Jumping into and across the Snake River Canyon of Idaho… The 10,000-Mile Bike Trek

When Peggy and I arrived at the bridge across the Snake River, a man was hanging by his fingers on the edge of the bridge, 500 feet above the water.

When Peggy and I arrived at the Perrine Bridge across the Snake River, a man was hanging by his fingers on the edge, 500 feet above the water.

I biked out of Bozeman, Montana facing another climb across the Rockies. It turned out to be surprisingly easy. And beautiful. Highway 191 follows the scenic Gallatin River with its rushing waters up into the northwestern corner of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Snowmelt during June turns this branch of the Missouri River into a seething whitewater-fantasy trip for rafters. Beyond its beauty and rapids, the river is also known for its world-class fly-fishing.

Snow melt turns the Gallatin River of Montana into a river runner's dream.

Snow melt turns the Gallatin River of Montana into a river runner’s dream.

Cliffs along the Gallatin River on Montana's Highway 191 add to the areas scenic beauty.

Cliffs along the Gallatin River on Montana’s Highway 191 add to the area’s scenic beauty.

Trees along the Gallatin River on Montana's Highway 191.

As does the forest.

Fly fisherman try their luck in the upper waters of the Gallatin River in Wyoming's Yellowstone Park.

Fly fishermen try their luck in the upper waters of the Gallatin River in Wyoming’s Yellowstone Park.

By the time I had biked the route in August of 1989, the river had ceased its mighty roar but held onto its scenic beauty. Things were still roaring when Peggy and I drove up it in June as we re-traced my route. We stopped to admire the rapids and watch rafters. In the town of West Yellowstone, Peggy relived her youth by trying to find a bar she had once visited with a fake driver’s license in the early 70s.

She had obtained a summer job as a waitress in Yellowstone Park between her freshman and sophomore year at Mary Baldwin College in Virginia. (Mary Baldwin, once a finishing college for Southern Belles, was trying to make its way into the 20th Century. Peggy, a Northerner from Ohio, was much more interested in obtaining an education than becoming a ‘lady,’ and had only lasted for two years before transferring to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. UT included certification for working with the hearing impaired as part of its curricula, which was where she wanted to focus.)

In the meantime, Yellowstone had provided a welcome reprieve from Mary Baldwin— plus first love. Between waitressing at the park’s lodge and watching Old Faithful shoot towering plumes of water skyward, Peggy had discovered Bill, who definitely wanted to show her a good time. Part of this had included the trip into West Yellowstone and barhopping with a fake driver’s license.

My bike route followed Highway 20 out of West Yellowstone up and over the Continental Divide at the 7072-foot Targhee Pass, which also served as the border of Idaho. From here on, rivers would be flowing into the Pacific Ocean. I continued on Highway 20 down to Rexburg following Henry’s Fork of the Snake River and then made my way west on Highways 33 and 93 to the Craters of the Moon National Monument.

Henry's Fork flows into the Snake River, which flows into the Colombia River and then into the Pacific Ocean. I had left the great Mississippi-Missouri River drainage system behind.

Henry’s Fork flows into the Snake River, which flows into the Colombia River and then into the Pacific Ocean. I had left the great Mississippi-Missouri River drainage system behind.

The mountains of central Idaho loomed in the distance above what was probably a potato farm near Rexburg.

The mountains of central Idaho loomed in the distance above what was probably a potato farm near Rexburg.

Idaho's Highway 33 seemingly stretches on forever as so many roads did during my 10,000 mile bike trek around North America.

Idaho’s Highway 33 seemingly stretches on forever as so many roads did during my 10,000 mile bike trek around North America.

Pickle's Place is one of many delightfully unique restaurants I found along the road. Located in Arco, Idaho (once known as Root Hog) it features the Atomic Burger in honor of the fact that Arco was the first place in the world to be lit with atomic power.

Pickle’s Place is one of many delightfully unique restaurants I found along the road. Located in Arco, Idaho (once known as Root Hog), it features the Atomic Burger in honor of the fact that Arco was the first place in the world to be lit with atomic power.

