Days 97 & 98: Grinding out of the gorge and Portland with an extra load

I woke up in The Dalles and was finally able to start a big day on the bike the way I like with a huge breakfast to power me through the first part of the day, thanks to the 24hr Denny’s down the street from the hotel. I pounded a Grand Slam and coffee and was out, headed for Cascade Locks:

Old Highway 30 was the first major road of the day, and it was a doozy. I knew the wind would make me feel like I was pedaling through molasses all day but even at 7am it was a constant. Knowing ahead of time was a mental help though, as it made me more patient. 

30 took me right next to the Columbia River, but in no time it started climbing up nearly 1,000 feet to the top of the gorge:

Winding roads have pretty much been de rigueur on all the climbs I’ve tackled but there have been precious few climbs with hairpin turns. Getting through the gorge made up for the absences:

The road you see there cut hard to the left, then back to the right, and then weaved upward to that earthen top hat. It was a tiring joy to ride up but I wasn’t done yet. 

I pulled off to take a look at the road I came from earlier in the day:

It’s rare to see the progress I made on such a climb, and I really appreciated seeing it that day. It’s yet another unique sense of satisfaction that you can only get on a bicycle. 

I soon made it to the top of the climb and took in the view of the landscape ahead of me:

The Columbia River Gorge is a pretty special place, and it was the latest in a long line of special places. I don’t always get a chance to read about the wonderful roads I ride on though, and was happy that I got to there before descending: 

But just like always, every time the road goes up it eventually goes down:

It was just as thrilling as every other one I’ve had, and over too quickly.

Soon enough all the elevation I gained was completely lost, and I was back on the interstate right along the river:

I’ve come to really appreciate riding on the interstate. Unfortunately the stretch of I-84 through the gorge wasn’t necessarily the most relaxing with a narrow shoulder and plenty of debris, but still, it’s a way to crank out the miles, and that’s just what I was after. And sometimes you get wonderfully disorienting experiences like riding a bike with fast car traffic on one side and a train on the other:

There was plenty of uplift through the gorge but in no time I really felt the presence of the Cascades:

I made it to Cascade Locks, my intended stop for the day, by about 1:30pm. I was feeling pretty great even with all the wind pushing against me. I looked at the map for the road ahead and started scheming. Whatever patience I had for riding through the heavy wind didn’t really translate into the day’s ambitions – I wanted to make it to Portland. I had been trying to get back to that city ever since I left it in November 2013, and I wanted to see my friend who lives there. I called him for the go-ahead, and after a late lunch, I headed back on I-84 for the grind into town, all with the blessings of local bicycle laws:

I didn’t have to take the interstate here. Highway 30 and I-84 joined for a good portion of the way through the gorge but after Cascade Locks they separated, and the Adventure Cycling Association had me going west on 30 with a fair bit more climbing. But I wasn’t up for it. I just wanted to make it to Portland by nightfall and I didn’t want to be any more of a sweaty mess than necessary when reuniting with my friend. By taking I-84 to Portland’s outskirts I cut out the climbing and was able to just crank out the miles. 

Interstate riding has a downside though. It’s never as pretty as the back roads. Seeing the heavily shaded sign signifying 41 more miles to Portland kind of made me feel that reality:

But still, Oregon is a magical place and I got to see plenty.

The road to Portland was pretty uneventful, except for making it to Multnomah Falls:

Now THIS is a magical place. I had first been there when I was in Portland a few years ago. My old grad school friend Sam took me there on a weekend trip and it blew me away. How could it not? We hiked all the way to the top with breathtaking views. It was a decidedly different experience this time. It was a welcome stop on the road but I didn’t linger. I was of the mind to keep pedaling. 

The latest bit in the constantly transitioning landscape happened when the mountains were behind me:

And soon enough I made it to the I-84 bike path on Portland’s outskirts:

It was good getting off the interstate. The traffic was getting very heavy and the fence offered some peace of mind. 

I eventually made it into town with a host of very complicated feelings. I had wanted to make it back to Portland for so long and I have ridden so many thousands of miles to get here but all I felt was somber. There wasn’t much elation. At all. 

I made it to the No Fun Bar to meet my friend Lawson, and then I got happier. I hadn’t seen anyone I know since Peter in Youngstown and sharing some smiles and laughs with a friend was welcome. But I was tired from the day, which was just one layer on top of a very tired core. It’s been a pretty long ride since May and I’m feeling it a lot more than I thought I would. 

Lawson and his friends were going to take  the party to a place to dance. I’m not much for dancing and I was beat but I tagged along. I don’t even know the name of the place we went, nor the name of the band that was playing. They were fun with plenty of funk-infused improvisation but I had reached a saturation point that I didn’t know existed. I was feeling very overwhelmed. There were so many people, so many colors, such loud music. I felt overstimulated after a 100-mile day and it exhausted me mentally much more than physically. I kept taking breaks to step outside where plenty of Portland’s smokers were chatting but it didn’t help much. Portland is one of the most unique cities I’ve ever been to (and I’ve been to quite a few), but what used to impress me as a city with a collective, unbridled embrace of individuality now seems like just a half-assed, pervasive pretentiousness. That could be the exhaustion talking but I don’t think so. 

Back at Lawson’s place I learned that I wasn’t necessarily welcome because of his roommates. I don’t really get the issue so I can’t say much more than that. I was offered a spot inside for the night but opted to sleep on the back porch, sans tent, and to peel out as soon as I could the next morning. 

*** *** ***

I woke up this morning without any ambition to take in the city I had wanted to make it into for so long. I didn’t want to have an artisanal cup of coffee, I didn’t want to cruise downtown, I didn’t want to peruse shops full of handmade hipster goods, and I didn’t want to go to a food truck. I didn’t even want to stop by the United Bicycle Institute that brought me to the city in the first place. I just wanted rest and peace.

I made my way to North Portland and got a room in one of the several old fashioned motor inns there and got some sleep. 

I spent much of the day napping and reflecting. It’s really, really hitting home that there’s going to be a pretty significant readjustment period when I finish this in two days. This long solo tour has changed me a lot more than I realize. It’s a pretty complicated feeling but as a for instance I’m feeling the paradox of my interactions with people. On one hand it’s pretty hard talking to people for any length of time. I don’t really know how to be social right now. Some may argue I never did, but regardless, extended conversations with people feel very foreign, difficult, and mentally exhausting, with a big dose of anxiety mixed in. I’ve been alone in the middle of nowhere for a good chunk of time at this point and it’s left a mark. 

But on the other hand I’ve had some of the most incredible conversations in my life out here, and a surprising number of people have bared their souls to me. Turns out if you ever wanted to be thought of as a roadside therapist, stand smelly and unshaven next to a fully loaded bicycle at some random gas station in middle America and the afflicted will show up in droves. So many people shared their hopes, fears, dreams, and secrets with me, so many life stories collected. And I’ve helped people, if for no other reason than I listened to them with empathy. I had a surprising amount of real human moments with perfect strangers, and reconciling that with having a greatly diminished capacity and ability to socialize is a challenge. And that’s just one example of my kind of altered state. I could go on and on. Maybe I will when this is all done.

With all this in mind I rode down Interstate Avenue to catch up with Lawson but it kind of felt like a lost cause. The band playing with so many people talking overwhelmed me just like the night before and I bowed out early once the band took a break and everyone started chatting. I just didn’t have it in me.

And then I got one last view of the stellar hotel signage…

…Before tapping this all out on the phone. 

I’m two days from the coast, with one last stop in one last small town in between. Clearly I’m riding out with quite the extra load in my heart and mind. Here’s hoping for it to lift on the road to the beach. 

-J

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