Sunday July 20, 2014, 62 miles (99 km) – Total so far: 2,901 miles (4,669 km)
The canyon is narrow and still in shadow. The rocks on the slopes look sharp and chunky. The river responsible for all of the erosion runs right next to the road. Trees grow on the river embankments in arched and reaching shapes. In some sections, the canyon is narrow enough that there is only room for the river and the road.
We left Salmon early, since the road has minimal to no shoulder most of the way to Challis. For the first 20 miles through the canyon, we encounter very little traffic. But it’s a summer weekend, and the RVs and boat trailers hit the road mid-morning. Consequently, the traffic density increases as the morning progresses. The beauty does not diminish, though. The long curves, the tall walls of volcanic rock and the cascades and whitewater of the river escort us along the scenic byway.
I keep an eye out for places to camp on public land along the way, since I might ride back this way after a loop. The canyon opens up in a few places and grassy river flats grow up to the sloping canyon walls.
On my way into Challis, a pick-up truck pulls out to overtake a vehicle on the other side of the road. I know he sees me. After I’ve gotten off the road so I don’t get hit, I flip him off as he goes by. He looks right at me and flips me off in return. So far, Idaho, your roads and drivers don’t impress me much!
Challis has two main streets that form a T-shape in the bowl of a line of hills. The vertical line of the T is the old main street which climbs up from the highway which forms the other side of the T. It is Sunday, so all is quiet on the main street. It is a respectable 10 or so blocks long with most buildings one-story. None of the buildings look like they were constructed after the 1960s.
I make stops at the Forest Service and BLM office enquiring about roads over the Lost River Range and water sources in the valley to the east of them. The road situation doesn’t sound good. The Double Springs Pass road is washboarded on the flats and rutted on the hills. The Pass Creek Road is no good when wet and has a lot of washboard through the BLM section. It has become very popular with quad bikes in recent times. Water sources in the valley are still flowing, however. The road situation is disappointing and I will have to think a bit about what I want to do.
Next, I go into the town museum. It is just okay – it is heavy on donated furniture and homewares but short on local history interpretation. However, there are historic photos to look at. The real draw is the woman attending the desk. We get into a conversation and it turns out she did a long-distance cycle tour by herself in the 1970s. She thinks it is more courageous for a woman to ride solo now than it was then because there was less traffic then and the world was a safer place. (I don’t think I agree.) Her life history is inspiring. It is always interesting to hear how people end up in the places that they do. Work is not easy to find in Challis, and she works several jobs, including this one, to stay afloat. The mine near here, which employs one-third of the town, is likely to close by the end of the year, so it is a very uncertain time for Challis. While the main reason I tour, and what excites me most when I ride, is the landscape and natural history, interjections of good conversations like this one are always welcome.
At the supermarket, a high school employee comes up to me while I’m browsing the cracker selection. He asks if I know about the special on crackers, and then makes some suggestions on which ones I might like that are on sale. Wow – a friendly teenager going above and beyond with customer service. I’m impressed. The supermarket (the one further west – there are two) is also very impressive for a town this size. It is large, well-stocked and has a full deli. There is also a Subway attached.
I head up to the park to eat my lunch. The wind is being a nuisance and whipping up lots of dust all over town. I’m hoping for some shade and grass.
I find a large picnic shelter and commence calorie consumption. Not long into it, a tennis ball comes bouncing over the fence and under the tables. A gate that leads to the gas station below opens, and a large Golden Retriever comes bounding through. She is intent on finding the ball which has rolled under the tables. The man accompanying her is probably in his 40s and has an exaggerated limp, very jagged gait and crooked legs. He is short and has a barrel chest and short, strong arms. His grin is missing a few teeth but his eyes have sparkle and spirit. He looks at me sheepishly and says, “Oh, sorry. Of course I’d do a bad throw when someone was sitting there to see it”.
I laugh and say, “I didn’t actually see you throw it, I just saw it come rolling under the table out of nowhere”.
He sits down on the opposite side of the picnic bench and throws the ball with a long plastic ball stick designed for that purpose. The dog is enthusiastic but obedient. The man asks me about what I’m doing and is interested in the logistics. I offer him some crackers and French Onion dip (I’m eating cheddar cheese crackers topped with mozzarella cheese and dipping them in the French Onion dip – go ahead and laugh at or judge me because I would. But my body has been saying WE NEED FAT for the past two days.). He declines but we then get in a conversation about how much food a cyclist needs on tour. He then says, “You know, I really think I would enjoy doing a bike trip like that. Maybe after my surgery, I’ll be able to do something like that.”
I encourage him. “Yes, I think if it is something you want to do, it’s really not as difficult as some people want to make it. It really is mind over body most of the time. And when it’s not, you can always take a day off or hitch a ride or something”.
He replies, “Yes, I’m used to pain. I wasn’t built very well, but I’ve always managed. I am having both hips replaced in a couple months. I think I should be able to get about much easier then.”
“Well, maybe if it was too hard on the bike, you could do it on a motorcycle. It’s a very similar sort of experience – just faster”!
“Yes. But I really think I would like the bike. You don’t look like some superwoman, so if a normal girl can do what you’re doing, then it has to be achievable.”
“Definitely. You really seem like you have a zest for life – and that is really all it takes. A good bike and appropriate gear make it easier, but they’re not required”.
We then get into a conversation about budgets, gear and further logistics. You can see the bike touring wheels turning in his head. When he gets up to leave, he shakes my hand and says, “Thanks for talking with me. I won’t forget you or your encouragement.”
“Thank you, too. I love soaking up the energy of people like you. I hope your surgery goes well and you are out on a bike quickly afterward.”
Challis is not really that memorable of a place. It sits in a bowl of rocks in an open area between narrow canyons and the long, hilly valley that heads south. But I’ve had two fantastic conversations that have reassured me that the spirit of adventure and a positive engagement with life can be found anywhere – even dying mining towns in the sagebrush of Idaho.