Days 87 & 88: Going up Lolo Pass and down it into Idaho with a heavy head 

I left Missoula riding high from the day before – making it the ACA headquarters was another accomplishment to tick off the list, and I really had a great time with Wendy and Andre that night. But the good vibes were mostly located on the road ahead. 

The order of the day was Lolo Pass, the last true mountain pass I’d have to tackle before the road to the coast, and a glorious descent into Idaho. I had originally planned on stopping in Lolo Hot Springs for one last night in Montana with a hard push the next morning to the summit. But Wendy told me about a great free camping situation for cyclists at Lochsa Lodge 13 miles past the summit in Powell. Making the summit AND free camping? No-brainer. 

Missoula would be my last night in Montana, which was a little sad. Montana has been my favorite state so far. It’s all there – mountains, deserts, forests, plains, fantastic cities, a healthy dose of Americana weirdness, and friendly people. I’ll be back some day. 

Just like every other time I climbed a mountain I had to go down to go up. The road from Missoula to Lolo was a gradual downhill on a bike trail seperate from the road. But then I took the right turn to follow US-12 and was off into the mountains again:


And clearly on the Lewis and Clark trail. 

The road went up deceptively all day long, but particularly at the beginning of the climb. The road was essentially a false flat for miles and miles, just inching up in elevation oh-so-gradually. The gorgeous Montana landscape was enough distraction to feeling it in my legs, and the smell of the trees…mmmmm!

It became clear that wildfires had effected this landscape sometime in the past, which would be more clear if I weren’t too busy gushing on my bike through the camera:

And then the real climb began:

Although I guess it’s hard to see. It always is through photos, but it’s certainly not hard to feel. It becomes pretty clear when the road goes up, and it doesn’t take much to feel the burn. 

All told, though, the climb wasn’t the most difficult I’ve done by a long shot. The gradient built into the road was probably the best I’d experienced yet. 

Eventually I made it to Lolo Hot Speings, where I originally intended on stopping for the night. There was no need. I was tired but hardly at the point when I needed to stop. I did need some energy and a breather though, so I hung out outside the swimming pool at the “resort” where there was a DJ playing the oddest, most random mix of songs with no flow at all:

This was very much a family place. Why there was a DJ? Who knows.

After the hot springs the road really started to climb. 

But still, I was feeling fine. A group of motorcycle tourists and a gas station attendant assured me it’d hurt, but it didn’t. If only they knew the roads I’ve already dealt with. 

In no time I made it. Lolo Pass taken care of, right into Idaho, the 15th state of the tour, and the Pacific Time Zone.

I may not have felt beat up by the mountain but I felt the gravity of the Pass. Of all my overthinking about this ride ending in the days previous, this really did feel like I was entering the final days and miles of this thing.

I stopped at the visitor center at the pass and got a sticker for the bike. Lolo Pass is a beast in the touring world, but mostly going the other way. I’ve heard countless times about how grueling the climb is going east, which means that going down it would be a blast. 

But there was something getting in the way of that:

I’ve sent quite a bit of time outside in the past three months, and I know when it’s going to rain. It was absolutely going to rain. I decided to hang out with the lovely rangers at the visitor center to see what was doing on the radar. 

There was a severe weather advisory – intense thunderstorms with winds approaching 45-50mph. Uh, yeah, I’m not riding in that, and I’m definitely not riding in that going down a beast of a mountain. Just as I was reading it on the phone the storm was making its way through the Pass, and I saw a downpour for the first time since the day in eastern Colorado coming into Byers with the ankle biters. But it only lasted a short while. Still, I was concerned about water mixing with oil on the road for the big descent to Lochsa Lodge. I waited longer. The flirty Rangers made that an easy decision. 

Eventually it was time to go, and for 13 miles, I had a blast. It was a super fun descent, dampened only a bit by extra attention paid to the damp road. It wasn’t as steep as the descent from Hoosier Pass, but I couldn’t help but feel for anyone that had to climb up it. 

At Lochsa I got the deal that Wendy told me about – free camping for cyclists, $5 for a shower. Was I going to take a shower? Uh, nope. That money was better spent at the bar where I could watch Women’s Soccer at the olympics:

*** *** ***

The next morning I woke up to a long day ahead of me. It was the only day I planned months ago that would be a 100-miler. By making it to Lochsa instead of Lolo Hot Springs the day was cut short a bit, but it ended up being my second 100-mile day anyway. 

I pushed off out of the lodge and started my 90-mile descent down the mountain. There was really only one stop I wanted to make on the day, and that was at Warm Springs, where there was a short hike to some natural hot springs off the river:

I’m no hiker, but was it gorgeous. 

I’d heard multiple times that these springs were clothing optional, and sure enough, a couple guys took advantage of the policy, while the women didn’t. Seems to always be the case. 

I ended up talking to three Canadian women taking a little car/hiking/camping trip, And they were great to talk to. But my mind was heavy with a lot. I couldn’t shake the notion that going down Lolo meant I was nearing the end of this, and there are a host of new emotions and thoughts to navigate with that. I’m not sure I was good company for them, but if I’m right, they didn’t have to suffer me too long. I didn’t want to stick around the springs anyway, remembering what happened the last time I went by natural springs on my bike in Colorado, taking a mini sabbatical. 

And then down I went:

It was a slower ride than I thought it would be, but the landscape was very soothing. I just cruised along, pushing a heavy gear with a lower cadence so as not to burn up my energy on a long day. 

It was good that I didn’t have any navigating or traffic to worry about, because I had a lot of thinking to do. I’m not sure how much headway I made in the things I have to work out, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. 

This all means I didn’t take many pictures. I didn’t want to spoil the rhythm of the riding or my thinking. But if you want to know what it was like, it pretty much looked like this for 75 miles or so:

Despite the descent, I was pushing long miles. The first place to stop was Lowell, whose sign got punny:

Not long after Lowell the wilderness opened up on the road to Kooskia, with a new landscape to boot:

I was absolutely beat. I may have gone downhill all day but 90 miles is 90 miles. I decided to get a room, but the closest I could get was in Kamiah, 8 miles hence. 

The stop was Hearthstone Lodge, and when I got there I realized a truth – reserving a room online doesn’t mean you won’t have an impossible gravel road to hike your 100lb bike up:

It was a “country lodge”, adding to the list of incredibly varied places I’ve slept for the night on this tour. The owners were anxious to show off their antique furniture after checking in, and I nodded and smiled, trying not to say “I’m really happy that you’re so proud of your 1800s armoire, it’s quite the peice, but I just want to get some rest”. 

Eventually I got to the room and was happy that it had a jacuzzi. I soaked and cleaned up, and it felt incredible. I used so much soap the water was a milky white, even with my dirty body. But then I decided to do some laundry in the water:

My shirt instantly turned the water a delightfully gross yellow-brown, and I just laughed my head off. A laundry regimen isn’t something I’ve really incorporated into my daily or weekly routine, and it was showing. 

It did the trick though.my shirt was clean and dry(ish) the next morning. Little did I know it’d be completely drenched in my sweat on by far one of the hardest days of the tour yet…

-J

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