Happy Labor Day Weekend, everyone!
Back in NYC, it feels as though I haven’t left. To my surprise the city did not shut down when I departed on May 10th. The hustle and bustle of one of the greatest cities in the world, is the same as it ever was. Fading tan lines are the only reminder of what my summer entailed. That and the strange desire to don spandex riding shorts. I must say that sleeping in a queen size bed and not having to unzip a tent door is also a pleasant improvement in evening arrangements.
The three days described below were a view of the finish line from afar. Finding the Columbia River after spending considerable time in high desert was a great feeling. Riding in a heat wave from 101 to 105 was nothing new to us. Knowing Portland, lush terrain and the Oregon Coast sat within a few days of riding provided some mental strength during long days.
August 8: Clarkston to Walla Walla (99.6 miles, not 100)
Today was a tough but awesome day. Lots of climbing, which is becoming second nature or at least expected. Jon and I leave by 6:30 AM to ensure the climb out of Clarkston is done during the coolest part of the day. The rising sun glowed neon orange in a hot pink sky, giving the appearance of a sunset rather than the beginning of the day.
The plan paid off as the first major ascent of the day was long and steep at times. By the time we got close to the top, the sun was out, heating the air and us. I meet Jon at a weigh station at the top and am covered in sweat. Jon was making his morning calls so there was extra time to cool off.
It would be the last time I would feel cool for many hours, until a dip in a pool is made available to us. Our route would be without services for over 40 miles. We thought we had hydrated properly, but couldn’t have anticipated needing as much water as we eventually wanted. Surrounded by hills covered in golden winter wheat, Jon and I pedal into a headwind.
The route east takes us north then south to avoid a massive ridge. Then the climbs start back up again. Jon and I are almost out of water, with roughly a bottle or so for each of us remain. What is left is as hot as the air, over 100 degrees, warm enough to steep tea or brew some coffee, neither option sounds desirable at this time.
After a break in the shade of a barn, we take off for the last 12 miles to the next town, the first 7 miles will be spent climbing. The first portion is brutal. No wind and low speeds makes one feel like they’re cooking on the black pavement. Passing cars and trucks offer brief breezes that feel almost godsent. It is strange that I begin hoping for an increase in traffic and for said traffic to get closer than I normally would like, for the minimal relief each vehicle would provide.
After reaching the top of the first climb there is a brief descent to the next hill. It allows the legs a chance to rest before tackling the shorter yet steep summit. With new found energy and the desire to be surrounded by cold drinks in the next gas station, I attack the hill. To my surprise my legs stay strong and I cruise up the last mile at 7 mph, much faster than most severe climbs for the last three months. I hit the top, guzzle the remaining hot water and pedal quickly down to the next town. The air rushing by on this descent cools the body and mind and ensures the remaining miles are reasonably comfortable.
Nearing the first gas station, I see Jon’s bike leaning against the front of the building. I walk in and look towards the small seating section, finding my riding partner exactly where expected. Nodding, I head for the drink cooler and grab a Gatorade and half gallon of chocolate milk. The chocolate milk goes down smooth as I pay for the drinks. As I park myself next to Jon, a gentleman from the Washington State Parks Department returns to the store and continues a conversation with Jon. Not really understanding what the first part entailed, Scott indicates that he doesn’t know much about the city park or if it was open, but offered us the use of the neighboring Best Western’s pool. Without hesitation, unfinished drinks are collected and packed. I am back on my bike to pedal a quarter of a mile uphill to a pool.
Scott had apparently confirmed with hotel management that two cyclists would be using the pool room under his room key. He also let us know that it was the Washington State Park Service that had provided this opportunity, NOT the National Parks Service. Jon and I will be forever in debt to the Washington State Park Service for what was found in the pool room. Fresh towels, water fountain, electrical outlets, a clean pool, hot tub, shower room and lounge chairs all for ourselves. The room was air conditioned and pool water cold. For the next hour, Jon and I chugged water, jumping back and forth from pool to hot tub to relax our aching bodies. After body temps had cooled, we laid down on the lounge chairs to close our eyes. I awoke nearly two hours later, enough time to dream and recoup sleep from the early morning start.
With the sun lowering in the sky, the pool room had heated due to the floor to ceiling glass windows. Jon and I changed back into recently rinsed and dried lycra. Once outside we found that the air had cooled some and was more comfortable then the pool room. The plan was to grab some food and make our way to Walla Walla for the evening. The pizza that was decided upon did not stand a chance. Back on the bikes, we had about 2 hours or so of sunlight left to make the last 25 miles. With fresh legs, the first half of the only took an hour. As we hit the half way point, Jon received a call from a Warmshowers host in Walla Walla. Brad, our host for the night, often goes to bed early, so we had about an hour and a half before he turned in. With some climbing to do, we push hard again. The road is tolerable this evening, as the air cooled and the terrain was flatter, compared to the first part of the day.
Rolling into Walla Walla at a decent time, we enjoy the quaint downtown views as we cruise across most of the city. We find a McDonald’s close to Brad’s. Stopping for the customary hot weather McFlurry treat, we inhale the ice cream without brain freezes and cruise on. Brad let’s us in to his apartment in a retirement community. He provides a warm welcome, with beer, cold water, great conversation, sleeping space and HBO. Brad chats with us about his hosting experience, the recent 7 day Ride Washington trip he completed and his work as an ecologist. After Brad retires for the night, Jon and I shower, eat Domino’s and attempt to watch the first episode of Game of Thrones’ new season. We are both asleep within 10 minutes. We scrape ourselves off the couch and recliner and sleep well.
August 9: Walla Walla to Umatilla (61 miles)
The morning started late. After the near 100 miles and sleep in a comfortable bed, I found myself stirring at 8 am, about 2 hours later than when sleeping outside. Having seen Walla Walla in twilight, Jon and I decide to get a solid breakfast in town. We take Brad’s recommendation for the Maple Cafe and were not disappointed. The corned beef omelette was the size of a football and my side of silver dollar pancakes provided the carbs for the day. We were now ready to take on the shorter day.
By the time we pulled out of the cafe, the heat was on. The maps had us sticking to Route 12 for most of the day, or should I say Route 12 sticking to us. In addition to Walla Walla’s sweet onion trade, massive hay trucks passed us with regularity. After each passing truck a whirlwind of hay particles consumes the road. With each vehicle that follows, the grit resting on the road is stirred up back into the air. The airborne hay finds inconvenient places to stick to exposed skin.
To our dismay, road conditions somehow worsen. The right lane of the road is torn up leaving a minimal shoulder 12 to 30 inches at most, covered in rocks. The climbing then starts, which typically makes staying in a straight line in finite space more difficult. At the top we find a long descent. Normally we would be happy about descending, but given the limited shoulder and heavy debris we cannot take advantage of the downhill. squeezing our brakes, Jon and I navigate uncertain terrain towards small bridges. The bridges leave less room for the shoulders and the trucks appear not to care. One comes dangerously close, less than a foot from Jon, as we cross a bridge. Our nerves are feeling it as we pull off of Route 12.
Taking another break at another weigh station, we take water and snack in the shade. Only a few more miles and we reach the Columbia River. We chat with a sheriff that pulled into the weigh station, asking him about the remaining conditions to the river. He tells us it will be much improved over our earlier experience and offers a few tips for Umatilla. We thank him and head out for the last leg. What we found at the river was spectacular. Not the amazing views of Washington and eventually Oregon riverside, nor the pleasant downhills to the water level, but wind. Expecting the prevailing winds to be in our face, we were pleasantly surprised, ecstatic rather, to find a tailwind!
Jon and I spin with massive smiles on our faces. Exerting minimal effort we ride at 17 MPH, pushing it to about a 20 MPH for most of the remaining ride. The Columbia River provides something familiar I haven’t experienced since the ferry ride on day one. The smell of the water in the air and accompanying coolness cools and refreshes the senses. Even some 150 miles inland, the taste of the ocean is palpable. The end is near and my body can feel it. We stop for the customary Oregon State Line photos then push to a market just outside of town. Here we spend an hour or so hydrating, eating and calling loved ones. We ask the manager where the best place to swim is, knowing our campsite for the evening did have an option to swim. He indicated there was a beach back a few miles behind the correctional facility. We opt for the campsite.
Pulling up after the office closed, we set up our tents in the ample tent space. I find the wifi password and more importantly the door code for the restrooms. After camp is good to go, we check out the water. There are many bugs and lots of strange plants growing on the river bottom. Not even knee high, Jon heads back to land. I slip and find myself neck deep while sitting on river bottom. After a minute I decide I have had enough and a showers would be more pleasant. Post shower, we friend some bikers in a neighboring RV spot. Since they are more mobile, the one offers to grab an extra six pack for us on his beer run. How can we say no?!
I call my dear friend Lauren who I have not spoken to since I saw her last in mid-June. We chat for a bit, until the sun all but disappears in the sky. After we say good byes I wonder over to the bikers to introduce myself. After a brief chat Jon and I head back to our picnic table for tuna wraps and sleep. With no rain fly on the tent, the sleeping is comfortable with some stars to ponder as I fall asleep.
August 10: Umatilla to Mary Hill State Park (88 miles)
Today is a rough day for Jon. Please know he finishes strong.
As we are accustomed, Jon and I find breakfast burritos and coffee refills. We get into a nice conversation with the coffee shop staff and an elderly couple seated next to us. Jon explains his reason for the trip, I mine, and the good work of the PCA. The man disappears for a minute or two and returns with a small print copy of the Book of John. His wife informs us that it is our “passport to heaven”. We politely thank them for the odd directional change in conversation and take off for the day. Our route has us going back into Washington for a northernly ride along the river.
