Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Oregon Outback, 2015 Edition

It's hard to even know where the story begins.  Do I start with last year's ride?  No, no one wants to hear about last year.  What about the taste of fame I enjoyed afterwards?  Or my team for this year?  The emails, team meetings and exhaustive preparations?  Our team Shakedown ride?  Nah, that's its own story. How 'bout we start on the way to the train station Thursday morning.

I stopped at Missing Link to say goodbye and wish their Outback team good luck.  I swung by Seven Corners, where Cory cautioned me about my worn out cleats.  I rode by People's, where a goggle of bikepackers were hanging about.  I didn't recognize any of 'em: out of towners!  These guys, who lacked a team name, rode to Portland from Winnepeg on gravel and back roads.  I led them downtown to the station, which felt like having six not-so-tiny ducks in a string behind me.  A passerby shouted "Have fun on the Outback!" as we crossed the Hawthorne Bridge together.
The hubbub at the station, the bikes, the people (so many cool people from all over the place), the SWAG, the hugs, the gear geeking - all of it just lit me on fire.  I met a gentleman who looked like he'd walked right out of Handsome Guy magazine.  Turns out he was tweeting for Bicycling Magazine, and writes a blog called Everything Will Be Noble.  He gave me a postcard filled with stickers, one of which read "Route Feminent"! If you know of my fixation with rando riding, and my bewilderment at being marked out as an F on my R12 listing, you'll know this sticker blew my mind.
Amtrak let us roll our bikes on this year instead of boxing them.  What a treat.  However, they didn't put us all on the same train car, so that diluted the party atmosphere.  Things still felt festive though, especially in the bar car and later on at the pub in Klamath Falls.

The mood the next morning was a bit quieter, probably due to the early hour.  My team was scheduled to meet in front of the Maverick hotel at 6:55am.  Two of us were missing and we wouldn't see either of them again (on the trip).  I was handed cool embroidered Oregon Outback patch that made me wish I brought needle and thread.  Everyone exchanged high fives and took pictures.  Donnie wasn't there to say "don't die" and he was missed.  7am came and off we went.

Day One: Klamath Falls to Sprague River

The first day was super fun.  The path was crowded.  I sailed through a small regatta of cows mid-morning, just before the rain started.  It had been misty, a sort of dry rain, but soon it was undeniably wet.  We ducked off the OC&E trail into an old horse barn and watched riders go by.
I couldn't help but think of my trainer, as I pushed my rig back up the steep embankment back to the path.  Sure, my team name was "Training Is For (Expletive Deleted)" but I cheated a little.  Just then, a rider slowed, staring at me and proclaimed "Maria?!  You're the reason I'm here!".  I about fell over.  Dennis had brought his team of five roadie friends, Team HardRoads, all the way from San Francisco, after hearing the interview with Donnie and me on the KBOO Bike Show last year.

I recalled saying something about being a roadie, not a mountain biker, and telling listeners that anyone can ride the Oregon Outback.  Sure, you'll need the right gear and preparations, but this adventure is open to anyone.  Dennis and his friends heard us and came!  Suddenly the rain wasn't bothersome at all.

Later on, riding with my teammates again, we agreed to match our pace to the hour.  I think it was around 9:30am then.  At 10am, we rode 10mph.  At one, we stopped at the Sprague River cafe.  I learned from some locals that Sprague rhymes with vague, not mosque as I had previously thought.  The nice man at the cafe told me last year 's Outback created his biggest revenue day of the year and he was disappointed he hadn't prepared for us this year. 
We made our camp along the river in a tight little cluster of fir trees, with features like soft beds and a place for a hammock and tarp.  It felt like a fairyville in the forest.  We were each dry and comfortable and could see each other from our little haunts.  We even had a visitor, Nick (there was no shortage of Nicks!) , who sat under my vestibule on a pillow.  Quite cozy.  We shared our team's signature cocktail, Fire And Ice, and were soon off to la la land.

Day Two: Sprague River to Silver Lake
Gal-dang it, I love a trip with numbered days. Keep in mind though, that some riders, including a chap named Billy Truelove, were done by lunchtime on this day.  In any case, today was race day for the team, as we were due at the Cowboy Dinner Tree by 4pm. To make it on time, I tapped into my inner rando and carefully kept track of miles and time cut offs.

