Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Mountains, wilderness, 3 more states, and two bear-y interesting encounters!

The next morning our oft-together traveling gang hit the road for 78 miles from Jackson to Darby, MT. Climbing about 2500' vertical feet up and over Chief Joseph Pass was the highlight of the morning. The Dutch (and the rest of the boys, who'd camped in a different park the night before) ended up taking an alternate (dirt) road over a different pass, thinking they were saving time and effort because it was 3 miles shorter and 300' less elevation at the pass. Boy were they wrong, however, as they all limped into Darby several hours after I did, having endured a very rocky, treacherous, white-knuckled descent. Robin, Zack, and Tony actually took a wrong turn and climbed up over the 8000' mark on an even worse road and had to turn around and backtrack several miles once they figured it out. Robin had 2 crashes and two tire blowouts on the rocky terrain, and from what they said, they were very lucky to have made it back in as good of shape as they did. I, on the other hand, rode the regular road up over Chief Joseph Pass, not the alternate, and was blessed with the smoothest new pavement ever, with nearly zero traffic, on both the long, challenging climb and the long, delicious descent. Here is the pass and part of the descent:

Darby was a cool, little town and time there involved using the internet at the public library, hitting the local laundromat, camping at an RV park, grocery shopping, and sleeping with the Dutch folks. Wait...that came out wrong. I camped with them! And, I had a random conversation with Dan the Motorcycle Man on the streets of Darby for about half an hour. He had driven across the country as an 18-year old kid and was really interested in hearing about my experiences on this bike journey. He was a super cool and super interesting guy. Here is a shot of Dan and me:

And here is a ridiculously named Darby Physical Therapy clinic/gym:

The ride from Darby to Missoula, MT was a solo one because I slept in longer than the Dutch but left before all the other guys. It was an easy day of mostly downhill and little wind, with a perfect temperture of around 80 degrees. I cruised and headed straight to the ACA when I got into town.

The headquarters for the Adventure Cycling Association (whose maps we're following) is in Missoula and they offer free ice cream, internet, and soda to touring cyclists passing through town. They took my photo and put it up on the wall along with everyone else that has toured through town in 2010. It was interesting to look up on the board and see faces of people that I've met throughout the country. After an hour or so, RobinNickZackTony arrived and we spent some time just talking to the ACA staff about our trips. We had our photo taken as a group and tacked up on the wall. Then one of the original founders of the ACA thought it was interesting how we all had started as solo tourists but somewhere along the line had become a group of five, so he took some more photos of us and asked us a lot of questions about our trip. Apparently our story may end up in either one of the monthly ACA magazines or in some kind of photo exhibit at some time in the future. I'm not sure why the five of us starting solo and riding together would be all that interesting - I imagine people meet and ride together all the time on the TransAm trail. Maybe it was a slow day and the guy needed something to do....hahahaha.

In Missoula, the Dutch went to the Motel 6, the boys and I went to a bike hostel, and Jerry and Phyllis were at the Red Lion. We boys decided to take a full rest day in Missoula which we spent using the internet, sending things home from the post office, lounging around, walking around town, eating, napping, getting bike supplies, and listening to live music in the park. The others decided to also take a rest day in Missoula; it is a cool little town and you should definitely go there if you haven't been. It's got a good vibe and a lot of things to do.
Well-rested after a day off in Missoula, everyone hit the road in various groups toward the next destination, Lochsa Lodge, about 60 miles away. The morning portion of the ride was a long, gradual climb and we had a nice paceline going for much of it. True to form, Robin blasted ahead and none of us wanted to try to hang with him; then, true to form, a while later I blasted ahead and no one tried to hang with me. We crossed the border from Montana into Idaho at Lolo Pass (5300'), in the same area where the men of the Lewis and Clark expedition nearly died of starvation just over 200 years ago. The terrain in that area is really densely wooded and is comprised mostly of really steep hillsides; though I was just pedaling up and down hill on US Highway 12, I really gained an appreciation for what those men endured in their quest to find the West. This is the climb up toward Lolo Pass:

The pass itself:

It was a nice, gradual, and yes, winding downhill to Lochsa Lodge in Powell, ID. There were some very tall cedar trees as well:

