Chapter 37 - What It's Like to Cycle in Hell
Linda Masters and her son Gamaliel lived in a tiny, cramped cabin built over a storage shed. Gamaliel was the same age as Jesse and me, but stood a head taller than our height of 5'7". He was nervous and self-conscious when we first arrived, but after a while he warmed up. "My mother will be home in a while," he said. "Meanwhile, c'mon in! The dogs won't hurt you if you don't bother 'em."
The Masters’ property was speckled with half-finished structures and semi trailers, which they used for storage. Their yard was filled with piles of Useful Objects and dogs who did not like visitors. There was no running water in the house, and no indoor plumbing.
"It reminds me of home!" said Jesse. "Your house is like ours was before we finished it."
"Well, ours actually was finished about three years ago," said Gamaliel. "But then we had a fire, and everything burnt up. We've been kinda lazy in fixing things since then…"
That night we camped in the yard; the dogs were tied up nearby, and Linda assured us that they would keep wild animals, such as bobcats, away from our tents.
At four o’clock the next morning, Jesse was woken up by rustling next to the tent. For a minute he didn’t move, and figured maybe it was a mouse. But then he turned his head slowly—and there, not two inches on the other side of the screen, were eyes. The eyes were set back on the catlike animal’s head, and its whiskers were fairly touching the tent. Jesse was the only one up at the moment, so he lay perfectly still, trying not to scare it. Finally it bounded away into the woods.
"…It must have been a bobcat," he said over breakfast. "Except I thought you said the dogs would keep the wild animals away!”
“Well, we actually tied them in a different place than usual last night,” said Linda. “We didn’t want them to bother you when you went to the bathroom or anything. It’s possible that a bobcat came around the edge of the driveway without the dogs noticing. It might've smelled your food—tonight you better bring the bags inside and we'll tie the dogs up closer to you.”
If I were a bobcat, I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to mess with the Masters' dogs. In fact, even though I was a human I wasn't drawn to standing real close.
At three o’clock the next morning, Jesse and I stuck our heads out of our tents. It was pitch black. “I guess Linda hasn’t been up in the morning for quite awhile,” I whispered. She'd told us that the sun rose at 4:30, as far she could remember. We'd taken her word for it, since we were thoroughly disoriented from crossing back and forth from Mountain to Pacific time on the average of twice a day for two or three days. “But maybe by four-thirty it'll be light,” I added encouragingly. The image of a boiling Hell’s Canyon stood in my mind as an enormous wake-up incentive.
“Yeah right—the stars are still twinkling!” Jesse returned, and we laughed. Neither of us had been able to sleep well anyway, so why not get up? Jesse said he'd been up every half-hour or so, checking for bobcats. I just couldn’t get comfortable. Dan, however—like every morning—was sound asleep when Jesse woke him up. He kind of grunted, and rolled over.
“C’mon, Dan, it’s time to get up,” Jesse said. “It’s warm now—it never even cooled off from yesterday—so just think about how hot Hell’s Canyon's gonna be.”
“...mmpf,” Dan muttered. “Look at that, it's dark out again. Whose idea was this trip, anyway? It sure wasn’t mine, if I’d known we'd be getting up at night every morning!”
Linda and Gamaliel came out of the house in a few minutes. “I’m afraid I was off about the time,” Linda said cheerfully. “I guess maybe it doesn’t get light until five or five-thirty.” We guessed so too, taking another long look at those twinkling stars.
At 5:30 we donned reflective vests, turned on our lights, and headed through the dense forest toward Hell's Canyon. The forest started turning into wheat fields as we continued past Council, and the sun cast long shadows of our cycling selves in the fields by our sides. The road wound around and up as we headed towards the top of a 4,131-foot pass. We had a lovely tailwind as we headed up, and we hit an all-time record of pedaling fifty-one miles before eleven a.m. "We're home free!" Dan sang out. "We'll make it through the Canyon no problem!"
But it was not to be. The downgrade was extremely steep and extremely windy, and I averaged forty miles per hour. And with all my focus on steering the bike, I didn’t hear Jesse behind me, who later said he yelled “PUNCTURE!” only a mile down. Dan didn’t hear either, and the two of us sped along for four more miles before we stopped to cool our brakes and noticed that Jesse wasn't there.
We figured he’d stopped to cool his brakes further up. After ten minutes, we wondered if he'd fallen. After fifteen minutes, Dan flagged down a car heading downhill.
“Yeah, we did see a guy up about a couple miles back,” said the driver. “He was sitting on the side of the road with his wheel off. Didn’t look too good.”
“Oh great!” I said, and Dan and I looked at each other dismally. There was no way we wanted to climb back up that grade, though, and we figured that if Jesse needed us he would send a message with another car. With our formerly high spirits rather deflated, we settled down at the bottom of the hill until Jesse finally rolled in and we ate lunch. It was noon now, and it was hot even in the shade.
