Archive for July, 2010

Day 70 (5/27). The incredibly scenic West Cascades

Friday, July 30th, 2010

I can’t believe I’m already past the crest of the Cascades and it’s now mostly downhill between here and the Pacific!  When studying maps before the tour, I saw that I’d be going through a deep, winding gorge here, but I somehow assumed it would be uphill.

It briefly snows in the morning and I know that at lower elevations I’m going to get a lot of rain, but I’m so euphoric (to the point of giddiness) that I don’t care about any of this bad weather stuff.

I break camp and cycle a mile down the lake shore to the moderately fancy lodge/resort for a hearty breakfast.  Then after a short ride up the spur road back to Hwy. 138 I’m off on my journey through the mysterious kingdom of spruce and fir.

30-meter-high vertical walls of trees squeeze the road on both sides.  This live canyon meanders in long, sweeping curves and I’m flying on my bike, cool air rushing pleasantly around my face.

The forest here is drastically different from the pine forests back on the eastern slopes.

Sunlight touches a pine forest lovingly and paints it gold.  The sun freely, confidently enters the forest; the rays and the trees embrace and dance like childhood friends.  The air is warm with needles and tar.

Today’s forest is silent and dark.  The sun touches the trees but they proudly refuse to change their hue.  Very little light penetrates.  Those few rays that are let into the sanctuary are confined to its front chambers and step there discreetly.  The spruces and firs stand dense, united in their purpose:  to guard the forest’s Dark Secret.

I feel the forest magically drawing me into its interior.  I park my bike on the side of the road, step into the forest, and am surrounded by thick mosses hanging from branches.   Ferns cover the soft damp floor.  Everything is still and quiet; the light is dimmed, sounds muffled.  The cool air smells of damp earth and mushrooms.

This is an enchanted forest straight out of a Nordic or Russian fairy tale, replete with elves and Baba-Yagas.

The road turns west and the canyon of trees gives way to a real canyon — the North Umpqua River Gorge.  The gorge is spectacular and grand.  Huge black mossy cliffs prop up the sky and are lost in the clouds.  The scenery here is on the scale of Zion National Park’s, except that misty black forest covers the gorge’s walls.  At times the road lies deep in the gorge, next to the river; at times the river drops and churns hundreds of meters below.  I’m in heaven — never seen anything so beautiful in my life!

Suddenly I realize, as if waking from a dream, that it’s pouring hard.  My new waterproof clothing must be working perfectly if I failed to notice how the downpour began!  The sun and the clouds had been playing tug of war throughout the day and the clouds won in the end.

Over the 40 miles of the gorge’s length and almost 5,000-foot elevation drop, the North Umpqua picks up strength from many streams and waterfalls.  It’s a torrent by the time it reaches Colliding Rivers.  Here the North Umpqua makes a sharp left turn and collides head-on with the Little River, mixing its clear blue-green waters with the yellowish, muddy ones of the Little.

I reach the town of Roseburg and get a room in a cheap motel.  Tomorrow I should reach the Pacific, stitching the third major coast onto my “coast-to-coast” itinerary (the first two coasts being those of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico).

Oregon-Washington photos posted

Monday, July 26th, 2010

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Day 69: the crossing of the Cascades

Saturday, July 24th, 2010

I’ve decided to skip Crater Lake Nat’l Park.  It’s too high up and people tell me the roads are still closed due to snow.  I’ll cycle around it and cross the Cascades at Cascade Pass.  Though it’s the highest mountain pass in Oregon, it’s actually not that high, just 5,925 ft.  An amazing thing about the ride up is that the highway, OR-138, is absolutely straight all the way to the top! It’s the only straight-line road to the top of a mountain range that I’ve ever seen; not a single turn, let alone a switchback.

I pass several brilliantly beautiful peaks in the Cascade Volcanic Belt.  Among them are Mt. McLoughlin, Mt. Scott, and Mt. Thielsen (also known as Big Cowhorn), which sticks into the sky like a crooked accusing finger.

The day begins clear but heavy dark clouds arrive and cover the sky.  I successfully negotiate the 5-mile-long dangerous stretch of Hwy. 97 just north of Klamath Falls where the road is squeezed on the left by Klamath Lake and a railroad track and on the right by a steep cliff.  The area is prone to rockfall, so half the shoulder is taken by a concrete rockfall barrier, making the rest of the shoulder very narrow.  Needless to say, traffic is heavy as this is the only northbound route out of the city.

