Michael and I make a loop between Idaho City, Rocky Bar and Atlanta, Idaho, down forest roads, through a bit of snow, and finally ridge-top single track. It was a good thing he brought a saw or we might have missed “whoopty hell.”
“Here for the girls’ ride?” asked one then another of the apparently humorous ladies arriving at the Granite Creek parking lot just east of Idaho City.¹ The way Michael was trying on different outfits, we might have been. But no, we were doing a man ride on man machines.
I clung tightly to that manliness while speeding through chill morning air down Granite Creek Road, our thin riding gloves doing little to blunt piercing cold. We stopped twice to restore life to extremities. I was disappointed that there was no hint of warmth from my grip heaters.¹ I had counted on gloating.
Flying between areas alternately shaded and sunlit along Rabbit Creek had the feel of accelerating through time—winter, summer, winter, summer, cold, warm, cold, warm. Aching fingers and a fogging visor couldn’t detract from the autumnal glory of blazing shrubs and glowing aspens along the dark and languid creek. I didn’t want to fall too far behind but I had to hit the brakes for a longer look.
We turned across the North Fork of the Boise River at Barber Flat to ride over the ridge to the Middle Fork and Alexander Flats (out there, any bit of flat ground merits a name). From there we were quick along the wide gravel-way to Roaring River. Michael rode up Roaring River before the Elk Complex fire¹ and was curious to see how it fared.
Blackened trees appeared more frequently as we climbed steadily toward snowy ridges, their bare boughs clutching darkly at the sky, but there was no sign of the all-out incineration and scorched earth I’d seen in some parts of the previous year’s burn.¹ It shouldn’t be long to recover.
Although I remember decades ago speeding carefree down North Idaho’s thoroughly snow packed country roads to high school on my dirt bike, recent years on the heavy 1200 GS have left me skittish on slippery stuff. I was wary of northern slopes along Trinity Ridge that harbored patches of snow but glad for the beauty of surrounding white summits.
In 1864, the town of Rocky Bar was said to be “about the size of Boise City”¹ but as Michael and I descended in dappled midday shade along Bear Creek there was little to make us think some 2,500 people² once called the area home.
Idaho Statesman, August 1, 1864, “Letter from Alturas.”
Mining sustained the town for many years, long enough that some would live out their lives there amidst rugged Idaho mountains. Where we felt at times like the only people on Earth, visitors to Rocky Bar in 1889 still observed, “at no time … is the road lonesome, as wagons may be seen coming and going along the whole route, carrying supplies, machinery and families moving.”
Idaho Statesman, October 13, 1889, “Rocky Bar: Its Grand Promise as a Mining Camp.”
The Idaho Statesman reported on September 1, 1892, that “A great fire occurred in Rocky Bar, Elmore County, today. The town is almost entirely obliterated … The flames ran up both sides of Main Street … There is little or no insurance, and this catastrophe means beggary to many.”¹ The town was rebuilt but its fortunes and populace dwindled to nothing in the following decades.
Only a few structures remain of the once thriving town. Surrounding mine operations have been erased by trees and brambles reclaiming their ground. There are no interpretive markers to tell of the people and endeavors there. We could only look at the buildings and wonder.
Three grey-haired ladies walked side-by-side up the road as Michael and I wandered around with our PBJs. I wondered where their car was. We heard them call after their black-haired dog “Bob” who was running ahead to sniff us out. “He’s fine,” we assured. “It’s a ‘she’,” they corrected.
A line of low huts built partly of found materials made it seem as if we were passing through a bit of Middle-earth as we left Rocky Bar up James Creek Road. Apparently that’s where the three ladies live, accounting for most of the town’s currently stated population: four.
Midway up the pass we crossed Elk Creek which cascades down a bulbous outcrop then through a culvert under the road. Water splashed and sparkled under the bright, clear sky. It’s a pretty little waterfall.
