Trekking down the Lewiston Grade is the point of no return in my race to work. Looking down from the top, the hillsides are just as bare as the miles of farmland and sprinkling of civilization that meet the driver at the base. A plain of criss-cross patterns of canyons with agriculture and interwoven rural streets form the same sun-cracked, red neck of the farmer at the core of a cloud of dust trailing a machine that churns soil in the distance. The valley mirrors the exertion of those who built the city and those left to engage in the daily struggle to survive in it.
The hill is the final divide between north and south Idaho along U.S. 95. It is the barrier between struggling timber workers and run-of-the-mill farmhands. From the south, its a boundary best left unexplored. From the north, its a preview of impending toil.
At the top I begin to glide 2,000 feet in just seven miles and my line of sight is kept at bay just enough to be able to judge the next turn. The downhill trip is the last taste of fun before entering southern Idaho, before falling into work. My vehicle coasts at 55 mph and I pass semis and horse trailers like theyre standing still. The car ascends over asphalt like an airplane would stall through the air when landing. The tires whir like a jet planes slowing turbines. So I wait patiently and my thoughts wander to other things, like whether or not I could brave the turns on a bike or street louge. I tilt the seat back and imagine myself passing between cars at speeds too intense for any sane human. I can picture my silver LeBaron as a hyped-up, super-fast street bullet weaving through traffic like a grounded Spaceman Spiff. I wonder if my cheeks would start flapping in the wind like on TV if I were to open my yap and scream some blatant vulgarity to the poor saps in the other lane as Im bombing past at breakneck speeds.
Stopping in a street sled wouldnt be a problem, either, because of the six ramps set aside for runaway truckers. One a mile. The only danger would be missing the upward slope entirely and instead be driven straight into the hill at upwards of 60 mph, burying myself to the neck in gravel with a puff of dust like shooting a nail gun into a bag of flour.
But Im not in a louge. Im surrounded by metal while the base of the hill is fast approaching and my shins begin to ache from keeping off the brake pedal.
For others beside me, their constant break lights give away their anxiety. Their shins don't ache. Its usually an older person and I can almost always guess correctly long before I see who's in the drivers seat. I can imagine the poodle-gripping grannies as they would have tried to navigate the old two-lane, 16-foot-wide highway. It was a scenic experiment, and for the first few years it worked. When it was built at the turn of the century, big city folks had bootlegging, gambling and gangsters. In the northwest, people were drawn to Lewiston just to drive the spiral highway for an escape, an adventure, a risk. But now they just coast along the sleek ridge and brake as I pass.
When the road merges at the base of the hill with the same exit from south Idaho into Lewiston, the importance of passing grannies fades as the mood reverses and I find myself hesitating on the way to work, where hours pass like minutes and I struggle to hang on to daylight.
About 57 percent of people headed north on the hill are either going to work or going home, where about 72 percent going down the hill are doing the same. I can't help but feel grateful to be one of a sliding majority to get out.
The trek uphill after work begins with a ritual snapping of my knuckles through a mesh of intertwined fingers above the steering wheel. I only have a 45 mph head start and I figure its better to just stick to the speed. For whats ahead Ill need every source of power I can get. I've thought of taking the fast lane, but getting stopped by the law would be bad for my reputation, not to mention the stress of forcing what means I have available to climb the grade from a standstill. The only problem is I cant get beyond what head start is available so I grip the wheel and floor it in vain.
At this rate, I may as well travel the old road. It was a spiraled beast. And lethal too. It was about three miles longer than the existing grade, made up mostly of 15 hairpin curves and more than 60 turns. But the uphill battle wasnt so stiff and at least I would have been able to keep up with it. Maybe take something away from the trip at the end. It would have been comparable to staying on a roundabout for a half an hour one-way. Underlying fault lines, one of which was named Wilma, were added dangers in seven spots. A single earthquake had the potential to transform the road to an even more chaotic state in at least three spots at once. However, the hill gobbled up its share of lives before that could come to pass. By the time the Idaho Department of Transportation decided to do something about the road, its travelers were dying at a rate of about a person a week.
And, aside from the safety needs, the new solution was made partially from a need for more comfort in hopes that "a desirable modern standard alignment would provide increased travel enjoyment, satisfaction and pleasure."
The state transportation department also claimed that almost any passenger vehicle can negotiate uphill grades of 7 to 8 percent at 60 mph without losing speed. My vehicle is in the almost category as I find myself struggling to squash bugs on my windshield and maintain my head-start pace. I see, approach, then pass a sign.
I'm trying, I think to myself, unsure of where and when this "travel enjoyment, satisfaction and pleasure" is supposed to kick in. I'm trying...
Eventually I give up trying to force my little engine that cant beyond what it can do. It almost chokes at the pause, as if catching its breath and heaving at something blocking its exhaust.
The beast grumbles beneath my foot as I try to maintain speed. Cars soon begin to pass me as if Im standing still; Mustangs, Impalas, Cougars, Rams. An occasional Rabbit. I imagine each snickering as they pass, noticing me leaning forward, as if shifting my weight will in some way help the cause. And Im not even half-way.
I watch their taillights fade around each new curve and I wonder what they do for a living. How much education they had to back them up. To pull them along. To push them forward. I wonder if theyve ever been in a vehicle like mine, or if theyre the ones wanting to scream blatant vulgarities to me as they pass.
When I turn into the midpoint curve I fall into a new shadow of the grade between two hillsides. My headlights reveal all that is awaiting me as night falls, which isnt much more than in broad daylight. The climb stops going east, then begins to go west after stalling for a moment like the platform between flights of stairs.
This particular flight of stairs is almost twice as wide with a flow almost twice as fast as its predecessor. Yet here I am, going almost half the speed and wanting to be at the top of the hill, over and done with it.
The road turns, straightens and repeats. It feels like a video game or a scene from an old movie where the driver turns the wheel of a stage prop and only the screen changes behind him. But I know Im moving, and the spent quarter-tank of gas proves Ive paid the toll to make it up the hill.
Eventually, the grade begins to level out and I have a chance to pause covertly before getting back up to speed. When I reach the top I look down across the valley to see the city sparkling like the coals of a dying fire. Its had its way with me and I've had my fill of it. But I look ahead as the sun sets behind me and find myself unsure if Ive made any progress at all.