I meet up with a new rider, Ben, for a ride south across hills arid and unknown to us around Big Jacks Creek and beyond toward Nevada. We explore a homestead and Zeno Falls before struggling to find the route home.
A small stretch of imagination is required to conflate dry sagebrush plains with a tropical island. Look a few feet under the surface, though, and Idaho’s Owyhee County and the islands of Hawai’i are much the same, each formed by ages of volcanism, each resting upon millennia of basalt flows.
It is not this similarity for which the Owhyees are named, however, but rather to honor a small party of Hawai’ian fur trappers found killed about 1820 near the Snake River. It has always been a land equally fascinating and fatal.²
“Hey, I think I’m gonna take tomorrow off,” I sort of mention to my co-workers. Family obligations and a sketchy forecast have ruled out weekend riding but the new tire, freshly synchronized throttle bodies and sunshine require something.
A note about my plan on the Boise section of ADVRider.com¹ catches the attention of a new dual sport rider, Ben. He tells me he’d like to go. Great! My wife Jessica is glad I won’t be out there alone.
Ben and I are going to take Pleasant Valley Road south to Grand View and a nearby pioneer cemetery that a friend at work has told me about.
I am pulling off helmet and gloves at Denny’s by the airport when a guy on a KLR wearing a high-viz jacket and toting a waterproof duffel bag—all proud hallmarks of adventure riding—pulls up
I reach out my hand. “Ben?”
We get acquainted and review the route over his omelet and my Moons over My Hammy.
“How fast do you go on the gravel?” he asks. He hasn’t been on a ride like this and is a bit anxious.
“Well, that depends,” I explain. “If it’s straight and I can see far enough ahead, I might go seventy or eighty.” I guess that might not be the answer he wanted, so I add, “just go whatever speed you’re comfortable with. There’s no hurry.”
I gather from his comments that this new endeavor is part of a little lifestyle adjustment. “I feel kinda like a dork,” he says, noting his still-pristine riding gear.
“I’m sure we’ll take care of that,” I reassure him.
Leaving Denny’s behind, I see dust billowing in my mirrors as Pleasant Valley Road turns to gravel. I speed up thinking to create some separation but the air is still and the dust lingers. After the next intersection we ride side-by-side.
The pungent smell of manure signals our approach to Grand View along the Snake River, home to a cattle feedlot that “boasts the largest holding capability in the United States, with a one-time capacity of 150,000 head.”¹ It seems an odd point of pride, like boasting you have the largest garbage dump or most polluted river.
After gas and snacks at the Grand View Shell station, we follow Mud Flat road to the old Turmes Ranch, a rest stop to travelers in the late 1800s. The family burial ground, Shoo Fly Cemetery,¹ is across the road at the foot of the ancient Lake Idaho shoreline.²
Ben and I pull off to look at the cemetery and curious geology. The epitaphs are notably laconic. “Father,” “Mother,” without elaboration, much like their own history, reduced to a couple nondescript, unoccupied stone buildings amidst miles of emptiness.
Someone has taken time to honor the dead, albeit with dollar store flags and plastic flowers.
We notice the sand here, when inspected closely, consists of spherules rather than grains. “It looks like the fertilizer I just put in the yard,” I observe. We climb to the rocks above the cemetery, which have the whimsical forms of volcanic tuff,¹ and see they’re composed of the same spherules, cemented together in fluid forms.
The natural sculpture garden before you is a section of the Glenns Ferry Formation called the Shoofly Oolite. Oolite (egg stone) is sedimentary limestone composed of tiny ooids, which form when calcium carbonate precipitates in concentric layers around individual grains of sand. The Shoofly Oolite is one of the largest freshwater lake bed oolites known in the world.
Erosion carried away softer siltstone and volcanic tuffs but left the more resistant oolite to weather above the mud flats … In some places, the upper surface of the oolite has been sculpted into hummocks, small arches, and other intriguing shapes.
The physical and chemical properties of the Shoofly Oolite provide the foundation for the unique set of plants and fossils found here. Few other lands in Idaho support such a rich suite of rare species in such a small area.¹
We walk around making separate inspections of the contorted rocks, small flowers and mosses springing from their crevices. I see two jack rabbits hop hurriedly away, perhaps leading deeper into wonderland. Beds of dry grass and twigs suggest the many diminutive hollows are home to the rabbits and their ilk.
“I would have loved to come here with my toy trucks as I kid,” I observe. It’s fertile ground for a young imagination. “You know, I think I’d have fun playing trucks here right now.”
