Garrett (garote) wrote,

A Bike Tour In Four Themes, Theme 2: Curiosity

A Bike Tour In Four Themes, Theme 2: Curiosity

Day -1

I never did learn the vet's name, but I did hear all kinds of personal details about his health problems. Most of them did not stem from the war, actually, but from an accident he got into while driving a taxi in San Francisco. Complications from the long recovery left a wound on his ankle that wouldn't heal. He might have lost his foot, except an impetuous surgeon transplanted a chunk of muscle out of his leg and over the wounded area, creating a sort of living bandage with a circulatory system.

He took off his left shoe and showed the lump of muscle to me. It was a thick grey bulge near the top of his foot, visible in flashes from the Sacramento streetlamps as they shot past the train.

He's about as old as my own father, but has far inferior health. Crazy what a few seconds of lapsed judgement in a taxi can do ... so many years of his life affected by it... But that's the way everything works, I guess.

I'll ruminate on this many times during the bike tour. It will come naturally to mind as I'm pedaling in a three-foot gap of pavement between sheer cliffs and speeding metal monsters.

Day 0

My loop of piano music and my face-mask is giving me brief flashes of sleep, but the vet sitting next to me puts a stop to that by jabbing me in the ribs. I pull up my sleep mask and say, "Eh??" He points across me, out the window.

The dark triangle of Mt Shasta is sailing slowly across the horizon, east of the train. Graceful ribbons of snow still curve down from its near peak. As I watch, the mountain rotates a little more, and the second peak of Shasta swings into view. "That's funny," I say, "I didn't know Shasta had two peaks."

"Well, the near peak is usually the only one you can see from Highway 5, and the far peak is the one you can see from Klamath Falls," explains the vet.


As we continue to skirt the mountain, we pass through vast hills of of sharp, porous black rock. No plants grow on it; no soil is mixed with it. It looks like the surface of an inhospitable alien world. "Man, I'd hate to trip and fall on that stuff," I say. The vet chuckles.

I watch the hills for a while longer, then get tired of them and start looking around the train. In the seats to my left sit a sun-tanned man and his sleeping daughter. The man is slowly whittling the rough edges of a large rectangle of wood - a chain link. The link is attached to others, hanging down to the floor. Apparently he passed the night by carving a wooden chain out of a solid block. Perhaps he'll sell it to a knickknack shop when he arrives in Klamath Falls.

I've never been to Crater Lake, and even though I'm dead-on-my-feet tired (which is no way to start a bike tour), I notice that there are daily boat tours of the surface of the lake - a great way to see it up close and personal. The catch is, you need to walk some 500 feet down from the rim of the crater, on a steep switchback trail, to get to the boat launch. Dad graciously agrees to hang around while I go on the tour, and he drives around exploring the rim to kill some time. Meanwhile, I slog down the trail, slapping at hundreds of mosquitoes, with my camera held in one fist.

From the head of the trail, looking down the steep sides of the crater, I can see the water between the trees. It reflects the color of the sky so perfectly that the only way I can tell it's water is by the ripples from the wind.

Further down the trail, the lake fills up more of the space between the ground and the sky. If you hold your hand up in front of your eyes and cover the far wall of the canyon, the lake becomes the sky. It's pretty weird.

The lake is enormous. During the boat ride, I asked the guide why the crater didn't just fill up, then overflow, and erode a channel in some part of the cliff wall, destroying the lake. He replied that there are several theories of why this didn't happen, but the most popular one involves the porous nature of some of the volcanic deposits. Above a certain level, the water meets the edges of these deposits and seeps through, forming springs along the outer face of the mountain.

Close up, the pollen on the lake surface looks like an impressionist painting of night sky.

The crater is also home to many squirrely friends.

Looking up the cliff face, from the bottom of the trail.

A close look at the pollen in the lake.

The first of two tour-boats active on the lake.

Our tour guide, pausing between comments over the loudspeaker.

The inside wall of the crater is home to some bizarre geography.

This brutal terrain would make a good cover for a Metal album.

The water is shockingly blue and clear. The guide says it's the clearest water on the entire continent.

The walls can be very sheer, unlike other lakes that have been eroded by strong current or big changes in the surface level.

