Bulls standing in the road, falls in the mud, rugged dirt roads, a swarm of bees, thunder, lightning, overpowering gusts of wind that come out of nowhere, mosquitoes the size of hamsters, clouds of tiny persistent bugs, more flat tires, long stretches of empty road, coffee deprivation, and aching solitude. Just some of the things that come to mind as I think about the week I pedaled from Boise to Salt Lake.
It was really difficult to say goodbye to Boise. Boise had been excellent to me. I loved my hosts, Kristi and Dan. They made me feel so cozy and welcome. They reintroduced me to music, which I hadn’t realized I’d been missing so much.They shared their scotch with me! Of course I didn’t want to leave. But leave I did, and as I was on the road by myself, without Kevin and Sunyoung, outside the city of Boise, I snapped a picture of being on my own again. When I looked at it, I surprised myself with how bewildered and abandoned I looked. A little rattled by the image, I had to remind myself that I’ve done this traveling by myself thing before. Just keep going, it’ll seem normal again soon, I thought. I doubted that, though. I was already missing the coast and the redwoods. I gazed out at the seemingly endless desert and sagebrush, my ribbon of road just disappearing across the horizon, and felt very out of place.
My destination for Wednesday, May 20, was Glenns Ferry, but, as usual, I didn’t get the early start I was hoping for. Wary of the lack of services along my route, I had spent a long time at the grocery store restocking on granola bars and other essentials. Then I made my way to Pleasant Valley Road. The name promised good times, didn’t it? I’m sure it’s very pleasant when it’s paved, but at the time I arrived, all the asphalt was scraped off and construction crews were hard at work. I bounced along and fought the soft dirt and rising dust, almost thinking it would be a relief when Google Maps took me off of the main road and onto a dirt path.
I thought I would just have a brief stint on this dirt road, but it just kept going. I’m pretty sure these paths are only used by the locals to go out into the desert to shoot at things. There were many spent shells on the ground, and every now and then I could hear a gunshot in the distance. Mostly, though, I was on my own, trying to follow an ever-narrowing and fading path in the desert. Now and then I came upon a herd of cows. Cows look very docile when they’re on the other side of a fence. But this time, there was no fence between us. I remained patient and let them wander away from the road before proceeding. There were also little calves frolicking about, and I worried about getting between a calf and its mother. Then there was a bull standing in the road. I waited for a long time for that bull to wander far away before daring to continue, the whole while keeping one eye on it. The angry bull I encountered in the truck with Kevin and Sunyoung was scary enough. This one, while it didn’t seem angry at me at the moment, could change its mind, and then what would I do? My heart hammered in my chest as I tried to calmly mind my own business, thinking he would ignore me if I looked like I had places to be.
Sometimes I couldn’t tell which way to go as the path branched off in different directions, or maybe they were just animal trails. What did people ever do without GPS? Google stayed in touch with me, thankfully, and guided me through until I finally came upon a gravel road. I’ve never been so happy to find a gravel road.
This gravel road took me by what I gathered to be, based on the warning signs, a National Guard target zone for live ammunition. That made me a little nervous, but I figured that as long as I stayed out of the areas where I was supposed to stay out, I would be okay. I just hoped that I didn’t miss a sign and blunder my way into a restricted area. After hours of not seeing anyone, rattling along on this gravel road, dreaming of asphalt, I heard a truck pull up behind me and slow to a crawl. I looked over to see a military truck with two men in army fatigues inside. The one in the passenger seat, bald and chiseled, looked especially stern. He motioned for me to stop and I felt my heart jump into my throat. I stopped and gave him my best good-golly-isn’t-this-a-lovely-day-for-a-bike-ride-I’m-doing-something-totally-normal smile.
“Ma’am, do you know where you’re going?” he barked.
“Oh sure!” I chirped. “This road will take me to the Old Oregon Trail Highway, right?” I looked past Mr. Scary at the driver, who was much younger, had hair, and was straining to look around his companion to see me. He looked like he was fighting the urge to laugh. I wasn’t sure what to think about that.
