Final Mile: The Dark Cloud

Jun 14th, 2022

This article first appeared in the February 2012 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine.

Every bicycle trip of any duration, and I’m guessing almost any long trip of any kind, eventually has one. At least mine do. My last bicycle trip, a 1,500-mile journey from Olympia, Washington, to my hometown of Bozeman, Montana, had one. It arrived somewhere near Clayton, Idaho. It spent the night with me. It arose at about the same time I did the next morning and proceeded to follow me all the way to Salmon, Idaho. I couldn’t seem to shake it. The Dark Cloud had found me.

My experience suggests that the Dark Cloud generally has nothing to with the weather. This particular three-week trip had offered up nothing but blue skies and warm temperatures. Nary a cloud in sight. Perfect weather for cycling. Perfect weather for anything. Nope, for me the Dark Cloud had no connection to the weather. It was under sunny skies, with the Salmon River meandering peacefully through a broad valley, somewhere along Idaho Route 75, that my mood went to hell! The Dark Cloud had found me.

Looking back on that day, I admit that I was somewhat tired. I was well into the second week of the trip and perhaps I could’ve used a day off my bike. There was a slight headwind, but nothing to be particularly concerned about. Even on this trip, I’d pedaled into much worse. Headwinds, that is. Traffic was light. The birds were chirping. But this subtle grumpiness wormed its way into me and began to darken my thoughts. For the first time on this ride, my mind had made the long leap home and left me and my body stuck on this bike in the middle of Idaho. My thoughts became focused on my life in Bozeman. I found myself thinking about work projects, deadlines, emails; in short, obligations. Fatal. Mistake. I opened the door, and the Dark Cloud walked right on in and sat down in the big fat sofa of my mind.

Suddenly, I gave up on the moment — which is, in my opinion, the inherent joy of the bicycle journey. I started scheming. Planning shortcuts. I could get home a day earlier if … if only I could get over Lemhi Pass — a short cut between Salmon, Idaho, and Dillon, Montana. I had driven over this road several years before. Taking this route would buy me a day, maybe more if I got some strong tailwinds. Sure, it’s a long steep climb over rough gravel roads, but what the heck, Lewis and Clark walked over the thing in 1805. If need be I could hitchhike or throw my bike into the back of a passing pickup truck driven by a friendly rancher. Perhaps there’s a shuttle bus. I became obsessed with the idea of getting over Lemhi Pass and abandoning my original route up and over Chief Joseph Pass and through the Big Hole Valley. It would buy me a whole day! I could be home by Friday!

To facilitate my plan of escape over Lemhi Pass, I needed a Montana Highway Map. A visual aid to help me mull over my options. Rolling into Clayton, Idaho, I see a gas station on my right. Like the search for the Holy Grail, I’m drawn in my quest to locate a Montana Highway Map. Something to show me the way home — the shortest and quickest way home. The gas station offers up the nauseatingly typical mini-mart–quality products. I scan the shelves for a Montana Highway Map. And there, right between the 2009 Idaho Hunting/Fishing Regulations and the free Smokey the Bear handout reminding us that “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires!” is the Grail — a single official state-issued Montana Highway Map. And free and for the taking. I’m as good as home!

Not so quick. “You’ve got to pay for that,” says an old man who apparently owns the store and has walked up behind me. “You’re kidding,” I say, “they give these away in Montana.” “Not around here they don’t,” he bluntly replies. I turn the map in my hands. “Look,” I excitedly point out, “it says right on the map — FOR FREE DISTRIBUTION.” He takes the map from my hands. Puts on his reading glasses. Slowly and carefully, treating it like it’s the only remaining copy of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, he opens the map. “He’s looking for a price tag which he isn’t going to find,” I think to myself. “Nope,” he says, “FOR FREE DISTRIBUTION is in Montana only.” He’s not kidding. Okay, I’ll play his game. I want that map. No, I need that map. “How much?” I ask. Slowly and carefully he folds the map and puts his reading glasses back in his shirt pocket. Looking me right in the eye, he states his price, “Five dollars.” I return his stare. My sense of injustice boils over. “Five dollars? That’s highway robbery,” I say. Fuming, I turn and leave the store, regretting that I had bought a pint of milk prior to finding the map on the shelf. The Dark Cloud happily follows me out the door.

Into Challis, Idaho I ride. I grumble to myself as I climb a persistently moderate hill into town, “Why did they put the town up here, it could be down on the river.” The wind kicks up, dust is in the air. I find a very mediocre campsite and set my tent up behind the seasonally-retired U.S. Forest Service trailers. Room with no view — and all for only 20 dollars a night! The shower is warm at best. I can’t find what I wanted for dinner. No one seems particularly friendly. You get the picture. The Dark Cloud was having a grand old time (did I just hear a chuckle?) I, however, was not.

I awake and pack up for Salmon, Idaho. Thoughts of escape over Lemhi Pass fill my head. Ignoring some delightfully lovely landscape, the day becomes a mental blur. I pedal into Salmon, arriving in the early afternoon. “Hmm,” I say to myself, “seems like a nice little town.” An attractive city park is situated right on the Salmon River. A sculpture of a grizzly bear snagging a salmon out of the air draws attention to the natural beauty of the place. I go to the Sacajawea Center and spend a pleasant hour strolling through the interpretive center which not only discusses the famous explorers, Lewis and Clark, but also the people of Sacajawea’s homeland — the Lemhi-Shoshone. The Dark Cloud shudders.

As I ride down a side street, a fellow crossing ahead of me stops and stares. “Where’re you headed?” he asks. “Montana,” I respond. “Started in Olympia, Washington, a week or so ago.” “That’s a long trip,” he says. “Need a place to stay for the night?” The Dark Cloud is in serious trouble. “Sure,” I say, “that’d be nice.” We walk down the sidewalk together — an unemployed logger and a touring cyclist. He points out his girlfriend’s front yard — “Put your tent up anywhere you like.” The Dark Cloud has been splintered by a shaft of light and, once again, I’m back in the moment. His girlfriend comes home. Lawn chairs come out. Cold beer. Good conversation. Friendly people. I’m taking a shower in the home of a complete stranger. The Dark Cloud has been blown away by a cleansing wind. I’m free of its grip. “Of course I am,” I think to myself, “I’m on a bicycle journey.”

That evening, after finally mentally mellowing out, I let go of the Lemhi Pass-shortcut obsession.
“Just stick to the original plan — ride your route,” I say out loud to no one but myself. “It’s a good route. You’ll get there when you get there.”

That night, I sleep like a baby and wake to a beautiful morning, one filled with sunshine, promising tailwinds, and not a dark cloud in sight! 

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