Thursday, August 24, 2017

Roads & Non-Roads in the Umatilla National Forest

Unplugged in the no-phone paradise of northeastern Oregon, you must remember how else to do things. You have to adjust your dependencies. For example, you can't text-you haven't been able to for days-so instead leave a note on a car in the middle of nowhere communicating to the other members of your party where they can find you in several hours.

One of our dependencies had slowly shifted over three days away from Google and toward a North Fork John Day Forest Service Oregon 2013 map, our one beacon of knowledge in a land that reduces smart phones to thin cameras. This was our guide and our god as we rode off into the high desert wilderness on an August day in the upper 90s.

But even our Forest Service-issued map could not be trusted.

I don't often ponder the existentialism of inanimate objects, but in only the loosest sense could what we bicycled on be called a road"They utilize me, therefore I am" or something..

My gravel-inclined companion and I scoured our regional map to find a less-than-paved day ride accessible from the Drift Fence campground near Ukiah, OR. We latched onto a recommendation from the park ranger that incorporated the gravel connector road 55 and thought it could link up with something called Bridge Creek Road, which according to our Forest Service map legend, is signaled to be a "Native Surface Road-Suitable for Passenger Car Travel".

Bridge Creek Road (in yellow)
After a breaking down camp and determining a loose plan with our amazing, car-owning friend, two of us rolled out of camp down about 3.5 miles of pleasantly smooth chip seal on road 52 across a few cattle guards to our gravel turnoff on Bridge Creek Road.

Since I live in the city center of Seattle, gravel roads are relatively difficult to get to excepting some concerted effort and planning (see: other writings), but everyone who loves it knows the feeling of hitting loose earth. Your senses jump to engagement. The hum of pavement becomes an uneven, syncopated hiss, hands sense the texture beneath as much as the tires, edging and climbing around surface imperfections a thousand times per second, and eyes scan to optimize the way forward over ever-changing consistencies. After 60 miles of road riding in search of a total eclipse (read: total lobotomy) from the two days prior, it was a sweet sensation to once again enter the unpaved.

Bridge Creek Road was "rideable!" as became our catchword for the day when faced with myriad potentially unrideable scenarios. It rolled down into one of a thousand canyons in this region and became very questionably rideable as it descended toward Bridge Creek. Large stones littered the trail, and we unashamedly walked a few sections before a water refill at the creek bed.

We met only one person on this ride; he rode down to the creek bed about five minutes after us on what in my memory seemed a lot like a moped. He was wearing a trucker hat, a checkered shirt, and jeans. His name was Colby, his father's name is Steve, and everybody around knows him and them. Our small talk immediately turned to yesterday. "Well, we were moving cattle all day, so yeah, I saw it." The two of us were still mentally unpacking one of the most thrilling minute twenty seconds of our existence, but I appreciated his nonchalance: events like this, while neat, are less pressing than the day's tasks. He had lost an iPhone yesterday, it turned out, and was out to investigate.

"Where are you two headed?" We mentioned riding Bridge Creek Road south to link up with 55, and he nodded, wished us well, and subsequently disappeared for five minutes while we continued to filter water from the creek. He returned triumphant, iPhone in hand, and puttered off the way he (and we) had come.

We climbed out of the valley on the rough but rideable(!) road to reach another high desert prairie much like the last. This is where we crossed gate number one, which read Please keep gate closed, which is definitely not the same as No Trespassing or This is not a useful road for much longer.

Here we saw a maybe coyote or fox or wolf dart across the field, enjoyed the mild sunshine of the morning, and cruised across a wide, accommodating plateau between two valleys. It was some of the purest riding of the day, feeding our sense of accomplishment with each rolling hill crested and each new horizon revealed. It could not last, though, and so it was we arrived at a second gate, beyond which the road looked distinctly underutilized. This gate, unlike the first, bore no message whatsoever except that of a padlock and chain. Convinced of our direction and, upon reflection, by the lack of concern from Colby in our earlier conversation, we found a low section in the barbed wire and hopped the fence onto the next section of (here's where words become difficult) road.

