First you feel it in the air. Winter is coming like it always does. The season of sun and fiery love is at its bitter end. I fill my lungs in the brisk Montana afternoon and exhale a sigh of relief. I just landed in the small resort town of Whitefish, and as I relax at the edge of the river, I notice that a few of the nearby peaks received a dusting of snow last night. It’s still green down here, but soon these leaves will fade to a color rare as gold, and the days will begin to grow a bit darker and colder. Within a matter of weeks, the Flathead Valley will be painted white and our motorcycles will be exiled into hibernation. I’m here to meet up with photographer Alex Strohl – we’ve been chatting about a two-wheeled adventure for several months now, and this might be our last chance to make it happen before the snow. It would be the last big ride of the season. One final night under the stars. One last farewell to summer.
Alex Strohl is a Madrid-born French photographer who now resides in Whitefish with his life partner, Andrea Dabene. They call Montana home, but Alex spends the majority of his time on the road, traveling to some of the most remote corners of the globe capturing beautiful images of the people, places and moments that unfold before him. His photography seems to exist on a higher level, one unattainable by most mortals. So, it comes as no surprise that his client list includes some of the largest brands and most prestigious publications on the planet. His work has also gained notoriety from millions of fans and aspiring photographers across the world, and Alex enjoys giving back to that community through workshops offered by his company, Wildist.
Alex picked me up by the river, and we drove up the mountain for an evening at the incredible home that he and Andrea recently designed and built. Andrea welcomed me inside, and Alex proceeded to give me a tour of the place, which was recently featured by Dwell Magazine. Alex and Andrea prepared a beautiful dinner for us, and as we sat around telling stories I pondered how one rises to such levels of success. We ate cheese and drank wine, and as I got to know Alex a bit better, the answer to my question became more clear. Whether it’s the process of designing and building this extraordinary home, a love of certain vintage cars and motorcycles, a passion for travel and geography, a taste for single-origin coffees or a surprisingly intricate knowledge of olive oil – when Alex finds an interest in something, he goes all in. He’s a man of obsession and curiosity. And it shows in his work. He tells me that even when he doesn’t have a camera, he’s taking pictures in his mind. It’s just how he sees the world. And I think that’s what it takes to be great at something the way Alex is. It’s why his photography is in such high demand. It’s just the way he lives his life. Always on the move. Chasing the next adventure and the next location. The next beautiful moment to capture.
The following morning, we said farewell to civilization and headed out into the forest to meet up with a few of Alex’s friends who would be joining us on the ride. The ragtag crew consisted of Isaac Johnston, Theron Humphrey and Eli Clark. Friends and photographers from different walks of life who all share a love of vintage motorcycles and the great outdoors. Local filmmaker Caleb Stasko joined in, as well, to help document the journey. Caleb and I stood back and observed as the boys unloaded bikes and exchanged high fives and hugs. It was obvious that this group knew each other well. Likeminded souls with an intimate bond that could only be found through years of shared experiences. Alex tells me that these guys try to meet up for these rides several times each year, and it’s something they always look forward to.
Alex mapped out a route that would take us 60 miles through some dusty dirt roads and singletrack up to a scenic camping spot near the Canadian border. So, we mixed some gas, kickstarted the old two-strokes and hit the trail in a cloud of blue smoke. It felt good to finally be on the bikes with the wind and dust in our faces, soaking up the last of that seductive summer sun. We enjoyed this moment of bliss for a few miles until Alex’s Husqvarna broke down and skidded to a stop. We’ve got a long way to go still, but nobody seemed too concerned. These kinds of issues are just part of the adventure, and part of the challenge that comes with riding these vintage machines. Isaac busted out some tools and spent a half hour or so investigating the problem, and when we finally hit the road again, Isaac’s Yamaha started acting up. Alex and Isaac had just bought these bikes before the trip, and this was their first ride on each of them. I guess you can expect a motorcycle to acquire a few gremlins over the course of 40 years, but it surely wasn’t going to keep us from reaching our destination.