I play hide and seek with the rain most of the day as I finally enter the land of endless taiga.  After lunch, the left-hand turn onto the scenic and empty Hwy. 138.  It skirts the northern boundary of Crater Lake National Park and will take me across the Cascades.  Though I can now fully protect myself with waterproof clothes, I hope to not have to, because riding in them, especially uphill, is uncomfortably hot.  Magnificent pine forests cover the eastern slopes of the Cascades.  Interestingly, as soon as I get to the other side an start my descent down the western slope, the forest changes from pines to spruces and firs.  It must be due to the moisture that comes from the Pacific and is caught by the Cascades.

The weather finally catches up to me just after the pass.  I put on all my waterproof stuff and ride comfortably the rest of the way down to the beautiful Diamond Lake, where I’m going to camp tonight.  This reminds me of the time back in 2007 when Masha and I crossed the High Sierra (at Carson Pass) and camped at another mountain lake, Silver Lake.

It’s snowing.  I pitch  my tent in a cozy nook under the wide branches of a big spruce and occupy myself all night by trying to build the most aesthetically beautiful fire.  I’m an artist of fire and I’m pleased with the result.

The Cascades have been kind to me and I feel at home here.

Day 68: Kiven the sex shop owner (Klamath Falls, Oregon)

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

Rain is in the forecast for the entire Pacific Northwest for the foreseeable future, but the sky this morning is only partly cloudy, so I rush to take advantage of this lull and get as far ahead as possible.  Yet, I’ll have to put a brake on the ride.  Klamath Falls, Oegon is only 30 miles away. It’s the only decent-size town before Seattle and my last opportunity to gear up before crossing the Cascades. Therefore unfortunately I will have to spend precious time there, risking bad weather.

When I reach the Oregon state line, I’m about to take the usual photo of my lonely bike next to the welcome sign when I notice three farm workers taking a break nearby.  I run to them waiving my camera, asking to take a picture, but they are Mexicans who don’t speak English.  I immediately switch to Spanish without even thinking about it.

“¿Podria tomar un foto, por favor?” — I’m amazed how automatically this flies out of my non-Spanish-speaking mouth!  And I’ve left Mexico over a month ago.  Here’s the photo they took.  They stand there watching me and waiving long after I say thanks and good-bye and take off.

I spend several painful sunny hours shopping in Klamath Falls as bad weather slowly and ominously moves in from the southwest.  I end up cycling all over town from one sporting goods store to another before I eventually find the right lightweight rain shoes and pants at The Ledge (my mountaineering rain pants in New York are too heavy for cycling anyway, so I shell out for a new pair here).  The Ledge is a really nice specialty outdoors store akin to Tent & Trails in NYC.  The owner, Michael, and his staff are super helpful.

Finally I’m ready to leave town, but it starts raining.

A friendly man named Kiven invites me to have dinner with his family and spend the night at his house.  (He saw me sitting at a gas station studying maps and casting dejected glances at the rain outside — and felt bad for me.) Seeing that it’s already late afternoon and that I’ve had a relatively productive day anyway, I accept.

But it’s still early, so I first kill a couple of hours riding in the rain to the library, liquor store, and the waterfront promenade, using this as an opportunity to test my new rain gear and adjust the bike to it.  Yes, I asjust the bike:  the soles of my rain shoes are thicker than those of my normal shoes, so I raise the seat and expand the pedal cages.

Kiven takes me to his friend’s house and we drink beer there for a while. I do my laundry at Kiven’s and settle in for the night in his camper parked next to the house.  The soothing whisper of rain lulls me to sleep; the cool night air refreshes me for an early wake-up.

Kiven runs a sex/smoke shop and as a sign of his appreciation of my ride he gives me a useful gift from his inventory :-)

Day 67 (5/24): I clip the northeastern corner of California

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

A day of remarkable contrasts.  Miserable first half — elated second.

Straight out of Cedarville my route turns west and climbs toward Cedar Pass in the Warners (elevation 6,500 ft, vertical gain of 1,900 ft).  I have to turn west here and cross the mountains if I’m to make Crater Lake National Park in Oregon and get as much as possible of Highway 101 along the Pacific Coast. Both are major destinations on this trip.

Rainy morning.  Snow in the forecast at higher elevations.  My concern about frozen feet returns.  I still haven’t asked my sister in New York to mail me my waterproof pants and I have yet to buy waterproof shoes.  Have been delaying obtaining these items to save weight. Other things waiting at my sister’s are my gas stove, cook set and a few other survival items that I may need up north.

