It is evening at my first campsite, about half a mile back from the rim of Crater Lake. Dad has wished me good luck and left to drive home. I've constructed my tent and placed all my gear in the bear box. The bike is leaning on its kickstand, chained to one metal leg of the box.
I'm sitting on top of the picnic table, looking at my iPhone, which is displaying "No signal".
"This is it," I think. "I'm really on my own, now. The only way out of this campground is on that bicycle; and from there it's 600 more miles to get where I'm planning to go. ... I sure hope this works."
I think the weather is mocking me, because it began to rain just as I was setting up my tent, and now that the tent is constructed and thoroughly wet, the rain has tapered off.
Evening turns to night quite suddenly. I am dead-tired, even though it is only 9:00pm. I crawl into my damp tent, jam in some earplugs, and have nine hours' worth of strange dreams.
I wake up and wash my face, then head to the nearby lodge to take a shower. There I discover that the showers are coin-operated, quarters-only, and limited to four minutes at a time. It costs me almost five dollars to get clean, including the time it takes for the water to actually get warm.
Back from the showers, my next task is to install the shoe cleats for my bicycle pedals onto my shoes. The cleats attach with four hex screws, and before my trip I made sure that I had a hex wrench to fit them, but when I examine the undersides of the shoes, I discover that they have metal plates on them that act as placeholders to protect the spaces where the cleats will be installed. Unfortunately, those metal plates are screwed on with regular Phillips screws.
"What the hell?" I mutter under my breath, and walk back to the lodge and borrow a screwdriver from the local handyman. I waste almost half an hour jamming the screwdriver up against the bottom of the shoes, trying to loosen the absurdly tight protector plates.
Finally I get them installed, and hurl the protector plates angrily into a nearby trash can. Now all I need to do is get the rest of my gear attached to the bike:
Heaped on the picnic table, it looks like way too much gear.
A quarter-mile into my first day of riding, I encounter my first crushed animal. It's a ground squirrel, pressed flat into the shoulder, burned grey by the sun. Almost against my will, I begin to keep a tally in the back of my head. By the end of the trip, I will have seen:
- Two more dead ground squirrels.
- The bleached bones of a sheep.
- A large dried up frog, flattened upside-down on the roadway.
- The jumbled skeleton of a large animal mixed into a heap of dirt.
- A rabbit freshly eviscerated by a hawk.
- The carcass of a small unidentifiable animal, heaped on the walkway of a cement bridge. It was in one piece except for a chunk of its backbone, torn out and flung about six yards away. Another interrupted meal, perhaps.
- Four small altars, memorializing parts of the road where people had died. (These are known as "descansos".)
- Six dead snakes. One was apparently crushed by the road-striping truck; it was dead on the white stripe with another white stripe painted right over it. Another was the withered fragments of a rattlesnake, tangled with a small wooden cross, knocked over on the ground. Another had been threaded into a chain-link fence, either as a trophy or as a warning.
And these are just the dead things. Along the way I will also pass an extraordinary amount of trash and abandoned machinery, and two entire generations of people's discarded beer cans. (How can I tell? The label art.)
The kayak ride is fantastic, but after eight hours in the sun, and after ten hours from the previous day, my exposed hands have been burned red. I can tell from the dull throb that the damage is pretty severe. Thank goodness for the long-sleeved shirts and the hat.
Sunburns always exhaust me. Perhaps it's just a correlation, between the hard work I usually do when I'm out in the sun, and the sun's burning effect. But one way or the other it sucks. After I return my kayak, I wolf down some restaurant food and creep into my tent before the clock has even reached 8:00pm.
I wake up at 4:00am, and though I'm still feeling a bit fatigued, my brain will not let me sleep any longer. So I shower and get on the road. Too trusting of Google Maps, I take a "short cut" that ends up diverting me down a mile of gravel road, instead of the paved highway I rode on the way in. The sunburn on my hands slowly fades into an unpleasant, mottled tan, still throbbing. My knuckles dry out. They look like chunks of ash from a fire pit.
It is afternoon, and I have been on the bike for about six hours. I have turned from a very dangerous, busy stretch of highway onto a long causeway across a dry swamp, which has become a winding ribbon of road through a National Park, packed with frustratingly short hills. Each hill is at least long enough to take away all my momentum, and many of them are long enough to make me dismount the bike and lay in the road, exhausted.
"At least I'm in a national park," I think. "Nice empty forest all around."
I decide to go poop in the woods. I tromp down the embankment and get ten feet into the trees, and pick the base of a large tree as a good pooping spot. While I'm there I look around and discover that someone has pounded half a dozen nails into the tree, for no apparent purpose, and then discarded a couple of beer cans, and an empty fire extinguisher. (A fire extinguisher? What happened here?) The items have been scoured by at least one turn of the seasons. Then I look around again, and realize that all along the road, possibly for the entire length of the National Park, the forest is a garbage dump.
