Our few days spent crossing Idaho, one of the states we were not at all familiar with, ended up being an unexpected favorite for both of us. Leaving Missoula, we had to backtrack about 14 miles to turn west and resume our route. We quickly entered the Lolo National Forest and started up Highway 12 to Lolo Pass, our final crossing of the continental divide. It was a long 30 miles of gradual uphill surrounded by dense pine forests. We stopped at a gas station for ice cream around 15 miles in, then for an overpriced lunch at the Lolo Hot Springs grill – mostly because it was hot and we really wanted to sit inside for a bit! We crossed into Idaho and a new time zone at the top of the pass. For some reason, this climb was not nearly as fatiguing as some of our Wyoming and Montana descents – at Big Hole Pass the week before, I was really struggling so Robert ended up putting my front panniers on his bike to hopefully help me go a little faster – he often ends up having to wait for me when we’re going uphill. Lolo, however, was better, and at the top of the pass we found a nice visitor center with friendly rangers, wifi, water and tea and hot chocolate, and exhibits about the Lewis & Clark and Nez Perce trails which passed nearby. I thought they did a fairly good job of honoring the native stories and acknowledging the injustice perpetrated by the explorers.
It was an absolutely gorgeous 12 miles downhill along the river to that evening’s stop at Lochsa Lodge – truly wilderness feeling, and one of the prettiest places we’ve seen, with new steep walls of pine woods revealed around every curve of the river, and the water sparkling in the late afternoon sun. Lochsa Lodge, a campground and restaurant, lets cyclists camp for free on their lawn, so we set up camp and met our neighbors Houston and Heather, another cycling couple in the first weeks of their trip heading eastbound. We enjoyed a beer in the lodge restaurant and investigated the showers, but when we found that they cost $5/person we decided that wasn’t worth it and walked down to explore the river bank instead, where I ended up dunking my head in for a refreshing shower substitute! The evening light was breathtaking as the day cooled. We cooked a dinner of quinoa, peas, and sardines, then attempted to work on planning our last few weeks’ route, but with the lack of working wifi or cell phone reception had to abandon that for the time being.
We had a slow start the next day, as Robert had come down with an upset stomach and hadn’t felt well all night. We let the dew-covered tent dry in the sun, chatted more with Houston and Heather, and finally got going. This was one of the most remote stretches we’d had so far, 65 miles with no services other than a few forest service campgrounds, and 88 miles to the first real town. The entire day, though, was downhill along Highway 12 along the Lochsa River. It was a hot day, and we made frequent stops for snacks and water and a dunk in the river to cool down. We’d been warned about a 5 mile stretch where they were re-paving half the road and shuttling bikers through the narrow area, but when we met the flagger she motioned us to go down the road a bit further for the shuttle pickup but we never saw anyone so just kept going, and soon made it all the way through the construction zone. We heard about some other TransAm-ers a day ahead of us who, determined not to skip riding any miles of the route, had to either make a dash for it ignoring the construction crew’s instructions, or wait until the end of the workday, so we felt rather fortunate to have somehow snuck through!
65 miles in we hit the town of Lowell, a tiny diner surrounded by a few scattered houses, and gratefully stopped for burgers and huckleberry shakes. Never have I had so many huckleberry flavored things as in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, and I’m a fan. Why don’t they sell huckleberries other places? Along the river here, there were many houses on the far bank with gondolas on wires suspended across the river as their only access, something we’d never seen before for access to a private house. We pushed through the final 23 miles to the town of Kooskia, where we camped under the picnic pavilion in the city park along the river. Both very tired, and with Robert still not feeling great, our dinner grocery outing ended up with us getting to the register and realizing we’d grabbed juice, chocolate milk, kefir, and electrolyte drinks and no solid food! The kiddie fountain worked for a quick rinse and we collapsed into the tent, only to be startled into alertness around 11pm when the sprinkler system roared into activity in the grass all around us, but thankfully missing us in the pavilion.
