Wednesday July 23, 2014, 119 miles (191 km) – Total so far: 3,151 miles (5,072 km)
“I have a bladder the size of a walnut.”
Dear me, what do I say to that? It is 4.45 am. Stars still twinkle in the dark sky above. Only a hint of first light splits open the sky above the Arco Hills toward the east. I’m squinting in the direction of the figure whom has spoken to me. My eyes have not yet adjusted from the darkness of the tent area to the fluorescent light outside the restrooms.
So I just say, “That’s a shame,” and let myself in the women’s toilets. Why that man needed to tell me that, and why he couldn’t have just peed in his RV or just outside of it, is beyond me. Of course, lots of things are not readily apparent to me at this early hour.
The café on the main highway is already open. The smell of bacon and eggs floats across the crisp, morning air. A middle-aged man is squatting out the back of the café having a cigarette. He waves and calls to me, “You ridin’ far?”
I respond, “About 5,000 miles over summer.”
He smiles and says, “Go get ‘em, tiger. Wish I was going with you.”
Yeah, I’d probably want to escape Arco if I lived here, too. Besides, breakfast shift is the worst shift to work in a restaurant. Everything is sticky or stringy. Pancake and waffle batter are messy and leave encrusted puddles to clean up on counters. Oatmeal and Cream of Wheat are gluggy and bond with whatever they come in contact with in the kitchen, including gloved fingers. Eggs, from the moment they are cracked open to the moment they come back to the dishroom permanently adhered to plates, are just plain sticky. The only thing worse to cook and clean in a commercial kitchen is fruit pie and cobbler – that stuff is known to take steel wire brushes to get it off pans and plates.
Ah-ha! Maybe I need something egg-based to fix my tubes! I still could not get a patch to stick yesterday when I worked on my tubes in the evening. I even ruined one tube trying to fix it. So now I am down to one spare tube with a hole in it – and no confidence that I can fix it if I get another puncture. I stop across the street from the café to pump up my rear tire a bit more. I don’t like the squishiness of it – I like to run my tires on the very upper end of their pressure range.
The car headlights reach toward me from far to the north in a well-spaced parade of commuters. The beams light up a narrow swath of land leading into and out of town. A couple cars stop nearby, and men with business attire and briefcases hop in to car pool. There must be an early shift at the Idaho National Laboratory – it still employs about 4,000 people.
I roll across the road in a gap of traffic and join the commuter parade to the southeast. The sun slowly pulls itself up and over the horizon and starts to give definition to the flat, sagebrush landscape. The cars all turn off toward the lab as I continue north and east around the end of the Arco Hills and the Hawley Mountains. It is a stark landscape that appears unforgiving and barren. I’m sure if I knew my plants and insects, though, there’d be plenty of diversity to be discovered in that knee-high ecosystem.
Off to the right for a while, we can see the buildings of the Idaho National Laboratory. They’ve been experimenting with nuclear energy over there since the late 1940s. The list of research programs taking place is long and complicated – and that’s just what is listed for public viewing. Who knows what they’re doing over there that is classified. I do know that they make plutonium and that is enough to sufficiently creep me out. The continuing consequences of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima make this even creepier. However, it does give one a lot to think about in terms of risks and benefits and the public good while you ride.
Off to our left, the mountains end abruptly as they plunge into the Snake River Plain. We get a great view of Howe Peak and the ribbed outcrops of the Snaky Creek formation as the early morning sun highlights the features in shine and shadow. The Snaky Creek rocks are Permian and Pennsylvanian – laid down 300-250 million years ago. Interestingly, some of these rocks dip (tilt of layer from horizontal) east and some dip west. The road parallels the strike (intersection of the bedding with a horizontal plane like the earth’s surface) of the formation. Neat-o!
Not long after we round the corner of the Snaky Canyon rocks, the sneaky wind goes from nothing to full-out blast. It’s a bit like walking into the clear pane of a sliding glass door. You don’t see the impediment to motion coming, but when it does, it is an abrupt and dumbfounding cessation of forward progress. Where the heck did that come from? I was cruising along at 12-14 mph, and now I’m doing 4-5 mph.