This mountain next to Arco features the local high school's graduating classes going back to the early 1900s.

This mountain next to Arco features the local high school’s graduating classes going back to the early 1900s.

The Craters of the Moon National Monument encompasses a wonderfully weird lava flow on the Snake River Plain that covers 618 square miles and was formed between 15,000 and 2,000 years ago. Early astronauts, including Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell, had arrived here on August 29, 1969 to practice future landings on the moon— one month after Neil Armstrong had already taken his “one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”

Idaho's Highway 93 winding its way through the northern part of Craters of the Moon National Monument, seemingly disappears here.

Idaho’s Highway 93, winding its way through the northern part of Craters of the Moon National Monument, seemingly disappears here.

Nature, in her marvelous way, is gradually reclaiming the volcanic landscape.

Nature, in her marvelous way, is gradually reclaiming the volcanic landscape. Sagebrush is the most obvious plant in the area.

Flowers at Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho.

But Peggy and I also found these flowers.

Dead sagebrush at Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho.

As well as this stark but beautiful reminder of how difficult it is to reclaim lava.

Art in the Park sculpture in Craters of the moon National Monument in Idaho.

This sculpture added a colorful touch to the monument.

Sculpture in Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho.

I also liked this perspective, which seemed to capture the strangeness of the monument. A small-explorer’s foot can be seen on the right.

From Craters of the Moon, it was a short 80-mile ride to the Snake River and Twin Falls over relatively flat country. The river features a dramatic 500 feet deep canyon, which was created by cascading water from melting glaciers. When Peggy and I arrived, a man was dangling on the edge of the Perrine Bridge by his fingers, ready to leap into the canyon (featured at top of this post). Fortunately he had a parachute on. Still, he plummeted for 200 feet or so before engaging it. Scary stuff.

Perrine Bridge across the Snake River near Twin Falls, Idaho.

See the shadow on the river. It’s made by the parachute, the small triangle located center-left above the shadow.

Snake River looking west from the Perrine Bridge overlook.

This view of the Snake River is looking west from the overlook next to the Perrine Bridge. Boats have created the wakes.

When I crossed the bridge on my bike in 1989, I was thinking of another leap across/into the canyon— that of Evel Knievel in 1974. Evel, at the time, was synonymous with the word daredevil. During his life he made some 275 motorcycle jumps over cars, busses, and trucks. Fifteen of the jumps involved spectacular accidents. He suffered numerous concussions and shattered his pelvis three times. Overall, he broke 35 bones. Maybe he should have pursued a much tamer sport, such as playing NFL football.

Knievel was always on the lookout for new ways to upgrade his act, obtain more publicity, and increase his income. Mainly this involved adding more vehicles to leap (for a number of years, he held the world record of 19 cars), but he also had a dream of jumping the Grand Canyon. Concerns with National Park regulations, however, eventually led him to the Snake River. The 1700-foot jump was a bit long for his Harley, though, and this is where Robert Truax came into the picture.

Truax was one of America’s premier, pioneer rocket engineers, beginning his career prior to World War II when a childhood interest in Robert Goddard led him to build rockets at his home in Alameda, California. He then went on to work with the Navy on rocket development during World War II and later helped build both the Thor and Polaris missiles. By the late 50s/early 60s, he had left the military and was heading up Aerojet-General’s advanced rocket development division in Sacramento, California. I met the man when I promised him I would have his daughter home by midnight.

Kathleen (Kathy) Truax was a dark-haired beauty with brains to match. She had transferred into El Dorado Unified High School in Placerville during my senior year. After graduation, I had worked up the nerve to ask her out on a date to the California State Fair in Sacramento. Her immediate “yes” had me kicking myself for not asking sooner.

The weekend turned into a marathon. I had worked ten hours on Friday hauling 50-pound boxes of pears out of an orchard and then gone to a party at a friend’s. My mother called at midnight to tell me that the forest service had just phoned wanting me to help fight a raging forest fire that was threatening to engulf the small foothill community of Foresthill. So away I had gone and spent from 2 a.m. until 10 a.m. chopping a fire trail across a steep American River canyon with a heavy pickaxe. The looming inferno encouraged fast work.

