Crater Lake To Stanley, Day 15 : Discomfort

It is evening, and I have arrived in the town of Stanley and negotiated a motel room. The room is not the best I’ve had, but it’s far from the worst. I’ve entered my cycling route from the last three days into the computer, and have asked it to generate some statistics, to show me just how tough a ride it was. The first thing I get is a map of the route, starting from Ontario:

Then, I get an elevation chart, showing how much climbing I had to do:

Then, a summary:

I sit back in my chair and whistle. “No wonder I feel so beat up,” I mutter. “And no wonder that big hill two days ago was so brutal – it was a thousand feet in less than two miles. Maybe it’s time for a break. I think I’ll just stay here in Stanley for a few days.”

Crater Lake To Stanley, Day 15 : Curiosity

It’s mid-morning, and I’ve been slogging along the final, massive uphill climb towards Stanley for a couple of hours already. I pull off by the side of the road at a turnout to catch my breath and gulp from the dwindling water supply in my luggage, and as I’m recovering, I notice an information kiosk. It’s a little column of rocks and mortar with a flat space on top like a podium, and a thick sheet of scratchy plastic screwed down to it. Beneath the semi-transparent plastic is a diagram of the valley I’m climbing out of, and a few paragraphs talking about what the early prospectors and expeditions saw when they came stumbling through almost 200 years ago.

According to the diagram, the jagged mountains in the distance are the Sawtooth Range. I feel a mixture of excitement and disappointment that I am in physical sight of my destination – the planned end of my bicycle ride. Now that I am so used to moving, what will it be like to stop?

The road keeps going up, and gets even steeper. Since the morning I have had the bike set to the lowest possible gear, and now that gear isn’t low enough. I have to push harder than I want to with every pedal stroke, and most of the time I use the foot-clips to pull up on the opposite pedal at the same time, trying to spread the fatigue over both sets of leg muscles. It helps, but not a lot, so I rest frequently.

But with each rest stop I take, I look around and see another interesting variation of the terrain. The mountains are hissing with a thousand tiny snowmelt streams, and snapping with a billion lively insects. In places the terrain is so compressed and segmented that it appears to have been laid out by a team of landscape artists, twisting each tree and placing each rock just so, like the decorations in a mini-golf course or a theme park, for maximum impact. Each chunk of meadow seems tailored to fill the irregular space it occupies, between faces of sheer grey rock or mounds of skree. Each river is an intricate succession of pools and waterfalls, wound expertly around the boulders, fallen trees, sandbars, pockets of eroded rock, and the embankment of the road.

Evidence of real design – human design – is visible in the road itself. Wherever the tiny streams threaten to flood the road, the builders have very cleverly buttressed it with layers of gravel and large stones, so the water drains harmlessly into the ground and pops up in some more convenient place downhill. The road here really is a kind of technical marvel.

I pass by a sliver of valley that has choked up with water and grass, and hear a riot of frogs. I pass by a grassy clearing dotted with multicolored flowers that resembles an enchanted meadow in some fantasy novel, except that it’s on a forty-five-degree slope. I pass through a V-shaped valley crowded with low green bushes, punctuated with the blackened spires of trees burned by some decades-past forest fire, making the whole area resemble a gigantic pincushion.

Eventually the sights overwhelm me and I decide to stop and spend an hour or so photographing one of the snowmelt streams in detail.

Once I have finally pedaled to the top of the mountain pass, the terrain opens into a long plateau, divided into wide sections by thick bands of forest. The road plows a corridor straight across the bands, and the clouds are long and narrow, so the entire landscape is laid out along horizontal and vertical lines. It’s an effect I last saw while driving through the Yukon.

Up here there is space for the flowers and trees to spread out a bit.

… And the ground is flat and solid enough for the rivers to do a bit of actual meandering.

Crater Lake To Stanley, Day 14 : Happy

Along the road I discover a new friend:

Late in the afternoon I find a nice little free camping spot and settle down, and wash my laundry in the river nearby.

Another wet overnight stay... But it was free, and undisturbed!

