The gorge in winter remains too grim for me, but east enough the landscape opens up to a cross between California and the moon. California is in the swell of the hills against the sky; the moon is in the emptiness and the cold. We stay at a near-vacant state park (now that, only in Oregon) with tidy campsites laid out neatly behind a showpiece tumbledown barn. There’s a checkers table and free loaner bicycles, just sitting there, for anyone. The checkers I win; the bikes we ride along the river as far as the trail will go.
On the way back we stop on the Washington side of the Bonneville Dam to see the generators, also immaculate. For some reason the interior walkways around the powerhouse are covered in plush, rainbow-striped carpet: a Fisher-Price xylophone underfoot, a Cold War bunker overhead.
Even better than the carpet—if you can possibly believe that—is a logbook of stories from people who worked on the dam’s construction back in the ’30s. I won’t spoil the whole thing, but here’s my favorite:
I accidentally drained Bass Lake. We were drilling a tunnel and it kept filling with water. So, I was brought in to resolve the problem and I got seven pumps to run 24 hours for a few days. Finally, we were able to drill the rest of the tunnel and never encountered more water. One day I travelled above the area to try and locate where the water came from. On an area above the drilling, I discovered a dry lake (Bass Lake) with a row boat sitting on dry ground! I never said anything for fear of getting in trouble.
It’s out of season and the elaborate fish ladders are empty; the viewing gallery at the bottom of the building reveals only the turbid churn of pale green water. I stand straining to see anything else for a long time before at last the middle window frames a lone Chinook.
I get only the briefest glimpse of a ghostlike apparition, a split-second impression of a silver-brown body thrashing against the current before the water rips it away. There is the otherworldly sensation of television static, the sense it was just a flickering projection of the thing I wanted to find. All the same, I’ve been trying to see something for so long I find the image burned into my vision long after it disappears. And of course all this can be as true of a person as of a fish.
Here my sins against stoke included napping in the shuttle van instead of riding Hardesty and getting so pissed off at Middle Fork—the most miserable, deadfall-strewn, mosquito-ridden bushwack I have ever (barely) pedaled: 57 bites accumulated while sweating it out in a jacket—that I opted for a fire-road climb over a second singletrack descent. This did at least get me to the treeline, where Oregon finally starts to look good. Also on the bright side: Alpine, as always; a fun new stopover loop in Klamath; and great company.
Emigrant Wilderness, 8/12–8/13
Quick trip, the granite bright and the wildflowers extravagant. I would consider this my masterclass in third-wheeling but for the presence of Pickles the very helpful blue heeler, who made us four. At night we all watched the perseids smudge war-paint on the sky.
On the Tahoe Rim Trail we found a dog, a beautiful blonde husky with fur like latte art and eyes like the center of a nebula—not sorry, both are true. It was hot and collarless and wandering in the woods. I was leaving my second voicemail at an animal shelter when its owners (we assume) pulled up in an F150 and snatched the animal back without a word. “You should fucking say thank you, assholes, go to hell!” I yelled after their rising dust as the boys cringed. On reflection, this outburst stemmed from an upbringing on both sides of the pond: I take manners seriously, like a Brit, but escalate like a red-blooded American.
At camp we found … a hailstorm. We fled to dinner in town and watched rainbows over the railroad tracks.
And on Donner Summit we found a giant bonsai garden and a geocache. In it, among other things, were letters to a couple—both dead, the wife just recently—whose friends had hiked to the peak to scatter their ashes. “Thank you for being part of my memory. Seven of us have made the trek this morning to pay our respects. … We uncorked a bottle of $5 wine that tasted like $50. We love you, my friend.” Point in my favor, I managed not cry about that one until I got home.
Ventana Wilderness, 9/2–9/4
From a dirt road pullout high on the ridge, I watched the setting sun drop shafts of light onto the crinkled Pacific through holes in a lid of wildfire smoke. I saw my first tarantula, held my palm to peeling manzanita, and hid in the tent from black flies worse—honest—than anything I can remember from Africa. I revisited Cone Peak, under very different circumstances, and on the coast side of the mountains drove Highway 1 between the mudslides for a preview of the end of the world.
It will be alright, I decided, when it’s all over. This road, these cypress, California, will fall slowly into the sea. The whales will breach with no one watching out where the sky and the water meet, in the same blue haze. A warmer wind will stir the palms. They’ll get too tall to be true.
In the interim, driving home through Fort Hunter Liggett, every massive, moss-draped oak was the most beautiful one I’d ever seen.
Concisely: I live for elevation, die at altitude; cursed Mills Peak on the way up, sang its name all the way down; didn’t want to get in Packer Lake and then didn’t want to get out. The usual.
