"Sal, we gotta go and never stop going 'till we get there". "Where we going man?" "I don't know but we gotta go" - Jack Kerouac, On the Road -

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Day 25: Through the Sawtooth Mountains

Ketchum, Id - Lowman, Id: 120 miles. Total: 3005 miles

As I try to fall asleep pretending not to hear heavy footsteps from the room above I realize that these last two days through the windy desert have been an emotional drain. I suppose I was not mentally ready for it. When I was flying down the Teton Pass and I saw the Idaho sign I had the presumptuous feeling that I had mastered the elements and the miles; cresting that steep hill and coming down from it with the wind in my sails and coolly flying past the Idaho sign gave me reason to believe that the West coast was just around the bend. I thought the worst was behind. Little I did I know..I made a rookie mistake. And I am not a rookie!

Idaho is proving to be a very tough state to cross. The toughest state. It is the wind that is the real  chink. Physically, I think and I feel that riding into a headwind has made me stronger but what has been hard is the emotional strain. Where do I find the discipline? How do I keep up with this regiment? Get up early, usually after a sleepless night, ride 120, 150 miles through the elements, get through the day in one piece, find a motel, write the journal, download all the pictures, eat and sleep. And after a few hours it starts all over again. Day in and day out. How am I doing this? From which hidden reserve am I drawing my strength from? I don't know.

Idaho Falls to Ketchum has been two days of relentless fight. The wind coming from the West has not let up and it has been indeed a draining stretch of road. Millions of ages ago the Earth spewed forth vast oceans of molten lava, which, now hardened, make for a visually stunning, though eerily lonely place. The occasional extinct volcano pops out on the horizon from time to time, only to be bothered by the D.O.E. and its nuclear arms manufacturing plant. The rest is pure dry desert. Hot and barren, this 150 miles of rock, sun, and wind made for one very wary cyclist. I won my fight because I got through it safe and fairly quickly but I am tired emotionally and I need to regroup and find the groove I showcased on the Beartooth pass. I lost my swagger. And that is why I have decided to go back into the mountains, not only on account of the windy desert but because I am a climber, amongst the steep hills, I am at my meanest! Frankly, by the end of day 23 and midway through day 24, I just wanted to go home. Today I am injecting pleasure into my ride. I need to find the love again. Anger is an essential ingredient but must be coupled with something sweet.
  I have a rough night due to a 5000 plus calories dinner last night. I should really check my intake of junk food at night because I just go to bed totally bloated and it messes up my sleep. I am up at 6.15 and it is still dark outside. I can't go back to sleep and groggily I start to pack my few items, get dressed and apply sunscreen. This is a routine that by now I could carry it out with my eyes closed. I sum up all my concentration to get my groove back and I say to myself that this is going to be a good day and the scenic byway I will riding on all day will bring me luck. I am out of the door by 7 and the sky is bright blue without a cloud in sight, which is the very first time on the whole ride that this miracle of Aether has befallen upon me!

I want to love the climb, I want to love the mountains, I want to love the ride again. Getting to know America and some of the best scenery of America as far as I'm concerned, is a privilege that few people have. Ever. And this morning, this very moment when I open the door to my room and step into the cold mountain air with my bicycle under my legs is a unique moment in my life.
  It is also unique because it is freaking cold and it takes me 3 seconds to immediately jump back into my room to change the jersey. I am wearing long sleeves and the rain coat. Everything I have. The clothes are semi clean, let's put it that way. I washed it all last night in the shower. My hand washing is not as thorough as a proper washing in the machine. I ride through the empty Main st of Ketchum and the traffic lights are flashing yellow, the store windows are dark and lots of 'closed' signs hang everywhere. A lone runner is doing his best to fight the cold and jogs with his head down, I try to wave but before I do so I decide not to waste the energy. The poor fellow hasn't even seen me. The air is incredibly sharp and cold. My hands hurt like never before. I am toying with the idea of going back to the motel. I have never done it before but for the first time I am seriously debating whether to wait for the sun. No way. Let's keep going, sooner or later the sun will hit the valley. I pass the clock of the Bank and it reads 39F, definitely the coldest I have ridden in on this ride. My feet say goodbye to me without regrets and my hands swell like I have just injected some botox into them. My nose is basically producing a squishy substance that goes all over my clean clothes. After 2 miles on the road I look like I have just biked 150. The road stays almost flat for at least 10 miles, the mountain tops way above are hit by sunlight but the bottom of the valley is still wrapped in total shade. I am cold for real, to the point that I need to stop, I rest the bike against a guardrail and I start jumping on the spot. It helps a little but as soon as I am back on the bike the ice-cold air makes meatballs of my extremities. I am sure that if it wasn't for the low temperature I would love the scenery but right now I can't think straight. Typical mountain valleys with green meadows interrupted by patches of forest and crackling creeks are all around but I cannot see the beauty of it. My whole body shivers. I am a ghost of the real me. Where is the dry hot desert air? No! Don't go there! You left the desert for a reason! And a damn good reason too!

