Wild West Route: Montana and Idaho

 

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Shortly after leaving Eureka, I had yet another mechanical issue. After hearing a cracking noise coming from my bottom bracket, I noticed that I had lost one of the two bolts holding the eccentric shell in place. I had foolishly forgotten to bring a spare, so I needed to order some from England.  This was an exotic, finely threaded bolt I wouldn’t be able to find anyone in the USA, apparently. I had them sent to a Warm Showers host in Challis, about 10 days ride away. I would just have to deal with the annoying sound for a while. 

Crossing Lake Koocanusa, MT

Quiet 2-track through the Purcell Mountains, Montana

After some fast pavement following Lake Koocanusa, I climbed into the Purcell Mountains on quiet and forested double track. Eventually I ended up in a small town called Troy, MT, which I wouldn’t say was particularly memorable if not for the very friendly residents. Stopping at a grocery store, I had several people approach me to tell me that they loved what I was doing and offered any help that I may need. This would become a trend on my travels throughout Montana and Idaho. 

Leaving Troy, I passed through an area with scattered clearcuts by a river. The landscape was unique with a sparse scattering of spindly conifers that had been left behind. 

Now on the official Wild West Route, I had luxury of using an app that would provide me with all sorts of useful information such as water sources, towns with resupply, sights of interest and spots to camp. Usually, I would avoid official campgrounds to in order to save money. I was pleasantly surprised, however, by the number of high quality and free campsites both in Montana and Idaho. 

Marten Creek Campground, Montana, one of the many free sites

Towards Porcupine Pass into Idaho

The smoother tracks deteriorated as I climbed Porcupine Pass into Idaho. On the rough descent, I encountered my first bikepacker on the WWR – Geert, a Dutchman living in Adelaide, Australia. He was in his late sixties. I later found out through social media that he was the first to ride the entire Wild West Route Northbound. He was also an extraordinary artist, using watercolour to paint the landscapes he passed through on his bike tours. 

One of Geert’s paintings. Photo from Bikepacking Roots Facebook page

We chatted for about 45 minutes in the middle of the dirt road, without having to move for a single vehicle. He gave me some information about the long ride ahead of me, including a stiff warning about using tubes in Arizona – he told me he had 20 flats and switched to tubeless! This worried me a bit as I was planning to use tubes the whole way!

Saying goodbye to Geert, I pushed on to Wallace, Idaho. Camping in City Limits RV park, I was spoiled by RV campers who gave me beer, a bag of fruit and energy bars for the road. The local generosity was really never-ending.

Wallace, ID

Leaving charming and historic Wallace, I climbed steadily onto the Route of the Hiawatha, a bicycle trail built from old rail grades. For me, normally a “rail trail” isn’t the most exciting for cycling, but this was definitely an exception. I pedalled high along old trestles that disappeared in and out of densely forested mountains. I got to experience pedalling a 3km long tunnel, which fun, if a bit claustrophobic. I was surging forward through a long, black cylinder that trapped echoing voices, chasing the beam from my headlamp. Real “tunnel vision.”

One of several tunnels (this one was short, the longest was 3km) on the Route of the Hiawatha, ID

Route of the Hiawatha, ID

Route of the Hiawatha, ID

Back into the light, I started to make my way to the town of St. Regis, Montana The landscape was becoming more arid, Ponderosa pines still a steady companion. Now, the sound from my bottom bracket had worsened and I knew that I had many rugged and remote miles left before I would reach Challis where the replacement bolts would end up.  If I didn’t find a solution, I would probably damage the bike.  In St. Regis, I searched online for a bolt similar to the one I needed. It was a very unusual size and I was basically told that no hardware store (or likely bike shop) would stock it in this part of the USA. I ended up finding only one online supplier in Massachusetts that had something similar that would temporarily work.  The fastest it could be shipped to me was three business days, meaning I would have to hang out in St. Regis. At the local post office, I inquired about a general delivery option and then placed the order. 