My plan is to get this stuff in Seattle before the extremes of Canada and Alaska.  Back in Texas it was ok to ride in the rain because we were at sea level and it was warm.  Here in the mountains I risk frostbite if it rains or snows, but so far I’ve kept my fingers crossed and for the most part have avoided trouble.  (St. Johns, Arizona was the one notable exception; but that snowstorm was unusual for Arizona this time of year).

But now my luck seems to have run out.  It’s raining and I have to pedal straight into the mountains.  I linger halfheartedly but realize that waiting out the weather is useless, so I head out.  The rain turns to snow at 6,000 feet; soon a full-blown storm begins plastering me with wet snow and I hurriedly stop to put on my jacket and gloves.  Luckily just as I crest the pass and begin my descent the storm abates and soon stops altogether.  My feet and pants are wet, but not soaked through.  So I continue pedaling, leaving it to the wind to dry me out.  Though wet and uncomfortable, I’ve avoided unnecessary stoppage.

The couple of hours of riding after lunch in Alturas are miserable, too.  In addition to the wet socks, the wind is in my face, the farmland is extremely boring, the shoulder is narrow and beat-up, and the road carries heavy traffic of stinky pig transporters and pickups with ultra-wide side mirrors.  I arrive in Canby with only 41 miles behind me and it’s already 4:30 pm.  The next town, Tulelake, is 52 miles away.  I will take Ca-139 here and ride north through Modoc National Forest. I haven’t camped alone in a wild forest yet on this trip and it gives me creeps, but I don’t have good alternatives — the town is too far.

But suddenly things look up.  The lady at the Canby gas station where I’m picking up provisions for the night hears my story and gives me my drink for free, plus adds a few energy bars on top.  I turn off onto Highway 139 and all traffic disappears.  The wind changes direction and now blows from the south.  A tall pine forest replaces the farms.  The warm evening sun tears apart the oppressive clouds and shows me my first glimpse of the Cascades through the trees (alas, it later turns out to be only Mount Hoffman, not the mighty Cascades).  To my surprise I make the 52 miles in under three hours and reach Tulelake at the edge of night.

Though at first I have trouble finding a place to stay, I end up camping on the back porch of the museum at the county fair grounds — a comfortable, dry, peaceful night.

Oregon lies just four miles away.

Day 66 (5/23): 4,000 miles!

Monday, July 19th, 2010

I wake up early to a sky covered with patches of low, sleepy clouds.  The surrounding ranges are freshly dusted with sugar powder.  The asphalt is still wet.  It snowed during the night and is clearing up now.

Masha is sleeping in; she has decided to go back to Reno.

Today I will pass the Burning Man office on my way out of Gerlach and cycle north on 447 (never been there before, yey!) — on my way toward Oregon across the northeastern corner of California.  I’ve been looking forward to this part of Nevada because it is as remote as things get and because here I should finally cross the 4,000-mile point of the trip.  The 85 miles of no services between Gerlach and Cedarville (in CA) rival the most desolate stretch of my 2007 tour:  Highway 21 between Milford, UT and Baker, NV.

Indeed, I see just 15 vehicles in the first 50 miles!

Big milestone: 4,000 miles! (Near Duck Flat, still in Nevada).  Just as I did at my 3,000-mile point back on the 2007 tour, I take photos in all directions to remember this remarkable place well.  It’s a typical Nevada desert landscape, but with three big snowy mountains:  Fox Mtn., Granite Peak (back near Gerlach), and Warner Mountains (up ahead, in California).

Finally I reach California (for the second time on this trip). The Nevada/California state line lies along Surprise Valley.  This valley is a miniature replica of Owens Valley, through which we rode a few days ago. The steep, snowy Warner Mountains flank the highway on the left; snowmelt from the range feeds lush green pastures.  But the eastern half of the valley, flanked by the Hays Canyon Range, lies in the Warners’ rain shadow and is yellow and bare.

It’s chilly; can’t be more than 50° F (feels uncomfortable for shorts and t-shirt).  When a cloud hides the sun, the temperature suddenly falls to 40°.  If I pedal vigorously, it feels like 5° more.  Uphill, +15°.  Headwind, -10°.  Most of today’s ride is in moderate headwind.  I make several adjustments to my clothing layers.  Still, the conditions change so frequently that it’s impractical to adjust the layers sufficiently often.  So I end up riding most of the day outside my temperature comfort zone, outside both extremes.

