Jessica and I ride over the Boise Ridge, visit the museum in Placerville then have lunch in Garden Valley before attempting to summit Scott Mountain. Snow stops us but the effort means it’s dark by the time we reach Sourdough Lodge where we spend the night.
“I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe some jerky. I guess I’m not that hungry.”
Jessica is walking around inside the gas station convenience store two blocks from our house looking like Marvin the Martian¹ while I finish filling the bike outside. We still have our helmets and intercoms on so we keep chatting, trying to figure out what snacks we want for the ride ahead.
“I don’t feel much like eating anything,” she says.
“Alright,” I conclude. “Let’s just go then. We can eat in Garden Valley in a couple hours.”
We have the weekend to ourselves thanks to my sister-in-law Heather keeping Hunter and Brenna for a sleep-over and Kayla taking care of things at home. Oh, and the week of rain, rain has gone away, leaving golden leaves to glitter under a blue sky.
We accelerate up the ravine from the doe and fawns that decided just now to stroll across Shaw Mountain Road at the edge of town. Welcome to the wilds. The air is crisp but not cold. The foothills around are summer-dry and precisely defined by the autumn sun.
“There are a lot of people here,” I remark as we pass a dozen cars and maybe twenty people milling around at the end of the pavement a mile on.
“A sign said they were picking up garbage,” Jessica explains.
“That’s funny,” I say. “I’ve never noticed any litter up here.” Maybe from here they’ll go clean the coffee pots in the Mormon temple before helping me oil my chain.
The gravel Rocky Canyon Road looks dry but the recent rains have settled the dust. We pass several bicyclers and a few cars as we amble up the narrow ravine to Aldape Summit.
You used to be able to ride east from here along the ridge to Lucky Peak but it’s been gated for several years and subject to curious development. Something like a habitable storage shed crowns the otherwise bare rise along the road atop makeshift steps and terraces. A hunting hut? But then why the crude landscaping? It’s hard to guess the purpose.
We pull onto an overlook up the ridge a bit in the other direction, a place we always stop for a look around. Puffy clouds loiter above snow covered mountains to the north. Boise stretches south under blue haze. We gaze a quiet moment until a family of gregarious bees decides to welcome us.
Farther on, we pause to witness some celestial oddities: inside-out clouds, darker at the edges than middle, and a tower of twenty raptors circling around each other high above the hills. We have no answers.
Sparse, anti-social trees become an occasional copse, then cliques, then crowd into a forest as we reach the full height of the ridge above Boise. Limbs and shadows obscure more elaborate, still odd habitations along the dirt road, their owners apparently alarmed that any should notice them.
Keep Out No Trespassing Private Property Warning: Guard Dog Do Not Look Here (Okay, I made the last one up)
“These places are creepy,” Jessica says as we pass by. “I wonder if they really have that much trouble with trespassers.”
We are soon reminded it’s time for gathering wood. We meet a truck pulling a trailer of rounds then slow to circumvent three guys attacking downed trees with chainsaws while two little boys in comically oversized ear muffs watch in awe from a tailgate. The boys wave exuberantly as we go by.
“That’s adorable,” my passenger says.
It is noticeably colder as we approach and circle around the wintry white ski hills, Deer Point and Shafer Butte.¹ “Staying warm enough?” I ask Jess.
Our gloves and jacket liners are enhanced by the promise of a warm bed tonight. Just knowing a hot meal and heated room will be ready for us makes everything more bearable.
“I’ve never gone this way,” I note as we continue north on the dirt road past the turn to Mores Mountain campground.
“It’s an adventure,” answers the voice in my ear with a hint of sarcasm.
Some snow remains on the road where it bends around the north side of the mountains. Cliffs of bulbous grey rock rise above the road, hedged in autumn color and marking the boundary on the commerce of lifts and lodges. Our way is beyond through the primitive mountain panorama.
Recent rain, snow and cold have conspired, I suppose, to mat the road in many places with long ponderosa pine needles. The cool air carries their scent. We each comment on this and other delights.
“Wow, that’s really pretty.”
“Yeah it is.”
“The GPS says that’s Sugarloaf Rock over there,” I explain while pulling to the side of the road. It’s an impressive protuberance on the otherwise gentle mountain slope.
Jessica climbs the bank and finds a campsite cloistered by trees with a clear view to the big rock. “What’s a sugarloaf?” she asks.¹
“I don’t know,” I answer. “It sounds like it tastes good.”
Views are grand, the road is smooth and my lover is leaned against me. Life doesn’t get a lot better than this.