Crater Lake To Stanley, Day 14 : Discomfort

I’m riding up a long shallow hill through the wilderness north of Lowman, with my iPod playing and a juice bottle on my lap. On my right is a collection of large houses, set back into the woods. They have a large-windowed, all-lumber, sloping-corrugated-roof design that is common for the northwestern United States. Outside most of them I see evidence of children – swing sets, trampolines, bikes and tricycles – and a few times I see the actual children, walking along trails by the road or running around in the trees down by the river.

More than a few times I’ve heard people say that the near-wilderness like this is “a great place to raise kids”. I’ve read countless descriptions of an idealized life for a nuclear family, running around a big house in the woods, with the nearest town half an hour away, and the rugged hillsides being a kind of extended playground where children can grow up with endless fresh air and exercise, without concern for those nasty kidnappers and sexual deviant neighbors and drug dealers and gang members that peek out from behind every lamp post in the cities.

And now I’m out here looking at those big houses, and I’ve been bicycling through the near-wilderness for a couple of days. Perhaps these are merely vacation homes, and the kids stay here for a couple of months per year at the most. It would be great to have enough money for that option. Better yet perhaps these are retirement homes, owned by older members of an extended clan, and the grandkids visit for the summer while the seniors get to walk around and hang out all year.

But as the houses scroll slowly along, I decide that’s probably too optimistic. Along with the children’s toys, the houses are also surrounded by the tools of modern adults trying to make a living. Trucks, workshops, half-assembled machinery, mottled gardens, heaps of firewood. People aren’t just playing here. Their kids probably don’t just spend the summer here, either. Which means they bus half an hour into town for school, and for the holidays they go into the city, instead of out.

Some of my favorite childhood memories are based on the way I grew up in the woods, with the animals and the garden space and the comfortable privacy. But the thing about the place I grew up in, that’s different from out here, is that I had the appearance of wilderness without actually being lost in it. I was really just a few miles away from a mighty center of industry, and a collection of well funded universities. All around me, the threads of a much larger world converged.

As an adult, I now realize that my life as a teenager was greatly enhanced by this larger environment. This has introduced a chord of doubt into the chorus of voices around me preaching for an idealized family life out in the woods. And the kids I see wandering around in the small towns and along the roads of these outpost houses are reinforcing that doubt. I know there are things going on out here; plenty of things. But how much of them are of value to teenagers? How many of them help to mitigate the endless hunger for variety and intrigue that teenage life is all about? It seems almost like an act of greed, to move or start a family out here, for the fun of raising small children in a wilderness setting, when my personal enjoyment of their idealized early youth carries over into a teenage life for them of narrowed perspectives and stifling boredom. Besides: The city may have gangs and cocaine, but the country has megachurches and methamphetamine.

Even if they didn’t know what they were missing, I would know. The most I could hope for as a way of introducing them to that world would be to send them off to college, and then, why in the hell would they want to come back here afterwards, except for lack of better options?

Sure, I know, I’m keeping my perspective too narrow. Millions of people raise kids far from affluent cities. Their lives aren’t unhappy, they’re just different. Mostly I just want something of equal or better quality – as I judge it – for my children as I had when I was growing up. But I am not a member of the “1%” clan – the 1% of living people that owns 40% of the wold’s wealth. Instead I’m a member of the “everybody else” clan, and here in America at least, we’ve spent the last 30 years sliding slowly down the sides of the pyramid. My family had a four-bedroom house on the perfect edge of the wilderness but we lost it. Since then, its new owner has also nearly lost it, as divorce and the corrupted economy pounded on her too. Our old neighbors have all taken similar beatings. The lucky ones – the older ones – have their homes paid for but have seen their diversified savings accumulated over the last ten years slowly dissolve. I don’t know where we’re all going, but I can tell you this much. The nuclear family is not the appealing ideal it once was. It seems too easily crushed, in a world where both parents need to work full time.

So whatever I’m looking for – if I find it – it probably won’t look like this; like these little houses stuck in the woods. They look like tar pits to me now; places fit for slowly drowning in. Then again, the price tags on urban properties are ludicrous, and are tar pits in their own right.

Lots to think about, as I pedal up this road.

Crater Lake To Stanley, Day 13 : Discomfort

I listen to “A study in Emerald”, and note with amusement that I recognize the names of the elder gods from the HP Lovecraft radio plays I was just listening to the other day. As the character we presume to be Watson is introducing himself, I pass by a heap of bones in the field to the side of the road, and stop to grab a photo of it.