Not long after, I was approached by an older man, asking me about my trip. He said that he had done some biking in the past.  I said that I was riding to the Mexican border, but I needed to stay in St. Regis to wait for the replacement bolt. 

“Well..” he paused “We could put you up. Let me just phone my wife.” 

And that’s how I got to know Billy and Jennifer, two retired Californians living in St. Regis. I had a wonderful three days staying with them in a peaceful and beautiful little spot by the river. Once again, a mechanical breakdown resulting in amazing encounters. Jennifer couldn’t believe how “serendipitous” the whole thing was. I was so humbled by their kindness and once the bolt arrived, I was a bit sad to leave. 

St. Regis, MT

The River

On a bicycle riding through Montana and Idaho, my life revolved around the rivers. The route often followed them closely, the cool water providing refuge in the humid summer temperatures. 

I drank out of them and I washed away the day’s dirt and sweat. Climbing the Hoodoo Pass and descending to the Clearwater River was a highlight of the trip. The narrow road meandered through the woods and then rambled along the river, rock cliffs towering on either side. It was also labour day weekend, so I met plenty of ATVs. It seemed like no matter how remote the area was, I would always meet someone on a side-by-side. The majority of the riders were very courteous, often stopping to ask if I was OK. 

Following the Clearwater River, Idaho

This area of Idaho was becoming increasingly remote, preparing me for the crossing of the Magruder Corridor, supposedly the most rugged and remote section of the entire Wild West Route. 

I passed through small towns like Pierce, with only a few hundred residents.

Most of the locals I chatted to knew all about the Magruder as it was also a popular ATV outing. Of course, everyone thought I was nuts to be doing it on a bike. 

“They (the government) let the wildfires burn, so it’s not as beautiful as it used to be,” one man said. 

On the hottest day of the trip, I descended to the Selway River, which I soaked in for a about half an hour to regain my energy so I could start the 40km climb towards Elk City near the beginning of the Magruder Corridor. Big elevation gains and losses were the facts of life crossing Montana and Idaho. Climbing for 30+ km up and down a mountain pass was basically a daily standard. I made it about 10km up the climb and ended the day camping at a large landing on the side of a quiet dirt road. 

_ _ _ _ _ _

Tiny community of Elk City, ID

The climb to the summit was relentless and I hit the descent towards the tiny outpost of Elk City with barely any reserves left. While speeding down a paved road into town, I saw a man in full camo with one arm outstretched holding a can of beer, the other waving to me.  As I slowed down, he beamed “Hi! Do you want a cold beer?!” 

“Why, yes I do!!” 

I gratefully accepted the ice cold Bud Light. John was a road cyclist himself and really, really into hunting…like, lived and breathed it. Inside his home he had many mounted heads of large ungulates and impressive rugs. He had a thick Idahoan accent, as dense as his moustache. He pronounced creek like “crick” and him like “eem.” He was a joy to talk to and one of the friendliest people I’ve ever met.  After a couple of beer, I really started to feeling the fatigue of the climb and gratefully accepted his offer to stay the night. He made me his favourite meal, chili dogs, which are basically amped up hot dogs smothered in chilli sauce, cheese and onion. It really hit the spot. I will always fondly remember John the Elk Hunter from Elk City. 

The Magruder Corridor

In the WWR guide, The Magruder Corridor crossing is described as “90 miles of rough and taking dirt and 4X4 roads sandwiched between two of the largest wilderness areas in the lower 48. So, obviously, it wouldn’t be cake walk. Several large wildfires over the last several decades had ripped through the area. They left behind large swathes of eerie skeletal trees climbing up and down the hillsides. It was a stark and surreal looking scene – blackened spears challenging a piercing blue sky. 

Fire damage in the Magruder Corridor

 

I came across a black bear with two cubs in the middle of the road in a more forested area.

I stopped and waited for them to move away from the road before I continued. Throughout the day, the views became larger and more dramatic. The road went from bad to worse – from rough dirt to large rocks.  I wasn’t alone in this wilderness as there were quite a few people on side by sides and a select few willing to beat the shit out of their trucks. I also met two other bikepackers doing a section of the WWR – only my second and third at that point. I left the most brutal climb for the end of the day after an equally tough descent to Poet Creek.

