A hill too far.
I woke up to a dark tent, reached up and switched on the small LED light I keep hanging from the clothesline above my head. It was a bit past 4:30. I rolled over and tried to dose off, but sleep just wouldn’t come. For some reason, I was uneasy—anxious to get on the road. In my exhaustion, I’d gone to bed the night before without dinner, still, I wasn’t hungry. I opened the tent door and gazed out into the night. I could see no stars, which meant there was probably a cloud cover. Well, I thought, at least it’s not raining. I could see a dim glow off to the east, signaling a promise of sunrise. To hell with it, I thought and started packing my panniers.
I’d hung my rain- and sweat-drenched clothes up the night before from a clothesline I keep rigged in my tent and reached up to see if they were dry. They weren’t and I considered wearing my spare, dry chamois and jersey. I didn’t feel like starting the day in wet riding gear but I wanted to save my dry stuff for a sure-fire sunny day. I put on the wet clothes. I’d be uncomfortable for a while, but there was no point in using up all my clothes in the first two days.
With the panniers packed, I ventured out of the tent. I took the rain fly off and shook away the excess moisture; still it was too wet to put with the body of the tent. If there’s one thing I’ve learned hiking and cycling in the Northwest it’s to keep my tent and sleeping bag dry. I have a mesh pocket that attaches to the outside of one of my rear panniers and I stuffed the fly and ground sheet in that.
By the time I had everything stowed and the panniers on the bike, it was light enough to travel. I toyed with the idea of digging out my stove and making some oatmeal and tea, but I was filled with an anxious energy, perhaps a hangover from my mad dash of the day before, so I mounted up and rode the half-mile of mudded-out road to Highway 30. At pavement, I zeroed my odometer, noting that I’d covered a little more than forty-five miles the previous afternoon. Eighteen miles and I’d be in Astoria. I’d pull over and make breakfast there.
The ride from Gnat Creek to Astoria was mostly rolling hills. The road angled south so I didn’t see the Columbia River again until I reached Astoria. At about ten miles I began to feel hunger pangs. The morning was gray with a few scattered rain showers and I promised myself I’d pull over at the first small store I saw and get in out of the wet and grab something to eat. I’d been drinking a lot of cold water along the way and I think that lowered my core temperature. Up ahead I saw a sign announcing John Day park and I almost pulled into the parking lot to make breakfast, but kept going instead. I looked at my odometer. In another six miles I’d be to Astoria and I would definitely make breakfast there.
The John Day River.
I was feeling a little strung out, the hills weren’t much, but I seemed to be struggling. I came to a bridge spanning the John Day River and stopped to gaze at the scenery. It was a bucolic setting. From my vantage point I could see the river bend its way toward the Columbia. Directly downriver a few structures and boats sat bobbing on the gently flowing water. It was the first break I’d taken that morning and the beauty of the place lifted my spirits. There was a small hill after the bridge and I felt renewed as I cranked up the grade in low gear.
I began seeing clusters of houses and commercial buildings as I neared Astoria, but no stores. I rolled into town and pulled over at the Astoria Maritime Museum. It was early yet and the place wasn’t open which was fine with me. There’d be no one to run me off as I assembled my stove and heated water for breakfast. Waiting for the water to boil, I wandered along the promenade that borders the river. This is the place where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean. Off in the distance to the west I could see the Astoria-Megler Bridge. Highway 101 goes over it and I’d soon be on the southern-most portion that runs from the Isthmus upon which Astoria sits to the Oregon coast. I felt a little thrill; this is where the real trip would begin.
The Astoria-Megler Bridge.
The day before, July 12, had been my daughter, Annie’s, birthday. I’d tried to call her from the tent the night before but had had no cell service. I looked at my watch. It was after 8:00 and I figured she’d be awake so I called and talked to her for about a half an hour as I ate my oatmeal and had a second cup of tea.
The day was brightening, a few blue patches broke through the leaden sky as I began packing away my stove and pot. Tourists were starting to show up and a man had come to unlock the doors to the museum. I gave him a friendly wave and he returned it hesitantly. In a few minutes, I was back on the road. The highway winds through Astoria then heads south on a causeway that spans Youngs Bay. Astoria itself looks old and desolate. There’s the usual kind of places you see in little northwest towns. Mostly small independent businesses on the way out: restaurants, furniture stores, tire shops, but after you cross Youngs Bay and reach the suburbs, you begin to run into the newer, bigger franchise gigs. Burger King and Target, Home Depot and Starbucks. It’s sad in a way, that the big corporate operations are killing the city centers of these small communities.
