In which we find the forests again, and ride and ride and ride, and climb and climb and climb, through two days of anxious, unsettled election aftermath...
I woke up in the dark before our alarm on Day 76. Checked my phone in the motel bathroom. Nothing decided. An electoral map seemingly bleeding red. I laid back down beside Beau, who took my hand—neither of us were sleeping at this point—and I cried.
Here's the thing: I've seen plenty of folks out there on the internet saying things like, "Hey, if you're still surprised that half the country is terrible and racist, then that's on you. Wake up! We don't need your shock/tears/whatever" — and so on... But I wasn't crying out of shock. Nothing about the excruciatingly close numbers rolling in—and the millions upon millions of people doubling down on their vote for a man and an administration with all the ethics of a ravenous, ravaging virus—surprised me. I was, however, grieving. And I still am. We've ridden straight across the red middle of this country. We've seen the signs. We've seen the crumbling, forgotten communities. We've seen the isolation and the paranoia and the constant, seeping presence of Fox News and—always, always—the brain-splitting, heartrending cognitive dissonance. The tendency, on an individual level, to retain some measure of generosity, kindness, curiosity; while, on a collective level, eschewing all those values entirely for a politics of claws-out, clamped-down, nobody-else-is-gonna-get-mine. I'm not surprised. But god, what a mess we've made. Bleed, bleed, poor country. I keep hoping there are enough of us to start making the long, slow repairs before it really is too late. We shook ourselves awake and quietly started the day. Beau worked on the blog some while I ran to the grocery for some on-the-road supplies. We had a tough day's ride ahead of us — three big passes to climb, one after another. The elevation map looked like a child's drawing of a crown. We were heading for Prairie City — maybe John Day, if we felt really up to it, since, after the third pass, the ride was finally all down hill. I had a feeling that, today of all days, what I needed to do was just ride. As hard and as long as I could. Just buckle down and do something effortful — and right now, that thing would be pushing myself up mountains on two wheels. Okay. Time to go.
We headed out around 8:30AM, this time rolling through Baker City in the daylight. After a state-wide detour, we are, once again, back on the official TransAmerica Trail. (Thus, of course, those big ol' climbs coming at us. Thanks, Missoula Boys!) Heading west, we had a strange, elongated streak of cloud leading us onwards — along with the ghostly daytime shadow of the waning moon. Everything today feels like an omen.
For about 10 miles we followed the Powder River over mostly flat ground, gently beginning to incline as we moved into the rocky hills and upstream towards the mountains. If you look at the state of Oregon on a topographical map, you can see the stark line where the map goes from yellow to green — it's here, just to the west of Baker City. The scrub of the high desert suddenly meets the forests around the Cascades, and, just like that, we're back in the woods again. Back at Craters of the Moon, there was a plaque that quoted the novelist Wallace Stegner — he wrote that, in order to really understand the beauty of the American West, "you have to get over the color green; you have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns; you have to get used to an inhuman scale; you have to understand geological time."
It's a grand quotation, and the stark immensity of much of the west is grand, and I have no love for lawns. But green is another matter. My lungs are full in a way they haven't been for a long time. I'm happy to be surrounded by trees again.
About 26 miles into our day, we began our first big climb. It wasn't back-breaking — just time-consuming. By now we've gotten fully used to the routine: settle into that lowest gear, find the rhythm, and just slowly spin spin spin it out. I played the three title track songs from the Decemberists' The Crane Wife, plus "Sons and Daughters", on repeat while I went up. It felt like the right kind of musical accompaniment for today. Taken all together and in order, the songs become an allegory... A generous, loving impulse turns greedy and destructive; consequently, everything falls apart; then, the world is rebuilt... the next generation emerges from below the ground and sets to work again...
At least, that's what was taking shape in my mind as I rode.
After our first pass we flew downwards into a valley and, eventually, found a roadside spot for lunch before starting into our second big climb. Today was a quiet day for the most part. We've got a rhythm for certain things now — settling onto hillocks by the road, making tuna or peanut-butter sandwiches, sharing chocolate almonds, loading back up, riding on. The second pass seemed even less grueling than the first, and we started to feel the encouragement of achievement. We were climbing mountains — and not even all that slowly. We could do this. We've got this.