After a two-hour nap break and lunch, our crew chief had told us that the fire was burning back on itself and that we could leave if necessary. I’d buzzed home to Diamond Springs, showered, and taken off for Cameron Park where I picked up Kathy in my 54 Chevy, met her dad, and gone on to the State Fair. I returned her home promptly at midnight as promised. We’d had fun and I had won Kathy a large stuffed bear that hardly fit in the back seat.

Later that summer, we had gone on a date up into the Sierra foothills near Pleasant Valley where her grandmother lived. Kathy had told me that her dad shot off rockets in the area that he had built in his garage. His visionary dream was to build inexpensive rockets that would make space travel affordable for everyone. Eventually, 13 years after the summer I had dated Kathy, that dream would lead him to build the Volksrocket (Skycycle X3) designed to carry Evel Knievel across the Snake River Canyon. The rocket had worked fine, but the parachute had malfunctioned, deploying when the rocket took off, which allowed the wind to pull it back into the canyon. Evel had landed on the river’s edge with minimal injuries (for him), and Truax had taken responsibility for the accident.

While Knievel died in 2007 and Truax in 2010, their dream was finally realized on September 16th of this year. Professional Hollywood stuntman Eddie Braun working with Truax’s son Scott used an exact replica of the Skycycle X3 with a well-tested parachute to successfully jump the canyon. Children of both Knievel and Truax were there to witness the event. Had Peggy and I been a couple of months later in our route review, we would have been there as well.

Looking east up the Snake River from the Perrine Bridge toward where Evel Knievel tried his 1974 leap across the river.

Looking east up the Snake River from the Perrine Bridge toward where Evel Knievel tried his 1974 leap across the river.

NEXT BLOG: I bicycle across Nevada and hear voices. Seriously. Were the desert gods trying to tell me it was time to end my journey?

49 comments on “Jumping into and across the Snake River Canyon of Idaho… The 10,000-Mile Bike Trek

  1. Enjoyed your post again.
    I have often thought it might be interesting to take a single U.S. route [not an Interstate] across the country but none runs the whole way east and west. US 1 goes north and south from Key West to Maine, but much of it is strip malls and traffic lights. We did the Pacific Coast for a long way but it doesn’t make it border to border. What do you think of 191?

    • Thanks, Peta. And yes. I process all of my photos through iPhoto and then Photoshop. Occasionally I add a bit of color. If its noticeable, I’ve probably done too much! I crop a lot, trying to pick out what I consider the most important part of the photo.Now you’ve mentioned it, I think it would be interesting to do a blog on my photo process. I’m an amateur, but I’ve done thousands and find the process both fun and exciting. –Curt

  2. Always enjoy reading the vivid descriptions of your trips and the photos, but even more when you recall personal anecdotes about you and Peggy before you knew each other. Love the fake IDs for both of you in this post.
    Now curious about the voices heard in Nevada.

  3. This post is full of so many interesting stories, Curt.

    Like other readers, I was relieved to hear what that bloke in the first photo was up to. Or, down to, I guess …

    • It caught my attention, too, Andrew, though I’ve seen this type of view periodically here in the West. The thing is, I lived in New England for awhile, where all the roads jig and jag and bump up over and around things, and jumbly buildings pile in as close as possible. So when I got back home and saw these vast open highways with nary a curve – and often not a vehicle – it made an impression! We are land-rich.

  4. Now I’m imagining you crossing Death Valley in twenty minutes with a rocket on the back of your bicycle. Now I’m thinking about seared steak for some reason.

    Great post and a trip down memory lane for myself, too. Been to most of those spots, even camped at Craters of the Moon. Discovered Lava Hot Springs Inn down the road a few hundred miles from there and soaked in the biggest pool one night with the guy in charge of the space shuttle’s booster rockets. Will the synchronicity never end…?