“Well don’t miss your turn!” he shot back.
Turn? He might be scary, but he had information that I needed. I looked down at my instructions from Google Maps. I had no turn coming up. I tried to win him over. “Of course! And that would be in… how many miles…” as I pretended to search for the answer.
“It’s coming right up,” he said a little more softly. “About another mile, make a left. If you continue straight you’ll just end up on a loop. You’ll go 30 miles and end up right back here.” Mr. Chortles in the driver’s seat nodded, grinning like a maniac.
“Well, that’d be all right, I got water and a tent,” I said, in an effort to look prepared for the worst. Apparently this was the greatest thing Mr. Chortles ever heard as he squirmed in delight. Mr. Scary just gave me a look.
“When you make your turn,” he continued, as if he hadn’t heard me, “you’ll get some hard ball.”
“I’ll get what?” I stammered. Hard ball? As in, this road so far has been soft ball, as in easy? And now it was going to get tough? Please, no.
“Pavement!” he barked.
I smiled in relief. “That’ll be a treat,” I said. Mr. Chortles couldn’t hold it in anymore and cackled.
“Don’t miss your turn,” Mr. Scary said one last time, and off they went in a cloud of dust.
As promised, I made a left turn and came upon pavement. Rough pavement, but still pavement. I was so happy I took a picture.
Sadly, it wasn’t to last. Signs pointing my way to the Old Oregon Trail Highway put me back on dirt roads. As I was maneuvering around one big mud pit, things were a bit more slippery than I thought, and suddenly Lutz and I were treating ourselves to a mud bath.
So I didn’t make it to Glenns Ferry. Instead, when I came to a motel in Mountain Home, I called it a day. I wanted a real shower. The Internet informed me that this motel was cheap, but with a peculiar owner who wasn’t the most friendly guy in the world. I didn’t care, I just wanted the day to be over. Indeed, the owner gave me the interrogation process that I read about. After finally letting me into the office after looking me up and down through the window for a while, he spent several minutes inspecting my driver’s license, asking me about where I came from, and questioning me several times on whether I smoked. It seemed like he was trying to surprise me into confessing that I was a smoker. After the sixth time, I got snippy and pointed at my bike. “I spend all day riding a bike, I would never smoke!” He then seemed satisfied and let me have a key to my room. I was pretty grumpy about the lengthy interview and only felt mildly bad when the mud dried and flaked off my shoes and panniers onto his carpet.
Thursday started off pretty well. I was on smooth asphalt again, and after fueling up at a cute diner, I felt ready to go. I got to Glenns Ferry and enjoyed a nice sit at the park, where a couple locals shyly came up to talk to me – or didn’t, one was so shy he would only talk to me from across the street. I enjoyed the twang in their accent and hearing the phrase son of a gun used in all seriousness.
Shortly after leaving Glenns Ferry, though, I must have been zoned out looking at the Snake River, because I totally did not notice riding straight into a bee swarm. Just all of a sudden, I was being pelted by bees. They were everywhere! I instinctively went into a low tuck and wondered who was the idiot letting out a string of swear words. I realized it was me, then made a point of keeping my mouth shut as I proceeded through the swarm. I grew up playing tennis on courts that were placed right between cherry orchards and bee hives. My friends and I quickly adjusted to being around bees all the time, and our coach told us about how he once walked through a swarm just fine. I also dabbled a little with bee keeping in the Peace Corps. My tennis coach’s reassuring words about bee swarms and my Peace Corps experience kept me somewhat calm as bees bumped into me and crawled around on my skin until they straightened themselves out and took off flying again. Still, I was terrified that one or two or twenty would get stuck in my shirt or in my helmet. The whole time I spent in the swarm was probably only six seconds, but it felt like an hour. And nothing bad happened.
