Yesterday on my East to The West roadtrip, I connected with one of my personal heroes, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. After an excellent night’s sleep in the Rim Rock Inn’s Standing Bear Tipi on the edge of Joseph Canyon, I was in a perfect frame of mind to continue the journey. My goal was to travel a good section of the Nez Perce Trail which roughly follows the route of Chief Joseph’s famous retreat. The section I would cover would take me through four states and up the Lolo Pass into the Bitterroot Mountains. That same route is also the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway portion of the Lewis and Clark Trail. But I’m finding that’s how routes are made in America. First the migrating game found the easiest passages. Then the Native Americans followed them, making that route a trade and winter to summer hunting ground path. White men showed up, and often with the help of the Natives, walked those same routes. Then settlers came, railroads were put in and finally Interstate highways. Luckily, this particular route is mountainous and difficult enough that it’s not much more than a two lane blacktop leaving the scenery largely as Lewis and Clark and the Nez Perce would have seen it. For that reason, and for the many signposts and historical markers telling the story of both parties, I highly recommend it.
The scenery is stunning as you wind through canyon then mountain passes next to increasingly beautiful rivers. Judging by the number of trout hatcheries I passed and the number of fly fisherpeople, I’d guess this where to get your River Runs Through It act on. Initially, the drive wasn’t as difficult as I’d thought it would be. When you say “pass” to me, I think of the Donner Pass shooting up nearly 7000 feet. This route was mostly flat and hugged the rivers at the base of the mountains. It’s the logical way through the Bitterroot Mountains. The Nez Perce called this route The Way to the Buffalo. Their closely related allies, the Salish, called it The Way to the Salmon. It was clearly a well traveled trade and seasonal migration route between the Plains and the Columbia River watershed. Unfortunately, Lewis and Clark didn’t find it such easy going, calling this section of their journey “the most horrible mountains”. Instead of sticking to the river on their way West, they apparently took the hard way and blundered over the mountain near but not on the Lolo Pass, almost starving to death in the process. They were saved by the Nez Perce who fed and housed them for a few months. That is until L and C decided, against the advice of their Native protectors, that they would take off again before the snow melted. That led to the only “retreat” or backtracking on the whole expedition. They slogged their way back to the Nez Perce, this time followed their advice, and were provided with guides, once the snow was gone, to show them the easy way through.
Unlike Lewis and Clark, I was finding it easy going in the Hobbit. Although I will tell you, when the road signs say you should take a curve at 40 or even 25 MPH, follow that to the letter. There isn’t much wiggle room on the road and those curves are sharp! Another valuable road tip I learned back in Winnemucca when I shared family style dining at The Martin Hotel Basque restaurant. One of my tablemates was an avid motorcyclist. He said, to be a smart long distance cyclist, you have to become a weather expert. It’s the key to getting off your bike and putting on your rain gear BEFORE a harsh weather system rolls in.
Sure enough within ten minutes and just 20 miles from the Lolo Pass, a huge rainstorm with thunder and lightning came roaring in. It was bucketing down so hard, I considered waiting it out at a turnout. But I had visions of lightning toppling a tree on the Hobbit. With only 20 miles to the ranger station and Lolo Pass Visitors’ Center, I decided to press on at about 30 MPH. Ironically, when Lewis and Clark were about at this point on their journey back home, they were hit with a sudden storm like mine, with the addition of hail. That gave me a bit of solidarity with the Corps of Discovery, although I had a much easier time in the Hobbit than they did hauling canoes. I waited out the end of the storm at the excellent museum at the summit which manages to give a good overview of the geology of the Bitterroots, the customs and legends of the local Native American tribes, Lewis and Clark, and, for good measure, the history of firefighting and logging in the area. Two things I learned: Coyote is an important figure in Salish and Nez Perce legends. I would have assumed it would be the Bear, but Coyote, in the stories, seems always to outwit Bear. Also, I finally found out the real name of Chief Looking Glass, confederate of Chief Joseph, who joined him on the Retreat. I’ve learned to mistrust Anglicized Native names ever since I learned the fierce Oglala warrior we called Young Man Afraid of His Horses, in his own language, was They Fear Even His Horses. According to the display, which was curated by the Nez Perce tribe, Looking Glass was Cyclone Traveler, although he was known to wear a polished flint on a necklace which might be considered a looking glass.
By this time, I was more than ready to call it a day at The Lodge at Lolo Hot Springs. The springs were a sacred healing place to the Native Americans. Now the area includes an open hot spring pool, an RV park, a restaurant and bar with the saltiest food I’ve ever eaten and an ATV rental place. Luckily the Lodge is removed from the honky tonk across the way and has private indoor pools with hot springs water piped in. They also have a free DVD rental library that includes the Ken Burns Lewis & Clark documentary. Since I can never have enough Lewis and Clark, that’s what I’ll be watching tonight.