Finding the path to the bridge was more difficult than we expect. The narrow pedestrian path only allows one person at a time. Jon is a quick climber and made his way up first. Jon was met by two things. A copious amount of bugs that sprang into action (read: flew into his face) the moment he passed and an enormous amount of spider webs. Completely untouched by webs and very few bugs, I laugh hysterically as we get off the bridge. Miserable at what just transpired, I help de-web my partner in crime. We then ride quiet back roads for miles.
Once back on a highway, we notice that compared to the Oregon side of the river, traffic is light, specifically truck traffic. Our side picks up as we get into Roosevelt, our potential stop for the evening. Roosevelt is a town with a campsite on the river and a market. The main employer in town is a trucking fleet that unloads trains hauling trash. The trash is picked up by truck and brought to a landfill just beyond the hillside. With limited services and extreme heat, Jon and I decide we will rest for a few hours and see if moving on is appropriate. After all the 50 miles we completed this morning were not too hard on us and that would be an extremely short day.
Our afternoon cooling off consisted of rehydrating, eating, reading maps, dozing off and watching the town’s social hub in full swing. What we were to witness would be one of the more active day’s in this market. About an hour in, a butt dial call is made to the shop. The clerk indicates that no one spoke to her, but that a man was demanding that his wife let him leave their trailer. The wife threatened the man with his life. The clerk asked what she should do, the general consensus was to call 911, which was going to take at least an hour for them to come from a distant county. A few minutes later a call from the same number comes through. The clerk answers again, this time speaking to the wife. The woman turns out to be an employee at this same market, asking for someone to cover for her as she will likely be two hours late. Hmmmm, seams suspicious.
While we wait for a 911 response, a few more things happened. It was actually one scenario, but it played out for 3 separate groups. A guy who spent 5 total minutes standing in one spot in the store lost his keys. His family of 6 plus the couple they were traveling with helped him search. Everyone looked in the ice cream freezer. Everyone individually asked him if he dropped them in the ice cream freezer. The man was never near the freezer. Fortunately for them this was a spare set and they were able to drive off without the keys. Within 20 minutes another man had lost another set of keys. He looked in the ice cream without success. In this time, a phone call came through indicating the individual had lost his keys in the store and they were likely in the trash would now have been moved to the dumpster. The request was made for the clerk to dumpster dive, which no one in store would expect or allow her to do.
After the missing key trend died down, the hostage situation picked back up. A couple enters the store in a tizzy and takes a seat on the far side of the dining area. The man is furious at his recent captivity while the woman tells him to order food. He promptly informed her that he was not hungry. She was not hungry either. The man was upset that she was going to divulge to her coworkers that he was a “dope head” and that he would now likely lose his job driving trucks across the street. The woman then whispered to her coworker that she would explain everything. The coworker had no interest in greater details. The two quickly left. A bit later a police officer entered the store. With no urgency he stood in line with people buying post-shift beer. Some random guy invited him to a few cold ones back at his place. I never saw the police officer mention the incident, but apparently everything was copacetic.
With all of the goings on of the Roosevelt market, Jon and I decided that moving to the next town would behoove us. Stepping outside to grab water bottles to fill, we found that the air temps had not cooled at all during our 4 hour break, rather only got hotter, peaking at 105. What I did notice is that the wind had picked up and was miraculously another tailwind. Two in consecutive days on the Columbia River could not be missed!
Even in the heat, the breeze coming off the river felt cool. Within a half hour, the sun lowered slightly in the sky letting the air cool some. Just as I was hitting my stride, Jon began to struggle. His blood sugar was low and there was a risk of bonking. He began eating, everything. With rapidly improving riding conditions it was tough to watch him labor on his bike. We took it slow and I ranted about nonsensical observations to keep his mind occupied. After an hour, Jon was back to his normal self and took on the pending climbs with relative ease, leaving me in the dust. We summited what I believed to be our biggest climb of the day.
Twilight was upon us as we exited Route 14 high above the river. We quickly hit 40 MPH rounding the curves towards our destination for the evening. The Mary Hill State Park campsite sat just below the bridge that would take us back into Oregon. We found a tent camping site not far from the showers and restrooms. After the tents were set up, we showered and made our way to a well lit pavilion for a tuna wrap dinner. A family reunion was taking place, but the group allowed us to takeover a picnic table for a bit. We made friends with some Yorkie pups then headed back to camp to sleep. Another dry comfortable night in the high desert allowed us to sleep without our rain flies over our tents.
The next morning we would be meeting Jon’s aunt and father who will ride with Jon till his finish at the Oregon coast. The dynamic of our tour would be changing, plus we would be reaching the Columbia River Gorge, where terrain would become green(er).