As the grey morning light turned golden, I laid in my tent, listening, hoping someone else would make the first move to start a fire. Although the sky had been clear through the night, it remained curiously warm—almost uncomfortably warm—but it seemed no less necessary to begin the day with a fire.
With stowage capacity for a good-sized percolator, I had volunteered to be camp barista. And so when I poked my head out of the tent and caught sight of Jesse doing the same, rather than a friendly “mornin’” he had just one thing to say: “coffee!”
We watched with curiosity those who brought freeze-dried pouches for breakfast. With safe and simple alternatives like a granola bar or packet of oatmeal, why risk it? Freeze-dried sausage and eggs? There was, not surprisingly, little enthusiasm for the result. “It kind of tastes like eggs.”
Joel, of course, was occupied with a gift wrapped “Saturday Breakfast.” Jill, you may remember, prepared, packaged and labeled all his food (something he’ll likely never hear the end of). He tried to sell us on the idea: “It’s great. I never know what I’ll get.” Great.
Jesse, Jeremy and Casey
There was no reason for haste after breakfast yet packing alongside my brothers always feels slightly competitive. I can’t let Jesse finish before I even start! And is that Jeremy already taking down his tent? I need to hurry up!
After packing and preening, our motorcycles whinnied and rumbled to life, five baritones to greet the morning with the song of internal combustion. A sign adjacent to our campsite told us we would be entering the “Historic Lolo Trail Corridor,” following at places in the steps of Lewis and Clark and before them, the Nez Perce people.
The Clearwater National Forest contains the longest piece of intact Lewis and Clark Trail in the nation and for this reason the Lolo Trail was designated as a historical Landmark on the Clearwater and Lolo National Forests, October 9, 1960. The Lolo Trail named about 1850 is not a single trail, but a network of trails, cut-offs and shortcuts also referred to as the Buffalo Trail or “khusahna Ishkit,” by the Nez Perce. Lewis and Clark traveled on several different trail systems (1805-1806) within the Lolo Trail corridor (Lolo Trail National Historic Landmark: Threats and Solutions, 1)
The pace I expected to set was impeded by angular rocks embedded within the hard and rutted road surface, threatening the incautious rider with catastrophe. Twelve and fifteen miles-per-hour were sometimes teeth rattling speeds.
Large and regular signage along the route kept us apprised of history and geology. We didn’t stop for every one. I think we were more interested at the time in our own adventure than those of our fore-bearers. We knew we could Google it later.
“I’m glad we didn’t try to stay here,” I remarked as we pulled alongside Rocky Ridge Lake some miles down the road. A jolly band of senior UTV and ATV riders occupied every campsite. We had to park our bikes on the road.
We sauntered over to the lake and returned to banter with our four-wheeled, fellow travelers. A round and ruddy fellow with grey hair poking from under a camouflage ball cap told of stopping at some out-of-the-way bar to find it taken over by a bachelorette party. “That was a good time,” he laughed.
They were surprised when we told them about the ATV trail we’d taken out of Pierce and seemed to know who owned the mine we ran into. They were very familiar with the whole area and suggested other routes and stops we might enjoy.
Rocky Ridge Lake
We shared well-wishes then got back onto the Lolo Motorway a few more miles, as far as Weites Butte Lookout. We parked at the tower and I set to climbing the several flights of stairs. There was no attendant so I wasn’t surprised to find the platform door locked. It was still a nice view.
From Weites Butte we continued along the Lolo Motorway.
We stopped at a couple less remarkable buttes along the motorway before reaching the turnoff to Castle Butte. Our Rocky Ridge Lake friends had insisted it was worth a stop. It didn’t disappoint.
Getting up to the lookout was a minor challenge on the GS. The road at the top was nothing but large, loose rocks threatening to send me careening in a hazardous direction.
An old Ford truck with a flat screen TV box in the back suggested an attendant was on hand, though he or she never made an appearance. Windows all around the lookout let us see the new TV hung up in a corner but little else.
Castle Rock Lookout
As we parked to take in the view we couldn’t help but notice sheets of rain hung from dark clouds sweeping rapidly towards us. We knew it would hit in just a few minutes. We hustled to turn around so we could retreat to trees and setup shelter.
My brothers on their lighter bikes were quickly on their way. Casey and I were a minute behind and couldn’t see where they’d gone. Marco? Polo? The rain was already on top of us so I decided to stop and setup our own shelter rather than continue searching.
Just as I finished securing the tarp, ready for wind and rain, the sky cleared. Of course. Beeping horns helped reunite the group and soon we were back on our way down roads just wet enough to help traction and settle dust. Nice.
A sign said Horseshoe Lake was only a mile from the Lolo Motorway but it seemed twice that. An ATV trail was the only access to the lake’s edge where we might have camped if we’d come this far the day before. There was nobody there (though a group showed up on foot a little later).
Joel finds an easy-chair
It was too early for that day’s camp, though, so after looking around we got back to the road.
Indian Post Office Lake is right off the motorway, part of a pair of lakes. We stopped to check it out near a jeep that was pulled off the road. Inside, a teenage girl eyed us briefly from the back seat before rolling up her window and locking the doors. Having some experience with teenage daughters, I wanted to suggest she should have accepted her parents’ invitation to a little hike, then she wouldn’t be at the mercy of motorcycle gangs.
