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The only way into Idaho from Jackson was over Teton Pass, a daunting climb that people had been warning me about for a week. (A less arduous route along the Snake River was closed by mudslides, impassable even to cyclists.) In the Rockies, roads rarely exceed a 6% grade, one of the things that makes the western mountains easy compared to the Appalachians. This route, however, rose at 10% for several miles. I hadn't ridden in four days; it was going to be a brutal reintroduction to the bike.
Only a couple thousand feet uphill I felt completely spent, and stopped to rest -- not so much to catch my breath as to keep from throwing up. While pausing, I watched oncoming semi-trailers descend at 10 or 12 miles per hour in impossibly low gears, their engines roaring against gravity. Some drivers, not completely trusting their transmissions to slow them, rode their brakes; the air was filled with the stink of overheated metal. That was the first of many breaks on what was probably the hardest climb of the entire journey. Luckily the second half was a little less steep and by the time I reached the summit I could feel my strength returning. Ironically, when I stopped at the top to take the ritual self-congratulatory look back over what I'd just accomplished I was suddenly grateful for having had to make the climb -- the prospect of descending that same road was literally frightening.
The eastern side of Teton Pass is not nearly as steep. But it's much straighter, and the road surface is smooth. Add a heavy bike and you have a recipe for speed! I knew I was going fast on the way down but the bike felt solid and steady under me and so I was surprised when I managed to clear the tears out of my eyes long enough to read my speedometer; I entered Idaho going 52 miles an hour.
My route through Idaho described a shallow U across the wide, rectangular southern part of the state. For three days I skirted the southern edge of the Pioneer and Sawtooth Mountains. With green foothills always visible to my right, I rode over rolling, sparsely vegetated desert and alongside vast plains of black, lifeless lava. On the fourth day, I rode away from the mountains to cross the Snake River, and then continued, high above the river's southern bank, the rest of the way to Oregon. I was in Idaho for a total of five days.
I rode through small, quiet, unprosperous towns, places that few people outside of Idaho have ever heard of. There were a couple of maybe-exceptions -- I spent a night in Rexburg, which was inundated in the Teton Dam disaster of 1976 when an earthen dam holding back the Teton River gave out. Eleven people died in the flood. (I rode down two or three miles of dirt road to reach the dam site, which, isolated and long abandoned, looks pretty much as it did shortly after the breach.) I also stopped in Arco, which enjoys the modest distinction of being the first town in the United States to be lighted by nuclear power.
Idaho lacked Wyoming's sweeping grandeur, but sometimes its subtle desert colors combined with unusual light to produce a remarkable scene. One afternoon on U.S. 20 outside of Fairfield, the sky was a kind of mottled overcast, with low rain clouds to one side and higher, broken clouds ahead. The foothills on my right were treeless, rockless rounded shapes covered with low, late spring growth; they looked like enormous green molars. The air, on that day unusually humid for the desert, absorbed distant details and made the already intriguing hills look like some sort of fantastic huge painting. The view was so captivating that for five miles I rode in the middle of the lane so I could gaze at it without riding off the road.
Such compelling beauty came, however, only in snatches. Other times the Idaho scenery suffered a certain sameness, and more than once I had trouble finding the rhythm of the day -- I grew impatient, and riding felt more like a chore than an adventure. (On reflection I think that I was probably beginning to realize that my trip was nearing its end; indeed, by then I had an end point and an end date, and a limited number of route decisions remaining.) Fortunately this malaise never lasted more than a few hours -- I was still in unfamiliar territory, with each day continuing to offer many small discoveries. One even foreshadowed the next, and last, state of Oregon: From the time I set out at the Atlantic Ocean, I'd been following the general direction of continental migration; as I moved west, settlements and historic dates became more and more recent. Towns in Delaware and Maryland might date to the 17th century. I rode through Thomas Jefferson's 18th century home of Charlottesville, Virginia, and in Kentucky I saw where Lincoln was born in the early 19th century. The boom years in Breckenridge, Colorado, came in the late 1800s; and Lander, Wyoming, is so young that practically its entire history is preserved in photographs. Midway through Idaho, though, the dates on historical markers began to grow older, moving backwards -- I had ridden beyond the front of the pioneer movement and was coming to towns that had been settled by people moving inland from Astoria and other older settlements on the Pacific coast.
In short, just as my trip was becoming increasingly defined by its endpoint, local history too suddenly owed more to the territory ahead of me than that which I was leaving behind. It was a pretty neat fit, even if I didn't really realize it at the time.
Here's some more of what I saw in Idaho --
-- Snake River geology. Until very recently (geologically, anyhow), southern Idaho sat atop a "hot spot" -- that is, a place where molten rock lies close to the earth's surface and from time to time flows up out of it. (Actually the "hot" stays put but as the earth's crust drifts over it, the spot appears to migrate. This spot is thought to be the same one that formed the Hawaiian Islands and the Cascade Mountains, and which now superheats the water and mud in Yellowstone National Park.) Lava flowing out of the earth in Idaho between 2,000 and 15,000 years ago filled the eastern half of the Snake River Plain, thousands of feet deep. The lava -- which in some directions stretches as far as the eye can see -- is impermeable to water and doesn't break down into soil. It's sterile, untillable, and only the most opportunistic of plants can live on it.