Back on the road, we started gaining elevation, and the rocks and holes seemed to be getting rougher with each mile. The bikes were showing their age, but the humans were all smiles. Eventually we turned off the road and onto a steep stretch of winding singletrack that took us deeper into the pines and farther up the mountain, until we reached Cyclone Peak, an old fire tower with a spectacular 360-degree view of the Whitefish Range. This felt like a great place to chill for a bit and take in the expansive beauty of Big Sky Country.
We sat around throwing rocks and laughing like little kids as Alex climbed up the fire tower to snap some photos. He decided to shoot the entire trip on a film camera. He tells me that shooting on film helps him to be more present in the moment and not think so much about the photography – a beautiful perspective that I wish more people would embrace. I’m getting the sense that there’s a deeper, more unspoken significance to these rides, too. It’s like these guys are living proof that you don’t need expensive equipment to have a good time. Old bikes and analog cameras are enough.
Eli points down to a distant spot in the valley and tells me about the Polebridge Mercantile, a bakery famous for their huckleberry bear claws. Some baked goods sounded pretty amazing after eating dust all afternoon. Isaac revealed his insatiable sweet tooth and urged us to gear up and blaze a trail back down the mountain before the bakery closed. So, we continued onward down more singletrack and winding dirt roads, stopping occasionally to snap some photos. There was no real schedule and no real plans. That’s how Alex likes to work. Capturing the moments as they really happen. Nothing forced. I think that mindset brings a lot of authenticity to his work, and with each new image you know there’s going to be a story to tell.
We reached the bakery just in time, and what a marvelous and memorable place it was. A rustic paradise at the end of a long and dusty road. A living piece of history hidden deep in the wilderness. An oasis for the weary traveler, where fresh-baked breads and heavenly cinnamon rolls await. The Polebridge Mercantile was originally established in 1914 and has served as a remote general store, bakery and base camp for over 100 years. It feels like stepping back in time, as I imagine this place hasn’t changed much over the years. Some refer to it as “North Fork’s Last Best Outpost,” and many consider it to be an essential stop when visiting the western side of Glacier National Park. It’s not easy to get here, but like all good things, the journey is part of the reward.
We feasted on a variety of bear claws and pastries, and Isaac ate a few extra for safe measure. I didn’t want to leave, but we still had another 15 miles to travel before dark, so with full bellies and a satisfied sweet tooth, we got back on the bikes. The sun was getting low, and we spent the next couple of miles riding through heavenly beams of golden dust shining through the trees. As we climbed higher and higher, the landscape opened up and the sky began to fade into a delicate shade of pink. A truly sublime moment with my new friends.
The sun faded away behind a distant peak as we arrived at our camp spot near Hornet Lookout. Wildfires charred this region back in 2003, but now it flourishes with grass and wildflowers, and the lack of trees now offers breathtaking views of the surrounding terrain. Isaac and I sat on our bikes and admired the afterglow as he told me about a recent trip he took up here with his family. Meanwhile, Alex was snapping some photos of the sunset, and Theron pulled out his chainsaw to cut up a downed tree. Eli built us a fire, and we spent the next few hours reminiscing on an amazing afternoon. Endless smiles around the glow of our last summer flame. No chairs or tents, just our motorcycles and the stars.
Winter’s cold breath whispered upon our camp and the frigid mountain air summoned us to bundle up in our sleeping bags. The temperature would end up dropping well below freezing that night, yet another reminder of summer’s cruel demise. I zipped myself up tight so that only my eyes were exposed, and as I looked up at the stars, I contemplated what a paradox Alex Strohl is. He’s got this cozy life at home and clearly enjoys the finer things, but he finds the most comfort out here sleeping in the dirt. He’s obsessed with the details, but not when it comes to making plans. He’s very particular about most things, especially food, but he’s thrilled to sit here and eat MREs around the campfire. And while his photography has risen to incredible levels of fame, he somehow remains completely grounded. He’s a fascinating human with a solid head on his shoulders. I’m thankful for this opportunity to share an adventure with him and his friends.
After a long and cold night, the moon gave way to the rising sun, and we geared up for a frosty ride back down the mountain. I could already see a change in the leaves from the previous night, and it was obviously time for us to let go and say our goodbyes. To the trees and the dusty trails. To our bikes and the adventures they bring. To each other and to summer. One last farewell.