I mostly want to note this insane candy-corn fungus. How does this happen?
Aside from the fact that its main event was mountain biking, the best part of this particular bachelorette party was that these girls were content to Let Me Do Me, no pressure. They toasted with wine and I with tea; they painted their nails while I fastidiously arranged all the polish in a spectrum. ROYGBIV.
At first the trees were radiant, benevolent. I knelt in the needles at their feet and considered praying, probably did. But later on the wind picked up—so gradually I didn’t notice my own rising unease until I lost my GPS track, stopped to pull out a map and registered the muffled howl through the canopy and crack and groan of trunks disappearing into the dark. Small branches rained down around my head as I bolted out of the woods, and though I’d planned on staying for the night I was so relieved to find the car I fled home instead.
As I drove south watching the gale flatten the parched grass along the highway, there was a distinct moment I thought to myself, this would burn like a motherfucker. When the next morning I discovered that it in fact had, there was an infinitesimal and awful moment in which I imagined I had ignited Sonoma County with my mind.
I don’t know why I can’t accept that it is winter here, or that I’m too slow to ride with these guys any more, but on the strength of my denial I pushed my bike through snow and hauled it over and under an endless obstacle course of downed trees. I rode literally half of what everybody else did and still was so tired by the end of the weekend that I hyperventilated at Ten Barrel when the waitress informed me they’d run out of giant cast-iron cookies. They hadn’t, either; this was just the boys’ idea of a joke.
I think the chamber of commerce here could use an angle other than Shakespeare. I want to sell them on selling themselves as the halfway point between San Francisco and Portland, a distinction I assume to be relevant to more abandoned Bay Area holdouts than just me.
I’m waiting for the Portland end of the bargain inside a nominally Bard-themed motel room, eating pizza and watching George Clooney rock a mockneck in The Perfect Storm. Past a certain hour I can’t separate the sound of the weather on TNT and outside the window, can’t be entirely sure the bed’s not listing to starboard. I turn on all the lights.
On the trails over the weekend the rain is snow that balls up in my not-so-fat bike’s rear triangle every hundred yards. I do a lot of walking and pushing, stamping my feet and biting my tongue. The Person Whose Idea It Was to go this way very wisely drives down from mid-mountain alone so I can ride one more descent, snow-free. Whether this is intended as a magnanimous gesture or just to avoid having me drive his truck, I’m not sure—but I’ll take it.
As with anywhere else I ever visit I’m in Portland in part to determine if it’s somewhere I could move. But in its long northern twilight and coat of dirty ice the city is not putting its best face forward. It’s not so cold, but it’s cold enough it hurts.
I did not grow up with any real winter; my earliest reference points lay through the wardrobe to Narnia and so even now I associate snow with a sort of sorcery or bewitchment. At the waterfalls in the gorge the spell is cast and spattered in white on bridges, branches, cave mouths, columns of basalt.
For indoor amusements we visit the railroad museum: he discusses torque with retirees while I watch safety videos from the ’80s, rapt and mouthing cautionary mnemonics. At an indoor bike park called the Lumberyard I prove myself uncoachable and discover, by taking the bus, where the city has hidden its minorities. (Out by the airport, if you were wondering.)
A Portland phenomenon slightly easier to get behind is combination bike/coffee shops. On the way to one we pass a golden retriever in a Christmas scarf, which I smile at—do dogs know when you smile at them?—and then forget. But when I open the door to the café a few blocks later it is onto a room full of dogs; they are everywhere, among vintage bikes and in baubled sweaters, tussling on the floor in felt antlers, tongues lolling over jingle-belled collars and leashes wound with tinsel. I’m tired and surprised and so all I can do is start crying. “Jesus Christ,” mutters my tour guide. “Santa!” I sob. Owners and dogs are lining up to get their picture taken with him. (Not Him.) There’s a pug on his lap.
What I’d generally say about a lot of Oregon at this point is, it’s alright but the trees get in the way of things. I prefer a forest from some distance above it: I like the plumes of mist that snake out of the canopy, the reassurance that the planet’s still alive. But when actually in the woods I tend to want to get out of them. To hike for an hour without a sightline makes me itchy and eventually anxious for the sky.
Fortunately there’s also an air and space museum. It has an IMAX theater, for fighter-jet movies, and a goddamn water park—which you can enter via twisty slide inside the 747 that’s parked on the roof. The adjacent hanger contains, among other things, the actual Spruce Goose. One wing is cross-sectioned so you can see that it’s full of beach balls, sweartagawd.
This plane is so large it defies pano mode, cannot be taken in in its entirety from any single point in the building. I’m interested in this but not, unfortunately, in my friend’s explanation of how the engines work. There is a flight simulator, which he can operate instantly and intuitively. I demand a turn and crash over and over into the virtual runway—sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.
