Whereas some journeys involve a gentle coast to the finish, almost a kind of victory lap, ours enters its last days more in the spirit of certain video games, where the skills and experience we've gained over the last 80 days are now put to the ultimate test (or two).
We've biked 3,600+ miles, 9 states, and approaching 3 months. We've biked in rain, snow, and wind, blistering cold and drenching heat. We've biked superhighways and gravel trails, alongside ATVs and SUVs and multi-trailer logging trucks, through cities and pastures and long stretches of largely-abandoned once-towns. We've biked up so many mountains that we've long lost track, and through so many different landscapes that there is no easy summing it up. We've taken on deep tanlines, then watched them fade. We've watched our bodies change. Today we take on the last significant land-obstacle between us and the Pacific Ocean: the Cascade Range.
We wake early on Day 81. It's 16 degrees out in Sisters, Oregon, which is both ridiculous and irrelevant — we're doing this today regardless of temperature or of any other normal-life mitigating factor. We no longer fear cold. We are no longer even daunted by the climb ahead of us. The warnings we've received from timorous souls in the last days, that we should go around, should get a ride, should find some other way — nonsense. Noise. This is what we do now: we get up and we ride. And if we've made it this far, we're damn well making it the rest of the way.
But… For a sense of expectation about what today holds, we take a morning look at the ODOT road cams. There's a little less snow than there was yesterday, but it's icy after a cold night. And it's colder on the mountain than down here. Also, it's colder on our side of the pass, which means that, as soon as we clear the range, it'll be warmer. Slightly.
Again, this information is somewhat interesting but not revelatory. And it has no real bearing on our morning — we get dressed today like on other cold days. We put on all the layers. We open our last toe warmers and stick them to our socks. The last hand warmers are stuffed into our mittens. We eat a few pastries we purchased last night in town. We gather our things and get them downstairs and back on the bikes. We wave goodbye to our AirBnB hosts. It's 21 degrees out now, and sunny. We feel fine. We feel good. We set out.
A quick stop at the local grocery to refill our bottles in the bathroom sink. Last night we'd forgotten them entirely, and the half-full bottles that were left out are solid ice. We top them off, and then we're on the road in earnest, taking OR-20 northwest out of town.
The first 14 miles are more-or-less flat on the elevation chart, though we're steadily climbing to the foot of the pass, and there are a few dips with steep runs back up to even. There are decent shoulders on most of the road, but what we hadn't quite expected was for the ice to start already, to pretty much cover the shoulder in any stretches where the sun hadn't yet reached this morning (which was most of the road). It was fairly treacherous cycling, and we alternated between braving the ice or braving the more worn down sections that abutted the lane. Largely we biked in the road until we heard an engine approaching. Traffic was moderate. Only one semi decided we didn't need any room, and left us both weaving and screaming fuck you! in his wake (our era of silent indignation is passed).
Just before the start of the climb, there was a sign for the Suttle Lake Lodge & Boathouse. The bottom of the sign said Restaurant Open. It wasn't so much that we needed a meal as that our feet were numb from the cold. We're used to this, too, but that doesn't mean we enjoy it. We set out to investigate, in case we could pause for a moment to warm up. It turned out to be a good decision — there was a place by the fire, where we heated our toes and indulged in an excellent second breakfast.
And then we set out again, refreshed and defrosted, for our final sustained climb of this cross-country journey. 6.6 miles, 1,400 feet — in a void, not such an undertaking. But we were on the side of an increasingly busy 2-lane highway, riding a shoulder deep with the red, gravelly clay that snow plows have dumped so that cars can get traction, then swept out of the lanes to the shoulder, then dumped again. The big trucks spray this stuff at our bodies and bikes as they pass, and our tires grumble and bump and sometimes skid, and it's at about this point that we remember that our chains have surpassed their 2,000-mile lifespan. What do we do? There's nothing to do. You just keep biking. Sometimes, when there's a safe place to rest, to take in the epic surroundings, we stop for a while.
And you know what? You can probably see it in the pictures: we're having a hell of a time. And we mean that in a good way — there's a point where the thing you're doing is so foolhardy and yet it also feels inevitable, unavoidable, and you can't help but laugh. Once again: this is an adventure. We were growling and cursing our way up the entire Santiam Pass, through continuous gear-grinding and mud-splattering, but we were also smiling; the thing we're doing is ridiculous enough that we can't help but love it. Should anyone be out on this road on a bicycle right now? Absolutely not. But here we are, once again, and we're doing it. And it sucks and it's great. Would we do it again? Fuck no. Should we have listened to any of the head-shaking "advice" we've gotten in recent days? Not a chance in hell; in that hypothetical afterlife, where you get to the gates and they ask you, "Have you lived?" this will be one of the things we can point to when we answer, emphatically: "Yes."
