Days 89 & 90: Getting lost in Idaho on the most challenging ride yet and rest

I left the hotel outside Kamiah beelining it for the restaurant back in town with my voucher for free breakfast, and after the the undernourished 100-mile day I had the day before I pulled the old touring restaurant trick for the first time – I ordered two full plates. Food is fuel out here and after the empty but incredibly beautiful descent down Lolo I was running on fumes. It did the trick… Or so I thought. What I didn’t realize was that I was beginning the most trying day of the tour since day 1 of the C&O Canal Towpath coming out of DC.

I hit the grocery store to reload the food pannier, filled my water bottles, and was off. I thought I’d continue to take US-12 west but after checking ACA’s map realized I was wrong: “at Kamiah, our route leaves US-12, due to the unsafe conditions on the highway. Local cyclists recommended the route we use, up and over the Camas and Nezperce Prairies, to get to Lewiston”. It was hard for me to think that a US Route I had ridden on multiple times in multiple states would be unsafe for cyclists, but I went with the ACA. 

The elevation profile on the map indicated I’d have a fairly significant 2,000 foot climb coming out of Kamiah on state route 162. It started off pretty typically, but then I saw a road sign with a bit of “found foreshadowing”:

That’s “Fort Misery Road”, apparently named after a Nez Perce attack on the American military fort left the soldiers without water or horses in 1877. I felt my own misery pretty quickly. 

The climb up 162 was by far the steepest road I’d ridden on since the tour began, rivaling Ravine Street in Cincinnati between OTR and Clifton… Only 15 miles long. After a few of those 15 I felt utterly depleted. My legs were on fire, but something else was happening as well. In a cruel ironic twist from Mother Nature the air was stagnant on the climb. There was zero wind. None. The only movement of the leaves in the gorgeous mountainsides came from passing cars. Of all the thousands of miles I’d had to reckon with wind beating me up, the one day it didn’t blow was when I was crawling up an incredibly steep road at a snail’s pace with no natural cool-off in a very dry heat. I began completely baking in the sun and in short order (maybe 3-5 miles) whatever water I had inside my body seemed to come out of it. My shirt was drenched in sweat, literally dripping, and pooled in my shorts making it look like I peed myself. I took them off and just wore my cycling shorts for the first time since the C&O when I took off the outerwear because they were soaked in rain. I thought “it’s going to be one of those kinds of days”. I took a giant swig of water but I knew it wasn’t enough. Still, I had to ration it as any source of water was dozens of miles away and the heat and climbing were nowhere near done with me. I have a water filter I picked up in Chicago that I haven’t had to use yet but there were no streams on the route to use it with. 

A few miles more and the suffering just continued. The road got even steeper and my strength got even lower. 

Notice there are no lane markers or white lines. This did me no favors with cars, pickups, and logging trucks whizzing by me with abandon. Also notice the road – I don’t know what this is called, but the gravel was packed into tar with no pavement. While this rough stuff is nothing compared to some of the Spartan paths I’ve been on, it did add friction to the ride, which made the climb that much harder. 

It got to the point where I couldn’t go a half mile without stopping on the side of the road to cool off and let my heart slow down. This has never happened before. I started this thing being pretty good at regulating my efforts, and it’s a skill that has only gotten more honed as I’ve moved west. My frustration was mounting. 

I managed to make it up past the big push when the canyon opened up:

But the climb wasn’t finished. It started to get hard to think straight and I felt pain in my legs that I just knew wouldn’t go away with a flat road. But there was a more pressing issue: I stopped sweating. That’s really, really not good. 

I carry quite a bit of water. I’m a heavy sweater and even when not working my body I can down a bottle of water in one swig without trying. Both my water bottles were empty and I was down to the two Nalgene bottles I carry. That wasn’t enough to get me through the day. 

I made a turn around a corner and the road mercifully went down, with a bit of an oasis:

My time in northwest Kansas taught me grain elevators aren’t what they seem. I knew I could get water at the elevator, and that’s just what I did. The guy working there let me fill my bottles without thinking twice, and I made sure he knew how grateful I was. But I drank two full bottles worth of water before I loaded them up on the bike. I wasn’t even halfway through the day and had already drank almost twice as much as I normally do in a day.

