Burns, Oregon on a very hot summer day a long time ago. We were packing up our bicycles outside of the Thriftway Grocery store when the man approached, gave us a long look and then spoke.
“Are you boys riding all the way across the desert to Ontario?” he asked.
“No”, we replied. “We’re heading over to Bend”.
“Oh, then you’re coming FROM Ontario?”
“Actually, no. We biked up here from Denio, Nevada.”
His head swiveled back so fast that we thought maybe he could have snapped a vertebrae. He looked up quizzically at the sky, paused briefly, and then said, “Well, I NEVER heard of ANYBODY doing THAT before!”
BROAD….EXPANSIVE….DESOLATE….Hundreds of miles of Nothingness. These are some of the descriptions people use to describe the Southeastern Corner of Oregon. While some of these adjectives might repel some people, they are attractive to others. It is these characteristics which keep me going back there, time after time.
Look at an aerial view of the United States at night, which shows the lights of cities and towns. Your eye may wander to the darkest place in the lower 48 states. In the middle of that dark spot on the map will be where Oregon, Idaho, and Nevada meet. I made a recent post about a weekend trip to the Nevada-Oregon border back on December 10. click on the following link to access the post if you haven’t seen it yet. https://wordpress.com/post/geographicaljourneys.wordpress.com/1059
That was only a weekend trip. To fully experience the vastness of the land and to know it more fully, you can’t just drive through it. You have to move more slowly through it and take it all in. One way to do this is to pedal a bicycle from the Nevada border through the desert all the way to the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, at the end of the sagebrush ocean.
I called this expedition BROAD, and acronym for Bike Riding Oregon Across the Desert. During this trip, which we made several years ago, the BROAD acronym would come to mean many other things.
I convinced a fellow geographer, Erik, to make the trip with me. We would start the trip in mid-June, after the completion of the school year, but still early enough for there to be some water in the ephemeral streams coming from snow melt out of the mountains.
We had only a few short training trips near Bend before we embarked on the six hour car ride to the Nevada border, where we would start the expedition. Erik’s wife drove us down to our campsite at Bog Hot Spring, which was about a dozen miles on the other side of the Nevada border. On the way down, we took a side trip as we drove as high as we could on the road up the north side of Steens Mountain, nearly reaching the summit before snow blocked the road. We walked among the mountain mahogany trees, a virtual island of forest in the middle of a sagebrush ocean, due to the increased rainfall at higher elevations. The Steens are a fault block mountain range which runs north to south and is perpendicular to the westerly winds. With its summit peaking out at nearly 10,000 feet, the mountain forces the winds upslope, cooling them below their dew point and squeezing out the last bit of Pacific moisture that was not wrung out by the Cascade Range to the west. Further up the mountain, the mountain mahogany gave way to the Alpine Tundra ecosystem, still underlain by snow. After our brief exploration, we drove back downhill towards warmer temperatures and the ocean of sagebrush. We crossed part of the Malheur Wildlife refuge, a gathering place for migratory birds in the Spring and Fall. But this was June. Most of the Neo-tropical migrants had already left for their Arctic nesting grounds.
On the last leg of the car journey south of Frenchglen, we stopped along the route to check the water levels of the creeks, as we would be biking back to Bend along the same desolate route. Although several were low, water was still present in a few of them.
The slope of the Steens Mountain is much gentler on the west side, but the escarpment on the east side of the fault is extremely steep and plunges abruptly almost a mile from the summit to the floor of the Alvord Desert. There is but one road that crosses the mighty Steens Mountain, about 45 miles south of Frenchglen, where there is a dip in the fault block connecting the Steens Mountains to the Pueblo Mountains further south. Even here, the road was steep. I got a lump in my throat thinking about how hard it would be to pedal a loaded bike back up this hill in a few days.
We crossed the border into Nevada and made our camp at Bog Hot Basin, a basin surrounded on three sides by desert mountains which had a hot spring that was dammed up to make a nice soaking pool. Hot springs are typically found near the base of fault block mountains, typical of the Basin and Range Geological province. This area was also an oasis for wildlife, including mule deer, pronghorn antelope, jackrabbits and a myriad of birds.
The three of us had a relaxing evening soaking in the thermal pools. We listened to Redwing blackbirds chirping in the rabbitbrush as the sky glowed orange and purple at sunset. The aroma of sage and sulfur permeated the air. The sounds of the gurgling stream relaxed us enough to make us forget about the trials that we would have biking tomorrow. We slept well.
The following morning we drove the nine miles to the lonely outpost of Denio Junction, population 36 (if you count every rancher who lives in the nearby valleys), where there was a cafe and a gas station. The sign outside noted the mileage to other world destinations (Moscow- 7,988 miles; New York-2,787 miles; and Tipperary-It’s a LONG WAY). Officially, we were in the capital of Nowhere! We went to the cafe and ordered a big breakfast (our last meal?). We sipped coffee, surrounded by stuffed heads of game animals, and slot machines (yes, we are in NEVADA!) A couple of cowboys in the cafe leered at us with a look that said “You ain’t from around here, boy!” I knew we shouldn’t have worn our bicycle shorts into the cafe.
