October 9, 2006
I wake in my tent, notice the dim light, and crawl outside. It’s before sunrise, but after 7am. The days are definitely shorter than when I last camped in August.
Packing my things, I observe men easing their rigs into the Columbia River at the nearby boat launch, and I ride off the waterfront into town. There I have pancakes and coffee in a quiet, empty restaurant that smells like cigarettes.
It’s a clear, bright morning. I see the wide blue river squeezed between high green mountains, and marvel at the bridge that spans this expanse. It’s called The Bridge of the Gods. Here along the Columbia River Gorge sits this beautiful piece of architecture. I cross it, feeling a strong east wind over the open water, and enter the state of Washington.
I do a little climbing, and pass through Carson. It’ll be the last town I see until the end of the day. Two Big Snickers and a 20oz Coke sit in my front panniers. I’m excited about the miles in front of me. There’s just something about a crisp October day in the woods of the Pacific Northwest that’s so exquisite it escapes all descriptions.
That is, until I hit the first climb. There’s no mountain pass marked on the state road map, so it comes as a surprise. Every bend in the road is a false summit, and it goes on forever. Finally I reach Old Man Pass, at only 3,000 feet… but consider I started from the bottom of a gorge at 240ft above sea level this morning.
The descent is a fun, well earned rest, and suddenly through the trees I catch a glimpse of a colossal, brown monolith – Mount Saint Helens. It blew up in 1980. Maybe you remember. I don’t. I was born in 1980. So was MTV. Reagan was inaugurated. John Lennon was shot. The Eagles went to the Superbowl. Here ends the time capsule for today.
I pull off at a designated viewpoint, where an old couple have stepped out of their car for lunch at a picnic table. I ask them to take my picture. “Oh you missed it, she was blowin’ smoke a couple minutes ago!” the woman says. I love how she refers to the mountain as “she.” “Would you like a sandwich?” she asks, and they make me cold ham and cheese on wheat. I go on my way after the usual small talk. They were great, easy going people.
At the bottom of the descent there’s a small country store, more like an outpost, and I limit my purchases to a pound of spaghetti. On the way out of the restroom, I’m confused because I can’t find the switch to turn off the light. “Oh, hon, we run on a generator here” the woman tells me, “The light stays on.” I’m way out in the wilderness.
One or two cars pass every half hour – otherwise the mountain roads are all mine. I wonder what traffic is like out here during the summer tourist season, while the sunny October 60-degree temperature keeps me fresh.
The trees are gigantic, and after a while I take it for granted. Everything is huge in scale – except me – the little humbled man on a bicycle, meandering through this vast, towering landscape. The feeling is like looking at the stars and pondering the lengths of the cosmos.
I labor up a second climb, this one to Elk Pass… 4,000 feet. This sure is a tough day. The forest clears for a brief moment on the descent Glancing to the south, I slam on the brakes. There I see, way back in Oregon, the unmistakable profile of Mount Hood. Around another bend a few moments later, I catch a flashing glimpse through the trees of an ice capped peak. Its crown shines in the evening light, like the star that it is… Mount Rainier.
The combination of the sun sinking behind the high ridge and the shadows of the trees makes for a prolonged dusk. I descend from Elk Pass and knock off the miles quickly. The trees clear, and there once again is Rainier… closer than before, now glowing with the setting sun.
I glide into the small town of Randle, glad to be here after a strenuous day on roads through the backcountry. I check email from a pay phone, and discover that the Eagles won yesterday, though the game has been over for 24 hours. I skip dinner, and don’t brush my teeth either. As I lie in my tent typing this, it feels as though it will be a cold night.
The radio listeners in the greater Portland area have voted “In My Life” as the greatest song penned by John Lennon.
The Bridge of the Gods
Mount Saint Helens