I’ve taken a lot of bicycle trips in the past couple of years as I train for Bike Around The World, but this trip was to be different; an eight-day solo tour through unfamiliar territory—two-hundred-ninety miles from Kelso, Washington, to Eugene, Oregon, via Astoria and Florence, Oregon. I’d taken one longer trip with my cycling pal, Mike, but I wanted to test my mettle without the moral and physical support of a companion. As it turned out, this trip was be different all right, but for reasons completely apart from what I’d anticipated at its start.
Day One: Cycling from Kelso, Washington, to Gnat Creek, Oregon.
A mad dash for the border.
It was the first day of the trip and songs of early morning birds awakened me. I hadn’t slept much that night being kept awake by nervous anticipation: had I packed everything? Was the bike in proper working order? Was I in good enough shape to do sixty-mile days? These and myriad other bothersome thoughts kept buzzing around in my head, keeping me from drifting off, so the hour of departure found me running around the house in a mild panic tying up last minute details. Finally, I cast caution to the wind, jumped on my loaded touring bike and raced to the train station.
As it turned out I hadn’t needed to rush. I’d read the train schedule wrong and arrived an hour and a half early. I made a mental note: double- and triple-check the itinerary!
The train ride to Kelso, a hundred and ten miles south of my home, was uneventful. I had chosen to haul my bike to a point a day’s ride from the ocean so I could spend most of my time cycling along the Oregon coast. The train arrived late; about 2:40 PM so I hurriedly unloaded my bike and panniers and headed west on Route 4. The day was warm and muggy and as I pedaled along dark clouds began to gather. In two miles the rain was falling in earnest. I pulled over and donned rain gear. I’d brought along my lightweight slickers, after all it was July 12, the middle of summer, and I hadn’t anticipated a lot of rain. Boy, was I in for a surprise.
Route 4 meanders along the north bank of the lower Columbia River. It’s river grade and fairly flat with good shoulders most of the way. It was a Tuesday and traffic was light. Through the woods I caught the occasional glimpse of the Columbia. At one clearing, I raced with a giant ship heading downriver and out to sea loaded with what looked like an entire forest of logs. It was a pleasant enough ride in spite of the unseasonably heavy rain but I wasn’t making good time and that had me worried. I had forty-five miles to go this afternoon and if I didn’t reach my intended campsite at Gnat Creek Campground in time I’d have to feel my way along in the rain and the dark. That wasn’t something I was looking forward to so I checked my watch and picked up the pace.
My first goal for the day was the tiny town of Cathlamet, Washington. From there, I’d head south, take a bridge across a branch of the Columbia to Puget Island, cross that and catch a small ferry that would take me the rest of the way over the river to Westport, Oregon. I wanted to make the 5:00 ferry, but I guess the rain slowed me down more than I thought and I knew I would have to race to arrive in time for the 6:00.
As I rolled through the quaint main street of Cathlamet, I glanced at my watch. I had eighteen minutes to make the four miles to the ferry landing. There was a steep hill as I approached the bridge south of town. I cranked hard to the crest then soft-pedaled across the slightly downhill bridge. Passing now through farmland, I picked up the pace, keeping the needle at fifteen miles per hour. The road was flat and I kept a sharp eye on the odometer as the hundredths and tenths crawled by. Three miles to go, now two, it was looking good, plenty of time. At one mile I started searching anxiously for some sign that I was on the right track. I’d zipped past a couple of nameless roads and there was a nagging at the back of my mind that maybe I’d passed the ferry turnoff. At four miles I was having heavy doubts. There was no sign of a ferry. At four and a quarter I started thinking that maybe I should turn around and try one of the side roads. Time was running out. If I missed the 6:00, I’d have to wait for the 7:00. That extra hour would put me on the other side of the river near sundown. There was another twelve miles to go after that to reach camp and that would mean I’d be riding in the dark. The storm had eased off for the time being, but the sky was leaden and I knew there was more rain in my future. The road stretched out ahead with no indication of a landing then, I cleared a small rise and there was the river, a line of four cars sat waiting. With a sigh of relief I rolled to a stop and caught my breath.
