We see great country even as we face a day of dead-ends, one after another, trying to make our way to Wallace then Elsie Lake. Logging operations blocked three routes, sending us through the woods or miles around. It is nearly dark when we’re finally able to set up camp.
It isn’t quite light yet and I am trying to get back to sleep but I keep thinking about the ride ahead. Will the trails be rideable? Or will bypassing be possible? I guess if I can’t sleep I might as well get up and start the fire.
By the time I gather wood, get it lit and boil water for coffee, steam is rising from the creek wherever touched by morning light. I enjoy several solitary minutes by the fire, sipping the hot drink and watching the water transition from grey to glinting gold.
Jesse emerges from his tent to stand at some nearby bushes. From the corner of my eye I see him recoil and mutter something about “pee steam.”
“Did you look at what time it was?” he asks, walking this way. It’s obviously early.
“Nope,” I answer. “Don’t have a watch. My phone’s turned off.” I like not knowing the time, not needing to know the time.
After yesterday’s toe numbing slumber, wrenched wrist and bee sting, I’m glad Joel is still sleeping. We’re getting old, you know, and need recovery time. I know how awful it is to feel crummy on a ride.
Joel eventually rolls out looking refreshed, reports good sleep and sets to brewing his pot—or enormous cup, if you prefer—of coffee. We’re getting amped up for another day of riding!
This is one of those mountain creeks so cold it hurts. “Please go numb, please go numb,” I was imploring my feet as I waded across several times for wood. Baths were … invigorating. Jesse and I got ‘er done last night which means we can watch and laugh while Joel takes the plunge this morning. Don’t forget to scrub!
We are packed, washed and ready to ride when a local on his home-brew scooter pulls up and starts to talk about … well, everything. Jesse is curious to learn the feasibility of the day’s trails after the reservations I shared last night but our visitor isn’t familiar with them. He suggests a lot of other directions that would be great if we didn’t need gas or a definite place to camp.
He is entertaining but eventually we hint and hint again that we’re ready to move on. As we talked, a few caravans of ATVs passed by toward the state line road in a cloud of dust which is enough to convince me to change plans and set off in the opposite direction.
Instead of following the ATVs up Loop Creek we take Cliff Creek and the Old Milwaukee Road which are oiled most of the way up to the state line ridge. This is also part of the popular Route of the Hiawatha bicycle trail¹ along the old train track with a fifteen mile-per-hour speed limit. The slow speed seems to have kept all other motorized riders away from this route which is fine by us. We idle along, wave at the bicyclers and enjoy the view.
“Did you see that guy?” Jesse asks incredulously after we stop at an overlook.
I hadn’t noticed anything. “Which guy?” I ask.
“The one who stopped at our camp,” he explains.
“I saw him parked back at his own camp,” I answer, wondering what’s special about that.
“When we went by,” he says of himself and Joel, “he had that little bike up on a hill I wouldn’t take my bike on! Looked like he was stuck, but still ...”
I do wish I would have seen that—just the sort of unassuming guy who could ride circles around us.
A trail takes off to the left just as the road crests the ridge toward Montana. It should follow the ridge over to Bullion Pass where we can continue to Stevens Peak then Wallace. We’re relieved to get off the gravel roads and glad there’s no traffic up here.
The trail is a lot of fun. For maybe a hundred yards it turns into a series of tight curves up hill through crowding brush and branches. We have to go, go, with little visibility. It isn’t rocky or bumpy, just an entertaining maneuvering exercise. When the trail opens back up, we feel pretty good about getting through.
It gets more interesting after that—stair step roots, loose rocks, hair pin turns through the trees. We’re glad it’s downhill. I’m too busy braking and balancing for pictures.
We come out on Bullion Creek Road and stop to regroup. “Man, that was awesome!” I say to my brothers. They seem less excited.
“I don’t really like that kind of thing,” Jesse says. “It’s hard to stop.”
“Yeah,” I acknowledge, “I wouldn’t like it much either in that case. My brakes are pretty good.” With the way we’re loaded, I probably have a much lower center of gravity as well. I can tractor down the hills.
A guy steps out of a truck that has pulled to a stop in the middle of the gravel road ahead. We’re still parked on the trail enjoying a snack in the shade. He checks his trailer and load then calls over to us. “Enjoy that trail?”
“Yeah,” we answer. Overall, it was good.
“We just ran it this morning on ATVs,” he says.
“Which way?” I ask.
“Both ways,” he answers. “I ran it once on a heavy XR 600,” he continues. “That was pretty interesting.”
“I bet,” I say.
Jesse chimes in with his trail condition questions. “What do you know about that trail,” he nods across the road, “going up the ridge?”
