Texas Hill Country
October 12, 2020
The section of the Wild West Route between Darby and Superior is, based on GPS data, is the most difficult stretch, at least in terms of hills. None of them were quite as large as the one leading into Darby, but some of them were close. And there were a lot of them. Every day would be a challenge, and as a whole, it was a gauntlet. For the next 500 km, the average grade, whether climbing or descending, was 4%, which is enough to make you stand on the pedals. And if that’s the average, that means half the time, it'd be more.
Curtis was nice enough to drive me back to the official route, saving 30 km of uphill riding, and therefore close to three hours. Because there were so many high passes, you had to plan carefully where to camp. It's always a good idea to camp at low elevation when possible since it doesn't get as cold at night. For the next several hundred km, there were only so many low-lying areas.
Because of the head start that morning, I made it over the first pass and down to an ideal camping area by noon. By my standards, way too early to quit for the day. The next climb was a monster, and then a lot of smaller hills at high elevation. It would be a while before getting back down again. But I was going for it.
On the way up, there were some motorcyclists coming down.
"Any snow up there?"
"Yeah, we had to turn back. But you could walk over it."
"For how far did the snow go on?"
I was already more than halfway up, and going around would take an eternity. Besides, there was no guarantee that some other road wouldn't have snow as well. The big hill yesterday got to higher elevation and didn't have any snow. This one couldn't have much.
Upon reaching the very top, snow. In banks that were heavily sloped. No wonder the motorcyclists couldn't ride over it. It was difficult merely walking. Only about ten minutes later, the piles were smaller and you could ride around them. Back in business.
For the next few hours, there was a tree across the road every five minutes, if not more often. Obviously, with the snow, maintenance trucks haven't been able to get up here yet. That meant a constant need to dismount, hoist Teeder onto one shoulder, and step over. Each individual time wasn't such a hassle, but it grew tiresome quickly.
The surface degenerated to the point of being perhaps the consistently worst thus far. In some places, it was nothing but rocks, most of them loose. But considering the road isn't usable, even in summer months, it's no wonder no one goes to the trouble of maintaining it. If a road is useful no more than two months of the year, you wonder why it was built in the first place.
The road continued to have climbs and descents, and a lot of logs, but stayed at high elevation overall. I'd have to get out of this area before dark or it'd get too cold at night. Progress was slow. But the only way out was forward.
At the top of the last hill, snow. Nooooo!!! I thought I was done with this! I hiked through for 15 minutes, then mounted Teeder and flew down the ridiculously long final descent. Suddenly, the road was in good condition and the logs were gone. Looks like the maintenance crews have managed to get here.
I finally made it to a primitive campsite at 7:30 PM. An average day in terms of distance, but certainly not in terms of hills and conditions. I spent some time looking at the map. Tomorrow would be nearly as tough. I'll take nearly.
I meant to spend some time catching up on journals, but fell asleep as soon as I got in the tent.
Just as I was leaving in the morning, a friendly guy named Gary approached, having arrived in his large van as I slept. He asked about the ride, then gave me an apple, a peach, and two granola bars. I ate the peach right away. A satisfying addition to what was a typical breakfast of Grape Nuts with raisins in powdered milk.
This time, one of the biggest hills of the day came right away. There was a drop that took you into a town about a block long, which had a mini mart with just enough supplies, and surprisingly, a phone signal. Took a small lunch and headed up the second pass of the day.
The second pass was longer, but much more gradual. It was a sunny day, and in places, I was working up a sweat like I hadn't since Arizona. Nearly as soon as I got to the top, the skies began to quickly darken. Almost as soon as I headed down, a few raindrops. The exact same thing had happened yesterday.
Knowing hills tend to be magnets for bad weather, I raced through a screamer of a downhill, conquering some fears along the way. After over an hour of not pedaling, I was at river level. There were a few official campgrounds along the river, and a few unofficial ones. The official campgrounds cost money and provide potable water and a dumpster. The unofficial campsites still have picnic tables and fire pits, but no water or trash. But they're free. Guess where I stayed?
After two consecutive days with multiple passes, it was nice to get a day that merely had one challenging hill. On the map, it didn't look like a long day either. What wasn't initially obvious was the extraordinary squiggliness of the road. While I was making reasonable progress in terms of distance, on the map, it looked like I wasn't getting anywhere.
Then I wound up on an abandoned logging road. The surface was bad enough that after half a km, I backtracked to the previous intersection to make sure I hadn't missed a turn. Nope. This is the right road. It was almost hard to believe.
