Friday July 25, 2014, 55 miles (89 km) – Total so far: 3,241 miles (5,216 km)
Some mornings when you wake, you are just absolutely ready to ride. I am not a morning person, but I generally get up before dawn on bike tours. Most of those mornings, I stumble about in a foggy haze getting ready to go. I’m awake, but that’s about the extent of my energy. I guess my enthusiasm runs on a very diurnal rhythm. But some days, like today, I wake alert, excited and charged with energy. Let’s go!
I’m pedaling through the northern outskirts of Salmon before the sun crests the hills. An assortment of businesses and homes line the road in a wide valley. The river runs off to the east. This continues for a bit before the valley narrows down and the hills close in. This canyon has a completely different character to the canyons south of Salmon. Here, the surrounding hills are grassy with a few trees here and there. There are longer stretches of grassy floodplain and considerably more deciduous trees which line the river’s course. It has a softer and gentler appearance.
Further down, as the canyon walls (composed of coarse conglomerate rocks) rise in height, I round a corner and see two coyotes loping along through a long pasture of irrigated grass. They pause to look at me, heads turned and eyes focused on my moving form. Then, with the coyote version of a shrug of the shoulders, they turn away and continue their slow jog across the middle of the field. Midway along, they turn toward the bushes at the base of the canyon and disappear again.
The canyon narrows further until it is just the road and river squashed between the hilly walls. The road curves around the outcrops of rock; the river courses downward, continuing its daily erosional work.
The canyon opens up again shortly before North Fork. Wide, flat grassy fields separate the road from the river. A huge RV park (Wagonhammer, I think) spreads out along the banks. The sun is just reaching the parking lot of motorhomes. Those must be the full hook-up sites – the other side of the park has smaller RVs, trailers and tents. The sun has not yet reached there.
Several SUVs towing rafts on trailers pass me as we reach another narrow canyon section. The little townlet of North Fork sits here in this narrow merge of canyons. It is not even 8 am, and the place is bustling. There is a line at the gas station pumps. The cabin/motel place has a no vacancy sign. There might as well be a revolving door at the little café.
But I leave all of these people behind here. There is little traffic heading up the side canyon that leads to Lost Trail Pass. I ride in shadow for a bit, tucked beneath the canyon walls. We start to climb now, though, which is a wake-up call to the legs after the general downhill run following the river up til now.
The canyon becomes a valley. The grassy hills transition to forest. We are now climbing a creek with a view that could be just about anywhere in the West. The Salmon River canyon was fairly unique scenery; this is fairly generic. But I enjoy it. How could anyone not enjoy a gentle climb on a cool morning with little wind or traffic in the middle of a forested valley? It is soothing and relaxing. Yet it is also challenging enough to feel like you are working, but no so hard that you feel like you are being tested.
The forest is thick, and the climbing is incredibly gentle to Gibbonsville. After this little spot, which appears to consist of a motel/RV park and a restaurant, the road dips then curves to the right, and a slightly steeper grade begins. As we start the climb upward, recent and not-so-recent fire scars are visible on the steep slopes. The trees have spread to thickly cover the landscape – a great contrast from the grassy hills where trees only clung to crevices south of North Fork.
My mind wanders as we spin away up the valley. I think about how grateful I am to be out here and how few of the people I know will ever get to see all of the remarkable places I’ve seen on the bike. I ponder the bonds of family and marriage and wonder where the line is drawn between bond and restraint. I wonder how many people truly find ‘the love of their life’, and how many people just sort of settle for comfort and convenience in love and life. I consider for a while the various factors which influence our preferences for travel and adventure or a secure and sedentary life. I wonder if anyone successfully pairs those opposing drives. If anybody can, it’s probably the Baby Boomers. They’ll be the only generation in modern history to have the wealth to do so. If you were born on either side of that generation, the chances seem considerably slimmer. I think about all of my friends who fret about job security and career progression. I wonder how many years they are losing from their life through worry and whether they’ll actually be healthy enough to enjoy their retirement. I don’t know if the path I’ve chosen is a good one, but every time someone asks if I regret leaving academia, I can say NO with a confidence I’ve known only for a few decisions in my life so far. I have not missed any part of it for a single second since I left. Interestingly, the bike touring gig has made me incredibly comfortable with uncertainty. I’ve got no idea what the future will bring, and that no longer really bothers me at all. I just know that somehow it will all be okay. I’ve come to understand that there are few things more powerful than being able to embrace the uncertainty.