It's one of my favorite parts of exploring unknown areas by unmaintained roads: finding out you could get through, that there was a way. The thought of turning around cast enough shame to keep us motivated.. also that the damn map has it outlined and classified as a road "Suitable for Passenger Car Travel". The next section was rideable although a bit of a mixed bag. It took us directly south for several miles before descending into the canyon that is home to the John Day River. I don't recall exactly when it began, but at some point on the descent, the rocks that lie beneath the road's grassy bed became severe enough that we walked fifty yards down to the next gate.

This gate was much more rudimentary-no swinging hinge this time. Three pieces of wood with barbed wire run between them and a wire hook held this section of fence up as a gate of sorts across our path. On the other side was what only a very imaginative person would call a road. A Jeep road, perhaps? Maybe a horse and cart road at one time, but the kind of path that hadn't seen human travel in decades. I'll offer this: it was level and wide enough for a vehicle of some kind. Although rock falls over the years had made it impossible to traverse for even the gnarliest of human vehicles, it was definitively a place by which one could reasonably reach another place, namely, the John Day River, which we noticed soon lie far below us on the canyon floor.

Ceci est une road
"Not rideable!" But really we didn't even waste our energy on this thing. Not at 1500' above a canyon, not with boulders and an impossible-to-predict riding surface beneath the overgrowth. The view was staggering but very quickly became uninteresting as we started to realize that the path ahead was going to resemble this all the way from 4000 to 2500 feet where the river lie. Then there were the omens of doom: three carcasses, all headless, lie in our path. Did they also see the river and think "Oh hooray, I'm saved. I just have to follow this clearly marked road on this map and I'll-- Oh wait, this isn't a road! Noooooooo.." *Dead*

The going was rough, but the view was tremendous. The valley and its river were visible, so there was hope amidst the twisting ankles and rocks as unforgiving as chunks of concrete.

It was fully Type 2 Fun in spite of our protests since we were relatively convinced that we were still on the right.. um, road. It wound around one hill, then the next, strafed along one ledge, then into some bushes, then across a narrow creek where there may have once been a bridge. Finally, we reached some more definitive signs the road was, in fact, closed. Good to know! Three or four felled trees lie across the path and two large, overgrown dirt berms had been erected to keep cars out. We passed through our final gate and out onto 55 with the rushing river now filling our ears. To our amazement, there is still a road sign for this travesty.

RIP road 5500050. You're dead.
But guys, the John Day River was a faaaaabulous treat. We waded out to a few large rocks for lunch and gave our feet a break. Above us was our next climb up 55, but for now it could wait. Since we didn't get a thrilling gravel descent as reward for our hard work, we chose relaxation and calorie intake to satisfy.

55 was an amazing road.. before it got stupid difficult. But that first part! It was freshly graded, had a mild incline, some decline, and took us above the river for amazing views of the valley and all the tremendous campsites along the way. We both agreed: next time we're staying by the river.

But then it got hard. 2500' of gain over eight miles hard. Stopping to rest in the limited shade every half-mile hard. It was merciless as the sun, but it wasn't the worst thing we'd done that day, so even though we suffered, cursed, and sweat ourselves dry, at least we were riding our bikes.

Cattle guard!
Our ride back to camp was cake: 4 miles of downhill on our old friend 52. We thought our third member of the party would be waiting for us there, but instead she had stuck a note to the car: "Hey boys! Come find me in Ukiah!"

Ukiah is not a hard place to find someone; it's about five blocks deep and ten long with one main street containing the inn, the bar, the ranger station, and the park, and she was at the park. We packed up our three bikes in the very specific geometry that allowed them to fit, and set rolling on four wheels for home with many more roads and non to be unveiled.

I'm glad Colby didn't tell us the road wouldn't link up, that it would dissolve into barely traversable wilderness. The most memorable rides are the ones that, while the start and end were defined, required some improvisation and maybe a bit of stubbornness to push through a middle that might be less than rideable. Even if maps can't be trusted, our instincts held up!