“Don’t bother,” the guy answers, describing a trail that all but disappears in grass and rocks. Good to know. We say farewells and, persuaded against the ridgeline single track, begin down that gravel road on our pre-programmed bypass route to Stevens Peak.
We are on Moon Pass Road again, about half-way through looping back to the ridge, when a prominent trailhead appears on the right. I stop and check the GPS which shows it leading straight up to Stevens Peak. I like shortcuts and I like getting off the gravel. We agree to have a go at it.
Typical of this outing, the siren song of a smooth trailhead has us quickly imperiled by rocky shores, rough roots and malevolent phantasms. Where did this creek come from? And where did the trail go? Who’s leading this outfit?
We continue along this path of entropy which, like the world economy,¹ keeps getting worse but at pace slow enough to leave room for wishful thinking and self-deception. “Wow, that was close—can’t turn back now” or “seems like it might be clearing up ahead,” I keep telling myself.
At an easy stretch we pause for a break. I walk ahead to see what we face next. I find another creek crossing, of course, but then a long shale hill with obstacles and a couple sharp turns, and no way to get a run at it. Wishful thinking won’t get me up that.
Riding lead is a privilege of being the navigator but I find myself worried to minimize the cloud of dust in my mirror, speeding up, slowing down, feeling bad that I can’t make it better for Joel and Jesse. Sorry guys.
After giving up on the shortcut, we ride several more miles on Moon Pass to a steep jeep trail that climbs up to the ridge, the ridge we would have been on the whole time if we’d thought we had invisible trail skills (trials skills, I suppose) at Bullion Pass earlier today.
This trail is well used—rocky in spots but overall easy going. We stop on a bare ridge above the town of Mullan. “Shall we ride up it?” I ask, motioning in the direction of Stevens Peak just beyond the next saddle.
Joel and Jesse don’t seem terribly excited—more interested in kicking back around a fire than another mountain top vista. I mostly agree but having looked at it on a map for about the last year, I feel emotionally committed to reaching the peak. When we see a red pickup appear on that distant ridge, however, it helps settle the matter. I mean shoot, if cars can drive up there, what’s the point?
After Jesse finishes chatting on the phone, promising Natasha that we’re all enjoying her brownies very much, thank you, we turn and head the opposite way along the ridge toward Wallace.
The trail becomes smoother, straighter and we ride fast along a line of dappled light between tall pines. We’re making great time now. The last stretch of road into Wallace should be scrolling into view on the GPS at any moment.
But whoa, this isn’t on the map. The trail ends abruptly at a freshly cut, wide dirt road, inches thick with poof-dust.
There is something sordid about the security of these logging operations. I’ve seen it many times. They are like wasp traps. There is always a long, narrow route left open and unmarked, much as we’ve just traveled. Only when you get into the middle of the operation do you find every way onward is blocked, ostensibly to keep anyone from getting to where you already are.
Of course retreat, much as for the wasp, is nearly incomprehensible.
We buzz and buzz against dead ends—this trail, that road, this way, the other way, dust and rocks—but get nowhere except more exhausted. We just want out. Our final option heads the wrong direction but at least it’s descending. Oh well, let’s try it.
The long dusty road emerges not at Wallace, which we had in sight from the ridge, but another brother ride first: an Interstate Highway to ride.
It is really nice to finally arrive in Wallace but we’re anxious to set up camp. We talked of lunch here but decide to stop only long enough for a milkshake at the Red Light Garage.¹ We’ll eat properly later.
We aren’t far now from our campsite, Elsie Lake. A couple ATV trails and we should be there.
I knew from Satellite map reconnaissance that our first trailhead was beyond a mine so I’m not surprised when we pass the Galena Mine¹ signs and gates up Lake Gulch Road from Wallace. I am surprised, though, that we end up in a gravel lot picking our way between buildings. The mine is operational and we half expect someone to yell at us.
I am doubtful but remain faithful to the line on the GPS and soon see the trail behind a building leading up the mountain under a thick cover of trees.
The trail is cut into opposite sides of a steep ravine, switching back and forth across the creek that runs from Lost Lake (different from the Lost Lake we camped at a couple years ago¹). We pass under trees fallen across the trail from above. Like the rocks, they are covered in moss. It is damp and shaded—very beautiful, very serene, I think.
Serenity is not without excitement. We plow blindly through brush a few times to keep momentum up climbs. And we all remark on the rocks at one place that bounced us around next to a big drop—good pucker factor there.
Rocks and roots exposed in the muddy bank opposite one creek crossing requires a push for the pig (that’s me). Thanks brothers. I make it over the big hazards but then go sideways on a wet root, let off the throttle so I don’t shoot into the forest, and fall ingloriously on my side.
“It looked like you were going fine then just fell over,” Jesse says. Which I think means “lame.” It’s not the first time the pig has wallowed today but I’m keeping the more shameful occasions to myself.