After breakfast, a short three mile ride took us to the state line, where we unloaded the bikes and loaded up the saddlebags right behind the “Welcome to Nevada” sign. I finished packing my saddlebags while Erik and his wife said their goodbyes. She took a “before” picture of us before we took off to the north. She drove back to Bend via the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge and Lakeview.
It was still fairly cool as we started our ride north on the lonely Fields-Denio road. The beautiful Pueblo Mountains were just to our left and the Trout Creek mountains were off in the distance to our right, across a broad valley. The road was straight and mostly flat, which was a good way for us to warm up and get our bodies accustomed to riding. We passed by a few cattle ranches. The cattle stopped chewing their cuds and stared incredulously back at us. This was surely the first time they had ever seen a human on a bicycle. It was not only strange to them; it was terrifying! Even though they were several yards away and behind a fence, they ran and kicked at the air as we cycled by. If they had seen a Martian spacecraft land on their ranch with little gray men disembarking, I think their reaction would be no different than when they saw us.
After about an hour we passed by the cutoff to Whitehorse Ranch, a dirt road which is the only route through the Trout Creek Mountains to connect to the next valley. It was beginning to warm up a bit. At mile 22, we stopped at the metropolis of Fields (population 3) where a family operated a cafe, motel and a gas station. This would be our only contact with other homo sapiens today, so we stopped for a rest and a snack. They serve the World’s Best Milkshakes there….it says so right on the sign. They make them the old fashioned way, using hand dipped ice cream. How they are sure that there is not some other confectionery that serves equally good if not better milkshakes in some corner of the world (maybe Slovakia?) I’ll never know. But since the desert was starting to heat up outside, we decided to try one out. I ordered a Cherry shake and Erik chose Vanilla. The owner took out an eraser and a piece of chalk and crossed off a number off of the chalkboard and wrote a new number down. We had just ordered the 1,976th and 1,977th milkshakes sold that year.
After they brought out the milkshakes, we realized that we should have ordered only one and split it. I love ice cream, but even I could not finish this gargantuan concoction. When we stepped outside, we noticed a sharp increase in the outside air temperature. Our tummies full, a bloating feeling began to overtake us. Just three miles ahead of us lay the steepest, longest uphill climb of the whole trip. I joked to the owner of the cafe, “If you see a big pink blob in the middle of the road on your next trip over the mountain, you know that it was the Cherry shake that blew me up!”
Three miles after we mounted the bikes, we came to the sharp bend to the left that would take us over to the west side of the Steens. For a moment, we contemplated heading directly north on the dirt road which skirted the east side of the mountain. Although it is much flatter, it is 50 miles of washboard road, so we decided to suck it up and pedal skyward. The first couple of miles weren’t too bad, but soon after the incline got progressively steeper. I’m ashamed to say, but a couple of times I got off and walked the bike, simply because I was already pedaling in the lowest gear and barely moving faster than walking. For the next 3/4 hour, we alternately biked and walked, until we finally reached the summit. The view from the top of the hill was exquisite; one could see back into Idaho and Nevada to the south and east. To the west we could glimpse the Cascade range. We could almost see the entire route of our trip from this vantage point.
The next ten miles were almost all downhill. It was so much fun to move at such a fast pace. The wind in our faces helped to evaporate the sweat that had been dripping off our foreheads and stinging our eyes. Finally, a truck passed us, the first vehicle we had seen since Fields station. As we dropped into the Catlow Valley, the road turned sharply to the north again. The breeze stopped and the heat resumed. At least we had cleared the biggest hurdle of the trip (or so we thought at the time!) We checked our maps to see how far it was to Skull Creek, our first water source. With no reason to arrive there with full bottles, we gulped down another liter of water and left only a few sips to have on the way to the creek. Although there were no vehicles on the road, we had to bike in a serpentine motion to avoid all of the cattle dung. At last, nearly out of water and very thirsty, we came to the bridge over Skull Creek.
We acted like kids in a candy store upon finding cool water in the desert. We soaked our bandannas, poured water over our heads, filled our water bottles to the brim and drank until our bellies could hold no more. We thought about camping here, but we still had a lot of mileage to cover. Roaring Springs lay ahead, so there would be more water on the way.
About a mile past Skull Creek, my front tire went flat. I had a couple of spares with me, so after a few minutes to change out a tube, we were on our way again. About another mile ahead, the tire blew out again. Damn! I should have done a better inspection the first time. This time I found the culprit, a tiny piece of metal shaving lodged on the side of the tire. Although I had an old patch kit, I had just used up my only two spare tires (and this was only DAY ONE!). This warranted a change of plans for the rest of the route. Originally, we had planned to take the mountain bikes over dirt roads to get to Hwy 395, but with no spares, we decided that would not be wise. We were still over 90 miles away from Burns, Oregon…the closest place where we could buy another spare. Fingers crossed, we again headed north towards Roaring Springs and Frenchglen.
