Three Bike Tales

An Urgin’ for a Virgin

We expected to ride from Rexburg (motto: “If you aren’t Mormon, what are you doing here?”) through the Craters of the Moon, a hot dry landscape unfriendly for biking. Instead our route passed north through high desert dotted with sagebrush and scrub pine. Arid, but not too severe. The wind pushed us along at 22-27 miles an hour for most of the ride. When, after Howe, the road ascended past the Idaho National Laboratory and the wind turned against us we didn’t complain. Most of our ride was done. First impressions were not favorable—the words “desolate,” “depressing,”, and “straight from The Last Picture Show” were used—but Arco taught us to withhold judgment. The D-K Motel provided five rooms in a stand-alone building with a covered walkway, thick green lawn, and Internet access (see previous post), despite the indifferent-leaning-towards-hostile reception from the counter gal lunch at the “deli” (we’d call it a sub shop) was welcome after three days of PB&J, turkey & cheese, granola bars, potato chips, and Nilla Wafers, the teenage girl intently text-messaging on her cell phone while sitting astride her horse outside the deli was delightfully incongruous, and Arco’s shopping district yielded excellent presents for Mike W.’s birthday: a can of tuna fish, a jar of mayo (not Hellman’s—this is Idaho), a t-shirt proclaiming Arco’s status as the first nuclear-powered city (sure to be popular on the Martha’s Vineyard beaches), brownies, candles that spelled out his age (a nuclear assist might have been helpbul), and a garlic press. Why a garlic press? Why, indeed. Mike F. thought he was grabbing a can opener. Why a can opener? You know, for the tuna fish. Why tuna fish? Mike W. likes tuna fish.

The Arco highlight was dinner at the Melody Steakhouse (the sign also spells it “Mello-Dee”), separated by a plain wooden door from the Melody Club Lounge. Our noisy nine, showered, rested, refreshed, not clothed in Spandex, increased the Steakhouse’s dining population to 13. Amy, our waitress, started with drink orders. Mike F. said “I’ll have a Margarita.” “Margarita!” echoed four more voices. Bored with four nights of club soda and cranberry juice I said “I’ll have a virgin Margarita.” Amy stopped writing, shifted her weight, and screwed up her face as if sorry to convey unwanted news. Tilting her head towards the bar on the other side of the closed door she said “I don’t think any of ‘em over there are virgins.” While everyone else rolled on the floor I explained that by “virgin” I meant “without alcohol.” Amy still looked dubious–why make a margarita without alcohol? It’s like making bread without wheat. “I want the margarita mix and ice in a glass rimmed with salt. Everything but the alcohol. “Oh!” she brightened. “They can do that.” Even without their virginity.

After dinner a curious young guy wandered out from the bar, a cold longneck in hand, and answered our questions about Number Hill. The Bureau of Land Management has cracked down on the annual painting. Too bad. If Native Americans painted these numbers a thousand years ago archeologists and sociologists would travel from the four corners to study them. A thousand years from now they’ll attempt to puzzle out the meaning of the faded numbers above this long-abandoned town. The Da Vinci Code meets American Graffiti.

Stuck Inside of Challis With the Arco Blues Again

The route to Challis climbed through a narrow valley between new jagged-topped mountains that were cloaked below their peaks in soft scrub growth. They looked soft enough to pet, like they were girded with mauve (or is it taupe?) moleskin. We passed a sign reporting on a 1983 earthquake that raised the mountains’ peaks six inches and dropped the valley nine feet. Nine feet! Incredible. The road climbed out of the taupe-swathed (or is it mauve?) valley to descend through a switchbacked canyon out of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Exiting the canyon we began a gradual descent into the Salmon River valley. It was a gorgeous ride topped by Challis–“Almost as nice as Ellis, but harder to spell!”–a small gem of a town nestled along the Salmon River in the gateway to the Sawtooth Mountains.