It is evening, near sunset. I have just descended five miles of steep, switchback-filled highway. I am low on water and somewhere near the 80-mile mark. My GPS crapped out at 50 miles and I had to reset it. Somewhere ahead of me is the decrepit town of Silver Lake. I want to go at a slower pace, but every time I stop for a rest, I collide with the cloud of mosquitoes that has collected in the vortex behind my moving bicycle. They quickly motivate me to start pedaling again.
I reach the top of a hill, and there in the distance I spot Table Mountain. It's really more of a mesa than a mountain. There are some rough campsites at the top, about a thousand feet up from the valley floor. I stare at the steep sides for a while and then laugh, because I know there is no way I am going to pedal to the top of that thing tonight.
I take a picture of it over my handlebars instead.
I'm in a tiny town called Wagontire that's really no more than a single residence with a couple of amenities tacked onto it: A cafe, an RV park, and a motel. Even so, it has an entry in Google Maps, so it must be the real thing.
The motel portion consists of one long building, subdivided into a row of six rooms. According to the woman who came out to greet me when I arrived, only the first two rooms in the row are functional and therefore rentable, and the rest are in some state of disrepair.
You can tell that this is the case by looking at the roof of the building. It gets progressively more damaged from one end to the other. When I asked the woman if she had any rooms available, she said that the first two were occupied, but I could stay in the last room on the end, provided I was okay being in a room that didn't have a toilet or a shower or any running water.
"How much that would run me?"
"Oh hell I wouldn't charge for that. You can stay in there for free."
I said that was very nice and then asked her where I could get some water. She had just closed the restaurant (it was only open until about 4:00pm) so she led me around to the front of it to let me in and fill my canteen.
An old couple driving an RV rolled into the parking lot. It was one of those huge RVs, a house on wheels. The engine sounded like it was in poor shape. The old man sat in the cab with the engine running while the old woman came out and asked the lady if they had any good stuff to eat at the restaurant.
"No, I just closed it up. But what did you want?"
"Well, we'd like a cup of coffee if you have that..."
"Oh, why not. I've got the door open anyway. Come on in."
The old man shut off his idling motorhome and he got out. The woman filled my canteen with water and then served the old couple coffee and told me that if I wanted, I could take the five gallon bucket that was already in the last room and fill it with water in the laundry area in back of the restaurant, so that I could pour it into the toilet, making it flush. I told her I hadn't quite decided whether I was staying the night or whether I was going to press on to the next town, but I would stay in that room on the end if I decided to stay here.
"Alright. The room is unlocked, so just go in. There's an electric ceiling fan that works."
She closed up the restaurant again, and I rested outside on one of the wooden benches, looking around at my bike and the RV and the string of motel rooms, wondering what to do. I noticed that my bike was learning against a post with horseshoes nailed to each end that was meant to have horses tied to it, which I thought was appropriate, since it was the thing I had been riding all day.
The old couple went back out to their RV and had considerable trouble starting the thing up. I think they were still getting used to the idea that it had a generator as well as an engine and that the two couldn't be started at the same time, or something like that. After an entire five minutes of revving and chugging and bangs and ignition noises, he finally got it started, and waved at me, and drove on.
Eventually I decided that since the room had an electric ceiling fan, that meant it had electricity. Perhaps I could go in and charge up the GPS tracker which had nearly run down, and charge up the laptop, and synchronize all my gadgets and whatnot. The only problem was that I had almost no food. I had a bunch of really dry and crappy protein bars and a little fake cardboard milk carton of chewable vitamin-C candy that was disgusting and waxy, and that was all. But since I was feeling tired already, I decided to wheel the bike over to that room at the end of the building and try to make a night of it.
So, here I am in this room.
It has two double beds with mismatching covers and a nightstand between them bearing an ancient electric clock shaped like a soft rectangle, with those 50's-style soft rectangular numbers on it. For flooring it has a bunch of old peeling vinyl tiles. The peeling is quite bad just inside the door. Whatever color they used to be is unknown; they're different shades of brown now.
Across from the beds is a wall-mounted gas heater, vertical standing, that is broken or turned off. If you stand near it you can hear the wind whistling through the pipe that leads up from the floor to some vent in the roof. There is a big window occupying the wall between the front door and the corner of the building, broken into multiple panes, with one of them stuck permanently open a few inches. Thick curtains cover the window.
As the wind travels across the roof of the building it enters the vent before it reaches the corner near the window, so you hear the noise in the heater first and then you hear the noise against the corner of the room by the open pane. Sometimes it sounds like a person humming. Other times it sounds like the howl of a coyote, cut short.
