Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Days 86-88: On Pacific Sands, Triumphant

 10/18 Day 86: Mosier, OR to Portland, OR 77 miles (4414 miles)
       
                When we started stirring again in the morning, the sun hadn't yet risen, but Anna was already off to work and Chad could be found under the sink trying to fix the plumbing while Bjorn sat a few feet off and watched. Chad suspended his seemingly ill-fated endeavor long enough for us to make some toast and scramble about a dozen of their hand gathered eggs from the coop behind the house. We were all very happy to be preparing a meal in a kitchen, rather than on a picnic table in some park, and we ate our simple, but quite satisfying meal with gusto. Chad sat in the corner of the living room absently holding Bjorn and responding to us when we would engage him directly, but he seemed very content just relaxing with the baby and staying out of our bustling about as we readied our gear. Before we left, Chad offered us the use of his workbench if we so desired, and sent us off very warmly (he even drove after us when he found I'd forgotten my knife). Chad and Anna gave us a refreshing night and morning of rest, and we offer all the thanks we can muster for their hospitality.
The tunnel to the great beyond.
            Once on the road, we had no idea what to expect of the day ahead of us, but we were all excited to see what sights the now-lush and green river gorge had to offer us. We intended to make it all the way to Portland, but we also knew that there was nowhere to camp within about 15 or 20 miles of the city proper. So, as usual, we set off planning to plan on making plans as we went. We did have to do a little more riding on I-84, but the majority of our trip for the day was on Scenic Highway 30, the old highway that now is simply an access to hiking trails and points of interest in the cliffs around the river. First, we rode a section of the road that had been closed to automobiles and now serves strictly as a foot and bikepath. We went through a disused tunnel in the rock, and found ourselves speeding through the town of Hood River, which is a big wind-surfing Mecca in the area when the windy season is up (usually in the summer, thankfully). Someone told us that once past The Dalles, the annual rainfall steadily increased per town as we approached the ocean and the Coastal Range, which caused the marked change in the abundance of flora on the cliffsides. Hood River seemed like a very cool little town, and had a bunch of breweries (like Full Sail Brewing) and coffee houses to complement the wealth of outdoors oriented shops that we saw as well. From Hood River we ducked on to the highway for a quick 13 miles, then got off again for another long, steep climb up a scenic road. We saw huge pines as thick as my bike is long, slugs the size of meaty cucumbers, and more ferns and moss than you can shake a stick at. The air even seemed different, as it was laden with more humidity than we'd experienced since Kentucky. It felt like home in that regard, since we'd all grown up in humid, coastal areas, and the dry air and winds of the central part of the country had dried us out. The thick woods and plantlife also were a welcome sight, and reminded me of both New England and the thick Mid-Atlantic deciduous jungles of southeast Virginia.
Fern-gully is real.
Oh, Oregon, ye state of beauty concentrat'd.
           We rode on a bike path after Hood River that was so covered in moss you could barely see it, and it felt as though we were miles from anything, just riding our bikes through a rainforest replete with hanging mosses and small, flowing rivulets everywhere. As we got closer to Portland on 30, we passed a handful of huge waterfalls all easily hundreds- or maybe a thousand plus- feet tall. Water sprung out of the rock wall that lined the highway, which was practiccally in the river. Water and life were everywhere for the first time in so long it seemed as though our minds, bodies, and souls were all parched and exhausted, but were finally being re-hydrated by the long-awaited beauty of western Oregon. We climbed one ridge- another nearly vertical, switchback-y affair- that led us to a vista that overlooked the entire day's ride and all the glory of the green spaces that sprawled around us. The wind up there was fierce, and since we'd stopped for lunch (burgers and shakes in a small town called Cascade Locks) the strong, gusty blasts of maybe 30 or 40 had been propelling us westward. At the top, it was so strong that it would push us back a few steps when it would blow. We snapped some pictures and got off the top of the hill in short order, and were only about 20 miles from Portland.
Falls well that ends well.
              We wound through a bunch of small towns in the highlands just west of the city as we made our way toward Portland's center. Ben had gotten in touch with a friend of his who now lives in the Foster-Powell neighborhood in the southeast part of town, and his friend, Jeff, agreed to let us sleep in the basement of his shared house that night. We entered the city limits on Division Street, and rode that street all the way in to town (something I would probably not have done now that I've been in Portland for a few days, because of all the amazing bicycling infrastructure everywhere, but not on Division) toward Fo-Po. Jeff was out at a concert, so once we got in to his neighborhood we found the nearest, best rated pizza place we could ride to and grabbed some beers and a couple pizzas. The pizza was great, and the beers were much needed after a long day. We toasted our first beers in Portland and to the coming end of our journey, ordered a third pizza, and then made our way to Jeff's house where we showered and promptly passed out on our crash pads in the basement for our first night in what would be our new home town.

10/19 Day 87: Portland, OR to Clatskanie, OR 69 miles (4483 miles)

This is from the day before.... but the road to Astoria was
pretty lame.
           Jeff woke us up in the morning around 7:30 because he would soon have to head out for work, but wanted to be able to see us off. We ate some cereal and chatted with him for a little bit until he was on his bike and off to the rat race, leaving us to find our way out of the city and to points west. Navigating Portland is at first confusing, but because it is a city laid out on a grid, once you learn the major cross-roads and how the numbers and names flow it's quite easy. We, however, had no information other than a two minute primer Jeff had given us instructing us to take Clinton Street to whichever bridge over the Willamette we were aiming for and then to proceed from there. We found Clinton, and saw a plethora of other bicyclists moving around the city, zipping to and from appointments, work, and errands. Every kind of person can be seen on any kind of bike here in Portland, the concessions made to bike travel are simply amazing and you could cover 5 miles through Portland streets on a bike in the time it would take you to ride 2 in Boston. We wended our way through the unfamiliar and fascinating city until we found Voodoo Doughnuts, a Portland landmark and the makers of some of the most creative and delicious doughnuts we've had a chance to eat on the entire trip. From Voodoo, we made our way slowly and inefficiently out of the city until we met up with State Road 30, which would lead us all the way to Astoria.
            We were, at this point, feeling a little bemused by the circumstances. We had made it all the way across the country to the town we were going to move to, but now we were leaving that town to ride to the ocean on what seemed like a 'just because' portion of the trip. Obviously, we all were excited to do the full shebang and make it coast to coast, but arriving in the city brought to bear so many other, very pressing concerns. Where were we going to sleep when we got back from Astoria, and where would we find work? We willed these thoughts out of our minds and did as we had done for so many days and just spun the pedals until Portland was miles away. We stopped at a Subway in St. Helens for lunch around 20 or 30 miles outside of town, and tried to figure out where we were going to camp for the night. As usual, nothing really seemed to line up and our options were to ride 100 miles or 40, so we were momentarily stumped. Luckily, a quick internet search turned up a campground that was not on our maps and was ideally situated just outside of a little town about 35 miles away. Highway 30 was not the most ideal road ever, due to the high traffic volume, generally uneven pavement, and the amount of debris on the shoulder, but there was a shoulder, and even a bike lane in many places. We also saw two couples heading the opposite direction on loaded touring bikes. One pair was headed to Portland, and when we asked the other, especially fresh looking couple where they were headed, they enthusiastically replied "Around the World!!" We all gave each other a special brand of a 'they don't know what they're getting in to' look and shrugged saying to ourselves: "Well, good effin' luck, then."
              We had a real steep climb to get over just after the town of Rainier, and then we screamed down the other side to the very edges of Clatskanie, where we took a two mile detour from the route to find Perkins Creek Campground. The camp site was a nicely kept facility with a friendly owner and clean showers. We cooked what would be our last camp dinner, since we had a place lined up to stay in Astoria via warmshowers.org and set up camp for the last time, too. None of us was too upset over pitching the tents for the last time, but I think we all felt a slight sense of satisfaction that we had been roughing it for so long and were just around the corner from finally seeing the ocean again, and dipping our tires in the sea.