After about 20 miles the climb begins and I dare to take the rain cover off. It works because I have just entered the sunline and the road rises to a 6% grade. I am not fighting too hard because I can feel the fitness in my body after weeks on the road and the many passes I have scaled. What bothers me a little is the ashy taste in the air that scratches my throat. There is definitely a detectable scent of smoke in the air and when I am passed by firefighters vehicles I realize that the fire threat is still very much real. However, I would never see them again today and the air clears up after a few miles. I will never know where they were rushing to.

So with the best intentions I begin the climb up Galena pass. 6% grade is almost a joke compared to the 10% of the Teton I am thinking. After a while I begin to sweat a bit and I regret having devoured all those Nutella jars but no, actually I don't. Despite the cold I feel superbly light and I am happy climbing. The six mile climb is over very quickly and from the top I see an incredibly large valley ringed by steep and rocky mountains. The peaks are not as dramatic as the Tetons and these are devoid of snow but they look majestic nonetheless, they seem to have been placed in the perfect place by a giant artistic hand. If I think of an ideal mountain scenery, this comes pretty close to it. The sun by now has begun to be pretty mean and in a second I am reduced to my usual white sleeveless jersey. I fly down the descent and then for about 20 miles or so, the road goes through an enormous valley, bigger than any I've seen so far. The valley floor is flat, and slopes gently down in the direction I'm heading, and consists of a vast meadow about two mile wide, and as long as the valley. Wooded foothills above the meadows, and the jagged rocky Sawtooth Mountains shoot up into the air just beyond the foothills, this is what I am getting today. Not bad I am thinking. The road has a smooth shoulder, just wide enough for comfort. The sky is blue, and the temperature, now!!, is perfect. I think I am nearing the perfect riding: without a headwind, in this weather and in this scenery, I might just be in biking nirvana. I ride without a hint of a wind into Stanley, a typical cabin and lodge-filled mountain town. Nothing like Ketchum or the Sun Valley but it is well geared for mountain and winter tourism. After 65 miles from Ketchum and at just 12 pm I turn west and take highway 21, another scenic route, I am on the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway, and the ponderosa pines start making an appearance. The forest thickens and the trees get taller and they do look quite...ponderosos. There is no shoulder at all here and I am really surprised that most cars don't give me plenty room when they pass me. There aren't many cars but the ones that show up give reason to fret. The really mean ones get my middle finger and one asshole almost clipped me and I yelled at him good. 

Past Stanley, there is no sign of civilization for about 60 miles. The road goes uphill right away. I am just enjoy the ride and I love the alpine scenery around me. But 2 pm I realize that this has turned into a very hot day, and the air is thick and smells like honey. I'm in the forest, but the road is wide and the trees offer no shade. I ride fast for about 15 miles up to the Pass, maybe a 4% grade but no more than that. I eat up the climb like a piece of cake. Past the pass the road goes downhill forever and I am following the south fork of the Payette River. It is wide and deep and rushes down the valley. But things change quickly. As soon as I crest, it has found me. The wind of course. The road descends into a valley for at least 5 miles and I am talking 6% grade and the headwind does not allow me to go faster than 20mph. It is insane. I am surrounded by giant pine trees that stand tall and stare at me powerless fighting against the wind. How did you find me? I came all this way up here and here you are? How can I pretend you are not here? How can I ignore you? That's the thing, with the wind, no matter how mentally sound and an experienced cyclist you are, there is nothing you can do to offset it, nothing, nothing, nothing. There is no right state of mind to get into to face up to it; nothing prepares you for it; you can't just focus on something else. It doesn't happen, maybe for a mile it does but then the bastard is back at ruining your life. I take solace in the fact that I am descending so I will not be as exhausted as the day before yesterday. I am in the wilderness today, not the desert wilderness but mountains at relatively high elevation with rushing rocky streams and tree covered hills all around me. Today is another day with next to no other people, other than those rushing by in their cars. or RVs However, I did have three conversations today. At the scenic outlook at the Galena Pass where some old folks from around here wanted to know all about my ride; at the tourist information center in Stanley with the guy there and with the lady that runs the motel I will be staying at tonight. 