The climb may have ended but the road didn’t get all that much easier. It turned into something like Iowa – the elevation profile of a saw blade with incredibly short, steep climbs followed by descents of a few short seconds leading to another climb with no end in sight, and no flat stretches. I really, really don’t like riding roads like this and I didn’t need them on that day.

And then the insult to injury – 162 came to an end and I had to take a new road. But I didn’t know which to take because there were no road signs. The ACA map just said “take the unmarked Old Highway 7”. Ok… But if all the roads are unmarked, how do I know which is Old Highway 7? So I checked Google Maps. No service. I had no choice but to wing it and go with what I thought would get me the hell out of this place. 

The saw blade roads continued and my endurance drained very quickly. The pain in my legs was increasing as well. I already sensed that I wouldn’t be able to make my intended destination for the night… Which just frustrated me more. 

I eventually made it to a fork in the road with two dumpsters. Of course the roads had no signs so I had no idea where I was. I propped my bike up against the dumpsters and took what turned into a 30-minute break. I needed to regroup and figure out how I was going to get through the rest of the day. 

Eventually a woman in a pickup pulled off and I tried to wave her down. She got out to readjust her load in the back and I asked her if she could help me figure out how to get to Winchester, where I was trying to get to. It became clear that I indeed made the wrong turn. She pointed out a small town in the distance and said it was Grangeville. 

That is a town south of Kamiah. In essence I made no westward distance through all that effort. I was seething in my mind but kept my composure while she was around. That became difficult when she said “be careful out there. It’s hard to avoid you bikers when we have logging trucks coming the other way”. Uh, excuse me? You can’t wait four seconds for the logging truck to pass before passing me? Four seconds?” I thought about giving her a piece of my mind but the “this girl likes guns and coffee” bumper sticker kept my mouth shut. 

I began the ride into Grangeville no better off than I was a half hour before when the break began. I knew I had to stop for the day. My anger at the situation was at a level it hadn’t been at since I pleaded for support in the C&O mud pit back in May. I felt utterly defeated, and I had no idea why. It’s not like I don’t know what I’m doing at this point. I’ve been at this for three months and I’m more fit now than I’ve probably ever been in my life, and certainly more than when I began. My thighs look like footballs have been implanted in them but they couldn’t take me through the day. 

I got a room at a fleabag hotel and tried to take my mind off the day with the Olympics and chatting with a plumber in town for a job. Right before bed I knew my body needed a break, and I fought self flagellation as hard as I could, but it didn’t work. At least I slept like a baby. 

*** *** ***

I spent the day doing what seems to get me the most ready for the road ahead when I’m beat, which is to do nothing. I watched Olympics coverage and slept mostly. I feel more rested, but only a slight fraction less weary. Monster climbs are not a thing of the past just yet. I have thousands of feet of climbing ahead of me tomorrow into Lewiston and Clarkston, and even more getting into Oregon from eastern Washington. I’m aiming for Clarkston across the Snake River in Washington tomorrow. State lines are something of a recharge, and candidly, Idahoans haven’t impressed me much. There is a certain kind of beauty to the landscape, of course, but I haven’t gotten such bad vibes from locals since Iowa and Nebraska. 

But even more I feel I need a bit of road magic. I’m struggling with the symmetry of this thing. The two-week mark of a long tour seems to inexplicably be a low point in terms of the mental game for many bike travelers, and it was for me. But the two-week mark on the back end has me in a similar headspace. My mental game isn’t strong right now and I’m not happy about it. It’s not something I really know how to change, but I want it to. I need it to. I want these last two weeks of this life changing, unbelievable experience to be a celebration, and if I continue in this vein they won’t be. But who knows. If there’s one thing I know after all these miles ridden it’s that you never know what the road will throw at you on a given day. I’m hoping that the road throws something good tomorrow and the last days ahead. 


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