The road was an incredibly soft surface, and after getting a little rain in the past couple days, it was now soft mud. Even in places where it was flat, you had to use one of your lowest gears to get anywhere. It was a constant battle to keep from sinking. Teeder's tires are already big, but I found myself wishing they were even bigger. Jackie wouldn't've done well.
Once the road finally straightened out, it felt like I was making much better time, even if I wasn't going any faster than I had when the road didn't suck. It seemed like Pierce arrived in no time.
There wouldn't be a store for a few more days, and I'd been warned that things would get expensive up ahead. It seemed like a good idea to go stock up on staple foods. It normally wouldn't make sense to buy trail mix, nuts, and raisins at the same time, but each one of those was on sale. So I did. It was difficult fitting everything on Teeder.
It had been sunny all day, and was still pleasant when I went in the store, but by the time I came out, the skies were more threatening. Late afternoon storms seemed to be a pattern around here. Good thing the day's ride was almost done! The plan was to ride only 1-2 km out of town, then set up camp.
As I was packing up to leave, a woman drove up, got out of her car, and looked at me and Teeder.
"Are you camping?"
"You could say that."
"There're supposed to be thunderstorms tonight. Ping pong ball size hail. You better get somewhere safe."
"OK, in that case, do you know a church, or a school, or a fire station, or anything similar that could offer a floor to sleep on?"
"Well, the church used to offer things like that, that white building over there," she gestured. There was no white building in that direction. "...but then, you know, the Mexicans...my brother-in-law, well he, um, you could stay at my house, but it's being painted, so there are paint cans lying around."
"I wouldn't mind!"
"OK, let me get my things and you can follow me home."
By the time she got out, she was worried about me being able to make it to her place. It hadn't started raining yet.
"We could leave your bike and come back for it later…"
"How far are we talking? Five miles? Ten?"
"Oh goodness, I'll be fine." I put my jacket on, just in case.
"Are you sure? I mean, we could come back later…"
I'd much rather "risk" riding in the rain for one mile than leaving Teeder behind for who knows how long. I have a cable lock, but those only provide so much security, and they don't prevent people from taking everything in your bags.
Naturally, the "one mile" was closer to three miles. And so began my stay with the kookiest host I've had.
Jo is a hoarder, conspiracy theorist, alarmist-survivalist. The kind of person that thinks the world is going to end tomorrow, and if you so much as set one foot outside, you're gonna freeze to death while being eaten by a grizzly bear.
Jo had mentioned there'd be paint cans everywhere, but you wouldn't notice them in between the piles of everything else. Her house probably wasn't small, but felt tiny, based on how much space there was.
Due to the thunderstorms in the area, the power was out, and it didn't come back on until the wee hours. Jo fixed some salads and never stopped talking.
For four hours.
I didn't want to be a rude guest, but goodness gracious! And not a thing she said was a subject to which I could contribute or in which I had the slightest interest.
Jo also has a strange tendency to use the wrong word for something or otherwise mispronounce it.
Carry = "pack"
Home fries = "hash browns"
Jam/Jelly = "cobbler"
Cole slaw = "salad"
Pan fry = "barbecue"
MIR (the space station) = "mur"
Muir (as in John Muir) = also "mur"
Lewiston = "Liston"
When, after a few hours, she asked a question, it caught me off guard.
"Which way did you come through Idaho?"
I waited a second. There's a pause in the conversation! I'm being given the opportunity to speak!
"I came in through Blackfoot, then went across to Hailey, an-"
"My niece went to school in Hailey. When she was there, the valedictorian, or the girl who would've been valedictorian, she…"
And so ended the longest sentence I was permitted to utter all evening. I would've left the room to do something else, but I'm too nice. So I sat there for several hours and waited for her to finish.
According to Jo, every problem facing Pierce, or Idaho, and probably the whole country, is the fault of either Hillary or "the environmentalists".
"Are you a Republican or a Democrat?" The question was phrased as an either-or.
"I consider myself a moderate."
"Because if you're a Democrat, they won't tell you what's really going on. You know how Hillary took our uranium and gave it to Russia, right?"
"You don't?? Hang on, let me find it."
Jo went into the next room. I heard her shuffling through papers for a minute or two.
"Here it is!" She came back holding a stack of envelopes in both arms and set them on the table. Half of them were unopened. "I get about 800 pieces of mail like this every week. Read these! And take them with you! You need to know what's really going on."
The few I skimmed all made some unsubstantiated claim that Hillary had done or was doing something bad, and if you only donate $100 to our campaign, we can stop her. I flipped through a few more. They were from various organizations with patriotic-sounding names, like "United Citizens for America" or something along those lines. I'd heard of none of them. But there was a chance they were all the same organization, considering you saw the same fonts a lot, and they all said the same thing. Make a baseless accusation, get you angry, blame someone, ask for a donation. It was essentially a Fox News version of a Nigerian prince scam.
