Life on Two Wheels

Jason and Terri cycled into the campground in the early evening. We noticed them right away as they circled the loop in search of an open site to claim. Cyclists have antennae that hone in on other cyclists. I suppose it’s like Harley motorcyclists we see, who wave to other Harley riders as they pass on the road.

“They are loaded down, like us,” Barb commented as they whizzed by. We were already cleaning up our dinner dishes and preparing to walk the loop before retiring for the night.

We were three days out from Anacortes, Washington, starting at sea level, on our first long bicycle tour. We hoped to cover 1800 miles over the next month or so. We were newbies to bicycle touring, filled with excitement for the adventure that loomed ahead of us.

We stopped to chat when we saw them setting up a tent on the opposite side of the campground. Jason was a tall, blond, fit looking guy and his wife, Terri, with shoulder length auburn hair, greeted us with a big smile. They were on their first bicycle tour too; only with much more ambitious plans. They were going from the West coast to the East coast and gave themselves the entire summer to cover the 3800 miles. In talking, we realized we were following the same route, at least as far as somewhere in Montana.

We left them with the comment, “Maybe we’ll see you tomorrow along the way.” We wished them safe travels and headed back to our site in the Diablo Lake campground.

We were early risers, believing in getting most of our day’s mileage done by mid-to-late afternoon. That day, in the North Cascades range, we faced two mountain passes, which would test our legs and our lungs. I tried not to think ahead to the five passes in four days that we had planned. These first two were enough to solidify my focus. The steep uphill grades demanded quadricep muscles that pumped like pistons. The task at hand was to get over the two summits in one day and camp somewhere on the other side of Washington Pass.

We each carried sixty pounds of gear. Our silver-grey packs, were attached over each wheel, front and back. They held food, clothing, tools and first aid supplies. Bungeed atop our racks, over the rear tire, were sleeping bags, mats, tent parts and a spare tire for each of us. The high elevation and the 6-7 percent grades required a grit that ignored the pull of gravity, ignored oxygen-deprived muscles and urged us to stay in the lowest gears, pedaling round and round.  I found myself counting the poles on the guard rails we passed. It distracted my mind from focusing on cars that passed a little too close, on the road’s sharp curves and on the relentless up, up, up of the climb. Starting at 1200 feet in elevation, I gritted my teeth and pedaled hard. Finally we reached the 4,875-foot summit. Seeing the sign for Rainy Pass gave me a feeling of accomplishment, tinged by the knowledge that we still had unfinished business. We ate a lunch of nuts, fruit and chocolate in the cold air at the side of the road. We were halfway done!

Snow filled the woods at the top of the pass, sending a chill through us in spite of the sweat we generated on the ascent.  We dug heavy North Face jackets out of our packs and put them on. Washington Pass loomed ahead of us at an elevation of 5,476 feet. Of course, the highway dropped down from Rainy (rats!) before it pointed to the heights of Washington Pass. An RV site on the web describes this section of road as a dangerous, bad road. I wouldn’t argue that point. We braked hard on the downhill, then pushed even harder on the climb. We set small goals.

 “Can you make it to that big fir?” Barb called back to me. “How about we go for fifteen minutes, then take a rest?” She rode in front of me as the stronger cyclist but checked in with me frequently. We didn’t walked the bikes; they were too heavy for that! Throughout the day our mantra prevailed. Just keep the pedals turning!

Once there, we didn’t linger at the Pass enjoying the victory of the moment. Rain had started when we were on Rainy. How appropriate! It made the prospect of the downhill ride a scary challenge on wet, steep and curvy pavement. We put on our yellow rain gear and stiffened our spines. We had an urgent need to get down the mountain and off the road as quickly as possible. My fingers ached from squeezing the brakes on the steep ride. Rain dripped off our helmets and into our eyes as we hugged the edge of S curves and sped downward.

The sign for the Early Winters campground was a heart soothing sight! We pulled in just as the rain tapered off. We split up the chores. Barb set up the tent, while I got some dinner cooking. The smell of macaroni and cheese wafting into the damp air was the reward for our day’s effort.

We kept an eye out for the young Oregon newlyweds, expecting them to arrive at any moment. We went to sleep that night disappointed, when they didn’t show up. Our best guess was that, being younger and stronger, they had gone on past this campground to Winthrop, a town about ten miles further down the road.

The next morning we dragged our feet getting packed up. We don’t know why, as we usually were up and out by seven or eight a.m. at the latest. It was closer to nine o’clock when we walked our heavy bikes to the campground entrance, prepared to hop aboard, get our feet on the pedals and go. Much to our surprise, we saw two figures on bicycles hurtling down the mountain toward the campground. It was Jason and Terri!