Indian Post Office Lake
Not far beyond Indian Post Office, we turned onto Doe Creek Road to descend from the mountains for gas at the Lochsa Lodge by Highway 12. It was a great road, fast and curvy, and in one of my favorite settings, in a narrow valley along a small shaded creek. The others were patient to let me stop for a couple pictures.
Granola bars or jerky at every stop meant I wasn’t too hungry for lunch but I thought a milkshake at the lodge might be nice.
After gassing up, we were seated in the dining room and I began checking and double-checking the dessert list on the back of the menu. How could they have à la mode items but no milkshakes? That’s just crazy.
“Can you make me a milkshake?” I asked our waitress. “No,” she said curtly, her round face expressionless within a circle of dishwater blond hair. “I think you just have to add milk to some ice cream,” I suggested, trying my best to be charming. “No,” she repeated as she walked away.
I had fish-and-chips with a side of disappointment.
From the lodge we crossed Highway 12 back onto a dirt road (Parachute Hill) toward the Lolo Motorway. The road was in good condition and we were able to maintain thirty or forty miles-per-hour until we came upon a group of ATVs slowly pulling trailers up the mountain. There was ample room to pass if they would ride to the right instead of the middle of the road.
I gave them a couple minutes to see us in their mirrors and then gave a friendly beep-beep of my horn. We still weren’t acknowledged. Okay then. I didn’t plan to ride in slow-motion, eating dust the next ten miles so as soon as there was a bit of a shoulder (it was a drop-off on the left) I shot narrowly by while telepathically suggesting they learn some trail etiquette.
As we drew close to the ridgeline, the forest around was suddenly transformed in character, like we’d entered another world through some dark closet. Lifeless trees were haphazard tombstones ten thousand strong—bodies stiff, skin turned white, marred black in a failed battle for survival. The late afternoon sun cast their hard shadows across our path. It felt like we were proceeding through the majestic courtyard of mountain royalty.
Vistas large and small continued to inspire veneration as we rejoined the Lolo Motorway across the ridge. We weren’t on the ridge long before leaving the motorway to cross a valley northward toward the Great Burn. The tiny Cayuse Lake reflected late afternoon sun like a mirror as we descended the opposite side of the ridge.
After passing two nice campsites along Cayuse Creek, and no other people in sight, we stopped for a conference. Should we continue up to the Great Burn or call it a day right there? We decided on the bird in the hand.
The campsite’s large open area gave too many tent options. It took some time to walk around and weigh the alternatives. By the creek with the sound of water? Under a tree? Over in the pretty, rocky area? Closer to the fire? These were weighty matters, settled, as usual, by giving up and going with wherever it was we happened to park our motorcycle.
With decisions made, we became like ants before winter, quickly and without comment focusing on our tasks—setting up a tent, gathering wood, filtering water and raising the lantern. Just to change things up, I guess, Casey decided to use a purification tablet rather than filter his water. We all learned a lesson: if you don’t like urine-colored water, don’t use purification tablets.
Fire building was more of a group effort. We had learned an efficient technique. Stack some sticks and let Jeremy see what you did. “What? How do you expect that to burn?! You can’t stack ‘em like that. Here, let me show you how it’s done.” Then sit back and enjoy the growing fire.
Shortly after settling in, we heard the rumble of ATVs, later verified as those we passed earlier, setting up at the adjacent campsite. They weren’t visible through the trees but we could hear their chainsaw. The valley eventually grew quiet as darkness fell.
A car passing slowly back-and-forth was doubly peculiar on a moonless night in mountains without any other passenger vehicles, as far as we’d seen. A guy our age finally emerged out of the darkness with a black dog at his side he called Cash. Us Abbott boys had read our dad’s Louis L’Amore enough to know the guy was an idiot to come upon us like that. A man could get shot that way.
Although wearing no uniform, he said he worked for the Forest Service. “Just as a consultant, now”, he clarified. “I used to work for them. I just got out of school and I’m doing some projects for them.” Of course. The visiting-campers-in-the-dark project.
I don’t know what his angle was but we were only minimally hospitable and he was soon on his way. His visit, and possibly those nips of whiskey, did give us some inspiration, though. “You know, we should take a couple of these animal crackers over to that other campsite. We’ll pretend we’re with the Forest Service, show them a cookie, and ask, ‘have you seen this animal?’”
Let me offer this wisdom before continuing: animals crackers—you know, the ones with sprinkles on white or pink frosting—are an excellent accompaniment to whiskey.
I can’t remember who exactly had the “have you seen this animal?” idea. It was such genius, we’re probably all taking credit for it now. We laughed so hard we cried as we held up cookies, acting the part of a concerned Ranger. So much did we enjoy the idea that there was no reason to actually do it. It couldn’t be any funnier.
Maybe you had to be there.
The belly laughs wore us out. All but Jeremy and Jesse retired for the night. We would hear over breakfast about the deer that kept harassing them, the spear they threw, and their walk down the dark road to encounter our night visitor sleeping in his car.
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text and images are © Copyright 2011 Jason Abbott. All Rights Reserved. ■