When I cross Surprise Valley and enter California, the highway turns north along the steep bluffs that form the foothills of the Warner Mountains.  A lone car parked on the shoulder at Modoc County mile marker 5 piques my interest. It sits empty above the 20-meter-high precipice.  I decrease my speed and look down over the embankment as I pass; there I see a middle-aged couple, buck naked, sitting in what looks like a hot spring where the steep bluff meets the valley floor.  They are talking quietly, towels folded neatly nearby.  They don’t notice me and my first instinct it to yell hello.  But they look so peaceful and absorbed in their solitude that I restrain myself and pedal on.

Refrigerator-size boulders are scattered below the road on the right, but the cattle fence is not damaged.  I wonder how frequently rocks spill from the cliff.

Eventually the land begins to flatten; farms start appearing more frequently on both sides of the road.  More traffic, too, though still pretty low.  Still, no services anywhere until Cedarville.

Hundreds of small animals scurry across the highway:  raccoons, mice, chipmunks, even strange birds that prefer to run rather than fly.  Stubby-tailed mole-like critters — ground squirrels, I later learn — bask in the sun but dash for their burrows when I approach.  The burrows pockmark the ground in large numbers. Rabbits sit still in the open, confident of their summer camouflage.  Groups of deer watch me tentatively from the distance.  Some take off and run.  Cows, lazily lounging in the grass, get up and turn to face me — a funny slow dance.  They are so cute:  thoughtful white faces on completely black or brown bodies.

A strange incident occurs when I get to Cedarville.  After dinner at a local cafe I am about to get on my bike to go looking for a place for the night but the bike feels uncharacteristically wobbly.  Flat tire!  Somehow, my front wheel got punctured while the bike was parked.  Go figure!  A group of teenagers were hanging out outside the cafe as I was eating and at first I suspect them, but when I take off the rubber for repair, I inspect it and find a tiny sharp rock lodged there.

Day 65: we explore the Black Rock playa

Friday, July 9th, 2010

We let ourselves luxuriate long past the normal wake-up time — we’re not in a hurry since we’ve decided to stay a full day here exploring.  But the heat of the midday sun eventually forces us out of the tent.

The main order of business for today is to drive onto the playa.  We’ve driven there before, but slowly and in the strict confines of Black Rock City’s grid.  The city is gone now until August, so the whole playa will be ours, with no speed limits or people.  We follow Rick’s directions to the dirt road that branches off of the gravel one.  Even more care is required here, as one wrong move can get us stuck in the sand/mud, with nobody around for miles to help us.  We slowly make our way north toward the playa, but eventually come across a deep puddle.  We could spend time figuring out how to get past it, but decide to first scout ahead to make sure there are no other obstacles.  We walk the remaining 300 m to the railroad and realize that with our car’s clearance we wouldn’t get over the rails.  Oh, well… We turn back, drive to Gerlach, and take the normal route to the playa, via the “12 mile access point” (12 miles northeast of Gerlach on route 34).  This is smooth sailing straight onto the ancient lake bed that has given us so many fond memories over the years.

By the way, as we drive to the playa, I notice that Masha raises her legs in the air every time we drive over cattle guards.  Turns out, it’s an old, fun tradition among the women of the West to avoid growing to be old maids.  Masha learned this trick from Devin Mattson’s mom and her friend when they were driving from Salt Lake City to Baker, NV to join us on our 2007 bicycle tour from New York to San Francisco.

The surface of the playa has already dried after the winter’s rains and is hard as concrete.  It is covered with a spider web of tiny cracks that formed as the fine mud was drying.  Hundreds of vehicle tracks overlay the spider web in all directions.

The amazing thing about the Black Rock playa is that its absolutely flat surface is so large:  you can drive 20 miles on it in a straight line with no obstacles.  Many land speed records have been set here.

We gun our car to 70 mph.  Then try with eyes closed.  It’s a little scary and a lot of fun!

Black Rock City’s pentagon should be somewhere here, and we’re curious whether any visible trace of it remains from last year.  We don’t see it, but likely it is because we are probably not in the right spot; the playa is big.

We want to camp tonight at another hot spring, and Fly Geyser is highly recommended by the locals.  It takes us some time to find it, but unfortunately we only get to see its towering bight-color shape and a tall plume of steam from a mile away — the owner of the land has selfishly closed the geyser off to public.  We contemplate climbing over the fence anyway, but there’s nowhere to park the car inconspicuously.   In the end we decide to get a room at Bruno’s motel instead, since tomorrow will be a long and treacherous day of cycling through 85 miles of desert with no services.