Rough road, Magruder Corridor

 Within the last 800m of the summit I had absolutely nothing left in my legs and opted to push the rest of the way, which wasn’t much easier that riding. I had really hoped that I could camp somewhere once I got to the top, because there was no level ground anywhere, it seemed. Huffing and puffing, pushing and dragging, I finally made it to the top of the climb. I was in luck – a pullout! Large enough for me to camp. It was next to the road but there was very little traffic and I was too tired to care. I was so tired that it was almost a bit discouraging – I was suddenly having doubts about my ability to physically cope on this trip. These negative thoughts were temporarily cast aside when the sun began to set. The silhouettes of a broken woodland stood strong against an extraordinary palette of colours. 

I slept hard that night. 

Sunset, Magruder Corridor

 

Magruder Corridor

Magruder Corridor

The following morning, all doubts from the previous day seemed to disappear. The toughest part of the Magruder crossing was over, but there was still some climbing to do and a very rough descent. My goal was to reach a campground called Deep Creek. In my tired state, I thought of the movie “Get Him to the Greek” and came up with “Get Me to the Creek” to try and give myself some motivation. Definitely more amusing to me at the time…

The cheesy title didn’t motivate me enough, but I did end up camping by a creek, grateful to have a wash at the end of the day.

_ _ _ _

After resupplying in the touristy town of Darby, Montana I headed off to climb the Horse Creek pass back into Idaho. Like the Magruder Corridor, the area had extensive amounts of fire damage. It was a lonely and eerie climb. The sky was heavy with greyness, with the odd sliver strand of sunlight fighting its way through. I slept beside the road at the top of the pass. It was one of the quietest nights of trip – no wind, no stars. I was only surrounded by lifeless limbs burnt to the bone. These trees offered no shelter, no protection and held no secrets. 

Camping at Horse Creek Pass, Montana

The Climb to Horse Creek Pass, MT

The next morning, the climbing continued, leading to a massive and hairy descent down to the Salmon River Canyon through dramatic, rocky hillsides dotted with ponderosa pine. 

I continued along the Salmon River, when the weather began to turn. It rained steadily the rest of the day and I arrived at McDonald Flat campground soaked and cold. I didn’t waste any time and set up my tent as quickly as I could. While I was doing so in the persistent drizzle, a pickup pulled up beside me. An older man and woman were in front.

“We saw you riding further up the road. You were moving fast, but you looked cold. It didn’t look like you were having a lot of fun!” the man said. 

“Yeah,” I laughed, “Heavy rain isn’t my favourite!”

“Do you drink beer?” he asked. 

They invited me to come and hang out at their campsite after if I wanted. I said that I would come over. Freezing cold and starving, I first ran to the public bathroom and cooked pasta inside. When I finished doing that, I changed into dry clothes and crawled into my sleeping bag, where I laid for about 30 minutes before I felt warm enough to go anywhere. 

Later, I went over to the campsite where Kevin and Pat where staying, whom I had met earlier. They were a local retired couple camping out in their RV for a week.  I was greeted by a raging fire and offered beer and food. These wonderful people completely turned my day around. I stayed with them until darkness fell. We exchanged stories by the flickering light, while my cycling clothes dried out over a camp chair. They told me to come back the next morning for coffee. 

Trail angels, Pat and Kevin

I savoured the following morning with them, sipping slowly at my coffee with honey. Once again I was so grateful to have encountered such wonderful human beings. Departure is a thrilling part of nomadism, but the “goodbye” isn’t always easy. 

Unfortunately, the rest of the day didn’t turn out so well. There was now a more distinct chill in the air and the aspens fluttered in gold. Fall was here. I was shivering most of the day and it seemed like I couldn’t shake the chill no matter how many layers I put on. I soon hit a big descent towards Challis – the coniferous forests changed into sage-covered hills once again. 