I imagine families pulling up to the Turmes Ranch a century ago, perhaps on their way to a gold prospect or returning the opposite direction from tragedy. The parents are tired and dusty, ready for respite, but the kids, having been cooped up in the covered wagon, are excited when the Turmes kids offer to show them around.
They climb the hill across the road to these rocks where, for an hour, they are friends, as kids can be, and perhaps fellow sea captains, or soldiers in pursuit of Indians.
We have seen all we can without some hiking. “Ready to move on?” I ask.
“Whenever you are.”
We have a lot more to see.
From the oolite¹ and interred Turmes, Ben and I follow the gravel Shoofly Cut Off Road east to Highway 51 where we turn toward Nevada. We quickly gain over two thousand feet of elevation as we rise from the bottom of ancient Lake Idaho, the “mud flat,” up the southern shore to what was once savanna² roamed by camels, mastodons and saber-tooth cats.
The modern roadway terrain is less exciting—continued sagebrush spread uninterrupted across the plain. If destinations were selected based on what’s visible from the highway, we wouldn’t come this way.
Twenty miles later, we reach Battle Creek Road which runs nearly perpendicular to the highway, east and west, over to parallel canyons that drain north to the primordial lake bed behind us. East is the Bruneau Canyon where I camped with others a few weeks ago.¹ Today we’re going west.
Battle Creek is named for a fight between Bannock Indians and Euro-Americans that occurred near the creek in July 1864. Among those killed was Michael Jordan for whom Jordan Valley, Oregon, and Jordan Creek are named.¹
“Zeno Falls is that way,” I point, “but first I wanted to go up here a couple miles,” I explain, nodding in the opposite direction, “to what is supposed to be a canyon overlook.” We’ve come to a stop at an intersection by a large Bureau of Land Management map display.²
“Sure,” Ben answers. I think he’s up for whatever.
The road is a bit more fun this way—a few little rocks to dodge and some dry ruts to zip around. I watch Ben in the mirrors. No problem.
Then a problem. The GPS says to turn but I expect the empty sign post wants to tell us not to. I walk over to check. Yep. The sign is face down in the dirt, broken from its mounts, I’m sure, by an unhappy rider. I set it against the post.
“I guess we won’t go that way,” I lament. “At least we didn’t come far. Was that road okay for you?”
Ben answers “yep” so we pick up the pace a little as we head the opposite direction to Buncel Place along Duncan Creek. Little rocks become big rocks and the terrain turns rough. This is more like it.
“This is cool,” Ben exclaims as we pull in front of the abandoned Buncel Place. A little hodgepodge house and nearby stone barn speak of lives played out over decades.
I notice the house is shingled with large tin cans that have been cut and unrolled. That’s resourceful. Were they saving cans from their regular food supplies? Or did they visit neighbors on horseback, asking, “hey, do you have any cans you’re done with?”
The barn is also built with available resources, local rocks stacked into walls without any mortar that I can see.
“There were some big trees here,” Ben calls from the other side of the house. No large trees grow naturally among the sagebrush so the family must have planted saplings and nursed them to maturity.
All that remains of the trees are old bones crumbling into the ground and bleached white under years of desert sun. Two snaking lines of stones mark a garden path near the rotting trees. The path is now so obscured by sagebrush that you have to be on it to notice. The trees, the stones ... someone cared about this yard. It must have been pretty.
“I bet the wife was bored and did all this,” I joke. Ben replies in kind, though we don’t imagine that’s quite the truth.
The area is dotted by sandy mounds, homes to the remaining inhabitants. “I’ve always thought red ants were meaner than black,” I comment as I stoop to watch several pull a beetle to it’s demise atop a mound, “but I’ve not read any science on it.”
“Fire ants,” Ben answers, two words to confirm a shared impression.
Fire ants, killer bees … I think there’s a generation of boys haunted by these things. Weren’t they supposed to be moving up from Mexico to kill our pets, perhaps kids too?
“Are we gonna cross that?” Ben asks, looking to Duncan Creek just below the house.
“Yeah. You want to walk over and take a look?” We walk a few yards and realize the wire fence will force a long way around.
“How ‘bout we stop to check it out when we get there?” I suggest. “I’ll ride across first. You can watch me, see how it goes. Then give me a moment to get the camera out,” I finish with a smile.
This will be Ben’s first water crossing and he wouldn’t mind a few tips.