Most of the team was ahead of me, so imagine my surprise when I pulled in to see only Clod.  By the time we sat down, Hitkicker and Emocrush slid in with us.  That still left four open seats.  Soon, we saw a friend from the Komorebi team and her riding partner and asked them to join us.
This restaurant is a cultural center in my mind.  Although the food is the real draw, people come back for the genuine homesteader atmosphere.  We enjoyed the crazy onslaught of delicious food and I was happy to have skipped lunch.  Grinda showed up, an hour late, but still enough time for steak.  Tears flowed almost as quickly as the strawberry lemonade.  NoNickname was two hours late, but seemed satisfied with leftovers.
Earlier in the day, I noticed a car and a u-haul trailer talking with some bikepacker-looking folks.  Then I saw it again.  And again, when it parked in the grass at Silver Lake's quiet city park.  This is what brought the sheriff out late at night with his flood light and booming voice.  Instead of being put out, he was inquisitive about the ride and confessed his own plans to try it one day.

My hackles felt hackly.  Cars help bike adventure in so many great ways.  But driving along, on dirt and gravel, on our "fully self-supported" trip, just felt like buzzkill to me.  I sincerely hope this self-supported adventure doesn't become a SAGathon, at least not during the event week itself.  Luckily, the buzz was not killed as they were gone when we awoke and we never saw them again.

Day Three: Silver Lake to Sand Springs
The buzz was alive and kickin' as we rolled into the Fort Rock Tavern the next morning.  Within the tavern, we met a posse of guys who all looked like they'd just stumbled from the pages of Cute Bike Boy magazine.  One of 'em was even on a tall bike.  We drank beer and ate fries, then rolled north on Pitcher Road.  They stopped after a while to share face paint.  I opted for colored hearts on my cheeks. I don't know if they had a team name, but to me they were the California Clown Posse.
Soon it was Red Sauce time.  This is the section of super loose sand we'd all been dreading.  Especially me.  But, behold!  The red sauce had been magically transformed into a much more ride friendly surface, which I would like to anoint The Brown Gravy.  Gravy like bike messengers get as opposed to the greasy brown condiment.  Soft and reliable, and not as hot feeling since it wasn't as bright red; it was the perfect example of how terrain changes with time.
This was our only night with a campfire, which I extinguished with poop.  Just kidding, I extinguished it with water I took out of the Sand Springs spring, which was otherwise unusable.  Still, I couldn't resist scrambling down to the hidden little pond-like spring.  Just to sit and hear the silence there felt good.

Day Four: Sand Springs to Prineville
The ride to Prineville was punctuated with rolling hills.  Just when I thought I couldn't go on, much less go any faster, James panted up next to me, on his brand new Gravity fat bike.  We raced to the top.  Exhausted but in high spirits, we kept the small sprints going all the way to Prineville.

The reservoir wasn't quite as blue as I remembered, but it was still beautiful.  The water was much lower this year and not easily accessible beach-side, so we searched for a spigot at a campground.  If the Prineville Reservoir Visitor's Bureau asked me, I'd advise they put a giant spigot with a big sign at the entry to the reservoir area.  After all, this is the first water in almost eighty miles, and something to celebrate.
The patio at Dylan's Grill in Prineville is one of my favorite places.  Sun and shade, burgers and beers.  These treats, along with the first shower of the trip, felt downright glamorous.

NoNickname, who rode a $45 Craigslist Schwinn he described only as "purple", broke a spoke just outside of Prineville.  This was pretty lucky, since The Good Bike Co had announced on facebook they'd be on call for Outback riders.  Sure enough, the nice gentleman agreed to meet NoNick at the shop and even brought pizza and beer to share.

Day Five: Prineville to Antelope
This is the hardest riding day of the entire trip, but it's offset by the scenery.  The Ochocos and Trout Creek are simply beautiful.  Beautiful isn't even the right word.  Spectacular.  Pristine.  Rustic.  Sublime.  Where God goes to practice making heaven.

One of my teammates, Mister Dithers, is no stranger to endurance cycling.  An accomplished randonneur and creator of a ton of permanent routes (many with gravel) and I had no doubts at all about Mister Dithers' riding abilities.  It never occurred to me that he'd never been camping before this trip.  Never been loaded touring.  So, why not dive into the deep end and learn how to camp on the Oregon Outback?!  That guy is hard as nails.

