Another great day of and for biking. On the map, our route follows the Lochsa River down US 12 for 78 miles. In reality, it's a mountain road as I remember from my youth: no towns, all forest, deeply sloping mountains, sparkling untouched river the whole way.
After last night's gully washer, we awoke to fog at Lolo Hot Springs. We tried to leave early enough to avoid sun on the seven mile climb to Lolo Summit, but late enough for the fog to thin, so we could be seen by drivers.
There's nothing quite like a fog rolling through evergreens, down from a mountain summit. Like a thin, lacy drape, it curtains the trees, feeding their hanging moss. The needles catch the moisture, and drip it slowly through the branches. Later, as the sun clears things up, wisps of smoky mist rise back up, like stalagmites in a cave.
Pretty, but we still had to grind up the final 3.5 miles at a five percent grade - not steep, but long enough to thoroughly warm up our legs for the day. At the summit, Cheryl and I teamed up on the tandem. "6% grade next 5 miles", the first sign read. "Winding road next 77 miles", the second one said. What was missing? A sign welcoming us to Idaho.
Normally, Cheryl is very trusting as a stoker on the tandem. But more than 1200 miles on her single this summer has made her a much more confident and assertive biker. Like the rest of us, she's become very tuned in to road shoulders, space available, and vehicles approaching from the rear.
My biggest fear on this trip has not been logging trucks on my rear, getting caught in a severe thunderstorm, breaking a collarbone, or flipping the RV. No, the biggest fear I have is snapping the front brake cable of the tandem, while going down a steep, long mountain pass. A tandem, with its extra weight on only two wheels, carries a lot of momentum, and can go wildly out of control after a short distance on a slope 6% steep. The rear brake supplies about 25% of the power the front does. No front brake, no way to stop. And there's no "runaway tandem" lane, like there is for trucks.
I've often thought about this situation, and tried to plan what to do. One of the great thrills of biking for me is getting up to speed (45-50 mph) with a rock-solid stoker on a tandem. It's the same as downhill skiing, but paired performance. And the feeling of smoothness and stability compared to a single bike is like a commuter plane to a 747 - pure power. But at the top of a long steep slope, I hold back, feathering (or "pumping") the brakes to stay about 30 mph. If the cable snapped at that speed, I figure we could jam the rear brake, turn uphill, and try skidding to a stop like a skier or hockey player. We'd probably fall, but, controlled, would only suffer loss of skin, not life. My top speeds on a tandem have always been at the bottom of a short, steep road, where I can see the run out and know reverse gravity can save me from mechanical failure. (I have a rule about sporting activities: I don't do them if, when I make a mistake or something breaks, I die. Like sky-diving or bungee jumping. That rule has kept me alive so far!)
I'm also on the lookout for road hazards - gravel, drains, potholes, or retread tire blowouts. I stay in the traffic lane at that speed. To get close to the edge of the road gives little room to move should something go wrong, and requires approaching drivers - who are usually going only 5-15 mph faster than us - to give me space when they pass.
Back to our descent. "Move over!" Cheryl yelled. You have to yell at this speed. The tires plus the wind make for quite a roar of white noise. "Don't you want to let this guy pass?!" There was a small blue pick-up behind us, waiting patiently.
"Let me captain the tandem!" I answered. "He'll wait! I'm worried about our safety first, not being nice to him!"
"Why don't you just move over!" came the shouted reply. This was new. Usually, Cheryl lauds my captain skills, telling everyone she trusts me and my judgment.
"Let ... me ... captain! Let's talk about this at the bottom! There's too much gravel to pull over!" This went on for several more exchanges. Luckily, the pick-up passed, and an historical marker appeared at the side, telling us about Lewis and Clark at this stage of their journey. It gave us a chance to cool off and re-agree on who was steering and braking. Marriage saved.
The Corps of Discovery, in 1805, had crossed this range at Lolo Pass, just as we did. But down the other side, the mountain slopes were too steep for easy travel. The Nez Perce natives had, possibly for millennia, followed a ridge-top trail above the river, then dropped down 40 miles ahead. This, Lewis and Clark did also.
It's almost impossible for me to imagine the difficulty and enormity of what Lewis and Clark did. For over two years, entirely without foreknowledge and completely self-supported, relying totally on native (local) intelligence and goodwill, they accomplished something akin to traveling to the moon and back on the first try after Alan Shephard's initial 15 minute rocket ride. It seems obvious they would succeed, looking back in the history books, but, looking forward, there was no guarantee they would make it, no way to know they had the mental strength, discipline, and flexibility, the physical reserves and courage, to follow the Missouri, conquer the Rockies, float to the Pacific, and return - intact and full of knowledge. Following their trail, I get more impressed every day.
For lunch, we stopped with the van along the river. Cheryl has put up the awning, popped a cassette of violin music into the tape player, and taken the kids to the river. Cody and Annie were busy building a dam of rocks. Shaine was floating in the shallows, and Dani was sunning herself. Looked like a great place to spend an hour in the shade, so we did.
Today's ride was another day in heaven. After lunch, the lower elevation and V-shaped valley magnified the sun, giving us all the warmth, but none of the humidity, of our Midwestern experience. Spurning Lycra and CoolMax, I donned a long-sleeve Big Dog T-shirt, which read "Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way." It worked. The dry air ensured it evaporated immediately when my sweat hit it. When the northwest slope above us began to shade the road, the cotton kept me warm. But best of all, each creek descending from above carried with it cooling vapors beside its waters. Nature's air-conditioning.
The day was a cyclist's dream: An endless downhill. Like a tailwind, a downhill gives speed with less effort. Eighty five miles felt like fifty. Montana and Idaho, up to and over Lolo Pass, have been the geographic and psychologic high point of our trip. I hope we can keep the momentum going for our final week.
**Next Day's Journal**
Miles: Al (Tandem&single) 85; Cheryl (Tandem&single) 52; Rod, 61; Joan, 59.
Total Miles: 3119