A little bit after the swarm, I was pedaling along up a hill looking at some cows and suddenly found myself in the middle of the road. The cows were stumbling, too, and we all fought to straighten ourselves against the huge crosswind that took us all by surprise. Thunder rumbled, then the sheets of rain came down. I dashed for shelter under a tree and started hauling out my rain gear. Of course, once I got it out and on my person, the rain eased up. But the thunder didn’t. I was feeling spooked and wasn’t sure if I should be on these empty roads with thunder and lightning. Being hit by lightning suddenly seemed like a very real threat. I called up Kevin to get his opinion. I could tell that he was talking, but he was fading in and out. It was the first time on this trip that I felt like crying. Soon, though, he came in a bit clearer, and he couldn’t find any immediate warnings online about cyclists being in particular danger of lightning strikes, so I kept going.
I had my heart set on making it to Miracle Springs in Buhl that night, so even a flat tire and going through clouds of itty bitty bugs wouldn’t stop me as dusk settled in. These bugs were just awful, getting up into my nostrils, into my ears, and apparently dying instantaneously if they touched me. I was wearing a white long-sleeved shirt, and after going through a cloud of these bugs I had their corpses stuck all over me. It made me think of the way Mario would die if one of those Goombas just touched him. I pulled my bandanna up over my nose and kept going. Finally I made it to Miracle Springs, where, as far as I could tell, the springs had been converted into swimming pools filled with families with small children. I passed on the opportunity to bathe in the springs and crashed into my tent.
Friday I started off the day by changing yet another flat. And Friday remained about that interesting. I went through farmland. Lots and lots and lots of farmland. When I arrived in Burley, getting close to my RV campground, I was in the mood for some hot food. I paused to browse through my phone and ended up right next to a car where the owner showed up balancing several Chinese take out boxes. I asked him if the food was good and he enthusiastically nodded. With a ringing endorsement like that, I had to go try.
I found the Chinese restaurant, Shon Hing, and ordered my food to go. I kept myself amused as I read reviews on the wall naming this restaurant as having the best Oriental food in town. Right as I was leaving, a couple asked me where I was going. When they heard that I was going to a campground, they offered me their guest room. This was the kind of hospitality I’d heard about, but I was unprepared for it. It didn’t occur to me at the moment to accept. I thought about it while I ate my takeout in my lonesome corner of grass away from the RVs. While it was the most delicious sweet red goo-covered food I’d ever had, I knew that rain was coming, and I wondered if I made the right choice.
Saturday morning I woke up to rain. Rain rain rain, I didn’t want to deal with it. My tent wasn’t handling the rain very well, but I had my one dry spot right in the center of the tent, and I tried to ignore the problem while staying on my island of safety. Finally I had to get out, though, and immediately my feet were soaked as I stepped into soggy grass. Miserably, I packed up my soaking gear, which took forever, and made it to the nearest diner to eat and pout.
I overheard a local talking about riding motorcycles, so I decided to ask him about route suggestions. It looked like Google Maps was trying to take me off into the boonies again to avoid the highways, but I didn’t mind riding the highways as long as they weren’t too busy. I introduced myself and told him what I was trying to do, then asked if he had any advice about the roads. He leaned away from me, looked me up and down, and said with obvious horror, “What’s the matter with you?”
I wonder that a lot, too.
Anyway, he suggested that I stay on 81 and stop in Malta for the night. I was heading into country with few towns, and Malta would be the last town for miles and miles. He said he thought there was a motel there, but he wasn’t sure. As he gave me advice, every now and then he would shake his head, like he couldn’t believe he was taking part in this, and ask me again what was the matter with me.
As we said goodbye and I took off in the rain, I wondered what was the matter with me. When it started to hail, I yelped at the pain and screamed at the sky, “No one told me there would be hail!” Then I started laughing, because everything was funny and delightful. I stopped to collect some hail and let it melt on my tongue, and I was so glad that there was something the matter with me, because it meant I got to ride my bike in the rain and the hail in the vast Idaho desert all by myself with only a dim idea of what lay ahead of me. And I was loving it.