Friday, January 27, 2017

Dark and Light Places on the Winthrop Gran Fondo

I held on at times literally for my life while descending some of the ~12,000 feet of vertical we gained on the Winthrop Gran Fondo last weekend. If I had died, my last words would have likely been a rattled "Fuhuhuhuhuhuck yohohohohohuhuhuhuuu" on a section of descending washboards that sent me over a cliff. My bike shook me loose of itself, and my teeth clattered like castanets, their stomping finale to end in my demise. But no, I slammed the brakes, cursed the ground, and skidded safely to a stop (repeat 20 times).


I was told rather casually by a friend that I should register for this several months ago. The hook was we would split an Airbnb, do this ride, and make a fun Winthrop weekend out of it. These things turned out to be correct! We grabbed a nice cabin, and five of us started off the ride together the next morning at 8am. I unintentionally broke away from the group as soon as the climbing started. Here's ride the profile..

The going was steep and rocky. This particular gravel was basically sand on fist-sized rocks, some protruding others embedded. I seesawed with a few people, stopped to pee, and generally enjoyed this ascent, but then.. As I neared checkpoint one, a rider going back down the wrong direction drew near. I asked if he was OK, and as he said "yes" I realized his forehead, nose, mouth and chin were covered with blood. If you have never been struck by the Fear of Gravel, you should see this dude with a face bloodied by the roads ahead descending past you the other way. The alarm bells were blaring. RETREAT!! DANGER AHEAD! We had ridden 10 flat miles, 9 miles of gravel climbs, and were at 5400' elevation. Some kind of omen!

The grades steadily increased as the roads became less predictable on NF-39 as we climbed up near the summits of Tiffany and Rock Mountains at 6900' (having started at 1700'). If you've ever ridden steadily at 4mph for much long at all, it feels like the most futile activity of all time. Here you are, straining to stay on the bicycle at all, when the small shame of walking would use less energy and travel at about the same rate. I must have ridden at 3-4mph for at least one demoralizing hour to top out near Tiffany Mountain. This was my first taste of the darkness. Could I finish this at my current pace? Could I rely on descending to catch me up? I was not halfway through the distance but was over halfway through the general time constraints. Quitting was all too easy to entertain as the clock crept north of 1pm and I still had 15 miles to go before halfway.

Staring up a couple of guys I would soon catch
I'm always curious what song will get stuck in my head on a ride like this, because it is often silly. This time it was All4One and 1995's "I Can Love You Like That". Whhhyyyyyyyy? The darkness was thick, you guys.

The flats and downhills near these summits were welcomed breaks for the quads, but there was absolutely no relaxing on any of the descents. Your grip on the bars has to be vice-like or the washboards (should you hit them) will wrench them free. The washboards are one thing, but this area is covered in snow during half the year, so there are massive ruts and washed out areas carved by running melt that will ruin you should you have the slightest lapse in focus. I had a couple of these, and they were completely paralyzing. I pushed up my glasses once, or maybe I was sticking my Camelbak bite valve in my mouth when an unseen rock flipped my front wheel to the side and only by the luckiest, most desperate reflex did I flash my hand out to grab the other brake lever. I was probably a few milliseconds from being down with a broken clavicle (or worse) on a remote mountain road.
Gathering my wits at the top of a descent
To descend well on gravel, you must adopt the inverse of your climbing mentality. Whereas it is helpful on the climbs to keep your focus on the immediate 10-20 feet in front of you, when descending you must adjust your point of view to constantly scan the next 50-100 feet. It's obvious to say: 5-6mph is a quarter the speed of 20-25mph, so you extend your scanning distance appropriately. This can be a tricky mental transition, though, and indeed it was for me on the first few miles down; I focused on patches of loose rock within the 10-20 range and inadvertently sent myself to even worse patches by not scanning far enough to choose a better line. There's the trick: you can't watch the stuff you're actually riding over. Instead, you have to trust that you've scanned it, chosen a good line, and believe in your bicycle to carry you through the line you've chosen. Loose rock is much easier to roll over at high speeds. If you get caught staring at 10-20 foot sections, you will constantly lay on the brakes, become bogged down in the loose stuff, and be unprepared for complications in the road ahead. My guess is the man with the bloody face did not make this transition well.

