Saturday, August 14, 2004

And then there was Montana, Idaho, and Washington....

Oh my word, western Montana was quite a shocker after the flat, flat, shadeless nothing of the great plains stretching out from the windows of the train forever. Yes, we took a train over North Dakota and Eastern Montana in favor of biking through the mountains and getting to Portland in time for our good buddies Gwyn and Frunch's wedding. After a sleepless night at the train station surrounded by 25 high school students from South Dakota on a Lutheran church service trip who could not stop screaming and/or running around lest they should fall asleep, we found ourselves boarding the train at 5:00 am and, with a pitying look, the conductor motioned us to the same car as the church group. So we escaped to the dining car and watched the sun rise over the plains. As the day continued, the sun blazed down on the nothingness around us and that's how the scenery remained for many, many hours--until we reached western Montana. It was amazing--one moment there was the same treeless, dry, flat scenery studded with underground nuclear missile sites (yikes) we had been staring at for hours, and the next second there were giant mountains looming in the distance rising straight up from the plains. The atmosphere on the train began to feel electric as we drew closer to the mountains, and everyone became awestruck as the landscape changed, gorges appeared, wildflowers appeared, and fast moving streams of intensely turquoise water broke through the mountains and rushed along beside the train. And then the pine-covered, waterfall dappled mountains were upon us and the train suddenly felt ridiculously small and insignificant, completely dwarfed by the scenery. We rushed along the tracks past a grizzly bear and we realized that the midwest was truly far, far behind us. We sped through Glacier National Park, wanting more than anything to bust out and dash off into the woods and up those mountains...but that will have to be another trip.


Majestic Kootenai Falls

The train is a wonderful way to travel--everyone is coming from somewhere, traveling to someplace else, and carrying their stories along with them. And we all just happen to be in close quarters for long enough to have no choice but to become part of one another's stories. There was a man on the train who was a truck-driver, but lost his ability to drive when someone jumped out in front of his truck to commit suicide. So his was a story of desperate sadness and guilt. There was a woman on the train named Flower who was raised in the mountains of Idaho, isolated in a cabin and home-schooled until high school, and was returning from visiting her sister in Rochester, NY, where I grew up! We also met a surfer named Isaac from California, a man who had had a psychotic break after returning from Iraq, a couple of men from Florida who were traveling to a remote part of Montana to pick up their truck that had broken down there the previous winter, a man traveling across the country from Maine--and each one had a different story. When you're traveling by car, people in other cars are simply objects, but traveling by train they become people and you get a glimpse into the secrets of other lives.

So we reached Whitefish, Montana, and took off by bike the following morning into the mountains. The crisp air and the butterscotch smell of the pines as we zipped along was extremely invigorating after the humidity of the midwest, and we were surrounded nothing but mountains and lakes for miles and miles. Breathing in and out, we were both filled to bursting with a feeling of life and freedom. That first night venturing into Montana we camped on a pine-covered rise next to a perfectly blue-green lake (North Dickey Lake--hahaha) and were thrilled at the cool breeze and the complete lack of mosquitoes (we nearly got carried off by them in Minnesota). The whole ride through that state was phenomenal--except for the steep, unexpected pass on a cliffside that we had to climb to reach the Yaak Valley outside of Troy, Montana to get to the remote bit of land where my cousin, Hays, and his wife Kelly are building a cabin. But once we crested the climb, we found ourselves biking through a county that is over 98% protected wilderness, with Bald Eagles soaring overhead and Osprey as common as crows nesting anywhere there was a high, visible spot--dead trees, electric posts--anywhere. A wonderful change after a night in Libby, Montana, the home of Zonolite, where one in four people had died of Asbestosis. The town was definitely dying in every way possible, and the fireman's campground we stayed at for $2 was just about as sketchy as they come.