We stopped a moment beyond James Creek Summit and looked back toward Steel Mountain. The air was still and crisp—hard to imagine the lethal storm faced by Emma Von Losch and Annie Morrow as they tried to snowshoe those same fourteen miles between Atlanta and Rocky Bar. A marker along the road tells their story.
Dedicated to the gritty resolve and courage of Annie Morrow aka ‘Peg Leg’ Annie and her friend ‘Dutch Em.’ In May 1896 they were caught in a late blizzard while walking from Atlanta to Rocky Bar. Losing their direction to the Summit House at this site, Em froze to death and Annie’s feet were later amputated. She died in 1934, but their colorful spirit lives on in our hearts and minds through the stories, myths and truth, still told about these pioneer women.¹
Jessica told me she’d heard from her sister Heather, who was to be up there for the weekend, that we could expect food and festivities in Atlanta. The 33rd annual Atlanta Days was postponed from its typical Labor Day Weekend because of fires.¹ I was psyched for some fair-like food but the Beaver Lodge² and its usual hedge of trucks and ATVs appeared quiet as usual.
Michael and I conferenced and agreed I’d be a good brother-in-law, stop and say hello to Heather, then we’d be on our way.
The town was named triumphantly during the Civil War in 1864 for Atlanta, Georgia, after a false rumor that Confederates won a battle against General Sherman’s troops there.¹ It’s easy to get the impression the town may yet be a bastion of secessionist ideology.
Heather emerged from the door as Michael and I stopped our motors in front of the cabin. “I don’t know you,” she answered when I waved up to her. I still had my helmet on. She watched quizzically as I revealed my true identity (Kilroy?).
She explained that the chili feed wouldn’t begin for a couple more hours. That was too long to wait so we bade her adieu.
starPhoto from November, 2012
Michael led us from Atlanta on the dirt and gravel road along the sparkling waters of the Middle Fork then up Swanholm Road between quivering autumn leaves. We paused to investigate the Deer Park rental cabin, established in 1917 and rebuilt in the 1930s,¹ before turning up narrow Hunter Creek Road.
Hunter Creek Road wound along hills left half barren by past fires. The wide open view and packed dirt road allowed a lively ride.
An unexplored “Bear Summit” trail off the road caught Michael’s eye. “Want to try it?” he asked. “Yeah.” Going off-plan to see something new is a favorite part of riding. Built for ATVs, the track was as pleasant as the ever broadening views past auburn scrub to the high ridges dusted white with snow.
One of the many fire-made snags had finally succumbed to gravity and lay broken across the path. It was a little gnarly so we joined forces to lift and push the bikes over.
That Bear Summit Trail was a nice shortcut to Crooked River Road which we followed to Highway 21. We then took the notoriously twisted stretch of pavement to Mores Creek Summit where we turned toward Sunset Peak before leaving the dirt road to follow Rabbit Creek single track — dual sport!
My mother recently shared a Wendell Berry poem that evokes, I imagine, her love of country living. I think it is also the reason we ride these trails along rivers and over mountains in spite (or perhaps because) of cold or exhaustion.
“When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”¹
Wendell Berry, “The Peace of Wild Things”
Another fallen snag positioned perfectly at waist level on a steep hill within dense brush would have been the end of this route if Michael hadn’t rummaged in his pack like Oscar the Grouch in his can to emerge with a hand saw. We were willing to work some to avoid backtracking through loose rock we descended.
With the single cut we were able to push the lower half out of the way to get by. That was a relief.
With the right bike and skills I’m told you can skim across the whoops. My only skill was to make it feel like riding an angry bronco. “We call that whoopty hell,” Michael explained when we got to the end.
We turned from Rabbit Creek to Hoodoo Trail to continue our single track descent to Idaho City. The woods were crisscrossed with trails as we got closer to the Granite Creek parking lot where we started. Where the morning felt like frostbite, we were breaking a sweat in places.
The narrow trails were icing on a cake layered with asphalt, gravel and dirt roads, 1864 to 2013, snow and sunshine. I hope the ladies had a nice ride. We never saw any of them beyond the parking lot. Thanks for the route and drive up, Michael.