I planned, I trained, I mentally prepared. I took on a challenge and I conquered it. In some ways it was easier than I imagined, and in other ways it was much more difficult.
I spent the past week on a bicycle riding across the State of Washington. I knew it would be hard. I knew I’d have some pain. What I didn’t know was how beautiful and emotional and satisfying it would be. What I didn’t know was how in-tune to the forces of nature and the world around me I would be. It was invigorating as we cycled and experienced water, earth, wind and fire.
I was cycling with 250 other cyclists, but I was really cycling alone. I knew no one. I was on a solitary mission to achieve this milestone. Here are my observations.
Putting the Pacific Ocean to our back at Cape Disappointment in Ilwaco we began the 425-mile journey at the water and headed east. From day one we hugged the mighty Columbia and she became the beacon of our journey as the cyclists and the river “Rolled On”. Each day our course took us either along the river or over the river and at other times we had spectacular views of the river from high above. Daily on the Columbia we witnessed barges carrying who knows what, as the water highway flowed past us with goods headed to unknown destinations. Water played a big role in the scenery, the route and the serenity. Each campground was either on or near the river, sometimes white capped and other times calm.
Luckily, water from the sky was not a factor in our journey. Only once did I feel any raindrops fall over the six days, and it was minimal and not a problem. Blue skies prevailed.
Water played another very important role in this adventure – hydration. Sometimes when riding my bike I forget to drink enough and that can be very dangerous. Particularly with the kind of miles we were doing in dry heat. I set a goal to try to remember to take a drink every five miles. On the hotter days, I drank way more than that. My two water bottles were refilled every few hours with either plain water or Gatorade laced water. I drank and drank and drank. Water is an amazing commodity we American’s truly take for granted.
The first time I really thought about the earth on this adventure was when I laid down in my tent to try to sleep the first night. Even with a nice pad I just purchased from REI, I knew it was gonna be a long night, and an even longer week…
Although the earth gave me an aching back, she also gave me sensory overload as I rode through some of the most spectacular scenery on this planet. As we clicked off the easterly miles on the route we moved from riding along flat, riverfront roads to climbing mountains. We enjoyed fields of flowers, grass and wheat as well as views of Mount Hood and Mount Adams.
The earth welcomed us with waterfalls and tree lined historic highways. In the final hours of the last day the earth’s farmland of wheat, hay, timothy, corn, cows and much more sweetened the last few miles.
And even the manmade wonders on this earth were spectacular including the bike crossing on Hwy 205 from Washington to Oregon, the spectacular Bridge of the Gods with the open grate bridge deck to the mighty Columbia below (don’t look down) and the beautiful old Covered Bridge at Ahlberg, a relic of a bygone time but such a treat to see and ride through this historic wooden structure.
I was fortunate, but for some cyclists on this ride, the earth banged them up pretty good. One cyclist fell hard on railroad tracks, another crashed onto her face and chin, and on the last day, one rider had a serious accident and broke his jaw. The earth’s way of reminding us not to take her for granted.
When I first encountered the side wind we had just topped Rowena Crest on the historic Hwy 30 Columbia River Road and were beginning the decent down to The Dalles. The wind surprised me and scared me and caused me to be overly cautious and ride slow down the hill to the river. As this road curved in hairpin turns each time we would face North or West we would once again be pummeled by the force of the wind coming up the mountain from the river and valley below. Once we arrived back down at the river the wind was at our back and it helped us sail along to our lunch stop and then beyond to our final destination.
But the wind wasn’t done with us on this day. At The Dalles we turned due north and rode across the Dalles Bridge struggling with each pedal stroke and concentrating trying to stay upright in 40mph winds screaming up the Columbia from the west. Every few minutes a 60mph gust or a giant 18-wheeler would add to the agony of this windy excursion – an excursion of only 4 miles that took me almost an hour to ride.
I truly mean it when I say I have never experienced anything like it in my life, and it scared the wind right out of me!
Finally, I crested the hill and put the wind at my back for the final few miles on Hwy 14 to our campground at Maryhill State Park. I was expecting a quiet evening relaxing after that harrowing ride – but alas it wasn’t to be. The mighty wind continued well past dark and blew tents, chairs, and dinner around the campground.
As hard as this experience of riding in side winds was, I must also speak of the favorable aspect of wind in the Columbia River Valley. Wind at your back 90% of the time – propelling you forward. I would look down at my speedometer and be shocked that I was traveling 17, 18, even 20 mph with very little effort. It made the time in the saddle (my total hours in the saddle for the week was about 40) go by quickly and even helped getting up some of the hills.
The wind was both friend and foe throughout the week.
One of the driest years on record in the State of Washington has everyone on high alert for grass and forest fires and nowhere is the danger higher than in the arid Eastern part of the state.
On our fourth day riding we heard rumors that our route for the next day might need to be changed due to a fire being battled near the town of Roosevelt. But that same evening we were told the fire was under control and our journey could continue on the route planned.
I expected to see some burned out area, as we had already encountered a few spots along the way, but I was shocked to see the magnitude and devastation of this fire which had burned right up to the road and jumped over it. Grass, trees, signposts, wooden posts holding up the guard rail and power lines all charred and burned to a crisp. And yet fields of crops (grapes, fruit trees and more) as well dwellings and out buildings had all been saved. Incredible sight to see.
Due to the fire our lunch stop was moved to a different location, a mini mart right along the highway and next to the river (we were supposed to be at a park but it was being used by the fire crews as a staging area). During lunch we watched helicopters coming and going, dipping giant buckets into the river and then flying off to a distant unknown site to dump the water before returning for more. Over and over they dipped and flew. We also saw a fire retardant plane and lots of emergency vehicles along the route.
What we didn’t know until later was we just got through the area in the nick of time. Later that day the route was closed to traffic again as the fire flared and more firefighters were called in to fight.
It was an assault to all your senses riding through this charred landscape; the blackened terrain, the sooty smell, the sting to your eyes. How quickly it can all go up in smoke. How careful we need to be.
In the months ahead of this ride I spent hours, actually days training in an effort to make sure I was physically capable of riding 6 days in a row and 425 miles. I rode nearly 1800 miles in my training. I felt physically ready.
I didn’t train to sleep on the ground or to be solely responsible for setting up and taking down camp every evening and every morning. That took effort.
I didn’t consider the hours I would spend alone, speaking to no one, quietly pedaling through rough terrain, beautiful terrain, steep terrain, windy terrain. Staying alert, especially because I wasn’t with a partner, to make sure I didn’t miss a directional marker meant I had no time to listen to my books on tape or music. I was constantly looking at my surroundings for markers, for potholes, for road debris, for pedestrians, for cars and trucks and for anything that might give me a flat tire (I only had one all week). When the terrain was peaceful and straight I found myself humming tunes – everything from God Bless America to Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz. And somehow before I knew it, six days had gone by and it was all over.
I was pretty nervous on the first day, just ready to get on with the challenge. Day two, the longest day mile wise (88 miles) I was also nervous in the morning. But after that, I felt very self assured about my ability to ride, to be alone, to find my way, to set up and take down my camp and to be one fab fifty bad ass on this challenge.
Five years ago I would never even have thought about doing anything like this, particularly alone. In fact, I just realized that it was six years ago yesterday that I ran my very first competitive 5K. I had never tried anything physical in my life until that day. I was 49 years old.
Today I am 55 and making the most of every fabulous day. No looking back. What’s next? So many new challenges and ideas ahead!
(Click here to learn more about the annual Ride Around Washington event produced by Cascade Bicycle Club, the largest bicycle advocate organization in the United States).