First Ride to Silver City

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July 3, 2010
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The Long Independence Day weekend was finally an opportunity for a day trip to Silver City. I plotted a route that avoided freeway but wasn’t too dirty. We just wanted to get there so Jess and I stuck to the solid lines on the map for this trip.

We passed intermingled subdivisions and pastures (urban sprawl at its finest) turning to sagebrush as we followed pleasant surface streets south to our first break at Celebration Park.

New Skid Plate
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I had trouble hearing Jessica through the intercom as we rode. She said she could hear me just fine. It seemed like a perfect arrangement, really, but I figured I would see what adjustments were possible when we stopped.

The dark boulders at Celebration Park (known as Bonneville melon gravel) strewn between river and cliff are decorated with thousands of petroglyphs as much as 12,000 years old.¹

  1. Canyon County web site: canyonco.org/parks
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Highway 78 must have a fairly new surface. It was a smooth roller coaster ride of curves, hills and dips. Not many highways put butterflies in my stomach. After fifteen fun miles, we arrived at the main Silver City turn-off. The road is paved for the first six-or-so miles allowing continued roller coaster speeds. Shortly after it turned to gravel we noticed the undulating brown hills to our left bisected dramatically by a jagged scar.

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An on-the-fly intercom conference yielded unanimous consent. We would explore! Golf ball-sized gravel kept us to a leisurely pace as we turned off the road to follow the two-track down to the canyon’s edge.

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Abrupt cliffs of orange stone, home to miniature, vertical forests of grey and green lichens, held our gaze. Lacking trees for scale, the canyon loomed larger than it seemed from the road. It reminded me of the Nevada mountains where what first seemed to be patches of green grass on the mountainsides were in fact entire forests of aspen trees.

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Sinker Creek supports a ribbon of greenery as it meanders through the canyon bottom. We watched a small group of ATVs follow an established road across the creek once and twice on their way out of sight. We were tempted to find our own way down but knew it would jeopardize our chance of getting to Silver City before dark.

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As a child, I was surprised to discover that the brown couch I’d lived with for years was not brown at all. Looking at it closely one day, I saw it consisted entirely of threads of red, green and yellow. The Owyhees are like that. Although drab from a distance, a close look reveals vivid colors and surprising shapes.

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We took a different track up from the canyon back to the main gravel road and slowly wound our way up into the mountains. I set my eyes on the highest peaks hoping we would soon find our way there. Relaying this to Jessica, she just said, “I know,” in a tone that told me she simply accepted it as an idiot fact of male thinking.

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Immersion in the environment is a joy of riding. The open air conveys scents and changes of temperature. As we passed through forest carpeted green and spotted yellow, I relished the aroma. It was not the wet smell of Wallowa woods, moss and earth, but a drier smell of bark and sap. It reminded me of the woods around our home as a boy. It felt like somewhere I belonged.

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We saw a dozen jeep trails pealing off that I wanted so much to explore. Jess noticed my head turn for each one and knew my thoughts. “I know,” she would say as we passed each one by.

“Maybe on the way back,” I’d answer, knowing how unlikely that was given the late hour.

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We passed many grand views until descending a hill to Silver City. We made it!

“Silver City, Idaho is one of the few old mining towns that did not burn down or become commercialized into a modern city. Visiting Silver City is like going back into history. The Idaho Hotel is as it was 100 years ago with few modern amenities."¹

  1. historicsilvercityidaho.com/www.historicsilvercityidaho
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We cruised a festive main street crowded with residents and visitors involved in a big game of horseshoes. It was like driving through someone’s picnic. Moms pulled their kids out of the way to let us pass.

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The hotel is a picture of dissonance, appearing on the verge of collapse in some areas but freshly painted and decorated elsewhere.

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Packed lunch in hand, we swung open the worn door to the hotel foyer to see if there was a place we might sit while eating. The double dining room doors were closed while paying guests sat down to a family-style dinner. Rather than intrude, we decided we’d find somewhere to sit outside.

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We walked up the dirt main street to a picnic table situated above the park where horseshoes were flying. Our sandwiches were nicely compacted from the day’s bumpy diversions. As we sat and ate turkey on flatbread, we watched ATVs, the main get-around-town vehicle, loaded down with entire families, sometimes three or four kids riding fenders or racks.

Beneath Pat's What-Not Shop
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I felt welcome in Silver City. The people in these little towns always seem more straight-forward to me.

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After finishing our lunch and walking around the town a little, we felt we’d seen as much as we could in the time we had. We were ready to be on our way.

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Before exiting town, we looped around a few side streets on the motorcycle to see the old buildings. Some of the streets were so steep and rutted it seemed you’d either have to walk or ride on knobby tires if you lived up there.

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We reserved enough daylight to attempt the War Eagle Mountain summit. We’d passed the turn-off just a mile or so before Silver City. The dirt road upward was lined with evergreens. We waved to folks settling in around their fires at the several occupied campsites we passed.

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The speakers in my helmet announced a cemetery sighting. Jessica was interested to stop and have a look. The wireless intercoms allowed us to continue chatting even as Jessica walked to a far corner of the cemetery. I heard her dismay at discovering a marker for two infants.

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Only a few of the headstones identified the interred and none were still standing. They’d all been removed from their original base and embedded in haphazard horizontal cement slabs. These few were connected by long rows of the “unknown.” How so many lost their identity was a curiosity to us.

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Here as in other mining towns of the era, the average lifespan seemed to be three decades. It puts whatever hardships we might experience in perspective.

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Back on the road, we approached and began to circle the summit. I hadn’t given that part of the map much attention so I wasn’t sure if the road would still take us to the top or if we were already on our way beyond War Eagle Mountain. The road was visible continuing above the cliffs of the distant Turntable Mountain but that was farther than we had time for. It looked like a spectacular ride for another day.

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As I was getting close to giving up and turning around to try one of the sketchy trails we’d noticed off the road, through the trees and toward the peak, we came to an intersection with the obvious main approach to the summit. Yea! It was a rough and rutted ATV trail. Jess had to walk a stretch so I could get on the pegs and let the back end slide where it wanted to. For a while our intercoms kept us in touch, and I could entertain her with a blow-by-blow account, but then we went out of range. I stopped after the rough patch and stood on a boulder while she caught up.

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The wind was cold and the light nearly horizontal when we stopped at a bit over 8,000 feet. We sauntered around the summit enjoying the 360-degree view, wishing we had time to follow roads farther into the mountains.

Phone lied about having service
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I was glad we hadn’t tried other trails. I didn’t see any coming through to the summit.

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The cold wind began to penetrate our jackets, signaling an end to the day’s adventure. Before turning home, it seemed important to leave our tracks in the summer snow.

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Jessica wanted to make a final stop at a mine she spotted under the road.

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“Hundreds of mines pock-mark and honeycomb the mountains; one had upwards of seventy miles of tunnels laboriously hand-dug through it. Between 1863 and 1865, more than two hundred and fifty mines were in operation and hundreds more were developed thereafter."¹

  1. historicsilvercityidaho.com/www.historicsilvercityidaho
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I grabbed a flashlight from the tank bag and we carefully made our way inside balanced on planks to avoid the couple inches of water flowing out of the mine.

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It is just as well we left our helmets on since, with the light trained at our feet, we both hit our heads on the same broken beam. The shaft went only twenty or thirty feet before ending at rubble.

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From the mine we made haste to the highway. I wanted to be out of the mountains before darkness fell.

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The sky turned purple as we emerged from the mountains. We rode home shrouded in a peaceful blanket of darkness. Silver City, we’ll be back.