October 7, 2014 | Posted in:Oregon
It began gradually. We turned off of busy US Highway 20 in Sisters, OR onto the Old McKenzie Highway. Immediately out of town we entered a silent and expansive forest. The shoulder vanished, but so did the traffic. A line on the map makes all the difference; we were now in the Deschutes National Forest.
The road shot like an arrow through the widely spaced pines. Our freshly oiled chains and the smooth macadam allowed us to sink into a buttery groove and soak in the soft afternoon rays slanting through the dry trees.
It appeared flat, but our gears knew differently. We were down a notch from the level grounds before Sisters and could feel the slight strain. We knew there was little chance of shifting back up until we were truly UP. Everyone we met in Bend lit up whenever we mentioned our plan to ride the Old McKenzie Highway. The highway had been the primary way over the Cascades in the early part of the 20th Century until the route over the Santiam Pass to the north was widened and paved in the 50s. The Old McKenzie Highway is now a scenic byway with no vehicles (or vehicle combinations) over 35 feet allowed. It is also closed in the winter and doesn’t open for cars until June or July. However, ODOT does plow one lane in early spring and opens the route exclusively to cyclists! This would be our first of (hopefully) many passes we’d cross on this journey, and what a great first!
After a few miles, click-kik, we dropped another gear. Fewer miles, click-kik. Click-kik. Before long we were deep in our large gears and cranking out the inches and feet. It came upon us so gradually, we didn’t fully realize we were into it until we were really crunching it and pulled off for a water break in a deep sweat. The forest was so still as we drank that we could hear the buzz of the tires of descending cyclists as they approached.
With an hour or so more of crawling up the slope we could see the telltale signs that we were nearing the top. The trees began to decrease in size and bits of blue sky started popping through the foliage rather than more green and brown. We’d been hoping for some views and made one final break when the hill tossed us a scrap with one distant mountain poking through a break in the trees.
We hydrated, snapped photos and readied ourselves for more climbing, but then a couple quick turns later through a cut in the rock the sky opened up over a downward sloping road and massive lava flow. We’d made it! It hadn’t even been all that tough, just long and patient.
The afternoon was getting long, so we set off to our destination, a free forest service campground a couple miles further down the road. The campground was another mile uphill on a rutted dirt road, but it was well worth the ride to reach the quiet sites on a pristine mountain lake. Of course, we were at elevation, so the temperature tanked and I tossed and turned all night in my ratty old sleeping bag that did not keep the heat inside.
The next day we found that we were a very short climb from the true summit of the pass, and we only took one break on the way up because a bee seemed to think my yellow shirt was a flower and wouldn’t leave me alone. Or perhaps he was hoping for an easy ride out of this barren lava rock landscape.
Over the top we had a few more little ups and downs before we finally settled into the beautiful payoff of the previous day’s climb. The road dropped before us into a thick pine rainforest as our tires carved graceful arcs around the smooth switchbacks. Thanks to our starting elevation in Bend our descent was much greater than the climb and we spent over an hour coasting through the primordial forest being passed by fewer cars than I could count on my fingers. The air was mostly chilled, but each opening where the sun met the road hit us as the brief warmth sank into every inch of our bodies. At the bottom of the long drop, the road intersects the busier Route 126.
After much debate, and a bit of arguing, we turned right and rode a few miles out of the way to dip our bodies into some undeveloped hot springs we’d heard about. The water was not as toasty as we’d hoped, but it still felt great and the setting right next to the rushing McKenzie River was fantastic. Enroute to the springs some jackass in a large SUV decided that it was reasonable to overtake a semi into oncoming cyclists with a tiny shoulder. No, this is not ok. This is stupid and makes you a horrible person.
Thanks to our gross underestimation of how late we could sleep if we didn’t set an alarm, we hadn’t gotten rolling that day until after 1 pm. By the time we left the spring, the sun was dropping fast. We got to the first forest service campground only to find that it was not free like the other, but had been taken over by a “private concessionaire” and was going to cost us $20. In conjunction with the idiot krr earlier, the arguing and some additional scheduling stress, this surprise unnecessarily crushed my spirit and I became a whiny baby. I had been really looking forward to a regular campsite next to the river and I’d be damned if I was going to pay twenty bucks to camp on Forest Service land! Olympic National Park campgrounds were even cheaper than that! We turned heel and rode out of there while Brandy endured my rants about the privatization of public land, blah blah blah, quicherbichin’. We didn’t go far before finding a nice little spot where we could stealth and had a delicious chili dinner with the bright moon casting its glow on the trees around us.
I was a bit sour about having lost half the day and being back on busy roads with fools and the unexpected surprise with the campground, but I read something before going to sleep that helped revive my spirit. I had bought a book written by a guy who canoed down the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers with his sons back in the 70s. The opening paragraph described a miserable 20 hours stuck in a tent during a long, cold rain storm as the quagmire they were in slowly engulfed the tent and drenched their clothes, sleeping bags, and spirits. He talked about how miserable they were, but that it was all part of going on an adventure. When you plan such things, you know you are setting yourself up for some inevitable hardships, but you are also gaining much more in the long run. This reminded me that I was on an adventure myself, and not just some “little trip” as I’ve been calling it. It may not be as badass as canoeing 3,600 miles across the continent, but it is definitely an adventure with great payoff and naturally, some minor hardships to endure along the way, so I should stop being such a baby and letting obnoxious drivers get to my spirit because that’s what I signed up for, fer chrissake.
Discomfort is one thing, but scheduling is another story. We left our jobs and apartment primarily for the freedom from time constraints, which would allow us to travel at our own pace and take the time to explore whatever cool things we found along the way. But then what did we do, but throw ourselves into yet another schedule situation. We created an aggressive visitation schedule along the west coast AS WELL as an immovable set of Phish tour dates. Ha! This has caused us to again be staring at the calendar and the map and wondering how we can fit it all in, which makes short days become a real problem. We were used to filling up our days months in advance in NYC, and it seems that old habits are hard to break.
We started the next day knowing that it would be unlikely that we’d blast our previous record by 30 miles to get to Corvallis that night, as originally planned. We were going to try to go as far as possible, but as we were riding through the suburbs (ugh) of Eugene (about halfway) during rush hour, I decided I’d had it and didn’t want to stealth camp that night. We stopped at good ol’ Motel 6 and sure enough, the light was on. Upon my request for a “cycling to South America” discount, the friendly attendant told us we could have the stained carpet room for a fraction of the usual cost. Apparently someone had died … I mean dyed her hair in there and they hadn’t gotten to cleaning it yet. Sold! The shame quickly wore off and spirits soared as we enjoyed our first motel of the trip along with some delicious local craft beer purchased at the finest fuel station within walking distance and some tuna melts in the microwave using some groundscore tomatoes. I also got some photos of the nationally renowned EmX bus rapid transit line!
The hotel room decision paid dividends as we were able to get an early start out amid some beautiful fog/sunrise/mountain formations. The ride up to Corvallis was flat and virtually free of traffic or wind. We rolled right into the Saturday farmers market where we met up with my friend Araby and then Paris, a friend of my old Lancaster roommate. Paris has toured extensively in many parts of the world and was excited to hear about our trip. Talk with other cycling tourists and hearing about their adventures is always an inspiring event.