Or so we were told. Riding into town the words “desolate” and “depressing” again escaped our lips. The Village Inn Motel (motto: “Next Stop, Chapter 11!”) was tired, dark, and uncomfortable. The manager, affable and well-meaning, had arrived with his wife and daughter in Challis only a few days before. I asked if the rooms had Internet connections, not a crazy question when many small, inexpensive motels provide free wi-fi. “No, sorry, we don’t” he answered. “By the way, what is wi-fi? I’ve heard about it but don’t really know what it is.” After cleaning our bikes Mike F. and I reconnoitered for a dinner restaurant. The Village Inn’s manager himself said not to eat in the motel’s restaurant. The first open restaurant we passed had a “For Sale” sign. Another looked more suitable for a townies-versus-WYMPS bar fight. (In such event seven of us would hide behind either Bruce or Randy.) A drive hither and yon in Challis led to two entries on our list, a pizza place named Antonio’s and the Subway advertised on a dozen signs entering town. Unfortunately the Subway (a) is located inside the supermarket and (b) has not opened yet. I stopped an older couple in the supermarket aisle and asked if they could recommend a place for dinner. “Antonio’s” they said. As good as Zagats. We drove back to reserve a table for nine.

Antonio’s–salad bar lettuce floating in a bowl of brownish water notwithstanding–was surprisingly good. Last summer on my first WYMPS trip the first thing I learned—before learning never, never, ever to allow even a speck of jelly into the peanut butter jar—was that eating is as important as biking. The Mikes, Bruce, and Neal swap stories about bad meals they’ve eaten west to east and back again. Some of the stories I’ve heard so often I can recall how bad the meals were, even though I wasn’t there to eat them. We expected Antonio’s to enter the Annals of Bad Dining but it sucker-punched us with decent pastas and tasty pizzas. After dinner we drove to the dairy counter at the bowling alley for root beer floats, dipped cones, and shakes. No one bit on my half-hearted attempts to get us to bowl a few frames. We finished our desserts and returned to the motel.

Our advice: if you find yourself in Challis hit Antonio’s, hit the bowling alley, and then hit the road.

Ups and Downs

From Challis we drove to Sunbeam, unloaded the bikes from the vans, and began the beautiful ride along the Salmon River to Stanley and through the Sawtooths to Sun Valley. It’s hard to compare scenery, to rate the exotic drama of Yellowstone’s geyser basins and Firehole River against Idaho’s serene grass-swept valleys, lush farmland, impressive Warm River or Payette River canyons, or any other sight. We rode each day through spectacular, humbling beauty. One image to which I will return is the ranch land south of Stanley along the Salmon River to Galena Pass. I could have stayed there for weeks. I wanted to hike the foothills, fish the Salmon, explore Redfish Lake, and sit on my porch each morning to drink coffee and watch the sun rise and set over the Sawtooth Mountains.

Galena pass was a tough climb, ascending about 1,800 feet over five miles. We hit the climb about 12:30 PM in the heat of the day. Climbing it’s every man for himself, especially at altitude. You find a rhythm and stay with it, riding within your limits. It’s not a race. The goal is for everyone to make the ascent. We succeeded. Our reward was supposed to be about 30 miles downhill to Ketchum. Good in theory, not true in practice with a 15-20 mile (or greater?) wind in one’s face. The ride to Ketchum was a slog. We broke into multiple pace lines and traded riding lead, which means we all shared the misery. On one reasonably steep downhill I stopped pedaling, to see what would happen. I watched my speed drop from 15 miles per hour to 1.5, when I could no longer maintain balance and stopped. Wind stronger than the pull of gravity on a good downhill? That’s tough.

We slogged on, took our last driver changeover five miles out of Ketchum and, inspired by Peter’s intent to consume a frappe (a milk shake, to those not from the Northeast), we picked up the pace. Nearing Ketchum and the first cell-phone coverage in two days our mobiles woke with chirps, beeps, and rings. While riding Mike F. pulled the phone from his jersey pocket and spoke to his wife. After hanging up he rode next to me and said “Judy wants you to call. It’s not an emergency but you need to call as soon as you can.” This message translates as follows: It’s an emergency, but don’t make it worse by rushing and getting hurt. As soon as we hit Ketchum and located an ice-cream parlor (priorities are priorities) I listened to my messages: Uncle Ray, my father’s youngest brother, a sweet, wonderful man, had died after a long illness. I called Judy’s office number; no answer. I called her cell; no answer. I called home; Nate, my youngest, home after a month in North Carolina, answered. We chatted for a minute and I said I’d received the message about Raymond’s death. “That’s not why Mama was trying to call you” he said. “Grandma”–my mother–“died today. I’m sorry.”

