August 24, 2018.
How does that saying go? "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, ..."
If you've been a reader of previous trip reports, you may recall one of the craziest trips to date - The De-Tour - which occurred almost exactly one year ago. That trip was a great one for many reasons, but it had gone nothing like we'd expected - snowing or raining every day - eventually forcing us to abandon our Tour of Montana and Wyoming for what we hoped were clearer skies, in Utah.
...where it also rained on us.
Even so, upon our return, Monte @Blackdawg, Mike @Digiratus, and I almost immediately started talking about doing it all again - as originally planned - able to see the sights in Montana and Wyoming this time - "next year."
Well, "next year" was now - this time three weeks earlier in the season to give ourselves a better chance at warmer weather. And, we'd recruited two additional buddies - another Dan @drr from the Puget Sound, and Zane @Speedytech7 who would join us from Arizona.
A long trek east for Mike, Dan and I, Mike dipped his toes into route planning to find as much dirt as possible to get us there - ultimately taking us along the Nez Perce Trail - a combination of the Old Elk City Wagon Road and a path through the Magruder Corridor. It would take us three days along this route to reach Cooke City, Montana, our rendezvous point with Monte and Zane.
It was just before 7:00am when I headed out - the truck packed to the gills for two weeks on the road.
All coming from slightly different places, Mike, Dan, and I decided we'd meet in Cle Elum - to top off our tanks and so Mike could get his morning cup of coffee. Pioneer Cafe was Mike's favorite spot here, and by 9:30am we were once again headed east.
But only for a few minutes until Dan came over the CB, "Hey Dan, your jerry can fuel plate just came off. I'm headed back to pick it up!" And then a few minutes later - "I got it, but not before a big rig ran it over." Turns out that the butterfly nut had somehow spun it's way off, and then the 60mph highway winds did the rest. And it wasn't pretty; but I got it re-secured temporarily with some zip ties, and we were back on our way.
We made good time for the most part, hoping that as we drove east we'd escape the thick smoke that had enveloped the Seattle area for the previous two weeks (the worst air quality in the world at the time). Over the Columbia River, through the grasslands of eastern Washington, and finally to Clarkston-Lewiston where we stopped for lunch at Arby's, the trucks looking shiny in the early-afternoon sun.
A quick couple sandwiches later (this was my first ever trip to Arby's, and probably my last), we were back on the road for our last short stretch of pavement before hitting dirt - the Old Elk City Wagon Road - just outside of Clearwater, Idaho - where we'd air down for the first time.
At this point, though our pace slowed, we were of course enjoying ourselves on the dirt and we soon found ourselves on a short spur to the Corral Hill Lookout - the thought of camping there for the evening at the front of our minds. That is, until we found it staffed, and a very "welcoming" sign posted:
Despite the sign however, Bill (the lookout resident) soon called down to us, "You guys are welcome to come up and look around if you want." This was perhaps to be expected, because as we climbed the ladder he was immediately curious about the rigs. He'd driven himself up in a stock second gen Tacoma, so when three bad-ass first gen Tacoma's showed up...well, he couldn't resist.
Turns out Bill had been in the lookout all summer (nearly three months), and this was the first day that he'd had more than 3 miles of visibility (and even today, he had only 5-7) - a very smoky summer indeed! He chatted our ears off for a good 20-30 minutes, telling us where various peaks were (none of which we could see) and where all the smoke was coming from. He also let us know that some rain was expected, and that he hoped that would clear out some of the smoke.
Eventually, Mike excused us, explaining to Bill that we really needed to find camp before dark, and we made our way back down to the trucks, and then down off the top of the mountain and back onto the route - the Elk City Wagon Road following the Nez Perce Trail - in search of a nice place to stop for the evening.
The road was well graded for the most part and we made quick work of another 50 miles or so - dust kicked up behind us as the sun fell in the sky.
And, just after sunset, as light was fading from the sky, we found camp - a nice flat area next to the creek, with plenty of room for the trucks (though a bit close to the main road) - and we got to deploying camp and making a camp fire.
It would be our first of many camp fires; we stayed up until midnight chatting about the trip - what we were looking forward to, what the weather would be like (hopefully a bit of rain just before we arrived, and then warm for the rest of the trip), and whether or not Monte would be on-time to the Cooke City rendezvous (or more correctly - how late he'd be).
Oh, and Dan declared himself a "Master Campfire Builder" - with a style significantly different than Monte the year before - "bonfires with as much wood as possible" was his strategy; stretching a bundle of wood across three nights was nowhere in his repertoire.
Eventually we decided we should call it a night - it'd been a long day and there were a couple more in store before The Re-Tour even officially started - so we climbed under our covers, lulled to sleep by the gurgling creek.