9/25 – 9/30
Shortly outside of Bend we have to get on Highway 97. It is our first taste of a divided highway. The shoulders are full of debris, although you can usually meander through it. A pickup truck drops a wooden box which gets hit by a semi and explodes. All we can do is hope we don’t get hit by the shrapnel. We stop at a forest service office to inquire about camping and a young man warns us that we are heading into Republican country and they may not take kindly to vagrant liberal cyclists like ourselves. I consider explaining that our travels have taught us that kindness and hospitality do not appear to be bound by politics, although it seems like a fruitless endeavor.
Eyebrows raise whenever we mention La Pine. “Not really a place worth going to, but I guess it’s on the way…” they all say. From what I can tell there is only one radio station there and it only plays Billy Idol. We get the usual smiles and inquiries from good patriot men and women while at the grocery store and continue onto Highway 31 where we find a forest service road with a nice camping spot out of view. The forecast said it would be in the low forties that night, but I can tell it is much colder. My fingers start to freeze as I try to write in our tent before bed. Coyotes howl as I lay down.
“Are they dangerous?”
“No, they never attack people.” I had no idea whether or not this was true, but it felt true and I didn’t want her to lose sleep over it.
I wake up with my nose frozen and roll over to warm the right side of my face. Eventually the other side is freezing and I need to roll over again to warm it. This goes on until six in the morning as the temps start to rise. Surrounded by ponderosa pines, the crisp air smells like butterscotch. My water bottle is frozen solid and I need to set it in the sunlight to thaw before taking an icy drink. We’re both agitated after a sleepless night and I ride on ahead to get some time to myself but remember we have a long day and circle back to block the wind for Soph.
The scenery truly turns to desert. I had no idea Oregon could be so barren. It dawns on me that we will be in this unforgiving stretch of sand well into Mexico. That might mean 2000 miles. Golden waist high grasses and bright yellow rapeseed. One tall climb and then an endless view and our destination 3 miles ahead down a twisting road into desert scrub with one thousand foot red and white candy cane banded sandstone temples to our right and reservoirs and lakes dotting the ground below to our left. Behind us, the last bit of comfortable riding that we will get for a long time.
We think we have the perfect place to camp in a little rest area across the street from a shop, but then realize we will get hit by the sprinklers. We decide to cook dinner and then put our tent closer to the bathrooms, but as the winds shift there is a sewage smell all around. We find a little clearing behind a church with a much better view. As it gets dark I see a faint glow behind the mountains to our east that resembles the orange burn of sodium street lights. It doesn’t seem like there could be a town large enough out here to put that light out though and a few minutes later the moon begins to rise over the silhouette of the peaks. We pause from setting things up to watch.
On Thursday we somehow ended up riding 77 miles into Lakeview. The first 30 into Paisley were easy but the road climbs from there to Valley Falls and we got hit with 10 mph head winds.
Valley falls is a one horse town whose racing days are long over and you are just waiting for somebody to come in and put it out of its misery. The gas station appears to be the home of a hoarder whom we apparently woke up when we walked in. We ask for water and she directs us to a hose out back which, nestled among dusty four wheelers, a minibike, and some cat litter boxes, dispels a thought-provoking orange sludge.
It was full sun and 88 degrees out. Dry, desolate, dead. Little towns every 30-50 miles, all dead or dying. We search for a campsite in Lakeview near the city park and a retired public pool. Old man Harl originally from Detroit sits at the picnic table. 80 years old with too big shoes, 12 teeth, and 15 cats. A little black one with white feet walks by and he pets it, “hey there socks.” Says if we were closer to his camp he would get us a can of beans. Slender, but strong in that can’t kill a vagrant kind of way.
We end up camping under a little blue pavilion at the county fairgrounds. There are warm showers and brown tinted drinking water available. We decide to celebrate the luxurious accommodations by taking the next day off to plan our route through Nevada. We’re starting to realize that water will be a major problem if we are not prepared.
The diamond in the rough of Lakeview is the Lapidary shop across from the fair grounds. $4 breakfast burritos and free coffee.
I work on the route from a coffee shop while Soph procures a small blanket that we have decided is necessary after the cold night. I ask for a glass of water and it is brown. “Is safe to drink,” the little Mexican lady tells me with less than complete confidence. “I think it just have manganese in it.” I add some lime flavoring to it and it turns a weird brown green and I just think back to mixing all the flavors of Kool-Aid as a kid.
You have these visions of California in your head. The coast: towering waves of Big Sur and Mavericks. Endless fields of grapes. Sprawling and never ending Los Angeles. San Francisco tech aristocracy in wooden houses on big hills with little streets. Oakland, the promised land. Compton, the primordial stew of West Coast hip hop. You think of all this and you think of mopping the floor of the bar when you were 24 and at 4am when it is all done you play tracks 7 and 8 from Led Zeppelin BBC sessions disc two. “Going to California” and “That’s The Way.” You listen and you taste the salt spray of the waves in these visions.