With no TV, internet connection, or national newspaper, this mail represents her only connection to the outside world.
"How was Hillary able to get a hold of the uranium? Did she buy it?"
"She used her influence."
"She's a career politician; I didn't know she had connections in the mining industry."
"Well she's connected with the deep state…"
I pretty much stopped listening at that point.
Jo mercifully went to bed at 9:00, and so did I, after texting a few friends to tell them we needed to get together for a few beers and relate the story of the off-kilter host in Idaho.
In the morning, the power was back on. I checked the weather. Strong thunderstorms in the morning, rain off-and-on all day. Going out in this weather didn't sound like a good idea, and Jo had already offered an extra night. She was a little nuts, but with the power off last night, I hadn't had the chance to take a hot shower, do laundry, or recharge anything. It might be more than a week before I had another chance to do any of those. I decided to stay. Maybe she'd have something else to do today, besides talk.
Jo arranged for her brother-in-law to drive me around to see the sights. That involved sitting in a pickup, moving about the same speed I go on Teeder, on the same type of dirt roads, while Ron repeatedly elbowed his dog away from the center console and growled, "Git baaaack!!"
We didn't see anything in particular, but Ron frequently pointed out the window at some feature in the terrain and described how it got that way as a result of gold mining. Everything looked overgrown, so you couldn't tell, but it was interesting to note how nearly every "natural" feature was, in reality, sculpted by humans.
Two hours later, Ron dropped me off at Jo's house. We had a quick lunch, then Jo said we were going to the library.
Awesome! Libraries are quiet! I can relax and read something, or catch up in my journal, maybe I can convince Jo to leave me there for a few hours…
"Go to the library" meant she wanted us to look at the artifacts on display, mostly things like shovels and muskets from the gold rush era. Jo went on to explain that the mining industry collapsed because of the environmentalists and the Chinese workers.
Then we went to the art store. Then the post office. Then the bank. Then the hardware store. Then the saloon. Then the inn. Aside from the post office and the bank, none of these visits served a purpose. She simply wanted to show me the hardware store, art store, etc.
Then Jo drove us up and down literally every block in city limits (I checked), moving about six mph, and never stopped talking about every mundane thing we drove past.
"That house used to belong to Jim Stevens, but he passed away, and now his family's trying to sell it, but they're not going to get a good price because the way the taxes work here is…"
I stared out the window and gave not a word of response. She didn't miss a beat.
In total, it was three hours before we were done.
It's hard to imagine being that oblivious and inconsiderate of other people's time. If you have to go to the post office and bank, why drag someone else along? Why not leave them at home? Or at the library, so they can read a book instead? That kind of thing used to infuriate me as a kid, and now I was dealing with it as an adult.
But I was getting a free place to stay. In a way, I had willingly accepted the role of "kid", and that means you're not in charge. But you should still matter. Everyone's time is valuable.
For the record, it barely rained at all.
When we got back, I went to my cot in the basement under the guise of taking a nap. Instead, I wrote in my journal and otherwise quietly killed time for a few hours. Ahhhhh, respite!
That evening, Jo showed me her "bug-out bag", the bag she has on hand 24/7, in case there's a disaster of some kind and she needs to get out of town immediately and survive in the woods.
Cue over an hour of "Do you have _____?", usually followed with the phrase "We gotta getcha kitted up."
By the time she was done, Jo had created a pile of gear, "necessary for survival", which probably outweighed everything being carried on Teeder. Most of it was stuff I've never used, would never use, or was a heavier version of something I left behind because it wasn't worth carrying.
"I've made it this far, and I've done this kind of thing before…"
"I don't know how! You need this stuff."
Has she done anything like this before? Of course not. But you can't argue with an "expert".
"We could go to war tomorrow! And then what?"
"We've been at war for more than half my life. If we get invaded by a foreign country for the first time since the War of 1812, chances are northern Idaho won't be the first place affected. Also, I don't know how we're gonna fit this on my bike."
"We'll get you a bag!"
"There's no room left to mount another bag."
"Let me get you a bag." She came back with a camouflage backpack and started loading it up. "You can carry your stuff in this! I want you to be safe."
Nothing says bike safety like covering up a neon orange shirt with a camouflage backpack. All the truck drivers should have an easier time spotting it. And 20 pounds of gear on your back while hunched over? You won't even notice.
Somehow, I "forgot" to grab the backpack on my way out the door in the morning. But I accepted a pack of peanut M&Ms and two MREs. Some things are important.
from Wild West