To the left of the heater is a door leading into a bathroom. The door doesn't quite fit in its frame any more and won't close. If you stand next to it, you can feel unnaturally cool air seeping out from behind the door. The reason for this becomes clear once you actually enter the bathroom and look around.
Inside, there's a small window which is caked shut, and looks out onto a view of desert scrubland and nothing else. The toilet is filled with a tiny amount of water and dead insects and black specks of mold. Jutting out from the wall next to it is a sink, which is bone dry. The cabinets above the sink are open, and the mirror is covered in dust. There's a bunch of remodeling hardware scattered on the floor. The shower is one big piece of painted metal and has been ripped out from wall. All the floorboards beneath it have been torn up and removed, and It's sitting directly on the naked crossbeams under the building. Cool earth-smelling air is constantly streaming up out of this hole and filling the bathroom. It smells and feels like the interior of a gopher hole.
Among the hardware is a plastic bucket, empty except for a collection of lifeless bugs at the bottom. It's probably the bucket for dumping water into the toilet in order to make it flush, but no one has stayed in this room for a long time, so the bucket is completely dry, and bugs have been wandering over the lip of the bucket and been unable to escape. When I was standing in this room looking around, I tipped the bucket over and several of the beetles dragged themselves out and crawled weakly towards the hole in the floor.
When I went back into the main room and tried to close the door it wouldn't close all the way, so I wedged it as closed as I could and searched the room for a power socket to plug in my laptop. I found one but it was behind a small beat-up desk, so I hauled the desk along the wall until it was pressed against the bathroom door, holding it shut. My laptop is now sitting on the desk looking extremely out of place with its sleek illuminated keyboard.
Above the desk, at just about ceiling level, is a small pair of stag antlers nailed to the wall. They're still rooted to a section of the carapace that would have formed the top of the animal's skull, and there's still a fringe of dried fur attached to that. The nails holding it to the ceiling have been driven straight through this carapace. This isn't actually the worst taxidermy I've seen on my trip through here but it's pretty bad. Complimenting the antlers are a half-dozen pictures in frames, hung randomly around the room. One of them is a shiny velvet painting of a family of black bears playing around in front of a cabin. Depending on where you stand, the reflected light makes them look menacing or playful. Are they just passing by? Or have they just emerged from the cabin, after dining on the humans within, like the illustration on the last page of some old-world fairy tale?
The ceiling fan does work but there doesn't seem to be any way to turn it on without turning on the lights, so it's off for now. The ticking of the old electric clock is very audible in the room, but I don't really feel like rooting around behind the dresser to try to unplug it. The bike is here, standing in the middle of the floor. Some of my gear is spread out across one bed and I'm laying on the other.
Right now I'm wondering how I'm going to be able to sleep once all the daylight fades. At 9:00pm the last of the light will be gone and then this room will be in complete darkness, except maybe for my phone, and the screensaver of the laptop. I can see myself napping here during the day and I probably should have tried a little harder to actually nap instead of listening to an audiobook. When night falls I'm not sure what I can do. This room is very strange.
I don't have to worry about the outside world because the door does lock and the shades do close, and by all appearance there's nothing here that anyone would want to break in to steal. But the consolation of the lock on the door also brings with it the disturbing condition that I'm sealed inside. I'm tired, my dreams have been very weird lately, it's almost completely dark, the room has no phone, and I have no cell signal so there's no one I can call. As a matter of fact there is only one person in the world right now who knows where I am exactly, and that's the woman who told me about this room.
At about 10:00pm I wake up to the howling of coyotes.
About an hour after that I wake up to the sound of mooing cows. The noises seem to be coming from all around outside the room, as though a hundred cows were on a midnight walk through Wagontire. It's bizarre but I have no interest in opening the door for a better look. I turn over and claw for a bit more sleep.
Over breakfast I tell the woman who runs Wagontire about the cow noises, and she says, "Yep, as a matter of fact, they were runnin' a bunch of cows by here last night." Mystery solved.
It's mid-afternoon, and I'm riding away from the "town" of Riley. I've got water and snacks, and am prepared for another long, rolling run over scrubland hills and hay fields. But I'm not prepared for what I find at the top of the next rise: A construction zone, compressing the road in half, with a guide car, and a woman at the head wearing a hard-hat and holding a sign - the reversible kind for directing traffic.
The woman just waves at me, and then gestures for me to go ahead up the road, regardless of the timing of the traffic. I'm skeptical, but I decide to follow orders. As I proceed up along the left-hand shoulder, very slowly, a procession of huge trucks bellows past me, only a few feet from my wind-tossed bicycle, and in one case only a few inches. The woman with the sign makes no effort to stop them or even slow them down, even though I am still only partway up the hill.