I rolled past the big box stores and burger joints and in a few miles reached the section of 101 that truly parallels the Oregon coast. Thick, low brush and heavy woods bordered the road here. By now the day had cleared and the temperature soared. I stopped to strip off my rain gear. I leaned my bike against a guardrail and was pulling off my coat and long pants when to the north I saw a bicyclist approaching. I could tell even from far away that it was another tourer and I was anxious to make contact. As the cyclist neared I stepped off the shoulder to give him room and offered an enthusiastic wave, hoping he’d stop so we could chat, but he just waved back and continued on his way. As he passed I noticed that he looked like he’d been on the road for a while. He was unshaven and tanned, and wearing a cap instead of a helmet. From the back he looked as if he was carrying all his worldly possessions on his bike. A walking stick was bungeed to an overflowing dry bag strapped to Ortlieb panniers. He was making a good pace. I shrugged, oh well, I thought, the Oregon coast is the most popular bicycle-touring route in the country, I’m bound to meet others along the way.
I was feeling good as I rode along in the sunshine. I had a full belly, the weather was perfect and the road was good. I was making good time… too good n fact. I caught myself racing along the flats at over sixteen miles an hour and standing up and cranking hard up the hills. I told myself to slow down. There was no hurry. I had made twenty-five miles already and it wasn’t even 11:00 yet. I knew from experience that when I overdid it in the mornings, I usually paid for it in the afternoons. I knew the trick to cycle touring is to conserve energy. Even though I felt full of vim and vigor in these early hours, I was conscious that I needed to keep my speed in check otherwise I’d be out of steam by afternoon. Later, about noon, as I crested a hill, I saw the cyclist from earlier sitting in front of a café. He waved and I waved back as I rocketed down the other side of the hill.
The Oregon Coast. My trip had really begun.
The day grew warmer and it was downright hot as I climbed the last long hill before my day’s destination, Cannon Beach. By the time I’d been on the hill for a mile, I was sweating bullets. I stopped and took off my jersey and lay on the grass for half an hour, drank the last of my water and dozed off into a kind of dream state. I awoke to the sound of a diesel truck grinding its way up the hill. I got up, stretched and started out. Getting my heavily loaded touring bike started on a steep hill is something of a challenge. Because of the weight, I have to do a hard skateboard kick to gain momentum enough to remain upright while I swing my leg over the rear rack and straddle the saddle. Then I have to quickly get my shoes clipped in and start pedaling. This whole procedure must happen very fast, because if I take too long, I loose speed and tip over. There are always a few tense moments when things could go either way, and in my sleepy state I almost pitched into a ditch before I got my bike under control. I’m sure my chaotic gyrations provided endless mirth to the passing motorists.
I was tired and paying a cruel price for my early-morning sprints. I cursed the hill as I pedaled along in granny low gear, then, after another mile or so, I reached the top and was treated to a thrilling downhill dash into quaint, Cannon Beach.
My plan was to camp at a spot my daughter, Brittney, had told me about. She described a lovely campsite high on a bluff overlooking the ocean. “It’s just past Ecola State Park,” she’d said, “a couple of miles out of Cannon Beach. And the best part? It’s free!”
Well, I was sold, so when I got into town I inquired around and got directions. I rested a while, wandered the shops and beach and toward 2:00 got back on my bike and headed out. As I rode out of town I found the right road and after a few twists and turns stopped in dumb amazement.
I was standing at the bottom of the steepest hill I’d ever seen. It wound its way up and out of sight through the forest. A sign indicated the park was three miles. If it were all this steep... I’d had my fill of climbing for one day, but the lure of a free campsite was strong, so I gathered up all my resolution and forged ahead. I crept along at about two and a half miles per hour; the bare minimum required to stay upright. I was standing on the pedals; each turn of the crank was pure agony. After a mile or so, I had to get off and push. I’d make a few steps then crunch the brakes to keep the bike from rolling back down. After a while, I found that I was making less and less progress. I would grip the handlebars and push as hard as I could for a couple of feet then my legs would start shaking, my feet would slip and gravity would take hold and I’d come to a standstill. Try as I might, I couldn’t move that heavy bastard of a bike another inch. I was all in.
I looked back down the way I’d come. Damn, I hated to think all that effort was for naught, but I couldn’t stand there in the middle of the road all day. Traffic had to go around me. Drivers were honking and giving me dirty looks. Finally, I made the only decision I could. I turned around and coasted back to town.
I’d figure out what to do when I got there.
Tomorrow: Day Three: Cannon Beach to Newhalem State Park.
I meet Christophe, the crazy Frenchman.