“I think it was all the gravel yesterday,” Jesse said, as we devoured peanut butter and crackers. “It must've weakened the tire when we skidded so many times. The problem is, the actual tire has a hole in it, not only the tube. I tried patching them both, so I'm just hoping it'll hold.”
After eating, we continued down the road and out of the forest for good. Sagebrush sprouted out of the desert-like landscape; nothing else seemed to grow too well. Then, after three miles, Jesse’s tire went “POW!” We knew at this point that we were doomed to broil in Hell’s Canyon. None of us smiling, we sat in the meager shade of some scrub brush while Jesse patched again. The heat seemed to intensify by the minute, and our water was already disgustingly hot. It was another half-hour before we mounted our bikes again—and got our first view of the Canyon.
Below us, the Snake River stretched out through the deepest canyon in North America. The sides of the gorge were red, the river an intense blue-green. The road wound around the edge of the canyon, gradually descending to the bottom and paralleling the river itself. Idaho’s Seven Devils Mountains towered above us to our right; and to our left and across the canyon loomed Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains (the “Alps of North America”).
And Hell’s Canyon lived up to its name. The heat was blistering, and we had to rest after only half a mile. The heat rose from the road, reflected off our bikes, radiated from everything in the landscape. The incessant buzz of the crickets made the air seem to ripple with heat, and my water was so hot that I could have brewed tea in it. We had only sixteen miles to go, but it was silly to try to make it now. It was hotter than the day we'd climbed White Bird Pass, and it seemed dangerous to try to ride much more.
Exhausted, we flopped onto the grass at a roadside recreation area. The maples weren't native, but I was grateful for their shade nonetheless. We barely moved ‘till after dinner, except to take a short swim in the unrefreshingly tepid water, and call home. Ken told Jesse he'd call the bike shop in Baker City to make sure they had the right size tire; if not, he said, he'd express-ship a replacement. I hoped the recumbents could make it to Baker City.
We didn't leave the rest area till 7:30, and we didn't make it to the Oregon border till late. I kept half an eye on the ever-darkening road, and then I mostly watched the sunset in my rearview mirror. And after a couple minor shifter problems (Jesse), chain derailments (Daniel), and slowness due to the headwind (me), we reached the junction of Hwy 86. It was almost nine-thirty, and it was dangerously dark—for the first time on my trip, I'd ridden at night.
Our campground was ever-so-scenically located at the edge of a dam. But scenery, at that point, was really not our top priority. In fact, we didn’t care about much besides getting our tents up and getting ourselves into them. Those two things accomplished, three exhausted teenagers fell deeply asleep in the Oregon night.
The next day, my last ride with the guys, was another one of those days when everything did not go according to plan. The seventy-five-mile ride was mostly uphill, and we had a headwind all day. And Jesse, according to my approximate calculation, fixed between ten and twenty blowouts by the end of the day.
At one point, I looked down at the quote in my handlebar bag and tried to convince myself that it was true. “I do it for the joy it brings ‘cause I’m a joyful girl.” I tested the words out on my tongue. Yeah right. This is fun?? We pedaled for hours and hours, uphill past dozens of smiling sunflowers. The wind never let up for a second. The sun beat down horridly. I was so hot.
So hot—the heat was making me tired and drowsy. Maybe I could just take a nap, and wake up and discover that I was in Baker City. Maybe... My thoughts dissolved into a sort of chaotic calmness, finally becoming intent on one goal: I was going to make it, going to make it, going to make it. I think I can, I think I can, I think I can, like that train in the little old book. Pedal up, pedal up, pedal up. Make it make it make it. Pedal go up drink water I can make it do it make it… My thoughts blurred into my pedaling and became as mechanical as my cranks, turning into the wind.
At 6:30, we sank into plastic chairs inside the air conditioned Pizza a’fetta restaurant. We were all sweaty, Jesse was completely full of grease, and our hair stuck out at all angles. Before we even opened the menu, we looked at each other and almost—but not quite—laughed.
“We did it!” I said, almost—but not quite—smiling. “That's the one good that happened today.”
“Yeah,” said Jesse, non-committally.
As soon as the food came, we ate steadily. Several pizzas, lasagna, breadsticks and butter, more pasta, more bread, and finally Italian sodas. We had to stop then, even though we weren't quite full, because the place closed at eight-thirty.
We made our way blearily to the RV Park at the edge of town, and set up our tents as the sun went down. Dan crawled into his sleeping bag immediately; after showers, Jesse and I followed suit.
“…Well, it’s been great riding with you,” Jesse said. It was the next morning, and I was ready to leave.
“We tried!” I said, truthfully. "And have a great week—I’ll see you in Eugene!”
“Have a good week, Big Sister,” Dan said. “Thanks for making sure I drank enough and stuff.”
And with that, I pulled out of the campground. Today began the last seven days of my trip; at this time next week, if all went well, I would have reached the Pacific Ocean. In these final days, I planned to do almost as many miles as I did in my first month on the road. And I would be riding alone.