Upon reaching the stately Roaring Springs Ranch, we found ourselves caught in the middle of a cattle drive coming down the road towards us. Cowboys were driving the herd from rangelands in the north back to the ranch. Barbed wire fence lined both sides of the road, so there was no place for two northbound bikers to hide. We dismounted and slowly walked our bikes through the southbound herd. I remembered how spooked the cattle were when they spotted us south of Fields earlier in the day. I just hoped that two men walking bikes right next to them would not cause them to panic. I had visions of a local television station newscast airing a story…”Two Bend mountain bikers trampled to death by stampeding cattle herd- Details at 11PM.”
The cowboys driving the herd assured us. “Just keep moving slowly, and they’ll get out of the way.” As we meandered through the herd, bikers and cattle stared each other down. I’m not sure who was more nervous, but there was no incident. That is unless you count stepping through fresh cow patties!
After mounting the bikes again and pedaling about 5 more miles, we came across a couple of stray cows who had become separated from the herd. When they saw us, they turned around and headed back north, in the wrong direction. We tried to walk our bikes on one side of the road to give them room to pass, but they would have none of it. They were panic-stricken. One tried to escape by attempting to bust through the barbed wire fence. She got her head stuck in it for a moment and then broke the barbed wire and galloped toward the open range. At this point, we mounted the bikes again and began riding. At our last glimpse back, she was still in a full sprint towards the western horizon. As far as we know, she may still be running!
At mile 62 of day 1, we called it quits for the day and set up camp on the side of the road next to the sign for the South Steens road. What an eventful first day! Our butts were sore from all of the time in the saddle and we were tired. We came up with a new meaning for the acronym B.R.O.A.D. (Being Really Overly Ambitious Dummies!) As we were setting up our tents, a truck pulled over and the driver approached us.
“Are you boys okay?”, he asked. “What are you doing out here?”
“We’re biking across Oregon”, we replied. “We’re just camping here for the night.”
His first look was one of disbelief, which then changed to concern. He kindly offered us some water, but since we had topped off at Roaring Springs, we declined his offer. Convinced that although we were probably insane, we were probably not in immediate danger. He wished us well and went on his way. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall to listen what he told his wife when he got home.
The night was peaceful. When I got up in the middle of the night to relieve myself, the astronomical delights of the desert sky overwhelmed my senses. The lack of light pollution from cities, combined with the dearth of atmospheric moisture make for such a star studded sky that one can only experience in remote desert areas. Urban and suburban dwellers just don’t realize how many stars there are in the heavens. Gazing upon such a beautiful sight turns nowhere into a somewhere you will never forget.
It was so beautiful that I decided to sleep outside of the tent, just staring up at the stars, the slim sliver of a crescent moon and the Milky Way. With no clouds to act as an insulating blanket, it was getting much colder, due to the enhanced radiational cooling of the daytime heat escaping into space. No worries….just put on a warm hat and zip up the sleeping bag so that your nose and eyes are the only body parts exposed to the cold. The little bit of moonlight on that night lit up the con trail of a jetliner. By the direction of its flight, I suspected it might be the Portland to Houston flight. I wondered if anyone sitting at a window seat might be staring out the window at the same time I was looking up. They would be looking down into the blackness of the landscape where there were no lights. They might come to the conclusion that they were flying over a wasteland, a nowhere place. Other passengers might be either sleeping or watching an in-flight movie. On the other hand, I had come to the nowhere and discovered that the movie I was watching was better than anything put out by Hollywood. This theater was not crowded. I had a great seat and the most enormous viewing screen you could imagine. Plus, this movie had smellivision; the aroma of fresh sage permeated the air. The shrill cry of the hawk and a howling coyote in the distance provided the Sensurround sound. Tired, contented, and satisfied, I drifted back to sleep.
We figured we had about 20 miles of riding until we got to the village of Frenchglen, where there was an historic hotel with a restaurant which offered great home cooked meals. We packed up the camping gear, loaded the bikes, eschewed the packets of instant oatmeal and headed north towards breakfast. About a mile up the road we saw a sign: Frenchglen-10 Miles. Booyah! Breakfast will be sooner than we thought.
