Days 94-96: Sweating my way through the inland Northwest and into the Columbia River Gorge

I left Walla Walla with a strong sense of anticipation – I was feeling good after spending a day in bed, and I’d be making into Oregon, the final state in this thing. I made a point of not looking into this part of the country ahead of time, so I didn’t know what to expect, which is just the way I wanted it. Just like everywhere else I got more than I bargained for.

The first big sight of the day were wind turbines off in the distance:

Wind turbines when I’m riding kind of creep me out. I can’t explain why. Maybe it’s because they are always huge anomalies in completely desolate places. Maybe it’s because they signify something treacherous: lots and lots of wind. And I was just getting into the Columbia River Gorge, the massive divot in the earth that will take me all the way to Portland and the coast. That means lots and lots of wind coming from the ocean and bottlenecking through a relatively small area that I knew I would be fighting for days. Seeing the turbines this time drove the realization home.

It was an uneventful and quick ride to the border area with a gentle downgrade I kind of plowed through. Another thing helping me was the early start – I was on the road by 7am to beat the heat and wind, and I was pretty successful on both fronts. But right around the time I saw my first sign for an Oregon town…

…it was really getting hot. I just kept riding hard for Umatilla where I could get out of the heat by the early afternoon and relax.

The road to Oregon got pretty epic:

But soon it was the last state line I’d cross on this tour:

Just like always I took a minute and ran through every state line I crossed in my mind. In times past these could be very emotional moments. This one wasn’t. I just felt ready. Ready to finish in some water instead of a state line.

And then I saw the world’s luckiest train conductors:

Can you imagine having that job? The tracks couldn’t have been any closer to the massive river, and those cliffs are incredibly high. Photos don’t do justice (to think in a couple days I won’t have to make that disclaimer anymore…).

In some ways the next point was more emotional:

It was the first sign for Portland. I’ve been trying to get back there for years, and I’m so close.

The road to Umatilla had a bit more relief in it than the road to the border. I was feeling tired mostly because I rode hard during the day. I felt like pushing it, so I did, then slept in the fleabag hotel. The 100-degree heat on the road in to town wore me out more than the riding though. It’s an incredibly dry heat out here, which isn’t as miserable as humid heat. But 100 degrees is 100 degrees, and it gets to a point when wind is no relief because of how hot it is and you reach for a water bottle and the water is just as hot as the air.

Some days go full circle. I started out being creeped out by wind turbines and I ended it getting creeped out by this guy:

*** *** ***

The next stop on the way to the to the Columbia River Gorge proper was Roosevelt, WA – I had to cross back into Washington. Well I didn’t have to but ACA advised it due to heavy traffic on the Oregon side of the river. It turned out to be a good call, as I saw an endless flow of autos across the river all day. But the reason why there’s not much traffic on the Washington side is there’s nothing there. The road to Roosevelt felt like one of the most desolate of the tour.

It mostly stuck right to a clifside all along the river, but occasionally went inland. Whenever this happened I felt like I was on a set for a Mad Max movie:

The wind was gentle but constant in the morning and would build throughout the day. The desolation was almost as constant if not for the occasional winery and vineyard peppered along the gorge:

It was bizarre to see such ostentatious architecture surrounded by absolutely nothing. But sometimes the vineyards made for awesome backdrops on winding roads:

But I still wasn’t free of the wind turbines:

This was a pretty big array (is that what a gaggle of turbines is called? It feels right) that would be following me along on the left all day long.

The power lines were a constant presence as well, and when I stopped for breathers with no traffic I could hear them buzz:

It wasn’t the first time I felt that way about power lines, and it always makes me feel that I’m completely alone out there. That used to bother me a lot more than it does now.

The heat became an issue again. I’ve dealt with plenty of heat this summer but for some reason it feels more brutal in the inland northwest. It could be in my head but I don’t think so. Hard to explain.

