Thursday, July 5, 2012

Crossing Washington On The JWPT - Day 4

When you're touring with someone, there are days that you need to stick together, either because of the need for some kind of teamwork or mutual support or maybe because it's a particularly good day and it's just better if you can share it with someone. There are other days, though, when some space is called for. It's not something planned or verbalized . . . it's just that the day and what it's about as the events unfold becomes something very different for each person and it's important that partners are able to let go and let each other follow their own paths and fulfill their own particular experiences. Or as my friend Nate more elegantly and succinctly puts it, "you have to allow for a fair amount of elasticity". Day 4 was one of those days.

Starting out, we were way behind schedule. We were supposed to have made it to the Columbia River by the end of Day 3 and started Day 4 with an early morning crossing, followed by a climb through the Yakima Firing Range up to Ellensburg. And that was supposed to have been the whole plan for the day. Instead, we started the day in Othello, still 40 miles of high drama away from the river. To get back on schedule, we would have to pedal from about mile 140 to about mile 215 - no small task, considering the terrain, elevation  change, and unplanned events we'd facing.  It was important to get to Ellensburg for a couple of reasons: First, there was a master plan milestone that involved meeting Patty there - we had a motel room reserved and it was the scheduled midpoint regroup, recharge and refuel stop. Second, I was worried that if we didn't get back on schedule at Ellensburg, that the western portion of the trip through the Cascades, which I was really looking forward to, would be all messed up. So in short, a serious need to get to Ellensburg and the seemingly impossibly task of doing so. Something had to give.

For the first 25 miles of Day 4, we continued in detour mode. The tracks are still in place over this portion of the trail, making riding impossible. Fortunately, I had spent almost a full day of recon on this detour and had a pretty sweet route dialed in. The first 10 or so miles of which were along the lovely Bench road, which runs south of and pretty much parallel to the state-recommend detour route on bike-nasty Hwy 26. Bench Road was damned-near traffic free and it was a beautiful morning as we passed through the orchards and farmland, and we were just euphoric over the rapid progress (~14 mph) we were making on the smooth tarmac.

We did cross the trail at one particular juncture and were compelled to take a side trip . . .

. . . for the purpose of taking in a little railroad history.

Two lengthy sections of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (aka the "Milwaukee Road"),  were "electrified" between about 1915-1920 and 1975. One of these "districts" was between Avery, ID and  Harlowton, MT, and encompassed the section we now know as the Hiawatha Trail. The other was between Othello and Tacoma, and was later extended to Seattle. The districts were never connected, but together they accounted for 656 miles, making the Milwaukee Road the longest electrified railroad in the U.S.

What "electrified" means is that the trains were powered through these districts using 3000 VDC electric current from overhead lines, instead of burning steam or diesel. Substations were required to get this power to the trains, and what we had spotted  and wanted to take a closer look at was one of the few remaining substations.

Among other things, it's now a giant birdhouse (we freaked out several owls living there), with the poop and smell to prove it. But the history, while unpolished, is undeniable and powerful. What it would have been like to experience the electrical "hum" in this building when it was operating.

Almost immediately after leaving the substation and getting back on the road, we came upon one bigass feed lot. If you're a city-dweller, it's just not something you see very often. It was an awesome sight.

Bench Road eventually gave way to Crab Creek Road. We were absolutely blown away by this absolutely fabulous road with its absolutely stunning views in the absolute middle of nothing and nowhere. (That line across the hill just above my handlebars is the JWPT.) Things for us would soon be changing, but for the moment, we were in heaven.

As much as we'd enjoyed Crab Creed Road, we were happy to find our way back to the trail, because it meant that we were making progress. Once back on line, the trail seemed relatively smooth, which meant that maybe we'd be able to carry some of the momentum from the morning's roads onto the trail. Sweet.

And then, "Phhht . . . phhht . . . phhht . . . phhht . . . phhht . . ."