Scenery approaching Challis, ID

I had absolutely no energy when I arrived in town and I even considered walking the last flat and paved mile, because I wasn’t sure I could make it. 

At my Warm Showers host’s place, I felt completely out of it, thinking it was just fatigue and I struggled to keep it together. When I left the next morning, I suddenly decided that I felt too ill to ride and went straight to a hotel. I didn’t leave the room for two days – I believe I had food poisoning of some kind, but even now I am not exactly sure. 

When I managed to ride away from the hotel in Challis, I was far from 100%, but I had to keep going. Another big climb followed over the old Custer Motorway and past several small ghost towns. On the way to Stanley on a chilly morning, I passed some hot springs right on the side of the road. I almost choked on the steam, lushly hanging in the cold air. I took off my gloves and shoes, dipping my cold hands and feet in the hot water. It was heaven.

Hot springs on the side of the road near Stanley, ID

The tiny town of Stanley, with the dramatic Sawtooth mountains as backdrop, seemed to attract outdoor hipster types.  After a latte at a hip food truck, I headed off to explore the valley. 

Stanley, ID

On some double track near town, three bikepackers raced downhill at full speed, hollering as they ripped past me. I assumed that they were on a day trip because of how light their rigs looked. Throughout the day I started to see more and more riders  pass me. Eventually one guy stopped and asked if I was on the “Smoke and Fire.” 

“The what?” I asked. 

Russ, Idaho Smoke and Fire 400 racer

The Idaho Smoke and Fire 400 is a self supported bikepacking race that takes place every September. I ended up seeing about 25 riders that day. It was sort of exciting, because I had only met about three other bikepackers since beginning the Wild West Route. I chatted with quite a few of them – some looking disoriented and sleep deprived, but still having a great time.  It made me happy to be in such a large community of cyclists, which is something I am definitely missing in my home life. I really got to experience the depth of the field – from the leaders at the front, to those chilling at the back. I met two guys who said they started each morning of the ride with a bloody mary and were in no rush. Apparently the winner of the race completed the 640km-ish  course in an astounding 48 hours! 

 

Sawtooth Valley, ID

 

That same night I met two guys doing a section of the WWR on a fat bike and a plus bike. They both joined me at camp. Around 10pm, a woman from Boise, Idaho racing the Smoke and Fire also joined us. All three were traveling ultralight and sleep in bivy sacs. It was great to have the company.

After the beautiful ride through the Sawtooth Valley, I passed by the mountain bike hub of Galena Lodge on my way to Ketchum and Hailey, ID.

Mountain biker on the route near Galena Lodge, ID

near Galena Lodge, ID

Beyond Hailey, the stands of trees started to disappear and the landscape became even drier and more wide open. Golden coloured grasslands and sagebrush dominated. These were the vast “wild west” type vistas I had envisioned.

Craters of the Moon National Monument presented a very unique volcanic and blackened landscape. I was unfortunately unable to appreciate it as I was still recovering from my sickness from less than a week ago. I could barely stay awake at the visitor’s centre and decided to keep moving on. I had to take a nap in a ditch on a quiet dirt road just so I could keep going. Luckily, it helped. 

Snake River Plain

Snake River Plain, ID

Pedalling across the vast intermountain Snake River Plan brought back the feeling of crossing the Australian outback or Mongolia. It was a huge sky tucked into a sea of sage brush from where the odd lone peak emerged. I loved the solitude. In the distance, I could see a storm cloud growing. I decided to stop early to set up my tent, knowing I would be fully exposed. I ended up stopping just in time. With no real wind shelter, the storm hit hard. The blasts of wind were intense and I attempted to brace my tent poles with my hands, fearing they would snap. After about 15 minutes, the winds began to calm. I watched as the navy clouds pulled the storm away across the treeless plain. The sun battled through the dark skies and glazed the scrublands in gold. It was a surreal sight. 

Storm, Snake River Plain, ID

After the storm, Snake River Plain, ID

Wildflowers on the Snake River Plain

The wind stayed strong the following morning, delivering me a good combination and headwind and crosswind. Crossing the Snake River plain was a highlight of the journey for me, because of how remote it felt. Unlike the Magruder Corridor, I was completely alone. I was a mere speck in the vast kingdom of sage brush. 

