Leg 38 – My Private Idaho to Oregon Trail


I made 76 miles today, to Celebration Park in Melba, Idaho, practically in sight of Oregon. Although the mileage was much less than yesterday, it was a much tougher ride, since two thirds of the ride was on hot dry desert dirt and gravel roads, Jeep tracks, and some horse trails.

I got a late start, since I was parting from Robin, who was going to drive the rental car back to the airport and fly home. After three miles on the better dirt road from Fort Running Bear, I was back on Rt 20, in a section of sagey hills with some steep climbs.

Historic markers on this stretch of road inform the traveler that you are following the path of Goodale’s Cutoff, an alternative to the Oregon Trail scouted by one Goodale. Apparently, native born Americans defending their home from foreign invaders had made the traditional Oregon Trail too dangerous for the European settlers. That’s not what the signs saiid, though. The signs called them hostile Indians. That’s funny. Perspective is everything.

Most the way down a hill on Route 20, at mile 15, Google told me to turn right, on Immigrant Road, a maintained desert dirt road. This was not a bad move, as the road led through a classic desert pass to open sagebrush range. The trip included several historical markers about the Oregon trail, including Barrell Canyon.

The Google did one of those Google bike routing things, and told me to turn left into the sagebrush. Letting Google do bike routing for you reminds me of a game my good buddy Adam Spater and I used to play when we were kids. We called it Magical Mystery Tour. We would write “left,” “right,” and “straight” on scraps of paper, put them in a bowl, then drew out the random directions, which we wrote down on a piece of paper. We then got on our bikes and followed the directions at each intersection, most often ending up at a suburban dead end, but sometimes ending up at that last piece of undeveloped land we called the Butterfly Fields.

Following Google bike directions has a similar randomness to it, though the directions are not keyed to actual roads or intersections. You follow a random Jeep track into the sagebrush, then where Jeep tracks diverge and you follow the “wrong” one, Google yells at you to “head north for 600 feet, make a U turn, then turn right” when you are staring at trackless sagebrush and prairie grass. I rode and walked some of these trackless sections. Fortunately, I had enough of a cell signal to figure out the general direction Google thought I should be headed in. Eventually the Jeep track followed a powerline, then arrived at a named gravel road with some ranches and pickup truck traffic.

A paved road took me through a community with no stores nor church nor even a post office, then crossed an interstate. Google sent me into the hinterlands again. I got on the wrong side of the railroad tracks and went through a desert waste landfill and a metal shredding plant before another paved road that took me back to the right side of the railroad tracks. Google sent me on another named Jeep track road. It was after one and I had made half my miles so I started looking for any sort of shade for lunch. Not a tree to be seen. A Union Pacific train passed, with a short string of container cars, and the engineer tooted his horn. Then I saw an ancient underpass, which was a nice shady spot for lunch, with a framed view of the still blooming desert.

After lunch, another paved road lead to the US Army Orchard Tank Training facility. A detour put me back on gravel roads, these with tank treads. Soon I entered the federal Snake River Birds of Prey wildlife refuge. Which was also an artillery range for the Idaho National Guard. And a place for recreational shooting, with signs warning shooters not to shoot at people.

There were huge construction trucks on the range roads. The desert got dryer and bleaker. But the distant snow covers mountains ahead were Oregon, my destination. Occasionally, a pickup truck would slow down as it passed, as if the driver were thinking of asking “What the heck are you doing out here?” then decided “well he seems to know where he is going” and drive away.

At mile 60, as I reached for my water second bottle again, I realized I could no longer drink whenever I was dry. I was dry all the time. And while two water bottles carried me 100 miles yesterday, the same two bottles were not going to last in today’s hotter dryer and more desert-y desert. I did a rough calculation of the number of mouthfuls of water left in the bottle. Four. Sixteen miles to go. . So that meant four miles between water swigs.

At about the same time, Google sent me on another Jeep track. Some of the Jeep track is smoother and faster than gravel roads, but you have to be on the lookout for lava rocks, ruts, soft sand, and prairie dog holes. I took two spills today, neither was bloody.

In two miles, the Jeep track turned right at a cattle fence gate. I stopped to check the Google map, which told me to go straight through the fence. The gate was securely wired shot. Staying on the Jeep track would add ten miles to the journey – I didn’t have enough water for that. I tried to lift my bike over the barbed wire gate. Too heavy. Finally I realized I could squeeze bike and body under the cattle wire gate.

The trail beyond was nothing more than a single track of horse track, mostly rideable except for the lava rock stretches. I was counting the miles to the next water break. I was hungry, but I couldn’t eat trail mix without water – it just made me thirstier, and the pasty chew of peanuts and raisins wouldn’t go down without water. The song from the beginning of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs began to go through my mind, where the lone horseman in the desert sings “Water . . . Water . . , Cool Cool Water” and the hills echo back “ Water . . . Water.”

In another two miles (water break!), a broken cattle gate allowed access to parallel Jeep tracks on the other side of the cattle fence. Exploded televisions and mattresses and shotgun cartridges testified that a major recreational use of this national wildlife refuge was shooting at household objects. Not that I object – who hasn’t wanted to shoot their television? Just as long as they don’t shoot at me. And I do wish they’d pick up their trash.

The Jeep track widened to a well used off road route, with multiple tracks. Gunfire could be heard a few miles north. Google promised a named road, Walden’s Extension, but this turned out to be another Jeep track, which eventually turned to gravel, then pavement, then a long downhill to the Snake River Valley.

And there was water! Water spraying on green fields, water flowing in irrigation channels by the road, which I was half tempted to drink. I got to the Celebration County Park Campground at seven and went straight to the water fountain and scared two kids away I was so eager to drink. I found a campsite on the river, went back to the restroom to fill my water bottles and leave my phone charging, then went back to my campsite to wash the desert grit off with a dip in the Snake while dinner cooked.

After dinner I went back to the restroom to wash my dishes and refill my water bottles for the fifth time, and my heart fell. My phone was gone. A guy outside said he saw someone leave in a hurry a few minutes earlier. I asked around the campground, one guy had seen it a half hour earlier, another tried calling it for me, but I had shut it off to lock it. I went back to the restroom to wash dishes and use the toilet, not sure what to do. I heard someone enter and leave the restroom quickly, and there was my phone, by the sink. Two kids walking away said they found it at the other end of the campground. So about half my trust in human nature is restored


2 thoughts on “Leg 38 – My Private Idaho to Oregon Trail

  1. What an adventure! How does google map the jeep trails? With all the obstacles you mentioned, I can’t see google’s mapping car driving that route. Maybe that’s just for street view? Anyway-so much fun to follow your ride.


  2. This one reads like a post-apocalyptic adventure, and I began to imagine a future without piped water (or mail, or cell phones). Thank goodness you got your cell phone back.

    Liked by 1 person

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