The final three miles on the road into Frenchglen is a steep, sinuous, downhill ride. We rode our brakes the whole way down, pausing at overlooks to take in the breathtaking scenery. Frenchglen (population 11) is on the margin of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, a birder’s paradise in the Spring and Fall. The refuge sits in the basin below Steens Mountain and collects water from melting snow and provides an oasis in the desert for neotropical migrants, as well as indigenous avian life. Several years after our trip, the refuge would be occupied by a right-wing militia group, which would briefly put this little known place on the national map. But it was still Terra Incognita when we came through here. The historic Frenchglen Hotel is located here. The owner, John Ross, is an accomplished cook. Some people drive an hour from the town of Burns just to have dinner here. Others make the hotel their base camp for excursions into the Refuge, where up to 130 species of birds can be viewed in a single day during the Spring. We however, came to hunt pancakes!
We pulled up our bikes and hitched them to a post under the cottonwood trees at the front of the historic two-story building. We opened the screen door to the porch and entered the dining room on the first floor and sat down at one of the two picnic tables where family style dinners are served. Nobody seemed to be around, but there was a car outside and the sign did say OPEN. There were couches in the lobby with bird books and historical pictures of Harney County all around, as well as relief maps on the walls. We poured ourselves some coffee from the coffee pot in the room, grabbed some menus, and waited for someone to show up.
About 5 more minutes passed by. Just when I was ready to go back into the kitchen to make my own breakfast, a lady appeared.
“I’m sorry”, she said. “I didn’t hear your car pull up, and I didn’t know anyone was here yet”.
“That’s because we didn’t drive a car”, Erik said.
“How did you get here then?”
“We rode our bikes here. We’re biking across Oregon.” That statement got a couple of raised eyebrows!
After unmercilessly slaying piles of pancakes and fortifying ourselves with copious quantities of coffee, we inquired about spare tubes for our bikes. “There’s no place here that can help you”, she said. “But the Narrows Cafe has a shop. It’s about 30 miles from here, about halfway to Burns. You can probably get a spare tube there”.
Our tanks topped off, we saddled up and continued the ride north. To our right were the marsh lands of the Malheur Refuge. A canal was adjacent to the road, the result of dredging to build up the roadway. To a migrating bird, the sight of cattails, reeds, and ponds must have seemed like heaven, especially after flying over miles and miles of barren desert. We spotted Redwing Blackbirds, Western Tanagers, Mergansers, Coots, Shovelers, Kestrels, and Rough-Legged Hawks. We counted many species of ducks, and spotted an occasional Blue Heron. A few Sandhill Cranes were still in the area too.
We planned on taking a short side trip to the Buena Vista Overlook just ahead. Just the name was enough to make us take the side trip. It means “Good View” in Spanish. Pues, tiene que ser una muy Buena Vista! The hill overlooking the marshes is what gave the place its name.
We were slowing down to get ready to dismount the bikes. Erik was about 30 seconds ahead of me. He dismounted first. Immediately, he started flailing his arms wildly and shaking his head. Was he having some sort of seizure? Then, he quickly pounced back on his bike and raced toward me, screaming incomprehensibly. I stopped for a moment to assess the situation; then I GOT IT! Millions of hungry mosquitos were attacking! We raced back to the paved road at full speed, holding the handlebars with one hand and swatting the annoying pests with the other. It took us three full miles, pedaling as fast as we could to escape the torture. We wondered, “what did they survive on before we got here?” Maybe the name should be changed to Cerro Doloroso! (Painful Hill)
The route started to take us away from the marshes and back into true desert. The heat became intense and the undulating hills went on seemingly forever. We climbed a long hill and took a brief rest at the summit. Ahead, we could see the Narrows, the lonely outpost of civilization where we could order lunch and maybe buy a spare bike tube. The speedy downhill ride into the Narrows created enough of a breeze to evaporate the sweat from our faces.
The Narrows is an oasis in the desert for many types of travelers. The property consists of an RV park, a store and grocery shop, a full service restaurant, and showers. Although there were no spare tires for bikes, we did purchase another patch kit for the ruptured tubes. But first things first…We ordered a big lunch consisting of cheeseburgers and fries (got to keep our moving parts lubricated!). A family of RVers sitting in a booth eyed us cautiously, not knowing what to make of a couple of sweaty guys biking through the desert in the summer heat.
After lunch, we sat in the shade and attempted to apply rubber patches to the ruptured tubes. The glue would NOT adhere. Several attempts failed to make repairs, so we had to check other options. After several phone inquiries to the town of Burns, we finally found a sporting goods store that had a bunch of tubes in stock. They said that they would be open until 9PM, so I had them set three tubes aside until we could get there. We were still over 30 miles away and had already biked 40 miles this morning, so this was going to be a long day.
We headed north, and away from our original route, which was to cut across dirt roads and connect with Hwy 395. Traffic picked up a bit as we came closer to Burns, a megalopolis of about 3,000 inhabitants, which served as the hub for all of Southeastern Oregon. The route was fairly flat, except for the steep crossing of Wrights Point, a large promontory of igneous rock which ran East-West. Wrights Point is one of the best examples of inverted topography in the area, where viscous lava flowed into an ancient canyon and hardened into rock. Subsequently, the less resistant material making up the sides of the original canyon eroded away, leaving the steep rock wall with a flat top behind. Think of it as nature’s Jello Mold.
