The last month has been unique. I've come to think of the Cascade as a series of paintings painted on top of each other. The final ones were profoundly disturbing both to me and probably to others. But it's unfair to judge by what we see on the surface, we have to peel that top layer away and look at what lies underneath.
As I spend my reflective moments and, more importantly, talk to others. I think this whole event was special in a profound way that I never expected going into it. In many ways, it was a watershed – an event of epic scope on a very personal scale. Without the last 24 hours, this ride was everything that I had ever hoped for and more. And perhaps it was that first 66 hours that should be what we all think of as the "picture". The first 66 hours are, after all, what led to me to make the choice I did at the end – a choice that probably saved me and others from some epic harm. What could have been a truly terrible end became an epic finish that was far more difficult than simply pedaling to a soccer field.
So this is the story of the first 66 hours of the ride.
I recall sitting at the Space Needle on June 23rd as the darkest part of the night began to transition into the daylight. If you have never seen the Space Needle, it is a little like looking at an art deco lollipop in the sky. Looking with my eyes, I saw a shaded spiral in the sky, when I tried to take a selfie with it, the light somehow reflected and turned it into a huge yellow torch.
It made me reflect at the time on the difference between what is real and what our eyes tell us is real.
Susan took a picture of me as I milled around waiting for 5:00 am. Though I had only met her the previous night, there was another Michele on the ride. I met and immediately knew who Michele Santilhano was by virtue of her Afrikanaas accent and I'll bet she hasn't run into many Americans who know that accent on hearing it. These would be the two people I would wind up being able to identify by voice by the end of the ride. I would eventually learn the voice of Bill Watts too, but not until after the ride was over.
And for me to know someone by voice is a really big thing. When you primarily know people by their voice (as people with prosopagnosia sometimes do), the voice becomes paramount – it's what makes a person distinct from all others, identifiable and real. As Bill said later, "I've been around on rides with you for years", but I hadn't ever absorbed his voice that made him "Bill" and not just another person in lycra shorts. For me, a few people on this ride went from being names and occasional posts to being "real", despite virtually never speaking to them or having any conversations - that's kind of impressive when you really think about it. Some people make impressions.
So we finally got to 5:00 am and everyone pedaled off. Big crowds of cyclists are still uncomfortable to this day, so I let the main pack go. We pedaled by the Seattle Aquarium which made me think of Kathy far back in Minnesota. She and I spent many hours there the last time we were in Seattle. The first miles were quite urban and really pretty flat. I endeavored to go 15-16 mph – it was kind of cloudy and the green of the trees was muted. Michele was riding next to me for some period of time. So was a fellow IT RBA, Michal Young who thanked me for helping him at PBP – I remember so little of PBP, that was kind of a nice add for the ride. The stretch along the Green River Bike Trail was another fun and interesting part, the Green River earns its name – such a lush and beautiful stream.
By and by, I found myself alone – though I saw a group of 5 or 6 only about 30 seconds ahead, I would inevitably get stuck by a car or a turn and could never quite catch them. I had plans to stop for food in Orting which I did. Michele was there with several others all grabbing food as the morning wore on. The sun was out by now and I ditched some clothes too. It's always nice when you can finally ditch clothes.
I was with Michele and another rider for a few minutes as the hills started and I began looking for birds; the scenery was stunning. I don't get to see lush pine forests very often. Perhaps being from far away gave me a bit more curiosity and wonder about things that others must literally see every day. They eventually disappeared (I would see them over and over at almost every control), I could always tell it was Michele by her red jacket or her voice. I wonder what parts of my rides others would find fascinating?
After Eatonville, the hills began. But it was a nice day and I grabbed something very quick and got back on the bike. I played hopscotch with several people through here, the air was very clean here and my lungs were amazingly clear, as they would be for the entire ride - having no asthma for an entire 1200k was a serious blessing. I really wished I could have smelled the trees and the air. But it still had that coolness that I associate with the white pine tree that used to grow at the house I grew up in. I would see rocks poking out here and there, probably granite or another volcanic rock.
At Ashland, I grabbed a little more chocolate milk and stretched my legs before continuing up Skate Creek Road. I love Skate Creek Road, last time, it was the only road where it was sunny, but this time it would be the only time it was raining. Not a really hard rain, I only stopped at the top with another rider to put a jacket on to make the rain stop. And I did the descent without my glasses which turned out to be a horrible idea. People with double vision need their glasses if potholes are present…
At Packwood, I made a quick stop again seeing Michele. Really, it seemed like she was always popping up but I never did really have a conversation. Maybe some other time.