10/20 Day 88: Clatskanie, OR to the Pacific Ocean 47 miles (4530 miles)

            We woke slowly, none of us in a rush, because we knew our goal was well in hand. Astoria was only 38 miles away, now, and we had fairly easy terrain on our path to reach it. Our bodies were creaky, and a bit sore, and we were all mentally drained. We were ready, now, to find homes again, and for the comforts of friends and family that were just around the corner. Erin and I had already purchased flights home to get my car and visit loved ones for a week from today, and Ben and Mandi were eager to get back to Portland and find an apartment. In a way, the walls we'd built to hold back the rest of the world's pressures and obligations had already crumbled. In our minds we weren't bike tourists triumphantly finding the shore, we were 4 homeless, jobless bike hobos who were riding to the beach before going back to the city to live in a motel. This attitude significantly tempered our anticipation of making it to the shore, but we were nothing if not strong willed, and we would not let our doubt get the better of us now that we were so very close to the end of something monumental.
       We ate some croissants for breakfast at the picnic table in our campsite, and slowly broke down camp for the final time. We loaded our bikes and set off for the coast. The riding was good, and we made short work of the miles in front of us. We weren't going to stop until Astoria, and we took only a few breaks to replenish our energy from our dwindling food reserves. There was another killer hill that took us a while to summit, and then the terrain became a picturesque, rollercoaster of small hills with views to cloud-wreathed, low mountains covered in pines and craggy rocks. There were a few small farms, a few small fisheries, and many good views of the Columbia RIver, but we barely noticed. We were dead set on Astoria, and when we arrived around 1 or 2 in the afternoon, we were relieved, but disappointed. We had suspected that Astoria would have no good views of the ocean, and none of us would accept dipping our tires in the Columbia after having come so far. Just as we rolled in to town, it started to rain, so we ducked in to the Rogue Public House that is in town. We had some tasty brews and some alright food, and we weighed our options. We were around 15 miles from Fort Stevens State Park, which had beach access, and the other beach access was even further south than that. 15 miles is no big deal, but a 30 mile round trip is, so we had to figure something out.
Like baby turtles to the sea.
             While we ate, I studied a road map of the area on my smart-phone and saw that there was a small beach access road that was about 8 miles away. That settled it in our minds. Rather than stop again to pick up champagne, we grabbed 22 oz bottles of Rogue beer from the pub, and set out on our last ride. It didn't take very long for us to cross the bridge out of Astoria, or to find the beach access road, but what we found there had us surprised. The road was unpaved, super rocky, and after a quarter mile or so, it was deep sand and dunes. Now, I said we were a willful group, and there was no way we were going to turn around at this point despite the ridiculous scene we were making struggling to push 100 pound bikes through sand (which is very hard, and totally sucks). After 10 or 15 minutes of sweating and pushing the damned machines over the dunes we saw it: our first sight of the Pacific. It was magnificent. Because of our unorthodox approach to the beach, there was no one else there, and the view was stunning. To our south, the dark, jagged silhuouettes of coastal mountains jutted into the water, and to our north a wall of mist was slowly forming, and blocked off the sections of beach far in the distance where vehicles could be seen driving around. It was just us and the roaring sea. We straggled down to the shore like ragged desert wanderers finding a pool of clear, cold water. Our thirst for this place was deep, and finding it seemed only to highlight the unfathomable spiritual, physical, and mental need we had been feeling to get here.
         We were done. We scrawled our names and our final distance in the sand, took pictures of us dipping our tires, and rode around like mad idiots in the surf while waving our bottles of beer. We had made it.
           We lingered long on the beach, we must have been there for at least two hours just marveling at the waves. The sun began to set, and gave us a sight that I will never forget as it set off a wild, rosy smear of color across the clouds in front of us, and created the vibrant tip of a rainbow in the dunes behind while we and our bikes and all the errata that had sustained us and sheltered us lay strewn about the beach in between. We did it. Hell yes, we did it.
A victory.
            The sun was getting lower and lower, and we had to break the spell of the sea and get off the beach somehow. Erin, then, got a call from Chris, the man who would be hosting us in Astoria that night, and he offered to come pick us up right from the access road to the beach. We were really done, we didn't even have to ride back to Astoria. We gathered everything we had taken off the bikes, and wrestled them up the sand drifts again. The sun was fully set behind us by the time we found the road again, and Chris pulled up shortly after. As we left the beach behind, and became acquainted with Chris, we were all still a little numb and unsure about things. We had, none of us, ever doubted our ability to complete the trip, and in our minds we had finished nearly a week ago, but now we were very, definitely 'not going to be riding our bikes anymore' done, and the gear was being hauled away with us in a truck.
Going for the wheel dip.
            Chris took us back to his house in Astoria, and we spent the night just sort of lounging around and cooking a delicious chanterelle, potato, and corn stew while playing with Chris's dogs, cat, and getting to know him and his mentee Katie, who was a very sweet little girl and the victim of some bad circumstances. I gave up my sleeping pad so Katie could camp out with the big kids upstairs, and I fell asleep on the couch in the den. I slept poorly, and when we woke up we had to rush out to catch the bus back to Portland. It was a short 2 hour bus ride back to the west side of the city, and during the ride I spent most of my time catching up on the blog and staring out the window at the terrain whizzing by. When we arrived in Portland, and hauled our bikes out of the bus's undercarriage, we knew one trip had ended, but the next leg of our lives' journeys was just beginning. We mounted our loaded bikes, and rode off into the unknown again, as we had every day for 88 days before that. We didn't know even where we were going, or how to get there, but, once again, we rode.



Thanks  for reading from: Ben
Matt


Mandi

And Erin

See ya!
The 4200 Miles Crew


Friday, October 21, 2011

Days 81-85: Eastern Parts of West Coast States, Washington and Oregon Riding


10/13 Day 81: Winchester, ID to Pomeroy, WA 74 miles (4086 miles)

            The sun once again refused to rise today, and it promised to be another gray day of riding, but one that would at least offer us a nice long descent to start our day. We packed things up quickly and got out of the park in short order so that we could make our way to the gas station just a half mile or so away. We had some coffee and ate granola at the only table in the store, which was right in the middle of the place, so we had our hobo picnic right in everyone's way. Once we'd eaten our fill and were ready to go back out into the chilly morning, we cleaned everything up, threw on some warm clothes, and made our way out of town. The road out of Winchester was in pretty poor repair, covered in potholes and cracks, and made for some rough riding at first. Things improved as we made our way further out, and after a short while we found ourselves on the brink of a 2,000 ft descent on a wild, winding road.  The view of Idaho's rolling, golden hills (that honestly reminded me of big potatoes without any prompting) was commanding from our vantage, and the landscape seemed a little less drab today than yesterday- even if it was all in my mind. We zoomed down the hill, and it was a sweet reward for our whole day of climbing the day before. It was still kind of a hard pill to swallow, having to cash all our climbing chips in at once for a big splurge like that, but, obviously, I had no choice in the matter. We descended for probably  nearly 8 miles on the crazily curving road until it spat us out back onto State Road 95 where we paused at a gas station to collect ourselves and warm up with a cup of coffee.
           In front of the gas station, there was a very friendly little orange cat who seemed extremely laid back and quite happy to be pet by all of us. The clerk inside said that he was a stray and she was just feeding him. We sort of fell in love with the little guy, and I named him Happy Birthday because it was the day before Erin's birthday. We told the shop attendant that if she kept feeding him for a month, we would come back and get him when we drove through on our return trip to the west coast. She agreed, and hopefully Happy Birthday can avoid the rushing traffic in the area until we come to claim him. From the convenience store, we set off from 95 and got on a backroad that would take us out of the Nez Perce Reservation, through Hell's Gate State Park (which didn't look hellish in the slightest), and all the way to Clarkston, Washington. Clarkston is one of a pair of twin cities, the other being Lewiston, and was our gateway in to the West Coast states. Naturally, the first thing we did upon arrivng in Washington was sample some of their varied local cuisine. The McDonald's we ate at was very nice.
          Now that we'd arrived in a West Coast state, our overall mood improved, and it was a sweet thought that the huge rivers we were riding along would all flow into the Pacific from where we were. That made our arrival seem somehow imminent, that these waters were a direct connection to the sea and all we need do was follow them. From Clarkston, we followed the Snake River out of town until we began our daily requisite thousand or so foot climb. We chugged up the long incline, which didn't really have much to offer as far as scenery goes while we climbed- just more of the same sagebrush covered, rolling high hills. I realize that- at 1-4,000 feet- these hills are mountains, but, to quote our friend Charlie, "Those aren't mountains; those are just some li'l ol' lumpies." Once we'd crested the hill, we stopped briefly, then headed downhill toward Pomeroy. Pomeroy was only a few miles away, but we were still chasing daylight by the time we rolled in to the Pomeroy Fairgrounds, where the police had told us we could set up camp for the night. It was an ideal situation, because it was free, had shelter, power, and showers. We made the most of our sweet digs, showered off, and enjoyed the sound of rain hitting the roof over our tents as we slipped into sleep.