   Characters of Soda Springs

The very south of Idaho was quite different because I was now surrounded by more farmland. Wild camping became a bit trickier. Just outside of Blackfoot, a generic town full of chain restaurants, I had a dog follow me for about 10km. I was passing through some farming areas and while many dogs barked threateningly, I had one that hollered with excitement and began to follow me. He ran beside me, occasionally fighting with other dogs and chasing away cats. When I hit the busier road to Blackfoot, he finally stayed put, standing in the middle of the road watching me pedal away. I hope he made it home, wherever that was!

Wild camping near Soda Springs, ID

I navigated some more hilly country and private land before reaching Soda Springs, following a brutal day of headwind. I enquired at an RV park about somewhere to camp for the night and the owner was generous enough to let me stay for free. I was warned about some rain coming in the next day. From this point until pretty much the very end of the Wild West route, most of the roads would become impassible when wet, due to the clay-rich soil. 

The following morning, I packed up and went for breakfast at the Main St. Diner. This seemed to be the meeting point for all of the retirees in town. It was a no frills, friendly, small town kind of place. I talked to a guy smoking outside, who told me he had met a French Canadian girl a week previous doing that same route I was.  I had already known about Rose, a friend of a friend on the route who I communicated with throughout the ride. He advised me against heading into the hills, because in the rain it would turn “into concrete.” Over a massive breakfast skillet loaded with bacon and sausage, I made the call to wait out the rain and leave the following day. 

I ended up in a basement room in a cheap motel to hide out from the weather. A few doors down, a long haul trucker and his apprentice were stuck, waiting to get their rig fixed after a breakdown. In their tiny room, he was making beef stew in a slow cooker, the savoury smell wafting down the hallway.  He said they were likely leaving in a few hours and I could have as much as I wanted. The trucker was like a character out of a pickup commercial with a full, deep voice and a pronounced drawl. We exchanged stories about life “on the road,” even though my version of life on the road couldn’t be more different. He talked about endless miles across the prairies, sleepless nights, dreams of hauling up to Alaska.

“…and then,” he said, “there were the truck stop girls…”

 It was a good way to spend a rainy day and to gain insight into what was for me, such a foreign way of life. 

I ended up at the Main St. Diner again the next morning and met the same man smoking outside in the same spot at probably around the same time. After another massive breakfast, it was time to leave the characters and stories behind to hit road. 

Weather turns cold in Southern Idaho

In the rugged Preuss Range, I started to feel like I had a narrow window of good weather left. It was late September and the days were cold now, but luckily I had no snow. I did manage to get caught in a hail storm on a climb not too far from Soda Springs. The roads turned to mud, but luckily the weather improved throughout the day and I was able to avoid camping in the rain. 

I woke up the next morning to a frozen bike. Yes, winter was just around the corner. 

I climbed up through more rolling and sage covered hills. The roads were ribbons of crimson coloured dirt slicing through. In the distance, I saw the bright blue waters of Bear Lake, which straddled the border between Utah and Idaho. It was a fast descent on dirt, which eventually led to smooth paved road following the lake. I was now in Utah, beginning the next chapter of the ride. Utah is a place I had dreamed about cycling for years and I had finally made it. 

Descending to Bear Lake, Utah/Idaho

I loved the Idaho and Montana sections of the route – both people and scenery. 

But what called me the most was the desert. 

Next post…Utah!

6 thoughts on “Wild West Route: Montana and Idaho

  1. Tara great story telling as usual. I am in total awe of what you accomplish sometimes in such brutal conditions. You are simply amazing! As my boss Laurie said; you are truly “an amazing and very powerful woman”! Please don’t ever stop writing about your spectacular adventures. Reading them makes my day!

    Like

  2. Wow Tara, great blog post of your incredible ride thru Montana and Idaho. I have those sections on my radar for this September if the Covid crisis allows. Thanks Jim

    Like

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