My mother’s death was not a surprise but not expected this week, either. She was 91, in a nursing home, confined to a bed and wheelchair since breaking her hip three years ago, and seriously compromised by dementia. I visited her three days before this trip. She did not know who I was and could not speak. It’s painful to see one’s parent in that state. Driving home from that visit I called Judy and said “I don’t know how she is still alive.” In spite of everything her heart continued to beat. She seemed no closer or farther from death than on any other recent visit. Yet here it was. A life event at the tail end of the bike trip. You never know when reality will break into your reverie.

Facing Number Hill

I’m sitting in a plastic patio chair on the parking lot in front of the D-K Motel, across the road from Number Hill in Arco, Idaho, the first city in the world to receive (on July 17, 1955) nuclear-generated electric power. I’m sitting in the parking lot because the D-K Motel’s wireless Internet service does not extend to our motel rooms, and this is the first time we’ve had Internet access since Friday morning. “We” is the nine members of the 2007 edition of the WYMPS tour. Since Saturday morning we’ve biked round-trip from Colter Bay Village to the top of Togwotee Pass–35 miles one-way including an 18-mile climb, and if you think the 18 mile downhill return is easy you are wrong–, 65 miles from Colter Bay Village to Old Faithful, 90+ miles from Old Faithful to Rexburg, Idaho, and 85 miles from Rexburg to Arco, Idaho, the first city in the world to receive, etc. We’ve climbed and descended more than 12,500 feet of road and have the sore hamstrings and tight calves to prove it, drunk about 2 gallons/day each of water/Gatorade/grapefruit juice/V-8 (yucky in my opinion, but it takes all kinds), even more wine/beer/gin/club soda (I’m the permanent designated driver), eaten a number of very bad meals (the southwest chicken pizza at Brownstones in Idaho Falls was to die for-literally), attended the opening night of the Applebee’s restaurant in Rexburg (operating under a provisional liquor license in the dry Mormon-dominated town, in one night our party helped the local Applebee’s achieve its alcohol sales budget for the month, even though it ran out of its one bottle of tequila before we arrived), taken a personal tour of the Yellowstone Geyser Basins with Ranger Mike (seeing first-hand the ridge where Harry Walker was eaten by the bear and the pool next to Castle Geyser where the young boy . . . never mind, it’s really gross), and seen some of the most spectacular country imaginable (samples here, here, and here). We’ve seen traffic stopped by a mama grizzly and her three cubs–a few weeks ago a jogger was mauled at 5:30 in the morning by a mama grizzly with three cubs behind Jackson Lake Lodge, a few miles from our digs at Colter Bay Village (the jogger survived)–and by a group of bison, including one stubborn old guy who stood in the middle of the road, just refusing to move. We’ve seen a herd of elk and a herd of bison, a bald eagle perched on a tree limb above the Firehole River and another circling a thousand feet up near Grand Teton, a flock of white pelicans, deer, two young moose swimming and gamboling across a lake and two more standing in a bog like moose ordered up from central casting, an antelope (John did, anyway), innumerable hawks, and muskrats. And prairie dogs. To protect from intense dry heat we’ve consumed mass quantities of sunblock (30 and 50 SPF), chapstick, and zinc oxide. We’ve done laundry once, about 15 minutes ago. We’ve avoided getting the jelly in the peanut butter (the one in-joke in this post). Two of our party saved two itinerant Belgian tandem bikers from [choose one] (a) a 40-mile uphill ride to Grant Village, (b) a night in the Yellowstone Park pokey, (c) another day without showers, or (d) the consequences of their own poor planning.

We are having fun. More to follow.