I remember reading an online account from someone who had ridden through this particular "section that is filled with goat-head thorns". This in no way prepared me for what I was about to see as I slowed my bike to a stop and looked down at my front tire.

Eric had been riding behind me and when he caught up, his tires were also leaking. He decided to see how far he could get before they were un-rideable and headed on down the trail.

I've never been through a flat event of anywhere near this kind of magnitude, but it didn't take any prior experience to understand that I wasn't going anywhere soon and so there was no need to get stressed out about getting back on the road as soon as possible.  It was gonna take as long is it was gonna take, and I might as well just focus in and get the job done.

For every thorn with the "head" still attached, there were 2 or three more embedded in the tire with the head broken off - literally dozens of thorns per tire.  Those with heads were fairly easy to pull out, but those without were a challenge and some wouldn't budge. So after extricating all that I could, it was also necessary to turn the tire inside out and use a knife blade to break off any remaining protruding sharp ends. And even after this, there would still probably be some embedded thorns that would work their way through the tire after the riding resumed.

I was running Slime in both tubes and both were pocked with green dots from the Slime coming through at the punctures; there was a fair amount of Slime that had escaped into the area between the tube and tire, as well. This made the tubes tough to patch, so I didn't even attempt it . . . where to even start. I did attempt to allow the Slime to seal the punctures by inflating and spinning the tires and I was actually able to get one of them to seal. The other one was toast though, and after several attempts at riding and re-inflating and hoping it would seal, I finally gave up and put a fresh tube in. All up, I spent over two hours sitting in the sun in the middle of the trail, working my way back to pneumatic health. It's the one time on the trip that I used the piece of blue closed cell foam as a sit pad and let me tell you that at this point, I was damn glad I'd brought it along. My beloved new cowboy hat took one hell of a beating though, because as I worked, some totally obnoxious bees pestered me past my boiling point and I lost my temper and used the hat as a weapon with intent to kill. This irrational process was anything but kind to the hat and I'm afraid that while the hat did finish the trip with me, this tour was a one-and-done affair for the hat.

I'd started the day knowing that it was pretty unlikely that I'd be able to complete the ride to Ellensburg. I had held out some hope, though, for as long as I could . . . it was really tough for me to accept the fact that I might have to throw in the towel on riding the entire route that I had planned. Until the mighty flat episode. There was really no choice now . . . Day 5 would was gonna be a tough one and if I decided to keep going and make some massive effort to ride on to Ellensburg, it would leave me with nothing in the tank and mess up any chance of salvaging the last half of the trip. So I was now resigned to the fact that I was gonna have to call Patty, and arrange for a ride from the river up to Ellensburg. I'd be bailing on about 35 miles of the trail. I was trying to be all philosophical, but honestly, damnit.

The disappointment over this though, would be dwarfed by the emotions I was about to experience. Cell service had been almost non-existent up to this point, but there had been coverage in a couple of places and at one of those, I'd received word during the course of Day 3 that my brother-in-law, Art, had passed away. He had been ill, but his death came much sooner than expected and therefore, as somewhat of a shock. This sadness, then, had accompanied me through much of Day 3 and overnight into Day 4. It was now woven into the fabric of the trip and will be an inextricable element and emotion of what I remember about it years from now.

As I now pedaled on towards the river, I picked up a cell signal again and received word that the funeral would be on Friday.



We weren't schedule to finish until Saturday.

I slowly processed this fact, not wanting to process this fact. And then I moved directly to my next emotion. I am embarrassed and ashamed to tell you that the emotion was anger . . . towards Art, for dying right now. I had planned this trip for over a year and it had been highly stressful trying to shoehorn it between a ton of stuff going on in my personal life and at work and it looked like I might actually manage to pull off eight whole days to get it done, until . . . Art goes and dies. Damnit Art!

An incredibly selfish moment, I know. Actually it was more than a moment, and it was more than anger. It was more like ten minutes and more like rage. I was by myself, in the middle of nowhere, and I took advantage of that fact to scream every obscenity in my vocabulary, and roll them as hard as I could across the fields and bounce them as hard as I could off the sides of the hills, while I rode on.

