I join Phil, Ryan, Sam and Tyson for a little of Idaho’s Centennial Trail along the Bruneau and an overnight along hot springs. The road into the canyon conspires with morning snow to mean us harm.
I imagined the half-dozen flat-floored hollows carved in the red rhyolite cliffs above the Bruneau River had sheltered ancient families, smooth faces and jasper talismans reflecting warm firelight while roasting the day’s catch of salmon.
(This story was first relayed by three others on the ride: Ryan¹, Sam² and Tyson³.)
“I got mine out of the pot right there,” says Tyson, nodding at the shelf just behind me after I ask the young girl sweeping the floor if I might have a cup of coffee. We’d come an hour from Boise under grey skies that laid down a wet welcome in the last miles before the Bruneau Cafe. A warm drink sounds nice.
I hurry to finish the drink when we see the others through the picture window, pulling up in the empty lot outside. A grizzled man with large glasses—who you’d hope doesn’t do the cooking even though you know he does—remains alone at a corner table with a calculator and some papers, wondering how he’ll keep this place open with big city bastards who only buy coffee. At least that’s my guess. The door gives a cheerful jingle as we exit.
Beads of water form on our visors only to be pushed into rivulets by headwind. The mottled horizon gives mixed messages about what conditions we might encounter as Tyson and I follow along behind Sam, Ryan and Phil, ensconced in crew cab comfort, their small trailer bouncing wildly through potholes like an excited puppy nipping at their heels.
Ryan is leading us to Indian Hot Springs in the Bruneau Canyon, a plan adjusted at the last minute one hundred miles southeast to avoid the probability of winter in the Owyhees.
“Caution: Very rugged road access to this site; impassable when wet … Bridge unsuitable for vehicle traffic” says the Bureau of Land Management¹ to those considering these hot springs. We couldn’t hope for more.
The trailer wobbles and weaves. An XR sways. “Two straps broke!” Ryan exclaims after I’m able to motion them over. The three of them push, pull and mutter while Tyson and I work to contain our sympathy.
Sam’s photo idea.e
“What? You haven’t started yet? Jesus!” Ryan and Phil are like an old married couple as the bikes are unloaded, gear is donned and adjustments made to carburetors and straps. Continued trailer instability has prompted the decision to stop, unload and insult each other a bit sooner than planned.
With plenty of daylight left, Ryan is going to lead us on a section of the Idaho Centennial Trail.¹ “It’s kinda rocky—that okay?” he asks me, rider of the over-sized motorcycle. I can either say “sure” or “no, I’m a little girl and my nose is cold and I’d like to go home now.” I tell him “sure.”
“The 900-mile Idaho Centennial Trail (ICT) weaves through the most scenic portions of Idaho’s wild country, from high desert canyonlands in southern Idaho to wet mountain forests in North Idaho. ICT travelers will cross many mountains, streams and rivers in between.”¹
The trail leads across desolate, sagebrush plains into a small canyon, tributary to the main Bruneau. Cattle grazing means a network of wire fences and trampled ground that serves as perfect camouflage to cow-pie colored sandals. I miss my sandals.
We fly from gate to gate, accelerating to the limit of our ability to still navigate sharp rocks strewn on the trail before us. Light rain has left the trails in fairly good condition.
“It’s only rocky at the top—easy after that,” Ryan reassures as we stop and asses the remaining descent into Bruneau Canyon and Indian Hot Springs. It has the ominous sound of famous last words.
We roll carefully down the rocky slope, one-by-one, into another time, almost, stopping now and then to drink in the place and moment and freeze it with a picture. There are signs of activity, industry, fifty, a hundred years ago. Now everything is still.
I am ready to continue unabated when we arrive at the “bridge unsuitable for vehicle traffic”¹ but Ryan, having already crossed, hustles back to suggest we take a moment to find the sturdiest path across.
The river is running high beneath rotting planks. If any bike is going to break through, it will be mine. He helps me walk my bike across. Safe. The others do the same.