Heading west into the glare of the setting sun, the lunar hills on Highway 20 roll by gold against a feathered evening sky. Overnight, though, the weather moves in. From a campground in Juntura—”No Shooting” signs everywhere, presumably because they’re necessary—I head to the hot springs in the morning anyway. I have the idea that it might be relaxing, but my gumption runs solar and so under the grim sky I have imagined 28 ways I might die by the time I get there. (Amoebas, dude, look it up.) I soak just long enough to really listen to the rain.
Between Juntura and Bend the only thing on the map is a BLM corral facility. My nine-year-old self was a diligent study of wild horses and roundups and adoption proceedings and so this is a real draw for me—and other lunatic women, clearly, because there’s a driving tour loop for road-trippers to gawk without bothering the staff (who in any case are nowhere to be seen). I’m quickly out of the car with my head through the pipe corral, watching rangy blue roans and piebalds squabble over piles of oat hay. I know they’re not wild-wild, but their manes and eyes are and I still want one, 20 years later.
When I arrive in Bend it’s after several hours of hairy, stormy highway and a week of not talking to anyone. My joy at reuniting with people I can babble to fades quickly to guilt as it becomes apparent I’ve convinced them to travel a full day from the Bay Area only to arrive in the freak path of an “atmospheric river.” I had talked up safe-assumption late-season riding. Why am I so frequently wrong about this?
We go anyway. The physics of it is, we are soaked through at precisely the elevation it’s cold enough for the rain to turn to sleet and snow. We form a wretched procession down “Storm King” (of course) during which Jack turns observably blue and I take to braking with my fists because my fingers won’t move.
In the desert the next day the weather is better but my attitude worse. I keep trying to cut my ride short and getting talked out of it, so by the time I realize I’m on a 30-mile loop we’re exactly halfway and there’s nothing I can do about it. I admit to tears and stomping. It remains unclear why any of these rippers put up with this, but they do, and I’m so glad.
In Dunsmuir we walk along the tracks, testing dance-step combinations between ties laid just the wrong distance apart. It’s hot and bright and smells of creosote; when a train comes by I jump down the steep embankment, alarmed, land in a heap in the deep crushed rock. The cars chug by above our heads. Woo-wooooo!
The falls spill out of the ferns without any explanation. The water’s so clear that the striders in the shallows cast shadows in the bright afternoon sun, each a cluster of perfect discs that jolts and folds over the submerged rocks. I watch them for a while and then we go back.
At the foot of a lookout tower off Highway 58, I call out into the wind and the watchman resignedly invites us up. He’s had his eyes on the forest here every summer for more than 40 years, the resume of a man who presumably prefers to be alone. I’m in awe of him and of the thousands and thousands of trees.
In Oakridge, finally—we have tried and failed many times to come here, most recently because it was burning down—the guy in the bike shop takes one look at Jacob and begins addressing him as “Social Justice Warrior.” When asked how he arrived at this (accurate) conclusion—without even a World Bicycle Relief t-shirt to tip him off!—he suggests this was the only reasonable explanation for riding with so many brown people. Well played.
You can read about Oakridge trails wherever, so suffice to say here that to my taste they live up to the hype: fast and flowy without looking like a bike park, an honest day’s work even with long shuttles. There are big trees and long horizons, catwalk ridgelines and and glowing green carpets of clover. The only bar in town is full of books. I will go back with you any time you want.
We come home on the Fourth of July, drive the last hour south with fireworks going off on either side of the freeway. The explosions light up the strip malls and refineries in flashes of white and red, then the rows and rows of houses and apartments, the marina, and the bay.
By the time we reached the bottom of the climb on Sunday, the falling flakes had progressed from “wintry ambiance” to “weather phenomenon.” Sean wore the mad grin I long ago learned to associate with what he’ll call “an adventure ride” and I call a death march: the last thing I heard him yell before he turned onto the (rapidly disappearing) trail was, “Who-o’s got their bad idea jeans on?”
My knee died, hard, for the first time in a long time. Unclear at this point if I’ll spend another week or another year fixing it, but I’m inclined to say it was worth it either way. A powder day on wheels? The snow crunched and squeaked under the tires, collected on my eyelashes, fell from pine boughs in curtains of glitter—we carved! It was one of the most miserable, beautiful, best days I’ve ever had on a bike. I remembered why (or at least where) I like to ride.
Especially coming from the Bay Area, the difference between pedaling purpose-built singletrack—as opposed to a hiking route that happens to be bike-legal— is big and blissful, snowed over or not. But the trails aren’t all there is to love about Bend. Tinder (sorry, mom) tells me the dating market looks like this: