So, naturally, when I heard about Donnie and Gabe's slideshow presentation of their Oregon adventure ride last summer, I attended. I watched with interest but told Donnie afterwards "no way will you see me on that ride". Then, in November, when the link to register was posted, I found myself pointing, clicking and committing. From that moment, the tension grew from a small buzz in the back of my head to a fever pitch all around me of social media mentions, news coverage, bikes being built, you name it. Everyone knew about the ride and the words Oregon Outback were on everyone's lips. The ride was legendary before it even began.
Just in case you haven't heard about it, the Oregon Outback is a 360-mile, mostly off-road odyssey that dissects the state from Klamath Falls to the Columbia River. Completely self-supported with such features as an eighty mile no water stretch (not even creek water), a twenty mile loose gravel section and extremely limited services on route - this ride was no joke.
The Outback would more than double my lifetime dirt and gravel miles. I'd have to learn to sterilize water and carry at least three days' worth of food. I'll admit it: I was a little terrified. Especially as those riders who missed the registration deadline and rode the course a week early reported in with warnings of treachery and danger. Bewildered by self-doubt, I spent boatloads of money on gear and many hours packing, unpacking, weighing and repacking.
At long last, it was time to go. With butterflies in my stomach, I got on my bike and rode to the train station. Forty of us boarded the train in Portland that afternoon. Amtrak put us all in one car for our pilgrimage to Klamath Falls. Boxed wine, labelled Oregon Outback Emergency Water, was circulated. Chammy butter samples were dispensed. Gear talk was thick in the air. I felt like part of something, part of something big that all of the cool kids were into.
There was no fanfare except for the spectacle of us. All during the trip, I'd hear townspeople and farmers, a child and a road cycle tourist, talk about seeing Outback riders go through. One lady said, in a whispered awe "I saw twenty five of you ride right through town, just yesterday". There was a small amount of media present - an NBC sports cameraman with a car early on day one. And, then there was Ira Ryan's videographer, who I met at the pub in Klamath Falls Thursday night. He'd be meeting and shooting Ira every 50 miles.
That first day may have been the best day. I felt like I could see the entire state of Oregon spread out in front of me with no task ahead except to pedal and survive. The route was still crowded so I had the opportunity to ride with lots of different people. There were many, including Nick and Lawson and Sandy and Johnny.
The Sprague River cafe owner had put up a poster on the path advertising his iced tea and burritos. While he filled my bottle with tea and I filled my platypus with water, my teammate walked up to me. "I'm calling it", he said. I didn't understand what he meant and asked him to repeat it. His Outback was over. His knee had blown up.
I was in tears, sure my entire trip was ruined. Then I heard my Dad's voice in my head. The worst thing that can happen will be missing the Cowboy Dinner Tree and camping alone. Point the bike north, suck it up, and pedal. Just pedal.
As the day wore on, I watched the crisscross of chem trails, generally pointing north. I was completely alone and felt pretty sure the rest of my trip would be solo. Through woods and canyons and sagebrush-dotted desert, I rode. The terrain changed so quickly it didn't seem real. Finally on the last stretch, I encountered a man in an ATV (all terrain vehicle). He stopped, turned off his loud engine, and asked me if I had enough water. His tires were as tall as me and twice as wide. Seeing me admire them, he commented "hillbilly tires!".
The Cowboy Dinner Tree was a highlight and not to be missed, according to Donnie. You can choose from either an entire roast chicken or a thirty ounce steak. You must reserve in advance and you must pay cash. I had planned my trip around this oddity. It was an old farm building of some sort, clean and crowded, with bandanas in the windows instead of screens.
I flashed back to my first loaded tour, a San Francisco bike messenger tradition known as the Russian River Ride. It was eighty miles, longer than I'd ever ridden at that point. I was scared and stressed out about that ride. The Cowboy Dinner Tree, there in the middle of nowhere, reminded me of a secret surprise traditional stop on the Russian River Ride. Amidst cornfields for miles, we came across a small shack. This shack was a bar and the tradition was to throw back a shot of whiskey and sprint to Petaluma. It was thrilling to realize that all these years later, I can still find rides that scare me.
The steak didn't come until after the huge salad, cowboy beans, baked potato and tin of freshly made dinner rolls. And did I mention the bottomless mason jar of strawberry lemonade? My slab of steak was prepared perfectly - bloody on the inside and crisp on the outside. It was as big as a loaf of bread. I put away two thirds of it, to save room for the marionberry cobbler dessert. After this, the best steak of my life, we rode the modest five miles through a spectacularly gorgeous plain to Silver Lake, a small barely-inhabited ghost town. I skipped the laundromat showers with the reasoning I'd only get dirty again tomorrow.
We found water spigots at the four corners known as Fort Rock, named for the dramatic rock formation a few miles north. I ran into the "Whiskey and Wheelies" team, or the Danielson gang, as I called them. This would be our last water for eighty miles. This would also be the day we'd encounter the "twenty mile loose gravel zone" (insert menacing voice of doom here). Instead of loose gravel, the surface was more of a soft, red, slippery sand. I named it Martian Sandscape School. School, because I finished that part with a much better knowledge of bike handling then when I entered it. I learned to glide through it, pretend I was swimming, and stopped freaking out at every fishtail.