I ended up sharing a cabin at Lochsa Lodge with the three Dutch folks and Phyllis and Jerry. They all had beds, but they offered to let me roll out my sleeping pad on the floor so that I didn't have to set up my tent that night - for that I was grateful because on a trip like this it's always nice to have a dry, covered place to sleep that doesn't involve getting your tent wet! The cabin:

I rode alone the next morning because I got out of Lochsa late for two reasons. First, I lost my camera (luckily the owner found it wedged in the slats between the seat and the backrest of a log chair I'd sat in in the lodge), and second, I met and talked to two really nice (and cute) touring cyclists. These girls were on their way from Portland, OR to somewhere in Maine and we had all kinds of things to talk about. Here are the store (see the chair that tried to swallow my camera) and Jess/Alexa/me having a great time getting to know each other at roadside before leaving Lochsa:

Once I got on the road, it turned out that it was good that I'd left late because the weather had gotten quite hot and I was passing some REALLY GOOD swimming holes on the Lochsa River. In one very private hole, I skinny-dipped and ate lunch on the riverbank boulders. Another hole was right alongside the road at a spot where most of the current funneled between two very large boulders into a strong but very narrow center current only about 10' wide, while the water at the river's edges was nearly slack and quite deep. So, you could swim around lazily on the either side of the river and then to get to the other side you only had to brave a swift current for a very short time. I did just that, and was rewarded at the other side of the river with a white sand beach with a couple of really big, beautiful evergreen trees growing straight up out of the sand. Best of all, I was alone in this magnificent place. I swam and swam, back and forth from one side to the other, cooling down from a hot day of cycling. I just kept waiting for some other cyclists to pass by, to show them what a sweet spot I'd found, but I had the place to myself for almost an hour before I decided to leave.

At the end of that 68-mile day was the town of Lowell, ID, and Phyllis and Jerry were in the town's one restaurant when I got there. Fortuitously, I walked in a mere few seconds after a group of guys they'd been talking to had invited them to stay at their REALLY nice home just up the road rather than camping or getting a hotel. Phyllis and Jerry were thoughtful enough to ask the guys if I would be welcome to come up to the house as well and they said "the more the merrier".

The man that owns the place is a contractor from near Seattle, WA named Rick Sutter and he built the home as a getaway cabin where he and his friends could stay when coming up to hunt in the Idaho wilderness. When we rode across the beautiful bridge and up the steep driveway to the hillside home, we were all taken by how nice the place was. We were further taken aback when Rick invited us inside and showed us around. Rick, it turns out, is not just any ordinary hunter - he is a very dedicated, very accomplished hunter. There were game "trophies" literally THROUGHOUT THE ENTIRE HOUSE. There were autographed photos of famous hunter dudes from the Outdoor Channel. Some the animals I can remember him having in the house were a large brown bear/grizzly, mountain lion, bull moose, elk, beaver, wild turkey, bobcat, raccoon, fox, pronghorn, and deer. There had to have been a hundred different animals mounted and on display. This guy definitely keeps the local taxidermist in business and, while I'm not a hunter at all, it was really quite interesting to listen to Rick tell stories of Idaho life and hunting life in general. When he showed us to where we would sleep, we were all giddy as he gave us the full run of a gorgeous and fully furnished apartment above the garage next to the house; it had two bedrooms, 5 beds, a kitchen, satellite television, and a full bathroom. After spending so much time in tents, crappy hotels, and under pavilions in city parks swarming with mosquitos, this place seemed like paradise. The rushing river which was only 50 yards away was audible even with all the windows closed. Then, in a move that REALLY did seem too good to be true, Rick invited all three of us down for a steak dinner, complete with garlic bread, salad, and beer, as well as pie for dessert. What generosity!!! Here are some photos of where Rick's house sits near the river, as well as of some of the animals he has inside the house.

The next morning, Phyllis and Jerry left really early but I stayed to watch the Tour de France on the satellite TV. When Rick and his buddies left that morning to go back to Seattle, they left me in the house, saying to stay as long as I wanted and to just lock the door when I left. Amazing. Oh, and when I left, I had gotten about 2 miles down the road when Rick and his buddies drove by in their big, white Dodge diesel pickup truck, swinging wide into the other lane to give me plenty of room, and yelling words of encouragement at me to spur me on. And, to top it off, when I got literally around the next bend in the highway, what did I see on the "Adopt-A-Highway" sign? This two-mile stretch of highway had been adopted by none other than.......the Rick Sutter family.

