I've made it to the city of Ontario, on the Idaho side of the border. I'm taking a day off to recover my wits, take notes, process photos, do laundry, and drink massive amounts of water. (The motel has a free ice machine! Hooray!)
To relax I decide to bike downtown. I pass by a hole-in-the-wall Mexico-themed market, where all the staff and patrons speak Spanish, perhaps exclusively. Funny how this phenomenon can be seen in America even this far north. Perhaps wherever there are fields to be worked -- and Idaho has plenty of those.
Anyway, I buy three Jarritos sodas, each a different flavor, and the man behind the counter opens one of them up for me. I go riding back through town with a soda in one hand, on my lap, thinking that it probably looks like a beer to everyone who sees me at the intersections.
I'm passing through Fruitland, heading southeast away from Ontario, towards the town of Emmett, my next designated sleeping place. The land is divided into big squares, and it seems that each one is growing a different vegetable.
- Dense short, golden wheat
- Tall, light yellow wheat
- Thin, bendy medium-sized wheat
- Deep green wrinkly leaves of kale
- Big purple-leafed cabbage plants
- Short tangly green herbs
- Tall spindly light-green herbs
I find it amusing that I could probably recognize these vegetables if they were cut, washed, ripened, and sitting in a supermarket, but out here in a field, clustered together and halfway mature, I have only a vague idea of what they are. Every day of this trip I see another thing that reminds me how little I actually know -- even about important things, like, what food actually looks like when it's still in the ground.
Today I'm biking into mountains again, so it's slow steady climbing all day. By mid-afternoon I have wrestled my way to a gas station next to a small produce market, outside the "town" of Horseshoe Bend. I buy a bell pepper and a banana, then I eat the bell pepper while standing around in the parking lot, and toss the seed pieces under a bush. I take a look around, and notice that since I'm surrounded by hills, I can no longer tell where the horizon is.
A few hours later I turn onto a highway that follows the bank of a churning river. My speed keeps dropping from the usual 10mph to 8mph or even 5mph, and I can't tell if it's because of the incline or because of fatigue. I keep seeing an optical illusion - the road, the river, and the train track on the opposite bank are all laid out on different slopes, and with no view of the horizon, I have no idea what sort of incline I'm really on. I know I'm at least going up hill because if I wasn't, the river would be flowing with me instead of against me.
Such are the things a rider will obsess about, when he knows he will be riding for many hours.
I stop at a turnout for a bathroom break, and then sit on my bike for a while crunching a bag of corn chips. I notice my reflection in the rear-view mirror, and decide to take a picture of it. Since the camera is tilted up at the mirror, it looks like the roadway is sloping down.
It's mid-morning, and I've been slogging along the final, massive uphill climb towards Stanley for a couple of hours already. I pull off by the side of the road at a turnout to catch my breath and gulp from the dwindling water supply in my luggage, and as I'm recovering, I notice an information kiosk. It's a little column of rocks and mortar with a flat space on top like a podium, and a thick sheet of scratchy plastic screwed down to it. Beneath the semi-transparent plastic is a diagram of the valley I'm climbing out of, and a few paragraphs talking about what the early prospectors and expeditions saw when they came stumbling through almost 200 years ago.
According to the diagram, the jagged mountains in the distance are the Sawtooth Range. I feel a mixture of excitement and disappointment that I am in physical sight of my destination - the planned end of my bicycle ride. Now that I am so used to moving, what will it be like to stop?
The road keeps going up, and gets even steeper. Since the morning I have had the bike set to the lowest possible gear, and now that gear isn't low enough. I have to push harder than I want to with every pedal stroke, and most of the time I use the foot-clips to pull up on the opposite pedal at the same time, trying to spread the fatigue over both sets of leg muscles. It helps, but not a lot, so I rest frequently.
But with each rest stop I take, I look around and see another interesting variation of the terrain. The mountains are hissing with a thousand tiny snowmelt streams, and snapping with a billion lively insects. In places the terrain is so compressed and segmented that it appears to have been laid out by a team of landscape artists, twisting each tree and placing each rock just so, like the decorations in a mini-golf course or a theme park, for maximum impact. Each chunk of meadow seems tailored to fill the irregular space it occupies, between faces of sheer grey rock or mounds of skree. Each river is an intricate succession of pools and waterfalls, wound expertly around the boulders, fallen trees, sandbars, pockets of eroded rock, and the embankment of the road.
Evidence of real design - human design - is visible in the road itself. Wherever the tiny streams threaten to flood the road, the builders have very cleverly buttressed it with layers of gravel and large stones, so the water drains harmlessly into the ground and pops up in some more convenient place downhill. The road here really is a kind of technical marvel.
