Day 43 – To Hell’s Canyon and Back

Unintentionally, I found myself tracking some rather famous trails as I headed westward, such as the Oregon trail and the Pony Express route. On this day, it was Lewis and Clark who had traveled from what is now Montana into Idaho along the same route I was driving.

The road through the pass is paved now, of course, but I suppose in modern highway terms the route is still fairly wild. A caution sign at the Idaho border warned of a winding road for the next 77 miles. Another helpful sign let motorists know that the next fuel stop of any kind was a mere 90 miles distant. The distance between towns of any size was even farther, unless you count Lowell, Idaho, a bustling city with a population of 23. (They did have 24 people at one point; no confirmation on what happened to that one person.)

My reason for taking the road was mostly to get to Hell’s Canyon, a gorge on the border between Idaho and Oregon that I had heard was deeper than the Grand Canyon. Considerably deeper. That was an interesting fact; but, just as interesting to me was that the majority of people I talked with were not even aware of its existence.

I assumed that the locals would be able to tell me more about it, so I when I stopped for lunch at the Hilltop Café in Grangeville, I asked the waitress about it.

“Would you happen to know a good spot to see Hell’s Canyon this time of year?”

“To see what?”

“Hell’s Canyon.”

Her face still registered no recognition. Could it be that she really didn’t know about it? An 8,000-foot deep canyon less than 20 miles away, and she had just never noticed it? Never wondered why she couldn’t drive to nearby Oregon without taking a 3-hour detour? I kept my tongue in check and didn’t jump on the obvious sarcasm possibilities.

“At least, I think that’s what it’s called,” I offered, checking again at its large presence on my map. “It’s south of here, just past White Bird.”

“I don’t know, but those guys should,” she replied, indicating two men at the far corner of the café who were the only other customers at the time. “I just live here,” she offered, to explain away her lack of first-hand knowledge. “When I go on vacation, it is usually somewhere like California or Colorado—somewhere hundreds of miles away.”

She called across to the two men, who were not much more helpful. “I took a jet boat up to the dam, from Pittsburg Landing, a couple of summers ago.”

“Do you know where I could go to get a view of the canyon from the top?”

He considered it. “I don’t know. Especially at this time of year.”

With no better information than that, I headed down highway 95 toward the Hell’s Canyon area, figuring I would surely see a sign. Central Idaho is such rough country that 95 is still the only road that connects the northern panhandle with the southern half of the state. And even that passhas 3 runaway truck ramps, where vehicles with bad brakes can gently crash to a stop instead of flying off the cliff that formed the edge of the steep, winding road.

At the bottom of the pass, I stopped at a curio store in the small town of White Bird to again ask for directions to the canyon. Again, the person working there had to ask another customer for advice.

“A lot of people take jet boats from Pittsburg Landing up to the dam.”

“OK, but is there any way to see it from the top, like a viewing area? Preferably something that doesn’t cost as much as I expect a jet boat would.”

He stared up at the corner of the room. “I don’t know,” he said, “but you can see it from the bottom at Pittsburg Landing. It’s not the deepest part of the canyon, I don’t think, but it is a nice view. The road down there is real scenic—I think it’s worthwhile just for the drive.”

He had me sold, so I got directions to the Pittsburg Landing road. It began not far from White Bird, and traveled 17 miles to the boat ramp at Pittsburg Landing. In the process, the gravel road wound its way from the river bottom, up over a mountain ridge, and then down the other side of the mountain to the Snake River. If you are a roadophile, like myself, the drive truly is worth it just for the drive. The start and end points are probably little more than 5 miles apart, with the additional 10 or 12 miles of road coming in the form of switchbacks, blind cliff-side curves, and slopes that are best taken in 1st gear to keep from overheating your brakes. At the steepest point, referred to as the saddle, the road zigs and zags down the face of a cliff, with at least 10 switchback curves (I didn’t necessarily remember to count them).

Except for a couple of parked boat trailers, no one was around at Pittsburg Landing. An adjacent campground was completely empty, but still open for business with a self-pay rate of only $6. Tempting, I thought, if only I had brought along some food. It was a long 17 miles back out to the nearest store.

The road forked in the bottom, so I explored the other branch, which was labeled “Upper Pittsburg Landing.” I didn’t notice any landing there, but did find something else: the trailhead for a hiking path that headed upriver along the canyon wall.

This is what I need to be doing, I decided, after trotting along the trail for the first few hundred yards to check out the view. This is how you truly see the canyon. I would still have to drive out of the canyon to get supplies, but I could return, camp out in the canyon, and get an early start on the trail the next day. Satisfied with the plan but running out of daylight, I hurried back to my pickup to begin the 17-mile drive back out to civilization.

White Bird does not have much in the way of businesses, so I stopped back in at the curio shop to ask where the nearest source of groceries might be. The woman there directed me to the second floor of an RV park office near the river, which carried at least some basic items. The curio shop, it turns out, did have a few trail-mix type items and candy beside the register, so I bought a 1-pound bag of peanuts and a Snickers bar.

“Good meal,” she noted.

“Yeah, well, I’m going hiking tomorrow, and need something to carry with me…”

“Oh, yes. Good idea.”

The RV park had a bedroom-sized store with a variety of random foodstuffs. I grabbed some hot dogs and crackers, among other things—anything that I thought would not go bad under the questionable refrigeration of my iceless ice chest. I then hurried back down the darkening 17-mile gravel road. “Hurried” is a relative term; I now felt I knew the road well enough to push it a little bit, but the sharp curves and lack of straightaways made it impossible to go very fast even if you drove like a maniac. The speed limit on the road is 25 mph, but it is hard to average more than that even when you drive as fast as you can. It took me at least 45 minutes to make each transit.

So, it was dark when I finally set up my tent and went about roasting some hot dogs. There was very little wood to be found; but, if necessary, I had enough paper to feed a fire. As a fire starter, I had brought along a book: a 1993 paperback almanac that I figured I would never need again. I couldn’t imagine why I would have a great need to know what the Bolivian population was 14 years ago. So, I had chosen that book from my library both because I wanted to get rid of it, and because it had a whole lot of pages that could be ripped out to start a fire.

Used to grow a fire, that is. To start it, I had packed a cheap cigarette lighter. I went back to my pickup to grab the lighter from the travel bag where I kept my razor, toothbrush, and other small items. I was pretty sure that was where I had packed the thing. But, the lighter wasn’t there. Nor was it in either suitcase, the glove compartment, the back seat, the suitcases again, the travel bag again, or under the seat.

All I had was a bunch of wadded-up paper in the fire pit, some cold hot dogs, and the electric cigarette lighter in my dashboard—which I knew from experience would not start a fire. But, I had to at least try. Besides having uncooked food, the pile of paper was something I would have to pack out as trash if I could not get it to burn.

In the small shopping bag from the curio store, I collected some almanac pages and some highly-flammable toilet paper. I then pushed in the electric lighter and, the instant it popped back out, pushed it into the bag of kindling. It produced some smoke, but, as predicted, no real fire. I tried it a couple more times, with the same result.

Resigned to a supper of crackers and cold hot dogs, I pulled out the food I had bought. While I was at it, I decided I should go ahead and load my backpack for the next day’s hike. I pulled out my old school backpack and emptied its contents: a notepad; some books I had brought with me in case I needed something to read; a pen; and a cheap cigarette lighter.

A short time later I had my supper. Though, if you are ever faced with the choice of eating either a raw hot dog or one cooked over an almanac, well, you might just want to save yourself the trouble.

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