“Are you going swimming, daddy?” my three-year-old daughter had asked that morning, a little confused, when she saw me wearing swim trunks while readying for the ride. I’ve had those trunks on under my riding pants all day and may finally use them.
So we are here, hours from another soul, where steam swirls high above springs seeping scalding water into a cold river.
“Idaho is known as the ‘Gem State’ because it contains 72 different kinds of precious and semi-precious stones. The only other location on the planet which has a greater variety of gems is Africa.”¹
We have arrived at a river considered by many to be the most inaccessible in the United States.² If the trail we’ve just descended is one of the only ways to reach its edge, I understand why.
The water was scalding hot. Not a crossing you want to screw up!
Ryan and Tyson take a few celebratory laps down between the springs and river and back. The water they cross is scalding hot—not a crossing you want to screw up!
It takes some time to adjust from rapid, reflexive decisions (don’t hit that rock!) of riding to deeper considerations such as where to put a tent. We wander around several minutes kicking rocks in a kind of daze before we decide where to set our tents.
As soon as tents are up and beds ready, we eat. We don’t have a fire yet but we circle our chairs and catch up a little on lives that, for the most part, only intersect on these trails. Tyson is anxious for a new motorcycle. Ryan is back in school. Phil is morose but still a comedian. Sam would retire if his wife would let him.
I understand we’re going to leave first thing in the morning so I decide to break from the circle and use some of the remaining daylight—especially now that the sun has started appearing from behind clouds—to hike around the area. Hot springs can wait for dusk.
The air is crisp. It feels good to walk. I was starting to feel flu-ish last night and almost didn’t come. Now I feel great. Getting out into the open seems to have that restorative effect, for mind and body.
It helps that the place is so impressive: it’s geologic history, it’s pre-history and history, all evident. Narrow gorges are cut dramatically by creeks and rivers into deep volcanic flows (related to the Yellowstone super volcano) throughout this basin that was once home to Northern Shoshone, Northern Paiute, and Bannock tribes.¹
My attention is drawn to several hollows that all seem to be carved from the cliffs to have a flat floor, easy steps and room for a group to sit sheltered around a fire with a view out over the river. I climb into one and think I’d love to camp right here. It’s perfect.
I climb into another hollow up higher and see the view down along the river to our campsite by the hot springs. I try to imagine the feel of being here before the dawn of civilization.
As I climb, I’m also noticing glassy ribbons, red, white and colors in-between, all throughout these rocks. It’s like nothing I’ve seen in volcanic rock like this before.
As I climb higher, I find the glassy rock underfoot, strewn like gravel. It’s piled like tailings from a mining operation. I see drill holes for dynamite as if to confirm the thought.
“The most famous jasper in Idaho is the ‘Bruneau jasper,’ a red and green gem-quality stone … [The deposit] in the Indian Hot Springs area ... which is several hundred meters across, has been commercially exploited.”¹
I reach the old truck we passed on the way down. I guess that rusting equipment in the back (still an odor of grease) was part of the mining operation. Iron and oil traded for jasper.
The sun seems to have gone for good so I decide to head back down to camp.
Across the canyon I see Tyson threading his way up a narrow trail leading atop the opposite cliffs, headlight bouncing. I wave, though I can’t tell if he sees me.
Back at camp, fickle winds swirl steam around Sam and Phil standing above the far hot spring. Ryan is still playing in the water below, pursuing the ideal mix of scalding and freezing water, like an acolyte hoping to reconcile faith and reason.
Tyson returns from his little ride and hike and begins to gather wood for a fire. I assist by photographing his efforts until I feel rain drops. A parting shot of the bathtub and I join the others in hustling for our tents as it begins to come down hard.
“That’ll be a hard ride out if this doesn’t stop.” We laugh a little nervously each time the major understatement is made. The banter between tents continues and so does the rain. I brew some coffee under the vestibule and crawl in my sleeping bag to stay warm. I think I might listen to a podcast but decide I’d rather just listen to the rain on canvas. We’ve all gone quiet now.
