Let me just share with you the local weather forecast for the days ahead here in Cambridge Idaho – 97,100, 101, 97, and two cool days of 94, 94, and yesterday when we arrived here it was 101’f forecast as shade temperature To get some idea what this feels like to ride in you will need two hair dryers held out in front of you. Turn them both on full. You will notice that it becomes painful to blink as the moisture that lubes your eyes evaporates. ‘ How are you enjoying your holiday? ‘ Well, I am afraid that in this blog I moan about the heat. You will just have to bear with me.
The ride out of Missoula is along suburban tree lined streets. We have managed that rare trick of both getting up early and leaving early. We are retracing our route back to pick up HWY 93, gaining the height that we lost as we dived down into the town. We could very easily have taken another day off in the coffee bars and micro brew pubs. Another glass of 8.4% beer and we may have needed to. Half a dozen miles done and we take a right turn onto HWY 12 and line up the wind at our back and the climb somewhere ahead of us.
There are obvious signs of a recent fire. Trees still stand on the hillsides but they are matchstick black and bar code stark. There is rebuilding of homes burned out by the flames. It all looks so random,some untouched, so down to a turn of the wind. I guess it was late last year, but still the smell of burning hangs in the air.
The climb is starting, we can feel that loading in our legs. It fails to register as a grade on the altimeter, but the figures on it and the gps are showing that we are gaining height. Beyond Lolo Hot Springs the road gets into its stride and pitches up to make towards the summit ahead. It is now 12.30 and 98’f. The wind we had at our backs is now nothing more than a breeze which is easily lost to the forest on either side of us. A sharp left and we are in slack air, held in a heated doldrums of pine resin smells. There is water near, and we can hear it tumbling over rocks on either side of the road.
Esther is ahead. Up the road after I have stopped to eat, take a photo or something. I come around a bend and there is a Coyote standing over roadkill in the middle of the road. It goes to pick it up, but I startle it and instead it looks up at me. I am still moving forward, closing the distance as I try to work the situation out. Our eyes meet and with about 12 feet between it and me it has a decision to make. It chooses to drop the kill and slowly make off into the trees on the opposite side of the road. It is amazing how quickly it vanishes. I have stopped the bike and try to pick out where the Coyote is. That was amazing. A car comes and this moment in time is broken. I am left wondering how big Coyotes are when you are close to them.
Lolo pass is the last time on the traverse that we will cross the Continental Divide. It amazes us that anyone can work this stuff out amongst the jumble of geography. This time we have the double excitement of both passing into a new state – Idaho and entering a new time zone. Until yesterday I had my watch on Kansas time as a way of getting to bed early and up prompt. Again I am an hour ahead. The road has the very good manners not to push beyond 5% grades. It is a beautiful climb, but the road surface now we are in Idaho is rubbish and demanding of our attention at all times. A sharp descent and we pick up speed. The nature of the forest is changing. A river to our right and now there are almost pure stands of Cedar Trees, some of great age. This is stunning biking.
HWY 12 started the day like most other roads and has now become near perfect. We have the benefit of a few generations of civil engineering pushing a road through and over the pass here. When Lewis & Clark came through there was no way through other than high level game tracks and trading routes. The trees crowd the road again giving us shade. Here they are old Cedars hung with moss and lichen, trunks the colour and texture of Michael Douglas. We park the bikes and walk amongst them.
That was as close to a perfect day on a touring bike as you are going to get. Powell, and the free camping spot offered by Lochsa Lodge. A bit of bike maintenance on the gears and drive and then the undeniable joy of good food cooked well and a beer. You pay a bit of a ‘ stuff needs to be bought here from miles away ‘ premium, but heck we are worth a bit of pampering after a hard day. We relax and chat with the staff – ” And what is that stuffed creature ” . I am asking because it looks identical to the beast that I met in the road – ” That sir, is a local timberwolf “. I am amazed, shocked and more than a bit chuffed. It was big for a Coyote, but I had thought too small for a wolf – not so.
We awake to a morning that is surprisingly cool so far. It is 5.30 and we are up and away not long after 6.30 to a morning that promises almost 90 miles of unbroken downhill – hurrah!! There is a blue newness to the light and a distinct nip in the air held in long shadows. You really must find a way to visit HWY12 on a bike, it is now in our top 5 ‘ roads we have been on list ‘. There are few times that you can watch a river grow, to change its nature, to mature from high mountain youth. Here you get to watch things happen as you ride. By Lowell the Lochsa River is broad, but still fast flowing. For the first time in over 1,000 miles we are under 2,000 ft and have done 67 miles all before 11.00 am, so not a bad morning.
A few miles further, the Lochsa is as broad as an interstate. It is joined by the Selway and all of a sudden the landscape changes. The trees are gone, a line has been crossed and there are now bare sun bleached mountains around us. We are in a deep canyon cut by the river. The heat drops into the slit in the ground and is held there for us to ride through it. This is a whole different environment and very much less comfortable. We are in high desert and not liking it much.
At Kooksia we turn left onto HWY 13 and soon the day ends with 92 miles done with just 481 ft of climbing picked up somewhere without noticing it. We camp behind the grocery store in the little town of Stites, which is a better spot than it sounds from that description. Jim comes by to cut the grass ‘ There is a church breakfast here in the morning ‘. He apologizes for the noise and disturbance and settles down to drink a tea with us. We always wonder why people move to these odd little towns. ‘ Well I was in California and wanted to get away from the 100,000 mile a year driving and work stress ‘. His computer cursor stopped at Stites ‘ I watched the doppler forecast and stalked this town online – ‘ knew more about it than the people who live here ‘. Jim worked out that he liked it enough to move here, ‘ Of course when I got here I found that the town is in such a deep canyon that the doppler doesn’t work ‘. Still he picked up a job and settled down as the man to go to if you need things done. Like many he still has stuff spread across lockups in 4 states, but shallow roots are here. We talked till too late, but that is fine.
Next morning, a brutal climb up and out of the canyon. It is climbing at 8 or 9%, but then goes up and we are off, pushing with enough effort to make our backs hurt, it is 13%. We gain the top and unexpectedly, this is where the farming is done here. Flat fields and high yielding corn and hay crops – amazing. Every tractor and bailer that is not rusting in a yard is out in the fields working. We follow a ridge road until the descent into Grangeville breaks the morning ride. Jim pops along to say goodbye on his custom bike – you just knew he would have one didn’t you. The best place for breakfast is Hilltop Diner – which you guessed correctly, would be up a stiff climb in the wrong direction.
The second climb of the day regains almost all of the height that we lost yesterday. But it does it in a brutally short distance. The heat is building as we near White Bird summit and we pull over to take a long drink in the shade of the last trees before the descent. 3,400 ft and the climb has gone well. Not for the first time, we are so glad we are going in this direction. We are about to dive into hell. Sharp left and right turns which today are done on tarmac that is boiling and bubbling, popping as our tyres ride over it. A sharp left and we get a glimpse of the new highway as it cuts across the landscape. Our old road takes in the slopes, you get to feel the contours. This is a classic climb, good enough to bring bikers from hundreds of miles away, it is Alpine, but in an oven. Keep it smooth don’t let the melting black-top grab your wheel. 111’f and we are down in the town of White Bird. Miraculously, there is a bar and it is open ” Hot out there? ” We all know the answer.
42 miles, but that is it for the day. We expected to do more, but we are not idiots. We sit is the shade and wait for the sun to drop behind the mountains before we put up the tent. At 6.30 pm it dips bellow the rim and the town is in shadow. Time for the bar flies and dogs to come out on this Saturday night. We get a good nights sleep and are cooking oats before full dawn and are pedaling not long after 6.00 am.
The old HWY 95 joins up with the new road to squeeze through canyons ahead. Idaho is famous for potatoes, this I knew. I did not know how much of our road would be through desert because I had not bothered to look it up. Over millions of years the Salmon River has cut into the volcanic rock here as it has risen slowly. The combination of erosion and lift has resulted in deep canyons and now, a tourist industry based on going down the river in more or less safe ways. The heat of the day overtakes our ambition. When a cabin comes up with air-con, we bail out after 43 miles. This is just too hot.
The next morning there is spits of rain and the sound of thunder far off ahead of us. The forest we have climbed into at the end of yesterday is cool. There on the screen of the Mac the WWW, says that Cambridge is already clear and the forecast for the day is 101’f. This is almost too impossible to comprehend, the contrast too much. It is like trying to pack for a holiday in Australia in a Scottish winter. We are late to get up too, but is just 52’f as we start out.
The climb is gentle enough, but then a sign points to a ‘ Chain Up! ‘ pull over and the climb begins in earnest. My legs do not want to turn up for work today. My gear system is now 33,000 miles old and is dropping the shifts that I need. This causes ‘ Potty Mouthed Outbursts ‘ of great passion. I simply can not find the right gear in time not to throw away all forward speed. Fury does not even come close to describing it.
The road slackens and we drop into wide meadow land with contented black cattle that watch our passing with the usual bovine curiosity. The 45th parallel comes up – we must have passed this many times without note. By 10.00 am the last of the morning clouds have gone. We are in New Meadows, a town on a junction of three roads. It has 1 gas station, 1 post office, 2 stores to buy stuff in and 6 places to eat. We eat in one of them and take the right turn option. We are going to drop into Canyon Country once again. And this is where things go from bad to worse.
Out of the tree cover and it is 106’f on my meter. This, we learned back in New Meadows is classified as desert. It is easy to see how and the meter goes up to 112’f as the vista opens to scorched grass and high fire risk warnings. Our journey’s record of 116’f is equalled and the there is a hill. I have to walk so as not to build up body heat with the effort. The soles of my shoes burn into my feet as I plant them on the scorching tarmac. We get to Cambridge by force of will. We are hosted by Bob and Leslie in an oasis of air-con and good food. Ahead in one or two days our route passes through Hells Canyon on our way into Oregon. It is not going to get much cooler We will have to get up earlier or fry. Sorry for going on about the heat – but you just had to be there.