I left alone pedaling my way along against the wind for the first time but in the sun to Randle. I'd done this section in reverse the last time, this time was different in the way that doing things backwards so often is – totally different and yet the same. The next control was at Cispus which was the start of the part of the ride I had never been on and was the whole reason for coming!
I can say that I wasn't really expecting a big hill going to Cispus, but the GPS started randomly telling me I was off course which was totally bizarre but I eventually found out is common. I really wish I could still read cue sheets sometimes. At Cispus, there were some very nice volunteers with an assortment of food and drinks. We were about to head up Elk Pass so I was sure to eat a bit here. It was along a very pretty stream. I took some pictures, but I remember the sounds of the stream most of all, it must have rained previously and you could almost still hear the rain in the bubbling of the stream.
After Cispus, the climbing was delayed for a few miles but started up soon enough. There were spectacular views on Elk Pass as I climbed and climbed. The road is narrow and twisting and almost utterly without cars.It was the kind of climb that if I lived there, I would enjoy. No wonder western riders are better climbers. I recalled Susan telling me that the climbs in the Cascades were not harsh, you just put yourself in the lowest gear and spun up. So that is what I did. I think it was the first time in a long time that I started to enjoy a climb. I was almost sorry to summit. Perhaps because of the few emails we exchanged beforehand and perhaps because we both seem to share a few struggles, Susan herself was sort of omni-present on this ride in a way that the organizer usually isn't. There were certainly many aspects of this ride and the way it was laid out that I suspect reflected her philosophy and perhaps personality.
At the top, I paused to put on my jacket since now it was getting a bit cooler, probably closing on 9 pm. Another couple of riders were there as well, but they descended faster than I did and were soon gone. As I zoomed down the pass, the sight of Mt St Helens greeted me like a giant, sleeping hulk that stretched across the horizon. With the sun descending, it was almost ethereal, hanging on the horizon. I thought about how tenuous something even as large as a mountain can be.
At Northwoods, a whole pack of people were there.I had my first Ramen Noodles of the ride, which would turn out to be my very favorite thing to eat on the ride. My speech always decays quickly at night and I could tell right away it was off – that made it a little hard to be with others I didn't know; you can look terrible in our sport, but if you sound bad, I think it makes others uncomfortable. At this point, it was probably 10 pm and only 40 miles to the overnight. Of course, Oldman Pass was first! We had been warned that Oldman Pass was the more difficult of the two passes.
As it turned out, I loved Oldman Pass; I did the whole thing alone. The moon came out nearly full. At one point, I stopped the bike to drink and just looked up at the moon and noticed there was an owl in a nearby tree looking at me. It sat there peering through huge eyes and I tried to peer back with equal interest. I wonder what it's like to be an owl living so far away from everything. The stars were kind of muted by the moon, but I'll bet they would also have been spectacular. I finally had to peel myself away, I had a goal of getting to the overnight by 2 - which I did.
The descent was one of those long and winding 30 miles at a relatively high rate of speed. When you go so quickly, you miss a lot of the little things along the road, but I was really wanting to eat and get some sleep so I cranked along. Still not traffic and I got a little cold and made a mental note to see about some more wind protection for later in the ride. My knee warmers were good, but not quite good enough for the 40s.
I passed someone on the way out heading up to the control at the high school. Darn, putting a nasty steep thing right at the end wasn't going to help me with getting sleep. At the control, I made my way through talking as little possible. Even though the people there were aware of my difficulties, it's still frustrating to not be able to communicate. I should try writing when I'm tired and see if that works better. A super nice woman whose name I really never heard really helped me out here - I think her hair was grayish, but that is all I can remember. I ate a Mexican thing and a bunch of recoverite, skipped the shower (score, can't smell!) and headed to sleep for a couple of hours.
I got up and out the door about an hour before close. Again, there was Michele probably 3 minutes ahead of me. But I left alone and enjoyed the morning air and the sun rising over the river. The Columbia is one of those great American rivers. One that seems to have a life of its own. I had ridden in this area on a Cycle Oregon a few years before. This route followed some of the same roads. I had really enjoyed them on the tandem with Kathy and I enjoyed them almost as much alone as the sun continued to warm things up. The Klicktat River is really a wonderful ride and some nice rando left a whole box of donuts to share. I really don't care for donuts, but I ate 3 and filled up my front bottle.
The final climb out of Klicktat is long and winding and beautiful and a heck of a lot easier on a single bike than the tandem I'd done it on with Kathy years ago. At the top, Mt Adams greeted me unexpectedly. I'd totally forgotten this viewpoint and it was super thrilling to see something old and new at the same time. The last few miles to Goldendale were quick ones.
