From my secret campsite behind Silver City (disregarding the GPS track), I descend Bachman Grade to explore some lesser known canyons within the Owyhee Front.
I am a awakened for the second morning in a row by the patter of rain. I’d rather not pack everything wet so I hope it ends soon. I pull the soft down of the sleeping bag around my ears, close my eyes, and wait.
I gather pine needles to start a fire when the rain finally reaches its quiet conclusion. Grey clouds still swirl above. I’m shivering in shorts and sandals while wiping things down, to help them dry, and waiting for water to boil. A wet morning in the mountains and strong coffee are made for each other.
Before leaving, I walk to explore outcrops above while the video camera charges. Or it would have if I’d turned on power to the USB outlet. That’s disappointing. But the rocks were a fun playground nonetheless.
I notice the RealTyme Engineering rack wobbling as I’m cinching ROK straps around my dry bag and I think back to an under-seat popping sound I heard yesterday. I hoped it was just a rock but it looks like I’ve lost a bolt.
I remove the luggage and confirm there’s no longer anything holding the seat or upper rack. That will never do. Much thanks to whoever posted the suggestion to cover the under-fender seat bolt with tape. That not only kept it clean, the purpose I remember, but saved the bolt itself. With no lost parts, I’m able to quickly re-secure everything.
The ride from foothill trails back across Bridge Creek to Bachman Grade goes quickly. Bright Indian paintbrush and arrowleaf balsamroot, red and yellow dotting the darker rocks of the road cut, frame the expansive view across the Snake River Plain.
At the bottom of the grade, I turn onto four-wheel-drive road C231, parallel tracks of dirt, linear like Tron to distant hills. This lowland area is a maze of public trails.
In Latah County of North Idaho, where I grew up, most mountains and forests are the private property of lumber companies. The trails I enjoyed riding as a kid — behind Spring Valley, above Troy C.C.C. Dam and Umbarger’s, along East Moscow Mountain — are now long closed by the prerogative of those owners.
There are vocal groups in Idaho and other western states who would take lands from federal ownership, freeing them of regulations that preclude private enterprise. Should that happen, I expect recreational access would gradually succumb to profit interests.
The Toy Mountain Group grazing allotments, the desert areas I’m riding today, were under review by the Bureau of Land Management during 2013 for alignment with public interest as part of the permit renewal process.¹
Hundreds of pages of maps and analyses (soil, vegetation, etc.) were adduced for the conditions of renewal. The Final Decision for Browns Creek, where I am, requires Scott and Sherri Nicholson to graze 76% fewer cattle and provide ongoing evidence their “livestock grazing management” doesn’t continue violating stream quality standards.²
Because public land is as much yours and mine as the ranchers’, our interests are equally subsumed by the common good. Though not every regulation suits my tastes, I’m grateful for preservation and public enjoyment objectives that transcend isolated interests.
I follow a trail spur off the main route to overlook a section of Browns Creek slot canyon. I find these dark, jagged rifts striking amidst the pale monotony of the surrounding hills.
After a lifetime of dead ends and bad ideas, I like to scrutinize aerial views to vet new routes. I couldn’t discern what was going on with the Browns Creek crossing so I’m glad to get here and see a vague way through the brush and cobbles (trail C710).
I look at the canyon mouth and hesitate. I brought some camera gear expecting slot canyon walks, like I much enjoyed with little Brenna,¹ but with the morning rain delay, I decide I should keep riding.
My next point-of-interest is Castle Creek. Trail 710 from Browns Creek brings me to 701, which is quick gravel, then I’m off to 705, dirt tracks, and another spur (900 and 901) to a canyon overlook. The ride on these trails is sporty. Like yesterday, I have them all to myself.
From a mile off, the Browns and Castle Creek canyons look about the same but up close, there’s something unique here. It’s like a poor digital copy of a canyon, Lego or MineCraft blocks in place of reality. Everything is made of layers and layers of blocks. I’m fascinated to look around.
I backtrack from the overlook spur to trail 705 before turning to follow motorcycle tracks 910 and 930 through a wide, white draw.
The variety of landforms in close proximity is surprising. And because the variations quickly blend in the distance, these striking features appear unexpectedly. I think it’s delightful. I could spend all day looking at some of these places.
The single track continues from the smooth bosom of chalk hills to an orange and angular slope. I have to stop and take off my sunglasses to see if it’s really as colorful as it seems.
The red of an Indian paintbrush in the wash of a gully gets my attention. I’ve seen many but this one is flagging me down. And the ground here is littered with rocks requiring inspection.
I stuff a couple small rocks in the tank bag that look different from those I’ve collected elsewhere, tokens of another outing. If they’re level-one great, they’ll go in a dish in the house. These are probably level-two. They’ll go outside around the pond.
The trail across Castle Creek eluded me for a minute. But now I see it — give it some gas and duck through the brush.
I open the gate to an ATV trail that I follow over to a pasture and wider road. The line marked on the GPS doesn’t seem to exist in reality but I find something nearby going the right direction.
Between the Castle Creek pasture and my next way-point, Birch Creek, is equal parts sand wash and whoops, unmarked trails. If I come this direction again, I’ll try to find a different way. This isn’t very fun.
I am drawn this way by pictures I’d seen of an area nicknamed the sandcastles, what looked to be a sandstone slot canyon in the manner of the famous Antelope Canyon in Arizona.
As usual, there’s no one here. I stop in the sand around a fire ring and trade riding gear for a photo belt. I’m surrounded by the same whimsical, tafoni filled forms I’ve seen at Shoofly¹ and Leslie Gulch.² I’m eager to look around.
The kids would love to climb around here. Finding places the family would enjoy has turned into one of my riding prime directives.
I notice several shells when I take a moment to look closely at the walls. The walls, in fact, are chock full of sea shells, the legacy, along with the oolite and white hills, of Lake Idaho.
Lines around me come together in a play of ironic and mirthful twists. My eyes roam from one amusement to the next.
The sandcastles were my last planned stop. From there, I follow Birch Creek out to Oreana Loop Road where I pause to activate the highway configuration. In my mind, raising the windscreen and folding out the mirrors has all the sounds and mechanics of a Transformer robot — more than meets the eye.
This has been one of those physics-defying rides, larger on the inside than the outside. Sand and snow, mountains and canyons, deserts and forests — it’s hard to believe I’ve only been gone a day. Squeezing four days of experiences into one is a pretty good bargain.