I set sights on Lowman, basically a collection of houses and RV parks along the road. I will find a shabby-looking motel and that's enough suffering for today. Around 4pm, with 115 miles in my legs and the last three hours trying to refrain from yelling the most absurd obscenities at the wind I decide to call it at the day. I had no choice anyway, the next motel would be in Boise, 75 miles west. At desolate Lowman they do have a room. 95 dollars is crazy money for this kind of place but I am out of the wind. I will take a long shower and think through what to do tomorrow. Boise, a relatively large town, is only 75 miles from here. If the wind keeps blowing so hard past that and given that I will riding through some very exposed roads in Oregon I might want to pack it in. I am considering all options here. Not writing this for the drama, I am seriously thinking that riding 100+ miles a day into a headwind is just pure torture. There is no joy here. 

Friday, August 30, 2013

Day 24: Craters of the Moon

Arco, Id - Ketchum, Id: 111 miles. Total: 2885 miles

The only way to stay ahead of the wind is to leave early, basically even before sunrise. 12 hours on the bike and a few hours of sleep and then back on the bike, is it humanly possible? It is but it is also insane. The pattern is simple: the wind picks up after 10,11 am , this has been confirmed the tattoo-covered guy at the gas station. He is sporting a goatee that De Niro in Jacknife would be proud of. I try to follow his advice but yesterday has been a punishing day and these efforts leave a mark which will bubble up sooner or later. After my two atomic burgers, I plunge into a deep sleep until I open my eyes for a split second when the alarm goes off at 6AM. I immediately go back to my happy sleep but a while I bolt thinking "Oh shit! It must be 10 am!" but it is still 6.35. At this point I find the strength to get up and get dressed. First thing I do is to check the wind like I am some captain on a ship. The air is still and Arco is an empty town. I walk to the gas station where I eat five fruit bars and two bananas and with some apprehension I venture out in the desert again. The day is breaking and cycling totally alone in the desert. Insane but beautiful. The air is chilly and I am tempted to wear the rain cover but I put a little speed in my step and that should get me covered. The sun wrestles with some large clouds before winning the argument and it comes out to play. The first 20 miles go smooth; I ride alone through a rugged landscape, an arid and rocky desert that gives you nothing but time to think how to survive it. I come across a panorama of buttes and sinks and weird piles of stone and they all belong to a 'national monument'. An hour gone and I hit a fascinating landmark: Craters of the Moon. This is a very peculiar place, I guess if someone saw it from above they would see a large black stain in the middle of the desert, just like a huge oil spill in the middle of the ocean. Craters of the Moon is cinder cones, spatter cones and lava caves created by volcanic explosions. I learn an interesting fact, Craters is Yellowstone stage two, meaning that Yellowstone will look exactly like Craters when the caldera explodes and sooner or later it will explode. It is really funny because there is so much lava around and there is no volcano, in fact the lava oozes from cracks on the earth crust that are 50 mile long. Crazy! In the next life I will be a geologist.  Maybe not.

The whole place I am riding through is a big Rift, in many ways similar to the Rift Valley in Africa. How the emigrants travel through this impossible land it boggles my mind. Check this out:  "Road all rocks in several places, some so large as to scarcely pass under the wagon. At one place we were obliged to drive over a huge rock just a little wider than the wagon. Had we gone a foot to the right or to the left, the wagon would have rolled over. The road was very crooked, as it followed along the edge of the hills most of the time, this being the only route possible on account of this black rock...such roads and surrounding country beggars description." (Julius Merrill, 1864). I find it fascinating that thousands of people labored through this land with all their belongings. This part of Idaho is actually not only geologically unique but it is also historically important. Westward-bound emigrants traveled through this valley following the ocean-to-ocean route which was perfected by pioneers in 1843, that's when the first wagons rolled through. They fought sagebrush, dust, mosquitoes, lava rocks, cold nights and the threat of Native American populations. Soon after the gold seekers followed and the route, which is now called the Oregon trail, was well traveled. Of course they stood on the shoulders of Lewis and Clark. 
At Craters, I ride around the 7-mile loop and then I quickly rejoin highway 26 to Carey. Easy 15 miles but I notice that the wind is gradually gaining force. Yep, it is coming. I take some comfort in seeing the road hanging to my right and leading into a large valley where the desert mountains might help decrease the strength of the gales. Not really. After some food at Carey the wind is fully fledged and I begin to curse. I emit some pretty good curse words that do nothing to ridicule or neutralize the wind. Just when I thought I had ridden the whole of the Great Plains relatively unscathed, the desert of Idaho gives the wind a chance to come back with a vengeance. Blowing from South West it is almost a full headwind and it slows down my ride to the point that I am beginning to doubt everything. It is as strong as yesterday. At least today I have plenty of water with me and the distance between towns is manageable. The problem with the wind is not only in the decreased speed and mileage, the real problem is that the sucker takes every energy out of you because if to ride 15mph without wind you put in 50, with a headwind you must put in 100 to ride 10mph. And for the urban cyclists who are reading this, take note that the wind I am experiencing is not the funny breeze that you ride into on the local bike path. I am in the desert here, the road is totally exposed and this is a wind that shakes buildings and moves mountains, literally. I am fighting for every pedal stroke, for every yard, I push hard just to get a little speed. I trudge, I crawl, I grind out one mile after another, there is absolutely no joy in cycling like this. No joy at all. It is total punishment. And I cannot wait for more mountains.