“Well, go ahead and stop at the edge to have a look but once you’re in the water, focus on the opposite bank and go,” I advise. “Don’t over-think it.”
“Are you ready?” I ask.
“That was anti-climactic,” Ben announces after riding casually across the small creek. I’m glad he thinks so.
Rocks and a couple sharp turns make the trail climb from Duncan Creek more challenging than the water was. I try to watch Ben but something in the trail, rock or rut, tries to knock me over each time I lift my eyes.
Pronounced, petrified motorcycle tracks bring a smile to my face. I bet those are from the earlier ride I missed¹ (also these pictures²). When I reach suitable terrain, I pause and watch. Ben looks relaxed while steering around the hazards. I think he’ll be just fine.
After the climb, we are back on the plain, following two-track to Zeno Canyon, “well known for being home to one of the few waterfalls in the Owyhee country.”³
I am enjoying a smooth ride when a herd of animals moves nonchalantly from my peripheral vision across the path ahead, large curled horns held high on rigid bodies. This “desert holds one of the largest herds of bighorn sheep in the country”¹ but I’ve never seen them, let alone this close. It’s an impressive sight!
Only when they’re fifty yards off do they deign to acknowledge me, turning in formation to watch. I cut the engine and step off the motorcycle. Ben comes over the hill a moment later. I motion and point and we all size each other up for a few minutes.
Roadside History of Idaho, p. 173
The Harvey Place is near the Zeno Falls trailhead. We detour for a quick look. It’s a small, lonely structure compared to the Buncel Place, just a simple hut where a passing cowboy might bunk down, maybe scrawl a note on the wall¹ before drifting off to sleep.
We turn around and head back over the hill. The road begins to descend into the canyon, steeper now, though a wire fence ahead looks like the end of the ride. There’s a lush area here, an oasis, where water seeps up from Hicks Spring before coalescing into creeks that drain rapidly into the canyon.
“I wondered why you were parking over here,” Ben comments as he comes to a stop next to me. “I was about to ride over there,” he motions to the flatter grassy area, “but decided I should park by you.”
“Yeah, if you see grass growing in the desert,” I explain with a smile, “you probably shouldn’t ride there.” I know he’s already figured that out but it’s funny to think of him sinking to his axles in mud.
“Wow, you’re prepared.” Ben sounds a bit amused as I pull off my riding pants and the always-too-warm riding boots to strap on sandals to match my shorts. That should make hiking more comfortable, I think.
We are not fifty feet into the hike before I sink to my bare ankles in mud. Stupid sandals. The way down is like the plot line to a bad movie: vague and disjointed, it crosses mud, then shale, thorny brambles, mud again, and more shale.
“I guess if we follow the creek we’re bound to get there,” I reason, in spite of our inability to find a good trail. The final descent is steep scree. We brace against the cliff or grab at shrubs to keep from breaking into a slide. Muddy sandals really aren’t helping.
“I think they’re waiting for us to die,” I say when we pause for a break and notice several raptors circling above.
“I hope not,” Ben chuckles.
The waterfall is modest amidst sheer canyon walls rising above. I work to balance a small tripod on loose and angled rocks for some photos while Ben finds a seat from which to contemplate the striking but still terrain.
“I hope that isn’t thunder,” I remark when we hear a muffled boom above. The arc of sky visible above the canyon has grown darker. We can’t see what clouds might lie just beyond. A moment later we hear the whine of jet engines. “That’s a relief.” A downpour would create challenges.
I turn to photograph Ben as we begin the steep return. “Oxygen,” is all he says.
We try to find a better path on the opposite side of the ravine back to our motorcycles but end up with the same obstacles: mud, shale, brambles. We talk of bringing kids out here but little ones would need a hand in a few places.
I find a place along a small creek to scrub the mud from my feet and sandals before I pull tall boots back on. I stand bare footed in the water a moment and notice the surroundings. It’s refreshing, beautiful and cold.
“How far to the petroglyphs?”
“I think it was about twelve miles,” I answer.
It isn’t every day we come out here. Might as well see what we can, we agree. It can’t be that hard to go a little farther.
People have lived here since the last ice age, some 13,000 years,¹ long before the immigration from the south of the Shoshone and Paiute people who were encountered by the first American settlers. Who those aboriginal people were is unclear.
At hundreds of sites across the hundreds of square miles around us, aborigines have scratched, rubbed or chipped curious images into dark basalt faces. Like most petroglyphs, the meaning is elusive, whether shamanistic, a hunting ritual, pure whimsy, or something else.
