Crater Lake To Stanley, Day 8 : Discomfort

Today is a day of hills. After a long flat stretch, I climb a hill, then another larger hill, and then I go blasting down into a valley and lose all my altitude. At the end of the valley the road slowly tilts upward, more and more, until it plunges down again and I find myself at the base of a narrow valley, looking up at an absolutely enormous hill. By this time it’s late in the day and I’m low on water, and as I roll slowly up to the base I begin weighing my options for camping somewhere nearby, so I can tackle the hill in the morning. But the valley is bowl-shaped, so any flat space I could choose is in plain view of the highway. I’m not keen on being a roadside camper, visible to a thousand curious yahoos and policemen. So up I go, at two miles per hour.

Halfway up the extremely sloping road I stop to rest and gather my wits. I’m feeling a bit faint from the exertion. I had plenty of sleep the previous night, and I stuffed my face with food, but my body is falling behind my energy demands.

I sit down on a retaining wall, even though my butt is a bit sore, because I’m having trouble standing. I want to lay down directly on the road instead, but that would cause motorists to pull over and ask worried questions. I chomp mechanically on a bag of fritos, then some peanut butter crackers, then some juice and water. The food disappears into me, and my hunger is totally unchanged.

Oh well. Nowhere to go but up. I rest and meditate for a while longer, enjoying the sunset colors and waiting for the juice to kick in, then I climb back onto the bike and pedal on.

At my second rest break, I sip water slowly, waiting for my body to cook more energy out of the food in my gut. My mind wanders and I have an interesting realization: My body is managing itself, and I am managing my body, in a way that is totally unlike the way I’ve been doing things for 99 percent of my life.

Usually, I pass my time in a world brimming with calories, and my only sense of hunger is the sense of having a digestive system with nothing to do, and a calorie deficit of half a day at the most. Out here, I am not only experiencing a chronic calorie deficit, I am keeping myself in such constant motion that my body is having difficulty converting energy fast enough to keep me functioning on an hour by hour basis.

The physiology behind this is interesting. Without going into too much detail, I can describe it this way: My entire body runs on glucose. Glucose is digested out of the food I eat, swims around in my bloodstream, and is slurped up and used as needed. I can also store extra fuel in my body, mostly in my liver, in the form of glycogen. As long as I have enough glycogen around, it doesn’t matter how fast I get ahold of glucose, because I can convert the glycogen I have stored back into glucose to make up for the deficit and keep pedaling along. Typically, my body has around a 12-hour supply of glycogen, and it can refill the tank as I digest overnight.

But now I’m out here, and I’ve been pedaling for as much as 12 hours a day, one day after the other. My glycogen level is low, because all the glucose I make during the day is being sucked up and burned by my muscles before my liver can get ahold of it and make more glycogen. If I sit down and concentrate, I can feel that lowness, as a kind of low-grade hunger that’s curiously different from the hunger I usually experience. Usually I feel hunger as a sensation that comes up from my stomach and my gut – a message that the assembly line of digestion is empty, and wasting time. In the usual scenario, my liver may be depleted of glycogen, but that’s because it’s dumped it all out over the course of the day, making sure that the rest of my body gets as much as it wants.

But now my body – every part of it – is not getting as much as it wants. Everything is fighting for glucose, and the liver is being conservative with what little supply it has, because it has to keep a minimum safe level, to keep my heart beating and my lungs working, for an unknown length of time. It could be disastrous to dump all the reserves in.

So now, I feel hunger as a sensation from all over my body. Not the soreness of lactic acid – the ache of overused muscle – but a kind of emptiness, even a feeling of suction, as though my whole body were a giant drink straw, trying to suck food into itself and re-inflate.

For the first time in many years, I feel as though I could gulp down an entire bottle of soda, and feel no sugar-high whatsoever.

Here in Juntura, I’ve just checked into the second worst hotel room of the trip. It’s really bad. I think it used to be a shipping container, but the interior has been lined with sheetrock, vinyl, and lumpy carpet. It has three windows, but all three of them have been covered over with huge sheets of transparent plastic, staplegunned to the walls. I’m not sure if it’s for heat retention purposes or just to increase the weird factor, but the bugs have taken it as an opportunity to set up shop and transform each windowsill into a little sealed terrarium. With the spiders, the silverfish, the moths, the tiny centipedes, and the sunlight, there is a fairly complete biosphere at work here.

But like I said, this is the second worst room. The worst room was in Burns. (The one in Wagontire was free, so I’m not counting it.) The redeeming factors that this room has over the one in Burns are:

  • The beds do not block the door and are not nailed to the floorboards.
  • The fridge is full-size and there is a microwave and a television, and some additional outlets.
  • The shower isn’t repulsive, once you bang on it and scare out the spiders.
  • The air is actually fresher and warmer than in Burns.

Strange but true. I find myself liking the room, despite the abundance of critters with more than four legs. I feel like I am their guest for the night — as if I might find a folded card on the toilet tank that reads, “Welcoem to bug rume, wee hoep U liek or aminneteys, signd, The Bugs.”

I arrange my sleeping bag on one of the beds, and spread my sweater out to make a pillow. I plug the laptop in to charge, start a playlist of piano music, and quickly fall asleep.

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