We got out of there in record time in the morning to get on the road to visit Hays and Kelly, and their little woodbaby West, who are living in a teepee on their land surrounded by pines and mountains with an open-air kitchen while they build a simple cabin that will eventually be their shed when they build a log cabin up the hill where their teepee now perches. The way they are living, bucking the cultural norms of this country, is really inspiring. Kelly made scones in their dutch oven over the fire and the neighbors and their two children came over to visit. Suddenly there were three little wood babies running around who gradually dropped off to sleep in the laps of their respective mothers as the stars began to shine. The stars seemed so close, and there was a strange brightness, almost like a spotlight, reaching over the entire sky in a completely straight line--we thought it might be the northern lights, but we'll never know. A magical little corner of the world, indeed. Andy and I slept in their half-roofed house curled up with their insistent little kitten, who nudged his way into any warm nook he could find and purred so loudly our bodies vibrated with it.


Hays and West in the pantry.

In the morning, Kelly took us down the mountain, past Troy, to Jim's house--he and his mother live on a wooded bit of land beside a lake where they built a 3-story straw-bale house that is beyond amazing. Just when we thought we must have seen the whole house, Jim would lead us to another ladder going up to a loft or deck. They had just built a mud oven outside and were eager to try it out. A little pocket of progressive change in a very conservative area.

When we left, we biked 4 miles up an incredibly steep grade to see a forest of old growth cedars, but completely bonked before getting there for lack of sleep and blood sugar. It was amazing nonetheless. The entire forest felt ancient, and was almost too quiet except for a haunting note resonating from the tree-tops. We couldn't figure out if it was a bird or flying squirrel or ancient magic of some kind haunting the woods. The campground we chose that night was full, but a friendly couple let us share their site for the night. And then we were off again, already nearly through Montana.

We rode through the panhandle of Idaho, having no idea what to expect, but with potatoes on the brain. There were, in fact, no potatoes to be seen. Instead, the area we rode through, along the shores of Lake Pend d'Oreille (a 43-mile lake, almost 1200 feet deep), looked eerily like the coast of Maine. The water was choppy and the pine-covered islands popping up from the lake really gave the impression of the ocean. The weather was extremely hot, but the ride along that lake was so stunning that it made up for the discomfort. We stayed in Sandpoint and were once again surrounded by more Espresso stands than we could believe (it seems to be a theme of the West). By that time, we had really fallen into the rhythm of our days. We would wake up when the sun began to rise, I would make oatmeal and instant coffee with Ovaltine while Andy took down the tent, we would pack up and do our dishes, fill our waterbottles, get all sunscreened up, and hit the road in the chill of the morning. Then we would ride all day, find a campsite when we were beat, make some food, write in journals, read books, listen to the sounds of the night around us, curl up in our tent, and start the whole thing all over again. Not a bad way to live. Simple, but extremely satisfying and comfortable. And intensely freeing, somehow.


...yeah.

And before we knew it, we were in Washington state. The extreme eastern part of the state was breathtaking, more woods and streams and mountains, but the sky was filled with smoke from the huge forest fires going on in Canada and Wenatchie, Washington. It made breathing a bit more difficult, but at the same time it made for the most stunning sunsets and sunrises. The sun would turn into an intense glowing orange orb as it sunk to the horizon and the rivers glowed through the haze. We pulled into a campsite along the river as the light of day prematurely went out from the smoke and were immediately offered a free night by the campground host, who said we looked tired. She and her husband were in their mid-70's a extremely vocal about their political views. They were watching the Democratic Convention in their camper and hooting and hollering with approval or disapproval---they desperately hated the current administration and she recounted a tale of a Bush supporter stopping to camp. She said to him, "How do you spell Bush? S-T-U-P-I-D". I wonder if it effects the income of that particular campground...

