Departing from the heart of Idaho's capital city of Boise, you can be riding the open road in about 10 minutes. Since the state's principal claim to fame is its potatoes, you might expect to find yourself among potato plants. But those farms are elsewhere. You'll either be among the sagebrush and scrub of the high desert or climbing into the foothills toward mountain peaks that are capped with snow all year round.
Asked to ride a Boise-based shamrock tour in May, I dallied until the fall because I didn't have to turn anything in until October. By September though, when I was ready to saddle up, the smoke from several large forest fires blanketing the state occasioned another delay. Capturing any clear photographic details was out of the question and, self-serving as this may seem to any smokejumpers out there, I prefer to keep my lungs functioning in the pink, just the way they are, for as long as I can.
Raring to go but stuck at home, I waited impatiently and scanned the skies like a NASA engineer. Each morning I woke up hoping to have a good launch window, with the Owyhee Mountains clearly visible in the distance from my house. But, no. The view remained the same - haze on top of haze - one disappointing, murky day after the other. In mid-September, after a cleansing storm blew in from the west, the Honda Transalp and I finally got the all-clear to blast off.
Loop 1: The Bruneau Dunes
Our scheduled destination, the mountain resort of Ketchum, was once Ernest Hemingway's home. The 350-mile loop from Boise to Ketchum and back makes for a long day, so I leave early in the morning, taking Interstate 84 east to Mountain Home. A mere three dozen miles of what you assume would be fast highway riding, the Boise-Mountain Home stretch is, for some unknown reason, the most interminable 37 miles in America.
First of all, the landscape is dull as dishwater. Acres of scrubby desert and some lonely ranch-style homes are the only "scenic" diversions, and the 37 miles seem much longer than they really are. I'm not the first person who's noticed this. Local writers have examined this phenomenon and come up empty: there's no rational explanation for it. But maybe it's something else that those of us without the lowest level need-to-know clearance couldn't comprehend. Mountain Home happens to support a large U.S. Air Force base, which may contain Idaho's version of Area 51 where super-secret, AT (alien-tech) time-trap experiments are underway. I mean, what else explains why, even though I'm going 80 mph, the miles are ticking off so slowly that it feels like I'm standing still? Then again, maybe it's much simpler. Some demented transportation department drone has decided to play with our minds by mislabeling the distance. But, no, my speedometer confirms that it's precisely 37 miles.
At last, I reach Mountain Home. But now, the wind has kicked up and a phone call to Ketchum tells me that it's snowing there. That's the danger of riding in Idaho in September. Ketchum will have to wait. I change course and head south to warmer climes, choosing to do a 175-mile loop south to Bruneau and then west, with a stop-off at the Bruneau Dunes, the largest inland sand dunes in North America, with the tallest 470 feet high.
Taking Idaho 51, passing the turnoff to the Air Force base, I then cross the mighty Snake River. Two miles on, east onto Idaho 78, I arrive at Bruneau Dunes State Park.
The dunes are a wonder, located as they are in the middle of the desert. Due to the wind patterns and topography here, the sand never blows away. Instead, for the past 15,000 years, a massive vortex has kept the grains whirling around in a circle, forming and re-forming the piles. Far away from any ambient light, the park houses Idaho's largest observatory, and volunteers help present shows for the public on Fridays and Saturdays between March and November. It's worth planning an overnight campout here to view greatly magnified images of Mars, Venus, and the rings of Saturn.