The little town of Cathlamet, WA, on the lower Columbia River.
The ferry landing outside Cathlamet isn’t the end of the Earth… but you can see it from there. Usually, arrival on my heavily loaded-down bike draws something of a friendly, curious crowd. People are interested in the equipment, how far I’d traveled and how far I had to go. But the folks gathered at this confluence met my hearty greetings with icy stares. They bunched up and muttered among themselves, occasionally looking my way with suspicious glances. I never figured out why they didn’t warm up to me, perhaps it was just that I was a stranger.
The ferry that runs from Cathlamet, WA, to Westport, Oregon. The crossing costs $2.
The ferry loaded up with its quota of four cars, my bike, and me. The crossing was cold and windy and by the time we reached the other side a bitter rain had begun to fall. I rolled off the ramp onto a broken road that led past the three or four buildings that make up Westport, Oregon. A young woman sat on her front porch watching her daughter swing on a tire hanging by a chain from an ancient oak. I waved and she smiled and waved back. After a half a mile the road met up with Highway 30, the main route that runs from the bridge at Longview to Astoria. I rode out onto 30 and sped up the road heading west. It was now after 7:00 and though it’s usually light until well after 9:00, the heavy rain and low clouds made for a dim and darkening evening.
David, able bodied seaman on the Cathlamet ferry.
I had been pedaling hard all afternoon and I was getting tired. Still, I was an hour off my schedule and I’d need to make up as much time as I could to reach camp before darkness made traveling dangerous. If worse came to worse, I thought, I’d pull over and spend a soggy night in the woods.
A few miles out of Westport the mountains began. I would have to climb over two major hills with grades up to 7% (steep!) before camp. Tired as I was I soldiered on. The first hill was about two and a half miles long and topped out at almost a thousand feet. The good thing about hills, though, is that for every up, there’s a down and this first hill was no different. After a brutal climb of about two miles, I reached the summit and was treated to a luxurious downhill run of over three miles, but the fun was soon over. Through the dimming light and haze of rain I could see the road begin to rise again. I was cold and wet and my legs and arms were shaky and I felt lightheaded. I could feel the bonk coming on. I’d stopped at a store before Cathlamet and loaded up on candy bars and a bottle of Coca Cola. I pulled over and stuffed down a Baby Ruth and a couple of Reese’s Peanut Butter cups, then washed them down with great swigs of Coke. The sickly-sweet repast left me dyspeptic, but once back on the road, I felt a bit stronger.
Cars had their headlights switched on and the rain intensified the glare I faced from the speeding, downhill, oncoming traffic. A few weeks before on a trip through eastern Washington, I’d climbed over a four thousand foot pass and I was thinking that this hill had to be at least as much. I knew it wasn’t possible for such altitudes to exist in this region but in my exhaustion-muddled thinking it seemed like I was ascending to dizzying heights.
It was nearly dark as I slogged up and up through the downpour at the breakneck speed of two-point-nine miles per hour. Jesus, I thought, will this hill never end? I looked at my odometer; the numbers blurred and swam before my eyes. Had I ridden the twelve miles from the ferry yet, or was I only at six? Worse, had I passed the turnoff to Gnat Creek in my stupor? The hill went on and on. I was thinking that I must have climbed at least two thousand feet when finally I reached the crest. A sign listed the altitude as six hundred ninety five feet above sea level.
I felt whipped. I put my head down and coasted over the other side as darkness enveloped my little world of misery. In a few miles, as the last of the day’s light died, there on the side of the road was the sign: Gnat Creek Campground. I turned onto the rain-slickened mud road and pedaled up the last hill. Miraculously, the rain suddenly slackened, the clouds parted and a clear spell lasted long enough for me to set up camp and crawl, exhausted, into my sleeping bag. Then, darkness. Night had come with a vengeance.
Even though the rain held off most of the night, I slept fitfully. Dim thoughts of dread ran through my weary mind. If the rest of the trip were to be as hard as today, my mettle would be tested all right… quite possibly to the breaking point.
Tomorrow: Day Two: Cycling from Gnat Creek to Cannon Beach.
A hill too far.