Monday, July 13, 2009

Bliss on a bike

Monday, 13 July

Back in May, at training camp in north central Oregon, I agreed with Terri that it was spectacularly beautiful country but, due to lack of “real” trees and bodies of water, I wasn’t sure I could happily live there. My riding this weekend was at the opposite end of the spectrum: Friday and Saturday featured so much riding among the close quarters of hills and evergreens that when at last I got to that plateau east of Mt. Hood, it felt comforting, like coming home.

My two-day bike journey this weekend was from my home in Seattle to Hood River, with a stopover in Packwood. Friday’s ride was nothing hard to figure out, and I had ridden all of the roads before, just not strung together in this order. The worst traffic was in the first two miles (I forgot to bypass Lake City Way at rush hour). There were very few cyclists on my route out May Valley, down past Hobart to Ravensdale, then past Palmer-Kanasket Park en route to Enumclaw (it was STP weekend, so nobody was out training on Friday!). Mud Mountain Road out of Enumclaw was so peaceful—and it was fun to read the years of race exhortations written on the road. Then the reality of 410 traffic all the way to the top of Cayuse Pass. Somewhere along there (mile 70 in this day’s ride), I counted 15 cars going by me in one mile. Not so bad. Since the Stevens Canyon Road is closed and drivers can’t make a loop through Mt. Rainier National Park, there wasn’t much traffic after the top of the pass. Better yet, there is no road construction this summer on 123. It’s pretty much downhill all the way to highway 12, and then rollers the last 7 miles into Packwood.

The weather was a good friend. I had a perceptible tailwind on all the southerly sections (almost the entire route) of my Friday journey. Mountain thunderstorms were in the forecast, and, sure enough, the big puffy clouds forged into ominous blackness as I got to Crystal Mountain. No thunder and lightning, but the cloud cover was a wonderful relief for the long climb up Cayuse Pass. It was pretty chilly at the top, with lots of snow still lurking in the woods. By some fortunate wind-swirling-in-the-mountains effect, I also had a tailwind boost heading west along 12 into Packwood.

Packwood is not exactly civilization (no cell phone coverage), but it has more than one restaurant and a supermarket. And elk. And, last weekend, the Sports Car Club of America. Fun to see people who geek out about something besides bikes!

Saturday’s ride started along the course of Cascade’s High Pass Challenge: west on 12, south on 131, then continuing south when the state road turns into forest service road 25. The climbing here is long and steep and slow (especially with a backpack, especially when you know a long day in the saddle lies ahead); I kept reminding myself that I’d done this on a tandem. Eventually you come to the turn for the Windy Ridge overlook at Mt. St. Helens—I kept climbing south on 25. Finally you crest a ridge and your close-up view of a million trees is gradually replaced by territorial views. After all the meandering through forest, I wasn’t sure what direction I was facing. I was surprised that the first peak to emerge into sight was Mt. Hood! A couple more bends in the road, though, and I was looking NW straight at Mt. St. Helens. Eventually the road dropped back into the forest as I descended toward the Swift Reservoir. Once at the junction with FR90, I was on familiar roads. 90 follows the Lewis River drainage NE to the junction with FR23. Persistent climbing here—not steep, and some sections with a great tailwind. I saw a few other cyclists going the opposite direction on this road, and I stopped at the only campground to get water. At mile 80, I counted the vehicles that went by me in a mile: zero. It was another 1.8 miles before any traffic passed—in either direction! Yes, these are quiet roads. The abundant trees were a bonus on a 90-degree day; I was thankful for so much shade on the road.

I was delighted with my faulty memory when the anticipated climbing on FR23 was mostly just rollers for about 10 miles before the descent, which brings amazing views of Mt. Adams. Finally I got to Trout Lake for coke and cookies and another water bottle refill. From there, it’s 22 miles mostly trending downhill toward the Columbia River and the end of my journey in Bingen, where I found our car, drove across the bridge (no bicycles or pedestrians permitted) to Hood River, and then out to The Dalles and the trek south to Maupin.

As I drove up out of the Gorge onto the plateau of central Oregon, everything was bathed in hazy soft pre-sunset light, the hills and fields were golden, and Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson were sentinels over this vast space. The closed-in feeling of riding under tree cover all day was lifted and I truly felt that all my worries and fears were gone and that I was returning to a familiar, comforting space. Such a contrast to the emotion in May near Antelope and Shaniko where the scenery is similar but I missed shades of dark green and blue.

I did have plenty of worries and fears to release into the great wide open. There were the issues of being a solo female rider whose transportation was a device whose mechanics she doesn't grasp very well. Have you ever noticed that things (shoes, pedals, saddle, unknown bike things) are particularly prone to squeaking when it’s hot? Other niggles weighed heavier. After a poorly calculated trip last year, I was more cautious in mapquesting this year’s epic ride, but forest service roads are not well documented. I was slow (8-9% with a backpack yields low speed) to cover some sections of the route, giving me much time to think that I would never get there. And then there were practical issues: Where exactly are you supposed to seek shelter in a forest in a thunderstorm? Are those frequent piles on the road that look like dog poop actually bear scat (had to be—no dogs live out here)? What if deer run out in front of me when I’m going 30 mph down a descent? What if I miscalculated the distance by 30 miles again this year?

When you’re riding solo, there is too much time for such things to mess with your mind. My trip was perfect. The weather was summer-hot but not miserable, not wet, and certainly not cold. I had plenty of food and water. There was minimal traffic but just enough so that I probably wouldn’t be stranded out there for 3 days in the event of a mechanical catastrophe. The distances were almost exactly what I’d calculated: 123 miles on Friday and 137 on Saturday. I was blessed with tailwinds on important parts of the route, with headwind mostly only as I approached the Gorge (where there is always wind). Motorists were considerate (!). The biggest critters to cross my path were chipmunks. No issues with feet or saddle or bike or backpack. The up-close, clear-air views of Rainier, St. Helens, and Adams are things you cannot even imagine from the cityscape. I rode for miles and miles where the only sign of humanity was the road I was on and the only sounds were birds, bugs, and breeze in the trees. Bliss.

On the third day of my weekend, I got up at 5:30, waited patiently (making hats, of course) in a parking lot for the show that is Race Across Oregon (a 517-mile, nonstop bike race, if you didn’t know) to come through the tiny rafting mecca of Maupin, kissed my husband as he climbed off his bike at the end of a relay leg down cruel, demon-filled Bakeoven Road, leapfrogged his team on to Dufur and up FR44, and drove on to the finish line at the Cooper Spur ski area. An inspiring group of 4 riders and 4 crew, Koenig’s Kronies were the first to finish the race on the new route. Congratulations to them and every other competitor in the race!

Weekends don’t get much better than this. I feel truly blessed by the good fortune that led to my perfect ride and by the family and friends who checked up on me during my travels.

No comments: