Sounds of the hero coyote
Winter’s early grasp on Washington continues into Idaho and is even more prevalent as I climb into the mountains. Road signs along the high passes into Lewiston warn of icy conditions and suggest chains in snow. Today, my good fortune keeps the rain light and the temperature well above freezing. As I crest the hill over Lewiston, fog lingers and mists the road. I stop at the top to weigh my bike on the abandoned truck scale. Given a full tank of fuel, I’d say the monstrosity weighs eight hundred pounds.
Lewiston is aptly named after Meriwether Lewis from the Lewis and Clark expedition of the early 1800s. Theirs was the first successful land expedition to the Pacific by European settlers. Lewis and Clark set out to study the geography, plants, and animals, but they also endeavored to find a practicable trade route to Asia. The success of their landmark expedition is evidenced by the United States reaching clear to the Pacific Ocean — territory that was at the time unclaimed by Europeans or in control of the Spanish. Fifty years after the expedition, the city of Lewiston was named Idaho’s first state capital. When Montana established itself as a separate territory, the Idaho legislature moved the capital to Boise. Ironically, though Lewiston appears very well land locked, it is now known for having the farthest inland seaport of ocean-going vessels east of the west coast of the United States. And because of this, industrial commerce situated along the Snake and Columbia rivers is visible for miles around.
I find inexpensive fuel for the bike and my belly at the bottom of the pass. The cheapest fuel in town has created a furry of activity. Truckers and locals alike fight for open fuel pumps. Inside, people punch sugar coated pastries into their mouths between sips of steaming hot coffee. The restroom offers hot showers for anyone willing to pay a few dollars. Ready for a break from the ride, I sit on the curb outside to watch the commotion. A few strangers stop to admire my bike; some recognizing the Alaska plate and talk about their own travels through Alaska. I woof down a half pint of pasta salad and a chocolate chip cookie. Lunch is over. I’m still fifty miles away from camp — wherever that may be.
The terrain flattens into rolling fields east and south of Lewiston. Smells of agriculture waft into my helmet. By Craigmont, the sun sets and the sky darkens. Highway 95 is too busy to camp nearby, so I head off the road and cross the tracks hoping to find a flat, grassy spot out of earshot of the highway. To me, a flat, grassy spot at the intersection of two baron dirt roads looks like the perfect place to sleep. The roads stretch in four directions from my camp, and each looks as vacant as the next. Plowed fields fill every inch of view. By the light of my bike, I roll out the tent and make camp for the night.
The land beneath me is the Nez Perce Indian Reservation. The Nez Perce attribute their origin to a mighty fight between a menace of a beast and a hero. There was once a monster that ravaged the Clearwater River Valley until the coyote hero jumped into its throat and stabbed it through the heart with a knife. The coyote then cut the beast’s body into pieces and strew them about the land to form the many Indian tribes of the West. Upon realizing it had no tribe for the beautiful valley that the beast had ravaged, the coyote squeezed the last few drops of blood from the beast’s heart and gave life to the Nez Perce. They call themselves “The People,” and they claim the best qualities of man from the heart of a beast. Knowing a bit of their story, I humbly sleep on their land and welcome the calls of the coyote that fill the night air.
Content with howling wolves, I instead worry that a pickup truck might crash into me while I sleep. The narrow patch of grass I found leaves my tent with only inches between it and the roadbed. By morning the fear of such an encounter seems absurd. Not a single vehicle drives past in the twelve hours of my stay. The most noise overnight comes from the nearby highway and the hero coyote killing monsters in my dreams.
After breakfast the next morning, I break camp and hit the road. Through Grangeville, flatland turns mountainous and the straight road takes to twisting between Wallowa, Nez Perce, and Payette National Forests. Road signs again warn about snow, and the tops of the nearby hills show white with winter. Out of the mountains, I descend onto New Meadows and cross the 45th Parallel. Smoke from a wildfire or controlled burn fills the air, and the haze turns everything monotone gray and brown. I stop for lunch in New Meadows and sit outside, soaking in the heat, to eat and to call my parents.
