There and back again: rediscovering the American West
It is difficult to overstate the vastness of the American West; it contains high mountain ranges, stark and expansive deserts, and thousands upon thousands of square kilometres of majestic, remote forestland. To get to it all, one travels by highway. Wide roads, four lanes or sometimes more, with full-width shoulders on either side. On a bicycle, the highways are a necessary evil, more often than not the only passable route from one locale to another. But the backroads, once you reach them, are wondrous.
The state of Oregon alone contains ten National Forests—land protected and managed by the federal government—which cover an area roughly equivalent to twice the size of the Netherlands. Within these lands are several volcanoes oriented north to south within the Cascade Volcanic Arc, which begins in California and reaches all the way up to the Canadian province of British Columbia. These National Forests, and their kin, the national parks of the western United States, offer phenomenal terrain for cycling. Our route would take us into one of them: Mt. Hood National Forest.
Our trip began in Portland. We left early, after meeting for a quick coffee, trying to get on the road ahead of the heat and its steady summertime zeal. Groups of runners and the occasional lone cyclist dotted the river path, as we worked our way out of the city, following the gentle curve of the Willamette River and passing by the numerous bridges that span it, connecting the two halves of the metropolis. Soon, we were on the outskirts of town, and a few sleepy residential streets gave way to a pleasantly shaded rail trail that shot due east, punctuated only by a set of posts at each crossing. We chatted comfortably, excited for the day ahead.
It’s a peculiar city, Portland. It’s home to phenomenal food, lovely parks and public spaces, and cars parked on every neighbourhood street that look as though they haven’t moved since the 70s. And some of them haven’t. ‘Keep Portland Weird’ is the unofficial slogan, and bumper stickers with this mantra can be found plastered everywhere, on signs, cars, and shop windows.
It’s always satisfying to witness a city gently give way to its sprawling suburbs, which then unsnarl into smaller and smaller town centres, until the kilometres start to stretch out a little more between each homestead, until, all of a sudden, there’s nothing at all.
Before we reached the nothing, though, we found ourselves surrounded by undulating farmland and barns in various states of disrepair. We’d ride by one with fresh paint and shiny roof panels gleaming in the sunlight; the next would sag on its haunches like a giant skeletal horse. Most of them seemed to fall somewhere in the middle. These roads are particularly enjoyable on a bicycle, as good as any I’ve ever ridden. We took turns on the front, with the riders tucked in behind tasked with birdwatching duty. I saw red-tailed hawks, several bald eagles, and scores of busy thrushes, warblers, and sparrows darting among the farm-fields and perched on fence posts.
Oregon is home to a special kind of steep, winding road with heavily shaded tree cover and clean pavement that makes descending a joy. A rider who knows these roads well might manage to ride the descents with little braking, but for us, every corner was a mystery. In the high mountains, switchbacks do not often deviate greatly from one to the next. These tight, forested roads offer no such consistency. One curve might be gentle and wide; the next might sharply double back. If you miss the sign warning you to temper your speed, you’re very much out of luck.
Once, feeling confident on the front, I set up on the outside of the road for an aggressive line through the upcoming corner only to realize that I was carrying twice as much speed as it could handle. I was saved from what would have been a spectacular run in with several massive oak trees by the very timely appearance of a dirt driveway shooting off from the apex of the turn.
I took a more conservative approach after that. The quiet forested roads led us further east into the steep, carved canyons of Mt. Hood National Forest, until we found ourselves on the flanks of the mountain itself. The gradient never gets very steep; it is the long kilometres of gradual, grinding uphill that make these climbs difficult. More Alpine than Pyrenean, though not quite to that scale, every section is a challenge, and round every corner is another false flat, leading to yet another long, sustained, shallow grade. The heat began to wear us down, as the hours of climbing ticked by, and our conversation slowed to match our pace.
Slowly, we worked our way higher and higher until we reached the pass, where we paused for lunch at a ranger station. Cans of Coca-Cola, potato chips, and sandwiches roused us somewhat, as did 20 minutes of sitting in the shade. We talked about everything and anything, completely comfortable with one another after a full morning on the road together.
Then began the descent. Back on the highway, we had 30-odd kilometres of steady downhill to enjoy, losing hundreds of metres in elevation. Long straight roads, with aggravating kick ups every few minutes, provided just enough of a change to deaden our momentum. The downhill was something of a reward for the arduous ascent, but also very much tempered by fatigue. Tucking for minutes at a time is cramp-inducing, and any lapse in concentration would be catastrophic, with massive trucks zooming by on one side and an angry-looking guardrail on the other.
Finally we found our way back onto quieter roads and were rewarded with smooth, sinuous tarmac and several miles of silence, tightening our little group and allowing for conversation to return, along with some ribbing for foibles on the downhill.
Like much of the American West, Oregon is host to a great many gravel roads of the sort you might see on Instagram, captured beneath a creamsicle-hued sunset. And while many of these gravel roads are a joy to ride on, during mid-summer, the accumulated sun and dry days render the road surface so dusty and loose that it takes on a different feeling altogether. Instead of riding on the road, you are riding in it, struggling to get through it instead of across it. It’s the sort of road where no matter what you’re riding, you always wish your tires were 5 millimetres wider. We tasted gravel a few times, each successive section requiring us to dig a little deeper to make it through to the other side.
In those last 40 kilometres, I felt the telltale signs of hunger knock, only to be saved, minutes later by a rural convenience store, seemingly willed into existence by our depleted state. It seems every one of these establishments is staffed by the same sort of cheerful, middle-aged woman and has the exact same tired, grey-flecked tile floor. It was glorious. We bathed in air conditioning and replenished our pockets and stomachs with salty, fatty things and sugary, ice-cold beverages for the final push.
The road continued. Just as I was about to run out of steam again, we happened upon a Hawaiian shaved-ice stand, incongruously tucked into a tiny farm town. It was so sweet and so cold that I couldn’t finish the whole thing, but it fully replenished our morale. From there it was only a few easy, shady kilometres to our destination, a big old barn with a lawn for pitching our tents and several large willow trees keeping the cattle fields at bay.
We drank beer on the grass, still in our bib shorts, and shared close calls and low moments from the day’s very full, very hot 210 kilometres. Later, I fell asleep on top of my sleeping bag even before the sun went down. When I woke up several hours later to empty my bladder, I was so transfixed by the stars that I didn’t want to go back into my tent. The cool summer air and complete lack of light pollution meant the stars reached down all the way to the valley floor. There is still some wild left here, it seems.
We got on our bikes the next morning and headed west again, over Mt. Hood by way of a different mountain pass, all the way back.
Cover photo: Adam Kachman