After two days riding east along the Columbia River, my arrival in Washington meant heading north and back into the Cascades – the same mountain range from which I had descended on my way into Eugene, Oregon.
The brilliant weather was a welcome change from Portland’s dependable drizzle and was to escort me all the way to Seattle. So much so that I found myself stripping off base layers a couple of hours earlier than usual due to the intense morning sun. And, for the first time, the United States of America was exposed to my pale rig of experience.
I paused for biscuits and gravy in a tavern in Wishram, about 15km from camp. It’s a small settlement thats existence appears dependent on the freight train terminal on its outskirts. The town’s location at the water’s edge was mildly irritating, while my route ran along the cliffs roughly 400 feet above it.
The tavern was the only service in the community, and the lady who ran the joint insisted I sign the guestbook. I was the first inscription in eight months…
After returning to the bluffs above, I began the climb into the mountains in earnest, and it was foul. The incline was bad and the shoulder narrow, but it was the gusts that blew directly across me that were responsible for most of the shits I gave. The wind turbines that lined the highway suggested this was fairly typical for the area.
After the most severe climb levelled out, the road became flat and straight, with the distant snow-capped peaks of Mount Adams and Mount St Helens towering over the plains.
A stiff headwind made riding draining, even on the more gradual incline, and I reached the town of Goldendale in the early afternoon, my will bent but unbroken. I still had another 20km of climbing before I reached Brooks Memorial State Park, my campsite for the night, so I made it a short break. Goldendale is a fairly drab sort of town in the middle of the high plains. There are a couple of large grocery stores and not much atmosphere, so while the return to the road hurt like hell, I wasn’t sorry to leave the town behind me.
The afternoon’s climb was gradual and persistent, which was far more tolerable than the sharp ascent of the morning. A few kilometres from my campsite, I happened across a Greek Orthodox monastery in the middle of the forested hills. More importantly, it was a bakery and deli that specialised in Greek and Middle Eastern cuisine.
The camp was empty, and I slept well – even managed to charge my various electronics in the RV section of the grounds. The morning began with a sharp climb to reach the top of the mountain pass, before trending down through the hills. Descending into the valley, I was surprised to find myself in the Old West – dry prairielands and a refreshing looking Satus Creek taking me to the plains.
Unfortunately, it was in this brown land that I encountered my first flat of the trip.
My upside down bike drew a steady stream of people ready to lend a hand, the final person even offered me some Christian reading material with a kind, but concerned smile. Only the Lord can save you now, son. I replaced the tube with another I had in my bag and continued on my merry way along the highway into Toppenish.
I rolled through town, pausing for an unremarkable lunch, before continuing on to Yakima. The highway and the headwinds were doing my head in, so I opted for the country lane that paralleled the railway line. It had a nice little manmade canal that ran alongside it, punctuated by the small dams built for the farms the waterway serviced.
At a green grocer in Union Gap (which sold top 5 apples) I realised that my tire – this time the front – was flat. The culprit was a small tri-pronged thorn, which the brothers who owned the fruit store identified as a ‘goat’s head’, because it resembles the skull of a goat. That pleasant country lane had screwed me, and this time I had no spare tube or patch kit. Should have at least glanced at the Christian reading material.
Both of them owned those massive pickup trucks that had, up to this point, rubbed me the wrong way. Being just genuinely nice guys, the one who lived closest to my hotel chucked all my stuff in the back and gave me a small sack of apples and a bud of Washington’s finest fully legal pick-me-up. Must have the face for it, I guess.
A trip to a nearby Walmart set me up with a patch kit, and the next morning I headed on to Yakima’s only cycle shop, where I bought new tires and tubes and overturned my planned route to Seattle. The tires didn’t have quite enough tread for my liking, but it was, after all, Yakima’s only cycle shop.
The guys at the store told me it was absolutely worth climbing Crystal Pass – a route through Mount Rainier National Park that was usually closed in April, but the lack of snow this year… I was reluctant at first (mountains and all), but the mechanic assured me it was a one-day ride, and it was one of the most scenic rides in the state.
So after two days camping in Yakima’s state park, I attacked the route with fresh legs. I quickly realised I had to take people’s estimates of ride times with a grain of salt, because a carbon fibre road bike tends to go up hills a little quicker than a steel touring bike with 70 pounds of gear on it.
Campsites dotted the road all the way to the summit, so accommodation wouldn’t be hard to find. Thus, after resigning myself to the prospect of a two-day climb, the journey became quite pleasant. The ascent was ever-present, but not at a gradient that registered too much pain, and as I climbed, the view became gradually more spectacular.
While the campgrounds were open, the water wasn’t running at any grounds. I made my nest at Little Naches Campground all the same. I drew some from the river in the morning, figuring it would be close enough to the source and in a national park so it’d be clean enough.
The next day brought 30 more miles of climbing, and the gradient became less forgiving as I approached the summit. I slowly closed in on the snow capped peaks that towered over the forest valley, and at one point I thought to myself: “That’s funny, this road looks like it’s going into the snow up there.”
And every 20 minutes or so it became more concrete, I was cycling into the snow. This fact didn’t seem to shock anyone in America, but with the route being open and the bike mechanics installing slick road tires, I assumed the snow had melted. In other words, I was as surprised as any Australian who comes across snow where and when they don’t expect it.
The pass yielded its promised snow and some ripper views of the valley. I’d climbed over 5,000 feet and my legs had felt every one of them. Not going to lie, my camera literally ran out of batteries because I spent so long trying to choreograph squat pictures.
To be honest, I’m not 100% satisfied with the product but I was thoroughly rooted and snow is a challenging medium with which to work.
As I rounded the corner at the summit, and turned into the descent I was met with another terrific view – Mount Rainier towering above everything. Up there with Avenue of the Giants in my Top 5 Road to Damascus moments.
The descent itself was flat-out terrifying. There is no way I could have climbed the pass from the north – not even in my most elderly granny gear. After a half-day of pure climbing had left me physically exhausted, the steep descent proved to be mentally draining.
It was a Sunday, and plenty of folks had made the trip from wherever the hell they were from. The single lane highway didn’t make matters better, so after a mere 7km and probably several thousand feets’ descent, I stopped at the first available accommodation and slept soundly.
The next day’s ride was unspectacular, but long. It took me from the foot of the Cascades to Seattle’s surrounding suburbs.
The Interurban Trail lead me the last few dozen kilometres to my lodgings in Kent, and the next morning I linked up with Seattle’s cycle network and reached the city proper on a grey Pacific North West morning.
I had couple days’ rest in the Starbucks city (there are franchises literally opposite each other. I don’t understand how this is sustainable) and a few more in the Bae Area. This week-long sejourn divided my West Coast tour from the North East.
I caught a plane to Chicago, made some more friends, before a Greyhound took me to Toronto via Detroit, and the second half of my tour of America:
Toronto – Montreal – New England – New York