The layers are a geologist's dream - or nightmare.

The clouds seem too low, because the altitude of the lake is abnormally high. The water is uniquely clear and still, and reflects the clouds strangely.

This is Ghost Ship Island, the smaller of the two islands in Crater Lake. It's made of some very odd rock.

Here's the island from another angle.

The silhouette of this island is quite remarkable.

See that dark blue edge on the water there, between the foreground and the background, starting at the corner of the island? There's a cliff under the water there. The lake is much deeper beyond the cliff, so you can see more water below, and more reflected sunlight.

That formation on the right is called the "Pumice Castle" by the tourguides. I'd love to climb down to it, but the route would probably be very difficult. I can't help imagining that there's a door in it leading to some kind of medieval theme park.

Day 1

I'm on my way down from Crater Lake, and have stopped at one of the scenic turnouts to adjust my luggage. Afterwards I stretch my legs a bit, walking around with the camera, and end up looking down the edge of a cliff at a rushing river.

You know how it is. The very fact that something's got an edge compels people to look over it.

Later on, I'm cycling across the wide valley surrounding Fort Klamath, and this piece of cloth catches my eye. How did it end up stuck to a post over a ditch on the side of the road? Did some farmer lose a scrap of his pants while wiring the fence?

Down the next long road, I encounter this sign:

I don't think so, Oregon farmers. Congestion is what you get when you're driving over Highway 17 into San Jose at 9:00am on Monday morning. Cows crossing the road? A tractor blocking a lane? That's just an excuse to stop and have a picnic.

About three hours later I climb out of the valley, heading southwest, and during one of my frequent breaks to guzzle water or sip my root beer, I find this specimen in the road:

Probably only dead for a couple of days. Then, as I'm completing the day's journey and checking in at the Rocky Point Resort, I discover this fellow walking around on the back of my bike:

Dig those big stripey antennae, yo!

Day 2

I'm down at the Rocky Point Resort, on the west edge of Upper Klamath Lake, standing on a boat dock. The old fellow there is advising me on the type of watercraft to use for my exploration of the nature preserve.

"You could get in this canoe if you want something really stable. See, it's got cross-bars. Problem is, since there's just you, you can't use the front bench or the rear bench. If you do, you'll paddle a lot but the canoe will just spin around, because the other end will be sticking up out of the water. So you'll have to kneel in the middle, and row it from there. It'll be a lot of work."

"What, you mean, I have to sit down on my knees, the whole time?"

"Yep. You might want to try a kayak instead. Ever used one?"

"Years ago, yes. Never launched one from a boat dock before."

"Well I can help you with that..."

He takes me around to a stack of plastic kayaks and selects a stout-looking teal one with a wide bottom, and straps an L-shaped seat cushion into it. He grabs one end of the kayak and I grab the other, and together we walk it over to the side of the dock and lower it into the river. Then he squats down and grabs the lip of the kayak, holding it tight against the side of the dock.

"Climb on in," he says.

I toss my backpack in and carefully arrange myself in the kayak, legs shoved under the front, backpack between my knees. The man stands up and passes me a double-edged plastic oar. I sit there unsteadily on the water for a while, very slowly testing my balance, and making hesitant jabs with the oar.

Eventually the man asks, "how's that workin' for you?" He's a few yards away, applying paint to the side of a dry-docked canoe.

"Good so far ... I have to remember how to balance this thing."

I take my sweet time - I'm on vacation, after all, and this boat trip is the only thing on my to-do list for the whole day - and eventually I become confident enough with the oar that I can paddle around the border of the dock. I give the man a thumbs-up, take a picture with my camera, and then head off towards the swamps of the preserve, on the opposite side of the slow-flowing river.

As the morning ebbs into the afternoon I slowly regain my skills with the kayak. By the end of the day I'll have logged nine hours in it.

Many pictures transpire!

The lake is home to tons of aquatic plants, dimly visible beneath the water:

The water itself has a greenish, silty character. It's like paddling through a gigantic cup of tea.

Not all the plants live underwater of course. Some are amphibious. They start growing on the lake bottom, and then change appearance only slightly when they begin to protrude from the water.

Here's a plant of the same species that has stayed under water. Check out the tracery of sticky webbing left by some aquatic insect.

Here's a very different, strictly underwater plant. See all those little nodules on it? What do you suppose those are for?

Most of the preserve is covered with aquatic plants. These broad-leaved specimens began life three or four feet under the water, and the leaves only reached the open air when they were most of the way grown.

It's actually possible to kayak your way through this foliage, but an incredible amount of squiggly worms, snails, beetles, larvae, and pond scum will stick to you along the way. Easier to go around.

The broad, flat plants compete with the tall grasses for the same shallow water along the borders, with the grass crowding down from the dry shore and the flat plants marching up from the deeper water.

Sometimes the current is a bit too strong for the underwater plants, and the grass can grow unchallenged, and sometimes the water is unsuitable for other reasons, like a lack of sun:

Here's an interesting formation. The logs trapped underwater prevented the dirt on top of them from eroding long enough for plants to grow on the dirt, anchoring it in place. The effect reminds me of Jim Henson's swamp environment in The Dark Crystal. I expect those little tufts to sprout eyes and teeth any moment.


Of course the preserve is home to many birds as well. I see this fellow taking off and manage to get the camera up, but I don't have time to adjust the settings, so the result is blurry. Oh well.

In the more open sections of water, I encounter many honking geese:

Honk honk honk!!!

Day 3

I'm back at Forth Klamath, in the field behind the organic food store that I'd scouted out days before. The store owners charge five bucks to camp back here, and the sites are in good shape, with clear numbering, flat spaces for tents, and a collection of stout picnic tables on a gentle hill overlooking a pleasant brook that slithers between the farmhouses and fenced fields, joining with smaller streams here and there. I suspect the river itself is being used as a property line.

I've set up my tent in a hollow beneath some leaning trees, framed by knee-high grass, and am sequestered inside, napping on my roll-out mattress. It is quiet except for the sounds of the wind. Down here on the ground, the wind is strong enough that I had to stake the tent down, using sticks pressed down into the thick soil. Up in the sky, the wind is gigantic.

For the rest of the afternoon I drift around on the edge of sleep, listening as the wind pounds the clouds across the sky, and churns the grass around in the field, making coils and spiral patterns. Swishhh... Boom, boom. Swishhh... It is a strange feeling, having a body tired from bicycling but a mind fully rested, being dragged down into sleep by fatigue. Even stranger is the knowledge that I have no plans at all, for an indeterminate time; no appointments to keep, errands to run, or household to maintain. Everything I would do is wrapped up in physical possessions that are hundreds of miles away. I've had at least one item on my to-do list for so long that to have the list completely blank feels somehow ... inhuman.

I eventually get up and take a few photos of the field, playing with the camera to pass the time, then retreat back inside and listen to an old Terry Practhett novel. The wind hurls a few drops of rain down onto my tent, and continues to tear apart the clouds until night falls, leaving only the gigantic sound.

Boom... Booom... Whusshhhhhhh... Boom...

Day 4

I'm biking north on Highway 97, headed out of the Crater Lake region, towards Klamath Marsh. It's a very long flat highway with a slight downhill grade and a narrow shoulder, fringed with loose red rocks that are hell for bicyclists. If you stray into them for even an instant, your balance disappears and the bike pitches violently. It's a proper highway too, with scores of fast-moving vehicles. I still get plenty of curious looks and the truckers still wave, but the other drivers don't anymore. They're in a crowd now, and country-style greetings are inappropriate.

Far ahead of me, in the heat haze, I can see a narrow shape at the edge of the lane. Too narrow to be a motorcyclist. Could it possibly be another person on a bicycle? Since it will probably be another half an hour before I pass within range, I set my curiosity aside and continue listening to my H.P. Lovecraft radio dramatizations. "Pickman's Model" is the story, and the actor playing Pickman has the perfect lunatic edge to his laughter.

As the story is drawing to a close (Pickman has just fired his pistol at some unseen ghoul), I finally come within range of the shape. It's a bicyclist alright. It's a man, deeply tanned, with a huge exploded beard of gray hair and a battered straw hat. He's wearing shorts and a T-shirt, and pedaling his bicycle in sandals. He doesn't have any luggage attached to the bike except for what looks like an old bedroll and a sack, bungee-corded to the rear. He's going about 3/4 my speed, in slow strokes with the pedals.

I tail him for a while, and when the traffic is clear I slip around him. Some time later I stop by the side of the road to empty my bladder and eat a snack, and he passes me by. I wave, and he holds up a hand. I lounge around at the side of the road for a while, chatting on the phone and woolgathering. How long has that guy been on the road? Where is he going? How does he eat or sleep, with so few supplies?

For all my enjoyment of the open road - especially the long clear stretches when there are no cars for miles and the wildlife has emerged - I can't see myself becoming the die-hard cyclist represented in that old man. This trip is forcing me to acknowledge that I take too much pleasure in having a home, and in the convenience and human variety of the city, to become the wilderness-trekking hermit I had romantically imagined as a kid. I'm just not interested in making the kind of sacrifices that a true Kerouac-style life "on the road" would require. Perhaps that means I'm no longer a young man. ... But that can't be it... That guy who rode past me was obviously not a young man. I guess it just means I'm a different person? Different than I thought I would be?

I turn off Highway 97 and begin cruising down Silver Lake Road. The traffic thins out to almost nothing, except the occasional RV or big-rig. The drivers all wave as they pass. Up ahead is the Klamath Marsh, but first I ride through some buffalo grazing land. Check out the crude electrified gate:

(That cloud of dust is actually a whirlwind, not an overclocked buffalo.)

Here's an interesting effect. The clouds are moving so fast over the plain that in the space of a few seconds, everything around you can pass under a giant shadow, and then out again. Check out these two pictures, taken only a few seconds apart:

And then the cloud moves just a little more...

It's funny... I've been away from the open plains and the Alpine valleys and streams for so long that my most recent memories of them are actually the artist's renderings in whimsical Miyazaki films. To experience them in person again is quite a treat.

It's also a source of cognitive dissonance, because even though this terrain feels like a second home to me, a more practical part of my mind is constantly observing how inhospitable it is for humans. Since I have a road, and a bicycle laden with food and water, and a phone and a map, I can enjoy this land purely for the aesthetic appeal -- and historically, that level of detachment is normal for my relationship with it. I have always been comfortably equipped with reliable modern tools when I go exploring, and in my heart I probably wouldn't want it any other way. Slogging through this marsh in animal skins, spending half the day bent over in search of tiny scraps of food, would be a miserable experience. But on the other hand, my relationship with the land would certainly be a lot more ... "authentic" ... that way.

Funny how civilization can change perspectives. I'm genetically indistinguishable from my recent ancestors, and this land is almost unchanged. But as I travel through it my mind is in a totally different place than people were even a generation ago.

Hell, even half a generation. I have four bars of cell signal right now.

I've completed an exhausting ride up Silver Lake Road, and have met up with Highway 31, just on the outskirts of the town of Silver Lake. To my left and right are sections of ranch land, squared off by foothills of scrub and piles of soft desert rock. The landscape appears to have dried out suddenly, after the relatively lush forest I'd been riding through all afternoon.

A couple of times I pass over a creek, and since I've run out of water I'm tempted to stop and drink, but I restrain myself. Silver Lake is close at hand. Surely there's water there.

When I hit the junction of Highway 31 and Silver Creek Road, the town buildings begin. I doubt this town was ever in a state that could be called "thriving", but it's abundantly clear that the downturn in the economy has decimated Silver Lake as thoroughly as any medieval plague. Fully half the properties on both sides of the main street have "for sale" signs - sometimes several, from different agents - nailed and posted on them. The gas station is shuttered. The restaurant is dark and unfurnished.

Other signs of decay are move lived-in: On a back-street I see an entire tanker truck, cab and all, splayed against the side of a decrepit repair shop, so thoroughly integrated with the weeds that form the curb of the road that it has the character of a gigantic insect that's been pressed under a log in the forest. A block away is a fire station, next to a smaller building that must have been an "urgent care" facility and ambulance station at some point, but is now decrepit and empty. A single aluminum crutch has been hurled up onto the shingled roof. Adjacent to this building is a public park that has almost been vandalized out of existence. The grass is only partially green, and only one of the picnic tables is still upright.