During our routine donut stop at the grocery store the next morning, we saw Megan, one of the leaders of the ACA group, and learned they had stayed in the last town and quickly caught up to us due to their much earlier start. We ended up riding with several of them, including meeting the executive director of Adventure Cycling, Jim Sayer. We enjoyed chatting with him about bike touring experiences and how the organization is promoting younger people getting involved. We hardly even noticed the climb up Lamb’s Grade, a switchbacking road with our steepest climb since the Appalachians! (Just kidding. I definitely noticed.) After cresting the hill, our view changed drastically as we meandered through rolling farm fields for a while, hit the town of Grangeville for lunch, and then descended a crazy highway perched on the side of the hill, with a 7% downhill grade and a strong crosswind, into the Salmon River valley. Partway down Robert’s chain also came off, necessitating a stop on the shoulder to get it back in place. We’d opted for the more direct new highway 95 rather than the switchbacking older 95 that the route advised, and after that white-knuckle descent could see why the other road may have been a better choice! We started seeing blackberries and crab apples along the road, and also encountered a few snakes. The rest of the day followed the river as the canyon grew narrower and narrower. We’d been ambitious with our mileage, aiming for the town of Riggins, and due to forgetting about the time change back to mountain time we got there not long before dark. It took some searching and phone calls to track down the RV park owner to figure out where we could set up a tent, but she finally showed up. Her husband asked about our trip and kept telling us “that’s so badass, you guys are badass!” Our campsite at the RV park sat on the bluff looking right down at the roaring Salmon River, so we did some exploring before walking into town for dinner at a local brewpub, one of the only places still open, where we chatted with the friendly bartender and tried to figure out the next day’s ride.
It was another 80 mile day to our Warmshower host’s home for our final night in Idaho, so we tried to start early. After so many hot days, the shady canyon was surprisingly cool for the first few hours! The variety of terrain we passed through in one day again surprised me – the narrow canyon, a stretch of gorgeous mountain meadows surrounded by national forest, then finally open high desert with rolling hills for the last 20 miles. We met another eastbound cyclist, neither of us can remember his name but we definitely remember him, as he was riding in only a speedo bathing suit and unbuttoned dress shirt – not the typical bike tourist attire! Our hosts that night, Bob and Leslie, lived outside the tiny town of Cambridge. A high school teacher and retired professional cyclist, they welcomed us to their pleasant home and offered us some of Bob’s home-brewed beer, and we spent a delightful evening chatting with them about travel, politics, and life in Idaho. I feel so fortunate to have had so many encounters on this trip with such interesting people in random places who we otherwise never would have run into – this is definitely one of my favorite parts of traveling this way.
Leslie made us eggs, bacon, toast and coffee in the morning before we headed out. We stocked up on Gatorade at the gas station in town (and were chased by the first dog since Kentucky) before beginning a very slow slog up the winding road towards Hell’s Canyon against a strong headwind. The hills there were so brown, all brown grass and scrub grass, and for a while the road was covered with giant black crickets, many dead and others that would frantically scatter with inefficient hops as we passed, often running into our bikes or our shins. We met an eastbound cyclist named Bob from Alabama – our encounters are more rare now as the summer progresses and the majority of eastbounders would have already crossed our path at this point. The road in Hell’s Canyon winds up and over a ridge and down into the canyon along the reservoir, and the dusty hills rising steeply from the reservoir, crisscrossed with dirk trails, were stark and desolate, but beautiful in a way, with the contrast against the vivid blue sky. It was very hot. We stopped for shakes and an extended rest in the AC at the lone cafe at the bottom of the initial descent into the canyon, then meandered along the reservoir, taking frequent picture stops to record the unique landscape. To our surprise, we found plentiful cherries and blackberries growing along the road. At the end of the reservoir we crossed the state line into Oregon – the last state between us and the coast! The last 15 miles was a long, hot climb out of the canyon, with a stop at the one other store along the way where the friendly cashier filled our water bottles. We ended the day in Halfway, OR, where we camped at the RV park, thankful for showers and food. On to the second-to-last state!