10/14 Day 82: Pomeroy, WA to Dayton, WA 47 miles (4133 miles)

             For Erin's birthday breakfast, we had some bagels and candy (of course) and Mandi presented Erin with a birthday cupcake that had a B with a bee on it stuck into the side. We decided that since it was a special occasion, we should go for a nice long bike ride together, and carry all our things with us- so we did. We got out of the fairgrounds at a fairly reasonable hour, and were planning to make it all the way to Walla Walla that day. I had never been to Walla Walla, and until now, had somewhat doubted that a Walla Walla, Washington ever really existed outside of a limerick. The day was, again, a bit uninspiring in regard to our surroundings. We had all, thus far, been so amazed that every state seemed to have its own distinct look. Washington, however, looked a lot like western Idaho...which looked suspiciously like southern Wyoming, and suffice it so say, we were a little put off. I don't know what I imagined Washington state to look like, but I knew that I wasn't seeing anything close to my most distant reckonings. We continued down the hill from Pomeroy along Rt. 12, which we'd been following since Montana. The road itself is generally poorly shouldered and well-travelled, and this day was no exception.
          We followed the not-so-direct road as it took us first northwest, then sharply south through the wild, winding acres of brown and gold. This, it seems, was grain and cattle country, and all the small hamlets we passed proclaimed their grain co-op's name in big bold letters. The fields we did see were already harvested and down to their winter stubble. Everywhere we stopped though, had a bit of a buzz to it, for reasons we weren't really sure of until we reached Dayton- a tiny, but charming town about 20 or 30 miles from Walla Walla. We stopped in at a little place called the Country Cupboard- which finally (FINALLY!!) wasn't spelled Kountry Kupboard. I don't know how, at all, this hasn't yet come up, but the amazing preponderance of businesses I have seen in thousands and thousands of miles that think it's cute, clever, or even acceptable to spell "C" words with the letter K blows my mind: Kid's Kabins, Kountry Kitchen, Kozy Korner, et cetera, et cetera. It absolutely drives me up a wall, and I can't think of any situation that I would give one of those businesses my money. This Country Cupboard, however, was both affordable and delectable, and was spelled properly to boot. It was here that we learned the reasoning behind the buzz in these small towns, too.
        As we were eating our lunch, a small, chubby boy of about 13 I'd guess, walked in and bought an ice cream. The woman behind the counter knew him by name, and asked if he'd be in again tomorrow for his sherbet. "No. Huntin'," was all that escaped his mouth from around the ice cream cone and he waddled out. Hunting season opened the next day in Washington, just as it had opened a week or so before in Idaho, and RVs and trucks with ATV's in the back and rifles in the window were like a plague on the highway. As we ate, we also began to try to make arrangements for our stay in Walla Walla, which is actually a college town (something none of us knew), and that never bodes well for us. As we've made our way across the country, we've noted that when camping is scarce- as it was in Walla Walla- the police are very unlikely to be too friendly if they're in a college town, because their good will has been spent by rampaging drunk pseudo-adults and their hijinks. We found all the campgrounds in Walla Walla were private, and closed to tenting, and the police told us that no overnight camping was allowed at all in city limits. So, we decided to say, "Screw you, Walla Walla" (which is actually kind of fun to say- go ahead and say it out loud) and just spend the evening in Dayton celebrating Erin's birthday by eating pastries and drinking beer.
Ben and Mandi smart-phone voraciously in the desert.
          We managed to get some laundry done, I updated the blog at the local library, and we reconvened at the Book and Brew, a book store and brewpub, for drinks. After some nachos and a big quesadilla that fed us all, we chatted for  bit before we finally wrapped everything up, collected our laundry, and set out of town the 7 or 8 miles to the Lewis and Clark Trail State Park. On the way out of town, I was the fortunate recipient of flat tire 17, which was a tag team effort between a big thorn and a big rock. We were going to get there just after dark, but now we were simply going to be doing most of our riding in the dark. Once we did finally get to the park, it was packed with campers and RVs hungrily awaiting their chance to go hunting. As we wound down the day, we listened to hunters tell tales about friends of friends' guns and the whine of RV electric generators lulled us to sleep.

10/15 Day 83: Dayton, WA to Hat Rock State Park, OR 71 miles (4204 miles)

             We had another bagel breakfast to kick things off in the now completely empty campgrounds. All the hunters were out bright and early trying to nab some game, and we were out just as early as we could be to climb the hill the lay between us and Walla Walla. We ducked off of Rt. 12 after Waitsburg to begin our ascent,  one of only 500 feet or so vertical, and we glad to be off the congested highway. When we reached the top of the hill, we were met by a group of maybe 5 or 6 cyclists heading the opposite way. They were, we gathered, part of some cycling club at the college in Walla Walla and they had just finished their side of the climb when we came upon them. "Some hill, huh?" they asked Ben. "Well... not really," was about as dry a response as he could muster. We related to them, quickly, our experiences with the WWPD and camping in town and they said we could've crashed on their dorm rooms floors, which was generous, but even we homeless vagabond bicyclists have standards. We descended from there in to more of Washington's tarnished gold hills, and were passed by a few trucks jammed full of men in orange day-glo hats and jackets 'hunting' from the seat of their cars. They would pull over, all pile out, and then look around intently with their binoculars- all of them hefting rifles, of course. They would stare at the two or three does in the field for 15 minutes or so, when we would pass them, and then pile back in to the truck and leap frog us for the next deer voyeur session to come.
             When we got to Walla Walla, we intended to basically just blow through town, but then we saw a grocery store and decided to take a pit stop for supplies and lunch material. I had never seen a Safeway before we got to Montana, but Safeway grocery stores are awesome (maybe just because I've been starving every time I've been in one). Outside of this one, we chatted with some very friendly folks doing a food drive for needy kids and ended up donating a few packages of our unused pancake mix to lighten our loads and do a good deed for the hungry Walla Wallans. We left town with a much higher opinion of the city and its people than when we entered, even though one of the nice women out front of the store had said, "Yep, gloomy and miserable, that's Walla Walla," after we mentioned the rain lately- and the fact that the sun refused to shine on us basically wherever we went.
Very strong.
      After Walla Walla, it was only a short 18 miles to the Oregon border, a landmark we've been eagerly anticipating for months now. We knew that there, too, we would encounter the mighty Columbia River for the first time and hoped that with the abundance of water would come a change of scenery. As we neared the river, a ridge covered in a vast field of huge wind-turbines came in to view. This ridge was the edge of the Columbia River Gorge, where the flowing water has etched its path. We slowly made our way around the ridge, and, finally, to the water. The Columbia seemed like an ocean in itself, and its wide body stretched around a bend to our north and proceeded around another as it made its way to the sea to our southwest, creating a long, wide viewscape of nothing but water and high, scrubby hills.  Not long after our first glimpse of the river, we made it, at last, to Oregon. We toasted with a few beers, took some pictures, and rested for a minute on the railroad tracks to take in the scene around us. The river flowed by, meandering and ponderous, the hills stood ageless watch over its banks, and we four transients sat on a railroad track, eating candy and drinking beer.
       It wasn't long, though, til we were back on our bikes, a bit invigorated by our little victory for the day. We rode on at high(er) speed until we found Hat Rock State Park. Hat Rock, as best we could tell, is a little basalt pillar on the riverside that, if you squint, looks something like a hat. We eschewed the free camping a few miles before the park, because we'd been told to watch out for the junkies and other outcasts who had basically taken up residence there, and went for the fee sites next to the park. We had a little feast  of bread, pasta with shrimp and teriyaki sauce, and a beer apiece to celebrate being in Oregon, and then we fell back in to the nightly routine of showering, organizing, and slowly getting more tired by the fire until it was 9:30 or so, and bed time.

