I rose earlier on my second full day of riding.
After the first fat bike excursion I decided to stay entirely on the paved road for a day. I skipped the first two gravel miles from my camp and parked on road 207, Fairview Campground. FYI, this would be a great place to camp for larger groups (larger than one). There is a tasty spring, pit toilet, and camping for 7 or 8 cars.
The morning was chilled at 4,300 feet. Thunderstorms in the late night and early morning had come close to snowing. A smooth belt of dense silky clouds clung to feathering ridges, tapering to blue skies in the distance. Evaporating above the valleys. The breeze wasn’t crisp. It was humid and cold, but the sun had promise on this third day of Summer.
A nice way to start any day is 12 miles of near continuous downhill thrill. Road 207 drops in switchbacks and contours with big views and tight forest, drawing out on a lazy desert floodplain and quick schlep over to Spray, the mysterious John Day River running alongside.
The forest was drenched with moisture and I was cold too. The previous afternoon I had been overheating on my climb back to camp and now I was worried about potential frost and ice. A road bike is not friends with frozen. Ice hurts.
The drop was exceptional except for my reserved fear of speed. A few clearly dry stretches were fun past my pedaling maximum speed. That is fast enough in a wreck.
Big long fast downhill runs are good for focus. At its best you are present. At its best you end with a feeling, but no memory. It is one moment. On this morning I found that space below Kahler Basin Road when 207 pops out of the forest and onto the high desert south facing slopes. The air gets warmer quickly and threat of frost on the corners is gone. Time to open it up all the way down to Spray. Time to get lost in a moment and fall another 1,400 feet vertical over six miles.
At the John Day river I slogged the last three pleasant miles up to Spray for my first break and a coffee. The sky was abnormally bright with residual water vapor.
Downtown Spray, Oregon is roughly picturesque and set gently above the quintessential Eastern Oregon river known as John Day. Spray is low desert deep in the core of high country. A large portion of Eastern Oregon is at or above 4,000 feet. Spray is under 2,000 feet. I started the morning at 4,365′ and alpine conditions. Now an hour later by bicycle I am sipping a coffee in the warm summer sunshine.
Spray is a tourist hub for a variety of activities. It has long been a destination for hunting and fishing, but the growth of cycling and OHV use have brought more attention to this spectacular natural area. Watching the coffee steam quickly evaporate in the arid warming air, I realized that I should get rolling soon lest I have to climb back up to camp in the blazing afternoon sun on south facing slopes of the Blues above Spray.
Caffeinated, and fully hydrated too I began the easy day ride to Kimberly. The John Day, in spite of the road, is wild and scenic to my eye. I love ranches and I am finding compassion for power lines. I’d like to see them all underground if there is a long-run, but for now I celebrate infrastructure in my work.
There are many nice places to stop along this stretch of road. More or less anywhere you want on a bike. There is a nice shady rest spot with a pit toilet and picnic bench about 6.5 miles east of downtown Spray, roughly halfway to Kimberly. I passed it by, keeping going into the mild head wind that blew warmer with each passing minute. At Kimberly I hit the pause in the air and would fight the headwind on the way back too. It is a good fight.
The folks who run the mercantile in Kimberly have an orchard too, and sell their dried apples. Out here you have to have a few jobs. Eastern Oregon is sparse with people who find a way to stay connected to the land in spite of potential abject poverty. I would trade most of city life to wake in a landscape like this every day, but that is not my calling, and part of my soul would long for refuge not found here. Not found here for this turn in life. Klamath feels closer to what I find comfortable.
I ate some of the apples and had another coffee. I looked longingly up the road to Monument. It was only an extra two hours round trip, but would put my whole day at 75 miles which was certainly more than I was ready for on day two. Some day. Not today.
What splendor lurks up that canyon?
I will find out at another time. I am sure I have driven it once, but more than 25 years ago now, and I have almost no memory of it. Nothing that discerns it from other canyons in this part of Oregon.
In the saddle again I rode west against the breeze as it is sucked up the river into a vacuum of space created by the sun. Sun now rising to it’s altitude potential for the year more or less. A little lower than yesterday, but higher than tomorrow. Every day with less light. For a while.
On the way back I stopped at the rest stop bench for a bit. Took a few pictures and wrote some notes I will probably never read. The river was brisk with a side of swift current so swimming seemed dangerous, and I don’t like to be wet anyhow. I remember feeling a bit low here despite how physically healthy I was. I should have been in my element, but it felt like I was reaching for something. For months I was moving with urgency toward some great attractor that had pulled me without much effort through what I perceive to be successes, but others might view as a mid-life crisis. It pulled me here.
Part of that pull was stamina goals, and a 300 mile week on bicycles fit that description.
I had no real plan beyond that for the structure of how to rebuild my life without the use of my back. I hoped that the ride would help me ruminate an answer from my sub-conscious.
Somewhere in cadence there are a lot of answers.
I was deep in cadence on the grade up to my camp. The section of road was a long, straight but steep mile or so of 207 as it climbs from the valley floor into the first foothills. On climbs I will often keep my head down, the music up on my headphones and stay to the right. Hope for the best. Out on these roads I foolishly trust that the lack of traffic is to my advantage.
On this climb I got thirsty in time to notice a big motor home coming down the hill far in the distance. I took a sip and looked back at the mountains southwest of Spray. Looking forward again I noticed that the RV, now much closer, was drifting into my lane. For some reason time became almost stalled, but I did not, and was able to calmly albeit swiftly move over to the soft shoulder as the RV was now almost entirely over the hard shoulder and my lane.
I was (really) only a few feet away from the vehicle when I picked up a strangely familiar vibe. I had an odd but comforting feeling that I was with friends.
The elderly driver was going more than 70 in passing by me, his wife sitting oblivious or perhaps lifeless next to him. Even at that speed, with time slow like it was I could see nothing aware through his big black rectangular polarized driving glasses. Just hollow in the face.
It wasn’t the glasses that gave me a vacuous feeling. It wasn’t the atmospheric vacuum now pulling lots of hot air up the slope.
It was just the feeling that death was near in some way, but so was other. I guess maybe the two ride together.
I watched the diminishing beige box hug the edge of calamity until they were almost out of sight and appeared to have found their lane again. They were so far away it was hard to tell.
In the ten more miles up to camp I started to realize just how close to death I had been. If I had not been thirsty I might not have noticed the RV until–well, ever.
My quest in Spray had an accidental nudging moment of grateful appreciation. I am grateful to be alive, but some moments certainly make me notice just how much more grateful I should be.
I found my bed just as comfortable as I had the previous day, but my mind was more confident. Like I could do what I came to do, and that felt pretty good as I fell on an afternoon nap. My mind needed it. In the coming days I would realize somethings about my mind-body relationship I had not known before, and the rest of the rides were essential to those lessons.
My soul was not tired. It was thirsty.