It's wet. I've been hailed on a few times now. I decided a week ago not to pack a rain jacket- was it a week ago? How long have I been in the pacific northwest now? Not important. It's rained so much today and I've been pedaling so hard that I would have gotten soaked from my own sweat, stuffed inside a rain jacket, even though it's maybe 50º. At least my clothes are getting rinsed again? Though, now I'm starting to worry about my camera as I wipe off the precipitation once again, take a picture, wipe off more precipitation, then stuff it back inside a bag.
I'm on Velo Dirt's Oregon Outback route with like a hundred and fifty (and steadily dropping) other people, and I'm getting mud in my teeth from how much I'm smiling. It's only the first day.
I'm awake before Klamath Falls. I went to sleep packed, dressed, only needing to put my sleeping bag away, so I head out of the motel room thanking my hosts and joining one of them in search of bagels. Rumors of them are spreading from room to room as other tenants open their doors, see the puddles and clouds, wince, and go back inside. This isn't a race. There's no postponing, no weather delays. This huge group rolls away from the hotel, a flock of birds in thermal layers and waterproof shells, headed for the OC&E Trail. People are hollering, showing off already, and everyone's desperate to take off all those layers they just put on. It's normal, sure, but hilarious all the same and I'm above the same behavior.
The trail bottlenecks the riders between the fast folks and those intent on cruising through the route over the next week. My plan is the most popular one: three days, maybe 3 1/2 if everything is terrible. The early morning's rain that came and went before we all woke up has returned, but this rain is being rude and inconsiderate of our feelings. It comes down hard and fast almost immediately following the trail's transition to deep, deep gravel. Behind me I can hear brakes squealing and tires skidding across the gravel. Someone might have fallen, or the sudden rough ground may have rattled something off of someone's bike. Kinda normal stuff, really, and I've had it happen to me plenty of times. I know there's plenty of riders behind me, and no one's yelling or anything so I figure things are fine enough. Looking back doesn't even occur to me due to how distracted I am by the immediate beauty of my surroundings. The dirt is soft and slow, and cattle gates are so common that even in the rain I have plenty of opportunities to stop and enjoy things without hurting my pace.
The rain gets insultingly worse, then ends abruptly. No drizzle or anything. My pace is settling in with a group of guys from Eugene, and I feel bad for how wet and filthy they are without realizing I'm in the same boat.
This kind of riding can be, well, soul-draining after a while. The novelty wears off, believe me, so when the sun returned it was like being revived. It's return was intense, water was evaporating fast, and the humidity became so heavy I felt like I was ten again in Virginia. Coming to a creek, lots of riders are stopped and some are saying that this is the last water stop for 80 miles. I join others squatting by the creek, all of us using the incredibly popular Sawyer Mini Filter to keep this water from forcing less pleasant stops later on.
So, I'm riding this route without any kind of map, Garmin, or other GPS tool. Way I see it, especially on the first day, there will be so many riders that there's no way I won't be able to find a group with gps or just tire tracks to follow. I didn't even really take a good look at the route before hand. It's incredibly irresponsible, kinda dangerous, and lots of fun. It gives me an excuse to use my wits and when (not if) those fail talk with others. People are talking about seeing riders with busted derailleurs, blown spokes, and I suddenly don't mind how heavy my bike is. It hasn't been 80 miles, but the group I'm bumming gps guidance off of crosses another river and I'm grateful they're stopping to take off rain jackets and eat. I've eaten most of the food that's easily accessible, so this is the perfect time to dig into another bag for more food.
In the afternoon a wonderful relief of pavement leads into a post-burn forest. I'm not sure how long it was, but I think I went through twenty miles of pavement. Complete with 40mph descents in a hail storm, I'm feeling pretty bad ass. This is about the time when the universe comes in and humbles me, mind you. So, I come to a sign saying Silver Lake is only 19 miles away. Once again I'm alone, but I know Silver Lake marks about 120 miles. A couple doing the ride show up behind me, saying that the way the sign points does indeed take you to Silver Lake, but on pavement with a lot of climbing. To our right is a bright red dirt road, and their gps is saying go right. As soon as we drop off the pavement our tires sink into the soaked soil. The pedaling is challenging, and the couple falls back into their easier gears to compensate for the dirt. But it's not clay. Thank god it's not clay, I assure myself. Wet clay is a unique hell, which glues itself to everything it touches and in ten feet of it your bike will weigh an extra thirty pounds with wheels that no longer spin freely.
If you're familiar with the Oregon Outback, don't confuse this stretch with the Red Sauce. The red sauce wouldn't come until tomorrow and after last year's reports everyone was dreading it. What I'm trying to illustrate is that things could and are certainly scheduled to get worse. Though those few miles of red dirt were slow going, and it was the final layer of crud my derailleur needed to lose all gears except my easiest and hardest, it does spit you out onto an incredibly flat and straight stretch of road.
A headwind was howling, two-inch-wide cracks in the road came almost exactly every ten feet, but I had thirty minutes before Silver Lake's drug store closed so now was the time to take whatever energy I had left and hammer into town. Hardest gear, leaned so far over my arms were dangling off the front of my Swift bag, face-covered in mud, I was determined to make it into town. Pulling into town, I'm reunited with my Eugene friends from earlier in the day. They're on their way to the barn of the town's paster, Tom, who's offered it to them in lieu of the RV park. "It's next to the cemetery," I hear as I run into the store and drop $20 on chips, fruit, cookies, Gatorade, and beer. Silver Lake is a town with eight roads, none with a cemetery, but another 300ft outside of town and I see it, a large barn sitting in the distance. Inside I find my new friends, but more importantly a wood stove with fresh wood burning. Stripping off everything wet, I join the others in finding the balance between getting clothes and shoes dry without catching on fire. Riders keep coming, piling bikes on top of each other and finding spots on the concrete floor to sleep. I'm content to eat, sit on a drywall bucket, and eat some more. The stove is too warm to move. The sun cuts through the clouds for one last time. It's like a private show, easing its way behind a navy-hued mountain horizon, just for us now in this dry, warm barn.