A report at Every Trail² clued me into the existence of petroglyphs just a bit south of Zeno Canyon. We’ve spent the afternoon with the human history of a century ago. Now I’m curious to step back in time a few more millennia.
A culvert makes the second crossing of Duncan Creek the same non-event as the first. From there we leave behind the sharply incised canyons for broad plateaus and basins that extend south to Nevada.
I am enjoying the wide-open space when I glance down and notice we’re off track. “Did you see a turn back there anywhere?” I stop to ask.
It wouldn’t be the first time this GPS tried to send me down a long abandoned trail, something no longer visible, no longer viable. I fiddle with it a moment and see that we can keep going and eventually come back in the right direction.
The GPS has no indication of an ATV track that appears to follow a dry creek bed we’re about to cross. But it looks like a shortcut in the right direction, and kind of interesting, so we veer off.
It is working. The little arrow is coming close to the orange line on the screen. But wait … there’s nothing on the screen about this! We’re just a hundred yards, or so, from rejoining the planned route when the trail goes underwater into a reservoir.
We chuckle and shake our heads.
“If we go cross country around this we should meet up with the road somewhere.” I try to sound confident even though we can’t see any roads on the other side.
Coaxing the behemoth through the low brush and rocks demands a little focus. I’m not able to see how Ben is doing but I’m confident of his abilities now. We cross an earthen dam and continue to circle the reservoir. We’re still not seeing a road anywhere.
“Let’s get to the top of this hill and see what we see,” I suggest.
So we keep at it, bikes growling and bouncing, and finally our reward, the cleverly hidden road, just a brown line through the sagebrush, appearing before us about where you’d expect it.
Now we are back on track, able to keep a good pace. There are a few puddles but the ground is firm.
I notice intriguing rocks as we’re crossing Crab Creek so we circle in for a break. The rocks seem tell a vivid story, though I can’t tell what it is. Perhaps these are layers of basalt from a succession of volcanic flows. We snack and climb around the rocks for several minutes.
The track from there is quite enjoyable. We ride casual twists and bumps as we follow the creek bed interspersed with more interesting rock formations and small spring plants.
Puddles grow in frequency as we approach Wild Horse Table where snow is melting along the plateau rim above us. “This plateau offers scenic views of mountains, canyons, basins, cliffs and ridges. Nearby cliffs were used as ‘jumps’ where Native American hunters chased animals off steep overhangs to their deaths.”¹
I pause ahead of a long puddle and motion for Ben to go ahead. I think I’ll get a picture of him splashing through. He goes around it.
The ground softens as we climb along the plateau. The mud is very slippery. I shift down and ride ready to put a foot out.
I notice Ben isn’t in the mirror anymore. Ben? I give him a moment to catch up before deciding I should walk back (we’re not far from where we last stopped together). There he is, enjoying his first drop in the mud. Lucky guy. He’s in good spirits about it, glad to have me shoot several pictures. We stand the bike up—no harm done.
For the second time in not many miles, the road leads straight into a reservoir. We’re close to the rim of Wild Horse Table now. The rocks here are a good bit bigger so I pause a moment to pick a line before going off-trail again.
I suppose this is the dark side of optimism. “I’m sure it clears up around the next bend” doesn’t always create the best result. But hey, we aren’t done yet. Besides, I’m sure the plateau will be dry. And we’re almost there!
We crest the rim.
Darn. There’s just enough of a melting bank of snow to flood the trail across the plateau, even worse than below. It’s flat, though. How hard can that be? And it’ll probably clear up if we just get across this section. I show the petroglyphs just ahead on the GPS. We can’t stop now.
I am able to ride between tracks running with water, again focusing a little too much on my own balance to pay much attention to Ben.
I fight maybe a hundred yards before I need to rest. It looks like it should be easy but the bike really wants to nap. I’m wet with sweat. We need a plan but I want to let my brain rest a moment. I stand the bike and strip off some gear. I look back and Ben doesn’t seem to have moved much from where we last stopped. He’s walking this way.
“I think this is a little more than I signed up for,” he says. I don’t hear a complaint in his voice. If anything, a little amusement. Or so I’d like to think.
I notice the downhill side of the road is dry where I am. Back at the KLR it’s wet everywhere but if he can get past that, riding next to the trail shouldn’t be hard. That’s our plan.
“Want me to come back and give you a hand?”
“Sure,” Ben answers.
