Saturday, June 30, 2012

Crossing Washington On The JWPT - Day 2

The plan for Day 2 was to ride another 50 miles, from about mile 65 on the map below to about mile 115. What distinguished this day's route was its remoteness - no towns, no known water sources . . . nothing but harsh, rocky landscape until maybe, if we were able to log the miles, we would reach the town of Lind, towards day's end. If that were to happen, there was a bar and grill there, at which a beer and a burger might be available. Never in the history of the world has a more worthy goal existed. After dinner, we would pedal 10 or so miles out past Lind and find our spot for the night.

What actually happened was that despite a tremendous amount of work, we pedaled a mere 35 total miles and covered just 22 miles of the actual JWPT.  The green line running from east-to-west on the map below is the JWPT and the orange path over it is our 22 miles of actual progress. The orange off-trail loop to the south is a detour we took around a section of the trail known as Cow Creek. (The vertical green line, BTW, is the Columbia Plateau Trail, another abandoned railbed that subtly beckons me and will probably host another of my excursions at some point.)

Here's how the day went down . . .

The previous night we'd been in a bit of a hurry to find a place to pitch camp, because it looked as if a storm was rolling in, and pretty quickly. The storm never really materialized, but it was obvious that something was changing, weather-wise. Clear skies greeted us on the morning of Day 2, along with a breeze.   It was coming at us from the west, but hey, who doesn't love a breeze? We were one with nature! Embrace the elements! What's not to love???

That trestle in the distance is the Columbia Plateau Trail.

For me, a significant part of the allure of riding the abandoned Milwaukee Road is at least a mild fascination with railroads in general.  One of the things that was a surprise to me is how intertwined the dead and active rail lines were out here in no-man's land. On multiple occasions while riding our ghost rails, we'd be watching and listening to living trains on one side or the other. It was a pretty badass sensation.

The pictures I've posted so far don't really do justice to the surface of the eastern-portion of the JWPT, but we'd been getting bounced and shaken around pretty hard over the last day-and-a-half and now it was getting serious. It was also starting to feel pretty damned forsaken. And did I mention that the breeze had turned into what one might call wind.

As if on cue, images of death began to appear. This poor fella was lying right in the middle of the trail. A not-so-subtle reminder to us city-dwelling would-be adventurers that this wasn't a game. He was sustaining a whole eco-system of flies and maggots, so his death was not in vain. And in some way, it was a consolation to know that there was no longer the possibility of ending up on the business end of those gnarly fangs.

. . . or have to worry about a shredding from those claws. Which had been widely separated from the body. No man's land, man. I'm here to tell ya.

I'm a hundred percent sure I would never have noticed this if we hadn't chanced to take a rest stop right next to it. Even then, I almost didn't. It's a deliberately-formed pile of rocks with some fading fluorescent orange spray paint scrawling on the side.  I didn't capture the text very well with this shot . . .

. . . but if I Photoshop the light way down it's a little more visible. If you still can't quite make out the text, it's 'RIP'. So yeah, a grave, right off the side of the trail. Seriously eerie. I spent a long time while there and as we pedaled on down the trail, and even now, thinking about it. Somebody went to a hell of a lot of effort to bury something there, in order to protect it's body/carcass from becoming a free-for-all to the animals in the vicinity. It wasn't big enough to be the grave of a horse. And the only other creatures I can think of that would fit this amount of effort and size of grave would be a person or a large dog. And while it's possible, it's hard for me to think about a person being buried this way, in this day and age. Not that it would be particularly bad, but just that I think that it's unlikely. Maybe though. I guess I choose to believe it's a dog, whose best human friend wanted him to have a place where he could look out over the fields where he once helped tend to the cattle. It's a more convenient and comfortable conclusion for me that way.

In direct contrast to this somberness, the beauty of the wildflowers couldn't be contained.

Meanwhile, the road seemed to be getting rougher. And the wind was getting windier.

There's a section here that isn't supported by photos. I'm having a hard time believing it myself, as I've become such a PITA shutterbug. But I guess things were getting kind of serious in terms of our situation and I must have been pretty occupied by it. So I'll just describe this next part then, until the pictures pick up again.