The grade up the hill was exceedingly steep. After 200 yards of pedaling furiously and getting nowhere, we dismounted and pushed the loaded bikes up the hill. Had we not been so tired, we might have felt embarrassed by doing so. Diesel trucks sped by, seemingly inches away from us, as there were no shoulders on the road. At last, we reached the top of the ridge and caught a glimpse of the town, still about 10 more miles away. The sun was getting low in the west and the clouds and sky reflected orange and purple. The trip down the other side was as steep as the climb up. This time, we were moving almost as fast as the pickup trucks on the road.
The ride into town will be forever etched into my memory. The air was now cooler and crisp. What would be fields of hay later in the summer were now still in flood from the Spring snow melt. A cacophony of bird calls and cricket chirps was the soundtrack for our pedal cruise through the marshlands south of town. A myriad of moths and swallows darted around us in the crepuscular conditions of the purple/orange twilight of the sky. When we finally reached town, we cruised past couples walking their dogs. We smelled spare ribs grilling on a backyard grill, and heard laughter and country music. The door of an old yellow Ford pickup truck opened in front of us. A young couple heading to the barbecue exited the truck with a case of cold beer in their arms.
Upon arriving at Hwy 20, the U.S. Highway that links Burns to the rest of the outside world, we checked our odometers and found that we had logged a 72 mile day! The new meaning for B.R.O.A.D. changed. It would now be Bike Riding Over Astronomical Distances!
The lure of civilization combined with the time of day convinced us to spring for a hotel room and take a night off from camping. Erik took the highway East to find a hotel while I went West to reach King’s Sporting Goods store before they closed. The store was empty except for one lone employee. It felt great to be in air conditioning. I bought the three spare tires and met Erik at the Super 8 motel. After a shower and a change of clothes, we trundled across the street to a Pizza Pub. Burns may be a slow backwater village to most who travel through here just to fill up the gas tank, but after where we had just been, it seemed like a big city. Ironically, you might find it labeled on a World Globe. It is not that it is so big, but just that geographers don’t like blank spaces on the map. And with so much blank space, there is nothing else in Eastern Oregon to put on a globe. We felt like city folk again, falling asleep on our beds with the A/C running.
From years of guiding, I knew that day three is always an important make or break day. Your body is beginning to break down from the physical punishment. Psychologically, you need a good omen to get you through the day. A bad day on Day 3 can put a real damper on a trip. I was anxious to see which way this would go for us.
We stopped at the Thriftway grocery store at the edge of town to stock up on some treats. We parked the bikes outside and took turns shopping, so one of us could watch the bikes. There were no bike racks here, because adults don’t ride bikes in Harney county, only kids do. When we both had finished our shopping, we packed the bikes and that’s when the driver of the Harney County Dial-A-Ride van parked close to us. He was the man who spoke to us at the beginning of this story.
We took his remark about “NEVER hearing about ANYBODY doing THAT” as a compliment. It took us a few minutes to convince him that we would be okay; that we had enough bottled water to get us through the desert and that we had just biked 136 miles in the past two days; that we indeed did not just escape from the Mental Health clinic and that we were headed HOME. After failing to dissuade us from our pilgrimage, he wished us well and we were on our way.
Burns sits in the middle of the Harney Basin, which means it is uphill any way you leave town. A couple of miles out of town on U.S. 20 the grade began to steepen a bit. To compound matters, the wind was picking up. Uphill into the wind was not the omen I was looking for on day three. Also, the traffic was pretty heavy, including semis hauling freight to distant places. Although there was a shoulder on the road, it was quite narrow. We would have to put up with these conditions for another 25 miles, until we hit the remote outpost of Riley, Oregon, where we would head south on U.S. 395.
The “town” of Riley lays at the intersection of U.S. Highways 20 and 395. It consists of a gas station and store, a post office and an RV park. The one billboard next to the store states in bold letters, “Whoa, Ya Missed Riley!” The most direct way to go back to Bend would have us continue straight on Hwy 20, but the high traffic and dangerous biking conditions convinced us to choose the longer 395 route. We had originally planned to hit 395 on dirt roads and then travel on blacktop through Christmas Valley and Fort Rock. Our side trip to Burns was unintended, but necessary due to the need for spare tubes.
At the Riley store, we saw a FedEx truck pull in, waiting to receive shuttled freight from Bend. Since my wife worked for FedEx, I went over to the driver and had her radio to dispatch to give her an update on our whereabouts. Meanwhile, Erik went inside the store to inquire if the lonely outpost of Wagontire, Oregon (28 miles away) was still open. The owner answered his phone call and said he would stay there until we arrived, provided that we pick up a pack of Lucky Strikes for him from the Riley store. This would be the first and only time I had taken a bike trip with a pack of cigarettes in my saddle bags!