    How did Peggy find West Yellowstone after so many years of development? Was it recognizable?

    • I was seared enough when I forgot my sunblock on my first day of bicycling through Death Valley, thank you very much. 🙂
      Thanks. Trips down memory lane can be fun at times.
      You know what they say about big rockets.
      As for Peggy, she couldn’t find the bar the town had changed so much. But then I doubt she was paying much attention to the town. –Curt

    • It was a bit on the scary side, Hilary. 🙂 Even with a parachute. Not for me. And I really like Idaho. There is much beauty in the state. I hardly touched on it. There is a reason why Hemingway chose to be buried there. –Curt

  5. I have to start where some others did: with relief that the dude wasn’t dangling because of rejection, or depression, or flat-out craziness. Still, I’m not certain I’d want to follow him down, parachute or not.

    Then, of course, there was that off-handed remark about your car that made me remember “took my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry.” It’s always fun to read your stuff, Curt, because it resonates with so many cultural references. And, as always, the scenery is splendid.

    But here’s what really caught me in this piece: the forest-fire-fighting aside, and the fact that your crew chief sent you home because “the fire was burning back on itself.” That interests me because, for the first time, I really understand what that means. I spent today in prescribed burn training, and have my head full of black lines, backfires, headfires, handlines, and such. There are three prescribed burns on tap for our big local prairie, and — well, they need volunteers. Why not?

    • I am amused and impressed by your willingness to help with the prescribed burning, Linda. Watch out for sudden wind shifts, however. 🙂
      I was actually listening to ‘Chevy to the Levy’ yesterday. Don McClean’s ‘American Pie’ album is one of my favorites. It also has ‘Vincent’ on it. –Curt

  6. Arco looks like a really neat place. I’d want to stop here for a few days and hear all the stories. Because as you and Peggy know, travelers have some stories to tell, and even more to listen to from locals.

    • I am sure that the town has many stories and I agree with you, Juliann, it would be fun to hear them. I was fascinated with how high school classes had been noting their graduation year on the mountain for over a hundred years. What a tradition! –Curt

  7. Epic scenery, Curt and I feel I’m watching a grand movie…the road seems endless, the rivers raging and wow, the canyon. Pure crazy madnesss jumping/parachuting off the bridge but the exhilaration must be intense, then to jump the canyon. You have known some amazing people I gather! Peggy with a fake ID!! That had me smiling, wonderful memories for you both.

    • I often felt like I was watching a grand movie as well, Annika, of seemingly endless scenery. I suspect the folks jumping off the bridge and doing other daredevil stunts feel that the rush is worth it. I don’t jump off things. 🙂 I’ve always felt that just surviving what my adventures in the out-of-doors entails gives me all the thrills I need. (grin) As for Peggy with a fake ID, it shocked me the first time I heard the story. Lots of fun. –Curt

  8. One of the fun things to discover in the Idaho desert is that great canyon off the Interstate on the way to Twin Falls. I’m from Idaho, but often only get to that part of the state when I’m traveling on the way to somewhere else: like Yellowstone! Last time I went through there I was forced to make the trip into Twin Falls for gas. Was so delighted by the Perrine Bridge and canyon, I asked at the Visitor’s Center what else there was to see. They recommended Shoshone Falls, and WOW! What a stop. I was duly impressed. Having seen Niagara Falls for the first time the year before, I was much more astounded by Shoshone Falls – possibly because I had never heard of it and thus didn’t have to sort through all the hype.

    • I just commented on your statement about the beauty and diversity of Nevada, Crystal. And here I am thinking the same thing about Idaho. The truth is, that this diversity exists throughout the west, wherever you go! Somehow, I’ve misses Shoshone Falls. It sounds like another reason to return to Idaho. Next time! 🙂 –Curt

  9. I do think Idaho is one of my favorite states — some of that Big Sky phenomenon with streams, mountains, and local color thrown in for good measure. I would have photographed the place where Knievel jumped, too — pretty fascinating stuff.

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