Day 48 - Saturday, July 21
Clear cool morning
I was ready to be on the road by 7 a.m. but the bike would not start. This is getting to be a major problem. Rather than sit in the campground and let it crank and crank, I decided to push it (fully loaded) to the front gate where the engine would be less bothersome for sleepers.
This was the hardest physical work I've done in a while. I had to push the bike uphill in wet grass. I made it with a few stops of heavy breathing. Once near the road and on level ground I paused, said a quick prayer, and pressed the start button. It fired right up. I have no idea why it acts the way it does. I motored out onto the highway due west.
I was about 35 miles from Missoula. I stopped for a tepid cup of coffee at a gas station then kept motoring along. The morning light was lovely, the winds calm, and the traffic minimal. I just needed to follow Route 200 through Missoula to get to Lolo. This proved to be easy except for several streets which were under repair and covered in loose gravel. At one major intersection where I was first at the red light, a train whistle blared and came right through, no crossing signals, no barriers, just a loud whistle.
I did not see a diner or anything that might serve breakfast, so I set my sights on Lolo. Surely Lolo, gateway to the Great Wilderness, would be ready to serve wayfaring travelers. Lolo has several gas stations and casinos. Montana is loaded with casinos. They are any establishment with a gambling license, seemingly as easy to get as liquor licenses. I did find something to eat in a place that had just enough room between it's stuffed wild animals and mounted gun collection for a few customers.
Taxidermy is as common a trade in the West, as insurance sales in the Midwest.
I pointed the bike down Route 12 in Lolo. I will ride it clear across Idaho. This is a section of the United States I have been anxious to see. I refer to it as the Bitterroot and sure enough the Bitterroot River and Forest are an important part of this region, but this wilderness is far greater in size than just the Bitterroot. I now refer to it as the Great Wilderness, just as the Prairie is called the Great Plains. The Great Wilderness is vast with steep sided mountains all covered in pine. Brooks, streams, and rivers slice and carve their way through the rugged terrain. Birds, fish, and mammals rule. Humans have a presence, but it is secondary.
My first stop was at Lolo Hot Springs. It is a natural thermal spring known for centuries to native people and then trappers and traders. Today it costs six dollars to sit in the indoor pool with water direct from the spring or the outdoor pool where the water is cooled a little for families. I spent time in the natural indoor pool. It was well worth it.
Riding a motorcycle all day, day after day, has a tightening effect on the right shoulder and arm. Sort of, throttle death grip syndrome or SDGS for short. Natural hot springs as in Arkansas and now Montana are the perfect antidote.
I could have stayed at the campground, but it was hot and still early, so I decided to push on into the Wilderness. I'm glad I did. A few miles on the hills start to narrow in on me. A sign says, "Chain staging area." I know I'm heading into the mountains. I prepare myself for a big climb, which really comes down to thinking about going up a steep hill for a very long time. That's not the case here. Yes, there is a climb, but it is not particularly steep and certainly not very long. I find myself at the summit straddling the Montana/Idaho border.
There is a nice Forest Service Information center here. It is very comprehensive. A ranger spent a great deal of time with me going over the wilderness area and where the Continental Divide is. It's not where I thought it was. She said most people make the same mistake. I crossed it the day before in the rain storm, just north of Butte. Very anticlimactic. The ranger showed me rivers that started east then turned north and finally went west. We traced all sorts of things on three different maps. Most important were campground locations. She loaded me down with fact sheets on all of them.
As I was about to leave the Ranger said, "Watch out for the horses pulling a wagon." There was a fellow with a team of horses making his way across the wilderness. I would meet up with him (after seeing dropped clues along the road) at the next camp.
As it turns out, the highest point on Route 12 across Idaho is right there on the border with Montana. It goes from about 5,300 feet down to around 750 feet, 200 miles away in Lewiston. About 90% of it is in forest along the Blackfoot River, pure wilderness with a paved road running through it.
This is a "must ride" road. I'm sure many people already knew this, but I just discovered it. The first highway sign you see heading down says, "Twisting Road Next 99 Miles" and it's true.
The Lochsa River Valley is just wide enough for the water and a road. Steep pine tree covered mountains crowd the route. Their tops shine in sunlight. The valley floor is in deep shadow with occasional bursts of light against the water. This is bliss.
There is a subjective point of balance when traveling. It is a balance among the terrain, the machine, and the human. Of course it's the human component that provides the subjectivity. There is no specific formula for this balance. Balance is a combination of harmony and truth, with a dash of reality. It happens and sometimes your are lucky enough to be consciousness of it. So it was on my descent into the Wilderness, balance in Grace.
In time, after seeing fresh horse droppings along the road, I came upon a horse drawn wagon languidly making a left turn into one of the few rest stops with supplies and gasoline on this route. It was the wagon master Bob Skelding and his three Belgian horses, Deedee, Dolly, and Doc. Bob is touring the American West. This is his forth major tour. He started in New Hampshire too. His wagon is outfitted with solar collectors, electricity, and an Internet connection. "Just because you pick a 19th century mode of transportation doesn't mean you have to live in the 19th century." Jim said when I commented on his living arrangement.
Even with interruptions for families to take photos of the horses and wagon (Jim would grab the young children and fling them up on Doc's back, much to everyone's delight) he pulled out of the rest area and was back on the road before me. Despite our different choices, in our moment of goodbye I felt a camaraderie with Bob.
I drove on down the river valley to the Wilderness Gateway Campground. It was early, but I wanted to set up camp and sit by the river for a while. I found a site near some rapids that gave off a soothing sound. Evening turned to night followed by a good night's rest.