As we're leaving one of the pair of pull-offs for folks who want to look at Mount Washington without having to steer, the snowplow pulls in. We wave at the guy until he rolls down his window, then we thank him. He seems excited to be thanked, glad there's someone out there who's specifically and especially grateful for the work he's doing. He passes us a few times on our way from here, and each time he raises the plow so that shit doesn't cloud the air in our faces, and he waves, and we wave back.
And then, with a suddenness that makes it seem almost arbitrary, we're at the top.
We take the requisite pics while the cars and trucks splash past, stare. We ignore them. And then we begin the long descent. We've learned from Ochoco that going down an icy pass can be more trying than coming up — going faster definitely does not imply that you're having a better experience. But we take it slow down the west-facing side. We stop when our hands start to cramp from gripping the brakes. Since we're moving faster and no longer pedaling as hard, we put on extra layers to regulate temperature.
It's another 6 miles of pretty hairy road to Santiam Junction, where we finally split off from most (but not all) of the traffic. The road turns from a strip laid between rocks and peaks, with trees spread out over the landscape, to being completely ensconced in pines. After 3 miles, the road splits again; once again we take the road less trafficked. The trees seem to multiply in response; they tower over the roadway now, sometimes encasing it. The only things not coniferous are the dirt and snow, a mottled strip of sky, and the asphalt leading you on.
It goes on like this for some time, just this skinny highway laid straight through the hills and ridges of innumerable immense trees. At some point we bike through a lava bed covered in snow, and then reach the McKenzie River Trailhead, where we stop and marvel at the trees, the sizes of the trees, and we lament not being here in a time and a situation where we could explore this grandness a little better.
Not much further on is the Sahalie Falls (pronounced like shillelagh, if you sub the first l's for an h), where the shockingly blue waters of the McKenzie rush over a cliff, coating the near forest in mist and bright moss.
We pause and breathe in the falls for as long as possible, but it's cold still, and we haven't been pedaling quite enough to keep warm. Also, our toe warmers are burnt out, and our toes once again enter territory that, if not dangerous, is certainly not comfortable. Back to the bikes; back to the road.
We continue to lose elevation while we coast along the river. And, as subtle as continents shifting, the snow recedes from road to ditch, from ditch to shadow. There's a period where it remains mainly in the boughs of trees, where the slight breeze and the afternoon's semblance of warmth cause it to fall almost steadily, like it's snowing again. And then it's gone.
It's shocking to be without snow. Even though we aren't done for the day, it does feel like now, now that we've come back down from whatever line the current climate has drawn, we've done the work for the day. It's even a little warmer already. At this point we just look around, explore a little. We take some pictures, take our time, and cruise to the finish.
As we approach our lodging for the night, we pass the Paradise Campground. And, though in other seasons it probably earns its name, it's going to rain and snow again tonight, with lows in the 20's. We do love camping, and camping nights have been among our favorites on this trip, but right now it's hard to pass any campground, especially one called Paradise, and not find it ironic.
We carry on to the Horse Creek Lodge & Outfitters, where, for the first time on this trip, we've rented an entire cabin for the night. We didn't necessarily intend to splurge (and it wasn't that much), but the other nearby places that we checked were full with folks working to clear the roads after recent wildfires (more on that tomorrow). And so: at roughly 3:30 we pull into Horse Creek, and the kind folks there get us set up. And then we ask if there's maybe a hose we can use to rinse down our bikes. Because…
And this is where we're both puzzled and shocked and elated because the woman answers that they have an actual bike cleaning station. What? A station specifically for cleaning bicycles? How? Why?
Turns out that people stay here in warmer months specifically to do mountain biking tours, and so they not only have multiple stations for washing down cycles after a muddy ride, but they also have a sponsorship from 10Barrel Brewing, which includes a fridge with beers for the bike-washing experience. I mean, what a reward. What a place.
So we wipe down our bags, clean the bikes, then clean ourselves. One of us works on the blog while the other ventures out and comes back with pizza. We don't quite have the energy to start the fire in the fireplace, but as the rain rolls in and temperatures drop outside, we turn up the heat and enjoy our cozy cabin. We have crossed the Cascades. We have damn near crossed this whole continent. And even the winter weather warning that pops up on our phones can't touch us — we are below the snow's elevation. Tomorrow it will rain, but that won't stop us. We're so close. We're doing this.
Day 81: Sisters to McKenzie Bridge, OR, 56.5 miles, 3425' elevation, a thick coating of snow-mud sludge, some foolhardy grinning, some epic forests, a bike-washing station, and a little bit of a sense of having survived something.