Location: Brownlee Dam, ID (McCormick Park at Brownlee Dam)
What a day today has been. I rose late from my bag this morning despite having slept in the open. The rising sun woke me around six thirty, but I pulled my toboggan down over my eyes and went back to sleep for a couple hours. Last night, I was kept awake by thoughts of some locals harassing us, coming into the park and roughing us up or giving us a good scare. The fears were totally unfounded, probably just influenced by too much television, but my unreasonable fears continued to plague me. The fear kept me up, but I fell asleep at some time. I don’t know when.
We pushed out from Richland this morning without stopping in town. We said that we were going to baby our tubes, taking care to avoid rocks and potholes. The first thirty miles went splendidly, despite the blazing sun. The morning temperatures reached ninety, which made a couple of the longer climbs considerably miserable. For the most part though, we followed the Snake River, the famed river of the Lewis & Clark expedition and several other ventures into the northwest. A breeze blew against the flow of the river, but the breeze was hot and intermittent, so it didn’t keep us cool. We sought shade around noon in Hell’s Canyon at a small store, and we snacked and rehydrated for an hour or so as we watched the needle on the thermometer climb over one hundred. The heat of the day was still coming.
Full on Gatorade and ice cream, Brian and I set out to complete our last ten miles in Oregon. As we continued along the Snake River, past the Oxbow Dam, we wound the rocky edges of the gorge. The Hell’s Canyon gorge is the deepest in the US, deeper than the Grand Canyon. Its red rock cliffs are home to big horn sheep, elk, and cougars, but I saw only deer and some turkey vultures. As we cycled the desolate road in thick hundred degree air, Brian’s rear tire went flat. We were four miles from the Oregon-Idaho border, and no shade was to be found. I couldn’t believe our bad luck. We had no spare tube for his tire, so we held our breath as Brian removed the busted tube, hoping that the hole would be one that we could fix with our tube repair patch kit.
As Brian attempted to repair the tube with a little cement, a Honda Accord stopped to see if we were OK. I said that we were and that we were only having some tube trouble. The older couple in the car offered us each a fresh peach which we gladly accepted. The cool and juicy peaches helped take the bite out of a hot afternoon and helped relieve the stress of having a busted tube. Brian finished repairing the tube and refastened his wheel to his bike. He inflated his tire only partially to take some of the stress off the tube itself when he was on his bike.
We started to move again, but it was clear that the tube wasn’t going to hold up for long. We set our sights on the Brownlee campsite at the hydroelectric dam where we could decide when and where Brian was going to hitchhike to so that he could get the parts needed to fix his bike. Both east and west, the next bike shop was eighty miles.
After a couple miles, Brian’s bike was not able to be ridden. He pushed the bike the last mile through Oregon and across the bridge over the Snake River into Idaho. As we took a couple of photos at the border, a work truck pulled up. The truck was white with Idaho Power Company printed on the side. A large man in a camouflaged shirt and with a peppered handlebar mustache asked if we were doing OK. He had seen Brian pushing his bike through the small community at the dam and thought that we must be exhausted. He offered us a ride to the top of hill so we didn’t have to pedal, and then Brian explained our predicament to him, that he had a busted tube and no way to fix it. The man, Al is his name, confirmed that the nearest bike store was no closer than eighty miles in either direction, and he threw several options at us about what we could do. He said that we could come to his house after five o’clock when his shift ended, and he would help us try to fix the tube using the tools he had in his garage. We explained to him that we did not think it could be fixed. He considered some options about how we could get to the bike shop to repair the bike.
Al said that he would be going through Baker tomorrow and that if Brian didn’t mind a crowded car then he could ride with him. Brian agreed to that plan there on the side of the road, and Al said that we should come by his house after five o’clock to discuss the details. Another miracle of the road, trouble happens and a stranger helps.
Brian and I walked our bikes a half mile down a gravel road to a small park on the edge of the river. The park was owned and maintained by the Idaho Power Company. The park was pleasant but small. It was on the edge of the river, but the turbulence of the water caused by the dam made swimming possibly deadly. A lot of campers in RVs had towed their boats there to fish, and I had heard that the bass, bluegill, and giant sturgeon fishing were great around the dam. The park had rich green grass because of constantly running sprinklers. Without sprinklers, the park would have been as brown as everything else in the desert.
Brian and I paid our ten dollars for the tent site. We showered and changed clothes to go to Al’s. Al lived in the small private community at the dam. The neighborhood was composed entirely of employees of the Idaho Power Company. The employees worked at the dam. The power company owned all the houses, about fifteen, and all the houses looked identical, with the exception of the personal touches that each resident added to the lawn or window dressings. Al had lived in his house for seventeen years and his was one of five on the river. He paid $160 a month to live there, but surprisingly he paid full utilities, including electricity, which he daily worked to help generate.
So we walked a mile back into Oregon to meet Al. He was waiting for us in his driveway with a tall glass of red wine. He offered us a beer, which Brian and I gladly accepted, and then not two minutes later, he told us of the new plan. He said that he was leaving town the next morning and he would not be able to fit Brian in the sedan. Instead, he said that we could take his pickup truck to Baker to get to the bike shop. We were floored by his generosity, and Brian hardly knew how to respond. Eventually he said that it would be great, but still he was incredulous. I myself could not believe his generosity, to lend us his dodge diesel flatbed pickup that, by its looks alone, you could tell had had a lot of love and care poured into it over the years.
Al introduced us to his wife, Diane, and her brother, Jim. It turns out that Jim and Diane were the couple who stopped on the road this afternoon and gave us the peaches. So, the Good Samaritan quality runs in the Kenison family.
Brian and I hung out with Al and the others for a couple hours, drinking beers, eating pizza and peach pie, and just having a good old time. Al showed us his gun collection and pictures of his hunting trophies: elk, deer, bear, and geese. And he showed us his pride and joy, his Honda trike, a three wheeled motorcycle that he kept in his garage. It certainly was a pretty bike, and Al said it was the most expensive thing he had ever bought. He certainly had a lot of toys, but I guess one needs toys to stay entertained in the desert. Unless, of course, you’re in the practice of helping people that get into trouble in the desert. Al and Diane said that regularly people, cyclists, motorists, or bikers come to their house in need of help. Sometimes they need water, stitches, or real and immediate medical help. According to Al, motorcyclists and boaters have frequent accidents in Hell’s Canyon, and deaths have often resulted from those people being careless and not respecting the backcountry desert roads or the treacherous submerged rocks of Snake River.
Anyway, Brian and I wrapped up our socializing with Al, Diane, and Jim and we drove off in Al’s pretty blue Dodge pickup. He thought it would be best if we took the truck to the campsite tonight so that we didn’t have to worry about getting it in the morning. When Brian started up the truck, I could not stop smiling in the passenger’s seat. I could still not believe the level of Al’s generosity and trust. We said goodbye to the bunch and promised them a postcard, and then we puttered back across the Bridge into Idaho where we had made camp on the river.
In the hot desert night, I fell asleep on top of my sleeping bag, still incredulous to our good fortune. As Brian said, a TransAm trail angel saved us in Hell’s Canyon.