Crater Lake To Stanley, Day 4 : Curiosity

I’m biking north on Highway 97, headed out of the Crater Lake region, towards Klamath Marsh. It’s a very long flat highway with a slight downhill grade and a narrow shoulder, fringed with loose red rocks that are hell for bicyclists. If you stray into them for even an instant, your balance disappears and the bike pitches violently. It’s a proper highway too, with scores of fast-moving vehicles. I still get plenty of curious looks and the truckers still wave, but the other drivers don’t anymore. They’re in a crowd now, and country-style greetings are inappropriate.

Far ahead of me, in the heat haze, I can see a narrow shape at the edge of the lane. Too narrow to be a motorcyclist. Could it possibly be another person on a bicycle? Since it will probably be another half an hour before I pass within range, I set my curiosity aside and continue listening to my H.P. Lovecraft radio dramatizations. “Pickman’s Model” is the story, and the actor playing Pickman has the perfect lunatic edge to his laughter.

As the story is drawing to a close (Pickman has just fired his pistol at some unseen ghoul), I finally come within range of the shape. It’s a bicyclist alright. It’s a man, deeply tanned, with a huge exploded beard of gray hair and a battered straw hat. He’s wearing shorts and a T-shirt, and pedaling his bicycle in sandals. He doesn’t have any luggage attached to the bike except for what looks like an old bedroll and a sack, bungee-corded to the rear. He’s going about 3/4 my speed, in slow strokes with the pedals.

I tail him for a while, and when the traffic is clear I slip around him. Some time later I stop by the side of the road to empty my bladder and eat a snack, and he passes me by. I wave, and he holds up a hand. I lounge around at the side of the road for a while, chatting on the phone and woolgathering. How long has that guy been on the road? Where is he going? How does he eat or sleep, with so few supplies?

For all my enjoyment of the open road – especially the long clear stretches when there are no cars for miles and the wildlife has emerged – I can’t see myself becoming the die-hard cyclist represented in that old man. This trip is forcing me to acknowledge that I take too much pleasure in having a home, and in the convenience and human variety of the city, to become the wilderness-trekking hermit I had romantically imagined as a kid. I’m just not interested in making the kind of sacrifices that a true Kerouac-style life “on the road” would require. Perhaps that means I’m no longer a young man. … But that can’t be it… That guy who rode past me was obviously not a young man. I guess it just means I’m a different person? Different than I thought I would be?

I turn off Highway 97 and begin cruising down Silver Lake Road. The traffic thins out to almost nothing, except the occasional RV or big-rig. The drivers all wave as they pass. Up ahead is the Klamath Marsh, but first I ride through some buffalo grazing land. Check out the crude electrified gate:

(That cloud of dust is actually a whirlwind, not an overclocked buffalo.)

Here’s an interesting effect. The clouds are moving so fast over the plain that in the space of a few seconds, everything around you can pass under a giant shadow, and then out again. Check out these two pictures, taken only a few seconds apart:

And then the cloud moves just a little more…

It’s funny… I’ve been away from the open plains and the Alpine valleys and streams for so long that my most recent memories of them are actually the artist’s renderings in whimsical Miyazaki films. To experience them in person again is quite a treat.

It’s also a source of cognitive dissonance, because even though this terrain feels like a second home to me, a more practical part of my mind is constantly observing how inhospitable it is for humans. Since I have a road, and a bicycle laden with food and water, and a phone and a map, I can enjoy this land purely for the aesthetic appeal — and historically, that level of detachment is normal for my relationship with it. I have always been comfortably equipped with reliable modern tools when I go exploring, and in my heart I probably wouldn’t want it any other way. Slogging through this marsh in animal skins, spending half the day bent over in search of tiny scraps of food, would be a miserable experience. But on the other hand, my relationship with the land would certainly be a lot more … “authentic” … that way.

Funny how civilization can change perspectives. I’m genetically indistinguishable from my recent ancestors, and this land is almost unchanged. But as I travel through it my mind is in a totally different place than people were even a generation ago.

Hell, even half a generation. I have four bars of cell signal right now.

I’ve completed an exhausting ride up Silver Lake Road, and have met up with Highway 31, just on the outskirts of the town of Silver Lake. To my left and right are sections of ranch land, squared off by foothills of scrub and piles of soft desert rock. The landscape appears to have dried out suddenly, after the relatively lush forest I’d been riding through all afternoon.

A couple of times I pass over a creek, and since I’ve run out of water I’m tempted to stop and drink, but I restrain myself. Silver Lake is close at hand. Surely there’s water there.

When I hit the junction of Highway 31 and Silver Creek Road, the town buildings begin. I doubt this town was ever in a state that could be called “thriving”, but it’s abundantly clear that the downturn in the economy has decimated Silver Lake as thoroughly as any medieval plague. Fully half the properties on both sides of the main street have “for sale” signs – sometimes several, from different agents – nailed and posted on them. The gas station is shuttered. The restaurant is dark and unfurnished.