 10/16 Day 84: Hat Rock State Park, OR to West Roosevelt, WA 63 miles (4267 miles)
           
            Where the day before we had been excited, because we would be entering Oregon, today we were all a bit nonplussed by the fact that we would be re-crossing the border in to Washington, where we would ride another 85 miles or so until we could re-enter Oregon for good. The reason for or crossing was that I-84 dominates much of the Oregon side of the river, and we wanted to avoid our eventual fate of bicycling on the highway for as long as we could. If we'd known how crappy the road was on the Washington side, we probably would have rather taken the highway, but how could we have known. We rose, ate breakfast, and got on the road quickly, if slightly unenthusiastically. The scenery around us had gone from golden and rolling to brown, rocky, and totally devoid of life. As we made our way through the day's miles, we began to see that Oregon and Washington had made wise decisions when they designated the few large swatches of land north and south of us for the two things the barren land was good for: wind farms and ordinance testing. If there was little to see, there were even fewer human settlements in this part of the state. We passed a couple three and four building towns that used to have cafes or gas stations, but those businesses which were still recognizable seemed to have already shut their doors for good.
Not good for much other than wind farms.
Mt. Hood looms in the distance.
           We had hoped to really fly through this part of the state, and had ambitiously plotted a 90 mile course for the day, but as things progressed, we realized that would be far out of our reach by the time night fell. Rough road conditions and a light, but steady headwind made it feel like we were riding through mud, and we ground our way through the miles as terrain and time seemed to crawl by. We hardly made any stops on this section of the ride, because of the paucity of any kind of inviting areas to do so, be it a grove our shade trees or a wayside gas station. The only place we did take a rest was at an community church in a tiny town we'd hoped to buy some lunch. The woman there was around 80 and very chatty and kind. She tried to give Mandi a few bottles of water, and when Mandi refused, saying she could simply drink tap water, the woman insisted by saying, "No, no, please take them. I don't even like cold water."
          We made a lunch of the assortment of snacks and food in our panniers, and then were off down the blasted river valley again. Eventually, we made it to Roosevelt, WA, where there is a bar, a convenience store, a park, and a few houses. We skipped the bar, and went straight to the store to find some food. After some ice cream, we all felt a little better about the tough ride that had our knees and backs aching. We rolled down the hill to the fishing access and park, where we could camp for free, and set up right on the banks of the Columbia. We threw something together for dinner, and found ourselves asleep early yet again, all yearning to finally be at the ocean.

10/17 Day 85: West Roosevelt, WA to Mosier, OR 70 miles (4337 miles)

             The drab landscapes and monotonous riding were beginning to take a toll on our collective sanity, I think, as we slogged through the eastern parts of Oregon and Washington. I found myself counting the miles as they ticked by on my bike computer, and at each featureless, highway incline where truck after truck would whizz by, I would find myself enjoying the ride less and less. We hoped that, somehow, things would change. Where was the the gorgeous pine forest we'd seen in Idaho, where were the beautiful river valleys of Montana? If everyone across the country had told us Oregon was beautiful and that we would love it, why was it just not that nice?
           We ate some cereal on the curb by the convenience store for breakfast after we'd ridden up the mile or so from camp. The old lady running the shop there gave us some apples and bananas for the ride, and we headed out. We knew we only had about 36 more miles or so on the poorly paved road that ran on this side of the river, and only 36 miles left until we passed back to the Oregon side, which somehow comforted us all. We averaged around 8 or 9 miles an hour to cover the day's first leg of riding, and didn't cross the river until about 4 hours were elapsed. We were glad to be back in Oregon, and took lunch at a truck stop in Bigg's Junction. The road from there was the old scenic highway 30, that we would ride on and off all the way to Portland. Interspersed with the sections on 30 were portions of riding on the interstate. We didn't know exactly where we would end up for the day, since there was no campground or park where it was legal to camp between us anywhere closer than 100 mile ride for the day, but we knew we would find something, as we have for so long. Riding on the interstate actually proved to be somewhat relieving for us, because the road was smooth, direct, and fast. We shot over the debris-strewn blacktop at double the speed we'd been making the last couple days. When we pulled off the highway for what would be the last time that day, it was with the intention of riding on just a few more miles past a town called The Dalles (The Dalz, is how you're supposed to say it) and stealth camping in one of the state parks down the road.
            When we arrived at the entrance to the park, we noticed there was a pair of cyclists behind us, so we waited up for them to ask if they knew anything about the area. The couple made there way to where we stood waiting, and, when asked about the area, the man stopped and immediately began extolling the virtues of the upcoming mile or so of riding we had to do. He was a Canadian fellow, and said he often came down to Oregon to ride the hill we were about to go up, and the sections of scenic highway that lay beyond. He told us that the road we were on led up to Rowena Crest- which we were just about to ascend- and it was built "back when cars were shitty" and couldn't climb very well. It was supposed to be a beautiful ride, and  one he recommended we do a few times today if we had time, and again in the morning.  We were, of course, pretty skeptical of his enthusiasm, given the nature of the surrounding area we'd ridden through to get where we were. The man also said that our ride to Portland, which was at this point less than 100 miles away, would be one filled with fantastic natural sights as we rode through rainforest, saw waterfalls, and all the rest. When they left, we figured why not see if he was right about the beauty of this climb, and just go for it, even if the sun would be setting in another hour or so. We decided we could just find somewhere to camp along one of the upcoming bike paths if we had to.
The scenery transformed, trees overlay the yellow,
patchy soil.
           The man turned out to be dead on about the climb up Rowena Crest. It was as if someone had flipped a switch from miserable desert to gorgeous forest. As we climbed the land around us changed, foot by foot. We crawled up the little switchbacks that were crammed against the side of the ridge, but as we did the trees became more and more numerous, with more and more undergrowth filling the gaps between them. To make things even better, about three quarters of the way up the hill (which was probably about 800 feet of elevation gain in the mile or two) a couple in a black Subaru with a bike rack pulled up next to us and told us that they lived just on the other side of the hill, and would love to host us at their house for the night since they themselves were avid cyclists. Buoyed further by this development, we were practically ecstatic. Once on top of the hill, we scampered around and took pictures of the now-lovely state around us, then zoomed down the other side to the house of Chad, Anna, and their 5-month old baby, Bjorn.
It's good to be in Oregon...
        Chad and Anna used to live in Portland, but moved out to the area near The Dalles because they love area surrounding the town. They said they used to leave Portland every weekend to recreate out there, so they figured why not move that way. Their house is also on a lovely piece of property tucked into a little canyon just on the other side of the ridge. They raise chickens, their child, and have a huge garage full of fun outdoor toys- most of which are bicycles. They were great hosts and let us shower, do some laundry, use their kitchen, and they gave us a room upstairs to sleep in. We hadn't stayed in someone's home since my cousin's place in Denver, and it was avery nice change of pace from the wet, damp nights we'd been having lately. Their hospitality was truly the icing on the cake, or rather, the cherry on top, to what had turned out to be a wonderful, and beautiful, day of bike riding.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Days 76-80: Dodging Rain, Searching for Sea-Level, Finding Idaho


10/8 Day 76: Sula, MT to Florence, MT 69 miles (3815 miles)

