When Meriwether Lewis reached the Continental Divide south of the Bitterroot Valley on August 12 1805 he expected to see a plain descending towards the Pacific Ocean. Instead the dream of a North West passage was shattered when he saw: “immense ranges of high mountains still to the west of us”.
Leaving Missoula this morning, Dunt, Wooller and Evans knew how the famed American explorer felt. After climbing the Appalachians, the Ozarks and much of the Rockies (including crossing the Continental Divide at least nine times) we had hoped for a gentle descent to the Pacific to wrap up the final 850 miles of the crossing. But studying the maps last night we knew exactly what to expect – more mountain passes – and hence more climbing.
This morning’s task was to cross the Lolo Pass over the Bitterroot Mountains – a climb of more than 2,000 feet. William Clark reported: “we are entirely serounded by thos (sic) mountains from which to one unacquainted with them it would have seemed impossible to escape”. Again we understood the problem entirely. Just after leaving Lolo where we stopped for breakfast, we followed a cycle path which ended abruptly by a glade of trees. If this was the sort of dreadful local planning Lewis and Clark faced I’m surprised they ever made it to the western seaboard.
It had been a bad morning for cycling. Despite Missoula being a cycling city with a great network of paths, the 13 miles from Lolo to the city are on the hard shoulder of a major four lane road. Worse still it was the same road we had come into Missoula on two days before and now we were being forced to retrace our steps to rejoin the trail. According to the Adventure Cycling Association, plans for a cycle route along the river from Lolo to Missoula are in motion, which would be a great improvement – and mean a 60 mile cycle path all the way from Hamilton. But too late for us.
We spent much of the morning climbing the Lolo Pass, stopping on route to read notice boards tracing the history of the valley, from the adventures of Lewis and Clark to the attempts by the Nez Perce to outwit US soldiers which worked well until everything came to a head at the Battle of Big Hole. At 5235ft we reached the top of the pass – and the end of our journey through Montana, as we crossed the state line into Idaho. We celebrated with hot chocolates and peanut butter bagels at the National Forest visitor centre and then began our descent.
Some of the climbs on this journey have been pretty torturous – but boy, the downhills – racing down steep mountain valleys, leaning through the switchbacks, hunkering down over the handlebars to squeeze out a few more miles per hour – it’s almost worth the climb. Almost. The landscape on the western side of the pass is in complete contrast to the east. There forest fires have devastated the pines that the beetles haven’t reached, yet here on the west, which gets more rainfall, the forest is lush and green, some of the most impressive and beautiful coniferous forest we’ve seen on the entire trip.
At Devoto Memorial Grove, huge Cedar trees still survive (most were cut down in the move west) and we marvel at their incredible age and size. I’m reminded of our time in Kentucky when trees in the primary forest were said to be so big settlers could live in them before their homes were built. We meet Hussain and Corin in the grove, talked politics and the environment – the next time someone says to you Americans know nothing beyond the 50 States treat it as the stereotype it is.
We cycle on to our National Forest campsite just beyond Powell on the banks of the Lochsa River. After months on the road these are the nights we enjoy most now, in a tent, in the wilds, surrounded by trees with the sound of the river rushing past. There’s no shower, no tap to wash in, so we strip off and wash in the river and clean our clothes before cooking up noodles on the jet boil. We share fig rolls for pudding, drink herbal tea, plan tomorrow’s route and crash into our tents extra early – mainly due to the fact that we are now on Pacific time – eight hours behind the UK.
Feature Photo Roosevelt
Today’s Miles: 59
Miles since First Landing: 3505