During our trip up and across the USA in year one of our travels, we were blocked by snow in the Sierra mountains. Now, after what feels like an eternity of riding in stupidly hot temperatures, the inevitable has happened. We are blocked by fires. Ahead, the town of Mitchell has been evacuated, as thousands of acres of forest have been engulfed by fire. Dry lightning, and I have seen estimates of 6,000 strikes, came across Oregon five days ago. Many started fires, and it is one of these that is blocking our route.
It is one thing to find your way around a road closure in a car. You do not mind a bit of doubt about your route. On a bike, you need to know. There is not enough information to plan a detour and no advice we can find. The obvious route takes you a hundred miles out of our way. A shorter way looks possible, but it is impossible to find if it is open.
For what feels like weeks now, we have been getting on the road as early as possible to avoid the heat. Some days it got just too hot to ride and we had to quit short of where we wanted to be. Back in Cambridge, we were up at just after 5.00 am. Problem was, I had been up since just after midnight worrying about getting up at 5.00 after 2 hours of sleep the bikes are loaded and we are out into the cool dawn.
It is 69′f which I would love to last all day. It will not and the arm warmers will be off within 5 miles. Already I know I am having a bad day and the legs will not respond. I make the first climb, and there is a swooping descent that is fun enough. We are entering ‘ Hells Canyon ‘ and I am struggling on even the most gentle of climbs. This is not a good place to show up with anything other than your best game. Sun bleached mountains, some still holding the last of the snow, climb steeply around us. We are biking in a cleft in the landscape that holds the Snake River. It has been turned into reservoirs by high dams at several points. It is still, green with depth and not even slightly inviting.
The road rolls along one edge ,and then passes over the dam wall. On the other side we are in Oregon our final state before the ocean and our final time zone. We need to make a pass to go any further, but there is a campground at Oxbow Lake. We draw a line under a poor day in the saddle and pitch the tent. Sitting in the shade I start to wonder how we are going to continue if it is too hot to bike every day, this is crazy.
We are up early again. It never feels early enough when you need time to cook breakfast and pack. Straight onto the climb that we should have done yesterday and we are back into Hells Canyon. There are already small fires burning unseen over the horizon. A smudge of blue sits across the vanishing point of the road. Up we climb, taking the curves towards 6,000 ft for the first time in a while. I think I can hear water running. The leaves of a tree are so brittle with sun they are chattering in the wind. 6,350 ft and we reach the top of the climb and catch the breeze a little.
The descent is breathtaking and the road surface good enough to let the bike have it’s head and gather speed. There is a very distinct green area around the town of Richland where extensive irrigation allows a crop of hay for winter feed of the big black cattle raised here. This valley that we have dropped into is hotter than where we were. On the descent I can feel the air burning my legs. The tarmac is once again starting to bubble under the tyres as we ride.
We sit on a bench under the shade and have a think about things. This is impossible to ride in, and now a strong headwind has got up. The worst of the canyon are ahead and there is no camping bail-out. It has been a short day, but that is the end of the riding. There are times when I think this blog lacks drama. We do not have mechanical issues, broken spokes by the dozen, dehydration and doctor emergencies. Few things drop off the bike and almost nothing has ever broken. We make decisions like this – we stop here and camp, stay safe.
There is a 40 mile stretch to Baker City that can wait for the cool of the morning. We ride to the municipal camp spot at the end of town and make endless cups of tea. Dozing in the shade, we are both worrying about our slow progress towards the coast. Hells Canyon tourist pitch goes like this – ‘ We named it Hells Canyon to keep people away – not you, other people ‘.
We pick up Powder River as it cuts along the base of the Canyon. We are as ever, on the road early to get some cooler miles in. We have 40 miles to do and none of them are easy. There are more than enough dead snakes in the road to keep you focused. By 10.30 it is hot and the wind is beginning to build. We would not have managed this yesterday and would have been in a bad and possibly dangerous place.
It is a hard 40 miles with a grind up a few nasty sharp hills. Baker City can not come soon enough. It is quite a shock. One of the biggest urban hits we have had for quite a while and the temptation is to stay. We compromise with a long sit in a cafe with good coffee and cakes. One bonus of all this heat and dry is that I have not been bitten by a mosquitos in a long while, but that is the only up side that I can think of.
We have a climb of 20 miles, and try to judge when we can leave to manage this in the slight cooling of late afternoon. It is so nice just sitting here and chatting with people. People say that there is forest and shade ahead and that the campground is in trees. This feels impossible and neither of us can quite remember when we had forest last. We are both excited at the prospect.
We set out again after 4.00 pm. I click the gps and can see the symbols for forest ahead. This is all too good and too impossible and rather easy to get wrong on a gps map. When you think of Oregon, you have an image in your mind of unbroken green of forest which we can now tell you is wrong in the east. Up ahead we can see trees. It is true.
The campground at Union Creek is also over 4,000 ft, and we sleep with just the bug net under sharp pin pricks of stars. A great sleep and a morning cool enough to need a hat as I get the porridge underway. There are three climbs ahead for today, every one of them is steep and goes up to over 5,000 ft. There is nothing better than a good night in a tent in a cool forest under a Spielberg sky, and we hope for many more.
9.15 and the first of the passes done already. Ahead, that worrying blue smudge in the sky is getting darker, more defined and much more worrying. A cyclist stops to tell us that he had to take a lift in a truck and detour way,way,way,way north. We get the next climb done and start to descend. Then the trees vanish. Ahead is the town of Prairie City, so I think we could have guessed. We are back in the backed landscape that I am afraid to tell you, we now hate. In the town there is talk of 140 mile detours and the town we planned to pass through – Mitchell has been evacuated. Our road ahead is closed with no opening planned. We have a problem.
We book a hotel in the town of John Day to have some air-conditioned comfort to think about things. Google map is not too helpful, but a real paper old school map shows a possible short detour. Trying to get information about our options from the WWW. is impossible. We are stuck, so close to the end and can not go on. We take a day off, with promises of cooler weather rolling in and rain possible. The thought of detouring to the north into mountains is horrid. To the south is not much better unless we can take a short swerve around the fires. We sit in a cafe with air con and I write the blog. Every time we go outside we shake our heads. I have no idea how we ride in this heat, no idea at all, we live in Scotland for goodness sake.