The ride from Lowell to Grangeville, ID continued downhill along the Clearwater River. This stretch of riding after Lolo Pass has proven to be the easiest of the entire country, with little wind and a consistent downhill grade.

Ultimately I had to climb hard, then moderately, again to get into Grangeville and I had traded the dense forest for some high-plain farmland with severely rolling hills, the kind that look easy to ride but in fact are more challenging than one would think.

In Grangeville...voila...I met up again with all 8 other people and we camped free in the city park. The public pool in town lets cyclists come in and use the pool and take a shower for just $3, so several of us enjoyed the lovely sunny day by cooling down in the pool after a really hot, shadeless ride. And, as I've seen in various states throughout the country (Kentucky, Kansas, and Idaho in particular), there were more signs warning of the dangers of methamphetmine usage. It must be boredom that drives meth usage.

The boys and I got up at sunrise and quickly packed to hit the road, both to avoid the heat and to get a head start on the big climb that presented itself first thing that morning. The climb was average...5-7%...and about 8 miles long...but the best part was the incredibly delicious descent from the summit. It was far and away the best riding of the entire trip. There was very little traffic, the roads were smooth, the views of the White Bird valley were huge and panoramic, and it was an Energizer Bunny descent - it just went on, and on, and on, and on...... Honestly, it was the most exhilarating bike ride I've ever taken, even better than the descent of Haleakala, because I never had to apply the brakes during a 10-mile descent and I maintained a consistent speed of 35-45 mph!!! This is the bridge at the bottom of the glorious descent, taken from the deck at the White Bird coffeehouse (I wasn't willing to pull out my camera while riding that fast!):

After an extended coffee and scenery break at the White Bird, MT coffeehouse, the group of us hit the road and immediately formed a five-man peloton, a fast paceline that enabled us to cut the wind and travel at a much higher speed. For several hours and close to 50 miles we raced on Highway 12 along the beautiful Salmon River, gracefully slicing our way to Pollack, ID. At one point we stopped at a white sandy beach along the way for some river swimming and a rock skipping contest (I won because no one can hang with me when it comes to rock skipping...boo ya!!).

That afternoon, after a really crappy lunch with really crappy service from a snarky waitress in Riggins, ID, we rolled into Pollack. There is nothing in this little village save for a few homes and a small lodge/rafting company. We stopped at the lodge for some shelter from the late mid-day 95-degree sun and the nice kid at the front desk gave the five of us two huge pitchers of ice water and a big bowl of grapes. He also let us hang around in the lounge on the couches to watch a movie, take a nap, read a book, or use the lodge's WiFi connection. While we were chilling out there, a man who we later learned is Jimmy Smith came and introduced himself, saying he is a cyclist as well and wanting to know more about our trip. A couple of hours and many bike stories later, Jimmy told us he was the lodge's cook and caretaker and he invited us to camp out in his yard at the end of the lodge and eat a home-cooked meal. Not long thereafter we were pitching our tents on the grass near the loudly tumbling Rapid River; eating appetizers of chips and salsa, Clementine oranges, and cherries from the tree across the street brought out by Jimmy's sweetheart Julianne; drinking cans (yes, cans) of a really hoppy microbrewed IPA; hungrily devouring piled-high plates of Jimmy's pasta with bison meat and spicy tomato sauce ; and finally, very contentedly, savoring a delicious pineapple upside down cake freshly-baked by the lodge's intern, Joy. That night I slept as well as I have in a very long time. Some pics from Jimmy's place:

Rising early again, this time at 6 a.m., Tony and I took off alone before the other guys, this time on our way to Cambridge, ID. It was another fairly easy day, with some moderate climbing and a lot of long, gradual descending. We stopped a couple of times for coffee or food, and rolled into Cambridge 75 miles later the very very hot late afternoon. Arriving in the city park where we planned to camp, we happened upon our Dutch friends, as well as Zach and Robin who'd passed us earlier. Nick, Jerry, and Phyllis arrived later and we once again had our 9-person group intact. Zach and Robin decided to, instead of waiting for the next morning's light, leave the city park at 10:00 pm and ride through the night to the next day's destination in order to avoid heat, wind, and camp boredom. They invited me, but I chose not to go because, while I thought it would be really fun, the ride was going through Hell's Canyon (on the Oregon/Idaho border) and I really had been wanting to see that country by the light of day. I can see riding through some ugly, desolate country at night (say Kansas, or parts of Wyoming or Colorado), but there was no way I was going to give up seeing some really beautiful mountains and canyons just to get to the next destination a little quicker.

