Friday, August 20, 2010

Up and over the trip's last big mountains and down to the Pacific Ocean!!

The cycling out of Sisters, OR is staggeringly scenic. Huge, snow-capped peaks ring a high-desert landscape littered with trees, farms, and lava flows. Not far out of town, a long, steady, and somewhat steep 14-mile climb greets cyclists bent on getting to the top of the McKenzie Pass. There I found the "eye of the tiger" and kicked butt up the hillside, loving the lactic burning in my lungs, giddy while gasping for a full breath.

We arrived one-by-one at an observation point about three miles shy of the summit and at this point the view opened up and rewarded our efforts with a HUGE, miles-wide lava flow hundreds, possibly even thousands of feet deep. There was a striking lack of vegetation, except for the lone, hardy tree that occasionally found a way to take root in the cooled lava.

We hung out there for a while and various people came up and asked us the same questions we get everywhere: "Where are you going?", "Where did you start?", "How long have you been riding?", etc. The person that we asked to take the group photo of us turned out to be from Kentucky. Since not one of us liked Kentucky, we didn't have much to say to them. It's like mama always said...if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. It went something like this:

"Hey thanks for taking our picture. So, where are you guys from?"


"Oh. Uh...what city?"

"Bowling Green."

"Oh. that by Bardstown?"

"'s about an hour and a half away."

"Ah. Well, thanks. Have a great trip. Bye."

The ride from the observation point up to the summit of McKenzie Pass was super beautiful, passing through fewer and fewer trees and more and more lava. The road, in fact, snaked right up through the old lava flows to the summit, a treeless and black, jagged landscape more reminiscent somehow of what I'd imagine the moon to be like than Earth. There was a really cool lava rock observation building carved into the barren landscape from which you could see 360° of beautiful, black, rocky, mountainous horizon. We ate lunch there and had a really nice break after a challenging climb.

Then came the 15-mile long, fast descent from 5300' to 1000', which took us through the lava fields, down through the high-desert, to the densely-treed McKenzie River highway. We did have to climb up and over the lava (as you can see in the photo immediately below) before hitting the descent.

The route looked much like that last photo above for quite a while, although the road began to gather more and more traffic. Robin, Tony, Nick, and I stopped at the general store in a little town called McKenzie Bridge and we each bought a portion of what would eventually be turkey sandwiches (one person bought a loaf of bread, one two packs of turkey, one cheese, and one mayonnaise). We voraciously downed all of it, along with some healthy cookies and some big cans of Razzleberry iced tea. Nick decided he wanted to keep riding and bolted on ahead to Eugene while the rest of us decided we were done for the day because wanted to stay for more time along the beautiful McKenzie River. We grabbed a campground for the night, and I topped off the awesome day with a delicious 22 oz. Ninkasi Total Domination IPA, which I cooled in the same VERY cold, two-foot deep river that I laid down in for a makeshift bath before bedtime. Oh my GOD, was that river cold; but if this trip has taught me anything at all, it is that I can tolerate immersing myself in water of nearly any temperature because freezing my testes off is better than going to bed stickyallover after a long day of cycling on my black baby.

The next morning the three of us awoke and began the nice, long, gentle downhill into Eugene along the McKenzie River highway. It was really pretty, but as we got closer to Eugene, it got busier and busier. In all actuality, it was probably one of the most dangerous and scary highway rides that I took throughout the entire country. When we arrived in Springfield, I was relieved that the white-knuckled day was nearly over.

I had arranged a homestay at the Eugene, OR home of a couple named Paul and Monica through an organization called It is an organization for touring cyclists and is similar to Touring cyclists sign up and offer up their homes and various amenities to other touring cyclists passing through their towns. Hosts can offer a bed, a yard to camp in, laundry, food, use of a vehicle, car rides to shopping centers, etc. Paul and Monica had a wonderful renovated apartment next to their home which had a bathroom and a double futon for our use. They also invited us to use their showers and laundry in the main house, as well as giving us directions/assistance in getting around town to eat and do errands. They had four very well-behaved kids, with the craziest, most unique names I've ever heard of: Rainy, Dare, Torrent, and Sanguine. Rainy, the oldest at nine years of age, was like a little adult, flawlessly switching between confidently interacting with adults, playing like a child, and watching over and teaching her little siblings. Little Rainy, in fact, could ride a unicycle! The family did not own a car and had completely shaped their lives around bicycle travel; they rode everywhere for everything, including shopping, visiting friends, going to the river, exercise, and fun. It was really an eye-opening experience to see a family be able to have such a fulfilling and productive life without a vehicle at their disposal because, for some reason, I find it quite a romantic notion to exist without dependence on a car. Unfortunately, I didn't get a photo of Paul and Monica's entire family, but here is a photo of Paul and daughter Rainy on their back deck, along with Robin and Tony in the background:

While in Eugene for that one afternoon and evening, it was a serious culture shock for all of us. Having been on the TransAm route for over two months and spending most of our time in either small, country towns or out in the middle of nowhere, a town the size of Eugene was really quite jarring to our senses. We did enjoy walking and riding around to places like REI, Papa Soul's restaurant, the Ninkasi Brewery, and El Pinche Taco ( you KNOW what that means in Spanish?! - "The Fucking Taco"!!), but being around all those people was a little much. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that Paul and Monica live in a very hippie part of Eugene (and it seemed to be more 'dirty, steal-from-your-brother' hippies than 'peace, love, and nature' hippies), I don't know. Anyway, the next morning, it was nice to leave and hit the road again. At this point, I'm wondering if I have forgotten how to (or lost interest in) interacting with the rest of society and only wish to be with other bicycle tourists...