We headed south on 395 straight into the teeth of gale force winds. Our butts were sore from being in the saddle for two and a half days, and now our calves were screaming for relief. There was nothing higher than a sagebrush to block any wind. We put our heads down and gritted it out. Day three was shaping up to be a break, and not a make, day.
The winds were steady 25 knots with gusts towards 35 knots. A large wooden sign denoting the Northern Great Basin Experimental Rangelands was perpendicular to the wind flow. We sat behind it and took a break, disgusted and demoralized by the conditions. We didn’t want to continue, but hey….there was a cowboy up the road who was waiting on us and running out of smokes. It was our duty to get his cigarettes to him! So, we plodded on.
We were almost blown over a couple of times with the wind. I looked up at the heavens and shook my fist at God. When I did, the gusts got stronger. Erik begged me not to do that anymore.
The wind picked up the loose desert dirt and sandblasted our faces with it. We put on our bandannas like we were bank robbers and pedaled on. B.R.O.A.D. took on a new meaning du jour. Today it stood for Blowing Really Outrageous Amounts of Dirt. After what seemed an eternity, we viewed the lonely outpost of Wagontire, Oregon (population 2) in the distance. A grizzled, leathery-faced cowboy sat on the porch, smoking his last cigarette down to the nub. A sign announcing NO GAS was next to the pump. Tumbleweeds sped past us.
“I thought you boys would never get here”, he said. It had taken us almost 4 hours to pedal a mere twenty-eight miles. The total for the day was only 53 miles, but it was the most difficult day of riding by far. The cowboy let us refill our water bottles, thanked us for the smokes, then told us he was off to visit a sick friend. Erik made camp in the shadow of the store, while I went down the road about 1/2 mile away and rolled out my bag on the leeward side of a dune. On cue, the wind abated that evening. I fell asleep again while looking up at the stars.
At daybreak, I was just putting away the camp stove after making the second cup of coffee, when I saw Erik riding towards me. It was a good idea to get an early start before the winds picked up again. It was good that our timing was in sync to start the day.
Once we got to the sign welcoming us to Lake County, we started cruising downhill. We both stood up on the bikes as much as possible as we had sore butts from three long days in the saddle. Plus, the blacktop had numerous cracks in it due to the extreme diurnal temperature ranges, which made for even more jarring while seated. I’ve never been incarcerated, but I can’t imagine that being gang raped in the prison yard would be more painful than riding 200 continuous miles on a mountain bike over cracked roads.
Once we exited Hwy 395 the traffic became almost non-existent. We had one more very steep hill to climb, and for the 3rd time in 4 days, we walked our bikes up a hill. At the top of the escarpment, another stiff breeze greeted us. At least this time, we would not be biking uphill into the wind. For the next 15 miles, the road was straight as an arrow with no grades to climb. We did not pull into Christmas Valley until the afternoon. Christmas Valley is an unincorporated community where hay farming and ranching are the economic mainstays of the region. It is dusty, windy, and isolated, but there were a couple of restaurants in town. We decided to take a break from the sandblasting and have a long lunch.
We had to choose between a couple of restaurants. We rode through a dirt parking lot filled with large pickup trucks (a sign of approval by the locals). A large row of hedges surrounded the restaurant. It was there that we were discussing what to do with the bikes, when a lady exited the establishment and told us that the meals here were not as good as the other place in town. We thanked her for her advice and were getting ready to check out the next place.
Suddenly, a booming voice thundered behind us. “I’m a FAT man!”, he scowled. We turned to confront a huge man staring at us. He was about 6’4″ tall and at least as wide. He must have weighed over 450 pounds. Was he upset that we were blocking his way into the restaurant?
He grabbed his suspenders with his left hand, made a fist with his right hand and pointed at his chest with his right thumb. He then shouted again, “I’m a FAT man!”
Erik and I looked at each other nervously. The fact that the man was fat was obvious. Why he appeared to be angry with us was not. We moved our bikes out of the way and made room for him to pass by. His demeanor changed.
“I heard you discussing where to eat with that lady”, he said. “Fat men know where to eat. Are you going to listen to that skinny little lady, or somebody like me? I eat lunch here every day and I can verify that THIS place is much better that the one SHE was telling you about.”
Who could argue with logic like that? Convinced by his logic, we chained our bikes together, went to the washroom to clean up, then sat down and looked at some menus. I couldn’t help but notice, and neither could anyone else not notice, but we were again the only people in the restaurant wearing bicycle shorts. Everyone else either had on jeans, cowboy boots, or work boots. A sizeable percentage of the clientele sported oversized belt buckles. It was like the Denio cafe, minus the liquor.
We went through a buffet line and loaded up our plates with salad, chicken, fruits and vegetables. The fat man was sitting with some friends at an adjacent table. There were several empty plates in front of him and a couple of full ones too.
