Route: Grant, MT to Lemhi Pass in the Beaverhead Mountains
Quote of the day from Saya (age 6): “That was either a piece of wood on the road or some dried mango.” Sho's incredulous response: "Dried mango?? Where do you think we are?"
Today had the makings of a fiasco. After breaking down our tent, loading gear onto our bikes and saying goodbye to the Grant elementary school playground, Sho, Saya and I pedaled on the nearly empty Highway 324 through a typical Montana scene: rolling fenced-in pastures bounded by intimidating mountains in the distance jutting into a wide open sky. The morning was cool enough for Saya to wear a jacket. Billowing clouds obscured the sun, and a gentle tailwind helped move us along. The Beaverhead Mountains loomed off to our right, and after 11 miles, we turned onto a gravel road, heading toward Lemhi Pass, 12 miles away. The Beaverhead Mountains are part of the Rocky Mountains’ Bitterroot Range, and Lemhi pass, elevation 7,373 feet, stands on the border of Montana and Idaho. Until 1846, it marked the western boundary of the United States. It also stands on the ridge line of the Continental Divide.
Cycling on a gravel road while carrying four full bike bags and towing a six-year-old and a heavy bike trailer can be nerve wracking. The tires frequently spun out in the gravel, and I struggled to continue pedaling up steep climbs, often needing to jump off to push the bikes. About an hour into the gravel section, I heard what I thought was a gunshot off to my left, then realized that it was the sound of the left tire of the bike trailer blowing out. The tire had an impressive gash in it, likely from a sharp rock. After patching the tube, I used an old cycling trick, placing a folded dollar bill between the tube and the gash in the tire. This provided a layer of protection for the tube over the vulnerable spot in the tire. We resumed cycling, but less than five minutes later, the same tire blew out again, and I let out an expletive that I should not have said in front of my children. I found a large hole in the dollar bill as if it had been shot by a .22 rifle. So much for my old cycling trick. I patched the tube for a second time, then used strips of duct tape to cover the gash in the tire. I knew this would only serve as a temporary fix, especially while riding on such a rough road. I hoped the tire would hold out until I could get to a town with a bike shop and replace it.
About five miles below the mountain pass, a forest ranger pulled alongside us and said that he had just heard that a lightening and hailstorm was headed our way. I began to sense that today was turning into a fiasco. He told us that the ridgeline would not be safe, but agreed with my plan to set up our tent in the Sacagawea campsite a half mile below the pass. Soon threatening clouds began rushing by overhead, and sprinkles began to fall. It was impossible to ride quickly up the steep gravel road, but Sho, Saya and I pushed as hard as we could to beat the storm. I was frustrated by how quickly my heart rate reached maximum and my legs gave out while trying to pedal and push our heavy load up the mountain. Even though I knew we needed to rush, I had to take frequent breaks to recover. Sho was remarkably strong, and his mountain bike was much better suited to the road surface. He waited patiently for me each time I needed to rest. Saya, on the other hand, was ready to end our suffering, and asked continually when we would get to the top. “Sooner, if you’d help me push the bikes up this brutal climb,” I said in an annoyed voice. Two more cars stopped to warn us of the coming storm before we finally reached the pass at around 3:30 p.m. We quickly descended to the tree-covered campsite and set up our tent, while wind gusts threatened to blow away anything not held down.
I expected hail to begin falling and to need to seek shelter in our tent. But luck was on our side: the storm passed and focused its wrath elsewhere, giving us nothing more than occasional wind gusts. Once it was clear that we would be spared, we celebrated the near miss with a hike around the campsite, which was created in 1932 to honor Sacagawea’s contributions to the success of the Lewis & Clark expedition. We hiked on trails among sagebrush and beneath tall narrow Douglas Fir trees, the first I’ve seen on this trip. My kids and I stood astride a spring just below Lemhi Pass, which Meriwether Lewis identified as “the most distant fountain of the waters of the mighty Missouri in surch of which we have spent so many toilsome days and wristless nights.” We found numerous Lewis’s red monkey-flowers, red blossoms atop tall green stalks, which Lewis documented in his journal.
And we looked west from the ridgeline, where the storm was tearing up the town of Salmon, Idaho with lightening strikes and 1-inch hail that turned the streets white. On August 12, 1805, Meriwether Lewis and three others from the Corps of Discovery followed a “large and plain Indian road” to this same point and became the first white men to see present-day Idaho. The view is largely unchanged from 208 years ago. Lewis wrote, “We proceeded to the top of the dividing ridge from which I discovered immense ranges of high mountains still to the West of us with their tops partially covered in snow.” The early 19th century map makers on the east coast assumed that the Rockies were a single mountain chain, but Lewis found out that they were much more formidable. Although the view is dramatic and beautiful, he must have been disheartened by what he saw.
As I read out loud to Sho and Saya from the Journals of Lewis & Clark in our tent, we heard a moose bellowing somewhere in the forest.
Here are some pics:
Our tent behind the elementary school in Grant, Montana
Saya helping me fix a flat
Sho studying the map for Lemhi Pass
Our tent in the Sacagawea Memorial Area on Lemhi Pass
Eastern view from Lemhi Pass
Standing astride one of the headwaters of the "mighty Missouri"