Ruddy, pre-sunrise daylight coaxed me out of sleep. I had the hood of my sleeping bag pulled taught against the cold and, upon waking, fumbled with the toggle to loosen the hood to begin the process of extracting myself from my sleeping quarters, rolling it all up, and putting it all away; leaving no evidence that I had slept there in case anyone came by.
No one found me sleeping alongside the old town hall– not that they should care, not that they were around. For the first time in several days I slept well despite being huddled up on a concrete patio. I chose this spot strategically. There was a table that I used for cooking which also served to block my bicycle and me from direct view from the road, a disused metal folding chair where I could sit and read by candlelight, a working outside outlet to charge my phone; all sheltered from the wind, making cooking over the alcohol stove that much easier, and sleeping a little warmer.
I stopped just after dusk in a town called Shaniko. From here early settlers shipped wool and barley to Portland via railroad– and for a few decades this town thrived around that. Since the 1940′s however few people have lived here, no businesses have thrived here. Highway 97 replaced the railroad making this shipping center obsolete. Recent restorations have been done to the antique and historic buildings of the town but everything is closed down until next summer. It’s a ghost town again– albeit a freshly-painted ghost town.
I lit the stove to boil water for coffee and oatmeal. The occasional car was beginning to drive past now. No one seemed to notice me hanging out where I was, or more likely, they didn’t care. All around is arid scrub for as far as I could see, which was pretty far in this relatively flat part of Oregon. I grabbed my camera and took a few pictures: the old hotel, a blacksmith shop, a truck abandoned in a field long ago.
Over breakfast I pulled out a highway map and studied my options. My goal was to get to Estacada in two days from Shaniko: 113 miles with a big climb over the Cascades. I knew of a hiking shelter off the Pacific Crest Trail that would be a possible stopping point for the night. But since I had slept well I began to consider pushing myself to cover the entire route in one day. I also had to consider that it would be dramatically colder trying to sleep at nearly 4000′ next to a mountain that I could see was already covered in snow. I called my girlfriend, Amber, who was planning to pick me up and told her my plan– that I would see her in the morning, and we’d find some hot springs on the way home.
After packing my gear onto my bike I grabbed the empty bottle of Rouge Dead Guy Ale that I had bought at the one convenience store in town and went to throw it in the nearby garbage can. When I raised the lid I immediately noticed another empty bottle of Dead Guy and a Clif Bar wrapper on top of the garbage within, and couldn’t help but wonder if it wasn’t another cyclist, some right-thinking fellow traveler, that had found this little wayside some evening not so long ago. I’ll never know.
I set out on the on bike going west on highway 97 for a mile, then north onto Bakeoven Road; a road that was entirely, miraculously, subtly downhill for 25 miles. I cruised along, practically coasting, and enjoyed the smell of sage and juniper, which gave way to vast, freshly-tilled fields ready for winter crops. There was virtually no traffic anywhere. The only town out this way, Bakeoven, is little more than two ranchers that happened to live across the street from one another.
Eventually it veered west with a canyon to the north, a canyon to the south, and high voltage power lines seemingly in every direction. There’s a crackle in the air overhead as I passed underneath one of these, and a deep hum at the enormous substation that brought them all together like the hub of a great wheel. Some of the electricity came from hydroelectric to the south, wind turbines and dams on the Columbia to the east; but it all traveled over the Cascades and was consumed somewhere in the Willamette Valley in the time it took my bike to move the next ten feet.
The sun was high in the sky by the time I reached an overlook of the Deschutes Canyon. On the other side was a long, gradual climb that mirrored the descent from Shaniko. The plains sprawled beyond the canyon until it butted against the forests of the Cascades. Mt. Hood stared right at me above it all, reminding me there’s still fifty miles of asphalt between us, mostly climbing miles.
Soon Bakeoven Road began a steep and fast descent down the canyon wall, twisting back and forth through hairpins in a grand finale near the road’s end in the small town of Maupin. Along the way I caught a glimpse of the town which is mostly situated on a plateau that overlooks the river, but is still below the west rim of the canyon. There were trees throughout the town changing colors, and it’s the only oasis in this desiccated canyon as far as I could see in either direction.
At the bottom of the hill I found a bar across the street from a fishing lodge, parked my bike at the door, and pulled up a stool. I ordered an IPA and a veggie burger made with pecans. Both were delicious. Business was slow so the bartender made small talk with me about my trip and my route for the day. I ordered another beer and took in some of the Fox News that was inexplicably on their television before heading off to cross the Deschutes and climb from the canyon.
