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Common Tread

Riding Idaho: Return to the most beautiful place on earth

Mar 20, 2018

The lack of residents was the first thing I noticed as I rolled into Stanley, Idaho, on my Indian Scout. That hadn’t changed in 24 years.

That’s how much time had passed since I last came here as a child and declared this to be the most beautiful place on earth. That hadn’t changed, either.

The first time was in 1993. I was eight. My father had planned a summer vacation for the two of us. We piled into his 1985 Peugeot 505 sedan, with mountain bikes affixed to the tail, and headed southeast out of Seattle. Our plan was simple: Moab. Infamous for its red rock and gnar trails, this was a mountain-biking destination my old man had been itching to cross off his list.

But summer vacations in the Southwest are sort of like overnight stays on the sun: hot as hell. I distinctly remember my father wrapping wet towels around my head because his fancy French sedan was absent of air conditioning and the ambient air temp was steadily rising toward 120. At some point, he called it quits. We were both going to die in a Peugeot — yeah, screw that — so he turned his tan leather steering wheel north and headed back to Idaho.

riding Idaho
Riding Idaho. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

My old man knew where he wanted to go. To Ketchum, where Hemingway had shot himself one early summer morning in 1961, with an Abercrombie & Fitch shotgun for those unfamiliar. My father didn’t want to go there for some dark, self-fulfilling reason, but, instead, because Ketchum is surrounded by immense mountains and dirt roads and trails — a mountain biking man’s nirvana. He hadn’t been, but he wanted to show me. That’s my father in a sentence.

We spent a few nights in town, ate buffalo burgers, wandered down the dirt road that leads to Ernest’s old home (you’re not allowed in, however), and then decided that Ketchum was just a little too cool. A ski town in the summer, where the streets are lined with small shops selling shit to people who come through town like a parade. So, we settled on a small town north of Ketchum — Stanley. We rented a room right above the river, where my father buried his beers in the riverbed so they’d be cold when we came back from our ride.

I can’t say for certain where we rode, only I know it was at an elevation greater than what I was accustomed to, because about two miles into our first excursion, I puked perfectly yellow banana bits all over my handlebars. I blamed the banana. My father accounted it to altitude sickness. That night, sitting along the bank of the Salmon River, my father cracked open his beer, affixed a piece of fishing line and a lure to an aluminum arrow I had found, and taught me how to fish… sort of.

The next day I declared Stanley to be the most beautiful place on earth.

Salmon River in Stanley, Idaho
The Salmon River at Stanley, Idaho. Could an eight-year-old be convinced this is the most beautiful spot on earth? Photo by Katja Schulz.

Despite those memories, I never managed to get back to that small mountain town until last summer, when Kyra and I decided to rendezvous in Idaho, she coming from Portland, Oregon and myself from Santa Rosa, California. Her ride was decidedly shorter and more picturesque. Mine, on the other hand, involved more than 850 miles no matter how I shook it. The route I chose took me up Interstate 5 to Redding and then northeast, squeezing between the Lassen and Modoc National Forests.

When I crossed into Oregon just east of Klamath Falls, great stretches of absolute nothing lay ahead of me – through towns like Wagontire, Burns and Juntura. And then, eventually, I crossed the border into Idaho. Kyra was waiting for me at a local brewery in downtown Boise. It was just before 10 p.m. and I had put in shy of 530 miles on my Indian Scout that day. As anticipated, she gloated a bit about her ride across eastern Oregon, through the Mt. Hood National Forest, edging the ever-popular town of Bend, and then heading east as the crow flies into Idaho where she had found a hotel room and promptly ordered herself a pint.

Our plan was to ride to Stanley the next morning, where we’d stay for a few nights, then loop south into Ketchum to see what had come of the small tourist town I had visited more than 20 years back. From there we’d head south through Twin Falls and into Nevada, where, again, great stretches of nothingness lay ahead of us as we diced the desert landscape at speed en route to Reno for the National Air Races.

Boise isn’t bad. A mountain town turned small city, the downtown streets are lifeless past 11 p.m. but bustle with coffee shops and restaurants during the day. We fetched breakfast, pounded a cup of coffee and hit the highway. Aided by our Butler Map, we settled on a route that would take us north of town, then east over Grimes Pass, connecting with ID-21 in the town of Lowman, then scribbling our way towards Stanley on one of the most beautiful back highways we’ve been down. Following the Payette River, rolling golden hills akin to those you’d encounter in central California quickly turned to a mixture of mountain and dusty-looking Douglas fir trees as we entered the Sawtooth National Forest.

riding Idaho
Riding Idaho. Photo by Kyra Sacdalan.