At Goldendale, there was Michele and a bunch of others, she actually came up and asked me something. I was getting ready to respond, but we got interrupted and I ran inside to grab food quickly figuring I could finally ride with some people. In my rush, I made a mistake too. I grabbed random close food (having no taste is a rando-superpower, you just grab whatever has lots of calories, nothing ever gets more or less appetizing). I ran outside and everyone was gone so I ate everything in record speed (ice cream bar, coke, juice, box of salty crackers, candy bar in about 4 minutes). Jumped on the bike and sprinted after them.
About 15 minutes later they were in sight, but alas the kryptonite of the superpower rose up like a horrible evil. If you can't taste, you also can't tell when something is ROTTEN. Pretty sure that Naked juice was expired – I thought back and recalled the color being off. I had a huge stretch in front of me with heat and no water. I absolutely could not afford to throw up everything. So I stopped and stood there for about 10 minutes breathing deeply and sipping water to keep it down regardless of the cramping and burping (at least I can't taste or smell that). Back on the bike and I slowed a bit to make sure it stayed down. By the time I hit Badger Gulch I was starting to at least recover. But then I was pretty much out of water…
I was a darn long way to the water stop. I seem to recall stopping for another stomach rest and silently thanking Susan for putting extra water on this climb. Just before the water stop, a tandem came up behind me. We arrived at the stop together. Some ice and more water finally cleared all the badness out of my gut. Thank goodness!
The next few miles were a lot easier and I got to Bickleton for a milkshake, V8, a package of ham and some other random things. The owner of the store had actually opened just for us so I gave her a $20 tip – some acts of kindness just deserve buying dinner for someone.
About 6 people showed up shortly afterwards. I went ahead and enjoyed a rollicking downhill all the way to Sunnyside. At this point, it wasn't dark and the hills were like big, golden waves in front of me. Not a tree in sight! I stopped with the tandem at Sunnyside for a quick bite but left alone wanting to get going a bit faster. Still uphill to Hanford.
At this point, I realized that my dynamo-powered taillight wasn't working. A DNFing rider passing by in the opposite direction loaned me his and a guy rode up behind me. His name was Ty and this would be the only continuous time I spent with anyone else. As much riding as I do alone, riding at night alone is not something I do lightly. I was happy to have the company for once.
We continued on stopping for a bit of water and food at Vernitas and got on to Mattawa. I did the climb out of the Columbia River strong, that hill had literally ripped my hamstring off the bone back in 2010. At Mattawa, there was almost no wind and we had a sandwich and a coke.It was about 1 and my goal of getting to Quincy at around 4 was intact. There were a few puffs that got us rolling.
At the river, we turned and the wind accelerated. For a few miles, we played a bit of tag with it, ducking behind various trees, cliffs or other structures. Wind is notoriously bad in this area. It became difficult at times to overcome the gusts. Lightening started hurling itself through the sky above just to the north – bigger lightening than I have ever seen outside the killer storms of the Great Plains (think about where Dorothy was from).
We were very close to the turn on a short bridge when suddenly the wind literally picked up my entire bicycle - both wheels left the road. I couldn't really do anything but try and clip out and start yelling – though I'm not sure how well I was heard. I started coming down on my right side with one foot sort of down and the bike parallel to the ground. I came down onto the pavement rather hard and jumped up to get going. A wall of sand blew in and suddenly I could barely see Ty who was just a few feet away. Getting off the bridge sure needed to happen, but the push of the wind was so great it was all I could do to not fall over. These were 50-60 mph winds and who knows what the terrain was doing to focus them right on top of us.
We sat there trying to stay upright for a few minutes and suddenly flashing lights appeared behind us – I mean they just "appeared". It was a state trooper. He had to get out of his car to actually talk to us and wound up literally providing a wind break to help us get off the road to a tiny post office just on the other side of the bridge in Beverly - which we did at about 2 mph. I asked about the road to Quincy thinking we could probably get up there and be better off, but he shook his head, "rain is heading in", this storm is going on for miles, you need to stay off the road while its dark. I did call Susan to try and have her contact Mattawa – sending more riders down here was not going to work well for them. I'd have rather avoided someone being run over if I could do anything about it.
So I texted Susan my picture and Ty and I had a 2 hour sleep stop in the post office. Really, it was super quiet despite the wind. We came to about 4:45 and it was at least light. We started out and made okay progress despite still ferocious wind, passing another fallen rider huddled by a guard rail on Beverly Burke Road. I also realized at this point that the inner seam of my shorts was ripped and that my shorts were full of sand. Can't tell you how good that felt for 30 miles. I don't think anyone noticed the ripped seam. At least let's hope not.