These cows just chilling by the side of the road (no fence/farm in sight) seemed to agree.
Before our third and final pass of the day, we were hoping to hit up the only real place on our route to grab something to eat/drink — the Austin House Cafe & Country Store at Austin Junction. We'd even heard it had huckleberry ice-cream. Yum.
But—of course—as soon as we rounded the bend it was clear: we'd found yet another randomly closed store. (The number of places out here that are closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, or Wednesdays and Thursdays, or only open on Mondays and Tuesdays, or whatever arbitrary combination... is, to put it mildly, frustrating.) Beau was completely out of water at this point, and I was close, and we had a short moment of cursing and breathing hard.
But nature soon came to the rescue. We'd been passing creeks and streams all day long, and a little ways down the road we stopped by another and pulled out our filter bottle — one thing we don't regret hauling around. We perched on river rocks and driftwood while Beau filtered spring water into all our bottles. And (the real treat) we pulled out the leftover beer we'd been carrying around from last night (hey, waste not, etc.) and stuck it in the stream to cool for a while. It took about five minutes for it to be extremely chilled and refreshing. Hooray for cold creek beer!
Relieved and restored, we started up our last pass. As we climbed, I was keeping an eye on my phone for any snippet of signal that might slip through. All day I'd been pretty much in a dead zone, but now that we were feeling confident—like we might just make it all the way to John Day—I was attempting to coordinate a place for us to stay. Rachel (of wonderful Rachel and Patrick back in Boise) had mentioned having a contact in John Day. So far, we'd managed to glean that his name was Jerry and he was probably happy to have us, but also he doesn't have a phone. But he has internet! So... check your email when you can for his address? It's funny how this kind of semi-flying-by-the-seat-of-our-pants might have stressed me out a couple of months ago. Now, it's just how we live. Where are we staying tonight? We'll see — there's miles yet to go. The final climb was the only one graced with a name — Dixie Pass, summit elevation 5,277 feet. (Though we did give each of the climbs a name, all in honor of the three prodigious cats we've met along our journey: Tiger Mountain, Yedi Ridge, and Boris Pass.)
At the top of Boris/Dixie Pass, we stopped, breathed, high-fived. It's not often strictly true that things are "all downhill from here" — but, at that moment, they really were. So, down we flew. Evening was on its way (oh, these 4:30 twilights...) and even though we knew we had to hustle in order not to spend too long riding in the dark, we couldn't resist pulling off at an overlook to marvel at yet another next-level sunset.
You run out of words for the sunsets out here. All you can do is stand and take them in. So we did that for as long as we could before continuing the race downhill. Oh, and we had some fun with the gigantic Conestoga wagon at the overlook.
When we hit Prairie City we paused and took stock — darkness was close; should we stop for the day? But John Day was only 13 miles onwards (just "a Manhattan!", as we've taken to calling that distance), and all downhill. And it looked like we had a host waiting for us. We felt strong. We went for it.
And, before we knew it, we were zipping into John Day (in the dark). Three mountain passes and over 80 miles of riding behind us. It was dark, but not even 6pm. We felt accomplished and good-exhausted. We perched at a bar to grab a beer and some internet in order to figure out how to hook up with Jerry.
But these are small towns. And soon enough, as we were stuffing our faces with nachos, Jerry showed up in the flesh. "You must be the bikers," said a man approaching us. Being phone-less and, I suppose, not wanting to sit there refreshing his email, he'd just driven into town and started looking for bikes on the main street. Success! He found us. We got some more grub and chatted — he told us about the many renovation projects he's got going on, from an old church and a 100+-year-old house in the nearby little town of Canyon City (our second Canyon City!), to a mountain-top log cabin back on one of the passes we came over earlier today. Jerry loves skiing and hiking and and tinkering and working on old spaces. He bikes, too, on a recumbent — which is how he met Rachel and Patrick, who've done some rides with him around this area.
