From Crater Peak we venture to areas unknown around Monument Buttes before taking lunch in Avery and heading north of the St. Joe River for the first time. We ride through the several Moon Pass tunnels before staking a claim up Loop Creek.
“I like it a little sweet in the morning,” Jesse explains of the creamer he’s adding to his already flavored coffee, a note of indignation in his voice.
Jesse is our youngest brother, the only one who I can remember being born. He’s always been the happy-go-lucky, sometimes-troublemaker, an inch shorter than the rest of us, ever our baby brother. If the rest of us are quiet he is egging us on, doing little impressions, keeping us laughing.
starPhoto by my parents around 1990
It was cold last night and we welcome the warmth of a morning fire and dark coffee. “My toes went numb smashed up against the bottom of my mummy bag,” Joel remarks—humorously, I guess, since he knows there’s no sympathy in this group.
He explains something about his old sleeping bag being longer on bottom than top, needing to use his jacket to cover his shoulders and sometimes flipping his bag upside-down for warmth. All those contortions in his one-person tent do sound funny.
If that wasn’t hard enough, he adds, “I had a dream a deer drank my whiskey.” Probably the same deer that attacked us last year,¹ I figure, kind of the Freddy Krueger of the forest.
While Joel works on a bit of much-needed drip coffee, Jesse saws a few more little logs for our fire and I take pictures of the beautifully bright morning (and beautifully bright brothers—hah!).
Last year was the first ride planned with GPS software. When it suggested an average speed of fifteen or twenty miles per hour for many mountain roads, I thought, “shoot, we ride faster than that,” doubled the rate and had it recalculate how far we could go in a day.
That was a mistake. Unloaded, well-sprung bikes could ride fast, yeah, but not us. We ended up with some long days in the saddle. “Not this year,” I thought. I shortened our total route by a hundred miles or more but to keep it fun added in all the ATV trails I could find along our way, even a bit of single track to try.
This morning will be our first section of single track. A trail should lead us up to Widow Mountain above Lost Lake where we camped a few years ago.¹ We stop to check it out at the campsite along the road where it begins. It seems easy enough. Let’s go for it!
At first it is easy—some hairpin turns but not too steep. As we clear the trees and the mountain top comes into view, loose and stair-step rocks on a steepening incline add some trouble. It’s time to reassess.
We park our bikes and walk a bit. It looks rough. If we help push and steady each other we might make the summit but since this is just a little sight-seeing side-trip, not really worth it. We’ll just walk the rest of the way up and enjoy the view on foot.
It seems our choice was the smart one since we wrestle the GS a few minutes just to get it turned around on the simpler hillside below.
Back down at the trailhead, Jesse and I wonder what has become of Joel. Before we can worry he putters down the trail with a story of flipping his bike and twisting his wrist wrong while trying to keep it up. “I was dumb to try to save it,” he says.
Everything seems okay so Jesse and I resume joking, suggesting he’s caught Casey’s usual luck. (Casey seems to encounter difficulty every time he rides with us.)
We worked up a little sweat with that trail and it feels good to be back on the mountain road in the cool morning air. I lift my visor and smell the trees and grass in each crisp breath.
An odd shape through the trees catches my eye in a shadowy stretch of woods. The GPS says there’s a spring just ahead. It would be nice to refill our bottles so we pull to the side of the dirt road to look around.
Joel and I walk through the trees across patches of snow down to the large metal pipe rising high above our heads from a worn concrete pad. No road or trail leads here.
“Alien technology,” I suggest.
“I hope so,” answers Joel. We don’t know what to make of it and can’t find a spring so we finish a few snacks and move on.
Easy going dirt narrows to a rocky Jeep trail as we turn from Gold Center Road (Forest Road 301) to the previously unexplored Indian Dip (457) and Buzzard Roost (363) roads that will lead us around Monument Buttes. Forested mountains stretch endlessly around as we dodge rocks and splash through rivulets formed from snow melting somewhere above. This is great riding!
After trying a narrow trail up the South Butte, rising high above us, and running almost immediately into deadfall, we return to the road and pause to fill our water bottles at one of those trickles of water.
“Have you passed an ATV rider that smiled or seemed friendly?” I ask my brothers as we take turns with the water filter. I thought everyone smiled and waved at everyone out here but the separate riders we’ve passed today looked consistently grouchy.
“No,” they answer together with knowing grins.
“I was thinking the same thing,” Joel adds. Hmm. It seems weird that anyone could catch a bad mood out here.
“Just down this hill a bit,” I promise Jesse, then we should be able to turn onto a short stretch of single track to No-see-um Lake for a midday break.
