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Sunday, December 8, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

The heroic, tragic and two-wheeled journey from Spokane to Mullan by a road mathematician

Nicholas Deshais’ bike is ready to roll at the start of his journey. (Nicholas Deshais / The Spokesman-Review)
Nicholas Deshais’ bike is ready to roll at the start of his journey. (Nicholas Deshais / The Spokesman-Review)

Only one thing was on my mind.

After the traffic, the Palouse hills, the flat tire, broken rim and abandoned first shot, even after the the Idaho dog and log trucks, the only thing I could think was, “Why isn’t there a trail between my house and Plummer?”

Earlier this month, I found myself with a few days off work and nothing to do. Inspiration struck: I would ride my bike from my home on Spokane’s South Hill to Mullan, Idaho, via highway and the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes – the nation’s premier rail trail. I’ve done a number of bike tours before, but had always wanted to leave directly from my house, carless and carefree.

I hurriedly made a packing list, pulled my touring gear from the closet and sketched out the next five days of my life. Ride to Heyburn State Park on Lake Chatcolet, camp. Ride to Wallace, hotel. Ride to Mullan and then back to Heyburn and camp some more. Then home.

I will humbly submit it was a genius idea.

The next morning – a fine June Wednesday morning – packing all that stuff into my panniers, rack bag, front rack and everywhere else took longer than expected and I hit the road at 11 a.m. The sun punished me for my late start.

Should I have known I’d done something wrong in those first moments, as the heat cooked me and I couldn’t even stand on my pedals because the bike was so weighed down? Probably. It looked like I was heading to Mars, with the amount of crap I had on my bike. But I honestly didn’t think I’d brought too much until two hours had passed. Two long hours that took me only as far as the Palouse Highway’s intersection with state Route 27, just past Valleyford. For those keeping score, that’s about 8 mph.

As I turned onto the highway, too hot and tired on an 85-degree day that took me over those rolling, horrible hills of the northern Palouse, my rear wheel’s tube had enough. It popped with a violent finality, and my Winnebago on two wheels gave into gravity as it tried to break through the pavement. Instead, about 12 inches of my rim was flattened.

The sun was an unforgiving master, and it made me pay my pound of water as I changed the tube. Sweat gushed out of every pore, and my glasses kept falling from my face to the ground. The weedy shoulder was my home. Cars flew by me. Astonishingly, the rim held the tube and tire, and for a fleeting moment I considered pushing on and finishing what would be a tour of more than 200 miles.

The moment passed when I realized my brakes didn’t work anymore, and I phoned a friend for a ride from the Mica Cemetery, where I buried my dreams of a five-day tour.

Road math

I won’t bore you with the details of the next 36 hours, as I chased rims around town and tussled with a bike mechanic about why the rim he sold me was detritus better used as decorative trash art. The new tire, new tube and new rim tape were not to blame, I told him. An hour later, he agreed.

As mechanical problems consumed my time, my visions of the future darkened. The window for escape was shrinking, and clearly I’d forgotten how to go on a bike tour. I spread my things before me and cut like Marie Kondo. Pound of coffee and stainless steel coffee grinder – gone! Two pairs of pants and three pairs of shorts – gone! Two books – gone! Flask of whiskey – well, that came along.

Friday, 9 a.m. My packed touring bike looked amazing, the work of an artist. I set off again, not looking forward to the way to Valleyford. As I rounded the bend of my disaster, nothing happened. Nothing, that is, except endlessly rolling hills and the occasional car going 60 mph. The shoulder is wide, but no stripe of paint is thick enough to insulate me from fear of 2-ton killing machines.

In Rockford, I grabbed a coffee and waited until a local walked by. I’d had enough of freeway travel, and the map showed a road between Rockford and Worley called Chatcolet Road. Serendipitous, I thought, considering that night’s destination.

“It’s all gravel,” the local said. “I wouldn’t recommend it.”

As a mathematician of roads, I examined the equation before me. A heavy touring bike on a gravel road with a potential for dogs, or a paved highway with 4,000-pound cars flying by me at a lethal pace. Capable of calculating multiple equations per minute, I derived my conclusion. I’ll take the gravel dog over blunt force trauma by distracted driver any day.

Proving my facility for risk assessment, the country road was definitely the way to go. It was light gravel until the state line of Idaho, where it miraculously became pavement. I could’ve kissed the asphalt and praised the road builders of Kootenai County. Then, fear struck. Up ahead, I saw a new type of residence unlike the Palouse haciendas I’d been rolling by. It was a small home, with an RV and lots of cars and other stuff packed in the yard. Dog fear roiled me.