“I was right, wasn’t I?”, he asked. We nodded in agreement.
Our next move was up for discussion. Erik wanted to look for a place to camp near town, but I wanted to move towards Fort Rock, another 26 miles away. The wind was still blowing, but not quite as hard as it was earlier. We still had a lot of daylight ahead. I was not enthralled with camping near Christmas Valley and Erik was not anxious to continue pedaling into the wind. After an hour of waiting and deliberating, we decided to pedal until it was dark and then make camp.
We put our heads down and pedaled into the West wind, passing Kitty Litter Lane, the site of an old mine. At a fork in the road, the smell of death overtook us. On the other side of the highway, on top of an electrical transformer lay the corpse of a badger.
The sun was getting lower in the sky. I found a flat, dusty place to lay out the sleeping bags, but technically it was on “private land”. The thought of a rancher discovering us “squatting” on his land spooked Erik enough to keep moving. In the distance, we could make out the silhouette of the tuff ring known as Fort Rock. We still had another 10 miles or so to get there and it would be dark before we arrived. On cue, when the sun dipped below the horizon, the wind abated. We put on our headlamps and continued on. Even though there were no shoulders on the road, neither was there any traffic.
About three miles before we came to the Rock, we saw a set of headlights coming towards us. For safety sake, we pulled over to the side of the road and stopped as the car sped by. A minute or two later, a vehicle approached us from the rear. We stopped again on the side of the road to let it pass. Instead it pulled up alongside of us and stopped.
A voice came out of the car. “It’s dark already. Do you fellows have a place to stay tonight?”
We replied, “We’re headed for Fort Rock State park.”
“The park closes at sundown and there is no camping allowed there. You boys are welcome to camp next to the museum in town. I’m the caretaker there and you can roll out a bag next to my RV. I’d like to know that you are in a safe place.”
We thanked him and agreed to take him up on his offer. A few miles later, we pulled into the parking lot of the Fort Rock Museum, where there was a picnic table in front. The man, whose name was Mark, came out of the RV to greet us. He had been out taking a sunset drive with a lady friend. Both were surprised to see two bikers at night on a lonely road in Lake County. After some conversation, we all decided to hit the hay for the night. We had traveled a record-breaking 80 miles today. We came up with a new acronym for B.R.O.A.D.—-Breaking Records On Average–DAILY!
The next morning when we were firing up the stove and having our first cup of coffee, Mark emerged from his RV. After breakfast, he opened up the museum for us and gave a guided tour. Now retired, he spent his Winters in Arizona, and his summers exploring the Fort Rock Basin and Lake County, while volunteering for the museum. His knowledge of the region was impressive and he filled us in on the natural history and the human history of the area. We spent the morning relaxing and talking. He was a most gracious host.
At noon, we stopped at the only small store in town, which doubled as the town’s gas station. Here we stocked up on some snacks, as this would be the last civilization we would encounter until we got home in two more days. The last few days would take us on dirt and gravel roads through Deschutes National Forest, until we reconnected with Hwy 20 east of Bend. We cycled north and made a brief stop at Fort Rock State Park.
Fort Rock is a unique landform, know as a Tuff Ring. It was formed by volcanic eruptions at the bottom of a pluvial lake. Prior to the rise of the Cascade Mountain range, the area was much wetter. Now that the Cascades block the westerly winds bringing Pacific moisture, the climate is different and the lake is no longer there. However, when there was a lake, the waves from the lake eroded the south end of the Tuff Ring, leaving the semi-circular landform that we see today. A wave cut notch is apparent on the rock face over 100 feet above the valley floor. Raptors of all sorts use the cliff faces as vantage points to hunt for prey. In a nearby cave, prehistoric peoples who hunted Mastodon left behind sandals made from Sagebrush.
After passing the State Park, we headed north on dirt roads out of the desert and uphill towards the forested lands of Deschutes National Forest. Rough-legged hawks, Red-Tailed hawks and kestrels watched us ride by from their perches atop electric poles along side of the road. At mile 10, we came upon the ruins of the Cabin Lake Guard Station. We surveyed the abandoned residences and grounds and took a rest break in the shade of the pines. Shade, oh blessed shade! After about 250 miles of desert biking, we really appreciated the shade of a forest once again.
The road turned to gravel in the National Forest. Further north, where this road became China Hat Road, the gravel was loose and not well packed down. It became impossible to maintain good traction, even though we had fat tires and heavy bikes. We labored to move in a straight line. Often the wheels would spin and throw gravel behind us. This was almost as frustrating as pedaling into the wind. Fortunately, we did not have many more miles to go. We had all afternoon to get to China Hat Campground, a primitive abandoned campground less than 20 more miles ahead. We alternated riding and walking for the next few hours.