A little help getting started and he spins off across the mud and rocks. I run along behind and we arrive at my bike together. Now what to do?
“If you can stand on that side, I think we can push it across these ruts off the road,” I propose.
“One, two, three,” I rev and we push. Now we’re both riding off trail, bouncing and weaving. But only a little bit farther, I’m sure.
We come to the top of a ravine, the drainage off the plateau for the melt water we’ve struggled with. We can’t continue this way but again there’s no trail in sight. I take a moment with the GPS.
“You know, I think the trail is on the other side,” I say, looking at the rocky creek. The accumulation of hassles is ironic at this point. I have to laugh a little. “My wife would totally expect this,” I add.
“I’m gonna go find the trail.” I grab the GPS and head off on foot. Sagebrush is surprisingly effective at hiding trails and I don’t go too far before stumbling upon our track.
I stop and wave back to Ben. “Here’s the road. We only have to get to here,” I yell.
The creek presents a little challenge. The water isn’t deep but it’s rocky. And large rocks along both shores will be hard to traverse. But hell, nothing to be done but do it. I decide to walk my bike across. Ben keeps a hand on the other side. It works out pretty easy.
Ben is braver. He’s going to ride it.
“Let me get the camera,” I call while hustling to get in position. I want to help the new guy as much as possible.
He goes wobbly once or twice, and I prepare to spring into action with a series of rapid photographs, but he makes it right across.
With that behind us, let’s find those stupid petroglyphs!
We search all over without luck. “Probably under the snow,” we figure. That seems about right.
I find some scratches on a rock, perhaps depicting trees, but they certainly don’t look like aboriginal petroglyphs. More like someone screwing around. I take a picture anyway.
We bounce our way over to the trail and easily descend from the plateau. An intersection at the bottom gives us the option to ride over to other nearby petroglyphs—in theory. We decide “nah.”
The dirt road gets a little wider, smoother. Another intersection gives us the option to bail out to highway 51. We deliberate a moment. It’s Wickahoney or the highway. The nicer road and as-long-as-we’re-here reasoning prevail. We stick to the dirt.
The trail deteriorates at the next turn. It gets worse at another turn soon after. Twelve miles at twelves miles per hour. Even I can do this math. And it’s already dusk. I check the GPS and find another nearby road that will take us over to the highway.
“The trail seems to be getting worse. I think we should head to the highway.” Ben agrees.
The dirt in this direction is pretty good. There are some big puddles but we’re already muddy. Just slow down and ride through. Powerlines mark the highway ahead letting us know we’re close.
But where’d Ben go? I stop and wait. A minute, two minutes. I don’t hear anything. I’d better go look. I don’t get far before I see him coming over the hill. He’s dirty.
“I would have waited for you to take a picture but my bike was half underwater and I thought the bags might start leaking.” He’s talking about his tank and tail bags and he’s not kidding. Everything is wet. He really found a good puddle to fall in. I’m sorry I missed the picture.
But again no harm done and still good spirits. In a moment we’re at the highway.
I have no-rural-coverage Sprint so Ben lends me his Verizon phone to check in with my wife. She’s not worried. Ben calls his wife. She’s a little worried. She was watching his dutiful SPOT Messenger¹ check-ins but perhaps, he figures, zoomed too far out on the map to notice we were making progress, not just sitting in a ditch pressing the button.
Night is coming. We’ll probably head back at our individual paces so we say good-byes. “It was a good ride.” I put a story in my ears and turn onto the blacktop.
I pull off at the intersection with Highway 78 and eat the rest of my snacks while Ben catches up. It’s fully dark now. I see him whiz by, taking the other direction at the intersection, about ten minutes later. He grew up in Mountain Home so I figure he’s decided that’s the route for him. I send some positive thoughts his way and head for C.J. Strike.
The night is black. A light rain begins to fall. I’m listening to a strange science fiction story as I ride. There are no other cars across the cut off. It’s kind of eerie and kind of cool.
I am worn out but happy with the day. It went longer than planned, harder than planned, but doesn’t it always? We got to see so much, to experience unforgiving country where people nonetheless have made their lives over the centuries, over millennia.
It reminds me of how easy I have it. I get to go home to a hot shower and TV after getting a little muddy. That’s my version of a hard day. What if I had to build my house with mud and tin cans? Or my “TV” was using rocks to scratch shapes in other rocks?
I guess there’s almost nothing I can do that’s truly hard. Except ride that final stretch of Interstate 84 into Boise.