Do you know what the hardest thing about a five-day, 100-mile rollerblading trip is? It's when a friend asks, "Do you know what the hardest thing about rollerblading is?"
Punch line: "Telling your parents that you're gay."
Yes, this actually did happen to me, and, no, my friend's not a character from The 40-Year-Old Virgin—he's an open-minded and Bohemian journalist and indie-rock musician. It's just that my favorite form of spring and summer exercise is so completely reviled and un-cool, people don't think twice about going there. The joke my friend told is even listed in the Urban Dictionary under "rollerblading."
In truth, the hardest thing about the sport of inline skating (Rollerblade, like Xerox, FedEx and Zamboni, is a trademark that became a verb) isn't people mocking you. Nor is it weirdly patterned blisters, learning to stay upright, or nasty macadam strawberries. It's finding skate-friendly terrain.
Where most outdoor athletes understandably seek out remote, unspoiled locations, skating basically demands development—at minimum, an empty two-lane highway, but ideally a dedicated, gravel-free and not overly fissured path.
I am probably the only person in Missoula who was thrilled to see more of the city's Riverfront Trail get paved. Certainly I've never seen another soul on skates while living in Montana. When I wanted to consign an old pair of K2s at the local Play It Again Sports (worth at least a token 20 bucks in other cities), they wouldn't even take 'em.
You may think inline skaters are '80s disco relics—even the hipster rise of roller derby hasn't helped, since those tough ladies use classic "quads"—but in our own way we're as determined as surfers searching for the perfect ride and have the same sort of cultish, forlorn pride as American soccer freaks, or fans of that one band none of your friends are into (granted, said band may be the Kelly Family rather than the Flaming Lips).
Which is how I found myself in Post Falls, Idaho, helmet and wrist guards on, taking a blind corner with an unwieldy pack of 27 other skaters on a section of the Centennial Trail that crosses north to south under Interstate 90.
"You guys are crazy!" a pedestrian exclaims. Earlier, an idling gang of road construction workers took good-natured advantage of the "Hi, My Name Is" stickers that the trip's outfitter, Zephyr Adventures, had given us to slap atop our helmets.
"Take it easy, Susan!" they yelled at Susan Syria, one of several hockey moms from Marquette, Michigan, who took the summertime trip as a girlfriend getaway and birthday present for a member of their group.
"C'mon, hustle Becky!" they shouted to Becky Taee, who joked that she hoped to run into them again on our return lap. "As you get older that kind of attention is welcome," said the 42-year-old mother of two—borderline false modesty from a lithe New Englander-turned-Londoner who resembles the actress Olivia Williams.
While a five-day trip that takes you from the Red Lion Templin's Hotel in Post Falls to the Wallace Inn isn't nearly as exotic as some of Zephyr's other offerings (among them Martha's Vineyard, the German Mosel River Valley, and Quebec), what the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes has over those locales is pure, uninterrupted, perfect trail (albeit on a former EPA Superfund cleanup site, thanks to silver mines. We're told that if you accidentally drop an apple on the trail, it's best to throw it out).
"It's the best skating we do in the country," says Zephyr guide Gary Passon, a ropy-calfed 50-something Minnesotan on fluorescent-green-wheeled brakeless speed skates. "The best trail in Idaho, the country, the world, the universe."
The bike path runs from Plummer, a few nautical miles (but a 40-minute drive) east of the Coeur D'Alene Resort, to just shy of the Montana border in Mullan, thanks to a rail-to-trail conversion on a section of the old Milwaukee Road line.
Zephyr Adventures itself is headquartered in Red Lodge, Montana, with a sole full-time employee, Kris Thomas, who watches over things for owner Allan Wright, a recent transplant to Boulder, Colorado. The business was once called Zephyr Skate Tours, but as the '90s wore on, the inline skating industry went from trendy to stable to declining, and Zephyr branched out. The company launched bike and multi-sport vacations (including winter in Yellowstone), then wine country tours (in Sonoma, Oregon and South America), then Machu Picchu treks and, most recently, a series of wine, beer and food blogger conferences. Its latest brainstorm, a Yellowstone National Park trip that combines hiking and biking with craft beer, comes in addition to five 2011 bike tours in places like Florida, Alaska and the Netherlands.