Then, just as I reach the top of the hill, I see a long chain of cars coming towards me on the single lane. The worker at the other end of the zone has signaled for their traffic to proceed, completely ignorant of my presence. The woman who waved me in was clearly not doing her job, and jeopardizing my safety.
The oncoming cars notice me and slow way down, attempting to compensate for the uncomfortable position. I wave sheepishly at them and curse the woman with the sign, under my breath.
Thankfully, the people running the next construction zone were much smarter. The woman running that one let me go first, then slowed down the guide car so I led the group, until I was safely in the two-lane region.
On the way down a big hill leading to the next major town, I find a piece of property that looks like an outdoor warehouse for old car parts.
I'm sure it's nice to have a spare part handy for whatever breaks down on this winding, scorched road, but the resource is a bit of an eyesore. I also can't help wondering what awful things are leaking out of the engine blocks and crankcases and permeating the soil of the valley. The scene compels me to think about the difficulty of managing industrial pollution, how modern cities have to bootstrap themselves from one configuration to the next, to serve the whims of the economy and the affluence of their population, and how every stage leaves a different kind of detritus that must be managed. Mine tailings, animal crap, railroad ties, lead piping, copper wire, et cetera through the ages ... and in this case, poisoned soil.
The town I've arrived at is called Burns. On the way in, I rode past a huge refinery smokestack, standing alone in a field of bulldozed ruins. Rebar and cement lay in heaps. I imagine the only reason the smokestack remains is because the contractors are not sure how to safely knock it down. For now, it's just another half-finished project, a sloppy mess on the edge of a town that is sloppy in general.
To visualize the street layout of Burns, and the level of urban planning that was probably involved, picture a giant hand sweeping across the sparse patchwork of roads that meander through most of the Oregon wilderness. Imagine the hand gathering up these roads into a compressed wad. Now the wad is tossed into a waffle iron, pressed flat, and cooked at a thousand degrees so everything gets torn up, cracked, and melted. Welcome to the town of Burns. Inside the city grid, you'll be lucky to find a piece of uncracked pavement wider than a beach umbrella. What isn't bulldozed is crumbling. What isn't crumbling, is festering under several layers of paint and tar.
I'm sure there are people who live here and love it; and to them, I apologize. You're nice people; I met some of you. But your whole town is beat up like a roadsign by a rifle range.
I've just checked into what is probably the worst hotel in Burns. I didn't mean to; I was just looking for something close to the center of town. The layout of the room is as bad as the layout of Burns. The second bed (and I'm taking liberties with the definition of "bed" here) is so close to the front door that I have to lift my bike over it sideways to get it into the room.
The lights that work are crap fluorescents, but I want it dark anyway, so that's alright. I'm standing in front of the mirror of the tiny bathroom, inspecting my brutal sunburn from the last week of riding.
How appropriate. I show up in Burns, and I've got burns. I really need to make some kind of face-covering to complement the scarf on my head.
Today is a day of hills. After a long flat stretch, I climb a hill, then another larger hill, and then I go blasting down into a valley and lose all my altitude. At the end of the valley the road slowly tilts upward, more and more, until it plunges down again and I find myself at the base of a narrow valley, looking up at an absolutely enormous hill. By this time it's late in the day and I'm low on water, and as I roll slowly up to the base I begin weighing my options for camping somewhere nearby, so I can tackle the hill in the morning. But the valley is bowl-shaped, so any flat space I could choose is in plain view of the highway. I'm not keen on being a roadside camper, visible to a thousand curious yahoos and policemen. So up I go, at two miles per hour.
Halfway up the extremely sloping road I stop to rest and gather my wits. I'm feeling a bit faint from the exertion. I had plenty of sleep the previous night, and I stuffed my face with food, but my body is falling behind my energy demands.
I sit down on a retaining wall, even though my butt is a bit sore, because I'm having trouble standing. I want to lay down directly on the road instead, but that would cause motorists to pull over and ask worried questions. I chomp mechanically on a bag of fritos, then some peanut butter crackers, then some juice and water. The food disappears into me, and my hunger is totally unchanged.
Oh well. Nowhere to go but up. I rest and meditate for a while longer, enjoying the sunset colors and waiting for the juice to kick in, then I climb back onto the bike and pedal on.
At my second rest break, I sip water slowly, waiting for my body to cook more energy out of the food in my gut. My mind wanders and I have an interesting realization: My body is managing itself, and I am managing my body, in a way that is totally unlike the way I've been doing things for 99 percent of my life.