The sun finally shines on us in the valley.
               The weather was predicted to warm up today, and stay sunny and pleasant for the day after, as well, so we aimed to get the hell out of Montana. It's not that we didn't think Montana was nice, and not that we didn't like the people, but the cold, rain, and elevation were good motivators for flight. When we woke up in Sula, we found ourselves in another of the frigid mists that seem to envelope every mountain in this state. It was cold enough that in the simple act of packing up the wet, condensation coated tent I had to run to the bathroom and warm my hands over the space heater a couple times just to chase the painful chill of the morning air. We made a simple breakfast of bagels and peanut butter to get us started and we were told by the owners of the campground that the freezing cloud of moisture in the valley would dissipate as we lost elevation and as the day wore on. Sarah told us that she intended to hang out in her tent for a few hours to wait on her riding partners, and to wait out the cold. We bid her goodbye, and sped down into the valley as quickly as possible. The morning was a brisk 39 degrees in Sula, and it slowly warmed as we descended into the Bitterroot Valley. As we neared the next town, Conner, we saw hints and small signs that the sun did, in fact, still exist in some parts of the state, but it wasn't until we reached Darby that we finally had shadows again and could feel warmth once more. I've learned not to take many things for granted on this trip such as running water, walls and roofs, and soft places to sit, but sunlight has been my newest lesson.
A lone ponderosa stands next to
a sun-tipped snowcap.
            As we went lower and lower into the Bitterroot Valley along the Bitterroot River, we began to see things we hadn't seen in thousands of miles. Towns that were less than 30 miles apart, appreciable amounts of trees, and gatherings of people more than 10 strong. We were coming back into a population center, of sorts, and it was refreshing. Since northern Colorado towns and services have been extremely far flung- people as well. Thankfully, being in a group, we have not been starved for company, but the loneliness and desolation one must feel riding alone has to be palpable in the high plains of Wyoming or the arid reaches of Colorado's mountain passes. (As an aside, the weather in Montana has been rainy and cold, but in Wyoming- where we were only a week or two ago- it's snowing in nearly every town we recently passed through. So, it could be worse. West Yellowstone was getting freezing rain...) The towns passed one after the other, but we were gunning for Hamilton, and needed to get there before noon. Much of our motivation for scrambling over the mountains regardless of wind and weather was because of a "The more crappy weather we ride in now, the less crappy weather we have to ride in later" mentality. The other reason was because we needed to pick up our mail that friends, family, and well-wishers had so thoughtfully arranged to have waiting for us in Lolo, MT. We knew days in advance that Lolo might not be achievable before the holiday weekend locked down the postal service, and we got lucky when someone we contacted via warmshowers.org knew a man who worked at the Hamilton post office. This fellow was kind enough to have our mail transferred from Lolo to Hamilton, and get our goods 30 something miles closer.
Adrift in a sea of loot. Thanks everyone!
               That 30 something miles made all the difference, because we rolled in to Hamilton at 11:45 and 15 minutes before the place shut down for the rest of Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. We were the grateful recipients of at least 9 or 10 packages, and we had our little Christmas celebration out in the post office's lawn. Special thanks again go to my sister Jeanna, and brother-in-law Will, Erin's mom, Ben's parents, Margaret Mazz, Mandi's Mom and Aunt Sue, and Mandi's friends from the Cape for all the baked goods, treats, and knick-knacks, because they really made our day. The sun was finally shining, we had a ton of cookies to eat, and the rest of the day would be mostly flat or downhill. Is there any better outlook for a cyclist? To make things even better, the day had warmed up to a nearly scorching 60 degrees, and we could remove our cold weather apparel. We ate a tasty lunch at a small, artisan sandwich shop in town, and then hit the road in an effort to make it to Lolo for the day. We rode through a number of smal towns in the valley, and were entirely absorbed in the astounding scenery as we rode. The Bitterroot and Sapphire mountains ring the area, and they were breathtaking with the sun shining down on them. The gold grasses and snowy peaks were covered majestically by towering ponderosas and a rainbow of greens comprised of a cornucopia of other evergreens. We rolled through Stevensville, and then to the outskirts of a little town called Florence, where I got another flat tire. Flat number sixteen prompted me to just slap my spare tire and a new tube on the wheel after an hour of dithering about with the damned thing, because I just didn't want to deal with it anymore.
Barnes: One of a kind guy.
          By that time, the sun was on its way down, and we decided that we should opt for a closer campground than Lolo. We settled on the Chief Looking Glass Campground and Fishing Access, becasue it was only a few miles away and likely free. Upon arrival we made camp, chopped some wood, and made a new friend. Barnes was a North Carolinian who had moved to Montana because it "spoke" to him in a way no other place ever had. He was camping at the campground that night because he refused to pay rent anywhere until he could finally build his cabin in the mountains there in the Bitterroot Valley. Barnes was also a pretty rad guy who was very upbeat, and gave us a bit of 'trail magic' in the form of food. We had a mini potluck that night. We cooked up the pasta and beans that we had, and he offered up the seaweed salad, calamari, and crawdads he had bought earlier at Safeway. We shared some booze, and talked about life on the trail (since he through-hiked the Appalachian Trail in '05) around a nice roaring fire next to the river until it was well into the night. After Barnes headed back to his site, we all crashed out into our tents a bit enlivened by the day and the company, and eager for the next day, which promised to be another rain-less affair.

10/9 Day 77: Florence, MT to Lochsa Lodge, Powell, ID 55 miles (3870 miles)

Cyclists' Convention at Lolo Pass.
            The night was a very cold one, and our sleep was only interrupted a couple times by roiling yelps and yips of coyotes and one elk bugling in the still darkness. When we woke, the tents, bikes, and everything in sight were covered by a thick, white rime and, yet again, it was cold as hell. We had a hard time even getting out of the tents until the sun dared peek out from behind the trees and wispy mists to grant us a modicum of warmth. Still pacing back and forth around the campsite to stay warm, I ate a very delicious meal of my sister's homemade granola with some whole milk as the sun played peek-a-boo with us. When the light finally did fully emerge, we spread our tents to dry as we leadenly arranged our things for the day ahead. Once packed, we said our goodbyes to Barnes, and it was off to conquer our final mountain pass: the Lolo Pass at 5,200 feet. Basicaly every high point left on the trip is the last time we will be at that elevation. The Lolo Pass will be our last ride at 5,000 ft, and then 100 something miles later will be our last trip up to 4,000, and then after that we basically bottom out to 2,000 and 1,000 until our final return to sea level. "Excited" might not be the word to describe the overall mood of the group as we approached the pass, but the climb had the air of anticipation that all of our days leading up to interesting milestones or big efforts do. It was again numbingly cold as we rode toward Lolo- only 6 miles from the campground- but we got a late start thawing everything out.
Best spuds.
             The last four days or so, we have basically been riding machines, and have hardly stopped for breaks or extended meals. Our level of fitness is as high as it's been the entire trip, and terrain doesn't really even faze us anymore, nor does weather. That's not to say that we're some band of √úbermensch coursing across the land heedless of all obstacle, but our mentality has hardened to the point that whatever is in front of us we simply need to ride our bikes over it, and, given enough time, we can ride over  or through anything. So, Lolo Pass was the next thing. The grade was low and easy as we climbed, and the evergreen forest around us thickened as we went higher in elevation. It wasn't more than a few hours til we reached the top of the pass and, with it, the Idaho border. We didn't really have much of a plan for where we were going to be sleeping that night, or any idea at all what to expect from Idaho in the first place, so we pulled over at the rest stop on top of the hill to get some water and take stock of our situation. As we waited, one touring cyclist, Sharon, pulled up and began chatting with us about her ride. She, too, was planning to move to Oregon, and maybe even start her own business when she got there. As we talked with her, two more cyclists showed up at what was becoming a convention of sorts. The other two were a Brit and some other style of European heading south to Central America, and they weren't extremely interested in chatting with us. Sharon, however, was a super friendly lady, probably in her late 30s, who gave us a ton of good information about camping and the road ahead. We said goodbye to her, and the others, and set off down the hill and into Idaho.
Preparing to descend into Idaho.
              We set off downhill and our first sight was an amazing view of the beautiful valley carved out by the Lochsa River as it wound its way out in front of us. Golden sun, emerald trees in so many shades of green I don't know names for them, and the ever-present cobalt of the roadway stretched out before us. Idaho... somehow we were here, and it was unexpectedly gorgeous. What must Lewis and Clark, whose route we are now shadowing, have thought when they first saw this incredible treasure trove of natural scenery? I have found that the states for which I have had no expectations have been my favorite thus far. Ohio, Missouri, and now Idaho have all stuck out in my mind as some of the most beautiful states in the country. Sharon had given us a list of hot springs and their mile markers where we could also find free camping, so we felt like we had a good handle on where we wanted to end up for the night until we ran across the Lochsa Lodge. The Lodge is apparently the only indoor accommodation and/or restaurant in the Clearwater National Forest for almost 100 miles, and they had free wifi, a bar, and free camping. It was something of a no-brainer to pull in here for the night. We set up our tents, and as we did, the European couple pulled in right behind us. They didn't say much to us, so we generally just ignored each other and went about our own business for the night. Promptly we spent easily quadruple what we would have paid anywhere else for camping in the Lodge's restaurant and bar. I was feeling a bit fancy and got a very tasty porkchop and a nice glass of Idaho Cabernet Sauvignon, which was delicious. We had been so cold and wet the last few days that I felt like I wanted a bit of a treat, and being able to lounge in the lodge's common room next to the fireplace was an added bonus. After dinner, we found our way back outside to the tents and slept a very contented sleep.