Stanley was not officially recognized as a town until 1919. Fur trappers of the Hudson’s Bay Company had discovered the Stanley Basin in the 1820s but largely avoided the area due to the scarcity of beaver. In 1863, a Civil War veteran by the name of John Stanley led a party of prospectors through the area, but again, found little of what they were after: gold. Far into the future, the small town has remained just that, small. According to the 2010 census, Stanley had a population of just 63 people.

We settled into a room overlooking the river at the Redfish Riverside Inn, the same place my father and I had stayed in 1993. With our bikes unloaded, we wandered into town on foot, had dinner at a rad little spot that was spitting distance from the infamous Kasino Club and Rod-N-Gun saloons, then walked the length of town when we were finished. A couple of cold bottles of beer at the Kasino Club – whose owner is a die-hard Yankees fan, as evidenced by what hung on the walls – then over to the Mountain Village Mercantile where we found a six-pack of Sockeye Brewing’s Mango IPA (good, not great). That night, shortly before the sun set, Kyra and I wandered down to the same spot in the same river where my father had sunk his suds so many years ago. We dropped our cans in a tiny pool, secured them with a few stones, and waited for the last bit of light to wash over the mountains across the way. Then, when they were good and cold (or as cold as they could get), we pulled the tabs on a few cans while I told her stories about my time in Stanley, namely the one where I projectile vomited all over my mountain bike.

cooling beer in the stream
Idaho beer cooler. Also known as the Salmon River. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

Two nights was not enough. Not even close. That eight-year-old's proclamation I made? Yeah, I was right. Stanley is possibly the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. And I say “possibly” only so I might deter a few of you from going. To save the place from people, because that’s what makes it so wonderful, you know?

pines in Idaho
Through the pines. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.
Ketchum is only an hour south of Stanley, something like 61 miles through the Sawtooth National Forest. And again, we followed a river, only this time the Salmon, south through Obsidian and Cathedral Pines and eventually into Ketchum (population 2,689). Remember the small tourist trap I talked about earlier? It’s still the same. And while I reminisce fondly about eating buffalo burgers and wandering its roads with my old man, this time, however, Ketchum was not the thing I needed. It’s overpriced shops selling shit you don’t need and restaurants that double-down during the summer season so they can survive until the ski crowd comes back.

We tried to venture down that same dirt road towards Hemingway’s house, but were met with an onslaught of "Do Not Enter" and "No Trespassing" signs, warding off eager onlookers trying to lay their eyes on the infamous home.

Craters of the Moon National Monument
Craters of the Moon National Monument. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

From Ketchum, Kyra and I made our way to the Craters of the Moon National Monument, where we rode through a landscape pulled straight from a dying star. Black lava rock on all sides and cinder cones made from loose pyroclastic fragments. We parked the bikes and climbed a cone. From the top we could wonder at the frozen lava fields that surrounded us as far as our eyes could see. And then, like someone threw the switch, the wind kicked up with fury. Taking this as a signal we should scoot, we scrambled back down to our bikes and out of the park, backtracking a bit along the ID-26 highway to Shoshone, then due south into Twin Falls for the night.

The next few days were spent slabbing our way across a barren desert landscape from southern Idaho to Reno, Nevada. It was an uneventful ride but gave me plenty of time to reflect on our trip into Idaho. More than sightseeing, this trip was about my eagerness to introduce someone else to something I found so substantial, so beautiful. A small town tucked into the mountains, left nearly unchanged for the last two decades, where life seems move at the same slow pace of the Salmon River as it snakes its way south.

Sure, some things have to change. People move to places or towns, cities swell, shops open, prices increase, et al. But with the advent of InstaFaceSnaps, everywhere is like everywhere. That unique little coffee shop in Cincinnati is remarkably like the one in Los Angeles. The micro-brewery in Sacramento serving a beer and atmosphere is a lot like the stuff they’re slinging in SoDo. But it’s places like Stanley, places that stay (relatively) the same, that tug at my little heart strings. Where I can return in another 20 years, maybe with my own offspring, and watch them proclaim just how beautiful it is.

Until next time, Stanley.