We'll have a bit of a rustic sleeping situation tonight, Jerry warns us, but we are, of course, down. So we get back on our bikes and do the three mile south to the first (and somewhat less in-progress) of his houses in Canyon City. It's a bit of an indoor camping set up — we've got a little lofted area above the dining portion of his kitchen, and we access this space by crawling through a cut-out in the wall on the way up the stairs. But there's a futon there and a shower elsewhere, and that's just about all we need. Jerry's headed back to his other house for the night (the 100+-year-old one a few blocks away that he just bought to work on), and he bids us goodnight. Clean and warm and grateful, we prepare to pass out in our loft. From what we've been able to pick up throughout the day, it seems like things are looking up for Biden — Michigan and Wisconsin!!! Every moment of victory feels simultaneously massive and yet still inconclusive, still tense, still frightening in its fragility. We lie down to sleep with our minds on Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Georgia... Tomorrow, we climb another mountain. There's always another mountain to climb.
Day 77. "Any news" I text my mother as I wake up (now, at Jerry's, I have a little cell signal, but no internet. We forgot to ask for the password). "Not yet," she texts back, "I may have three ulcers by the time we could hear anything." Same. We shake ourselves awake, start pulling our same sweaty layers from yesterday back on again. We want to get an early start today because we've got another big, long pass to get over on our way to the town of Mitchell. And we're running from weather again — it's supposed to start raining, and then maybe snowing, by late this afternoon. We want to hole up in Mitchell's bike hostel—which is legendary among cyclists; repeatedly hyped to us as the Best Hostel Ever—before the storm hits. So, we're anxious to get on the road.
Jerry, however, has other plans. He introduces us to his sweet dog, Boo, and he wants to show us his projects — the church, the house on the hill. And we are interested and we don't want to be bad guests, so we go along to check them out. Beau has mentioned that my neck has been in a lot of pain, and Jerry lights up a pipe and offers it to us. I really wasn't expecting to wake-and-bake this morning, but it feels like refusing would break this house's rules of hospitality. So, here we are. I'm going to be riding a little high this morning.
When we bid Jerry farewell, my eyes are fully squinty/sleepy/puffy. I feel like I must look like Benicio del Toro in Snatch. I don't know why that's what comes to mind, but it's how my eyes feel. Lots of things will be "coming to mind" over the next couple of hours, and many of them will feel extremely profound. Hoo boy. Thank goodness Beau is in slightly better shape, and we soon stop at a grocery, where he fills me full of donuts. Ballast. Yay.
As we start towards Mitchell, the day is clear and beautiful and warming up quickly. We're still all downhill until we reach a canyon called Picture Gorge, just past the town of Dayville, and those first 33 miles just fly by. And so do two bald eagles! IT'S OUR SECOND BALD EAGLE DAY. Another omen? If you like. But whatever the case, they're beautiful, and it's exhilarating to see them.
By the time we reached Dayville, it was warmer than it had been in days (weeks?) and I triumphantly stripped down to a t-shirt. A t-shirt? What is this madness?! We stopped for lunch at the Dayville Cafe, where we overheard different variations of the most recent town gossip floating around: an old man—the friend of a bunch of other old men doing the talking—was in the hospital after a bad encounter with an angry bull. It was the phrasing of the thing, though: "Didya hear about Bill? Yeah, he's beat up pretty bad — decided to go dancing with a bull." "Poor Bill. Bull used him for a trampoline." Et cetera.
One of the old men chatted with us a bit as we were saddling up. "Be careful goin' through the canyon!" he warned us, "It's real windy" (that's wind as in curve, not wind as in whoosh). It's interesting how we've been told to be careful countless times, and the difference in intonation is always so clear. Sometimes "be careful" means "I can't imagine doing what you're doing and therefore distrust and disapprove of it" and sometimes it means "Hey, you're also a person and I hope you don't get hurt." This one was one of the latter. Thanks, old dude.
He wasn't wrong — Picture Gorge was indeed windy and mostly shoulderless, and we kept a sharp lookout for cars. But also, wow. It's named correctly. What a place...