There were a few miles of paved descending down to Conconully, WA. This was our main food checkpoint and the only place where a suggested cutoff time had been floated. I rolled in about seven minutes before the suggested 1:30 cutoff, performed a foie gras like stuffing of myself, and proceeded to tackle the remaining 45 miles. I was near to calling it a day, but I overheard a couple of guys say that we had already climbed 8400' of the (just under) 12000'. That bit of knowledge gave me the confidence that I could roll into the finish at or slightly after the unofficial course closure time of 5pm.

The second climb was more gradual but still had its painful sections. I was lucky to find a group to ride along side for most of the way up until I pulled away; I was also able to descend alone without needing to consider others in my line. The descent from miles 65-71 was the absolute best part of the ride with beautiful, sweeping views down Mt. Baldy to our last checkpoint. This was the light place as it was quite literally all downhill from mile 65 to Winthrop, and I roared down those miles with full confidence in my groove.

You can see it, but hard to tell how shitty the road would be 10mi from here.
The lower tier of the descent after the checkpoint is where things got unmanageable; there I found myself most angry, tired, and all shook up. I couldn't pick lines anymore. The faculties that sharpened into focus hours ago now could not scan the ground as convincingly. They wained and with it so did my control. It holds true in hiking, too, that most injuries occur on the way down--when you've let your guard down and aren't trying as hard now that gravity is there to lend a hand. I was a clear example of this warning and felt as happy as I did terrified about what awaited in the not insignificant 20 miles that remained. I gradually found an appropriate to grip the bars such that hitting washboards didn't set me all a-rattle, since there were multiple areas where the entire road was a huge set of boards (see the introduction to this post). I got the song "Hold On Loosely" wedged in my head and belted it like a personal anthem on these particularly rough chunks. It was nice to get a break from All4One!

The 10 miles or so back to Winthrop were a smooth salve for the gravel bomb of the previous 15, and I cranked them out thanks to equal parts GU and elation. There was a smattering of cheering at the finish for number 80 of 200, but I wasn't there for them.. No, it was pizza on my mind. I snatched a couple of slices and lay down near the shelter while proceeding to feed myself vertically. The second finisher from my group arrived about 40 minutes later, which was just enough time to eat, change, recover hydration, and phone for a ride from the others who had called it at the halfway point and procured a ride back to Winthrop.

A couple of beers back at the cabin, and I felt like an overcooked noodle after another day on gravel.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Reality Bikes

One of the bi-monthly Build Nights

Volunteering alters my reality. Whether it's a roundtable of Tagalog-speaking grandmothers named Madrea, Carmen, and Marta de la Cruz who are not Latino but Philippine, or an immigrant family doing everything right to be adopted by a country that apparently only wants to collect their taxes, I am confronted with unending streams of life that change my outlook. It's an endless construction project.

The consistent revelations come from the simplicity of not being in control of the variables of interaction. For Senior Lunch at El Centro de la Raza, the Day Worker's Center at Casa Latina, or the Tax Preparation Site in Lincoln and Seattle alike, the human palette presented you is not of your own making. I find this to be among the most deeply satisfying elements of serving in the myriad volunteer roles I've taken, where the breadth of interactions acts as a catalyst to inform my understanding of people and their lives. I've often felt politically powerless in the last 15 years but have always known that my time and little life could be utilized to affect positivity within my block, neighborhood, and city. I've not sacrificed the macro but have added the micro to it; with it I've discovered a thousand times the satisfaction and a large percentage more empathy.

