By Stan Purdum
Riding during the recent hot days reminded me of a time when experience taught me how to climb steep grades while pedaling a loaded touring bike on high-temperature days. Here’s an excerpt from my book about my cross-country ride, Roll Around Heaven All Day:
“You’re going to ride White Bird, you say? Ho, ho!” The trucker’s laugh wasn’t entirely one of amusement. There was also a note of concern as he shook his head.
He was a fellow diner in the cafe in eastern Oregon where my brother Scott and I had stopped for supper. Like many of the friendly strangers we’d met while cycling the TransAmerica route coast-to-coast across America, he’d asked the usual questions about where we’d started, how long we’d been on the road, our destination and so forth. Then he inquired about the roads we’d follow as we moved into Idaho.
As we outlined it, he nodded his familiarity with the route; he’d driven it many times. He described each of the mountains we would climb as if they were old acquaintances, allowing that we shouldn’t have too much trouble with most of them. But when he talked about White Bird, he planted seeds of dismay.
When it came to mountains, it didn’t take much alarmist talk to worry us. We were middle-aged, overweight and had begun the journey without as much training as we’d have liked. And hailing from Ohio, we’d had nothing more than tall hills to train on anyway. But more to the point, an earlier ascent on this journey — the 22-mile climb to McKenzie Pass over the Cascades — had pushed us to our limits, and we’d had to walk most of the last three miles to the summit.
There’d been other climbs since, of course, and we’d handled them by slogging along in low gear, resting frequently and pushing our bikes when necessary.
White Bird, however, looked like it would be another matter. According to the “Route Elevation Profile” on the TransAmerica route map, the precipitous steepness of White Bird would be the first to approximate the torture of McKenzie.
The map’s “Riding Conditions” information explained that at White Bird, riders could choose between a new seven-percent-grade highway, which was seven miles long, and an old road, four miles longer, that was even steeper in places and included eight-and-a-half miles of switchbacks. The only advice the map offered was an enigmatic comment: “The old grade … is scenic, free of traffic and an unforgettable cycling experience.” When we asked the trucker which road he recommended, he shook his head and said they were both terrible.
Our confidence about our ability to handle White Bird sank lower the next day as we rode out of Richland, Oregon, where the road climbed a butte abruptly. The day was desperately hot — 95 degrees according to my handlebar thermometer — and we walked about half of the grade.
I woke the next morning feeling wasted, and with the suspicion that walking Richland hill in the intense heat was the cause. So, when the route, now in Idaho, turned into a serious 13-mile upslope in direct sunlight and high temperature, I suggested that we try to ride this hill completely, stopping for rest as needed, but not walking the bikes. Scott readily agreed.
That decision forced us to really learn how to ride steep inclines in the heat. We soon figured out that we could sustain a slow but steady pace reasonably well until our internal temperatures got too high. We began limiting our climb-riding time to 10-15 minute periods interspersed with 7-8 minutes of rest — in shade when we could find any. Once our body temperatures returned to normal, riding became comfortable again. At the slow climbing pace, we could cover about a mile in 15 minutes. Thus, in one-mile chunks, we conquered the climb.
In Cambridge, we stayed in a small hotel. The innkeeper turned out to be something of a philosopher and we spent part of the evening chatting with him in his combination hotel-lobby/living room. He’d left a government service job in Boise for the slower paced lifestyle of a small-town innkeeper, but had chosen to remain in the state because he loved the mountainous region. He also appreciated the rugged individualism the sparsely settled lands seemed to engender in some people. (That night, when I was looking for something to read, he loaned me a book about Idaho’s hermits.) He added, “Unfortunately, we’ve got some extremist groups in the state too.”
When we talked about our journey, he labeled several of the mountain climbs ahead as “not too bad.” But learning we were to ride over White Bird, he assumed a somber look and said, “That will be tough.” He was unsure whether the old grade was any easier, but he knew for certain that the new grade was a “killer.”
Although I felt restored the next morning, White Bird Mountain, still a day’s journey ahead, loomed in my imagination with a sense of foreboding. Scott mentioned similar thoughts.
That afternoon, we exchanged route information with a westbound cyclist, so naturally we asked him about White Bird. Traveling the opposite direction, he’d come up the “easy side” of the mountain and ridden down the new grade, which he described as “a very steep decline.” Though a veteran bicycle-tourist, Lou appeared about 80 pounds overweight. He sheepishly patted his stomach, saying he was counting on this ride to jump-start his diet. We assured him that the climbs he yet faced would contribute to his goal.