There’s an ultra-high-resolution satellite photograph of Black Rock City ‘08 on the wall at the grocery store in Empire.  To our delight, we easily find Phoenix Circle Village, the Burning Man camp that we organized, laid out, and built for the 200-person group of our friends from NYC.

Day 64 (5/21): Black Rock Desert; hot springs

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

We’re finally in Black Rock Desert!  This is one of the main milestones of the trip and the place I’ve been anticipating especially eagerly, with warm and familiar feeling after the three times I’ve been here for Burning Man.

The 65 miles between Pyramid Lake and here flew by quickly, but in great anticipation.  It’s a straight-line south-north stretch in the long and narrow valley that contains the dry Lake Winnemucca.  I’ve always thought that Winnemucca had similar origins to the Lahontan Lake playa in Black Rock Desert, but turns out that it dried up as recently as the 1930s — not thousands of years ago — after the Truckee River was dammed near Fernley.

Masha drove her car ahead to Gerlach and I cycled alone on the pristine and empty desert road.  At one point I saw a herd of cows and did my usual silly shouting routine.  I abruptly stopped it, though, when passing close to a bull with sharp horns I realized that he was outside the fenced range.  I almost became a matador on a bicycle and my heart pounded with adrenaline for a minute there.

The dark, overcast skies were threateningly close to unleashing a storm, but the storm never materialized.

Anyway, we’ll spend two days here.  We buy groceries in Empire, drink a couple of beers in Gerlach, I store my bicycle in the back room at Bruno’s bar, and we drive east along the south edge of the playa to Frog Pond hot springs.  Our 12 mile drive is deliberate and slow, to avoid puncturing the car’s tires on the sharp gravel.

It’s interesting how the two villages, Empire and Gerlach, survive in this remote corner of Nevada in such close proximity to each other (6 miles apart).  They partition all commerce and thus complement each other instead of competing.  Gerlach has the gas station, motel, restaurant, club, and train station.  Empire — the grocery store and cement factory.  Also of note:  Bruno owns pretty much every business in Gerlach.

It’s an afternoon of surprises.  I’ve heard about the area hot springs but always thought they were a secret well-kept by the locals.  However, as soon as I ask about hot springs, the workers at the Empire store eagerly give me and Masha reviews, detailed directions, and advice on the safest way to drive there without getting stranded on the dirt roads.  We get to the hot springs and there’s another surprise.  The place is perfect — everything is clean, someone has stacked plenty of firewood, there’s an artfully designed burn barrel, the water is warm and inviting, the views amazing.  And yet, it’s completely wild, that is, there are no signs, gates, rangers — or tourists for that mater!  Masha and I are in paradise alone!

Windy evening.  It’s getting chilly.  Heavy mist moves in low over the playa and we can’t tell whether it’s snow, rain, or fog.  We open some beers and whisky, make a roaring fire, and dive naked into the delicious thermal pool.  Pretty soon it gets dark and the rain begins.  Heaven!

Tiny fish float around us and peck on our skin.  It’s a little yucky at first, but once you let go, the sensation can even be pleasant.  A scab on my elbow attracts them.  We look closer and realize that like a school of miniature piranhas they tear little pieces of the scab and actually swallow them.  Masha is grossed out but I’m not.

It looks like we’re going to spend the night alone, but we spot a widening circle of light on the nearby cottonwood from an approaching car’s headlights.  Masha gets scared (her usual fear of strangers in the desert), but I hold her tight and tell her that it’s probably some tourists like us.  Only our heads are above water; we shush and wait.  A guy pulls in, opens the trunk, pulls out firewood and puts some into our fire.  He doesn’t seem to notice our car and the fact that we have a fire going — that’s how matter-of-factly he’s moving about the site. He doesn’t see us in the darkness.

“Hey, what’s your name?” I shout out.

“Hm… Rick.”

“Are you shy around naked women?”

“Hm… No.”

“Then get undressed and get in.”

“Hm… Okay.”

Now there’s three of us; we share our hot spring, food, and alcohol with Rick and spend a pleasant night together by the fire.  Rick has not been to Burning Man, but knows a lot about these parts and the playa and gives us useful intel for tomorrow — we’ll attempt to get over the rail track and find a way onto the southern portion of the playa in our car.