The next day was the beginning of our real climbs. And man, were they climbs. As we rode to the foot of the first big rise, a trucker coming down gave us some blatant hand signals to turn back while we still had the chance--but, not knowing what we were getting into, we continued on. As we huffed and puffed up that first extremely steep 7 miles, we were approached by an old shirtless fellow biking towards us. He asked us if the wind was at our backs, and when we said no he said, "Well, I best head back to Colville, then!" . Colville was 60 miles away from us, over a pass. He turned around, we noted that he didn't have any water, and began flying back up the pass like it was nothing. The bikers we've encountered have often surprised us--they don't usually have the typical athletic build and can really shock you with their strength and gusto.

So our vertical journey had really just begun as we dropped into Colville and stayed in the Fairgrounds for the night. It's amazing how quickly, and wrongly, you can judge people if you don't bother to approach them. There were a few people that made us a little nervous, and we decided the best way to deal with it was to talk to them. So we did, and soon knew all of our neighbors and bits of their stories. It's been really valuable for us to set politics and things aside when we meet people, because most of the folks we've met, regardless of their positions in the world, have been truly good people when it comes down to it, and that's been very refreshing to experience.

Our next 10 days were a great push to get over the mountains, with little time for rest--and little desire for it because of a need to get out of the desert as quickly as possible. Our first true pass was Sherman Pass, 23 miles of climbing, and we conquered it quite by accident on a scheduled rest day, as the campsite we planned on staying at was not where we had thought. We were fooled into thinking it would be an easy climb, as it began rather gently, but soon found out that we were woefully wrong. The sun was getting low and we were so beat by the time we were a mile from the top, that we stopped for the night at the campground there, which, in retrospect, was the best thing we could have done. We got to spend the evening high in the mountains, close to the stars, and far from the nearest town. And after a last 1 mile push in the morning, we got to spend 20 miles flying down the other side with the cool morning wind in our hair. We were feeling so rejeuvenated by the trip down, that we decided to tackle the next pass that afternoon--Wauconda Pass. To our surprise and disappointment, we peaked that pass only to fly down the other side into the broiling inferno of the Washington desert. We decided to camp the night in Tonasket--the option ended up being the yard of an ice cream parlor 10 feet from the highway. It was one of the hottest, most miserable nights thus far, and our planned rest day (to make up for climbing Sherman pass on our last one) was foiled again. There was no way we were going to spend another day there. But we met some neat old men wearing cowboy garb and joined them for ice cream under the gigantic Catalpa tree and passed the afternoon chatting.

The next day we biked to Okanogan and stayed at the fairgrounds, where we posted our audioblog. There we befriended a dog, Baxter, that hung around with us under the giant maple tree all day and night and spent the afternoon playing in the sprinklers that run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to keep the grass green for the few days a year that the fairground is actually used. Bizarre. I can't figure out why people insist on living in a place that most life is definitely not suited for. No water, no farming without heavy, heavy irrigation--a completely hostile environment.


Forest fires make for creepy sunrises

We biked over Loup Loup pass the following morning and were dying of heat by three in the afternoon when we arrived in Winthrop and suffered some big time culture shock. The town was completely tourist-ridden and apparently a popular place for most of the Harley Davidson riders in the country. It was all built up as an Old West town and we debated traveling on, but the heat persuaded us to stay--which ended up being for the best in a lot of ways. No sooner had we gotten a site at the campground than we were approached by two men insisting that we pour out our warm water in our water bottles and refill them will some fresh refrigerated water they had brought up in a big jug. They mentioned that they were biking enthusiasts and that we should come and tent near them--and then proceeded to get more of their party to come up the hill and carry our stuff down to their area. The rest of the night was completely nuts--and completely wonderful. We found out that this group was primarily made of bus drivers and retired bus drivers from Seattle--and they happened to be some of the most generous, fun, happy people I have ever met. Randy bought us a pizza, Ed found us some PBR beer (in honor of Wisconsin), Charlie and Marti (who happened to have a crazy amount of Wisconsin ties) pulled out a bunch of maps and gave us tons of advice for the rest of our travels, Stan tuned up our bikes, Ed insisted that we take showers (he told us we smelled bad, which was in fact true), Frank insisted that we stay in his bed in their air conditioned mobile home for the night, Gary "baked" us a pie (so he said, but he really bought it), and Rita and Kathy laughed at the mahem going on. We talked and laughed until the sun went down, and crashed happily in a bed for the night. The morning came, along with a pancake breakfast cooked by Ed, Randy, and Frank (who supplied the killer Texan sausage), and we got off to a late start because we were having so much fun. And because of a wrong turn, many unnecessary miles, terrible traffic, and being caught at the bottom of Washington Pass in the heat of the afternoon, we camped at Early Winters campground to conquer the last climb of the cascades in the cool of the morning.