A hiking sign marks the trail up the high bank at the edge of the road. It is fun but sometimes tricky. In one place I bottom out the front on a root ledge and skid backwards with clamped brakes when the engine stalls. I need a push from my brothers to go again.
After a few such sections we stop for a break when the trail levels out and I scout ahead on foot. More roots with mud and getting steeper makes me think we’ve seen enough. No need to work that hard for one little lake of many we can see, though we are ashamed of our single track record today.
A bridge back on the main road, still numbered 363 but now called Adair Creek Road, takes us over the Little North Fork of the Clearwater River and next to an idyllic campsite. It’s too early to camp but we pull in for a break in the shaded clearing under the trees along the river.
We sit on a rough bench by the fire pit and notice someone has written all over it with crayons. Who brings crayons camping, I wonder. Then I notice right there in the dirt at our feet: crayons! We have little choice but to leave a mark.
One of our favorite riverside pass-times is a rock throwing contest. It doesn’t take long before targets are selected, challenges laid down and taunts begin.
From here the road is gravel and we ride quickly from rock throwing feats toward the St. Joe River and Avery, an unincorporated town of less than one hundred people.
We have fond memories of dining at the Avery Trading Post having stopped two years ago¹ to escape rain on a cold morning. The dim light, roaring fire, hot breakfast, and irreverent kitsch were perfect as we waited for skies to clear.
After struggling a moment to remember the name, I ask the waitress, “what happened to Wayne’s stool?” Although our last visit was brief, it was easy to recognize the scowling codger on the labeled seat at the edge of the bar as a local institution.
She looks at me funny and mumbles something I can’t hear. The label is gone and so is everything inappropriate, replaced by fluorescent lighting and milk toast milieu. I’m a little disappointed. The place seems to have lost the part of its soul we liked most.
Joel shows us his bee sting (definitely riding with Casey’s luck this time) and we review routes over sandwiches, fries and cold beer.
We walk off about ten of those nine hundred calories at the old train depot just below the restaurant, looking round at vestiges of a bygone era.
It was called one of the most scenic stretches of railroad in the country. When the Milwaukee Railroad was operating, the trains traversed through 11 tunnels and over 9 high trestles, covering a 46 mile route that crossed the rugged Bitterroot Mountains between Idaho and Montana. The ‘Route of the Hiawatha’ is most famous for the long St. Paul Pass, or Taft Tunnel which burrows for 8771 ft. (1.66 miles) under the Bitterroot Mountains at the state line.¹
The inside of the old dining car is more luxurious than I expected—quite the opposite of today’s air travel. I look around at the accoutrements to imagine the experience. I think it would be a wonderful way to see this country, riding on soft seats through the high mountain passes, in long tunnels, over high trestles, clickety-clack, “may I bring you another drink, sir?”
Ice cream for us and gas for the 250s compete for our next top priority before heading north into the mountains. We putter a couple blocks over to Scheffy’s Store¹ to satisfy both needs then sit unhurried on plastic chairs in the shade of the curiously sky blue building.
Moon Pass Road is the well travelled gravel route between Avery and Wallace. I thought it might be named for grand views of evergreen ridges silhouetted against the lunar orb but having travelled it a bit now I realize it must instead be named for the same powdery dust that plagued the lunar landers, that here billows behind all that moves.
It is a lot busier here to the north of the St. Joe River, since leaving Avery, though folks do smile and wave. Passing through many old railroad tunnels is neat (I chase a deer through one) but I’m anxious to get away from the dust and din.
We turn up along Loop Creek and pass campsite after campsite, all occupied. We go some ways beyond the regular camping areas before finding a candidate. I scout a little farther to avoid Murphy’s Law, that we might take off in the morning and immediately pass a wonderful site. But this is it. It feels good to be home for the night.
I think we all enjoy improving a thing, fixing a place up—some might say obsessive-compulsive. With few words we each pour ourselves into a task, wading across the creek to cut and retrieve wood, piling stones for a fire pit, or leveling spots for our tents. Nobody lets up until everything is done, just-so.
Finally we’re ready to sit, stare at the fire, and laugh about things until we’re too tired to think. We enjoy Natasha’s homemade brownies, hearing repeatedly about Jesse’s luxury chair, advising Joel on the medical condition of his wrist, and watching Jesse’s flashlight shadow hand puppets on the trees across the creek.
“After the trails today,” I mention to my brothers, “I’m a little worried about the rest of our route.” It’s a lot of ATV and single track from here. A moonless night and the gentle sound of water assure sweet sleep until then, which is good because I believe we’ll need it.