They saw us and pulled off the road into the campground entrance. Both were shivering and clearly upset. It didn’t take much convincing to get them to accept our offer, as we wrapped them in our heavy jackets. Although it was early summer, we knew biking in the mountains required warm clothing. They had not prepared for that. I pulled out our stove and heated up some soup to get them warmed and replenished while they told us their story.

They had started much later than us, maybe closer to noon. On the way up to Rainy Pass, a huge black bear wandered along the edge of the road as they cycled past. Seeing a bear is a scary experience, especially when you aren’t in the shelter of a vehicle! They kept going as the rains began. By the time they actually reached the top of the Pass, a thick fog settled in and made it much too dangerous to continue going.

They decided to set their tent up in the snowy woods and tackle the downhill in the morning. But visions of the bear haunted them. Every snap of a twig in the surrounding woods had them on high alert. They were afraid to cook anything that might generate odors that would attract a hungry bear. They went to bed hungry themselves. They hardly slept. The fact that they didn’t have warm jackets or anything but a thin tent wall between them, the wind and dropping nighttime temperatures added to their misery.

By the time we saw them the next morning, they were frazzled. They shivered in the cold and considered ending their trip when it had barely begun. Jason, the biking enthusiast, had convinced his wife that this was going to be a great, fun adventure. Jason related all this, while Terri sipped her soup, looking downcast. She did wonder aloud why she had let Jason talk her into this. That frosty morning, she wasn’t buying the “fun adventure” of it. Not one bit!

Enter us. Two women, twenty years their senior, with warm jackets, cups of soup and words of encouragement. We were in the right place at the right time! After they warmed up and were ready to go on, Jason asked if they might ride with us “for a few days.” We were delighted to have the company. Little did we know that there were more “adventures” to be shared as we moved through the Cascades of Washington, across northern Idaho and on to Montana.

“A few days” stretched into almost two weeks. Our shared experiences included a walk-in clinic visit for Jason, after an anxiety attack. It included the discovery of dangerously worn brake pads on Barb’s bike right before tackling a potentially disastrous 8% downhill. We shared a hitchhiking experience, trying to get through major road construction.  On a lighter note, there was even a pie-making challenge in Idaho. But those are stories for another day.

We parted ways twice during those two weeks, but we always managed to meet back up somewhere along the route. What stands out in my mind is what happened following a lunch stop in a small-town restaurant. We planned to on to Glacier National Park, while they wanted a rest day or two, with friends in White Fish. Standing by our bicycles, Jason faced us, raised his hands with the palms towards us and in a serious, formal voice, he recited an Irish blessing, directing it to us. It was a moment I still treasure.

We thought we’d never see them again. But they surprised us in Glacier a few days later. We were using our rest days to explore the park. Back from a Red Bus tour, settling in our camp site, another biker yelled over to us, “Hey, there’s a young couple looking for the two of you.” Could it be?

Yes, it was! Jason and Terri. We reunited that evening with hugs and talk about our plans. The next morning, they were tackling the Going to The Sun Road leading up to Logan Pass. From there they would head east with the state of Maine in their sights once again.  We decided to ride with them to the top of the pass, carrying half of their bags on our bikes to make the ascent easier for them.

The road from Lake McDonald up to Logan Pass is a spectacular twenty-four miles, nineteen of up a grueling uphill. Breathtaking is no exaggeration. On a bicycle, with cars passing on your left, there is only an eighteen-inch wall to keep you from catapulting over the edge and tumbling down the mountain. It is nerve wracking for cyclists. Still, the anxiety it creates and the exertion it requires are overshadowed by the scenery, which is truly mind blowing. A bucket list experience. We hugged a final goodbye in front of the Logan Pass sign, knowing we had made friends for life.

BTW, we received a post card in late August that year. It declared, “We made it!”

We couldn’t have been happier for them.

Two years later we covered 2800 miles ourselves, going south to north across the US. Three years later we covered 3800 miles, going east to west across the US. Five years later we covered 2500 miles through Alaska, the Yukon Territory, British Columbia and Alberta, Canada.

Through it all, it was the people we met along the way that made the tours memorable. The Jasons and Terris, who began as strangers and ended as friends. There were the lessons learned along the way; the laughs and, yes, the tears that taught me more about myself than any formal schooling could have. For all this, and for Jason and Terri’s part in the early experiences, my heart is filled with gratitude. And for all you travelers, I offer the Gaelic blessing Jason offered to us.

May the road rise to meet you.

May the wind be always at your back.

May the sun shine warm upon your face,

The rains fall soft upon your fields

and until we meet again,

May God hold you

In the palm of His hand.

1 Comment

  1. Walks Across, This story simply reminds me that I have neither the courage nor fortitude for such an adventure, not to mention the other 3 adventures of “riding across!”

    Liked by 2 people

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