On many rides, I push to see something new, ride where I haven’t been before. Most of what we’ve ridden today, however, are the same dirt roads I found when I moved to Boise fifteen years ago, ridden and ridden again. This lady on the back is the same whose childhood home I visited across the Palouse Hills on my motorcycle twenty-three years ago.
So much the same but so much different. A new autumn is here, the same as ten thousand before it. It is a joy to see life pass from beginning toward end here among the trees on aimless dirt roads.
“Transitoriness is depressing only to the mind which insists upon trying to grasp. But to the mind which lets go and moves with the flow of change … the sense of transience or emptiness becomes a kind of ecstasy.”¹
Alan Watts, The Way of Zen, p. 42
A professional violinist moved from Germany to San Francisco and then the Idaho Territory where he and his wife, in 1874, purchased a ranch in the mountains. Together they “built a thriving enterprise with a hotel, saloon, a dance hall with living quarters in back, stables, a sawmill across the creek and a horse racing track, which attracted travelers, boarders, miners and ranchers.”¹
So explains the weathered, typewritten pages hung behind clear plastic in front of this aspen ensconced log cabin, the “Star Ranch.” Someone cared to post the history but apparently hasn’t been available to maintain it for some years. The last of the account is stained, disintegrated and unreadable.
Social center is not the impression the long dirt road from Boise led us to. Quite the opposite. Yet the sign describes horse races lasting four days including a “grand ball,” a few specially bred competitors from as far as Kentucky, and prizes of gold.
If I’ve read correctly, the couple, Philip and Katherina, had nine children (though one died before she was three). Although proprietors of a “thriving enterprise,” the first things we notice about their home are close walls and low ceilings. By today’s standards, it would be crowded with two kids.
Were families a century ago more comfortable with each other? Did they spend more time outside? Were they less concerned about personal space?
The humble home that must have many times pulsed with the energy of eight or ten people now silently disintegrates, decade by decade. It’s odd to imagine all that must have happened right where we’re standing. The only life left is an aspen sapling, an offshoot of those now crowding around the historic Star Ranch.
I was struck by two separate segments in the news recently — both in-home interviews — about the difficulties faced by the long term unemployed and those wanting to take advantage of low mortgage rates but with no remaining equity to qualify.
What surprised me was how modern and comfortable the families’ homes appeared — fresh paint schemes, granite counter tops, flat screen televisions. Nicer than our house, actually. Such was the backdrop for complaints of hardship and injustice.
I would be upset to join the unemployed, yes, but these segments made it hard to sympathize, made the concerns seem more like entitlement whining.
It is hard to discern much of the character of Philip and Katherina from the few faded words affixed in front of their home but I have to think their television interview would look and sound quite different. Like other early settlers in the Idaho Territory, they had to choose an attitude that would allow them to thrive in unforgiving circumstances.
It is a short distance down the dirt road to Placerville, an old mining town with a population of sixty-some according to the census, more like sixteen as the residents count themselves. Either way, compared to the 5,000 who lived here in 1863, it’s a veritable ghost town.
We have come through here before but without stopping to look much at the many vestiges of the area’s rich and pivotal past.
Prospectors began to trickle into the region to look for gold and silver during the Civil War years [and] flooded in a decade later … Central Idaho owes much of its history, and modern character, to those ore deposits, and to the people who found and worked them. Their task was neither easy nor especially rewarding.¹
Although fruitless for many, years of prospecting and mining produced yields that made “the Boise Basin the most productive gold mining district in Idaho, beyond question.”²
Roadside Geology of Idaho, pp. 115–116
Ibid. p. 208
Jessica and I wander along the short boardwalks while munching on snacks from the small store and peer through wavy glass at the disheveled interiors of the town’s two museums until a man with a round face, easy smile and a salt-and-pepper pony-tail emerges from somewhere and offers to unlock the doors so we can look inside.
The front of the museum is all display cases and documents. A doorway to the back leads to rooms set up like a period kitchen, dining room, sewing room and classroom. Jessica explores the back while I, along with three others from a Jeep, listen to our docent’s elucidations.
I am interested for several minutes then feigning interest then trying to politely slip away to the back with Jessica. As I make my escape, I hear our friendly guide say apologetically to the remaining tourists, “I’ve had a few today,” perhaps realizing he’d rambled.
“Don’t worry,” answers one, sounding a little uncomfortable, “it’s the weekend.” An odd conciliation, I think to myself. If I lived out here, retired, I’d have a beer whenever the fancy struck me, weekend or not.