I pedaled closer, and spied a doghouse. Empty, but the radius around it was destroyed by whatever leashed monster usually inhabited the dwelling. Crisis averted, until I passed the RV and saw another doghouse. The biggest dog I’ve ever seen – some hybrid of husky, German shepherd, wolf and Boston Dynamics dog robot – spilled out of the house, dozing on his side. My fearful heart leapt into my throat, but I kept pedaling. He kept dozing.

Heroes are made in such times.

In Worley, I looked at my map. Six miles lay between me and Plummer, the headwaters of the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes – my traffic-free, 72-mile way to Mullan that once served as the railway for the Silver Valley’s many mines. Having defeated every other comer, I steeled my spine and joined U.S. Highway 95.

Was it the first or fifth or 10th double tractor-trailer carrying downed trees passing me at earth-quaking speed, shaking my bike with its own weather pattern, when I asked myself, “Why isn’t there a trail between my house and Plummer?” I don’t remember. I do remember feeling slightly guilty for cursing at every car that passed me, because some words are more easily lip-read than others.

I almost hugged the guy behind the counter at the Warpath One Stop Shop in Plummer, where I bought a six-pack of cold beer and some batteries, but I didn’t. Instead, I got on the trail and coasted downhill for 8 miles through a cool, quiet forest to my campground, and was happy just to be alive.

To the bordello

Harrison, Idaho, is a wonder. Especially when you arrive by bike.

After breaking camp Saturday morning and surmounting the roller coaster-like Chatcolet Bridge, my tour took me on what is probably the best section of the trail. It hugs the lake’s edge and offers long views up and down Lake Coeur d’Alene. The morning wind cooled me and there was not a car in earshot.

Then, just as your typical bike tourist is longing for a shot of espresso and egg-and-cheese croissant, the trail turns eastward, and Harrison appears. My prayers were answered, via the Cycle Haus Bikes and Brews. This half-café, half-bike shop has piles of bicycling magazines to peruse, and my phone and I powered up for the day’s leg.

With caffeine firing my neurons, I considered the possibility of a transcontinental bikeway. Such a plan is afoot thanks to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, which has hatched a plan to create a “safe, seamless and scenic pathway” connecting Washington state to Washington, D.C. I could see it in my mind’s eye, punctuated every 30 miles or so with towns like Harrison. Quaint burgs that would welcome cyclists like myself, who are eager to fill up on coffee, food and ice cream, some beer and place to sleep.

Visions of a cross-country tour danced before my eyes, and Wallace beckoned. I pedaled and pedaled. Lakes passed me by – Anderson, Thompson, Blue, Black, Swan, Cave, Medicine, Killarney and Rose. Great blue herons loomed. Three moose chomped on catkins and tall grasses in the distance at one point, causing a bit of a traffic jam on the trail.

At risk of sounding like a fool and hypocrite, about 30 miles into the day’s ride I was kind of bored. Maybe it was the contrast with the day before, where I contended with trucks, hills and that one ferocious, sleeping dog. But this day, with its lack of real hills and steel death machines, I zoned out. I came up with games to play in the saddle, just to distract. I put my playlist on shuffle, and as each new song began I guessed its length and for each minute I’d take a chug of water. I stopped at every wayside educational placard, and there were many. I talked to myself. A lot.

And I counted cyclists. It’s harder than it sounds. Adding one or two to a number every few minutes, all the while slowly draining your body of fluid and energy, gets confusing. At around the 50th cyclist, I knew my count would be more soft than specific. But I kept at it.

Through Medimont and Cataldo I counted. At the Snake Pit in Enaville, I easily avoided the temptation to count motorcyclists. In Kellogg, I passed about 25 BMX riders, part of the Enduro mountain bike racing world series qualifier. They counted, bringing the day’s total to more than 200 cyclists on the trail, that I saw at least. The day before, I’d seen exactly one cyclist.

Finally, Wallace, my home for the night. I got a room at the Lux Rooms, a former bordello that’s been updated into a shared-bathroom hotel, complete with a proud telling of the building’s historic harlotry. The rooms are clean, proprietors helpful and murals titillating.

But no one told me it was Gyro Days. When every yahoo in the Silver Valley watches a giant ball float down the south fork of the Coeur d’Alene River before descending on the small town and its temporary carnival. At least that’s the way my tired bike brain saw it, longing for a quiet and good night’s sleep, apologies to the good people in Silver Valley. No matter. The next day I would ride the final 7 miles to Mullan, and as I dozed like a dog in Wallace, dreaming of an America-spanning bike highway, I was unperturbed by the loud, crazy-making sounds right outside my window.

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