Usually, I pass my time in a world brimming with calories, and my only sense of hunger is the sense of having a digestive system with nothing to do, and a calorie deficit of half a day at the most. Out here, I am not only experiencing a chronic calorie deficit, I am keeping myself in such constant motion that my body is having difficulty converting energy fast enough to keep me functioning on an hour by hour basis.
The physiology behind this is interesting. Without going into too much detail, I can describe it this way: My entire body runs on glucose. Glucose is digested out of the food I eat, swims around in my bloodstream, and is slurped up and used as needed. I can also store extra fuel in my body, mostly in my liver, in the form of glycogen. As long as I have enough glycogen around, it doesn't matter how fast I get ahold of glucose, because I can convert the glycogen I have stored back into glucose to make up for the deficit and keep pedaling along. Typically, my body has around a 12-hour supply of glycogen, and it can refill the tank as I digest overnight.
But now I'm out here, and I've been pedaling for as much as 12 hours a day, one day after the other. My glycogen level is low, because all the glucose I make during the day is being sucked up and burned by my muscles before my liver can get ahold of it and make more glycogen. If I sit down and concentrate, I can feel that lowness, as a kind of low-grade hunger that's curiously different from the hunger I usually experience. Usually I feel hunger as a sensation that comes up from my stomach and my gut - a message that the assembly line of digestion is empty, and wasting time. In the usual scenario, my liver may be depleted of glycogen, but that's because it's dumped it all out over the course of the day, making sure that the rest of my body gets as much as it wants.
But now my body - every part of it - is not getting as much as it wants. Everything is fighting for glucose, and the liver is being conservative with what little supply it has, because it has to keep a minimum safe level, to keep my heart beating and my lungs working, for an unknown length of time. It could be disastrous to dump all the reserves in.
So now, I feel hunger as a sensation from all over my body. Not the soreness of lactic acid - the ache of overused muscle - but a kind of emptiness, even a feeling of suction, as though my whole body were a giant drink straw, trying to suck food into itself and re-inflate.
For the first time in many years, I feel as though I could gulp down an entire bottle of soda, and feel no sugar-high whatsoever.
Here in Juntura, I've just checked into the second worst hotel room of the trip. It's really bad. I think it used to be a shipping container, but the interior has been lined with sheetrock, vinyl, and lumpy carpet. It has three windows, but all three of them have been covered over with huge sheets of transparent plastic, staplegunned to the walls. I'm not sure if it's for heat retention purposes or just to increase the weird factor, but the bugs have taken it as an opportunity to set up shop and transform each windowsill into a little sealed terrarium. With the spiders, the silverfish, the moths, the tiny centipedes, and the sunlight, there is a fairly complete biosphere at work here.
But like I said, this is the second worst room. The worst room was in Burns. (The one in Wagontire was free, so I'm not counting it.) The redeeming factors that this room has over the one in Burns are:
- The beds do not block the door and are not nailed to the floorboards.
- The fridge is full-size and there is a microwave and a television, and some additional outlets.
- The shower isn't repulsive, once you bang on it and scare out the spiders.
- The air is actually fresher and warmer than in Burns.
Strange but true. I find myself liking the room, despite the abundance of critters with more than four legs. I feel like I am their guest for the night -- as if I might find a folded card on the toilet tank that reads, "Welcoem to bug rume, wee hoep U liek or aminneteys, signd, The Bugs."
I arrange my sleeping bag on one of the beds, and spread my sweater out to make a pillow. I plug the laptop in to charge, start a playlist of piano music, and quickly fall asleep.
Around 3:00am I wake up hearing the sound of animals roving around outside - raccoons perhaps. I dismiss the noise, and turn on my back, and fall asleep again.
About an hour later I hear an angry snapping sound close at hand, and I open my eyes, still mostly asleep, and see light flashing indistinctly around me. Freaked out, disoriented from my weird dreams, I sit up and claw savagely at the air in front of my face, instinctively trying to pre-emptively attack whatever is about to kill me.
Then I sit all the way up, eyes straining, and all I see is the pinpoint of light on the side of the power adapter, plugged into my laptop. As I watch it, it turns from orange to green, indicating that it attempted to charge, but then found that the battery was full.
Puzzled by this, but also reassured by the mundanity of it, I remember where I am and who I am, breathe calmly for a while, and then fall back asleep. It's not until morning, after I'm back on my bike and out on the road, that I realize I was probably awakened by the noise of a temporary power failure caused by crappy wiring. I woke up just in time for the power to return, and for my laptop to attempt another charge.
The territory is beautiful, but as I pedal through it, for eight hours, I am endlessly blasted by a headwind -- a punishingly dry one. Every downhill slope feels flat; every hill feels like a hot brick wall. My gloves and kerchief and sweater dry out, and I slurp my way through my lemonade cup, then through one canteen, then through the other, then begin working on my water sack, which is already warm.