10/10 Day 78: Lochsa Lodge, Powell, ID to Lewis and Clark Resort, Kamiah, ID 95 miles (3965 miles)

             The day started off on a very good foot with big pancakes and some coffee in the lodge, and a pretty early start to our day of riding. The day was laid out perfectly for us, except that a bit of rain was in the forecast for the afternoon, and we were all in high spirits with the knowledge that we could expect a whole day's worth of downhill in front of us from nearly 5,000 ft down to 1,000 ft.  The scenery was once again amazing, even though the sun refused to peek out from behind the gray ceiling of clouds that, except for a day and a half in Montana, had been a constant for days. We zoomed down the hills and crazily winding Rt. 12 that parallelled the Lochsa and, later, Clearwater River. We were doing what ended up being an average speed of nearly 15 mph for the day, which, for us, is flying). We saw otter splashing in the river, and playing with one another on the banks. We got a good long look at a big, gangly bull moose as he ran away from us in one of the parking lots for a Department of Transportation waystation. As we rode, the smell of green, fresh, pungent pine whirled all around us. We rode and rode, and hardly stopped all day but for a snack here and a bathroom break there.  It was easily one of my favorite days of riding on the trip, I never knew that anywhere in the country could be so wild and paradisical. The road we were on cuts right through the Clearwater National Forest and is flanked to the south by one of the country's biggest wildernesses, the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, where there is almost no trace of human existence beyond a few fire roads and hiking trails. Hunters, backpackers, and RVs were everywhere- it is a natural playground there, and it beats the hell out of Yellowstone in my opinion.
             We went on until the rain started to fall, and then started to fall harder. We were getting soaked, but accepted it with moderately good cheer, considering that it was closer to 55 degrees than 35 and we had a good chance of finding a hot shower and a laundromat to dry our things out after the ride was through. Even in the rain, I was still having a private love fest with the scenery around me, and I think I definitely enjoyed it more than the other three. After a while riding in the rain, we were full-on wet and stopped in at the first commercial establishment we'd seen since the lodge, Ryan's WIlderness Campground & Cafe. The prices here, just as in so many of the cafes we've been to since Wyoming, were higher than one would expect. However, when you take in to account the remoteness of these establishments, and the cost of transporting material, the gouging is a bit more acceptable. Another reason for the increased prices is the difficulty of finding and retaining staff. A man in West Yellowstone told us that their McDonald's was the most expensive in the country because they had to pay their workers well above minimum wage to keep them all from quitting and leaving in the brutal winters. We ate as cheaply as we could at Ryan's, and just had some soup and coffe (and a milkshake, of course) to get us out of the rain.
The view from the campground.
          As we ate, we checked out the maps and searched out a likely spot for the night. I located one just south of Kamiah, which I misread as Kooskia- the town 5 miles south of Kamiah- and sort of screwed us into riding about 8 miles further than we wanted. We pulled in to the Lewis and Clark Resort & Campground just before full dark and made good use of their showers and laundry facilities before calling it a night. We decided that we would also take a day off there the following day, and scrap the plan we made in West Yellowstone of riding without a break all the way to the coast. Even though we'd ridden further than we thought we were going to, it was an excellent day's ride and any day we can so effortlessly cover so much ground is a good day in my book, even if we don't arrive til after dark.

10/11 Day 79: Day off in Kamiah at Lewis and Clark Resort

          Our day off was probably the most sedentary day off we've had the entire trip. The weather was supposed to be rainy all day, so we'd planned to just hang out in the campground's cafe and use their wireless internet all day. It only rained off and on during the day, but we barely moved at all. We ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner at their restaurant and I spent most of the day staring at my computer screen. We used the day primarily to search for apartments and I applied for a job. It was a bit of a depressing day, because all the unpleasant topics that we hadn't had to deal with for months like work, bills, and all the other crap were finally rearing their ugly heads once more. I sort of imagine the trip like crossing a long bridge over a wide canyon; we've been walking across for so long that we'd been able to believe that all there was to the world was air, wind, cloud, the bridge, and whatever was below us. Now, we were seeing the land again for the first time. Of course we all knew the trip would end, and that we would not be in the most enviable positions financially or logistically when we did arrive, homeless and jobless, in Portland, but combining moving, job hunting, and apartment hunting into one big mess basically sucks.
          Erin and I also booked our plane tickets back to the East Coast, where we will retrieve my car and reconnect with all our friends and family before making another road trip back to the West Coast. This meant we were close enough to the end to guess with some accuracy when we would arrive; that we were 10 days or so away from our long awaited goal was both exciting and frightening. We have so much to do, so little time, and still a lot of riding to do, but hardly any riding to do in comparison to what we'd already done. Dizzying, I know. Anyway, we wasted the day trying to find apartments and jobs in a place we've never been, but made reasonable progress at both, and went to bed a bit uneasy at how nigh the end has become.

10/12 Day 80: Kamiah, ID to Winchester, ID 47 miles (4012 miles)
           
               When we got on our bikes today, after another big pancake breakfast, things felt a little different. We were so close to the end that some variation of 'senioritis' had set in, and we simply didn't feel like riding, especially since one of our remaining big climbs was right in front of us. It was actually our second largest elevation gain in a single day, the first being from Canyon City to Guffey, CO and around 3,300 feet. Today we were going to be riding something of a large detour to get around an especially dangerous segment of Rt. 12; we figured to gain about 3,000 ft, but, unlike that day in Colorado where we climbed 3,300 feet and did only around 34 miles, today we were gunning for closer to 50. It was going to be a pretty tough day of bike riding, and no one felt like doing it. However, our choices were ride our bikes or live in Kamiah, Idaho, so we rode our bikes. After a short two mile ride, we found ourselves in the center of Kamiah, mailing postcards and checking out their grocery store. Kamiah, just like Kooskia, was inside the borders of the Nez Perce Indian Reservation, which we'd entered just the day before. I know very little about the Nez Perce except that Sacajawea was a Nez Perce and it's pronounced (Nez, like it's spelled, and purse like the accessory) which made me imagine a whole scenario where a man and Sacajawea enter a room after going handbag shopping, where their friend is waiting. The friend says, "Hey, that's a nice purse" as he gestures to their new purchase, which Sacajawea is holding. The man says, "Yeah, it's Sacajawea." "What's a sack of jawea?" asks the friend. "She's a Nez Perce." he replies. "That's what I said in the first place!" the friend exasperatedly replies.
        I realize that is a terrible joke. I apologize. The more I thought about the Nez Perce Reservation as we climbed the hill, the more variations of this same awful joke were running through my head, and I subjected Erin to about four of them, each with a new, slightly worse piece of word-play. There was one where Lewis and Clark discover a group of Nez Perce, and talk about Coach, but are referring to horse and wagon teams... it just kept going. So, I had to inflict it on you, dear reader, because it was stuck in my head like a bad Linkin Park song. Anyway, we left Kamiah and began our long ascent into the hills of Idaho. These hills were much more like the Idaho I'd imagined: drab straw colored mounds, rolling featureless as far as the eye could see. It was as if the entire day were conspiring all together- scenery, terrain, and strange Native American related puns- to be totally unpleasant. We climbed and climbed, then when we were tired of climbing, we'd stop and take a break, then climb some more. We chugged along at about 4-5 mph until we reached State Road 95, which was much more mercifully paved and graded. We had a little picnic on one of our tarps by the roadside and commiserated over salami sandwiches and mini Butterfingers while freight traffic whizzed by. We'd managed just 25 miles by 2 PM, but we'd known long before this point that the 80 mile day we'd hoped for was a pipe dream, and 40 something would have to do.
             After lunch, we creakily got back on our bikes, backs and knees aching a bit, to ride the remaining distance. One thing I have enjoyed most about camping lately (since I bought my hatchet, at least) is the prospect of a nice fire to warm up next to at the end of the ride and even though we'd been sweating on the climb up, the day still had a definite chill to it, so I daydreamed about a cozy blaze while we spun our pedals away and slowly gained ground. We passed some barely registerable small towns, some farmland, and two gas stations before finally reaching our goal for the day: Winchester Lake State Park. This park is not an especially beautiful one, though it does have tons of geese, and is the only camping option for miles and miles. We foraged some deadfall for firewood and had our campfire rolling in minutes. We settled into camp for the last time at 4,000 ft and I did a little writing, we made dinner, and we slowly found our way into our tents.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Days 72-75: Things Get Gritty When the Big Sky Opens Up


10/4 Day 72: West Yellowstone, MT to Ennis, MT 73 miles (3563 miles)
 