We were getting kind of, but not anywhere near desperately, low on water. And we were approaching a section of the trail known as Cow Creek. Cow Creek is marked on the maps that the state sent me with my permits as 'impassible'. I'd done the recon on most sections of the eastern portion that I thought I needed to know about to make the trip a success, but somehow Cow Creek had eluded my consciousness, slipped off my radar. Eric, however, had ridden through it in August of last year, from west to east, and was telling us that it was quite a bushwhack. He suspected that in June, it might be pretty swampy, and therefore even more work. I've been embarrassed to tell you this until now, but my bike and gear weighed 100 lbs (yes, I know it's obscene, but it's fact), and Scott was towing a trailer that was a bit of a challenge through the rough stuff, and Eric was thinking that the decision to plow through Cow Creek may not be the best one. Scott and I were listening.

We were at the crossroads of our decision to continue on the trail or bail out and try to detour on roads at the town (?) of Marengo (nothing there except a grain elevator . . . no houses, no faucet, we looked). It's a surreal memory for me though, because at Morengo, the JWPT and the active Union Pacific line converge and the train that you saw a few pictures back was stopped there, presumably to wait for another train down the line to get off on a siding, and it was just sitting there, watching us make our decision. It was getting seriously windy at this point, so it took some commitment to fight our way down a path we weren't sure of, but we decided to get off the trail and try a road that showed promise. A mile or so down this road and we realized it was gonna dead end. Damnit.  Back to Morengo.

Another road led out of "town". To our credit, we were ever the optimists and followed it. Was it ever a beautiful, smooth road. But was it ever looking more and more like it was turning from a somewhat public road into a somewhat private road that led into a ranch and faded into a field. Maybe it went on and remained a road that would lead us on our detour, or maybe not, which meant more backtracking. 'No Trespassing' signs abounded. Our water was getting pretty low. Lovely. We stopped there for a long time and deliberated over our options. The two different maps I had didn't show enough detail to help. Neither did my GPS. Risk is not a bad thing, but going forward seemed to contain just a bit too much of a not bad thing.

We could always get back on the JWPT and take our chances at bushwhacking our way through Cow Creek, but it had gotten windy as hell and we'd expended a lot of energy and time on trying to figure out a detour and did I mention our water was getting low. What our maps did show was that the active Union Pacific line would lead us to roads we could identify on our maps and which would lead us back to intersection with the trail, at the tiny town of Ralston, on the other side of Cow Creek.

With 20-20 hindsight, I'm not sure it was the right decision. "Riding the rails" seems like a swell idea, until you actually try it. It's brutal, and after a few hundred yards of experimenting with riding down the center, riding to the right, riding to the left, we all pretty much resigned ourselves to walking our bikes down the tracks. For 3-1/2 miles. Longest damn walk of my life.

And I'm sure that there are many places in the country where there is no such thing as shade, but for us Spokane-dwellers, it's a given and suddenly we were in an environment where there was none to be found. Oh wait, sorry, there was an occasional rock cut where you could lean against one hot wall and get part of your body out of the sun. Did I mention that it was one windy bastard of a day and that my water supply was almost exhausted, and that I was so freaking elated that I had chosen to spend my vacation this way.

Our live rail journey finally, mercifully, ended, only to dump us onto a paved road that would climb for the next 2-1/2 miles, straight into the bitch of a windstorm that had developed. No one in the history of the universe has ever ridden a bike more slowly than I rode my bike up that hill. Flipping you the bird, mother nature.

Eric was leading the way, and then Scott, with me and my hundred pound turd bringing up the rear.  At the top of the hill, was the only tree within a thousand mile radius.

Not a word was spoken. Instinct took over. Eric pulled off. Then Scott. I was only too happy to follow suit. It was a spontaneous kindergarten-style group nap in the dirt under that tree, with the wind beating the hell out of us all the while. We were burnt toast.

The realization that we weren't gonna reach our planned destination had set in hours ago; we were more focused on figuring out a way to use what little energy we had left to get to a place where we could hunker down. Fortunately, Eric had toured through these parts at some point and remembered that there was a small memorial park in the tiny town of Ralston. Our new destination then, about 5 or 6 miles away. But Eric and I had fully depleted our water supplies - bone dry. And then miraculously Scott pulled out a full half-gallon bottle of good, clean, energizing Spokane water that he'd been hauling in his BoB. He filled our bottles and all manner of hope was restored.

