Day 30 mile 1200-1265
We have ascended. Today we topped out the great continental plateau that will carry us to Yellowstone. From now on we will not really dip below 5000 ft until Yellowstone, maybe until Canada!
The start of the day was rough. We woke late by choice. After many many early mornings to get through the heat wave we wanted to sleep until seven to prove we were still human. It was noticeably cold (our camp last night was at 4200 feet around mile 88 on ID 20) and we made a wake up fire. We warmed ourselves and loosened the joints, like snakes getting more active with the rising ambient temperature. We got on the road a little before 8:30 and settled in to the gradual ascent we had left off with the night before. As we gained our stride Joey, the ever informative keeper of the geography, told me that we would be doing this until our town of the day, Stanley. But Stanley was 40 some odd miles away. This flipped a switch in me. Terrified of the prospect of a whole day of 6 mph granny gearing and enraged at how far behind it would put us to get to Yellowstone by the 13th, my mood became volatile. I cursed everything I saw, called Idaho a coward for having such gradual hills instead of switchbacks to get the job done, called a baby deer a stupid animal and many other observations I’m not too proud of. After plowing up a few miles of incline it began to get steeper and I had to calm down. I instead started singing that song from Chicago when they’re in the court room with the puppets and such; “oh yes, oh yes, oh yes, oh yes, oh yes they both oh yes they both reached for the gun, the gun, the gun, the gun, the gun they both reached for the gun, for the gun.” I don’t know the rest of the song so I got a little creative with that part to help keep my cadence up and make the hill easier. When properly geared for going up hill while loaded it is important to keep your pedaling to about 60-80 per minute. This makes sure you don’t tire yourself out too quickly and that you don’t put undue stress on the components of your bike. So I sang that fast but in a loop under my breath as we climbed and eventually gained the crest of Banner Summit.
We took a break at the top for sandwiches and deep breaths. We walked a couple yards up a ski trail and made ourselves comfortable on a knoll. As we sat smearing Jiff on slices of bread I saw a small marmot/ground squirrel emerge from its hole, see us and panic. It tried to make a run for it by jumping over a log but didn’t quite clear the tower if you know what I mean. The little brown butt bobbed through the underbrush and jumped just high enough to beach itself on the log. It’s feet scrabbled around in the air behind it and eventually it flopped to the other side and escaped our imminent threat. In my depleted state i thought this was the funniest thing I had ever seen and I was crying with laughter before I could even point joey in the right direction. Sometimes those woodland critters just get me.
We dropped down over the summit onto a 10 mile stretch of downhill. We wound around the valley in a less impressive way than the day before but the real reward of this descent was the “Idaho Gem Community” at the bottom. We entered the town of Stanley and felt a shift in the culture of Idaho. Before the Sawtooth, we had experienced mainstream Idaho. Full of clean cut white families in Chevy Tahoes and mono culture farms as far as the eye can see, mainstream Idaho is not the friendliest to the unconventional traveler. In Stanley it was clear we had reached what I like to call “Dirtbag Idaho”. Dirt bag meant in the most loving way. This town had 79 permanent residents and 8 seasonal rafting companies. As we sat outside of the grocery store making calls and enjoying the first cell service in three days (Stanley has its own tower) I noticed that the whole population of this town looked like 20-something wilderness guides. Raft guides, mountain bike guides, fly fishing guides, you name it. Everyone there was a little dirty and looked glad to be so. It was very welcoming.
After we resupplied in Stanley we began our winding descent down the shore of the Salmon River. This was probably my favorite descent of the trip so far. While Joey loved the speed and grandeur of the pass yesterday, I was stoked on the downward rolling, river hugging, hot spring having canyon we spent our afternoon in. We sped down the road, hardly pedaling and taking in the beautiful winding River. There were few cars and we were glad of it because while gorgeous, Idaho is not very motivated in terms of guardrails. We passed a series of campsites and ended up making our own way on some public land near the river. After setting up camp we discovered several deer carcasses in various states of consumption. I say we, but this discovery was all Ru. Joey and I joke about being in a Cougar’s hunting grounds and hahaha isn’t that funny. But oh god what if it’s true?