When I arrived in Malta, where a sign announced the population at 193, there was no motel, which didn’t surprise me. I asked a guy on the street about where I could get a hot drink, and he said I could try the gas station. Across the street from the gas station was a sandwich shop, which I’d heard good things about, so I went there instead. There were no hot drinks to be had, but I got a sandwich, which was all right. Then I tried to get a cup of coffee at the gas station, but was informed by the lady there that it was too late for coffee. It wasn’t even 5:00. So I went back to the sandwich shop to talk to the guy there, whose name was Gary, about where I could spend the night. There weren’t any towns until Snowville, Utah, about 50 miles away. I didn’t have another 50 miles in me, so it looked like I would be camping on the side of the road. I was kind of excited about my first stealth camping and mentioned that to Gary. He then seemed to soften a little bit and gave me directions to his in-laws’ place about five miles down the road. Since they were out of town, he said I could camp in their front yard.
He drew a rough map and said that I should look for a house with six trees in front and a small dairy across the road. He paused and muttered, “Oh, you’re not going to know what that is,” so he clarified and said, “You’re going to see cows.” I wasn’t entirely confident in being able to pick out these outstanding features – trees and cows, you don’t say? – but I thanked him and took off.
I figured that this dairy, since he thought I wouldn’t even be able to identify it as a dairy, was probably very small, like on the same level of production as my host family’s in Paraguay. I kept my eyes peeled for a small cluster of cows and obsessively counted trees when I estimated that I was getting close to five miles. And then came upon a huge lot with at least 500 dairy cows lined up inside. The house across the road, big and beautiful and oddly out of place with a well-manicured, multi-tiered garden, had six trees in front. I felt a little insulted that Gary didn’t think I could recognize a dairy, and a little confused that he would choose the trees as the distinguishing feature to look for. So actually I ended up thinking that I must be in the wrong place, but after knocking on the door and no one answering, I figured I probably had it right. So I set up my tent and spent my evening on the covered porch to stay dry while playing on my phone. In the evening Gary’s kids showed up to swim in their grandparents’ pool in the backyard – which I thought sounded like a terrible idea until I saw all the steam rising over the fence and realized this was one very well heated pool – so yes, I was at the right house after all.
So Sunday morning I was making my way to Snowville, only 50 miles away. I crossed into Utah, and after that it was practically one big downhill into Snowville. I also could look around me and see that it was raining behind me, but I had a tailwind, so I was traveling with the clouds. I placed myself in a break in the clouds and paced myself so I could stay in a spot of sunshine, and that worked for about an hour! I coasted into town feeling particularly pleased with myself and pulled into the campground nice and early. There weren’t many people about, and when I went into the office I found out it was all set on the honor system. The place was wallpapered with messages, all of them raving about how great the place was and how great Delbert was – I assumed he was the one running the place. It was $20 to camp in a tent for the night, but I didn’t have that in cash, so I decided to set up my tent and then go into town to get a $20 bill.
I went to the local diner and got a bowl of chili and ended up sitting next to Ryan Cassata, a young singer/songwriter from San Francisco on a national tour. We compared journeys while we ate at the counter. His music is powerful stuff, everyone should take the chance to listen!
It was still early, so I took the chance to nap and lounge about in the sun and pretty much had a very relaxed time. I also managed to pick up a Stephen King novel from the book exchange at the campground. I didn’t have a book to exchange for it – if you had told me when I left home that someday I would be willing to carry a book around with me I would have said you were nuts – so I just left $3 instead. I felt lucky to find it, the other choices were…. not as good.
On the morning of Memorial Day I was back at the diner, and since Snowville is a pretty small town, to keep me from having to do my food shopping at the truck stop, the people there offered to make me a couple sandwiches. They were so cute, they even packed me a couple packages of chips and some cookies. As I was getting ready to leave, this elderly gentleman walked up to me and thanked me for spending the night with him. I was completely startled until I realized that he must be Delbert. He was so happy that it was kind of infectious. He said he wanted to talk to me earlier, but just didn’t have a chance. But he found me at the diner, so he sat down and we talked a bit. According to him, people like me (ie, non-RV people, I think) staying at his campground give him a thrill. He said that if I called him and asked for a rescue, he’d come get me. And I could tell he meant it, too.