I find Jessica in the tiny classroom reading with amusement a placard outlining the conduct that was expected of a teacher. “You’ve got to see this,” she says.
One example reads, “You may go courting one evening per week or two evenings if you also attend church services.” Others are similarly ascetic.
We agree we’d like to spend more time here, to know better these hardy, sometimes peculiar forebearers. Our schedule is relaxed but we still have some distance to cover. We’d better be moving on. We’ll come here again with the kids.
“Thanks so much,” we tell our Placerville host. “That was great.”
“One can still take the prospectors’ route from Placerville to Garden Valley”¹ and that’s just what we’ll do. The road north is well travelled. We ride rapidly between the trees, through the hills, enjoying each moment of the beautiful autumn day.
Roadside History of Idaho, p. 190
We cross a one-lane bridge over the South Fork of the Payette and turn left on the highway through Garden Valley a few miles to the tourist town of Crouch. After a cruising intercom conference, we decide to sit for lunch facing the colorful mountains on the deck of the Longhorn Restaurant.
“I planned to turn and check out a mountain a bit before Lowman,” I explain to Jessica after we’ve finished hardy meals. “It shouldn’t be far. You up for it?”
“Sure,” she answers with the same soft enthusiasm you might have for finding some coins under a cushion.
The river cuts a gorge at places along the Banks Lowman Highway. Granite cliffs rise above, lit orange by the late afternoon sun. Jessica reports beautiful views but insists I watch the road.
The rough sound of dragging breaks our quiet rhythm.
“What was that?” Jessica asks, startled.
“The edge of my boot touched the ground,” I explain. “I’ve been practicing leaning.”
“Not funny,” she says, as if I was joking.
I pull to the side at a wide spot for a more measured look at the river and see we’re at our mountain turn. “Narrow Steep Road” a sign warns. That sounds pretty good. It’s getting dim here in the canyon but I see sun on the ridges above. It should be an easy jaunt up and back. It always is.
“Oh, that’s awesome.”
I am not sure which of us says it first—perhaps a duet. We’re still climbing Scott Mountain Road cut into one side of a ravine. There are few trees to prevent the plunge to the bottom should you drive poorly.
We are laughing at the couple guys we’ve just passed, sitting on lawn chairs behind their pickup at the wide-open edge of the road, a case of beer on the tailgate and rifles on their laps. They’re side-by-side facing the opposite side of the ravine as if watching television.
Up, up the road continues, a fairly straight incline along the ravine—six-thousand feet of elevation then seven-thousand and higher. Snow hidden in the shadows below has crept out onto the road and we’re still climbing, now on the ridge toward the lookout.
We get a little sideways on a steeper stretch and Jessica volunteers to walk while I get going again. The ride is getting squirrelly and the GS needs coaxing. We breath a sigh of relief each time we reach a short patch of bare earth.
Ahead on a sharp snow covered corner is a rider facing us from atop a spindly motorcycle, stopped alongside a pickup ready to continue upward.
“I wouldn’t try it,” I hear the rider tell the driver as we stop nearby. The road ahead is more exposed with deeper snow. He couldn’t get to the lookout so he’s heading back to his campsite below.
For a moment I want to try anyway but the wiser part of my brain senses danger and quickly takes control. It looks like 7,800 feet is as high as we get.
I would like to get some big view for coming up here. We passed a turn not far back to a lower lookout so I ask the rider, “do you know if the road to the other lookout is open?”
“Yeah,” he answers, “it probably is.”
Jess and I stretch our legs a moment, taking in the view over Deadwood Reservoir, before beginning a careful retreat.
We are barely back below snow level when we turn toward the other lookout. We pass a group of trucks, ATVs and wall-tents, preparations, I’m sure, for big game season in a couple days.
The road to this other lookout climbs quickly into snow again, though not as much as before. The ridge here is wide and flat—slow but not hair-raising.
As we continue upward, the western sky glows orange and yellow while mountains and clouds to the east are painted pink and purple. An almost full moon shines brightly above. The scene is amazing any way we look.
Finally the lookout tower is in view. But at the base of its hill, a locked gate. Darn. It’s getting too late to look for alternative approaches.
“Well,” I say, “I guess that’s that but we still have great views.”
“Yeah,” Jess agrees.
I am relieved to get out of the snow for the last time. It’s fully dark now.
“I’m getting kind of cold,” Jess mentions.
“We should be there soon,” I promise.
