“We didn’t go so much to the south
As to the west
Following the hills
Beating the bad
Greeting the good.”
-Gary Snyder “The Route”
I found myself thinking about that Gary Snyder passage while I lay on an old pew in the basement of an old church in Mitchell, OR trying to find sleep. Routes can be random or maybe relative, I reckon. But what I did figure that night, is that the route for this years New Belgium Ramble Ride was anything but random.
Day 1 found a ranging group of mostly strangers converging on the small high desert town of Prineville, OR. Loads were lashed to bicycles, breakfast burritos were consumed and we were off and rolling towards the distant mountains. The first day, like all subsequent days, was a mix of everything weatherwise; sunny and warm in Prineville, then a cool breeze, then a steady drizzle climbing up into the Ochoco National Forest. We arrived and set up our afternoon camp and by the time I had my tent set up, we were treated to a full on hailstorm. These weather patterns would turn out to be a foreshadowing for the entire trip. The weather certainly encouraged a bonding of strangers, as we were all in this together, for better or worse.
By the nightfall the temps fell, the mood was relaxed, food and conversations were rich and warm. The beer flowed freely. The night echoed with laughter and our fire lit shadows danced into the darkness of the forest.
Dawn seemed to come too early for me on Day 2. My stomach was in knots as I forced down oatmeal and fruit. My fingers froze packing up the frozen rain fly of my tent. We knew of the 70 or so miles we needed to cover, so our small riding group loaded up and rolled out early. The first miles were mostly downhill, and allowed us to get back into the rhythm of bikepacking; the rhythm where you can tell yourself “All I Have To Do Today Is Ride My Bike.” A half dozen creeks were crossed, our feet froze. Gradually, almost magically, the ponderosa pine forest yielded to sagebush and juniper. The forest became rolling range land, pock marked with volcanic rock.
At Ashwood we shed layers and started to climb. And climb. For hours, in fact, all we did was climb. But the views were stunning and the cool breeze was consistent. By this time, our little group had been ground to dust and scattered on the wind. I ground slowly upwards, alone. I longed for frozen fingertips as the sun baked my shadow into the gravel crunching under my knobby tires.
At about the midway point on the day, near the highest pass, we were offered the salvation of cold drinks, peanut butter sandwiches and the soothing sounds of the E Street Band drifting from a van stereo. In the shadows of a long abandoned ghost mine, we convalesced, regrouped and reconnoitered.
Before us lay the vast John Day River basin, and beyond The Painted Hills. The next hour was spent wrestling our Joad-like steeds down a swooping, rock strewn descent and across the dusty frying pan of the valley floor. Goat heads stabbed at our tires. Flats were fixed in the scrubby shade of junipers. Onward we pushed as the miles melted away. The weather had turned against us once again as we climbed into the Painted Hills. I turned every pedal stroke with a wince, as my knees reminded me of my age and lack of form. But the view from the top was stunning. From on high, the ochre seemed to melt to maroon and then to green. The wind redoubled, and distant thunder rolled. It was clear we needed to move or risk being caught by a desert thunderstorm.
Rolling into Mitchell, after a full day on the bike, I was shattered. Upon arrival at the finish lot I sat gingerly on the ground next to my bike and leaned against the chain link fence. A new friend placed a cold can of beer in my hand, and a few frosty sips later, my world came back into focus. That night I had no taste for campfire, or camaraderie, only for warm food and sleep. Both of which I found in spades curled up on the aforementioned pew in the basement of the Spoken’ Hostel.
Day 3 dawned with sunny promise. My mindset was rosy, but my joints ached. After a welcome hot shower, and more hot food everyone seemed optimistic and ready to tackle the last stage. Small groups took off at staggered intervals, after our rider portraits. We all knew and dreaded the biggest climb of the day came first, and we set into chipping away at it right away. All morning the clouds rolled thru. No one, it seemed, could ever get their clothing layers correct. Many stops for gear adjustments, and whisky, became di rigour as we climbed. At last we connected with ride director Peter Discoe where the route turned off the graded forest service road and turned to a rough two track as it climbed jauntily off, and up, into the dark woods. NF 2630, or “Summit Road” as they call it, climbed up into a darkening hail squall. I pushed as much as pedaled. Survival became the prevalent theme.
Here again I pondered the route. “Were we on the right route?” also “Who in God’s name made this route?” and lastly “I hope this is almost the top of the route.” The route turned out to be correct, and wonderful beyond words. Soon we topped out, and again were rewarded by peanut butter sandwiches and a van in which to warm ourselves. Though there were still 30 some miles left to ride, as I put on all of the clothes I’d carried with me to descend to Prineville, I knew the worst was behind me. Descending from wind-swept vistas above 6,000 feet, we were soon again enveloped in Ponderosa pine forest. We wound and dropped for miles before spilling back out onto Highway 26 for the 25 mile slog back into Prineville. By then again 20 some odd miles, and having climbed nearly 12,000 feet, I had to make deals with my body. “Get me to that barn, and we can have a Gummy Bear.” Then “Make it around that bend in the road and we can stop for a minute.” Each moment was a tiny skirmish in my mind. Psychological Warfare on a microscopic battlefield.
But soon before arriving back in town, our small riding group had found each other on the wind. We limped in together, and devoured BBQ from a trailer the moment it came into view on the outskirts of town. Finally, we rolled back into Prineville for hugs and high fives and beers at Prineville’s Good Bike Company.
An hour or two later the suffering had been relegated to the recesses of our minds. Over a final huge meal of steak tacos and canned New Belgium beers the climbs all seemed a little easier, the views all a little more breath-taking. The laughs were all a little louder, and the desire to sign up for the next Ramble a little stronger.