I cruised down 83 and spent a little time at the Thiokol Rocket Garden, reflecting on Memorial Day, then decided to take a little side trip to visit Promontory Summit. It seemed symbolic to visit the Golden Spike National Monument where the first transcontinental railroad was completed. This was, obviously, quite the climb. But it was well worth it. I stayed there longer than I thought I would, which meant I got to see the locomotives, replicas of No. 119 of the Union Pacific and Jupiter of the Central Pacific, move out at the end of the day.
I also noticed that my scenery was changing. I had mountains on the horizon to look at now! It was such a welcome change from the endless sand and sagebrush that I had been looking at for so long, I had to stop to take a picture. While I was stopped, curious odd little hummingbirds were checking me out. Then one landed on me and bit me. They weren’t hummingbirds at all! They were instead the biggest, fattest mosquitoes I’d ever seen – and having been to the Florida Everglades, that’s saying something. I smashed one and instantly regretted it as I felt the heavy squish and splinter of the exoskeleton in between my fingers. I once said there’s no such thing as picking up the pace on a loaded touring bike – I take it back. You can pick up the pace. You just need the proper motivation.
In Brigham City I found a cheap little motel since there weren’t any campgrounds close by. In the morning, right when I started making my way to Salt Lake City, the skies opened up and I was caught in a huge downpour. It was tempting to turn around and climb back into bed, but I pushed on. I got a little lost because I was following my phone’s directions, but it registers raindrops, so the rain kept changing my destination without me knowing. Once I figured that out, though, I stopped getting lost. Especially when I found my way onto the Denver and Rio Grande Western Rail Trail, a paved bike path that goes from about Ogden and practically straight into SLC, the navigating was extremely easy. Paved bike paths need to be included in that My Favorite Things song.
Once in SLC, though, I was back to city navigating and feeling quite lost. I had made a connection on Warm Showers and was looking for the home of my hosts, using Google Maps to weave through the congestion. A guy commuting home from work on his bike rode up behind me and clearly thought that I needed help, and he quickly offered to escort me through much of the city. He said he worked for the Utah Transit Authority, so he knew the city very well and gave me some tidbits on the recent developments of bike paths and other roads as we cycled along. I know I’ll get it wrong if I try to repeat some of the stuff he told me, so I’ll just make some stuff up:
having revitalized an interest in public transportation by working with the steampunk subculture, UTA’s next big plan is to install some of those people transporter tubes like they have on Futurama. Anyway, he rode with me about right up to where my route got really steep, and then we parted ways.
I finally pulled into the driveway of my hosts’ house and met Lou, who at first seemed mostly concerned with my bike. Then he showed me to their beautiful guest room, and I got to take a shower while he finished preparing dinner. Lou and his wife Julie have extensive experience with cycle touring, and Lou is on the Warm Showers board, so he knew exactly what a tired touring cyclist would want. Dinner was incredible, especially the giant bowl of fruit that I had to fight hard not to just drop my face into. Julie didn’t come home until after 10:00, she’s extremely busy with work and with being a director of a nonprofit that works with sexual assault victims. When she did come home, though, she still had the energy to talk with me for quite a while, and I wish we had time to talk for a week about everything. She was in the military and had been in Paraguay – I knew that because I saw her guampa and bombilla on display! – so we had many things we could have discussed forever.
The rest of Wednesday I used to run various errands, such as shopping at REI (I got a new tent!), and route-planning with Lou. Thursday I reserved for myself to see some of the city. I visited the Wasatch brew pub, where I got a Polygamy Porter, as per Kevin’s suggestion, and Temple Square. I also cruised around to a few different CrossFit boxes. Similar to Portland, despite many people’s efforts to reach out to them, none of them responded. So I went out in person and talked to them about a drive that was happening nearby on Saturday, and that really seemed to perk up some interest. A couple coaches really seemed earnest in holding a drive at their boxes on their own, so I think Salt Lake City’s CrossFitters may soon be registered as bone marrow donors after all!
So much rain. Seems impossible, but I guess much of the country is not California…