I crawl into the rest area at the junction with route 75, the Sawtooth Scenic Byway. I gulp down two frozen Pepsi, and I don't even like it that much but extreme situations instill weird knacks in you. I have already covered 75 miles and I figure the worst is over. In a way it is because I have some steep hills to my right and I head for those like an alcoholic would follow a trail of empty bottles. In a heartbeat I decide to take 75 instead of going west on 20; 75 will put a long delay into my schedule because it is not as direct as 20 and most importantly it will go through some steep mountains, but I don't really care, 75 goes north and I won't have to deal with this bitch of a headwind. What's ever more appealing about 75 and I can't believe I am saying this, it is that it leads right into the mountains and goes up, up, up to the Galena Pass at 8700ft high. Yes, that means that I will be back into the mountains, back climbing steep grades and fighting cold temperatures but as I said, I'd do anything to lose the wind.

I leave the desert plateau behind and 75 drops into a valley. The scenery immediately begins to change. Scrub bush hills are turning into proper mountains, the air goes from dry and hot to cool and full of mountain fragrance. However, I notice that the hillsides are not covered with trees but they actually totally burnt out. At this point I recall a conversation I had with a truck driver in Carey and he tells me about the fires that hit the Sun Valley just two weeks ago. The flames destroyed swathes of land, trees and bushes and forced many roads to shut down. The road should be open now. It is. But all over the place there are reminders of the recent catastrophe. After a few miles on 75 I begin to see several thank-you to our brave firefighters sign all over the place. 

The last part of the day goes really fast thanks to a beautifully placed bike path, which allows me to stay away from traffic. After the stress caused by the desert biking I can finally drop my guard and chill. I zone out and put my headphones on and Bono's soulful voice accompanies me for a few miles. The ride is bumpy though, deep cracks run across the path every 10 yards or so. The path is a rails-to-trails and follows the Snake river, I notice that the valley is gradually narrowing and before I reach my final destination for the day I am riding right at the base of steep slopes that depart vertically from both sides. The path takes me right into Sun Valley where the Sawtooth Mountains await. I imagine this place to be really pretty with the tress and lush vegetation, however, the recent fires have given the hillsides an almost eerie fa├žade. I reach Ketchum thinking about mother nature and singing out loud but before I look around town for a motel I ride to the cemetery where E. Hemingway is buried. Ernest was a keen fly fisherman and spent his last years in Ketchum before he realized that he couldn't write anymore and he blew his brains out. I wonder what that's like, to have a unique gift and in the middle of your life just to realize that the gift is gone but the fire is still there.

Ketchum is in the heart of the famous Sun Valley, where supposedly many movie stars live. It is clear that the place is ritzy and oozing with money. It is also crawling with tourists who probably do want to see movie stars or want to look like movie stars. I don't want to stay here at all. I miss Arco, what a lovingly peaceful small town it was. I find a pretty and reasonably priced motel by the highway. After a long shower and my journal updating when I open the door to my room I am immediately hit by a smoke smell and little tiny pieces of ash fly down from the mountains and float lightly in the air. The whole place looks like a battle field with silent guns and with smoke still rising. I barely make out the setting sun through the haze. My throat goes dry and my eyes itch from the ash. I talk to the lady that runs the place and she tells me that two weeks ago they had an evacuation notice. Two weeks ago you could walk around without glasses and a cloth wrapped around your nose and mouth. Now it is all on stand by even though the fires should be out. But who knows? She tells me that I should check tomorrow morning with the tourist information, if road 75 is closed I have to ride back 30 miles to the junction and then 85 miles through the desert again and into a certain headwind to Mountain Home. This would be the only other way west. Not appealing at all. I take climbing mountains to riding into a wind any time. I immediately call the local tourist office and at this late hour the recorded message says that the fires have been contained and the road through the forest and up the pass is open but visitors should check before going.
As much as I didn't want to stop in the Sun Valley, which I guess can be described as a smaller version of Aspen, I am grateful to this place and its surrounding mountains because they got the wind off my...face! But tomorrow, fires permitting, is business again, I have some serious climbing to do. The West coast seems still so very far.