After several hours of uneventful climbing, I arrive on a plateau. The towns of Garden Valley and Crouch are heaped together here. I see a sign advertising an RV park in Crouch, but decide to keep going since it is only late afternoon and I’m feeling good. Then the road tilts downhill, and the terrain speeds by.

I stop at a campground to use the restroom, and notice a sign saying “no vacancy”, and another sign saying that the camping fee is ten bucks, cash only. Even if there were a space available, I don’t have any cash. I ride on, and the road keeps dropping. Late afternoon turns to evening. I crane my neck to spot any more campgrounds, but there are none. Now I’m getting a bit worried.

The road bottoms out, then begins to sway in long heavy arcs, pressed against rocky cliffs on my left and a chattering river on my right. The cars thin out to a few, and then to very few. The houses stop. Now it’s just me on an empty road, and it’s dark. Then I encounter a hill.

I know this hill is different from the others because, way in the distance and at least a thousand feet up, I can see the headlights of an approaching car. As I pedal I can watch the headlights curve slowly around towards me, as the car follows the road, down along an inside curve against the mountain, carved by the massive bend in the river below. I count under my breath and it takes almost an entire minute for the car to reach me. Overwhelmed, I stop at a narrow turnout and devour the last of my dry food – a small bag of corn chips. All I have now is part of a green squash, and a little water. “Well, crap. I’ll probably have to sleep in the woods or something tonight. Except that there aren’t any woods here, just cliffs and water. So I need to keep going.”

I’m getting very tired, and despite my gloves, shirt, sweater, and sweatpants, some of the cold is creeping in. I make frequent stops but even when I recover my breath completely, I can’t go 50 yards without breathing hard again on this damned slope. Then, about 3/4 of the way up, a strong headwind starts trying to push me back down the hill. I grit my teeth and start cursing at the wind, calling it every foul name that comes to my dazed mind. I make insulting faces at it, half from anger and half from a desire to work some heat back into the muscles of my face. Finally, at long last, I get to the top of the hill. “Glad that’s over with,” I shout. “Now, this [expletive] road better not just [expletive] go straight back down again.” I pause to take a picture of the stars with my camera, but I’m too dazed to do it properly and the shot is badly exposed. Then I pack the camera up and ride on …

… And the road shoots straight back down the mountainside again. I curse a blue streak all the way.

There is some good news: Now instead of a cliff, there is actual forest around me. After a mile or so, I see a sign for the Pine Flats Campground on my right. I turn onto the driveway and shoot down a very steep but well-paved road, then begin pedaling slowly around the campground looking for an open space. … And there isn’t a single one. The spaces that aren’t currently occupied all have little slips of paper pinned to the number posts, indicating that they are reserved for the next morning. Bah. I could try and stealth-camp in one of these sites, but I’d have to get up at 4:30 in the morning to repack all my gear and sneak out before the ranger comes trolling around. That would get me five hours of poor sleep at the most, considering how long it takes to manage my tent in darkness.

Disappointed and even more tired, I bike slowly up the steep entrance, and get back on the road. My mind wanders for a while. The cold is getting to my feet. They’ve spent too long clipped to pedals and tilted uphill. I detach my right foot to shake it out, then forget to steer, then overcorrect to avoid hitting the guardrail, then the bike pitches and I fall down. I pick it up and slowly reposition myself and pedal on. 40 yards later I attempt to adjust the hem of my sweater and nearly fall down again. “I can’t just keep riding forever,” I tell myself. “Maybe I’ll find something in the town of Lowman.”

Turns out Lowman is only a few miles away. I pedal up a relatively shallow hill and arrive at the single T-junction that defines the town. Down the road to my right is a low bridge passing over a river, with a lodge and cabins on the other side. There are some lights on but I doubt anyone is awake, since it’s near midnight. I cruise over to the lodge and around the parking lot to the back entrance, and find an open bar. I park and knock on the inside of the door and yell, “Hello?”

A woman walks out of a dining area holding a cleaning rag, so I introduce myself. Turns out she is one of the managers, and was just a few minutes away from closing up the bar and going home. I negotiate to stay in one of the cabins for a reduced rate, pick up my key, and push the bike around to my assigned cabin, for some badly needed sleep. I’ve gone 70 miles and climbed 3500 feet today.