I meet Christophe, the crazy Frenchman.
Newhalem from one of the many airy perches along the Oregon Coast.
Cannon Beach is about as touristy as the Oregon coast gets. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a nice little town with a terrific beach and lots of friendly people. But like most tourist towns, it’s expensive. I wound up paying thirty-five bucks to stay in a campground a mile out of town. Granted there was a laundromat and hot showers and I was able to ride into town and get a beer but the cost of that little ten-by-ten patch of grass blew my budget.
You see, one of my goals for this trip was to travel as cheaply as possible. I had set ten dollars a day as a target, and the first day I’d come in well under. The second night, though, had tipped the scales the other way. I’d just have to find ways to economize on the rest of the trip.
I got up early; about 6:00 am and was on the road by 6:30. I pedaled through town and stopped at a little grocery store to buy a Coke, a Snickers Peanut Butter Bar, a Hershey’s with almonds, and a Payday for energy along the way.
The morning was cold and gray with a steady drizzle. The roads were shiny and slick but the weather didn’t faze me. I was in high spirits as I rode along past quaint storefronts and occasional glimpses of the beach beyond. There’s a short hill at the south end of town and I shifted down and put my back into it. About halfway up a young woman jogged past me on the shoulder. I grunted a greeting and she waved as she sped by. A few hundred yards beyond the top of the hill I could see off to the west the famous Haystack Rocks. These things have to be seen to be believed. Sitting a few hundred feet off the beach, these huge rock plugs rise hundreds of feet out of the boiling surf. Mostly bare brown-red rock, there’s little vegetation, but they’re absolutely teeming with birds. I pulled over and took in the sight, thinking how great it would be to live here in one of the many cliffside houses that dot the coast. Then a thought came to me, “I’m living, and I’m here!”
In a few miles the town road met up with Highway 101 and the usual summer traffic of gigantic RVs towing minivans and smaller RVs and SUVs. Riding along the side of the road gives one a new perspective on how wasteful these things are. As I peddled up the rolling hills, the land yachts would lumber up beside me, their engines straining and emitting plumes of noxious diesel fumes. I imagined these behemoths consuming huge columns of fuel as big around as my arm as they waddled up the road.
But even breathing bus exhaust couldn’t dim my spirits; today was to be my rest day. I had only eighteen miles to cover till I reached my day’s destination of Newhalem State Park. I had bought a book titled Bicycling The Pacific Coast, and was using it as a guide. It’s a great little resource with maps and suggestions on daily routes and distances. Because I had started my coast ride at Astoria, I was a little out of sync with the book, but this short day and camp at Newhalem would put me right in line with the suggested itinerary.
The tunnel. Flashing lights warn motorists that a cyclist is ahead.
Still, it's a scary ride!
Just after Hug Point, about halfway between Cannon Beach and Newhalem, I encountered the first of two tunnels along the Oregon coast. There’s a button cyclists can push that activates warning lights to let motorists know a slow-moving biker is in the tunnel. I stopped, flicked on my rear flasher, pushed the button and pedaled like mad. I’ll be honest, the tunnel scared me. It’s narrow with no shoulder. There’s lots of debris and when a car or truck goes through, the noise is deafening. It sounds like a couple of logging trucks are drag racing up behind. Every time a motor vehicle passed, my heart would jump into my throat and I’d pedal even harder. By the time I reached the other side I was panting and I had to pull over to catch my breath.
The coast along this section provides fantastic views. As I climbed the last hill before Newhalem, I paused at a viewpoint to take in the scenery. To the north, the rugged coastline wove in and out of rocky cliffs and heavily wooded lowlands. Dozens of streams could be seen emptying into the storming surf. South, and a few hundred feet lower in elevation, was Newhalem Bay State Park. It was still early, about 8:00 and the sky was dark with silver-gray clouds, though the early morning drizzle had let up. I sat on the rock wall and ate my Snickers bar then washed it down with a couple of swallows of Coke as I listened to the ocean sounds drifting up from far below.
I mounted my bike and readied myself for the dramatic descent into Newhalem. While the climb up the north side of the hill had been long, the south side looked short and steep. I pedaled up the remaining few dozen feet, gripped the brake hoods and leaned over the handlebars in a racer’s tuck. I crested the hill and swiftly picked up speed. Going fast on a heavy touring bike is thrilling. All that weight gives you tremendous velocity and traction. You can take the sharpest of corners at full speed if you do it right. The trick to staying out of the ditch is to look where you want to go. Look through the corners, that way you’re ready for the hard G-forces and feather-light brake work that come from muscling three-hundred pounds of hurtling mass through the twisting and turning curves of a serious downhill run. It’s tempting to take in the scenery as it whips past in a blur, but take your eyes off the road for even a nano-second and you stand a good chance of winding up in the nearest ICU.
But no such grim thoughts entered my mind as I whipped down the hill, then, suddenly, I hit a bump at an expansion joint on a bridge. It was a pretty good jolt and I was hanging on for dear life when I heard a loud thump. I glanced at my speedometer; I was going about eighteen miles per hour. I hit the brakes and pulled over to the side of the road. I checked my bike and found that one of the front panniers had bounced off! I have Ortlieb panniers and they’re bomb proof, so I assume I must have attached it improperly that morning. I looked back up the road and saw my bag dangerously close to traffic. I ran back up the road, waving frantically at approaching cars. Thankfully, I reached my errant pannier before a truck could squash it.
In a few miles, I rolled into Newhalem. I passed a store with a produce market out front, then, pulled into a Shell minimart at the turn off for the campground. The rain had picked up again and I was happy to get in out of the wet.
I wandered the isles of the little store more to dry off than to make a purchase. The clerk, a friendly-looking woman in her forties asked me if she could help. “Do you have any fresh fruit?” I asked.
“No,” she replied, “but there’s a great produce market just up the road.”
“Yeah, I think I passed it.” I paused and looked out the window. The rain had stopped. “How far to the campground? I asked.
My campsite at Newhalem State Park during a rare clear spell.
“Oh, it’s about a mile or two,” she said, pointing west. “Just follow the road and you can’t miss it.” I thanked her, went outside and took off toward the park. After I checked in and paid my five dollars—a special rate for those arriving via non-motorized means—I made my way to the hiker/biker campground. There were three tents already set up. The hiker/biker sites at Oregon State campgrounds are a common affair. There’s no assigned individual site, you simply share a dedicated area with other hikers and bikers. I found a nice spot in a grove of trees and set up my tent. I was driving in the last stake when I heard someone approach. I stood up and was greeted by the biker I’d seen on my second day. “So you finally made eet,” the man said.
“You’re French?” I asked.
He smiled and offered his hand. “Christophe eez my name.” He stood a thin five-foot-nine. Long, wavy, dark hair, streaked with a few strands of gray stuck out from beneath the cap situated crookedly on the top of his head. He appeared to be in his early forties. His sharp, hawk-like features were earnest and open. His face and arms were deeply tanned testifying to long days on the road. He sported a several-day’s-old beard and was dressed in a black fleece jacket, gray cotton pants and hiking shoes that I would later learn made up his standard bicycling outfit.
His overall appearance gave the impression of a man more concerned with utility than style. Though his countenance was welcoming and friendly, you knew there was nothing frivolous about the guy.
We shook. “Darby,” I replied, “glad to meet you.”
“I zaw you zee ozer day near Astoria,” Christophe said, “I was hoping to zee you again. Where are you coming from?”
“France, of course.”
“I mean where are you riding from?”
“I have reedden from my home in Brittany. I rode across Mongolia, Russia, zee Gobi Desert, spent zee weenter een zee Bella Coola een British Columbia.” He paused, “Come, I show you my article.”
We walked to Christophe’s tent; he went in, then, came out with a newspaper neatly folded. “You zee?” He pointed to a photo of a smiling Christophe standing in front of his bicycle. The article related an adventure in which he was stranded by a flood in the mountains and had to be rescued by helicopter. It was an amazing tale involving a mother grizzly bear, nights spent out of doors without a tent in driving rain and near-hypothermia.
Christophe, I discovered, was something of a celebrity. A forester by profession, he had received a grant from the French government to ride around the world creating documentaries on the old growth forests of the planet. He had completed films on the forests of Poland and Russia as well as others. He would film along the Oregon coast and the redwoods of California. His goal was to ride to French Guyana and document the old growth forests there. His films are shown on his website and in schools.
We chatted a bit more, Christophe relating a few more of his adventures on the road. “Well,” he said after a while, “you must be tired. Go now to your tent and rest. We weell make zee dinner togezer tonight!”
Christophe shared his dinner with me. He doesn't carry a stove,
instead cooks on an open fire.
I took his suggestion and crawled into my sleeping bag. It was about 10:00 AM and the sky was clearing. The air had the sweet perfume of the woods after a rain and I drifted off, lulled to sleep by the soft sighing of wind high in the trees.
I hadn’t realized how tired I really was.
Tomorrow: Day Four: Newhalem to Cape Lookout State Park.
A wise woman, a surfer and a lawyer.