The sun is down by the time the rain lets up. I hear a zipper and think it’s funny when Phil exclaims, “wow, it’s really dark out here.” What else would it be at night away from lights?
“We gonna start that fire?” I’d like to know there will be some warmth outside my sleeping bag before emerging. “Hell yeah,” answers Ryan. “Wow, it’s really dark out here,” I notice as I get up out of the tent. No moon, no stars, just blackness.
I help break branches for the fire and Ryan brings gasoline to bear on the situation. Ah, that feels good.
We snack, drink and chat around our little orb of orange in the sea of darkness. We are glad to be well warmed before the rain returns. It quickly escalates and we dive back into our tents, this time, we know, for the night.
A complaining cow, wailing coyotes and wind fill the night with sound. And my own coughing. (“Sorry guys,” I want to say.) The flu battle isn’t over. Lying awake, I think I hear the patter of snow or sleet and wonder again about the trail out of the canyon. I guess morning will tell. It will be morning all too soon.
I hear movement. It isn’t quite light yet but others are stirring in their tents. Then I hear the whoosh of igniting gas and waste no time shivering my way into some pants so I can warm up around the fire. I’ve learned a valuable lesson: sleeping bag temperature ratings are damnable lies.
The morning is beautiful. Gorgeous. Last night’s wind and rain has been replaced by a clear sky. A crescent moon still hangs above the cliffs opposite the river. We laugh about the night. We were all kept awake by the cow in distress (it seemed), coyote howls and canvas flapping madly against midnight gusts. Except Phil. He slept like a baby.
Ryan has an appointment back home. We eat fast and pack fast. Phil and Sam take off up the trail to wait at the canyon rim while the rest of us finish packing. I expect they’re anxious, as we all are, to get the rocky ascent behind them.
A glance around to confirm that nothing is forgotten and we’re ready to go too. Ryan and Tyson follow behind to help me if needed. Coming to the edge of the bridge I think I should be able to balance across the longitudinal planks while riding this time. But what’s this? Frost? I test it with my boot. “It’s kind of slick” I yell back to Ryan.
Getting up the trail will require enough luck. I decide it’s better not to start pressing it now. I get off and begin walking the bike along the plank.
Wham! The moment the rear wheel touches the sloped and slanted bridge, both tires slide out, the five hundred pound bike hits the deck, skitters toward the downhill edge and pushes me along. Crap!
Before I can work up a respectable panic, the timber fixed at the edge of the bridge stops the slide. Ryan and Tyson have come running to effect a rescue. The three of us stand the bike up and help it across to safety. We laugh a moment about how the insurance claim would have looked: “Bike fully submerged after falling from a bridge.”
The rising sun is directly in our eyes as we round the bend for the final difficult climb. Perfect. The rocks, the sun, the skiff of snow—I can tell this will just be a matter of luck. Somehow I crest the rim without mishap, happy and relieved. Then Ryan.
Only so much luck was allotted our group and those ascending first needed a lot. There wasn’t quite enough left for the last man, Tyson. His clutch lever broke on a rock.
The others, you remember, had come in crew cab comfort and needed to depart together, so Tyson and I bid them adieu with assurance we won’t be far behind.
After some clever zip-tying, Tyson rides right out, home-free.
A skiff of snow has made magic of the plains and we’re able to fly along in a dream.
… a dream that turns bad as the ground warms up, making mud like snot. We go from flying to crawling, legs out to brace against what seem like inevitable falls.
As soon as we get to roads with a bit of gravel, we’re on the gas, riding as fast as we can to make up for lost time, drawn onward by the promised comforts of home.
Boise gives a welcoming shower. Already wet and muddy, we hardly notice. It feels good to get out and it feels good to get back. As I ride the streets home I’m already thinking about the tweaks and adjustments I need to be ready for the next ride.