Ira Ryan, took. I took six. Days, that is. It was so boggling to the rest of us out there, we'd chant his time during the hard sections. Another catch phrase I heard was "how many days?". Everyone wanted to know everyone else's ride schedule to anticipate who they'd be riding and camping with.
On Day Four, I woke up to the taste of blood on my lips. Turns out the biggest challenge of my trip was a little bit of a princess problem. In my effort to be a minimalist, I had packed just one lipstick, a pale pink to match my lucky jersey. Without chapstick or a more opaque lipstick, my lips were beyond chapped, to the point of bleeding. I felt lucky and thankful that this was my only problem.
After oatmeal and coffee and a luxurious morning, Michael and I turned left out of camp and slogged through twelve more miles of Mars. If we had gone straight, like everyone else who stayed on course did, we would've been on regular friendly gravel almost immediately. Instead, our bad turn added about twenty miles to the day.
The descent into the Crooked River valley, and the view of the Prineville Reservoir, were absolutely dazzling. I cried and yelled and sang in sheer happiness. I had just finished the last of my water so I stopped to fill up, feeling competent now at water sterilization. My plan to camp along the Crooked River crumbled and I set my sights on Prineville, home of beer and lipstick.
The next morning I found Michael in front of the hotel, ready to pack it in. He hadn't been able to use his hand since yesterday and was afraid of permanent nerve damage. Jon and Ted had just left, so I took off, hoping to catch them. Alone again, the ride out of Prineville was bittersweet. Sweet because I felt so fantastic myself, but bitter because my teammates were missing out.
Fueled by real coffee and an omelet, wearing my new pink cowboy shirt and darker lipstick, riding in my new team of one, I still felt relatively fresh. Nothing was sore. Spirits were high. I didn't know it then, but this would be the hardest day of the trip. I caught up with Jon and Ted at the entry to the Trout Creek area. I was glad to see them, not only for the company but because I knew the "easy to miss" turn was coming soon and I didn't want to get lost again. Thirty lost miles was plenty.
Soon I was picking my way around a never-ending ridge along the Trout Creek river valley. I heard the rush of water and came to a dead stop at this first creek crossing. I recalled the warnings of a thigh-deep river crossing. This one was only ankle deep, but each time I heard the rush of the river, my heart jumped into my throat. But, just like the entire ride had been, the fear was bigger than the reality.
That night, Jon and Ted and I camped in Antelope. Morning doves hoo-hooed but otherwise it was hauntingly quiet there. Each evening, I'd rate the day from one to ten (one is easy, ten is hard). My rating system included terrain, hilliness and overall toughness. Nothing was ever harder than a seven, except for the terrain on Day Six, which I rated as a nine. The average of all numbers from all days was 5.55, which makes it sound pretty easy. Another nightly habit was to wipe down my dusty bike, lube my chain and check all the bolts. I never did have any mechanical problems, not even a flat.
Jon and Ted shared the last of their brandy with me, celebrating their last night. We left early the next day, our last day, and climbed the tarmac up to Shaniko, where a box awaited me at the post office. There at the park, we found a big gang of riders just about to leave. I asked them to wait while I opened my box and champagne to share.
I jumped on the fast train of riders on highway 97 and experienced the highest speeds of the week. You could see forever on these high rolling plains. A dark pillar of rain touched the horizon to the west, and it was headed our way. The weather had been stellar all week. Cloudy and sunny and only sprinkling occasionally, but always when I was in my tent. The rain didn't catch us until were safely inside the cafe at Grass Valley. I enjoyed a Cowboy Dinner Tree-sized cobb salad and homemade strawberry rhubarb pie. By the time we went outside again, it was sunny and dry.
Solo again, and on the last page of the map with just twenty miles to go, I felt sentimental and sad that this adventure of a lifetime was almost over. So, I slowed down and savored it. The wind kicked up, reminding me of my fear of gorge gusts. It felt like a big hand on my chest, pushing me back and taking my breath away.
Finally at Fulton Canyon, I raced ahead, already reviewing the ride in my head. The Columbia River came into sight, my eyes filled, and just like that, my Oregon Outback was over. Each day was its own tough, fun, stunningly beautiful exploratory adventure through our magnificent state. Much like a kid's favorite carnival ride, I plan to get back in line and ride it again and again.
I am very grateful to all of those who helped and supported me, including:
Linda, for the bike.
Brigid and Laura, for the go get'ems.
Mom, for the polka dot vinyl.
Dad, for the homemade jerky.
Butch, for the seatpost.
Kim, for the tire inspiration.
Smithermania, for the advice.
Seth, for the pro-tip to reinforce my mega basket with a strip of innertube.
Nick, for the trunk bag and spirit.
Donnie, for the ride and those last minute maps.
Gabe, for the hats.
Matt, for believing in me.
Brad, for the souvenir patch.
Trevor, for the chamois butt'r.
Nick S, for the laughs.
Kelley, for the finish line beers.
Lawson and Michael of Team Relegate, for leaving me high and dry.
Farmers and Landowners and Motos and ATVers, for the offers of water.
Portland Society, for asking me to recap my trip before I'd even started.
BicycleKitty blog readers, for staying with me every mile of the ride.