As you ride down the 395 from Oregon. You realize that there will be no waves. No sweet smell. No Birkenstock clad hippies eating strawberries in lush fields. Flanking your right is a shallow alkaline lake that has receded so much in the summer heat that you would need to traverse a quarter mile of sun cracked mud stone to reach the stagnant swill. You pass a settlement with no more than 50 inhabitants every 20 miles or so. At the border there are the remnants of an old building that may have been a general store fifty years ago. Today it appears to be somebody’s storage unit for car parts and faded National Geographics.
In reality, I had no expectations for this section. Until just a few days earlier, we hadn’t even planned on passing through Cali. Originally we thought we would cross into Idaho and through northern Nevada. For various reasons we changed plans at the last moment. As Central Oregon quickly turned to an arid dustbowl on the fringe of the Great Basin I knew the Golden State would follow suit.
Sandstorms allow you to see the wind. You realize it is the entanglement of so many different systems. Watch it come and hit you like a slow motion punch.
College gameday at little mercantile/post office/burger joint. Festivus and buddy Jesus on the fridge. Would love to just sit on a couch, drink a Budweiser, and watch football today. It smells like football out there, or I am just imagining it?
We ride through 30 mph winds for over an hour. Soph loses it. Somehow I pedal through it and don’t seem to be expending any energy. The gusts almost knock me over in narrow canyons, but it feels like a fun carnival ride. They push me around and I push back and scream and grit my teeth and shake my fist. White knuckled on the grips. Sand blowing into my eyes I get my sunglasses out despite overcast day.
Alturas is a shithole. Lakeview was a shithole, but Lakeview had pride and was a great shithole. They’re out there cleaning themselves up and trying to be the best shithole they can be. Alturas is dead. Given up. Hacienda hotel guy rants politics at me. I couldn’t get a room price out of him. Forest service guys say, “Whatever you do, don’t stay at the Hacienda. I know it’s cheap, but don’t.” Issues with nefarious characters breaking into rooms and robbing people. Empty Best Western. The Niles, once grand, but not bike friendly. We go to the police station to ask if there is a place that they won’t bother us for camping. All the doors are locked but I ring the intercom.
“Yeah, umm, funny question. We rode our bikes from Alaska and now we’re here in Alturas. I don’t really want to pay for a hotel and am just wondering if there is anywhere in town that the police won’t mind us camping.”
“Hold on just a moment.”
Next to us is a large bay door with bars separating it from the outside world. Degraded men sit inside wearing black and white striped jail suits. I thought those clothes were only in the movies. Strange women roaming around outside, likely there to see their boyfriends. They overhear me and applaud our efforts.
“No, sorry. We’ll arrest you if we catch you camping.” I take a look at the men behind bars. “Trailside motel it is” I say to Soph. It’s a parking lot with good clean rooms albeit overpriced.
The next morning Soph uses the continental breakfast bar as a grocery store and we make sure to get our money’s worth in breakfast sandwiches for the rest of the day. My understanding is that the English word for this is “Pikey.” The wind is low. Quick 20 miles into the town of Likely. There is a bar that actually appears open on a Sunday and we decide to get some water.
“hmmmmmmm, well, that’s a problem,” The owner said, scratching his grey and balding head. “See, I had her tested and it came up bad. I can go to my house though and get you some.”
“It’s not that big of a deal, we can make it to the next town.”
“It is a big deal, you’ve got 80 miles before you get water. Come inside, sit down, and I will get you some.”
We went inside the place. It looked like it hadn’t been open for years, although he said it was open every day except for Mondays in the winter. Old white clap board on the outside. Crooked step through the door. Bottles covered in dust and what appeared to be the light off a police car in the middle of the floor. We brought in some bagel sandwiches. Tom had completely forgotten about the water and lit up a cigarette while we ate and told us about all the famous people that had come through. Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson to name a few. We realized that we had been kidnapped and that there was no water and got up to make an awkward exit.
“Oh Oh Oh, you need your water still. Honey,“ he clapped and waved to his wife who was quietly cleaning dust off the bar, “run up to the house and fill the water jug for these two.” She looked confused and annoyed, but complied. We moved the conversation outside and into the sun. Tom told several more.
“So how many people live in Likely?” Soph asked.
“Well, they say sixty I guess. Hard to tell with those Mexicans though. You go knocking on their doors and they sure as shit aren’t going to tell you how many are in there.” I raised an eyebrow in disapproval, but my guess is that disapproval of such statements is unheard of and the signal wasn’t received. “Damn hard workers though. Only people that will come out here to work the fields anymore.”
We made it to the Ravendale BLM fire station. There is nothing in Ravendale except for a BLM fire station. They let us fill our water and use their shower. We rode a few more miles and found a place to camp on the side of the road.