This trail has been some work but I think Team 250 will agree it’s been quite enjoyable. The constant focus it requires is oddly relaxing, almost meditative. It becomes all that exists—regulate throttle, shift weight, regulate throttle, re-balance, anticipate.
I can see we’re close to the ridge which means we’re almost home free. The mounds and ditches ahead surely mark the intersection with a road. Not long now and we’ll be hearing again about Jesse’s luxury chair as we sip whisky around an overbuilt fire.
Assuming no big deal, I ride up the first mound before seeing the dirt is fresh, deep and steep. I slide to a stop high-centered and incredulous. Our road is in sight but we can’t get there.
We are exasperated. At least I am. We discuss for a moment and agree: we won’t backtrack. We’re too close. We’ve worked too hard to get here. We’ll use the hand shovel to dig, the little saw to cut trees, whatever it takes.
After walking around to assess a few options, we begin clearing a path on the downhill side, breaking down brush and moving logs. We’ll go one-at-a-time while the others push and stabilize. Teamwork.
The path will go between a stump and tree that looks tight for the GS. Below it is steeper, above is another clearance issue, so not much choice. I measure the space: the length of this random stick plus one fist. Back at the GS, I measure the heads: just about one stick. I guess it will fit.
“Why don’t you go first, make a bit of trail,” I suggest to Joel and Jesse. “I’m a bit scared of this one,” I admit, “but I guess it’s fun to be scared.” And it is.
Joel and Jesse start, stop, slip and spin through without much trouble. My turn.
I start fine but the bike sits lower on the stump than where I measured. It wedges in when I try to lurch through. Joel and Jesse lift and push, angling this way and that, as I work the throttle but it doesn’t budge.
We try a couple times then consider alternatives. It is so close. “I’m gonna grab my knife,” I say, “and whittle some stump away.” As I crouch and begin jabbing into the wood and twisting, I’m relieved to find it soft.
This time when we do our little GS dance, it scrapes through. What a relief.
We stop at the road to cool down and decompress. We laugh and make jokes about this latest adventure, the failed “stick and fist” measurement and the nefarious forest planners who lead riders down primrose paths.
We ride a short distance on the road before turning onto our final trail today, a prominent ATV track. It’s a neat trail that snakes through trees up to the ridgeline but at this point we’re focusing on the destination more than the ride.
The turn off to Elsie Lake is a longer, steeper descent than I expected. No wrestling involved but I think climbing back to the ridge will be entertaining tomorrow morning.
A Forest Service bulletin (it was handy to subscribe to those¹) had indicated the campground would be under construction, closed to vehicles, but open to the ATV trail. Other than a few piles of rocks and dirt, we have the whole place to ourselves, several campsites to choose from.
We are exuberant (speaking for myself, almost giddy) for this happy ending to our hard day of riding.
Noticing several bullet casings on the ground, and remembering all too well the alarming explosions last year,¹ we decide to dig the junk out of the pit before starting a fire. Jesse supervises to ensure I’m down to clean earth then makes it doubly safe by layering rocks on the bottom. That’s the lasting paranoia created by a couple bullets going off in your face.
“What was I doing?” Joel wonders aloud when he hears the camera shutter. I have it on a tripod to get the three of us, remote in hand. I try to click when they’re doing something stupid.
“Hope it was something cool,” Jesse drawls.
“Guess we’ll find out when the rest of the world does,” says Joel with resignation.
We notice the whiskey that was stiff the first night has loosened right up. Drinks flow freely and night comes swiftly as we melt into our chairs, staring at embers and reflecting on the day.
I recently finished reading “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Victor Frankl. It’s not so much that I was searching for meaning (but thanks to everyone who joked about that), rather I was put onto the book by fellow adventure rider, Clayton, someone I never met in person but whose near real-time ride story I was reading on ADVrider.com¹ a few years ago.
Clayton expressed great respect for Frankl’s book in the face of extreme hardship resulting from that particular ride. I was moved by Clayton and curious to read Frankl. I wasn’t persuaded by Frankl’s conclusions but appreciated this poignant account of his imprisonment:
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.²
I thought about that. My last freedom is to choose my attitude …
What if that’s my only human freedom? My other freedoms, such as going left or right, are common to every organism. Nothing special there. But being able to face circumstances and alter the attitudes that drive the impulses that create my choices—that’s freedom where it matters. If I give that up, and allow whatever attitude presents itself, then I’m hardly bothering to be human at all.
Hard trails shouldn’t be mentioned in the same story as concentration camps. But even there, the ride today, were chances to choose an attitude, to be human. I’ve mentioned many things in these accounts that I enjoy about adventure riding but choosing to face something difficult knowing I’ll probably be challenged to choose an attitude along the way—that’s somewhere at the core of it.