Spiral Highway/Old Lewiston Grade – Lewiston, Idaho
Spring might be the best time to bike the Spiral Highway up Lewiston Hill. From the bottom to the top near the old gift shop is about 8 miles. The roadbed dates back to the 19-teens, when such grades were – and were considered – works of art by inspired engineers. Like Oregon’s Old Highway 30 through the Columbia Gorge, the engineers’ designs paid close attention to the landscape, and kept the needs and experience of the drivers in mind. With the exception of two early straightaways with an uphill passing lane, its two lanes gently curve their way through folds in the hillside with a grade rarely above five degrees – perfect for a stead 30 miles per hour in a car, and second gear on my ’79 Raleigh.
I drive down from Moscow, and like to park about two miles from the bottom in one of the many pullouts. As I got on my bike, the wind coming down the hill was gusting at least 20 miles per hour. Then a still pocket in a nearby curve in the hillside, then a tailwind up the next straightaway. A few times I let it push me along without pedaling.
For a few miles the road tends up to the northeast, with Lewiston, the Clearwater, and the ever-puffing Potlatch paper mill down to my right. Over my shoulder I can see the Clearwater-Snake confluence and Clarkston across the Snake in Washington. The road is bordered by old guardrail posts with no rails, and beyond them some old barbed-wire fencing for the herds of cattle and sheep (and a llama or two) that pasture on the hill.
The is very little car traffic to worry about, and what there is can often be seen far off, above or below, as the ripples in the road’s accordion constantly afford views of itself. On the way up, the riding is naturally slow-going, and it’s a great time to take in the view. I find myself gazing out for long stretches without looking at the road – I’ve learned not to worry about potholes. There is plenty of time to examine the slant in the layers of basalt rock exposed in the road cuts. The slopes and gullies below are full with grass, wildflowers, the odd copse of trees. Big colonies of tall thistles are now in the green of life and blooming purple, and the daisy-like arnica flower is present but just past its prime.
Today I saw kingbirds, goldfinches, a magpie. I often see peregrine falcons, hawks, flickers, varied thrush, kestrels and ravens. I once saw a lanky, large-eared dessert fox about midway. It watched me intently from a tall-grass ditch. Today I saw a young doe traverse a greenly wooded gully.
At about 3 miles from the top a stretch of old guardrail is still intact outside one of the scarier curves. It forms a long arch of inch-thick steel bands a foot wide, painted white and bolted to their posts. Wind is heaviest on such exposed curves, and the rails moan and whistle with a strange music I could still hear long after I’d passed by.
Today I stopped a little ways short of the overlook pullout, just above the last curve. There is a little patch of asphalt that juts out from the road, space enough for a car to park. I leaned my bike against the modern cement divider and looked out over the valley and river 2000 feet below. It was so windy I didn’t quite register the strange sound coming from near my bike. When I turned I expected to see a flapping plastic bag stuck to some sagebrush. Instead, the movement that caught my eye through my front spokes was a pale grayish-green rattle snake moving along the guardrail, rattle buzzing. I had practically parked my bike right over it, and stepped no more than a couple of feet away. It didn’t stop rattling until it was safely tucked within one of the drainage gaps on the base of the divider, eyes in my direction. I crabwalks a few yards away and watch it for a while. Then I turn back toward the view. I spent a few minutes stretching before deciding to turn back. In just one step toward the bike the rattler loudly reminded me it was there. It had moved out of the hole and underneath some scraggly sagebrush about a foot in front of my bike’s front tire. It surely knew I was there, but I guess determined nonetheless to soak up some of the sun’s fleeting warmth despite me. Strangely, this struck me as a friendly gesture, as if to say, I don’t mind the company, but not too close! This reminded me of another rattler that visited a campsite on the Salmon river a couple of years ago – content to sit a few feet away, but not interested in attention.
The ride down is always a blast, but especially fun in todays downhill wind. In some directions I faced a headwind, but more often was treated to an amazing headwind. There were blissful moments of windstill when I knew I was going thirty, and was pushed so hard past the old railing that I just stopped pedaling and held on. So fun. So worth the drive.