My neighbor and I take advantage of the year’s waning sun to find high desert adventure across the Snake River in the once heavily mined hills around Silver City.
It is a nice enough November day we might have gone north from our adjacent Boise homes to ride forested mountains. “Except for hunting,” Tony reminded me. Scaring off dinner might not be well received.
So we’ve come south across the Snake River to ride high desert off Silver City Road (queue a Clint Eastwood soundtrack).
Tony leads us on a warm-up lap across Diamond Creek and down to Sinker Canyon. When you have kids in college and your hair starts to grey, warm-up is important before tackling rocks and drops.
Somebody had too much coffee.
“Have you ridden along Sinker Creek?” Tony asks.
I have to think a moment. “I feel like I have,” I answer, “but I guess I’ve only looked at it over the ledge.”
Titanic, orange fingers reach out of the ravine toward the sky, flaked and fragmented by eons of ice and sun, long abandoned by the elemental forces that conjured them.
Creeks that meander between small places darkened by branches and brambles are the common secret of desert canyons. Air swirling behind us kicks up yellow leaves as we splash back and forth across muddled water running over broken, brown stones.
A small group of cows looks up to watch as we detour from Sinker Creek a moment to run up a long, bare hill. Our bikes snarl against soft dirt that grabs at our wheels midway.
Land that from a few miles away appears featureless surprises with hues and hills, high and low, as we draw near. People’s beliefs are like that — always more nuanced than expected when we take time to look closely.
We cut our engines a moment to look across serpentine hills to the unexpectedly bare mountains above Silver City.
Tony leads us back to the truck from our warm-up lap. Now we’re ready to work a little.
We continue the opposite direction from Sinker Canyon to climb above Diamond Basin on a narrow trail winding back and forth, up and around mottled outcrops that stand like a family of gomphotherium, a prehistoric elephant-like species whose bones are found in these hills.
Elephantine rocks give way to grassland populated by sandstone protrusions standing in for the lions, camels, tiny horses, saber-tooth cats and giant (seven feet tall!) sloths that also roamed these hills.¹ The terrain makes it easy to imagine the ancient fauna, their bays, whinnies and grunts still whispered in the wind.
I recently re-watched the Star Trek: Enterprise series (I’ve been a fan since kindergarten), much of which revolves around an alien orbital weapon used to cut a swath of destruction across the Earth. It reminded me of the Snake River Plain spreading across the horizon behind us.
Idaho has been dragged steadily westward over the molten engine that now lies beneath Yellowstone Park, leaving a swath of eruptive destruction fifty miles wide and four hundred miles long, across the entire state. It puts the Xindi weapon to shame.
The decimated landscape became a collector of waters running off mountains that remained to the north and south, eventually forming massive Lake Idaho that would deposit hundreds of feet of sediment (today’s chalky hills) during the millennia it endured.
Here in the Owyhees we see those ancient upheavals writ large and unapologetic.
Trail and terrain compete for my attention. A moment to marvel at outcrop contours is usually followed by a quick course correction. And that’s exactly what’s special about these little adventures. They force us to leave behind concerns other than simply staying upright.
“Fifteen million years ago, Idaho was much like northern Africa … Owyhee County was mainly a savannah, or large grassland, and was home to many of the predecessors of species now found in northern Africa.”¹ Riding in the Owyhees is like visiting another continent, another time, maybe another planet.
From the rousing path rising among ancient savannah and its beasts, we race down a dirt road just far enough to reach the next singletrack along the edge of a small tributary to Sinker Creek.
My skid plate and hand guards make contact with the lumbering stone watchmen who crowd the trail, demanding diplomacy over dogmatism, balance instead of bluster as we thread our way along the terrain’s sharp boundaries.
For me, these narrow paths strike the joyful balance between challenge and charm, truth and beauty, the yin and yang of a good time. “Narrow is the way that leads to life and few are they who find it.” Thankfully, Tony found it already.
I am saddened at how many lately seem to spend all their days riding tight circles around the parking lot with like-minded buddies, muttering to each other about how dangerous and disgusting everywhere else must be, dismissing contrary evidence without consideration as propaganda or “trolling.” They’re missing so much.
Tony leads the climb out of the rapturous ravine then we descend to a tin roof cabin built at a confluence of gulches along Tiddie Creek.
We peruse a minute, taking in the desert décor and peering into a rock storehouse built into the hillside, startling a snow white ermine in the process.
starPhoto by Tony Wiseman
“Wait here for three or four minutes,” Tony requests after we’ve climbed into the trees a mile beyond the cabin. He’s going to run ahead and get set up for video of me on a climb.
I haven’t seen this climb. The fact that he wants to record me on it has me a tad nervous.
