Crater Lake To Stanley, Day 7 : Discomfort

Over breakfast I tell the woman who runs Wagontire about the cow noises, and she says, “Yep, as a matter of fact, they were runnin’ a bunch of cows by here last night.” Mystery solved.

It’s mid-afternoon, and I’m riding away from the “town” of Riley. I’ve got water and snacks, and am prepared for another long, rolling run over scrubland hills and hay fields. But I’m not prepared for what I find at the top of the next rise: A construction zone, compressing the road in half, with a guide car, and a woman at the head wearing a hard-hat and holding a sign – the reversible kind for directing traffic.

The woman just waves at me, and then gestures for me to go ahead up the road, regardless of the timing of the traffic. I’m skeptical, but I decide to follow orders. As I proceed up along the left-hand shoulder, very slowly, a procession of huge trucks bellows past me, only a few feet from my wind-tossed bicycle, and in one case only a few inches. The woman with the sign makes no effort to stop them or even slow them down, even though I am still only partway up the hill.

Then, just as I reach the top of the hill, I see a long chain of cars coming towards me on the single lane. The worker at the other end of the zone has signaled for their traffic to proceed, completely ignorant of my presence. The woman who waved me in was clearly not doing her job, and jeopardizing my safety.

The oncoming cars notice me and slow way down, attempting to compensate for the uncomfortable position. I wave sheepishly at them and curse the woman with the sign, under my breath.

Thankfully, the people running the next construction zone were much smarter. The woman running that one let me go first, then slowed down the guide car so I led the group, until I was safely in the two-lane region.

On the way down a big hill leading to the next major town, I find a piece of property that looks like an outdoor warehouse for old car parts.

I’m sure it’s nice to have a spare part handy for whatever breaks down on this winding, scorched road, but the resource is a bit of an eyesore. I also can’t help wondering what awful things are leaking out of the engine blocks and crankcases and permeating the soil of the valley. The scene compels me to think about the difficulty of managing industrial pollution, how modern cities have to bootstrap themselves from one configuration to the next, to serve the whims of the economy and the affluence of their population, and how every stage leaves a different kind of detritus that must be managed. Mine tailings, animal crap, railroad ties, lead piping, copper wire, et cetera through the ages … and in this case, poisoned soil.

The town I’ve arrived at is called Burns. On the way in, I rode past a huge refinery smokestack, standing alone in a field of bulldozed ruins. Rebar and cement lay in heaps. I imagine the only reason the smokestack remains is because the contractors are not sure how to safely knock it down. For now, it’s just another half-finished project, a sloppy mess on the edge of a town that is sloppy in general.

To visualize the street layout of Burns, and the level of urban planning that was probably involved, picture a giant hand sweeping across the sparse patchwork of roads that meander through most of the Oregon wilderness. Imagine the hand gathering up these roads into a compressed wad. Now the wad is tossed into a waffle iron, pressed flat, and cooked at a thousand degrees so everything gets torn up, cracked, and melted. Welcome to the town of Burns. Inside the city grid, you’ll be lucky to find a piece of uncracked pavement wider than a beach umbrella. What isn’t bulldozed is crumbling. What isn’t crumbling, is festering under several layers of paint and tar.

I’m sure there are people who live here and love it; and to them, I apologize. You’re nice people; I met some of you. But your whole town is beat up like a roadsign by a rifle range.

I’ve just checked into what is probably the worst hotel in Burns. I didn’t mean to; I was just looking for something close to the center of town. The layout of the room is as bad as the layout of Burns. The second bed (and I’m taking liberties with the definition of “bed” here) is so close to the front door that I have to lift my bike over it sideways to get it into the room.

The lights that work are crap fluorescents, but I want it dark anyway, so that’s alright. I’m standing in front of the mirror of the tiny bathroom, inspecting my brutal sunburn from the last week of riding.

How appropriate. I show up in Burns, and I’ve got burns. I really need to make some kind of face-covering to complement the scarf on my head.

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