I'm still in Christmas Valley. I've decided to take the day off, since I still feel tired and fuzzy-brained from yesterday's efforts. I've spent most of the day holed up in my motel room, drinking root beer and catching up on a few months' worth of web comics, such as Flintlocke's Guide To Azeroth. I don't even have the mental capacity to listen to an audiobook.
I fall asleep for a nap around six, then wake up every hour or so. At 9:00pm I open the windows. Around 10:00pm, on the edge of sleep, I sense an impact on the mattress, like a cat jumping up on the bed, and I feel a cat face sniffing at my beard. Then I feel the vibrations of it purring.
I turn my head and there is nothing there. The purring vanishes.
I drift around near sleep for a while longer, feeling confused, but not afraid. It would be nice to get a visit from a cat, I think.
I'm almost entirely asleep, and then once again I hear a cat jump on the bed. This time it pads over and sits down with its front paws at the side of my neck, and lays its head across my neck under my chin, like my old cat Tuna used to do. I feel its warmth and hear purring. "That's nice," I think, and I feel myself dropping into the blackness of deep sleep, but in confusion I fight against it and open my eyes.
No paws. No purring. No cat.
This is the first time in a long time that the border between sleep and wakefulness has been so stretched that I actually hallucinate.
I get up and close the windows, since the room is now cool. I get back into bed and turn on my side, and sleep through the night.
I'm biking my way out of Christmas Valley, having decided to go east and bypass Summer Lake and Paisley because it's clearly too hot to camp. Back in town I found a pair of "glove liners", lightweight cotton gloves that cover my hands where my long-sleeved shirt exposes them. I've soaked these in water, along with most of my shirt, and a bandanna beneath my helmet. I'm wearing sweatpants to keep my legs from burning. Only part of my face is exposed to the open air; the rest of my body is covered. As long as I keep pedaling, the moving air evaporates the water and I feel almost pleasantly cool, in contrast to the 100-degree environment I'm in.
Ahead of me, straight on for twenty miles, the road vanishes into a heat haze. Brown telephone poles, bleeding tar, march along the right-hand side of the road, so far out ahead of me that they look like burned matchsticks, and then blur into a solid wall beyond that. I look to my left and right, and can't help thinking that the terrain I'm seeing was very appropriately named, when the pioneers came through, and gave it the title "badlands." It's a gently rolling expanse of gritty sand and shattered rocks, crowded over with sharp, waist-high bushes that make travel in a straight line extremely unwise. Furthermore, it's oven-hot, and the bushes offer zero shade.
About twenty-five miles out of town, halfway up a hill, I soberly realize that if the road were to suddenly vanish beneath me, forcing me to deal with the badlands, I would probably have about three days to live.
I reach the top of a rise and about ten feet away, an enormous brown hawk leaps up from the ground, flapping, and pounds its way up into the sky over my head. I look at the spot where it had been and see the ragged body of a small animal, a rabbit maybe, in a cloud of dust. As I pedal down the hill and up the next one, the hawk draws a few wide circles in the air above me, then falls behind. Hopefully I didn't scare it out of a meal.
The experience immediately reminds me of my past encounters with bears, and the thought that comes into my mind each time: How many thousands, or even millions, of these large animals had to die, before their gene pool was sufficiently altered to give them an instinctive fear of humans? Did they have it outright, or did they have to refine it?
Or to put the question another way, how much worse did the early settlers have it, than us, when they encountered a huge hawk, or a gigantic bear, or a wildcat? Did the critters just wander up and start swinging, and clawing through the supplies, and carrying off the cats and dogs and chickens? Or did they do what they do now - and scramble out of the way because humans are eldritch beasts of unfathomable power?
Inquiring minds want to know.
