championed this,” notes Val. “We all want to preserve the heritage of playing outdoors and see kids playing outdoors again. I think other baby boomers and older seniors can benefit from trails like this, too, because there are no rocks, curves, or obstacles to contend with. Even people in wheelchairs and with special needs can feel safe while on these trails. The paths are level so it’s easy to maintain balance and keep separate from cars.”
        
Like Val, locals hope the many bicycle tour groups and other long-distance cyclists en route to Going-to-the-Sun Road will use the completed trail. Should the trail also bring customers to any of the businesses along the way, meet mutual needs, and revitalize the canyon communities, all the better.
        
Val’s advice to anyone who hasn’t ridden in decades is simply to get back in the saddle and let your gears do the work for you.
        
“Bicycling should never be hard if you shift correctly. So learn to shift and shift a lot. Don’t be afraid to change gears,” she counsels. “Try something level to start, like a Rails-to-Trails path. Riding captures your youth again and the freedom of youth. You’ll feel like a kid.”
 
For more information, visit: www.gatewaytoglaciertrail.com, email: glacierbike@gmail.com, or write: P.O. Box 450, West Glacier, MT 59936.