Tonight I volunteered at Seattle's The Bikery, a humble space that serves as a hub of education and empowerment to get people working on their own bikes with confidence and skill. We have tools, work stands, some knowhow, and loads of good vibes for the DIY person for whom bicycling is both transportation and lifestyle. I run the shop on Monday nights, keeping the doors open for the handy or aspiringly-so person who could walk in with anything from a flat tire to a completely worthless drive train. We work together to figure out what is wrong and decide if they would like to fix here. If they are up for it, I proceed to place tools in their hands and show them (with the occasional YouTube clip) how to make the necessary adjustments. Even those who enter thinking we are a bike shop and will do the work to bill by the hour are happily surprised they will learn to do it themselves instead.

Winter is slower, but the problems never cease. Tonight there were a Spaniard named Ariel, a woman who's been by before, Anna, and a homeless man I met this week, Ian. Ariel didn't know that I knew he was from Spain, but I could tell seconds into our conversation, and when he said "I am from Spain," I threw out a "Ya lo sabĂ­a." My experience as a bilingual person produces no greater joy than connecting with a person in their language. The transition is always fun and sometimes awkward, but the seconds between when my interlocutor hears my words and their realization that not only was I responding to the conversation, but had done so a) in their native tongue and b) with such clarity that they didn't even notice we'd switched languages. He blinked a couple times, looked down, then back, and said, "Oh, you speak Spanish..? I wouldn't have guessed." Ariel needed to overhaul his drive train tonight by replacing a rear derailleur, cables, and truing his wheels. He did excellently and was mostly on his own by the time Anna entered.

I worked with Anna a month ago on a rainy night ahead of her 10 mile ride home. The Bikery is about one mile east of downtown, so we capture riders from all backgrounds (and foregrounds). Anna was impressive the first time she came to The Bikery; she is quiet and cautious but obviously has a knack for mechanical things, whether she would believe me or not. On her first visit, she fixed her brakes and drive train and stated at the end, "I feel like I know how my bike works now. I can't believe how easy it is to make small adjustments! I thought it would be so complicated." Tonight, a small shifting problem is easily resolved, but then we tackle a brake caliper that won't open completely. After a few approaches, which she patiently attempts though they fail to produce a result, we try disassembling and rebuilding the caliper in order to clean it thoroughly. This solves the hour-long puzzle and sends her on her way content and powerful.

"I found this bike in a tree." The third visitor of the night is Ian, a homeless man I met last week at REI. If I remember correctly, he came into the store for a new tube. We got to talking a bit, in part because security was watching him, and it became apparent that he has some mechanical interests. I told him about The Bikery as a place to use our tools to do repairs if needed, and when he opened the door tonight, I was happy to have remembered his name. We replaced an exploded tire, realigned his brakes, and set his wheels up in the truing stand. He undertook each task with his own set of tools, which he dug out of his backpack one by one to lay out like a baseball card collection. I thought to suggest he simply use our tools from the wall, but a quick realization caught my words when I thought of how important my own tools are to me (you want to use them when a chance presents itself!).

Ian's tree bike has a pretty cruddy chain, and I offer to lube it for him, which I do as he continues to work on his brakes. He's talking about how hard it is to maintain that chain, how it gets loud within days and that I shouldn't bother. I tell him it's supposed to be a dry week and so at least for this week it will be quiet. He relents and mentions something about sleeping outside and how hard it is on bikes to always be outside. He says, "It's so nice to have a work stand like this. I don't have to hang it from a tree to work on it." "Yeah, I know," I think I am identifying with him, "I have a pipe that sticks out of the wall in my garage. This is so much better, though."

My mouth hung aghast. I couldn't believe myself and the nakedness of my complaint of discomfort while simultaneously underlining my comfort to this man's face. I used the words "my garage" as a point of commonality with Ian, and I felt some kind of social vertigo as I teetered on the precipice of the layers of economic strata between us. The casualness with which I equated his difficulty and mine..

Ian gathers his things as he prepares to leave, and I find a Theo chocolate bar in my bag, "Want to share this chocolate bar?" It was a meager concession, but we crack and devour it together. He thanks me for the new tire, getting his wheels trued, and the brakes, and I thank him for stopping by and expect him to be by soon to change out some cables on his rear derailleur and brake. We share a handshake and bid each other farewell.

The Bikery closes doors on another night; the cranes are high over a reality under construction.