Later, a woman in the little store in Riggins volunteered that if we were going over White Bird, we’d better be in good shape. Which grade should we take? we asked. The new one, she said. The old one, she added with obvious distaste, has “all those switchbacks.”
Lucille, where we camped that evening, is 20 miles from the base of White Bird. The campground manager told us to ride White Bird’s old road because it was better for bikes. His was the first encouraging word we’d heard.
The main highway gains elevation even before it bypasses the tiny community of White Bird, which slumbers at the base of the old road. We’d made up our minds to use the old route, but we first had to descend into the town to join it. If we needed any confirmation that we’d made the right route choice, the clerk in the town’s small grocery provided it. “Take the old road,” she said. “Most bicyclists do.”
As we ascended, we had a continuous view of the new grade. Its climb was so constant it looked as if a giant had laid it out by snapping a carpenter’s chalk line from bottom to top and then notched the highway out of the hips of the mountain. As we watched the stream of traffic lumbering up that highway, we began to be glad we’d chosen the earlier route, where we encountered only one vehicle every hour or so.
But even better, we found climbing the old road to be a serendipity. For all the dire warnings, White Bird was the mountain where we moved from just “getting up the hill” to “enjoying the climb.” The climbing skills we’d learned, the conditioning from the trip itself and especially the wisdom we’d gained about resting before we got overheated, made the ascent, while hard work, also fun. And the views it afforded us were breathtaking. As we gained altitude, we were able to look down on surrounding peaks, back into the canyon we’d ridden through and ahead at the series of switchbacks still to ride. And at the higher levels, we benefited from a cooling breeze that enabled us to ride longer stretches without overheating.
We even learned some history. White Bird Canyon had been the site of an 1877 battle between the Nez Perce and the U.S. Army. As whites began settling on the tribe’s ancestral lands in the Oregon-Idaho-Montana area, seven-million acres had been reserved for the Nez Perce by an 1855 treaty. But the discovery of gold on tribal lands sparked friction between the Nez Perce, for whom private land ownership was unthinkable, and whites in pursuit of the yellow rock. Rather than enforce the treaty, the government proposed a new one that reduced the tribe’s territory to less than 800,000 acres.
Naturally, the Nez Perce, who had earlier befriended Lewis and Clark when the expedition had explored that region, felt shabbily used. But in the face of growing pressure from settlers and the government, some tribal members signed the new treaty. Although the government maintained that the signers represented the entire Nez Perce, the non-signers compared the action to a neighbor selling someone else’s horse. But in 1877, the Army issued an ultimatum and the “nontreaty” groups, including one under the leadership of Chief Joseph, reluctantly begin packing to relocate to the treaty lands.
In the midst of these preparations, a trio of hotheaded warriors from Chief Joseph’s band slipped away without his knowledge and killed four whites. The three were soon joined by other tribe members who killed more settlers. Fearing retaliation from the Army, Chief Joseph now felt he had no choice but to lead his followers on a trek to Canada. What followed was a brave but ultimately tragic five-month flight with the Army in pursuit.
The first skirmish took place in White Bird Canyon, where, on June 17, 1877, a force of more than 100 soldiers and volunteers descended on Chief Joseph’s group. The tribe, still hoping to avoid bloodshed, sent out a truce party under a white flag, but was fired upon by the volunteers. The Nez Perce then took the offensive. Although poorly armed and having only about 70 warriors, the band soon routed the whites, who left 34 men dead on the slopes. Some Nez Perce were wounded, but none died in this battle. So well did Chief Joseph’s men fight that an early report to the Army’s division headquarters estimated the number of warriors at 1,000-1,500! As Scott and I climbed higher, roadside markers told some of the story.
(Although the Nez Perce won other skirmishes, the costs were great. Finally, facing overwhelming odds, Chief Joseph’s band surrendered on October 5, in northern Montana just 40 miles from the Canadian border.)
The old road empties onto the new one just before the summit, and they top the pass as one. We left the older way reluctantly, for it had carried us skyward with a sense of accomplishment and pleasure. We would not soon forget it.
Shortly after leaving Lucille that morning, we’d encountered a hitchhiker, who stepped off the shoulder of the highway to make way for us, nodding a greeting as we passed. That evening, in a cafe in Grangeville, we saw the same man. By his method, he too had gotten over White Bird.
We hoped he enjoyed it as much as we did.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Ohio. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.