Peer pressure from walnut man this morning also means I really have to pee. Normally, I’m pretty camel-like and can hold it for longer than my mother has ever thought was healthy. But darned walnut-bladder man must have influenced me because I really need to find something taller than a tiny sagebrush. There isn’t much traffic, but it is spaced just enough that I, no doubt, would end up giving somebody a show. Thankfully, a dip in the road appears, and there is a culvert. Yippee! I lean the bike against a reflector post and pick my way over the bushes and down into the culvert. This is not a creek culvert in the eastern U.S. – this is a creek culvert in the high desert. Even if this little watercourse was in flood, it would have a flow you could leap across. Consequently, crouching in the culvert hides all the important bits, but passing car occupants can still see my head. Relief!
I fight against the wind all the way into Howe. It is a ridiculous blasting released from the mouth of the Little Lost River valley like a blow torch or breath of fire from a dragon (minus the heat). Howe sits at the base of the valley with irrigated crops growing toward the east to the edges of the Lemhi Range and to the south. The Hawley Mountains rise right up on the western edge of town. In between, the wind comes roaring out of the constriction.
My hope had been to ride up the Little Lost River valley into the Pahsimeroi valley and then back to the Salmon River Canyon. But there is no way I’m going anywhere into that wind. There is very little in Howe – a library that’s not open, past attempts at an RV park, and foundations for long-gone buildings. I do find a picnic shelter to shield me from the wind at the public park. There is electricity, so I plug in my iPod to recharge and pull out the maps to figure out what to do.
The wind forecast for this area was a northwesterly at 5-7mph swapping to a strengthening southeasterly at 10-15 mph in the afternoon. I have a BLM map of the two valleys with water sources noted and several days of food on board. I could just hang out here until the wind swapped. Boring but bearable. But what if the wind doesn’t swap – it’s certainly not doing what it was forecast to do right now. I decide to take a nap and see what happens.
45 minutes later, my iPod and me are recharged, but the wind is still blasting out of that valley. My desire to ride that somewhat remote valley is overridden by my desire to get going and not have to fight the wind. So, I head east instead. I’ll ride up the Birch Creek and Lemhi River valleys instead. That road is all paved and not nearly as remote, but it will still have high mountain ranges and a drainage divide. Good enough.
As I proceed across the INL lands, the landscape to the right is not terribly inspiring, but its geologic history is interesting, and I can pass the time trying to put myself back into a time of catastrophic explosions and energy released through the earth’s crust which originated in the mantle. I can also pass the time thinking about more recent explosions in that landscape (the INL was an artillery range before becoming a nuclear research lab) and possible catastrophic consequences not yet known from all of the energy released through atom-splitting that they’ve been doing over there.
Off in the distance, the huge black airplane hangar with piercing bright lights shining through the clear, sunny sky is more than a wee bit creepy. This area of the INL is called TAN – test area north. It is located 27 miles north of the main facilities. When they developed this site, they wanted an area isolated from the main complex and from any human population. The site was used to develop a nuclear-powered aircraft. Two nuclear-powered aircraft engines were built and tested between 1955 and 1961 before the program was cancelled. Because they were conducting reactor experiments in open air (running air through nuke-powered engines which contaminated the engine parts and the exhaust emitted into the open air), they needed to be well away from population centres.
As we ride across the northern reaches of the INL, the wind does start to shift. It goes from a quartering headwind to no wind then to a bit of a crosswind, as both the wind and the bike shift directions through the landscape.
By the time I reach the junction with Hwy 28, the wind has swapped to the southeast. Yippee! As I pedal up the Birch Creek valley, the wind begins to strengthen. High mountains line the valley to both the east and west. It’s a wide tunnel of towering rock ridges and a valley floor of sagebrush and occasional pasture. The only greenery in most places comes from lines of trees here and there along the course of the creek. There is more traffic than you’d think there’d be way out here in all this starkness, but I do have a bit of a shoulder and most people are giving me a bit of room – not nearly as much as the folks of Iowa and Nebraska, but way better than the Montanans.
A BLM campground stretches along the creek for several miles. At the northern end, there is a toilet and interpretive signboard shelter. There is also water available from a handpump, but my supplies seem adequate since I’m carrying three extra litres on board, plus my 2-litre camelback and 16 ounces of Gatorade in the water bottle holder. So I just eat stupid quantities of food while sitting in the shade of the interpretive boards. The toilet proves to be a very popular rest stop with travellers in the time I’m there.
It is only noon, so I don’t feel like stopping here and wasting the tailwind which has grown to hair-whipping strength now. I’ve got no idea where we’ll spend the night, but let’s go ride that wind!
Away we go, pedaling up the valley underneath a sky that feels both far away and close. A few clouds are starting to build; there is a chance of storms this afternoon. Sometime later we pass the little gas station at Lone Pine. The flag is favourably flapping and my grin goes wide. The hills close in here before the road heads left to skirt around the Middle Ridge. This line of hills, which forms the drainage divide in this valley, is made of sedimentary Medicine Lodge rocks, deposited in the Miocene and Pliocene 20-8 million years ago.
As the road curves left, we get battered by our tailwind that is now a crosswind. We cut across the valley, almost straight toward the peaks of the Lemhi Range. Bell Mountain in front of us is Ordovician quartzites underlain by Mississippian limestones. Then the road curves back north to cross the low point of the hills. The wind is pushing us hard enough that I do not even get out of the middle chainring to climb the divide. Woo-hoo!
The clouds are starting to build a bit more, but the road falls away from the summit along a curving path through the edge of the hills and into the floodplain of the upper reaches of the Lemhi River. I’m absolutely cruising at high-speed as we get pushed down the hill. My fear had been that this divide would be like Willow Creek Summit the other day where I had a headwind on one side and a tailwind on the other. But no, that southeasterly is flowing right over the divide and down the other side. It just shoves me along.
The mountains rise tall and ragged. Snow still lingers here and there. At times the ridges are far apart, other times we feel like we could reach out and touch one of them. We pass by Gilmore, a collection of houses perched in the mouth of a drainage. It grew rapidly after 1902 as miners pursued lead, silver and zinc. The railroad reached here in 1910, but it was never solvent. Mining finished up in 1925, railroad services stopped in 1939, and tracks were ripped up in 1940. Some mining occurred again between 1943 and 1961.
As we sail down the divide, the road just drops away and we attain the pure pinnacle of tour cycling: the moment when you feel like a passenger on the bike instead of the engine. The downhill is not so steep that I need to concentrate on each apex, or brake, or steer, or taper speed. It’s just a long, meandering high-speed cruise down on open hills with large mountain ranges on either side. The joy rises in my soul and pumps out through my heart into my veins. Yee-ha!
I roll into Leadore (pronounced Lead – Ore, as in mining). It’s a few blocks long and pretty much long-gone. It was also a lead and sliver town, but the districts down near Gilmore were richer and produced more. There is an RV park, Forest Service office and depot, a bar and restaurant, a library, and a gas station and convenience store. The garage and the general store are closed-down and starting to fall down.
The town feels as stark and wind-swept as the surrounding landscape. Two old, wrinkly guys, who look like they belong down the end of the bar, yell and cheer me on from the collapsing porch of an old miner’s cottage. There are 8-10 Harleys parked out front of the bar. The wind is still strong enough to blow empty soft drink cans down the wide street in a rattling and bouncing scrape and slide of aluminium.
I stop at the library to get an update on weather and to see where the nearest public land might be for camping. I’ve already done more than 100 miles today and the sky is starting to fill with thin stratus and puffs and clumps of cumulus clouds. It looks like about eight miles on dirt to get to some public land in the mountains from here. However, there is a BLM campground maybe 12-15 miles north on the main road that will also have water. It only has eight spaces, and I’m worried it may be full since so much else has been in MT and ID. But I also know you can whack up a tent just about anywhere, so I can make myself a spot if needed. Let’s go!
The road passes into younger rocks and lots of alluvial hills. We lose our tailwind mid-way to the campground, and at about mile 113, I start to wonder if this was the best choice. But I push on. There’s no choice now.
Finally, we get to the campground. There is plenty of space to set up a tent, and only four official spaces are taken. I’m able to get a site that has a shade cover over its picnic table. They are watering the grass, so there is a soft surface for the tent, too.
I lie down on the picnic table for a bit, as storms build and the winds pour off of them down the valley. Ah, relaxation – we did 119 miles today. Even with the wind, that’s a pretty decent day. We’ve really been doing some big days on this tour. I’ve already done more century rides than on my 2010 and 2013 tours combined. Later, when the wind dies off, the mozzies come out in force, so I retreat to the tent. I eat and drink ridiculous quantities of food and water, respectively. Yes, just another day on the road – not quite what I’d anticipated but pretty amazing and super-fun, nonetheless.