Stopping to gather water at the creek, we experienced a great Mister Dithers moment.  While we filled our bottles and bladders, he unpacked a padded manilla envelope from his pannier.  Inside the envelope, he revealed a brand new water filter, still in its packaging.  Maybe he thought it would lose its value if it wasn't in the original box.  He held it up and asked if anyone knew how to use it.  Classic Mister Dithers.
Later that day, after passing Ashwood and starting a series of endless-feeling climbs, a big truck went by us, on its way downhill.  The driver slowed way down but I was too tired and pushing too hard to stop and say hello.  A little while later, I heard a truck coming up behind me and saw it pass.  I looked up just in time to spy two of my teammies sitting in the truck bed with their bikes and a pair of gigantic grins.  I laughed so loudly, I may have offended our new friend.

This helpful truck driver was a local farmer, who'd been witnessing the outstretched nomadic habits of bikepackers over the past several days.  He seemed harmless and friendly, even offering us whiskey along with his warning "You won't make it to Antelope".  It was like something from a movie.

He did mention a movie to Mister Dithers, after inviting him in for a glass of water. The movie is called Deliverance and the detailed description that the farmer offered was enough to light a fire under that particular rider, who we didn't see again until Antelope. Yes, we did make it to Antelope.  A haunted feeling place.  We didn't see a single soul.  Those same morning doves from last year were coo-cooing hysterically and sent us off to sleep.

Day Six
A riot of birdsong woke us up the next morning, our last day on the road.  I felt sentimental during the nine mile climb to Shaniko.  Rolling into the park just in time to see many of the same gang I saw there last year made me even mistier.  They recalled my post office delivery from last year and asked if I had champagne and chips to offer again.  This was Team Leisure, made up of many members of last year's Whiskey And Wheelies gang.
On to Grass Valley.  First, we had to find the left onto Haggerty and off of I-97 with its adrenaline of double long semi trucks and RVs rushing past, just hairs away.  C'MON HAGGERTY I yelled several times.  Finally, back to our territory: the off-road serenity of gravel roads south of the Columbia Gorge.

There's a time during Spring in the Pacific Northwest when the sun is so high, it's hard to tell which way is south.  Mesmerized by heat and pebbles, I continued heading west instead of south.  I just put my head down, hypnotized by the blare of LeTigre from the chest pocket of my pink cowboy shirt.  Which reminds me, if you haven't stopped at the Western Shop in Prineville yet, make a point of it next time you're in the area.  This year I obtained a genuine cowboy shirt there, which I toted the rest of the way across the state, a gift for my nephew's 13th birthday.
Seven bonus miles later, I rolled up in front of the Grass Valley Cafe.  The image of a fresh cobb salad, topped with all good cobby things, disappeared quietly, like a picture in a book being slammed shut.  Not only was there no salad, there were no friends.  Not a soul.  My team would cross the finish line without me.  I sighed in exasperation and started eating candy.

A flutter of rainbow flag caught my eye.  Nearby a neon open sign looked lit, so I headed over.  Cold drinks!  Crazy crystals!  Tons of riders reclined in the grass.  Bathrooms.  A water spigot.  I was elated.

We split up again, a few opting for pavement.  I don't like the trucks, so I tried my luck on gravel again.  Then another split up as some of us detoured on Van Gilder, which should be renamed van GLIDER.  We started to turn left and noticed Grinda coming up the hill from our right.  She was on her way from Moro. The undulation of the team felt like a snake getting longer, then shorter, head and tail far apart, then close together again. 
The Fulton Canyon offers some of the longest, gentlest descending you'll find anywhere.  And just a soft breeze.  That's right.  Although the Columbia Gorge is known hereabouts for dishing out a nasty gusty headwind, the kind of heartbreaker that makes riders push hard downhill to maintain ten miles an hour.  That wind was nowhere in sight today.

We were no longer on the ride, we were on the home stretch and it was a celebration.  We screamed and yelled and waved our arms around like lunatics.  Rolling into the park, our finish line, was one of the better moments I can ever remember living.

Here we were, a ragtag hodgepodge of a team that had come together to conquer the challenge of the Oregon Outback.  Some thought they might not finish.  Others were confident but cautious.  One had never been camping before.  But none of that mattered, because we did it, and we did it as a team. 
That was going to be the end of my story, but it turns out there's just a little bit more.  Terrible news awaited us on our return to Portland.  It has nothing to do with the Outback, except that it offers some serious perspective.  While we were out joyriding in the desert, two cyclists were killed by cars in Portland.  Another lost a leg just before we left.  The Safe Streets and Vision Zero movements need to be spread as far and wide as the Oregon Outback.




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