On the rough edge of the town I spot a motel, still open for business. A couple of seconds' examination makes me discard my idea of spending the night here in Silver Lake. The rooms look flimsy, and the gravel patch that serves as a yard and parking lot is host to a handful of very rough-looking gentlemen, sitting on the steps to the rooms or lounging in the open doors of their trucks. Forget about privacy.

Over the course of this trip I will worry many times about thieves. Occasionally I will worry about being robbed at gun or knifepoint. Over time I will learn to appreciate the difference between the honest intimacy of true wilderness towns, and the atmosphere of furtive menace in the industrial centers that are slowly imploding and the tourist-trap cities that are washing sadly away. Crystal Lake is, obviously, imploding. Only the town church and the "Youth Center" are in decent shape. The Youth Center is a gigantic corrugated-steel box - much larger than the church - and it looks more like a prison than a proper YMCA. The outside walls are bone-white and plastered with Christian slogans in yard-high letters, like a disclaimer, or the ingredients list on a huge pack of cigarettes. Like God went walking through the valley and dropped his cigarettes, and the locals tried to build a town around it and failed.

I've passed the town of Crystal Lake and am biking over the flatlands next to a huge dry swath of land that would be an actual lake - Crystal Lake - if it were a different time of year. I've called ahead to a motel in Christmas Valley and arranged for them to leave a room unlocked, so all I need to do now is keep pedaling until I get there.

On my right is a procession of electric poles, bearing wires suspended on chunks of insulating ceramic. These are old-school power lines, being taxed beyond their intended capacity by a zillion air conditioners, televisions, and water pumps. From the top of every pole I can hear an agitated crackling sound, like sharp rocks being crushed together, mixed with a chaotic buzzing noise. The noise from each pole blends into the next, making a chorus. And since I'm moving at a decent speed, each buzz is given a subtle "doppler effect", causing the pitch to bend slowly down, level out, and then bend down further. It's the weirdest sound I've heard since ... well, since I can remember.

Usually, when I'm pedaling my bike, the wind carries a gentle rushing sound to my ears that covers up quiet noises from the environment, but the noise of the poles is right on top of the wind. If I heard this noise in my own neighborhood of downtown San Jose, I would eventually call the power company and tell them to investigate it. Out here, this is just the way things are, I guess.

I listen to the ominous sound for a couple of miles, wishing that I had a good quality microphone so I could sit down and record an hour of it. Then my ears receive an even stranger sound. I am passing under a chain of gigantic wire towers, running perpendicular to the road, down from the hills to the north and over the mountains to the south. Each is vaguely human in shape, with a triangular head over wide shoulders, and two dangling arms, each holding a set of massive bare cables that arc across the deep blue of the evening sky. They tower over the road and over the line of power poles, their course completely indifferent to either. On top of the irregular buzz of the poles they add their own low, resonant hum, turning the chorus into a symphony.

I grind to a halt and listen to it for a while, transfixed. Then I remember where I am, and my desire to get to the next town and drink water and sleep. I dismount the bike and rewire the dynamo in my front wheel to the headlight, so I can see the road in the near darkness, and pedal onward.

When I reach Christmas Valley I get a strong cell signal, so I enter my day's route on the iPhone to check my mileage. My GPS died after the first ten hours, and I'd been biking for almost eighteen. 109.5 miles. No wonder I was so tired, hungry, and thirsty.

I reach the motel and drag my bike into the room, and then proceed right to the bathroom and drink four cups full of water, rapid-fire. As I'm setting up for bed, a chorus of bullfrogs kicks in from the dingy pond behind the motel, and a chorus of coyotes picks up from a distant hillside. First time I've heard coyotes since going to Pinnacles National Monument, seven months ago.

I collapse onto the bed, and draw my sleeping bag over myself. It's more convenient than actually getting into the bed. Just before sleep pounces on me, I realize that I am absolutely ravenous with hunger. I'm going to have to find some good protein in Christmas Valley, and lots of it.


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