It seemed like it took one hell of a long time to get there and I guess I will never forget the last stretch, which was several hundred yards on a flat smooth dirt road. Eric was in front of me and I would watch the gusts of wind and dust twist and surge down the road towards him and then hit him and almost knock him off his bike, and then continue down the road toward me, where they would force me sideways to keep my balance. I vowed to keep my speed at 5 mph, but lost my battle of wills with the wind when my speedometer showed 4.8.

When we finally arrived, it was such an oasis. A mirage, maybe  There is no such thing as grass in these parts, no such thing as trees that break the wind.

And certainly no such thing as cold, clear water that runs from the ground!

There was no euphoria, no celebration of any kind that we had made it. We just existed there. Fried eggs were we. Mostly feeling like total crap and  too wasted to eat, I was just about trying to rehydrate and recuperate. We were zombies, just doing what we had to do to ride out the windstorm. Camping there was probably not permitted, but we had no option and we were so grateful for this place. If anyone had confronted us, we'd have just told them that we didn't plan to be there but that we honestly didn't have any other choice, and hoped for their understanding.

Despite everything that had happened during Day 2, or maybe because of it, what was most profound to me was that we were taking refuge in a park that existed due to the ultimate sacrifice of some guys who had been raised in and around this tiny town. As I read the memorials, nothing that we had done that day seemed very hard, or worthy of note even, and at once I felt very honored and privileged and grateful to be staying in this place.

Day 2 Ride Stats
35 miles
6:14 saddle time
5.5 mph avg
16.1 mph max
105 total trip miles


Tom V said...


i'm loving your adventure. i have to put my pugsley to good use and plan some similar trips. i think you should add "the wonderful ride" by george loher to your list of riding. parts of the story will sound familiar. it's available at amazon though out of print. maybe the library.


Tom V said...


i meant. . . reading list. . .

Hank Greer said...

Pat, I hope you plan to publish an ebook of this adventure. This is so worthy of a single compendium.

John Speare said...

Glen had a great idea for you: hit up the chamber of commerce for a given state and tell them you'll do a remote tour and write it up. Dream job: everyone wins.

Btw -- perhaps one of the best sentences I've read this year:

" No one in the history of the universe has ever ridden a bike more slowly than I rode my bike up that hill."

Wileydog said...

Great report on a difficult day. I was glad you got more pictures - I lost interest in picture taking somewhere past the junction with the Plateau trail and wished I'd forced myself to take a few more.

Andy D. said...

There are few adventure articles that I've ever seen that are as well written and documented with as fine of photography as what you've done. It's one thing to write about the route or review equipment; it is quite another to have a layer of transformational introspection in accompaniment.

Pat S said...

Tom, thanks for the tip on the book . . . . I'll check it out.

Hank, thanks. I've not done an ebook and the blogging is so time-intensive that I'm not sure I'll have the energy left over to tackle something like that, but I'll check it out.

John, that't classic Glen, awesome. I think I finally know what I wanna do when I grow up.

Scott, I know the feeling. I would have taken more if things had been better; glad I shot what I did. Those memories are worth preserving.

Andy, thanks. I really appreciate that.

Unknown said...

Holy crap...was that a badger?

Pat S said...

Phil, that's my guess, based on google-imaging "badger teeth".

chillwill said...

First..Thank you! Amazing trip you had and taking the time to share is super appreciated.

"Cow Creek is marked on the maps that the state sent me with my permits as 'impassible'."

I called and only received a crappy map showing only the western part of the JWPT.

Where do I find the maps and permits you speak of?

And thank you again in advance for the many more questions forthcoming. We are planning to ride from Glacier to Seattle to Santa Cruz the fun way, most likely following your route. Truly beautiful! And maybe good practice for Patagonia someday

Anonymous said...

Reading this like it's a novel! Thanks for the excellent write-up and "everyman" observations and performance. I may do this trip with my brother this year, fingers crossed! Thanks again for the time and effort into posting this, it's still helping folks and fueling dreams years later! -Craig

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