We get back to the highway and follow it to Lowman. I was counting on the Sourdough having a good sign but I can’t see anything where the GPS suggests I turn. We turn anyway and circle around some houses.
“Maybe it’s on the other side of the highway,” I offer. I hope.
We cross and quickly come to the end of a Forest Service parking lot. A couple guys watch us closely as they load a truck.
I pull near and ask, “can you tell us how to get to the Sourdough?”
“Yeah,” one answers. “Get back on the highway and keep going about seven more miles.”
“Great. Thank you.”
We have ridden through darkness for some time now. Ahead the highway stretches into more darkness. “If his estimate was accurate,” I tell Jess in the intercom, “we’ve just hit seven miles.”
What if we can’t find the lodge? I contemplate alternatives. We could continue up to Stanley but that’s a ways yet and it’s already getting late. The same for going back to Crouch. I guess we’ll keep going a bit.
“There it is!” Jessica exclaims. Big and bright at the edge of the road, three miles farther, impossible to miss. What a welcome sight.
A bell sounds as we push through the antler handle entrance into the cozy convenience store half of the restaurant.
“Welcome!” calls a wiry, middle-aged woman with graying, tightly curled hair that just reaches her shoulders. “I’ll be right with you.”
“We’d like a motel room,” I tell her when she comes our way. “We’ll set our things down and probably come back over for dinner. You’re open until ten, right?”
“Yep,” she answers cheerfully. “That sounds great.”
Jessica goes immediately to turn up the heat in our small, tidy room. Cold highway wind has left her chilled. Once our things are unloaded we return and take a seat in the empty dining room, eager for a hot meal.
The couple who own the place seem to do everything. We chat a little with one of them, the lady who welcomed us and now waits our table. Her and Jessica laugh about all the men gone “hunting” days before the season opens such as those we saw today.
“We saw several shuttered restaurants and motels between here and Crouch,” I mention.
Many have come and gone in her fifteen years here, she acknowledges, especially of late. To keep the Sourdough going, they have the motel, RV pads, cabins, a gas station, liquor store, convenience store and restaurant. She, her husband and son all work here—long hours it seems. I find myself admiring her attitude, their dedication.
Our food arrives and it’s delicious. We’re in the middle of nowhere, it’s fairly late, we’re the only customers, and we can still get grilled vegetables, wild rice, corn, mashed potatoes and chicken hot from the kitchen, thanks to the husband cooking back there. It’s hard not to feel a little hooray.
We retire happy to our room.
It is not long until checkout time. We’ve slept late, though I doubt they’re picky about deadlines today. We walk across the gravel lot to the restaurant for breakfast. The couple is already there, greeting customers, waiting tables and cooking again.
We sit to coffee and a hot breakfast near the wood stove. We look forward to a relaxing ride home. A stop at a hot springs, lunch in Idaho City then back to the kids. Another good day awaits.
The sun is already well into the sky by the time we return our room key and begin down the bed of tar toward home. It is another brilliant autumn day, bright enough to warrant the Ponch sunglasses with their curious power to cause involuntary expressions of disdain.
“Oh jeez,” Jessica says as I push them on.
We had thought to borrow motel towels to soak in a hot spring down the road but they’re farther separated than we thought. Back-and-forth shuttling sounds tedious. We decide we’ll just pull in to see the hot springs then be on our way.
Kirkham Hot Springs is a popular playground of hillside seeps, steaming waterfalls and sand-bottom pools. The adjacent campground¹ and parking area is regularly full over the summer. Today there are just a few people camping and nobody at the springs.
Small signs planted along the trail above the seeping hot springs are weathered or vandalized beyond recognition. The river below reflects autumn colors while the hills above remain shockingly bare twenty-two years after their historic incineration.¹
Late in the afternoon of July 26, 1989, a dry lightning storm swept through the mountains north of Boise, Idaho, and lit what seemed like the whole world on fire … Temperatures at the heart of the blaze reached two thousand degrees. A column of smoke and ash rose eight miles up into the atmosphere. Trees were snapped in half by the force of the [heat induced] convection winds.²
Without knowing how hot the water is — likely what the signs used to say — we are hesitant to step across the steaming marsh. The end of the path, however, persuades us to tread gingerly out across the rocks and rivulets toward the river. We find the water fine.
As we pick our way along the river, we agree, “this would be a lot of fun for the kids.” We know it’s a lot of fun for these two kids.
We are quite impressed with Kirkham, glad we stopped to see it. Overheated from walking overdressed around all the hot water, we are now excited to face chilling highway wind.