Back row, r to l: Andy, Frank, Charlie, Marti, and Randy
Front row, r to l: Stan, Kathy, Ed, and Sarah


[Andy here: I had just drifted off to sleep that evening in Early Winters, pooped from the heat and from splashing around in the river, when I was awoken by Sarah getting up and out of the tent to talk to a pair of fellows who had just walked up: one man who was camping there with his family, and a cyclist who was freshly arrived. It was 9:30 at night, almost totally dark. The biker had crested Washington Pass at 8 pm, and was headed for Nebraska or Kansas--somewhere in the flat middle. As Sarah approached, he, seeing the two parked and loaded bikes, asked her, "Are you biking with a partner, or did you bring an extra bike?" Yeah, just in case she got a flat on the first bike. Of course, considering the volume of gear this guy had, it wasn't a totally unreasonable question. In addition to his four bulging panniers, he was towing a B.O.B. trailer stuffed to maybe four times ordinary capacity! He said that his gear weighed 325 pounds. Holy shit. When Sarah asked what could account for all that weight, he said, "Well, I swim and I run, so I have all that stuff...I also only eat whole foods, so there's a lot of stuff you can't get ...out there." He'd been loaded-touring for 30 years he said, so he must know what he was doing. For me, though, biking with 80 or 90 pounds of bike and gear up and over the mountains feels borderline nuts. Getting it done with four times that weight...Man. Plus, he was a tiny little guy!]


Sarah at Early Winters Creek, in the 110 degree heat


Joe Jackson said it best: "Is she really going out with him?"

We began to climb the killer Washington Pass marveling at the signs of life coming back into the world--gorges and waterfalls, the whole works-- and, 7 miles from the top at a campground, we found a bag of goodies left by these great folks as they drove over the pass to head back to Seattle. They left us a gallon of cold water, a couple of PBR's and a note--it was like Christmas. Not only that, but we have an open invitation to stay with Charlie and Marti when we get to Seattle. They're planning a post-bike trip gathering with the whole gang when we get there to look at pictures and celebrate. And man, did we need that water for the last 7 miles of 7% grade to the top of the pass. It was an amazing ride and the scenery complete with snow-capped peaks, wildflowers, and pine trees (hooray for being out of the desert!), was breathtaking enough to take our minds off the climb. And when we got to the top, we looked down at the road winding away below us and felt as though we had just conquered the Swiss Alps. It was an undescribable feeling of accomplishment and happiness as the oppressive heat of the desert fell away with the dread of the looming pass was left behind us. Then we had the thrill of barrelling down the other side past hundreds of colors of wildflowers and many burbling streams--until we reached the shores of the unnaturally turquoise Diablo Lake and were constantly fighting against the sidewinds, making us work hard even to go downhill. We struggled to keep from being blown from the road, and decided to camp on the shores of the lake when we reached the bottom. We cracked open the beers that we had collected in our goody bag and drank them in our hike-in campsite secluded in the woods next to the lake as the wind rushed across the water to cool us and our muscles thanked us for being done with the Cascades. It was a triumphant, cool night and we decided life would be a fine thing if our trip never ended.