I'm on my way out of Wagontire. I've had a solid breakfast and a nice chat with the young girl who is granddaughter to Wagontire's only permanent resident. (She brings the total population of Wagontire up to 2.) She's in an unfortunate situation - her body is maturing much faster than her mind, and she's rebelled against the trappings of womanhood and become a tomboy, and started hanging out mostly with boys, which unfortunately exposes her to a greater portion of the physical pressure and deceit that young boys can exhibit. I wanted to warn her about this, but couldn't find a way to steer the conversation there without coming across to her grandmother as a creep.
Anyway, I'm back on the road, pedaling towards Burns on Highway 395. "Slim Westerns" is my theme music for this terrain, and I'm most of the way through the album. The water in my bandanna and gloves is almost entirely gone.
I stop at the top of a large hill and pee on the highway. It's taken me a while I get used to peeing right out in the open; in high desert there's no shelter to hide behind, and no trees to pee against, except perhaps the telephone poles. So you just stand any old where and let 'er rip, and hope there aren't any electric cars on the road, since you can't hear those thing coming.
I get back on board and coast down the hill, and begin slowly climbing the next one, a long shallow incline several miles long. Near the top, I glance in my rear-view mirror and see a dark shape coming up slowly behind me along the side of the road. Immediately the Stephen King story "The Long Walk" elbows into my mind, and I laugh out loud at myself, then shove the vision back out of my mind. Just what I need - Death himself striding up the shoulder after me.
After a few minutes the shape slowly resolves into two shapes, weaving in and out of each other. I pull my headphones out and turn my head to listen, and hear no engine noise, and no farting of Harleys. It must be bicyclists. If they're cycling out in this wasteland, they must be on an extended tour. Hot damn, my second encounter with fellow tourers!
Eventually they draw up alongside me. It's two young men, in t-shirts and bicycle pants. They're on upright bikes with what I would consider a light amount of gear strapped to them. One is bearing a gallon jug of water with a screw-top lid, bungee corded to a rack. With each stroke of his pedals the bike swings, causing the water to slosh around. They're ascending the hill much faster than I am, because they're standing up on their pedals. Ah the impatience of youth. Quietly I worry for their survival in this heat, with no helmets and a half-gallon of water to share.
I wave, and shout "Where ya headed?"
They quickly outdistance me, on their lighter bikes and younger legs.
Hours later, I descend into the town of Riley. The entire town consists of one large general store, thrown together at a T-junction in a patch of cropland. I coast over to the entrance and discover that the two kids I'd seen earlier in the day are here, splayed out on a wooden bench, slowly eating ice cream cups. Each has purchased a bottle of spring water and drained it. Their bikes are laid on the ground near some bushes, and I dismount and kickstand my bike near theirs, behind a motorcycle. The owner of the motorcycle is sitting on another bench, chatting with the two boys.
"Fancy meeting you guys here!" I say. They laugh. "Of course, there's only one road out of here, to the east, so it was kind of bound to happen."
I pull my empty canteen off my seat and walk into the store. I purchase a root beer, some chips, and a couple of bananas, then hold up the canteen and ask, "Is there a place I can fill this with water?" The woman at the register directs me to a sink, and I fill the canteen and then soak my bandanna, gloves, and the arms of my shirt up to the shoulders.
Outside I place the canteen back behind my seat. One of the boys examines it with an expression like, "Why didn't I think of that?!" I chat with them for a while, and take their picture.
Feeling less taciturn now, one of them asks if I can help him with the rack on his bike. A strut is broken and he's had to apply copious duct-tape to it; and the bag still slides off. I hand him the large zipties I'd brought in my repair bag, wishing that I'd remembered to pack some actual rack hardware like I'd intended to. He thanks me sincerely and sets to work on the rack. Looks like I've made some friends.
It's funny; the desire to help fellow bike tourers is curiously intense, and it even extends to other people on the road who aren't touring. I find myself interested in helping strangers that I would usually ignore, and taking action for them that would usually seem like too much of an inconvenience. For example, what if my own rack breaks now? I have no zipties to field-repair it. But here's a broken rack right in front of me. The zipties should be used; it doesn't matter that it's not my rack.
I get up and out of the hotel room with no trouble. Before leaving I drink a prodigious amount of water, shower, and fill my water sack, but forget to fill my canteen.
Then I zig-zag out the east side of Burns towards the long 20-mile flat stretch of Highway 20. Before I get to the highway I have to pass down some long, barren streets that have probably sectioned out active farms in the past, but now just run through empty fields gone to seed. In a dirt lot between two corners of an unmarked intersection, I notice a beat-up truck with a guy sitting in the cab and another disheveled guy sitting in the back. They seem a little menacing, until one of them waves hello at me, and I raise my hand in return. The other man raises his hand in response to mine. And with the greeting ritual complete, I relax and ride on.
It sets me to wondering, though - does my own presence make people nervous? For a few days in the desert, I had to wear a scarf across my face to keep my sunburn from getting worse, and I must have looked exactly like a terrorist. ... Well, a terrorist pedaling a recumbent bike.
And yet, I still got plenty of waves and smiles from passing cars. Go figure.
Soon I turn right, onto Highway 20, aka the Central Oregon Highway. I am treated to a gentle downhill grade, and zoom along at 16 miles per hour for a while. I play through Slim Westerns again, then I put the iPod in shuffle mode and come up with the ancient radio version of Har-De-Har-Har, The Ballad Of The Typical Asshole, performed by DJ Zog in another era.
That segues into one of Zog's noise shows, and that propels me all the way across the flatlands. Just before the hills begin I pause to drink water and eat a red bell pepper, and some curious horses come moseying up to the fence for a look.
Sorry, horses, I don't have any snacks for you.
About an hour later I've ridden up to Oard's Gallery and Museum, the only real building in the "town" of Buchanan. It's at the foot of an extremely steep hill, so I decide to take a break. I guzzle some water and buy some snacks and a soda, and spend a few minutes petting the big old snaggletoothed orange cat that walks around on the display counters, then go on a little tour of the museum.
There's a lot of stuff crammed into a very small space here.
Some of it is for sale ... but I have zero interest in purchasing. Anything I buy would have to be hauled hundreds of miles on a bicycle.
Bike touring gives you a very different perspective about souvenirs.
Outside the rest stop I chat with a guy refueling his motorcycle. He's wearing a black leather jacket with broad shoulders, over a T-shirt with a noir-style Popeye drawn on it, striking a thoughtful pose.
"Stanley Idaho, eh?" he says. "My old hunting grounds. Beautiful place. You'll like it there."
He zooms off on the motorbike, which is far too quiet and agile to be an American vehicle, taking only a few seconds to ascend the hill that's going to take me half an hour to climb.
I've made it to Juntura, and am eating breakfast at the Oasis diner. Terry the cook sits down at my table and writes me out a list of the hot springs I should look for as I ride east.
When he gets up, I start a conversation with the guy two tables down, first about the road, and then about his strange hobby. He owns some land outside of town, and for five or six years now he has been using some of his retirement fund to buy large amounts of seed and distribute it to the wild bird population.
I ask him, "What's the motivation?"
"When I was young I did a lot of hunting. Killed a whole lot of them. Now I want to give something back. Sometimes it's complicated - you have to move the feed sites around to keep the birds from getting sick, and grain prices can fluctuate a lot. But I enjoy it."
"How do you finance it?"
"I've got an income, I'm comfortable. Got enough to spare so I can do this."
While we're talking, a woman walks by, towards the exit doors. The guy chats with her for a while, and I learn that she's a farmer, and her grain harvest is coming up soon.
The man says, "Make sure you get the quail out of the way first, because the babies won't run, even if they hear the noise."
"Oh, I do, I do," she says. "I chase them out myself."
This guy is very dedicated to preserving birds. I consider making a donation to his cause, but I don't have much money at the moment. In retrospect, I should have offered to help him put up a web page for accepting donations and offering tours. I should have at least gotten his name.
It's about an hour before noon, and I'm on my way out of Juntura, after lingering in the diner for too long. The air is hot and dry, and blowing steadily in my face as I climb the first rise out of town. The clouds overhead look very intricate.