The road south of Lowman reminds me of an extension cord after the kids have used it—knots where none should arise. It was here that heavy patrols last time gave us occasion to learn the motorcyclist signal for “police ahead,” a pat on the helmet, that at first confused us.
At the top of the grade we turn onto dirt road 351 with a plan to descend the ridge to Idaho City on Bear Run Road across Pilot Peak.
We ride casually and enjoy the crisp air and delightful mountain views.
“I think it’s that way,” I say, nodding, as we come to an intersection of four dirt roads. Two of them are almost parallel where the map shows just one road.
Over the first rise we see the road ahead deteriorate to a trail. Jessica groans as I continue without slowing. “We’ll be fine,” I promise.
Brush clutches at our legs as we navigate the sloping, steepening path. “Alright,” I finally say, relenting. “We’ll turn around at the next opportunity.”
No sooner have I made that commitment than we reach a clearing. The trail ahead appears to lead pleasantly into Ponderosas and upward, I’m sure, to wonderful vistas.
“Ooh, that looks nice,” I suggest, waiting for Jessica to tell me to go ahead. But she doesn’t.
Fine. “This hurts my heart,” I whine as we circle around while I make the sounds of being in pain.
“You can try it next time,” she consoles. She’s right, of course. Not just about running it later but about avoiding it now. This is supposed to be a relaxing ride.
A green gate some miles up the alternate road, the correct road, appears to have shut just a week ago. Darn. I’d rather not backtrack, especially when that leaves only the highway to ride. After some rationalizing—the road isn’t muddy and we aren’t hunting—I decide we’ll try to squeeze around.
Jess helps steady the bike while I walk it up the bank and around. It’s a bit dicey. “Sorry,” I say as we ride away. “I know I often make those things more stressful.” A little adrenalin in the blood and I can be rather curt. I don’t mean to.
We hope the gate at the other end is no harder.
It is not far to find it. We are relieved to see it’s an easy bypass.
Pilot Peak is now in view, though the way up is looking more and more like the top of Scott Mountain Road yesterday. As snow becomes more prevalent, I squint against the brightness to see which track is the shortest distance to bare dirt.
Jessica is expressing some skepticism so I suggest, “if I can’t make it through the next section”—meaning without pushing or struggling—“then we’ll turn around.”
I don’t get far.
I hadn’t planned an alternate to Pilot Peak so we stop to strategize in a small meadow below the snow line near a little group of ATV riders. We chat and learn they’re heading to Pioneerville and onto Idaho City. Compared to our plan, it’s a bit out of the way but seems the best alternative at this point. And we’ve never been that way, so also an adventure.
The road along Clear Creek is intermittently icy and muddy. The ATVs zoom ahead while we ride slowly and breathe it all in.
Suddenly, two large dogs tear after us out of nowhere. They seem eager to bite something. I’m glad I have boots on. “What a jerk to let your dogs out of control,” I think of the owner.
I am planning the dirty look I will deliver (from behind my sunglasses inside my helmet) when we round the corner and see two scruffy Hispanic guys crouched at the edge of the road. There’s no vehicle, nothing. Just them.
Agitation is replaced by curiosity satisfied by Jessica’s question: “Did you see all the sheep?”
Ah, shepherds. “No,” I answer. “I guess the dogs thought we were a big stray sheep.” Now it seems kind of funny.
We continue by Pioneerville, Centerville and New Centerville toward Idaho City. Mountain meadows piled edge-to-edge by a century of mine tailings spoil some scenes but much remains to thrill or sate the senses.
“Those unsightly heaps of gravel will probably continue to tell the story for many thousands of years before natural processes can begin to restore the floodplains to anything resembling their natural condition.”¹
Roadside Geology of Idaho, p. 208
We come in behind Idaho City and pull into Diamond Lil’s¹ along the old boardwalk for lunch. I try to make friends with the Harley riders beside us — “How ya doing?” — but they don’t respond.
Inside is a veritable museum that Jess and I explore while waiting for the day’s specials: French Dip for her, Philly Cheese Steak for me. She makes some complaint when our food arrives about having to eat alongside an image of Holocaust victims. It and hundreds of other haphazardly framed clippings from a century of news fill the walls.
I like this place. It’s dark, dingy and a little mysterious. The stuff here is real, not cheap bits of tin made to look like American antiquities for the walls of corporate restaurant chains. Behind them are local pioneer lives not “made in China” stickers.
The food is very good. I’m sure we’ll be back, Diamond Lil. Highway and home beckon.