The climb was steep and I was a little bogged down by food and drink. Slow and steady, as per. I put the bike into low gear and enjoyed the view as I climbed through town: past the riverfront vacation homes (half of which were for sale), past the high-end grocery and wine store, past the fishing and tackle shop, up main street, past the ubiquitous True Value, past the gutter hippies with huge backpacks and mangy dogs, past a house with a sign that read “Trespassers will be Sold to Science!!”
Out of Maupin, out of the canyon, and well into the afternoon I stopped and boiled water to make a some coffee using a piece of discarded cardboard as a windscreen for my little stove. I also took the opportunity while the water heated to call Amber again, this time a little unsure of what I had gotten myself into. The sun was already on it’s way back down and I had only covered about 35 miles, mostly downhill. It was at this point that she reminded me of an offhand comment that I had made earlier: that if I made it to Estacada I would set a new personal record for distance (not even accounting for all the climbs I was soon to encounter– my last p.r. was set on level ground in northern Minnesota). A couple disgusting shots of strong instant coffee later and I was off– excited, anxious, and a little afraid of what was in store for me that night.
After the coffee stop I turned onto Highway 216, which is gunshot straight for nearly 14 miles. I could watch a car appear over the horizon up ahead as a mere speck. About ten minutes later that car would finally speed past, having never left my line of sight. The climb here is gradual, through fields of ocher prairie grasses and outcrops of juniper. There was a convenience store at the turn-off to the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, but that’s about the only building I passed.
Further on I stopped for a moment to drink some water. Without the clicking of the internal hub and the hum of the tires on the road it was completely silent. I set the bike on its kickstand and enjoyed the sunshine and the moment. To the east the land fell away into the Deschutes Canyon, and beyond I could still make out the plateau that Bakeoven Road crossed. To the north was Mt. Hood– a massive, solitary volcano covered in snow and glaciers. I would be crossing the Cascades at its base later tonight.
The transition between prairie and mountain is a solid line that passes straight through the tiny enclave of Pine Grove, a collection of ranch homes, trailers, and empty businesses between seas of grasses and pines. The road climbed out of town with more pitch to it, and although I slowed up a little, my legs felt strong and my bicycle and all the gear on it didn’t feel as heavy as it had. I was stoked about riding through the evening and into the darkness, across a mountain range. The adrenaline was starting to kick in.
I entered Mt. Hood National Forest as the sun was beginning to set. The pines towered over the road, shrouding it in shadow. At a closed campground entrance I got off the bike and put the kettle on for a thermos of coffee to bring along. While waiting for that I stripped down to get into my base layers. The temperature wasn’t bad, but it was creeping down, and all the more so I predicted as I’d get higher up toward the pass. I switched on my bike lights as I got back onto the road.
Hwy 216 ends at 26, which is one of the main routes across the Cascades and eventually into Portland. Quiet time on the bike was over. Now the climb became steeper, and though I rode on a wide shoulder the traffic was intense at times. Headlights from oncoming traffic were blinding. Semis sounded like the end of the world coming up behind me as they charged up the climbs under full power. In the darkness I couldn’t help but feel small and vulnerable.
It was right about then that a Highway Patrol car suddenly pulled off the road ahead of me and turned on the party lights. My eyes, having adjusted to the dark were overwhelmed with the strobes of red, blue, and amber. I heard the doors open and could see vague shapes coming at me, one reaching for something on his belt. “Are you okay?” he asked. He pulled his flashlight from its holster and turned it on me.
“Some one called you in, said you might be in distress,” said the other officer.
A little dazed and disoriented, I said the first thing that came into my head. “I’m on a quest.” And because I immediately recognized that might be a crazy thing to say I added “I’m trying to set a new personal record.”
“You weren’t signaling for help back there?”
“No. I may have held up my arm to shield my eyes from the headlights… you know, so I could see where I was going. But I never signaled to anyone. I’m here on purpose.”
We chatted a bit about the route ahead and the officers asked if I had good brakes for the big downhill ahead. They also inspected my generator headlight and had me give the front wheel a spin to light it up to verify that my bike was street legal. They gave me a phone number to call to get me in touch with them in case of emergency and I thanked them for looking out for me and shook their hands. As the officers headed back to their car I tried to pedal away as gracefully as I could, almost totally blinded by the afterimage of the strobes and light bar burned into my retinas. I focused on the white line since it was all I could discern for a few miles.
Further up into the climb but not quite at the pass yet I begin to get the chills. There’s a gas station on the right. It’s closed, but I pull onto the tarmac to get another hat and sweater out. I got them on and went for a cup of coffee from the thermos. A Subaru pulled up and the driver rolled down his window. “You good?”