I pass by a sliver of valley that has choked up with water and grass, and hear a riot of frogs. I pass by a grassy clearing dotted with multicolored flowers that resembles an enchanted meadow in some fantasy novel, except that it's on a forty-five-degree slope. I pass through a V-shaped valley crowded with low green bushes, punctuated with the blackened spires of trees burned by some decades-past forest fire, making the whole area resemble a gigantic pincushion.
Eventually the sights overwhelm me and I decide to stop and spend an hour or so photographing one of the snowmelt streams in detail.
Once I have finally pedaled to the top of the mountain pass, the terrain opens into a long plateau, divided into wide sections by thick bands of forest. The road plows a corridor straight across the bands, and the clouds are long and narrow, so the entire landscape is laid out along horizontal and vertical lines. It's an effect I last saw while driving through the Yukon.
Up here there is space for the flowers and trees to spread out a bit.
... And the ground is flat and solid enough for the rivers to do a bit of actual meandering.
I've been in Stanley for two days - one day spent almost entirely indoors recovering, and one day spent biking casually along the roads near the town, looking at all the kitschy shops and the colorful fellow tourists. A couple of times I've been surrounded by small groups of curious people and answered questions about my route and my hardware. Each time I've tried to bend the responses around enough to encourage people to try bicycle touring themselves.
I have also encountered some fellow cyclists in town. Some of them on bikes, most of them on foot attending to other business but eager to talk to someone with a shared interest. Mostly they ask about riding the recumbent bike, and I've tried to be as honest as possible with my answers. I don't want to sell someone on the idea of a recumbent bike when they probably wouldn't enjoy it. Riding a recumbent requires that you pace yourself a certain way ... and that you have a very good sense of balance. So if your butt and/or back don't hurt on an upright bike, why compromise? Besides, it's not like I own stock in a recumbent bike company, and I get uncomfortable if my words sound too much like a sales pitch.
It's a strange position to be in ... I know I probably come across as a seasoned veteran to the people who ask questions, but I don't feel like one. And also, I almost certainly look like a weirdo. Some crazy West-Coast hippie; probably hates cars; probably has saddlebags full of granola and flyers and an ipod full of earnest music by Pearl Jam, Coldplay, and R.E.M. Get him talking and he'll probably tell you he's vegan and accepting donations for the Save The Turtles foundation. (Which usually I am, actually.) So I find myself trying to act against type, to convince people that bike touring is not that hard, and that it's not that weird, and that any red-blooded yankee can and should try it out. Bike Touring: It's Not Just For Hippies and Europeans Anymore™. I don't just want people to take a passing interest, I want them to feel like they can participate.
Sitting in my tent, in a corner of a free campground at the base of the Sawtooth Range just a few miles outside of Stanley, with the evening winding down around me and the birdsong giving way to crickets, I think about my motivation. What am I trying to do? When I'm by myself it's obvious - I'm listening to audiobooks, pedaling, and looking at cool geography. I'm on an adventure. But when I encounter other people, something else is going on. I'm motivated by some other desire.
I not sure, but I think that what I'm trying to do is set an example that acts like a bridge. I want to present a way of living - or at least of acting - that shows people in disconnected groups that they could all benefit from establishing a common forum, and that they are not in danger of losing their identity if they do so. I think that if people feel confident or interested enough to participate in an activity that they thought was the territory of outsiders, then they are doing something quite valuable: They are making themselves available as a bridge between those groups, across which communication and relationships can flow.
Yeah, I know, that sounds way too cerebral, and also egotistical: How dull must I think the lives of others are, if I think that cruising up to them on a loaded bike is going to impress or inspire them? Well, I'm not saying I'm on this ride for the sake of other people. I'm doing it for myself. If my overriding purpose in life was to act as a "bridge", I would have a bigger effect by becoming a teacher and assembling a civics course for English-as-a-second-language students. But look at it this way: What else should I do when I encounter other people, during a journey that is solitary by design? Sneer at them? Tell them to get out of my way? Vandalize their homes as I ride through town, for a quick laugh? Well ... I might have been a bit of a vandal fifteen years ago ... but that's just not who I am these days. Call me a hippie if you want, but now I enjoy community building. Whether my motivation actually comes across, in my words or appearance, is of secondary importance to me, because hey, it's just a hobby.
Darkness has enclosed by little tent in the woods. I listen to an hour or so of H.P. Lovecraft radio dramatizations, then snuggle down for my last night of camping.