The next morning we all arose very early for our ride from Eugene to Florence, and our first sighting of the Pacific Ocean. We rode together on the bike path to get out of Eugene (thanks, Tony, for the guidance) but Robin and I quickly ended up taking off at a faster pace than Zack and Tony. Robin and I were riding at quite a nice pace through the beginning of the coastal range when all of sudden I felt a sharp pain the back of my right thigh. I immediately thought I'd severely strained a hamstring and I needed to stop. I rubbed and rubbed and stretched, and decided to let Robin go ahead because I needed to take a while to see if I could continue to ride. Right after he left, however, I realized that I'd not pulled a hammy, but instead some kind of bee/wasp/hornet/yellowjacket thing had flown up my shorts and stung me on the leg! I had a huge, painful welt on the back of my leg that didn't feel better or worse with stretching or contracting my hamstring. So, knowing it wasn't an injury, I just climbed back on the bike and rode the rest of the way up the moderately-graded and densely-forested Coast Range hills, through the mountain summit tunnel, down a short but steep descent, and along the length of the beautiful Siuslaw River, pulled to the Pacific coast by the magnet that is Florence, OR.

In cloudy, windy, and cool Florence, Zack, Robin, and I met up for some clam chowder, sandwiches, and pizza (yes, we cyclists will eat anything on the menu and in any combination). After lunch and a run to Safeway for some camping groceries, everyone rendezvoused at Harbor Vista City Park which is near the sand dunes that separate the town from the ocean. We had once again become a group of seven: Robin from PA; Zack from VA; Tony from Portland; me; and Ellen, Dennis, and Marga, the Dutch family of three. We all shared one tiny campsite and it was a bit crowded, but we bicycle tourists know how to travel in a pack and really have no problem cramming a bunch of people into a small campsite or motel room in an effort to both save money as well as socialize with new friends. Shortly after we arrived and set up camp, a few of us made the approximately one-mile trek down from the campsite, up over the dunes, to the chilly waters of the Pacific Ocean, the first time we'd seen salt water since we left the brackish waters of the Chesapeake Bay at Yorktown, Virginia over two and a half months prior!

How cool it would have been to be able to swim in the Pacific, but the coooooooooooooooollllddddd ocean is essentially unswimmable in the Pacific Northwest, save for days during which the air temperature is at least 90 degrees (and, as you can see by the jackets in the photos below, it was nowhere near that warm that day)! Here Marga, Dennis, Robin, and Ellen walk up and over the sand dune to reach the Pacific Ocean:

Dutch Ellen throws her dad Dennis a double-high-five after having dipped her toes in the Pacific for the first time:

That night we all had a great time camping together, as usual. Because it had been a long day, however, and because it was kind of chilly, we all ended up going to bed at dusk. It was no big deal and we'd done this occasionally throughout the trip, but this time we made a big error in forgetting to properly pack away our food. I, fortunately, had put everything into one of my panniers but I erred in leaving the pannier on the picnic table and not putting it back on my bike. In the morning, I found my pannier in the dirt about 20 feet away from the picnic table and covered in claw marks and footprints....RACCOONS! Because the pannier is made of durable Cordura, and because the top lid and the inner double drawstring on my pannier had been tightly closed, the raccoons couldn't open it and access all the food; however, the the little bastards did manage to thread one paw up under the lid and down through the ~ 1.5" diameter center hole into the bag's main compartment and pull out one pack of Skittles, which were left uneaten 20 feet away on the table, the package carefully sliced open by a delicate claw, the candy inside on display as if left behind for me as a gift! The resourceful raccoons did manage to get a lot more from Robin and Zack though. Those guys had absentmindedly left their food out overnight in plastic Safeway bags and the camp was literally littered with the remnants of the raccoons' late-night romp. Who knew that raccoons could open a box of Pop Tarts, pull out one of the two foil-wrapped packages inside, gracefully slice open the top of the foil, and remove and consume the contents within, without tearing the box or leaving behind a crumb? This artistic display of opening a package and eating what's inside, however, was limited to the Skittles and the Pop Tarts. Strewn hastily about in the night was an array of shredded plastic, crumbs from a loaf of bread, various trail mix pieces, and partially-eaten fruit. Zack even saw a raccoon deep in the bushes the next morning, continuing to snack on the results of the previous night's robbery (I think Zack said he swore the little varmint smiled at him and flipped him off when illuminated in Zack's flashlight beam.) Anyway, I learned a valuable camping lesson that day!

Only three more days remained then to ride from Florence to Astoria, OR, the final destination of the TransAmerica adventure. Yes, we'd reached the Pacific coast, but the true endpoint of the TransAm route is Astoria, so that is where we would go...

The next blog installment is coming soon, this time within a few days, honest!!