“Sure,” I answer.
The road turns to soft dirt singletrack angling steeply between trees. I get on the gas more than necessary for the sake of the video then stop alongside Tony, missing his instruction to continue on video up the next climb.
We follow topographic lines around Little Sugar Loaf. I watch a moment as Tony’s passing scares deer from the brush above him.
These hills were the Kickstarter of their time, riddled with aspirations — diggings, mills, cabins and concomitant cemeteries of “Unknowns.”
Silver City news reported in 1889 that “Mr. Q. F. Lambert thinks he has made the discovery of two valuable lodes near the Little Sugar Loaf,”¹ right here. By 1902, a camp on the “south slope of the Little Sugar Loaf mountain” was part of the “Golden Opportunity Mining & Milling company.”² Today there is only bitterbrush and cow dung.
Idaho Statesman, “Camp Opportunity Closed for Winter” (Nov 24, 1902)
Men were all over these hills in those years, claiming every tiny stream, every dream.
The air is filled with the distinctive note of juniper berries. In concentration they can smell like cat urine, which isn’t very nice, but today they’re a welcome part of high desert character, a pungent potpourri.
We descend from Little Sugar Loaf to a Jeep road along Cosmopolitan Creek where a collapsing mill stands opposite a collapsed cabin, two nursing home centenarians parked in the corner, unable to remember who they were.
“You sure stand a lot,” I joke, knowing the stock seat is little more than a painted board.
Tony doesn’t tolerate roads for long. We veer for a nearly imperceptible trailhead that takes us through trees along Horse Ranch Creek.
The trail flows smoothly up and down the hillside and around trees. It’s really fun.
I hope those afraid to leave the ideological parking lot won’t persuade a President Trump to attempt new growth based on regressive ideas. While wise to acknowledge traditions, it is perilous to build solely on sentiment.
We climb out of the gulch back to a Jeep trail where sits another dilapidated cabin. A sign suggests visitors shouldn’t leave trash. It appears some took that as a challenge.
We are stuck on Jeep trails a while now, making the best of it with weaving and wheelying around ruts and whoops. We pass a couple groups on ATVs and I wonder how far they’ve come. Whenever I’ve visited with four wheels a place I previously rode, I’m surprised how much slower the going is — like 5 MPH instead of 25. It ends up taking hours to get somewhere.
After stopping for a picture along a straight stretch through a meadow, I get on the throttle and quickly click through to third to catch up with Tony. Suddenly there’s a three foot ditch in front of me, a sharp V like the dry creeks we crossed in the desert.
“Going down,” I think but I’m lucky that all the angles line up so the bike takes the full impact. I hear an odd sound like a sledgehammer on jello from the front but the bike doesn’t even wobble. Holy crap. I’m not going to look that gift horse in the mouth. Keep riding.
We loop around Slacks Mountain on Road 300 and get pointed back toward the truck.
Tony is kind to get my picture here and there.
I use one of Tony’s map checks as a chance to investigate why my fork looks dirty. I’ve never had a leak and am usually wearing fork socks. It should be pristine.
Uh-oh. That explains the funny sound. I see the left seal and its retainer blew out when I hit the big rut, dumping fork oil on the brake.
“I’m not paying for that,” Tony says.
“It’s kind of your fault,” I counter.
We continue on Jeep trails to Tiddie Spring, upstream of the first cabin we visited. “Sweet H₂O” the sign reads, though I think I’ll stick with the water I brought.
The short day’s late afternoon casts a blue pall across the Snake River Plain, painting a picture of how it might have appeared as Lake Idaho millions of years ago, full with water.
Tony has one last stretch of charming but challenging singletrack for us. We descend from the high ridge on a trail almost too steep for tires to slow us. Encroaching limbs and rocks make the way along Moore Creek a tad more technical but still within the sweet spot.
“Nice bicycle trail!” I yell as I catch up after a couple pictures. Tony chuckles.
“That’s neat,” I acknowledge as I stop where Tony is noting the outcrop above. “I’d better get a picture,” I say as he starts off.
“I heard a rumor there might be beer back at the ranch,” Tony said earlier. I thought he meant his house (or maybe I didn’t hear right) until he hands me any icy IPA from a cooler at the truck. Nice! What a good neighbor.
After the brambly track along Moore Creek, it was speedy desert trails back to the truck. Darkness falls quickly after we’ve loaded up and are heading home.
We look out the windows at the dimming sagebrush sea and wonder what drew the original settlers to stop here rather than continue to greener pastures (literally) in Oregon or California. Gold for some, obviously, but the purpose of isolated cabins far away from all else is less obvious.
Riding through the world of a century ago, of another epoch, reminds us how hard life has been, how much we can be glad for today.