And then I was done. As quickly as the fire had flared, it was somehow extinguished. And I was once again a grown-up, and I set about accepting the situation and figuring out how to deal with it.

Juxtaposed against all the sadness and frustration and discouragement, was all the beauty and wonder through which I was riding. It was all so incredibly powerful.

While all of this was going on in my little world, Eric was having his own adventure. While I'd resigned myself to the fact that I would have to catch a ride up to Ellensburg, he wasn't anywhere close to giving in. He was quite intent on riding through, and was one of the reasons that he'd gone on ahead.  I'm not sure what all events occurred for him during the hours we were on our own, but as cell coverage resumed I received a message from him that he had reached the bridge and that it was impassible. By bridge, I mean THE bridge, the actual Milwaukee Road bridge across the Columbia River at Beverly. I couldn't believe even believe it, that crossing the bridge was now off the table.

Since no actual crime was committed, I guess I can now openly talk about the crime I intended to commit. The only law enforcement agency I can think of that can that can try and convict me on the basis of intention is the Catholic Church, and what's a little more time in purgatory, at this point.

There are very few alternatives for crossing the mighty Columbia near this route and I'd spent exhaustive hours researching and contemplating them all. And I mean exhaustive with a capital E, including multiple recon trips. Including considering buying and learning how to use a packraft. But no option is anywhere near as enticing as the actual, authentic, real bridge - it's so badass. Oh, did I mentioned that this bridge is gated and closed. I finally settled on this best and finest option when John and I made a trip to Seattle earlier this year and I coaxed him into side-tripping to look at both sides of the bridge on the way back to Spokane. At that time, the little portion of chainlink fence just to the left of the gates had been cut from top to bottom, and you could spread the fabric enough to get a bike through. This was the case on both sides of the bridge. External to the chainlink fencing was some barbed wire, and this had also been cut, meaning that even if the chainlink wasn't cut, there was still the backup option of swinging your bike and gear outside and around the fencing and landing it on the other side.

Trouble was, the chainlink had been replaced and the barbed wire had been re-strung. Eric was waiting for me as I pulled up to that which was not possible; but upon inspection, I was forced to accept the facts. I feel like Photoshopping a big red "Denied", diagonally across the picture.

We'd have been willing to exploit someone else's vandalism, but we weren't vandals ourselves.  Damn Beverly bridge. I still think I'll bag it someday, somehow.

It wouldn't be this day, though. We put in the call to Patty and then rolled down off the berm, through the little town of Beverly, and parked under the bridge while we waited for her to pick us up.

At this point it was about 4:00 in the afternoon. We drove up to Vantage and pit-stopped for sodas and salty snacks. Eric informed us that he was feeling strong and wanted to get back on the trail, so we drove him down to the west side of the Beverly bridge and dropped him off at the entrance to the Yakima Firing Range. It was just before 5:00. He wouldn't arrive in Ellensburg until after midnight. Patty and I were sort of worried, but it was just so obvious that endurance-athlete-Eric was craving a major challenge and that the opportunity and circumstances were just right and that it was all okay. But wow. Hardcore, man.

This has been a long post, I know. If you're still with me, thanks for hanging in. There's no way I could condense the story and still tell it the way it should be told. On this trip, there were so many chapters to each day and Eric and I kept commenting about how we would remember something that happened yesterday and it would seem like it happened a week ago, there was so much in between. Amazing.

Day 4 Ride Stats
43 miles
4:10 saddle time
10.2 mph avg
39.2 mph max
207 total trip miles

Rest in peace, Art. You will be missed.


Ken Paulman said...

Still with you. This has been an amazing read so far.

Alan said...

Thanks for your honesty and sincerity throughout your posts. It's nice to know that there's other riders out there whose love of the sport messes with their vision, blurring anger, love, frustration, selfishness, and hope.

Also, since when does changing a tire require such a yard sale?!