I'd never actually seen this stretch of road in the light and actually, it was really cool. You could see some big mountain or volcano – maybe Ranier? - off in the distance. Finally we descended the ridge to George and the wind finally ended – and we accelerated to about 18-20 mph! Ty was desperate to stop in George and I can't say that pants full of sand wasn't a real motivator for a bathroom so we stopped for a Red Bull and the restroom. I texted ahead that we were super close. My eyes were kind of trashed and reading anything up close was next to impossible. That was going to stay with me for the next day or so. Maybe clogged tear ducts?
So we got to Quincy at exactly 8:30, but we were still in. Someone came up to me and said something like, "you are really hard core". I kind of didn't know what to say. I was starving and literally ate everything put in front of me by various volunteers whose names and voices I can't even begin to remember. My ears were full of sand too. I did also wind up eating a whole bunch of things that I probably should not have. Any legume almost always trips off an autoimmune flare in a couple days, but at the time I figured if I could keep it down, I'd deal with that later – looking back, not the best decision…
We rushed and were out the door with food, a shower and someone loaned me another rear light (I have no idea who, so if you are reading this and want your light back, let me know). And it was off to Ephrata and Farmer.
The entire way to Ephrata was a little funky and I wound up needing to stop for some anti-acids but the climb out was really nice and civilized and pretty fun! I hadn't ever seen this part of the ride and the wind was nasty but tolerable but we seemed to clip along pretty well. The sun was out again and that really made me feel like the night before was receding. Moses Coulee reminded me of some of the pipe organ rocks that we keep at home in various aquariums - I'd never seen this before and the blue sky made it all the more spectacular. The climb out straight into the wind was less fun and the truck to Farmer had quite a few cars but we finally arrived and that was good.
Last time I had done the ride, we went to Mansfield instead of Farmer. Ty and I both had some noodles, said hello to Susan and friends and continued to dig dirt out of ears. There was at least one bike behind us – a tandem and I'm not sure how many others. I wasn't really very interested in other people's rides at that point. The wind was pretty strong, but at this point it was a cross wind, I don't mind crosswinds at all. In the Great Plains, we have lots of cross winds to deal with.
At this point, Ty and I sort of split up. He needed a restroom and I went on ahead. The wind became a non-issue/friend in a few miles and I positively flew into Bridgeport. A few more hills and I finally made it to Malott with Ty catching up just as we got to the control. We had regained time on the clock, at least a couple of hours in the bank.It was about 8:30.
I had a ridiculous cramp to work out in one of my quads not to mention the after effects of the sand in my shorts. I had a sandwich and a bunch of my own food and a tylenol. I just let Ty go figuring I needed to give the food and Tylenol time to work - I think secretly I really didn't want to have my speech decay again in front of someone - the storm had covered it up the night before. Loup Loup had been a climb I had enjoyed on the previous Cascade, though it had been about a 3-4 hour affair.
So I left the control and gradually worked the cramp out of my quad. After about 5 miles it was totally gone and I started climbing in earnest. There were quite a few cars to start with, most of which were going insanely fast for the tiny road we were on. Or maybe it was just optics. The dusk fell and the brown gave way once more to pine trees and the moon emerged….
I think the next couple of hours were possibly my favorite on the entire ride. The reflection of the moon on the rocks was spectacular – the forest transformed into a fairyland just for me. Not a soul except for the various animals which I would hear off in the woods. Owls and the occasional bird, little rodents would run alongside the road from time to time. The light of the moon was almost like having a more subtle sun out and I could see so many little details that I'm sure I missed back in 2012. I'd stop for 30 seconds at a time and do a gel or some of my super maple syrup blend. It wasn't terribly cold but I slipped a couple plastic bags down my sun warmers quickly not wanting to take the time to fully dress. I think for the first time ever, I really, really enjoyed climbing in a way I hadn't ever before.
And then the truck slowly came up behind me, passed, stopped and started watching….
For me the real ride ends right here and that is how it will always need to be. The following 24 hours are something that I will never be able to really put details to on paper. More people know those details today than I ever would have intended. I hope perhaps those people can also read this post and know that this ride was in fact my favorite 1200k ever – and it was MY RIDE in a way that no ride has ever been before. There is an endlessness about it that is both hard to internalize and externalize. I saw spectacular things and met some really great people (whether I can recognize them again or not) and I wound up with a real friend in Bill Watts, who I will see on my first Indiana permanent in a week or so. I also found out that I am not the only one that isn't so comfortable with our modern obsession with texting. I've had some conversations with people like Bill, Michele, Deb Banks, Lisa Nicholson, Julie Gazmararian and even Susan herself that made this post possible – a month ago, I never thought I would be able to write it.