Earthquake Lake in the rain. You can see the trees that once
populated the valley sticking up above water.
          Powered up from our days indoors, we rose and ravaged the free breakfast- then walked away with as much as our pockets could carry. We said our goodbyes to Ray (Good Luck on the rest of your trip, Ray!) and he sped off to Red Lodge, MT where his next day of brewery work is lined up. The day outside looked very unencouraging: gray clouds and rain ringed the town, threatening from all sides. We knew this day would come, when the weather would finally turn against us, and we set out with grim determination and our raingear to protect us. The sun's rays didn't reach us for the first 20 miles at all as the cloud shrouded mountains glowered down at us, and we soggily spun our way through the light, but very cold rainfall that started just as we left West Yellowstone. We meandered north, then west around Earthquake Lake, which was formed in 1959 when a 7.5 magnitude quake caused a massive landslide, damming the Madison River and creating a 120 foot deep, four mile long lake that consumed 3 miles of the highway, an entire campsite, and several human lives. All the while bands of rain rolled over us off and on as the winds drove the weather north ahead of us. Our goal, Ennis, was an achievable one, we knew, because we were due to lose about 1,700 feet of elevation on our day's course. Nonetheless, it was a trying day for our morale as the rain came and went, then came again, sometimes with driving winds up to 25 miles an hour that whipped the water into us and made what was already a 50 degree day seem that much colder.
The sun breaks through.
Rainbow by the mountains.
           Despite the wet weather, the scenery was fantastic. Montana's mountains are truly something fresh out of a wilderness catalog, and between the rain showers, we saw at least four rainbows vibrantly peeking through the drear, scores of antelope grazing and lively magpies flitting about in the gold grass fields, and were the beneficiaries of a blustering tail-wind for the last 30 miles or so of the ride. We definitely paid the price of admission for the show, though, and by the time we took our first break at a rest stop about 35 miles in, our socks and gloves were more wet than dry and a chill had certainly found its way into our bones. We waited out one last ripping sheet of rain under a shoddily built shelter at the rest stop while we devoured a package of dollar store cookies and then nearly flew the rest of the way to Ennis. From the rest stop, we stayed mostly dry while averaging nearly 20 miles an hour to town and arrived there at about 5 o clock. Even though the day had been challenging earlier, we still made 70 miles in the fastest time we ever have, and then found a bar with $1 tacos to cap it all off. Erin and I ordered 8 tacos and a pair of beers, scarfed them in short order, and relaxed. We were also happy in the knowledge that if we could keep up the pace of 70 miles a day, we would be on the Pacific in less than two weeks and out of the elements for good.
           Ennis is a very picturesque little town, and their welcome sign says "Home of 800 people and 11 million trout," due to the fact that there is a national trout hatchery run within the town limits. There are also tons of little fly fishing shops and guides available; this, combined with the abundance of game animals running around in the huge ranches we've seen, really make Montana a sportsman's dream- even if it isn't always a cyclist's dream. We made camp just outside of town in a small fishing access area where camping is cheap (and free if you don't pay) and built up a little fire with some wood that we found. As the fire burned down, the clouds continued to threaten but thankfully held off and granted us a reprieve while we cooked and dried out our soggy clothes by the small blaze. We went to bed knowing the forecast was grim for the next few days, but optimistic- still- that the rain would hold off and the wind would die down.
     
10/5 Day 73: Ennis, MT to Twin Bridges, MT 51 miles (3614 miles)

The mountains stand by and watch as we climb.
          The morning started with a cold drizzle that quickly faded, but the wet chill that had been present the day before stayed on. We didn't want to cook and eat out in the damp, so we ducked into the coffee shop in town for a quick cup of joe and a muffin. From there it was  into the cold and on toward the next stop: Virginia City. Virginia City was once the territorial capital of Montana, and at one time had a population in the thousands. Predictably, when the gold was spent, the town started to die off and when the rail lines were built in the area, Virginia City was passed over, exacerbating its decline. Nowadays, Virginia City is mostly a historic preservation project that is on top of a very long, steep hill- about 2,000 feet over ten miles from Ennis. The forecast had called for rain, but the showers all seemed to pass us over as we began our ascent. The hill was steep, and after about an hour and a half of climbing we had only made it about 8 miles up the beast. Erin and I pulled over at a scenic overlook or a picture and a short break when I realized I had left my wallet at the coffee shop. Now, I've lost things on the trip already: bike gloves, a multi-tool, and other various pieces of gear, but the wallet is one of those 'have to go back and get' items. However, I really, really, really didn't want to commit to the three hours out of my day a roundtrip ride would take- so in desperation I called the shop. Thankfully, Mindy, the cheery coffee shop worker, had found my wallet and was in possession of an F-150 and a charitable spirit. Mindy had my wallet up to me in 10 minutes, which was an amazing stroke of luck and another huge underscore on just how damn fast cars are.
          After hugging Mindy and bidding her goodbye, we made our way over the rest of the pass and pulled into Virginia City where Ben and Mandi were waiting. We made a quick lunch of coffee, snacks, chili, and pastries and got on our way. We had ridden down the gorgeous Madison River Valley the previous day, and after cresting the ridge leading to Virginia City we made our way down-hill to Twin Bridges, Montana which lies right on the Beaverhead River. At Twin Bridges, we needed to turn southwest to skirt a mountain range that lay directly west of town, but the wind was already fiercely blowing in from that direction. We examined our options for a detour, but decided that the prescribed route was the best and that we would try to make it the 26 miles southwest to Dillon before nightfall despite the bad conditions. As we rode out of town, things looked O.K. but it wasn't long before the situation got grim. The road, it turns out, is a big trucking route to bring potatoes ("spuds" as the locals call them) from the surrounding area down to Dillon, which lays on Interstate 15. This, we learned, is spud digging season and the trucks were screaming by and giving us nary an inch on a road that already was completely devoid of a shoulder when the wind picked up to a gusty 30 miles an hour or so. The wind shortly brought on a driving, stinging rain, and the traffic just kept coming. We had already gone 5 or 6 miles, but the combination of factors, including the cold and diminishing light, made the situation not only unpleasant, but very unsafe.
Barn, Sweet Barn.
            We stood in the wind and rain, miserably considering our options, and decided, for the first time in thousands of miles, to turn back. We dejectedly sped back along the road we'd left town on, and by the time we made it back, we were all pretty bummed. It was our first real defeat in months, and, to top it off, the cyclist only shelter that the town boasted as free lodging was closed for the winter. It was more than closed, really, it was impregnable- the doors and windows had all been boarded shut and screwed closed. So, we investigated the fairgrounds directly across the street to see if we could find a spot to stash tents for the night. Two folks were out in the flowerbeds talking, so we asked them if they knew anything about the shelters that had been closed, or camping at the fairgrounds. As luck would have it, one of these two was a man who worked for the town- he had actually nailed the shelter shut himself- and the woman was the fairground manager. Her name was Dana, and she (along with many others we've seen in the last few days) thought we were totally out of our minds for riding anywhere on our bikes this time of year in the first place, but her fears for our sanity were enough for her to decide to open one of the event halls just for us to sleep in. The "barn," as she called it, had two ovens, two refrigerators, some picnic table, tons and tons of floor space, and two industrial sized heaters. She told us to just please sweep up before we left, and lock the door behind us.
            Our disappointment mostly assuaged, we turned the heater on and left our gear in its blast to dry out, and then adjourned to town where the laundromat sat conveniently just across the street from the bar. We cleaned our things and had a few pints while we waited, then headed back to the barn to cook some dinner and get a nice warm, dry sleep indoors.

10/6 Day 74: Twin Bridges, MT to Jackson, MT 75 miles (3689 miles)