I eventually made it to Roosevelt, population 26, where there was a trailer park, an Army Corp of Engineers park along the river where I could camp, and a convenience store/burger joint and nothing else. When I saw the thermometer out front I knew why I was feeling so tired:

I had to plot out my move. I was extremely hot and really didn’t want to head to the park in the scorching early afternoon. So I basically bought something every hour or so at the convenience store and waited around in the AC until they closed at 6. I mostly just focused on all the traffic that was coming into the store, which was quite a bit given that it was the only place for services in an 80-mile stretch of Highway 14. Quite a bit of travelers came through as well as temporary agricultural workers, but also cyclists:

The book was full of so many people’s stories, with a lot of trends: eastbound riders bragged of tailwinds and westbound riders expressed agony. But no matter the direction, a constant was “boy did it get hot quickly”.

The foot traffic thinned out, which allowed me to take in the glass case:

Why do people buy these things?

Eventually 6pm rolled around and I had to make my way down to the city park. After talking to the campground host I was none the wiser as to where the sprinklers would hit. All he said was try to find three sprinklers and position the tent between them. Um, ok? I asked how the mosquitos were at night. He said a nonissue. So I finally got to hang my hammock for the night. I haven’t gotten to use it nearly as much as I would have liked on the tour, more often than not because of insects. It was a nice return to my preferred sleeping situation.

*** *** ***

I left Roosevelt very early this morning, one of my earliest starts yet: 6:15am. It was the earliest I felt safe on the road with the sun still rising with the wind as light as it would be all day. Given that I was pushing my way through the Gorge straight to the west I was chasing my shadow much of the morning:

With a continuation of the Mad Max landscape. I still love roads like this though…

Before long I saw my first view of Mt. Hood:

It’s that white patch just right of center. It would continue to get more impressive throughout the day.

Despite how barren and inhospitable the landscape was, it was still pretty awe-inspiring:

That sometimes called for another bike portrait:

Mt. Hood would come and go with the undulating roads, but whenever it came I got pretty excited:

There was one big 1,000-foot climb on the road back into Oregon, which I tried to capture here:

You can just make out the line crawling up that clifside, but don’t let this mild visual fool you. It was a steep, hard climb that was coming along right when the heat was building.

The climb seemed to go on forever, and I was being watched over by turbines the whole way:

Of course.

But like all climbs, they eventually go down:

It was a refreshing cruise down on the way to Biggs Junction where I’d cross back over into Oregon.

But then I saw a pretty strange sign:

Stonehenge? I had to see it:

Yup. Fairly Stonehenge-y. But what is it??

Apparently it’s a memorial to area soldiers who died in WWI. Why the memorial was constructed in the fashion of Stonehenge was never made clear. I swear, America is covered in nonsensical weirdness, and I love every bit of it.

But Stonehenge just marked the beginning of the descent down from over a thousand feet above the Gorge:

It was the steepest road I’ve gone down since New York City, and it was a thrill. Almost too much of one.

After a much-needed lunch break in Biggs Junction I jumped on I-84 to finish the day in The Dalles:

I was certain my interstate riding days were done, but I guess not.

This was the most stressful interstate riding I’ve done. The shoulder was weak and the traffic was heavy and indifferent. I just kept plowing through till I got the official notification:

I felt the gorge for the last day and a half but I guess it was just that, a feeling.

But a major landmark is one landmark closer to the coast, and today there were two:

I didn’t expect that seeing Hood would bring out such a strong emotional response in me but it has. We’ll see what it’s like when I pass it tomorrow after stopping in Hood River to get some much needed spare tubes.

These are necessary because I got a flat tire on the road into The Dalles. Luckily it was in the final miles, but I still had a 45 minute walk to the hotel. So after the last flat in Idaho I’m tubeless. May I have debris-free roads on the 30 miles it’ll take me to get to the bike shop in Hood River…

Portland keeps getting closer, and with it the coast. I’m four short days away from a day I’ve been dreaming about for years and visualizing every day for the last three months when I dip my wheel in the Pacific. My feelings around that are very complicated. There’s not much I want to say about it beyond that just yet. But I’m ready for it.

-J

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