The road ramps up a bit as the road curves in and out of feeder streams. There are some switchbacks of a sort as the road gains elevation more quickly. It climbs the side of the hill and leaves the streambed far below. I don’t know how many miles it might be to the pass, but we are getting closer to the ridgeline and no longer feel enveloped by the valley.
Finally, as we round a corner carved into rock, we can see the pass up ahead – or at least a low point in the ridge and nothing beyond. We’ve gained a climbing lane which will accompany us all the way to the top. I flip off the cars that don’t move out of the lane I’m in to pass me. There is absolutely no excuse not to move out of my lane the slightest bit when there is an entire other lane to use. Many of the cars are only giving me a couple feet of clearance, when they could be giving me an entire lane. I’m becoming more and more convinced that the drivers of Iowa and Nebraska need to come give lessons in courtesy to the Idahoans and Montanans.
We reach the pass before the temp or wind has picked up. Montana passes are so easy because, even if you gain the same amount of elevation as a climb in Colorado, you are so low in altitude, the elevation never robs you of oxygen and lung capacity. We’re already here?
The volunteers at the info centre at the pass rest area are incredibly friendly and kind. They offer me a cold bottle of water, but it’s cool outside and the climb wasn’t difficult, so I tell them to save it for someone who has to make the climb in the heat of the afternoon. They see lots of cyclists here and are curious about where I’m heading. Most of the people they see are following an ACA route, so they wonder how I pick a route and know where to go. They tell me about some of the strange information requests they get and how they are fighting a war against the chipmunks. The other volunteer was feeding them and is now wondering why they’ve become so aggressive. I get a new Montana state map to replace the one I have which is about to disintegrate into several pieces and then it’s back to the road.
The climb to Chief Joseph Pass is quite short. The sign is on the other side of the road after I’ve already commenced the downhill, so I don’t bother to stop. I’m all about getting up some speed to propel me down through a forest full of pine beetle kill. The next fire through here is going to go “Whoosh”!
All of the places along the main road where you might want to disperse camp are full with RVs or trailers. I don’t know about the options up some of the Forest Service roads. This area is not all that attractive because of all of the pine beetle kill. So I head into the May Creek campground and find a shady spot. The loop is full of RVs, but there are about eight other spaces to choose from. There are water spigots and bear boxes. Works for me. I desperately need to catch up my journal this afternoon.
In the evening, a man comes up to me and asks the standard six. Then he invites me to join him and his group of friends for dinner. The introvert in me (which is 99% of me) wants to say no, but then I remember those hilarious cowboys north of Helena, and so I say yes. The group consists of four married couples in their 50s and early 60s, and one older man who has had a lot of bourbon by the time I get there. They are from all over Idaho and meet up once a year to go camping in their big RVs for a week. This year, they’ve decided to meet here so they can attend the Gun Show at Wisdom. The older man has a bunch of antique rifles to sell – buying and selling them is one of his hobbies.
We sit down to a dinner of roast potatoes and elk cooked in a camp oven over the coals of a fire. There is also camp oven bread with butter and a camp oven cobbler for dessert. The elk came from last year’s hunt. The group embraces me, for the most part. There are two very traditional and conservative guys who don’t really acknowledge me at all, but everyone else, including the old man whose breath is all bourbon, is very welcoming. We are about as opposite as you can get, but there is a great level of respect between us. Over the course of dinner, I learn a lot about old-timey guns and elk hunting from the guys, and quilting from the ladies. The women are all into textiles in a big way. They are hoping to find antique sewing machines at the vendor booths of the Gun Show tomorrow.
I keep trying to focus the conversation back on their interests, but I do have the chance to share a couple bike stories and explain what touring involves and why people enjoy it. One of the older guys says to me a couple times, “My hat is really off to you. I cannot imagine riding my bike alone across the U.S. You’ve got guts and courage and I really admire you for what you are doing.” Coming from a conservative old redneck (and I say that in a very kind way, mind you), that is just about the biggest compliment a cycling gal can get. The meeting of very different mindsets is a success, and the food was absolutely delicious! I couldn’t have asked for a better day or a better way to spend the evening. If you’d asked me this morning how the day was going to end, I would never have guessed I would say that, not long before bed, I gave out my email address to a 60-year-old, gun-toting hunter wearing a 2nd Amendment t-shirt who was in town to attend the Wisdom Gun Show.