Some previous cyclist felt similarly good on reaching the top of the pass, and wrote us a little song about it

The next day we continued, thrilled to be riding on flat roads in the shade of the forests dripping with green around us. It was glorious--until I got a kink in my chain and suddenly found the derailleur ripped off my bike and the frame bent. There was nothing to be done but try to get to the nearest town 40 miles away, so we had to hitchhike. A local sheriff stopped and, rather than helping us, said his truck was full and wished us luck before heading off again. Luckily, another truck stopped that was filled to busting in the back with inserts for bee-hives. John, the man driving the truck, said he had been working for Microsoft and suffered multiple organ failures before quitting and decided to go into the business of honeybees instead. His truck had an extended cab and he had three little blond, blue-eyed children with him who were super curious about everything--where we kept our food, how we slept at night, what each part of our bikes did, where we were going, where we had come from, if my mother was still alive (that one made me smile), and lots of other things. Anyways, John was really determined to help us out, so we lashed our bikes to the grill on the front of his truck and he showed us an incredible kindness by taking us not only all the way to Mount Vernon, but he also took us on a detour to see a waterfall, a family trip to the grocery store for some water, and waited for us at the bike shop to make sure we weren't stranded. It was a good thing he waited because they said to hop a train to Portland where there were good bike shops. So then he took us all the way to the train station and we picked blackberries with his children (Blaine, Zech, and Ivy) for a very long while until finally they all hugged us and were on their way. Conversing with John, we had learned that he was a born-again Christian and had nursed himself back to health eating honeycomb after Microsoft destroyed him, thus the change of career to bee-keeper. The land of milk and honey. He was adamantly against the war in Iraq, saying that it defied the message of Christ, which was love and peace. It really is heartening to know there are still people in the world who believe so strongly in love and peace.

Speaking of love, the littlest girl, Blaine, asked me at one point in the car ride regarding Andy, "Is that man your friend?" I said he was my husband, and she said, "You know what that means? You're pregnant! And you know what being pregnant means? You'll have a baby!" I had to laugh at that one. And hope it wasn't true.

So we ended up hopping a train and have had an amazing week in Portland with the wedding of the glorious Gwyn and Frunch , sleeping on the fold-out bed in Gabe's basement apartment, taking a trip to the Oregon coast where we spent the afternoon body-surfing in the waves, lots of hanging out with good friends, a stay in a cabin on the coast for a couple of days with some friends (Pete and Cris), some kite-flying, a LOT of messing around with bikes that ended in me having to actually buy a new bike while sending my old one back to Wisconsin to be fixed for free by the company--all in all our city fix has been had, and our friends fix has been great, and we're eager and ready to get back on the road tomorrow for the ride to Seattle.

PHEW!!!! If anyone can read this in one sitting, I will be amazed....much love to everyone, and we'll try to be better about keeping up so our entries aren't entire books at a time....

(Photo captions courtesy of the Amazing Andy)

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Oh, geez...

Here's two apologies, just to kick things off:

Golly, I'm really sorry about those two audio posts. Listening to ten solid minutes of directionless blabber from exhausted bikers is too much to ask of our friends and family, and it won't happen again.

Also, I'm really sorry that our updates have been ...well, nonexistent. It's sometimes hard on the bike to find cellphone reception, or computer access, but we'll work harder at keeping this blog up to date. Also, as Sarah points out, we're often having too much fun, and forget about things.

Please forgive us.

Since we left Minneapolis, over a month ago, we've covered a lot of ground, met a lot of great people, and even had a few adventures. Here's a brief synopsis, with highlights:

Minnesota was, on average, pretty flat. We had mostly sunny weather, except for one night when we camped next to the Rum River in the town of Milaca. Right in the floodplain. We were woken in the wee hours by the strongest thunderstorm either of us have ever tried to tent through. My first thought was "let's try to sleep through this." My second thought was "flashflood!" The dark fantasies of being swept away, with our bloated corpses found weeks later, miles and miles downstream, quickly won out, and we spent a frantic, soaking-wet twenty minutes moving our tent, luggage and bikes to higher ground. By the time we got all re-established, the rain had stopped and dawn was breaking. Was there, in fact, a flash flood? No. We took our soaking wet, exhausted selves to breakfast at Embers, all the same.