Other signs of decay are move lived-in: On a back-street I see an entire tanker truck, cab and all, splayed against the side of a decrepit repair shop, so thoroughly integrated with the weeds that form the curb of the road that it has the character of a gigantic insect that’s been pressed under a log in the forest. A block away is a fire station, next to a smaller building that must have been an “urgent care” facility and ambulance station at some point, but is now decrepit and empty. A single aluminum crutch has been hurled up onto the shingled roof. Adjacent to this building is a public park that has almost been vandalized out of existence. The grass is only partially green, and only one of the picnic tables is still upright.

On the rough edge of the town I spot a motel, still open for business. A couple of seconds’ examination makes me discard my idea of spending the night here in Silver Lake. The rooms look flimsy, and the gravel patch that serves as a yard and parking lot is host to a handful of very rough-looking gentlemen, sitting on the steps to the rooms or lounging in the open doors of their trucks. Forget about privacy.

Over the course of this trip I will worry many times about thieves. Occasionally I will worry about being robbed at gun or knifepoint. Over time I will learn to appreciate the difference between the honest intimacy of true wilderness towns, and the atmosphere of furtive menace in the industrial centers that are slowly imploding and the tourist-trap cities that are washing sadly away. Crystal Lake is, obviously, imploding. Only the town church and the “Youth Center” are in decent shape. The Youth Center is a gigantic corrugated-steel box – much larger than the church – and it looks more like a prison than a proper YMCA. The outside walls are bone-white and plastered with Christian slogans in yard-high letters, like a disclaimer, or the ingredients list on a huge pack of cigarettes. Like God went walking through the valley and dropped his cigarettes, and the locals tried to build a town around it and failed.

I’ve passed the town of Crystal Lake and am biking over the flatlands next to a huge dry swath of land that would be an actual lake – Crystal Lake – if it were a different time of year. I’ve called ahead to a motel in Christmas Valley and arranged for them to leave a room unlocked, so all I need to do now is keep pedaling until I get there.

On my right is a procession of electric poles, bearing wires suspended on chunks of insulating ceramic. These are old-school power lines, being taxed beyond their intended capacity by a zillion air conditioners, televisions, and water pumps. From the top of every pole I can hear an agitated crackling sound, like sharp rocks being crushed together, mixed with a chaotic buzzing noise. The noise from each pole blends into the next, making a chorus. And since I’m moving at a decent speed, each buzz is given a subtle “doppler effect”, causing the pitch to bend slowly down, level out, and then bend down further. It’s the weirdest sound I’ve heard since … well, since I can remember.

Usually, when I’m pedaling my bike, the wind carries a gentle rushing sound to my ears that covers up quiet noises from the environment, but the noise of the poles is right on top of the wind. If I heard this noise in my own neighborhood of downtown San Jose, I would eventually call the power company and tell them to investigate it. Out here, this is just the way things are, I guess.

I listen to the ominous sound for a couple of miles, wishing that I had a good quality microphone so I could sit down and record an hour of it. Then my ears receive an even stranger sound. I am passing under a chain of gigantic wire towers, running perpendicular to the road, down from the hills to the north and over the mountains to the south. Each is vaguely human in shape, with a triangular head over wide shoulders, and two dangling arms, each holding a set of massive bare cables that arc across the deep blue of the evening sky. They tower over the road and over the line of power poles, their course completely indifferent to either. On top of the irregular buzz of the poles they add their own low, resonant hum, turning the chorus into a symphony.

I grind to a halt and listen to it for a while, transfixed. Then I remember where I am, and my desire to get to the next town and drink water and sleep. I dismount the bike and rewire the dynamo in my front wheel to the headlight, so I can see the road in the near darkness, and pedal onward.

When I reach Christmas Valley I get a strong cell signal, so I enter my day’s route on the iPhone to check my mileage. My GPS died after the first ten hours, and I’d been biking for almost eighteen. 109.5 miles. No wonder I was so tired, hungry, and thirsty.

I reach the motel and drag my bike into the room, and then proceed right to the bathroom and drink four cups full of water, rapid-fire. As I’m setting up for bed, a chorus of bullfrogs kicks in from the dingy pond behind the motel, and a chorus of coyotes picks up from a distant hillside. First time I’ve heard coyotes since going to Pinnacles National Monument, seven months ago.

I collapse onto the bed, and draw my sleeping bag over myself. It’s more convenient than actually getting into the bed. Just before sleep pounces on me, I realize that I am absolutely ravenous with hunger. I’m going to have to find some good protein in Christmas Valley, and lots of it.

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