Five hours into the ride, I stop the bike and blunder down to the river, to soak my arms and hands. I have to stomp and hack my way through a gauntlet of weeds, and when I get to the river, the banks are narrow and the water is moving fast. I dunk my shoes and my hands, and splash my shirt liberally. When I stumble back up to the road, I discover that a woman has parked her car at the turnout fifty feet away. She walks up to me and asks how she can get to the river, since she's thirsty too, but I warn her against it, then wish her well and pedal away.
If she has no water, I am not interested in conversation.
Two hours later I run out of water entirely. The water bag is totally flat. Half an hour later I am thirsty again, and my sleeves and bandanna have dried out. I stop and gaze longingly at the river, still flowing past me with its precarious banks. There's just no way to get down to it without falling in, and I'd probably be carried a long way before I could drag myself out again. The hills on either side of me are even less hospitable. They're covered with dry bushes, packed together and reaching up like the clawed hands of the undead, eager to tear at the living.
"Glad I don't have to walk through that crap," I mutter, and pedal on. I'm getting a bit worried. I packed as much water as my containers would allow, and it still wasn't enough to get me past this canyon.
I do eventually find some water, but the ride down out of the mountains leaves me exhausted, and I still have to cross a valley to get to the next town. I can see on my GPS that I need to go down one long stretch of road, then turn northeast, then go down another long stretch of road, and then I'm done for the day. I set an audiobook playing, and concentrate on spinning the pedals, and I make pretty good time until I get to the bend in the road, and then that terrible headwind returns.
It batters me from the left side in irregular bursts, causing me to weave all over the narrow shoulder. The fields across the highway are fallow, and the wind gathers up long rolling tubes of grit and dust, then pushes them over the road at me. Sometimes I can see these waves approaching and brace for them, squinting my eyes and holding my breath, but usually the evening light is too dim for me to make them out. The sun has already set, and the sky is a white blanket of gloom, growing dimmer, but not dark enough to make my headlight useful, and every couple minutes the wind spits raindrops at me, as if to say "Don't complain, I can easily make it worse."
Just around the time my GPS indicates I am halfway down the road, the headwind changes course and starts blowing directly in my face. There's less grit this way, but now it's against my pedaling, and I'm forced to slow down from 10 miles per hour to 6. I become so frustrated with the wind that I began yelling at it. "Yooouuuuuu ssssuuuuuuuuuuucccckk!!!! Arrrrrrrrrrggghhh!!! Get oouuuuuuuutt of myyy fffaaaaaacceee!!!! ARRRRRGGGH!!" Each time a car passes me in the lane, I swerve out into the road so I can ride in the draft, for the few seconds it remains. It's risky but I don't care at this point.
A full hour later I arrive in the town of Vale, exhausted, starving, and coated in grit. Luckily a cheap hotel and a decent restaurant are still open.
I get up and load my bike, and before I leave town I go poking around the RV park again, to get a better look at the colony of cats. Some of them are dirty and clearly need homes. But it's not like I can just pick one up and stuff it in my luggage. And they're half-feral at least already - it may be too late to train them.
Between Fruitland and Emmett I ride past three very large billboards, bleached by the sunlight and dusty from the fields. Each one shows a scary "public service" warning about methamphetamine. The most graphic one says "You won't need to worry about getting lipstick on your teeth any more", with a photo of a girl's mouth, overflowing with destroyed teeth.
The people here on the road look a lot dirtier and more beat up than in Oregon. The Oregon enthusiasm and politeness is starting to wear off too. Most people pass without waving, or stare impolitely. I keep seeing cars driven by distraught looking young kids. I pity them.
I listen to "A study in Emerald", and note with amusement that I recognize the names of the elder gods from the HP Lovecraft radio plays I was just listening to the other day. As the character we presume to be Watson is introducing himself, I pass by a heap of bones in the field to the side of the road, and stop to grab a photo of it.
After several hours of uneventful climbing, I arrive on a plateau. The towns of Garden Valley and Crouch are heaped together here. I see a sign advertising an RV park in Crouch, but decide to keep going since it is only late afternoon and I'm feeling good. Then the road tilts downhill, and the terrain speeds by.
I stop at a campground to use the restroom, and notice a sign saying "no vacancy", and another sign saying that the camping fee is ten bucks, cash only. Even if there were a space available, I don't have any cash. I ride on, and the road keeps dropping. Late afternoon turns to evening. I crane my neck to spot any more campgrounds, but there are none. Now I'm getting a bit worried.
The road bottoms out, then begins to sway in long heavy arcs, pressed against rocky cliffs on my left and a chattering river on my right. The cars thin out to a few, and then to very few. The houses stop. Now it's just me on an empty road, and it's dark. Then I encounter a hill.
I know this hill is different from the others because, way in the distance and at least a thousand feet up, I can see the headlights of an approaching car. As I pedal I can watch the headlights curve slowly around towards me, as the car follows the road, down along an inside curve against the mountain, carved by the massive bend in the river below. I count under my breath and it takes almost an entire minute for the car to reach me. Overwhelmed, I stop at a narrow turnout and devour the last of my dry food - a small bag of corn chips. All I have now is part of a green squash, and a little water. "Well, crap. I'll probably have to sleep in the woods or something tonight. Except that there aren't any woods here, just cliffs and water. So I need to keep going."
I'm getting very tired, and despite my gloves, shirt, sweater, and sweatpants, some of the cold is creeping in. I make frequent stops but even when I recover my breath completely, I can't go 50 yards without breathing hard again on this damned slope. Then, about 3/4 of the way up, a strong headwind starts trying to push me back down the hill. I grit my teeth and start cursing at the wind, calling it every foul name that comes to my dazed mind. I make insulting faces at it, half from anger and half from a desire to work some heat back into the muscles of my face. Finally, at long last, I get to the top of the hill. "Glad that's over with," I shout. "Now, this [expletive] road better not just [expletive] go straight back down again." I pause to take a picture of the stars with my camera, but I'm too dazed to do it properly and the shot is badly exposed. Then I pack the camera up and ride on ...
... And the road shoots straight back down the mountainside again. I curse a blue streak all the way.
There is some good news: Now instead of a cliff, there is actual forest around me. After a mile or so, I see a sign for the Pine Flats Campground on my right. I turn onto the driveway and shoot down a very steep but well-paved road, then begin pedaling slowly around the campground looking for an open space. ... And there isn't a single one. The spaces that aren't currently occupied all have little slips of paper pinned to the number posts, indicating that they are reserved for the next morning. Bah. I could try and stealth-camp in one of these sites, but I'd have to get up at 4:30 in the morning to repack all my gear and sneak out before the ranger comes trolling around. That would get me five hours of poor sleep at the most, considering how long it takes to manage my tent in darkness.
Disappointed and even more tired, I bike slowly up the steep entrance, and get back on the road. My mind wanders for a while. The cold is getting to my feet. They've spent too long clipped to pedals and tilted uphill. I detach my right foot to shake it out, then forget to steer, then overcorrect to avoid hitting the guardrail, then the bike pitches and I fall down. I pick it up and slowly reposition myself and pedal on. 40 yards later I attempt to adjust the hem of my sweater and nearly fall down again. "I can't just keep riding forever," I tell myself. "Maybe I'll find something in the town of Lowman."
Turns out Lowman is only a few miles away. I pedal up a relatively shallow hill and arrive at the single T-junction that defines the town. Down the road to my right is a low bridge passing over a river, with a lodge and cabins on the other side. There are some lights on but I doubt anyone is awake, since it's near midnight. I cruise over to the lodge and around the parking lot to the back entrance, and find an open bar. I park and knock on the inside of the door and yell, "Hello?"
A woman walks out of a dining area holding a cleaning rag, so I introduce myself. Turns out she is one of the managers, and was just a few minutes away from closing up the bar and going home. I negotiate to stay in one of the cabins for a reduced rate, pick up my key, and push the bike around to my assigned cabin, for some badly needed sleep. I've gone 70 miles and climbed 3500 feet today.
I'm riding up a long shallow hill through the wilderness north of Lowman, with my iPod playing and a juice bottle on my lap. On my right is a collection of large houses, set back into the woods. They have a large-windowed, all-lumber, sloping-corrugated-roof design that is common for the northwestern United States. Outside most of them I see evidence of children - swing sets, trampolines, bikes and tricycles - and a few times I see the actual children, walking along trails by the road or running around in the trees down by the river.
More than a few times I've heard people say that the near-wilderness like this is "a great place to raise kids". I've read countless descriptions of an idealized life for a nuclear family, running around a big house in the woods, with the nearest town half an hour away, and the rugged hillsides being a kind of extended playground where children can grow up with endless fresh air and exercise, without concern for those nasty kidnappers and sexual deviant neighbors and drug dealers and gang members that peek out from behind every lamp post in the cities.
And now I'm out here looking at those big houses, and I've been bicycling through the near-wilderness for a couple of days. Perhaps these are merely vacation homes, and the kids stay here for a couple of months per year at the most. It would be great to have enough money for that option. Better yet perhaps these are retirement homes, owned by older members of an extended clan, and the grandkids visit for the summer while the seniors get to walk around and hang out all year.
But as the houses scroll slowly along, I decide that's probably too optimistic. Along with the children's toys, the houses are also surrounded by the tools of modern adults trying to make a living. Trucks, workshops, half-assembled machinery, mottled gardens, heaps of firewood. People aren't just playing here. Their kids probably don't just spend the summer here, either. Which means they bus half an hour into town for school, and for the holidays they go into the city, instead of out.
Some of my favorite childhood memories are based on the way I grew up in the woods, with the animals and the garden space and the comfortable privacy. But the thing about the place I grew up in, that's different from out here, is that I had the appearance of wilderness without actually being lost in it. I was really just a few miles away from a mighty center of industry, and a collection of well funded universities. All around me, the threads of a much larger world converged.
As an adult, I now realize that my life as a teenager was greatly enhanced by this larger environment. This has introduced a chord of doubt into the chorus of voices around me preaching for an idealized family life out in the woods. And the kids I see wandering around in the small towns and along the roads of these outpost houses are reinforcing that doubt. I know there are things going on out here; plenty of things. But how much of them are of value to teenagers? How many of them help to mitigate the endless hunger for variety and intrigue that teenage life is all about? It seems almost like an act of greed, to move or start a family out here, for the fun of raising small children in a wilderness setting, when my personal enjoyment of their idealized early youth carries over into a teenage life for them of narrowed perspectives and stifling boredom. Besides: The city may have gangs and cocaine, but the country has megachurches and methamphetamine.
Even if they didn't know what they were missing, I would know. The most I could hope for as a way of introducing them to that world would be to send them off to college, and then, why in the hell would they want to come back here afterwards, except for lack of better options?
Sure, I know, I'm keeping my perspective too narrow. Millions of people raise kids far from affluent cities. Their lives aren't unhappy, they're just different. Mostly I just want something of equal or better quality - as I judge it - for my children as I had when I was growing up. But I am not a member of the "1%" clan - the 1% of living people that owns 40% of the wold's wealth. Instead I'm a member of the "everybody else" clan, and here in America at least, we've spent the last 30 years sliding slowly down the sides of the pyramid. My family had a four-bedroom house on the perfect edge of the wilderness but we lost it. Since then, its new owner has also nearly lost it, as divorce and the corrupted economy pounded on her too. Our old neighbors have all taken similar beatings. The lucky ones - the older ones - have their homes paid for but have seen their diversified savings accumulated over the last ten years slowly dissolve. I don't know where we're all going, but I can tell you this much. The nuclear family is not the appealing ideal it once was. It seems too easily crushed, in a world where both parents need to work full time.
So whatever I'm looking for - if I find it - it probably won't look like this; like these little houses stuck in the woods. They look like tar pits to me now; places fit for slowly drowning in. Then again, the price tags on urban properties are ludicrous, and are tar pits in their own right.
Lots to think about, as I pedal up this road.
It is evening, and I have arrived in the town of Stanley and negotiated a motel room. The room is not the best I've had, but it's far from the worst. I've entered my cycling route from the last three days into the computer, and have asked it to generate some statistics, to show me just how tough a ride it was. The first thing I get is a map of the route, starting from Ontario:
Then, I get an elevation chart, showing how much climbing I had to do:
Then, a summary:
I sit back in my chair and whistle. "No wonder I feel so beat up," I mutter. "And no wonder that big hill two days ago was so brutal - it was a thousand feet in less than two miles. Maybe it's time for a break. I think I'll just stay here in Stanley for a few days."
I'm napping in a small clearing near my tent, in an unmaintained campground about a mile off the main road outside of Stanley. I've got my sweater beneath my head, on top of a warm rock, and am listening to some spacey Biosphere tracks. I'm having a decent enough time, but I am also feeling strangely restless. I haven't biked more than ten miles in the last three days.
The forest around me is pleasant, and I've gone walking around in it a few times. A small snowmelt creek is rushing briskly along about 30 feet away, and I've dipped my feet in it and washed some vegetables in it. I ate the last vegetable - a big red bell pepper - earlier today. I have no responsibilities, and nothing to do with the time except lay back and rest. But for some reason I'm not really enjoying myself.
After a few hours of drifting around half asleep, I realize what's wrong: Now that I've decided my destination is Stanley, I'm already feeling as though my journey is over. My mind has changed gears. Now instead of traveling, what I really want to do is work on something; build or create something, or talk about my trip with someone. But there is no one here, and there is nothing to work on.
Maybe it's good that this trip is ending.
Or on the other hand, maybe I have only shifted mental gears because I anticipate the ending -- because I know I won't be traveling any farther. Maybe if I still had another thousand miles ahead of me, I'd still be pedaling happily along? Guess I'll have to wait for the next trip to find out.