That night, I made a terrible decision to sleep without my tent. The mosquitos were not so bad initially but they got worse as the night went along so I had to wrap up tighter and tighter in my sleeping bag; the problem was that it was 70 degrees outside and I had a 30-degree bag so I spent the night sweating, sleeping, awakening to apply bug spray or swat bugs away from my face, and basically just being miserable. The Dutch had set their alarms for 3:00 a.m. so they could get an early start on the climb and then arrive in Hell's Canyon by daylight, and while I had previously thought I'd never get up at 3:00 to ride, this morning I couldn't get up quickly enough and get the hell out of there. It turned out to be TOTALLY worth it because the climbing in darkness while gazing at a cloudless sky full of stars was epic, and we arrived in the canyon at the perfect time. The descent was dimly lit and cool, and the shadows on the mountains as the sun rose was quite spectacular. It was one of the coolest and most beautiful scenes I've seen on this entire trip and the pictures don't do it justice. Tony and I rode on and off with the Dutch in the early morning darkness and light before splitting off on our own and taking our time to begin the trek through rural eastern Oregon. Here are photos from that early morning ride:

Finally....after 2.5 months....I'm back in Oregon again, and it feels weird!

Riding through Hell's Canyon on the way toward Richland, OR was a not all that difficult and it was quite pretty. In fact, ironically, when my camera memory card filled up and we stopped for me to swap it out for an empty one, that was the exact moment that a bear, (the only bear I've seen on this trip, even including throughout all of Yellowstone National Park) walked right in front of us, only about 150 feet away! It stopped, put its nose in the air, licked it, and turned to stare right at us. We didn't want to hang around because it could have caught us in an instant, so we slowly backed away and only took one quick photo...sorry it's blurry.

Throughout Hell's Canyon, the heat just kept climbing somewhat mercilessly. By the time we caught up with the Dutch on a big climb near the end of our riding day at around 1:00 pm, it was already over 100 degrees. Here's Tony and I topping the last mountain of the day:

We all dropped down the other side of the climb, a steep 7% descent, into the fertile oasis of Richland, OR together ready for some cool air-conditioning and some food.

After some delicious lunch and some lazy library time, Tony and I decided to grab a hotel room and that is where I currently sit, while the Dutch decided to camp. (Tony and I could think of nothing less pleasant at that moment than sitting outside in the 100+ degree heat with minimal shade in a crappy city park without bathrooms.) We had some really crappy dinner at a local crappy restaurant, we met up with Nick (who arrived and happened to rent the motel room next door), and we just generally have been lazy, lazy, lazy after our pretty leisurely 69-mile jaunt today.

It's kind of surprising and amazing that I can now call any 69-mile ride a leisurely jaunt, but things have really changed after all this time and effort expended on my bike recently. I have a much greater sense of ability, as well as my limits, and I have a much different concept of endurance, which I have begun to measure now in hours rather than in minutes and seconds.

Oh, and by the way, I kind of lied earlier. We HAVE, in fact, seen another bear on this trip. We saw a bear in the mountains in Idaho that had just been hit by an RV or car; it was writing in pain in the ditch and wasn't dead yet. We all stopped because we couldn't believe what we were seeing, and then we realized that stopping right next to an injured bear might not be the best idea. This dying bear was small and we didn't know if it was Mama Bear or a cub, and we didn't stick around to find out or to even take a photo. One thing we DID discuss was how difficult it was to watch that bear dying painfully and writhing around in a pool of its own blood, and that we wished we had some kind of weapon that we could use to kill it and quickly put it out of its misery. However, since the only thing any of us had was a small knife, AND since none of us were willing to step close enough to try to accurately plunge a knife into a pissed off bear, we solemnly left and continued pedaling down the hill.

I can't believe it's only going to be a couple of weeks or less until I arrive home. Whatever will I do then, when I don't have to ride a bike for 5-7 hours every single day? Get a job? Now that's a scary proposition. :)