                  The sun hadn't even risen yet outside when we squirmed out of our sleeping bags to start the morning routine. We had a breakfast of  bagels and peanut butter, threw our things together, and were just about to get a nice, early start when we realized I had somehow gotten flat tires 13 and 14- both front and back were fully deflated. I hastily changed the tubes out, not wanting to deal with doing the job right since we were in a rush. The day ahead represented something of a logistical challenge, since we had intended to start from Dillon. After Dillon there was a stretch of 48 miles between any kind of services and camping that also held two mountain passes: Badger Pass at 6,700 ft. and Big Hole Pass at around 7,400. So, we had to either go 26 miles or 74, no in-betweens, and we weren't going to stop at 26. Fresh tubes in my tires, we set out on Hwy. 41 that had so unceremoniously dumped us back in Twin Bridges the night before. The road was still a shoulderless fiasco, but thankfully the traffic was significantly lighter in the early morning and we had an easy go of it on the flat road to Dillon. But, my carelessness came back to bite me about 13 miles in: my front tire was going flat. After a couple hopeless bouts of reinflation in an attempt to make it to Dillon before changing the flat properly, I gave in and we stopped to scour the tire for the root o the problem. Shortly thereafter, Erin came up with the culprit, a small piece of wire from the tread of an automobile tire. This has been the cause of the majority of my flats, for sure. I properly patched the tube and we moved on, more precious time and sanity wasted.
          In Dillon, we regrouped at a McDonald's to chow down on some high calorie, low cost grub and plan our attack on the mountains ahead. We knew that these two passes and the one after it- Chief Joseph Pass at 7,200 feet- represented some of the final hurdles in our gambit to find our way to lower elevations and escape wintry weather once and for all. We filled up our water reserves in case we had to make camp somewhere because of untenable riding conditions, and set off under gray skies and a cold drizzle. The drizzle didn't last too long, but our climb came upon us quickly. We had no trouble making our way up Badger Pass, since the grade was fairly slight, and the clouds rewarded us with a good, soaking misty rain on our descent rom the top down through Bannack State Forest. The temperatures were still hovering in the 40s and we hadn't seen the sun in days, so this seemed par for the course at the time. At the bottom of our small descent, we found ourselves in another small valley. This one was a bit brighter, with a hair of sun peeking out from behind the clouds here and there, but things were not improved for us in the slightest; where the wind had been mostly in our faces from Twin Bridges to Dillon, and mostly at our backs to the top of Badger Pass, it somehow transformed into a ripping headwind in this new valley leading up to Big Hole Pass. We only had about 14 miles to go from the top of Badger to Big Hole, but, thanks to the wind, we were putting a lot of effort to the pedals, but only averaging about 4 or 5 miles and hour on flat ground.
         We fought the wind for a while until we were about 7 miles from the top, and took a break next to a side road for a short snack. The day was wearing on, but we had no option but to give the top of the pass our best shot, because we had nowhere else to stay. We rode on into the grueling wind for another hour and some change until we were roughly 2 miles away from the top of the pass. As we rode, a silver pickup pulled up in front of us about 200 yards away and waited. When we finally made it up to the vehicle, a man named Russ, who runs a summer hostel for bicyclists running a mountain biking trail nearby, hopped out to offer us a lift to the top of the pass. We did not turn him down. He took us and our gear the two miles up the road, dropped us off and wished us well. Our destination, the Jackson Hot Springs Lodge, was only 11 miles away and down hill. Those 11 miles seemed to stretch out and take hours as we descended into Big Hole Valley, a valley beautifully framed by high mountains, but colder than a polar bear's ass. On our way up the Big Hole Pass, we noticed that mountains which had once been plain brown and green were now snowcapped all around us. The clouds and rain that were dogging us the last few days were snow at the higher elevations, and the snow was sticking. This didn't necessarily bode well for our mountain pass traverse the next day, but for now it was all about keeping extremities from going too numb to operate a bicycle and getting to the lodge.
The snow-capped peaks around us.
         When we arrived, the sun was just setting on the small town of Jackson, and we were once again the strange folks in spandex (and mittens and hats and leg and arm warmers) walking in to the building. We decided that since it was supposed to snow down in the valley that night, we would opt to sleep in a pair of the lodge's "European sleepers," which were small rooms with double beds and heaters. The room price also included access to the lodge's hot spring fed pool, which we jumped right into after having a meal at the bar. The pool area was open to the cold night air, but the water was (almost) hot enough for us to forget about the impending snows gathering around us, and the cold, wet nights that threatened to stick with us for what could be the rest of our trip now that the weather had turned. We laughed and swam and had a few beers in the hot pool while we soaked our bodies and retold stories from the trip to each other, enjoying ourselves in the frigid night. After we had dried off, we made ready to return to our rooms, but not before another surprise: two other cross-country cyclists were staying at the lodge. Ryan and Michelle started in Yorktown, Virginia sometime in early June and had taken the day off at the lodge rather than brave the nasty weather we'd somehow forced our way 75 miles through. They were a very pleasant couple and told us when we did hit the road again to look out for their riding companion, Sarah, who had decided to forge on to the next town, Wisdom, only 18 miles down the road rather than fork over the cash for another night in the lodge. We chatted with them and found that we had camped at many of the same places and that the kindling and wood we'd used at the campground in Ennis had been gathered by Sarah to feed their campfire two nights before we used it for ours. We bid them goodnight after a long conversation, and found our way to another warm and comfortable sleep.

10/7 Day 75: Jackson, MT to Sula, MT 57 miles (3746 miles)
       
              The prospect of riding our bikes anywhere when we could stay indoors in a nice, warm sleeper cabin did not appeal, to say the least, when we awoke to a light snow falling just outside our windows this morning. However, we dressed inside, packed our things quickly, and knocked the snow off our rides... then wheeled them to the general store across the street. We ate some muffins with coffee and hoped it would be enough to ward off the chill (they did sell beaver pelts there we could have bought, which may have worked better) before setting out to Wisdom. It was 35 degrees when we set out, and cold, but quick riding to get there. At first, our fingers and toes numbed, despite our warm weather gear, but after 10 miles or so, things started to regain feeling and we warmed up a little bit. The clouds around us hung low on the now mostly snow covered mountains that surrounded us. The snow in the valley stopped shortly after our departure from Jackson, but where the moisture sodden clouds hung about the surrounding peaks like halos, one could see that snow still fell  as we rode. We made it to Wisdom, feeling pretty good about what the rest of the day held for us, since we had thus far successfully braved the near-freezing temperatures. We checked out the gas station and outfitter in Wisdom briefly, and I bought a hatchet to carry with us so we could have a fire for the chilly nights in camp that would follow as long as we were at elevation. Ryan and Michelle were still abed when we left Jackson, and we saw no sign of their friend, Sarah, in Wisdom, so we rolled on toward Chief Joseph Pass, which was about 30 or 40 miles away uphill.
Snow + bikes = fun
Action shot as Ben tries to flee his bicycle.
             As we rode, and warmed back up, we passed the Big Hole Battlefield, where early pioneers had massacred local Indians in a surprise just after making a peace agreement with the tribe. The grade uphill was slight, and we made very good time up into the hills. The terrain in Montana is certainly breathtaking, and while riding we could smell the rich, green scent of pines to complement our mountain views. As we went up, a light rain began to fall intermittently, so we stopped for a quick bite just before the final push to the top. A peanut butter and honey sandwich later, we were back on the road and found Sarah rolling along with her trailer in tow. Ryan and Michelle had told us she moved slowly, so we had expected to catch her up. We said hello and introduced ourselves, but hurried on, since the side of a winding mountain road isn't exactly the safest place for a meet and greet. As we rode higher and higher, the rain turned to snow, and the snow turned into thicker snow. By the time we reached the top, we were in the middle of a full blown snow storm. We were warm from the climb, so didn't think much of the snow, and were quite comfortable as we climbed- it was really quite a beautiful and surreal scene. I never would have imagined as we sweated our way through Kentucky that I'd be riding in a snow storm a month and a half later. The ascent was a comfortable affair, but the downhill was a nightmare. The road we merged with, SR 93, was more heavily traveled than the one we climbed up, and the snow made visibility a real problem. To make matters much worse, all our gear was soaked through from a long day of cold, wet weather and we didn't have anything else to put on that would be warm enough to withstand the temperatures.
           We made the numbing descent a mile or two at a time, and stopped when our hands became too numb to brake properly. We tried using sunglasses to keep the snow from blinding us, but they quickly became useless as they fogged up or became frozen over. Things were getting bad, and we needed to get down out of the cloud that enveloped the mountain before we had to stop and heat up water or take some other measure to get warm. Stop by stop we got closer to the bottom, and I had myself, Erin, and Mandi doing jumping jacks by the roadside to get our hearts pumping and core temperature high enough to warm our extremities. We laughed at ourselves, even as our teeth chattered and muscles shivered uncontrollably, because of the ridiculousness of the scene we made for passing cars with plastic bags or socks on our hands flailing about on the roadside. Eventually, slowly, finally, we made it down to where the road levelled off and we could take stock of our position: we were cold, wet, and it was 33 degrees outside now. We made our way as quickly as we could to the first place we saw on the roadside, which turned out to be a gas station and campground combination of sorts. We had hot chocolate and after short deliberation, decided to make camp there.
Nice campground for a gas station, and no snow. Bonus.
            As we warmed and changed out of our wet clothes, Sarah pulled in to the parking lot. She's a Minnesotan who rode Ragbrai this year, and was on her way to Arizona when she decided to link up with Ryan and Michelle. Ryan and Michelle were probably not going to make it over today, so she decided to camp out with us that evening. We threw some of our wet gear in the dryer and got our things together in camp while I went off into the woods to try out my new hatchet. I found a small, dead pine and hacked (and kicked) it down, then Ben and I dragged it across the road to camp where we made short work of sectioning it into logs. We set up the fire and had a few beers around the table, chatting with our new companion, while we warmed up and let the enormity of our day's work sink in. We made dinner, polished off the beers, and it was once again tent time. That descent was the coldest I've ever been in my life, and probably the closest I've ever been to hypothermia. I can honestly say I'm very glad we won't be going that high again on this trip, since our next highest pass is the Lolo Pass at 5,200 feet and it's even further down from there.