The Snake River Valley in western Idaho is completely different but has an equally fascinating geological history. The valley is enormous -- maybe a mile from ridge to ridge -- and far out of proportion to the river that runs through it. Evidently, a great inland lake once covered a third of Utah, and parts of Nevada and Idaho as well. Climatic changes caused Lake Bonneville to grow and ultimately to breach its northern bank 14,000 or 15,000 years ago. In a brief but unimaginably powerful cataclysm, the lake emptied, flowing to the Pacific along the route that the Snake River follows today. This immense flow of water dug the deep and wide Snake River Valley and scoured the banks clean; evidence of the flood remains plainly visible today. (See the numbered page links compiled at < http://wapi.isu.edu/Field_Exercise/lkbflood/text/lkbflood_main.html >.) Utah's Great Salt Lake is all that remains today of Lake Bonneville.
-- Craters of the Moon National Monument. This National Park Service facility, located on the northern edge of the Snake River Plain, showcases many fascinating lava formations. One of them, "The Inferno", is a small mountain of pumice -- hard, coral-sharp black cinders -- left by a volcanic eruption two thousand years ago. Visitors are invited to walk to the top to take in a panoramic view of thousands of acres of lava flows making up the rest of the park. Miles of walkways criss-cross the ancient lava fields below -- they take more time than the Inferno to explore, but they're worth it.
When the hot spot was in this region, lava flowed in molten rivers from vents leading out of the earth. Exposed to the cool air, the surface of these rivers would harden and form a crust under which molten lava continued to flow. As individual flows subsided, the channel would empty and leave a hollow tube. Many years later, the lava roof in some places collapsed, creating entrances to the tunnels. Some of these openings are big -- large enough for the Park Service to have built staircases into. Others are tiny, and negotiable only on hand and knee. Those are much more interesting, usually leading into small, dark, dead-end caverns that in early June were still full of ice. In those small caves my lycra bike clothes proved both a blessing and a curse. They let me contort myself in all the ways I needed in order to negotiate the tight entrances, but they were scant protection against the jagged and abrasive lava walls and floors. In happy contrast, my bike gloves made the palms of my hands almost invulnerable.
-- Flush with excitement. I spent one night at a privately-run campground at Givens Hot Springs. It was a pleasant place, offering small cabins, a large, well-tended lawn for campers, and an indoor swimming pool. All of the water used at the facility came from the same hot spring, which in some applications proved disconcerting. The locker room showers were of course warm, and that was nice. The swimming pool was equally well heated, which is to say about the temperature of a bath; truth be told it was hard to come away from a dip in that pool feeling refreshed. Most of southern Idaho is arid and so the campsite had to be watered -- I was surprised each time I felt warm spray coming off the lawn sprinklers. The strangest, though, were the toilets. Their tanks were almost hot to the touch, and the water in the bowl stayed steamy warm for quite some time after being flushed. Sitting on one of these toilets produced unaccustomed sensations, and, as with the swimming pool, my encounters with them were strangely unsatisfying.
-- Roadkill. Different states have distinctive roadside detritus. In Virginia it was the beer can. Lumps of coal were common along the shoulder in Kentucky. In Wyoming, it was (inexplicably) Reader's Digest Condensed Books -- in one 50 mile stretch I rode past a half-dozen or more. Idaho, naturally, featured potatoes. I lost count of them on the first day.
-- A hail of toads would've clinched it. It's surprisingly difficult to string together more than a couple of minutes of coherent, constructive thought during an eight hour ride. (Indeed it may the absence of such thought that makes long-distance riding attractive to some.) Nevertheless one lovely morning in Idaho I managed to engage myself in an extended and fruitful internal conversation, prompted by a remark by a woman in Wyoming a couple weeks earlier. Describing the Tetons, which were then a day or two ahead of me, she'd said, "you can't see them and doubt the existence of God."
I knew what she meant, sort of. From time to time we encounter a thing of such overwhelming beauty and apparent perfection that it defies not only description, but comprehension. It opens an uncomfortable void between the world we perceive and the world we understand, and it seems right somehow that "God" be the thing to fill the emptiness. But I pressed myself on the point and concluded that the ineffable beauty of the Tetons (for example) doesn't really reveal anything more than the limit of my -- our -- comprehension; it proves only the hole, not what (if anything) fills it. Indeed, whether a person sees God in the Tetons depends pretty much on what they believed in the first place. God is there, for people who already had faith -- but for the agnostic, God is a non-sequitur.
Then I wondered, how does one get "faith"? Some people seem to be born with it in them. Others may need something to jump-start it -- palpable, Old Testament stuff like -- well, like serpents, or torments. All morning I'd been enjoying a glorious tailwind. But as this internal conversation came to its conclusion I realized that the wind had shifted completely around and was now blowing straight into my face. A minute or two later a snake -- a rattlesnake -- slithered across the road in front of me. He was barely a foot long but he wasn't intimidated, stopping to regard me for a minute before going on his way. I rode on -- slowly now, thanks to the headwind. The road had no shoulder, so I was only about 18 inches from the pavement's edge. I passed a small sagebrush and heard a sudden, unmistakeable warning from within. Another rattlesnake! This one was larger than the first but, despite his irritation, finally not much more interested in me.
Huh. I question God's existence, and in the space of 15 minutes I'm crossed by headwinds and two (2) poisonous snakes. Coincidence? Who can say. It wasn't the first time that the wind had turned on me. And, of course, that part of the country is full of snakes. Still -- God is in the business of religion, not science, so you can wait (literally) until eternity for unambiguous proof!
I'm still not sure what to make of all that, but you can be sure I'll be waiting to see what happens to me after I post this story to the web --
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Page posted February 23, 2001