“You need anything? I live right over there,” he pointed to a house just up the highway. “I was just coming home and saw you over here, thought I’d check.”
“I appreciate it. I’m doing alright, just warming up a bit.”
“Good deal. Be safe out there. There’s a couple big climbs left, then it’s a crazy downhill. But that mellows out.” I thanked him and he drove off. Shortly after that I pedaled off, continuing to climb. A couple miles on and I crested Blue Box Pass, at 4025′, the highest point of the day (surprisingly, the second highest pass of my 4-day tour). From Blue Box there was a teaser of a downhill before the road leveled out and began to climb again into Government Camp. In the darkness above the road ahead I could barely make out the conical, distinctive shape of Mt. Hood, lit only by stars.
In the brief spaces between cars and trucks going or coming I could see mountains all around me, silhouetted against the night sky. The moon hadn’t risen yet, and I was beginning to wish it would; or that I had waited to make the crossing in daylight. But it was too late and entirely too cold up here to stop for the night. Besides this was turning out to be a pretty epic experience despite the lack of scenery. That deprivation made the mountains into something lurking or sinister. Their influence felt in the course and elevation of the road, or noticed like a shadow looming over your shoulder.
Just after 10pm I rolled into a rest stop off the highway in Government Camp, at the base of Mt. Hood. Minus the brief downhill from Blue Box Pass, up to here I’ve been climbing gradually for the last 40 miles, with an elevation change of over 3000′. I didn’t realize then but all that would be undone in the next 15 miles, in less than a half-hour, as highway 26 falls off Mt. Hood into the valley of the Sandy River. After using the rest stop’s facilities I ate a couple big spoonfuls of peanut butter, donned my helmet and gloves, and double-checked that everything was firmly attached to the bike and racks. Loosing anything at 40 mph could be deadly.
On this side of the mountain the road was built through more challenging terrain, requiring it to be narrower and windier. As the road began to descend I lamented my budget headlight. The beam is fine 95% of the time, but it just wasn’t able to illuminate far enough down the road to see trouble soon enough to react in time. The first part of the downhill was steep, dark, twisty, and sketchy enough that I just held the brakes on and coasted along at around 20 mph, and hoped for the best.
At the bottom of a particularly rough section of asphalt with a hairpin thrown in for kicks, I stopped to give my hands a rest, and let some of the tension out of my shoulders with a couple deep breaths. I calmed down and noticed first the sound of water falling, then I noticed the solitude. For a few moments I had this valley to myself– black silhouettes of mountains all around and high above against a million stars in a cloudless sky. A truck rounded the bend ahead, climbing slowly towards me, trailing a line of cars unable to pass. I moved on.
The descent indeed did begin to mellow out as the highway reached the valley floor. I passed through towns called Rhododendron, Zigzag, and Brightwood– mountain towns, inhabited by chair lift operators and Volkswagen mechanics, with good pizza and craft beers at the ready. It was late, of course, so most places were closed. Not that I wanted to stop. I was making good time now.
At the town of Sandy I turned off, taking Hwy 211 south, finally heading towards Estacada. I’m getting properly tired now, sluggish– I’m hitting the wall. There seems to be no end to a series of small climbs on the road that goes out of town and the swearing under my breath. I get out a Clif Bar and munch on it. My knees are shaking so I sit down on a guardrail. Within a minute another police car pulls up. This time he leaves the lights off. He gives me directions to the next turnoff but tells me to set up camp at the fire station up the road if I’m too tired. I thank him and tell that I’m too close not to get to Estacada.
I climbed what turned out to be the last climb of the day, past the fire station, then back downhill into fog so thick I could smell it. My shadow was cast on it from the headlights of cars passing from behind. It was like a huge, negative hologram of myself.
When I finally rolled in to Estacada it was nearly 2:30 am– everything was shut down for the night. There was a county park another five miles up the road where I thought about camping, but realistically I wasn’t going any further. The hotel in town was closed too, not that I was in a mood to pay to sleep somewhere.
The fog that settled over the town held in some of the warmth from the day, and muted all sound. I knew Amber would meet up with me somewhere, sometime in the morning, but I felt alone then, with no one to share in my small victory. I rode through the empty streets, looking for discrete campsites, making mental notes of places to get breakfast in a few hours. Eventually I came across a small park with picnic tables and huge cedars whose boughs shaded the ground underneath from the streetlights. I parked underneath one of these, took off my shoes and windbreaker, and climbed into my sleeping bag laid out on the damp, soft earth. I daydreamed of breakfast, Amber, and bathing at the hot springs, but never fully slept– I was too excited.