Highway 55 south from New Meadows follows a beautiful valley between Payette and Boise National Forests. I look for camp on Cascade Reservoir, easily sneaking around the closed gate. This late in the year, the water spigots are shut off, and the lake looks less than palatable. Short on water for dinner, I push on hoping to find a more suitable place to sleep. Miles tick away quickly along the well maintained road. The highway passes through quiet little residential communities in the mountains, and then it climbs high out of the valley before Boise.
When I hit the outskirts of town, the sun finishes setting. Night makes finding camp much more difficult. I look to the GPS for a campground near my current location and get a hit within a mile. Unfortunately, when I arrive, the sign outside the office clearly prohibits tent campers. They only serve people who sleep in RVs. It’s their loss because I am ready and willing to pay for a site. I ride back to the highway thinking about heading out of town. The residences here are clustered too close together, and I don’t think I can find a place this near the city to sleep without being harassed by police. While waiting for the light to allow my turn, I see the start of an empty field ahead. I cancel my turn indicator and ride through the intersection. Sneaking once again around rocks that block an entrance, I motor out of view and into the middle of this field. It’s perfect! No one will bother me here. If they do, they’ll walk a long way to do it!
Rain starts to fall half way through my dinner of noodles and sausage. Through two thin layers of tent, I listen to cars and trucks stop at the streetlight and then accelerate away shortly thereafter. The sound of tires against wet pavement inevitably puts me to sleep.
The rain continues through the night. By morning, the sandy lot on which I’m camped is dimpled with several hours of steady rain. I fry a few pieces of bacon outside for breakfast while packing a wet and sandy tent. Starting the day with rain sets a pretty low standard for improvement. Anything is better than striking camp in the rain, eating in the rain, and then riding in the rain.
I head west to Oregon and leave the rain behind in Boise. Before crossing the Snake River into Marsing, I pass a giant grass mound capped by a basalt black heap of rock. Imagine dropping a rock the size of a house atop a two hundred foot tall cone shaped ant hill the size of warehouse. That’s the butte before me. The GPS calls it Lizard Butte. I park the bike on a side road and march to the top, realizing very quickly that being out of shape and dressed in full riding gear is no way to hike a hill of this size. And once I’ve wheezed and panted my way to the very top, I have to pee. So I turn to the road and arch a stream over the edge and to the grass below.
To the east is Idaho; to the west is Oregon. The best part of the climb is seeing the promise of clear sky in Oregon. Pleased to have found such an epic place to pee, I hop down the easy side of the hill and return to my bike. Good weather to the west has renewed my hope for a fun day of riding. I hurry along to cross into a new state.
Gray sky turns blue, and rolling hills of brown grass replace the green foliage of Idaho. I ride a piece of the Oregon Trail and stop to read its history. The placard tells the story of a very grim and trying journey across the high desert of Oregon. A map shows a day’s journey from the Snake River, where I hiked the butte, to the Malheur River, fifteen miles away. Fifteen minutes down the road, I see a sign marking the Malheur River and realize the true seriousness of trekking the Oregon Trail. What took me a quarter of an hour to ride by motorbike took all day by wagon and foot 180 years ago.
Highway 20 through Eastern Oregon quickly climbs to almost five thousand feet. Several miles of the road follow or intersect with other historical trails through Oregon. I rarely see another vehicle on the road. The ride through the mountains snakes alongside a defunct railway. A train traveling this route now would have a difficult time. Pieces of an eroded trellis cross a river — but only half way. The steel shoots off into space without support at the end. Piles that once supported a span sit rotten to the core beneath rusting lengths of steel.
A heavy wind careens across the high desert once the road levels and straightens. I stow away inside a Safeway at Burns for lunch and to call ahead to Corvallis. My friends Johnathan and Teagan are expecting me tomorrow. I fill them in on the ride so far and the beauty of Eastern Oregon. They promise a hot shower, a warm bed, and good company. These things are very welcome to a traveler, and I express my thanks in advance.
By evening, I turn off the highway and onto the gravel road of an open range. The road into the Northern Great Basin Experimental Range is open gated except for a cattle grate between fences. Apparently the range is “open” to people but “closed” to the cattle. A short ride to the ranch and then into the hills nets me a very exceptional and free camp once again. More important is that I am alone once again — in the wilderness and left to enjoy a campfire with the peace of my own thoughts and the sounds of the hero coyote.