Potomac Joe said...

I go by two of those substations every day and often wondered what was inside.
I assumed you had those fat tires so riding across the river would be an option.

Riding in Reno said...

Definitely still with you. Longer is better when you spin such a good story!

Tom V said...


Great Story and Ride! It wouldn't be an adventure if it all went smoothly. I remember the difficult rides more than the ones that didn't challenge me.

I've noticed that the fatbike tires are heavy but also not very thorn resistant (I returned to Eastern WA from Tucson). The Black Floyds are a great all purpose tire for fatbikes and I have a set on my pugs. All of the fatbike tires take way too long to find those small punctures and repair.

I have a set of 29er tire liners hoping to tape them together for some puncture resistance but no luck. I might have to "sew" them together with a little overlap.


Unknown said...

Wow, grueling day dude. You know, there are some 'foamies' available for dirt-bikes which allow the tires never to go flat. Is there such a thing for bicycles? If not, maybe der be a market for dem tings...

Pat S said...

Thanks, guys.

Alan, the yard sale pic is one of my favorites from the trip.

PJ, curious . . . where are the substations you ride by?

JD, yeah, agreed. Never been to Tuscon, but I'll bet there are plenty of thorns in those parts. I looked at liners, but decided they were too much of a hassle. I think Slime is the ticket. I think I got caught by a pretty extreme situation, but I also think there's a learning curve with this magical green goop and that given some time, I could get through most anything with it.

Phil, I'm gonna quiz you down on foamies next time we talk.

Christopher Grande said...

Wow, so good. I always feel that if you don't have a.) some sort of break down moment/verge of tears and b.) huge euphoric wave of bliss/really moving landscape, then you're probably not touring right...

Seriously though, this was really easy to relate to and well written. Most other tour blogs feel too 'uncle and auntie's trip to bermuda slide show'ish.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this up. Reminds me of some of my favorite books and travel posts. Sorry for your loss and I hope your family is well.

Unknown said...

hey. i walked the western half of the trail. and i actually crossed the bridge, but on foot. it was the most frightening thing that i've ever done in my life. and i've spent some time under water bumping against rocks at the bottom of a rapid. i came on the bridge at dusk after walking all the way across the YTC. long day. and i was pretty frustrated about the possibility of being denied. and i had far fewer options than you did. no one was meeting me that night, and a detour on foot would have been much more serious. i climbed the fence, barbed wire and all, tossed my pack over and followed after it. there's a reason the barbed wire gate is there. many of the ties that make up the bridge have broken, or fallen out completely. it's bad. i walked the half mile across the bridge in the dark, a hundred feet above the river, never sure when some board would give under my weight and drop me into the dark of the water. i woke up some birds sleeping on the under side of the bridge that flew off with a lot of noise startling me more than i'd ever have cared for. i made it to the other side, and laid out to sleep right on the other side of the far gate. and spent one of the windiest nights of my life there. short one though, it was such an awful place i was awake again before the sun was up. i'm, not sorry you missed the experience.

from there i headed southeast on various roads till i ended up at milton-freewater,or and met my ride there. i did 250 miles in 13 days.

Anonymous said...

FYI, your friend had trouble from Firing Range to West Army trailhead, due to the fact that there has been 30 years of rockfall on the trail in the cuts up to the Boynton tunnel. lol. I know I've rode it about 2005. One new bathroom though 1/2 way up. lol. btw, the Beverly bridge caught on fire last summer (2014) from what i hear.


Pat S said...

Interesting about the fire, Russ. Hadn't heard that. I'll have to detour down and have a look, next time I head to Seattle.

Nick Thomas said...

I just did a recon to Beverly Bridge this week to inspect it. It seems to have survived the 2014 wildfire relatively intact. However, the chainlink gate is still locked and barbwire is up. We'll see what happens ... but I'm really not looking forward to riding that detour up shoulderless, steep HWy 243 to the vantage I-90 bridge and back down the other side to Beverly Juncture. More later...

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