Down that first hill, the road begins to follow a canyon, cut by a river. The walls are towering strata of rock and steep hillsides crumbling down onto each other in massive colored bands.
It's very pretty, and I spend many hours biking through it due to the headwind. The contrast between the dry hills and the wet river is a little weird. After a long, dusty afternoon, I pedal out of a valley and discover a nice display of sunset colors behind me.
After one final push, I make it to the top of the hill. From there I make a long and very fast descent into a valley.
As I'm descending, I can already tell that this valley is different from any of the valleys I'd pedaled through all week. The air is cool, and not dry. Crops can grow well here.
And grow they do. In fact, the air is thick with the pungent smell of onions. Miles and miles and miles of them.
Also, corn. Tight regimental rows of genetically identical corn plants, for miles and miles. As it scrolls past my bike I think in amazement, "Each of these fields will feed a thousand people this year. Hell, maybe ten thousand. Mechanized farming is incredible."
Between and within the fields, farmers have etched canals for water distribution. Some of the local plants have grown wild in these canals, claiming the unused space. Animals have also moved in. As I'm riding by I glance down one of the canals and see a handful of baby ducks paddling hastily after their mother.
Eventually I roll in to the town of Vale, just on the Idaho border. I locate a motel across from an RV park, and see a sign that says "Check In At RV Park Across Street". As I walk my bike around the gravel lanes of the RV park to the office, I notice a lot of cats - some very young - slinking around in the shadows, spying on me. Then I see a big hand-painted sign: "Caution! Children And Kittens Crossing!"
I get a room for 30 bucks, and haul my bike into it. Then I wash up hastily, and pull most of my luggage off the bike so I can ride it around town more easily. It's about 11pm but the diner at the other end of town is still open, so I ride over there and get an omelette, toast, hash browns, and a visit to the salad bar. Plus four cups of ice water. While I'm digesting, I listen to the conversation of the old farmers seated nearby.
They talk about training and purchasing horses, fetching stray cattle, the difficulty of managing dry weather and estimating the value of land. One of them tells a story of a horse he bought that didn't train very well but was extremely sturdy, and how he used to ride that horse through the rough terrain on the west edge of his land, until one day he was out mending a fence with some ranch hands and something made the horse get skittish, and it put a foot wrong and fell down on a hillside. It never fully recovered from the injury and the farmer had to just let it out to pasture.
The regret in the farmer's voice is obvious, and part of an interesting pattern. Farmers don't talk about animals the way urban people do. Animals on a farm are generally kept to serve some purpose -- in other words, to do work. And a working relationship inspires respect. Sometimes more than just respect, actually. For example, the work that dogs and horses do is done better when the animal has intelligence and personality. You spend all day on a well-mannered horse, and you're going to start liking that horse. Spend all day managing sheep with a clever sheepdog, and you're going to feel an attachment to that dog. Even feed animals inspire a relationship with a kind of depth to it - not on the individual level, but on the level of the species. They need to be managed. But if you keep an animal around just for amusement or attention, an accessory to your life that doesn't make or save you money, the relationship is, of course, different. It can be a lot less respectful, a lot more dismissive.
It's strange to listen to this casual respect in the words of farmers, and compare it with the attitudes I find in city-dwellers, on both extremes. There are people in the city who think of animals as differently-shaped people, with complex inner lives and human empathy and wisdom - and there are people who consider animals to be robots, ambulatory objects made for eating, destruction, or abuse. One type of person would keep a chihuahua as a pet, name it Snookums, and claim that it has psychic powers. The other type of person would buy the veal entree on a lunch break, eat half of it, and dump the rest casually in the trash. Some people even do both.
To farmers, it must seem like this sort of contact with animals is a joke.
But I digress. At about 1:00am, I pay my bill, and ride my bike back to the motel. I pass the neon sign out front and decide it needs to be photographed.
Then I disappear into my room, for a tepid shower and some much needed sleep.