By later afternoon, we arrived at camp. Even though it was a Friday afternoon, nobody else was here. Our wives had pre-planned to drive out and meet us and camp with us on this Friday night. They arrived by car around 7PM, bringing potato salad, chicken, and beer with them. We built a campfire, dined and recounted the adventures of the last 4 days. In some ways it felt like the end of the trip celebration dinner, but we still had 40 more miles to get to home tomorrow.
The next morning, Erik decided that he had enough and went home with his wife. I really wanted to complete the whole trip, but wasn’t excited about 10 more miles of loose gravel until I hit blacktop again. Beth agreed to take my camping gear home with her, and I would have a lighter load to make biking easier. I kissed her goodbye and completed the last 40 miles of the trip solo.
The gravel road was a bit easier to navigate with a lighter bike. Finally, I hit the blacktop of Forest Road 23. That road soon drops in elevation, bringing me back into the more xeric environment of sagebrush. A few miles ahead, I will again intersect with U.S. 20. At least the shoulders on this part of the highway are wider than they were near Burns.
One last big hill to climb where the road climbs up over Horse Ridge. A few days ago, I might have thought about walking the bike up this grade. But the climb, although steep, was short enough to bike to the top. Unburdened by camping gear, I shifted into a low gear to make it to the top, where there is an overlook of Dry Canyon. I pause to take a picture at a familiar place.
Dry canyon is a gorge made when the prehistoric lake that filled Millican Valley drained and cut through the lava rock. Native people came through here, leaving behind rock paintings and petroglyphs. There is an isolated ecosystem of mountain mahogany trees at the bottom of the canyon, where the cliffs shade the bottom from the sun and create a more mesic environment for plants that require more moisture. I’ve hiked that gorge many times and now feel like I’m in home territory. This is the first time I biked almost 300 miles to see a place that is only 20 miles from my home. It is amazing how different a place may seem depending on your mode of transport getting to that place.
The road descending from the top of the ridge down to the Badlands is extremely steep. I’m glad I’m going west and descending and not climbing up from the east. The shoulder was smooth and wide. I shifted to the highest gear and sped downward, as fast as is possible on a cross-bike.
A station wagon was passing me on the left. A small girl in the rear seat looked at me as we raced downhill together, nearly at the same speed. I could read her lips as she was saying, “Look Mommy!”
I stopped pedaling and coasted the rest of the way, not wanting to have an accident at this high speed. Less than a couple of hours later, I was pulling into my subdivision. It probably appeared to my neighbors that I was out for an afternoon jaunt, instead of coming in all the way from Nevada.
Biking across the desert of Eastern Oregon is a great thing to say you have done, but maybe not necessarily a great thing to do. It depends on your perspective. Nothing worth doing comes without a little bit of pain. The soreness and discomfort lasted about almost another week, but the memories remain with me to this day.
Journeys that are linear, those that have a distinct beginning point and and end point can be the most intriguing journeys. They mirror our journey through life. We do not always know the conditions of the the roads we will travel through or the directions of the winds that may impede our progress. Little things can bring true joy. Unexpected difficulties will arise. Knowing this, we should stop and take time to appreciate the small things, knowing that we might pass by this route but only once. Journeys like this also reaffirms that there is no place like home, for those fortunate enough to have one.
Time passed by also gives you a different perspective on your linear journey. By the end of the trip, Erik wanted nothing more to do with a long bike ride. Some of the difficulties we encountered were more than he bargained for. I would tease him from time to time after the trip and asked him about an imagined bike trip from Reno to Elko across Nevada. The name of that bike trip could be called Pedaling Across Interior Nevada. The acronym for that trip could be P.A.I.N. Later, I would come up with other preposterous trips, like one from Bismark, North Dakota to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. That one could be named Biking Across Dakota And Southern Saskatchewan (B.A.D.A.S.S.). He would just shake his head and roll his eyes. Clearly, he thought I had lost my mind. But really, who wouldn’t want to be part of a B.A.D.A.S.S. bike ride?
A year after our trip, Erik became a father for the first time. His perspective changed. Yes, he finally agreed that it was a good thing to have done, even if he didn’t want to do it again. A few years after that, he and his wife split up. They moved out of our neighborhood and I don’t see them anymore. But one thing will always bind us together; the fact that we both know the state of Oregon in ways that no other Oregonians know it. We shared the same geography for close to a week. As the years go by and this journey is further in my rear view mirror, I cherish it more than ever. My legs no longer ache thinking about it. When I relive the trip, it isn’t the saddle soreness that is the first thing that comes to mind. I think of the beauty of the landscape and the solitude; the special people I met briefly like Mark at Fort Rock; walking our bikes through a cattle drive; and eating pancakes at the Frenchglen Hotel. And I remember my lover meeting me on a deserted stretch of China Hat road and bringing me chicken, potato salad, and hugs at the end of a hard day. Most of all, all of these adventures happened on my way home.
Here’s hoping you have a memorable trip on your next trip home!