Day 31 miles 1265-1310
We were not eaten by Cougars. Not even a little. After awakening to Ru’s ever present desire to eat all things dead we packed up and left a little later than normAl. Continued down the the canyon to Challis about 30 miles. Still winding down the Salmon River to the same effect. Great morning we made a lot of progress and covered those miles relatively quickly.
We reached the intersection at the end of our state road. We didn’t need to go to Challis proper (it was a little out of the way) so we stopped at the shop there at the corner. Ate dank sandwiches and made some plans for Yellowstone, also did some internet ting and calling to make people know we weren’t dead. We tried to do this the day before too but after Stanley we were back off the map for a while. We also discovered that we were a little hasty with our assessment of the topo map. We had a surprise pass. After doing all the things we could think of to delay it, we started off into the wind.
Then the wind picked up. The heaviest head wind joey and I had ever seen, about 25 mph average with higher gusts. We had a surprise 7200 ft pass to climb and we were doing it over 20 miles. We pushed through the first 10 relatively quickly. I turned back to my cathartic screaming to help focus me when the gusts threatened to thrust me into the adjacent cow pasture or a passing pick up. Joey fared far worse with the trailer. The headwind scooped in through the front window of the trailer and made a convenient Ru sized sail dragging behind keeping him back.
After 10 miles we entered a tight canyon. The rocks newly broken from the canyon walls showed a wide array of trace fossils and some shells. The walls were uneven columns of weather darkened limestone and rose 50 ft above our heads. There were places with relatively less wind but on the whole the tunnel acted like a funnel.
We emerged to find ourselves a little more level headed about the approaching wind, no more yelling at passing cars for having motors (just me), but unfortunately our changed attitude couldn’t alter the conditions. We did three more miles and found that the wind had not abated and may have gotten stronger. The light rolling uphill was getting more steep and we were getting slower. We decided to cut our losses and call it a day. At the first available forest service road we hooked left and set up camp about 6 feet from the fence. We had a meager dinner and maybe too little water so the evening was nothing to write home about, but the snow capped mountains in every direction were. We went to bed early, even ru was happy to be out of the wind.
Day 32 miles 1310 -1375
Woke up to the sound of deer pawing my panniers. I could hear the scraping noises and weight shifting near the tent. Before I opened the flap I wasn’t sure they were deer, I just hoped. After the thoughts that went through my head along the salmon River all I could think about was predators. But in this particular time and place I was pretty sure that the most dangerous thing it could be was a coyote. In general I feel like I could take a coyote and when it comes to humans coyotes tend to be more scared of than hungry for. So I popped my head out and yelled GET OUT OF HERE
It was a deer. Meh, I guess I’ll forgo the coyote fight. We packed up and set off. We had 7 miles of climbing left to the top of our mystery pass and it felt like a climb. It took us almost two hours to mount the crest and we took a well deserved break at the top.
We did the next 10 miles real fast. The wind and slope were such that even after simply rolling over the edge we maintained 30 mph for a gooooood distance. That boosted our spirits. We started rolling on through more flat(ish) arid landscape and it became clear we would have one more band of desert before Idaho was done with us. We were at the edge of three distinct ranges on the east side of the sawtooth range. They are quite a sight to behold, fingers of mountains laid down over the rolling hills like a hand laid on a rumpled comforter of sage brush and scrub grass. We could see the spines of the ridges at least 15 miles in advance and as they failed to approach we were once again confronted with our inferiority to nature.
Around mile 30…..the head wind started again.
We made it another 20 miles through the rolling land before reaching a town called Arco. This spit of a town sits on a former nuclear testing sight and is the gateway to the Craters of the Moon national monument. Joey and I agreed that we were at the end of the metaphorical rope with this head wind and we needed to stop. We also both felt a little comfort would not be amiss. We paid for a campsite at the KOA in town and prepared to settle down for a nice dinner and sleep.