A little over halfway though the gorge there's an intersection — one way takes you to the John Day Fossil Beds, a national monument known for its painted hills. The other way takes you up over a big pass towards Mitchell. We wanted to take the detour to go see the fossil beds, but they were a whole 5 miles down the road (it's amazing how our sense of distance and time has utterly changed) and we had to get on if we wanted not to outstay the welcome of this as-yet beautiful day.
The climb towards Mitchell is a long one. Essentially 25 miles of gradual up. There are some open semi-flats in there, but whenever we reached one of those, the wind found us (this time, wind as in BLOWING IN OUR FACES AGAIN). We were actually grateful for the climbing because it tended to be through terrain that cancelled out the wind. So up we went. I got through a lot of Moby Dick during this part of the ride. What a weird book, y'all. There's a whole chapter on chowders. I think Melville might be partly responsible for inventing pirate-speak? Also when he gets tired of the limitations of first person narrative, he just jumps into straight-up melodramatic asides. Like, the equivalent of Ahab looking right at the camera and deviously tapping his fingers together and going, "Now is the winter of our discontent, me hearties!" There's a whole chapter that's just written out as if it were a play, with dialogue attributed to one nameless sailor after another. It's all over the place. No novelist could get away with this today. Which is a huge shame! MORE BIG WEIRD MESSY BOOKS PLEASE. But. Back to the trail. It was a pretty epic climb...
By the time we reached the top, the clouds—which had been louring more and more all day—really began to thicken. We had about 6.5 miles of steep descent to go towards Mitchell. Would we make it? As we flew down the hill (having re-suited up in sweaters and gloves by this point), the first droplets hit our faces. It was gonna be close... But no arrival is too close to warrant skipping a picture with a cycling-friendly town welcome sign...
We pulled up to the converted church building that houses Spoke'n Hostel just as the rain really hit. Pulling our bikes into the foyer we took several big breaths. Outside, we could hear it starting to pelt down. But the ride was over — we did it.
And oh man, friends. The trail legends about this hostel aren't exaggerated in the slightest. It's a miracle of a place. Classy, comfortable, STOCKED with everything you could possibly need and more. If you're a cyclist and you find yourself near Mitchell, OR, you've basically found bike hostel paradise. We were immediately filled with joy and relief at our decision to stay here for a day while the weather worsens tomorrow.
We were welcomed by Martin, the current host of the hostel. The place was dreamed up and started by a couple who moved from Eugene to Mitchell in 2015, and they really did pour untold amounts of care and consideration into it. While we didn't get to meet the rightly famous and beloved Pat and Jalet, we had a lovely time getting to know Martin, who told us that he was in the middle of a cross-country exploration by car when he alighted in Mitchell, met the hostel folks, and decided to spend some time as the place's caretaker. After showering, we braved a walk in the cold rain over to the main street (the only street) of town and grabbed some groceries so that we could make (what else?) carbonara for the three of us. We also grabbed a beer at Tiger Town, the local brewery — as you can see from their motto, we had no choice!
As the cold drizzle came closer and closer to becoming snow outside, we enjoyed a warm, welcoming evening puttering around Spoke'n Hostel's frankly wildly well-equipped kitchen, cooking dinner, putting a big hole in the growler we brought home from Tiger Town, and philosophizing about Art with Martin. (I was wearing my "What is art and why does it matter?" shirt again. Always a successful conversation starter!)
We've still got election anxiety hanging over us, though the prospect hasn't gotten dimmer in the last 24 hours... Oh, Pennsylvania. Oh, Georgia. Please, please, please. Come through. Yours is not the only light that is shining in the darkness...
Tomorrow, we rest. Tomorrow, I have some projects in store for Beau's birthday. (It's Saturday, the day after tomorrow, but we'll be back on the bikes by then — and besides, this whole month is Beauvember!) Tomorrow, we get ready for whatever comes next.
Tonight, good night, friends.
Day 76: Baker City to John Day, OR, 82.6 miles, 5,400' elevation gained (our second most to date; still doesn't beat Appalachia!), three big ol' hills named for three big ol' kitties, one gorgeous sunset, lots of determination.
Day 77: John Day to Mitchell, OR, 70.9 miles, 3,050' elevation gained, a little weed, a little whaling, some wind, some rain, one picture-perfect gorge, one stellar hostel.