Does nose-picking make one a friend or an enemy of Booger?

The day before, we passed a sign that said "Used Books, next right", and then another that said "Log Cabin Books". Forgive me for stereotyping, but the part of Minnesota we were biking through didn't seem like a hotbed of used bookstore enthusiasts. We were intrigued, and pulled off the tiny two-lane county highway to check it out.

Coolest bookstore ever. Both floors of a real nineteenth century log cabin, a cheerful, knowledgeable, and well-read proprietress named Judith, a cast-iron stove in the corner, an excellent variety of high-quality reads, and, perhaps best of all, free fresh-ground coffee. We bought postcards and took pictures, and Judith gave us a Sierra Club Wilderness Reader for our travels. Coolest bookstore, ever.

Later that day, a few miles before we reached our day's destination, we met a fellow cyclist, Wally, who was training for a tour to Vermont in the fall. We talked, and he asked us a lot of questions, and invited us to stay the night in a cabin on his property! He called it his Hermitage, and had set it up for private retreats and meditation. We helped him put a dock into the river, and retreated to the hermitage when the mosquitoes got too thick. The next morning we had instant coffee with him and talked bikes and didn't get on the road until almost noon. Such good company is much much more important than early starts.


Fixing a flat tire in Long Prairie, MN

Other Minnesota Adventures: the Yellow Lab who raced with us, and ran alongside our bikes for more than three miles (we decided to call him Jack, and we couldn't get him to stop following us and go home); seeing flocks of White Pelicans soaring on thermals (Pelicans in Minnesota? For real! They have a nine foot wingspan, almost as big as the California Condor); shredding my real tire on a solo mission to buy a wine-bottle opener in Long Prairie, MN, and having to hitchhike back; and the awesome hospitality (and horrible shower) at Swanie's Resort, in Cormorant, MN (they bought us beer, cooked us salmon and catfish, took us on a boatride...we had to hitch a ride into Fargo the next morning. Ooof.).

We made the executive decision in Fargo to take Amtrak across North Dakota and Eastern Montana. The train station was open from midnight to 8 am, and the train rolled in at 5 am, so we had plenty of time to box up our bikes and monkey around with our luggage. We met an older gentleman there named Solomon Harris, who had just gotten out of the hospital in Fargo. He had been attending the funeral of an army buddy, and his heart had failed on him. While he was in the hospital, his wife had died. He was uninsured, and his Veteran's Benefits didn't cover his bills, so he was wiped out. He had been on Omaha Beach with the D-Day invasion, had lost four brothers in the war, and his only son in Vietnam. He was trying to get home to Decatur, IL, but only had money for a ticket to La Crosse thanks to his hospitalization, and was going to try to hitchhike once he got to La Crosse, and would we like to buy a fruit basket and some bungee cords? He was on oxygen, and real nice and interesting to talk to.

I didn't totally buy his story about being hired by Steven Spielberg as a consultant on Saving Private Ryan , but I was offended that a veteran should be so forgotten by the system that he would have to hitchhike. We bought the fruit and bungees for $10, and slipped him another $20 on top. We tried to buy his ticket through to Decatur, but the man behind the counter (after making a cryptic remark, chuckling under his breath "Yeah, he gets that a lot") said it was sold out. We helped him onto his train, and that was that.

A few days ago, here in Portland, we were telling Frunch and Gwyn that story, and a suspicious little voice in my ear told me to run a quick google search on "Solomon Harris". This is what I found. I can't say I'm as mad as the guy who wrote that article, but it's truly no fun getting conned.

The scenery out the train window convinced us we had chosen wisely, and we hopped off in Whitefish, Montana, feeling all messed up , but excited for new scenery and new challenges. My eyes are falling out of my head, so I'm turning it over to Sarah to tell about Montana. Take it away, Sarah!