It's unreal how much you learn about a place just by riding a bike through it all day long. The ride along Crooked River into Prineville had confirmed what I suspected the day prior. Oregon, come 5 or 6pm, is windy as hell. Evening pressure and temperature changes between the Pacific, Cascades, and Rockies essentially force ocean air eastward across the state. The wind fills valleys and canyons in a way that suggests the universe just plain doesn't like you. Beyond that, never suspect a ride down hill won't immediately be followed with a hilariously long, steep ride back up. I'm pretty sure all of this was under a gigantic, prehistoric ocean a few years back, so the hills kinda just happened by accident and no one was ever supposed to go up and down them. The last thing Oregon leaves for the enterprising bikepacking fan to learn is this: No matter where you're standing, thinking you have an amazing view, a better one is just thirty minutes up the road.
The night prior I covered a significant portion of my body in A&D ointment to help with some fun, new problems I was having from riding a bike all day for a week and a half and not bathing enough to help with anything. It was probably the smartest decision I've made in my life, as that morning I left Prineville once again able to sit, without pain, on my bike. It's the little things, you know? For the first time I pop on my phone and actually look at the route. It's still quite early, and going into and out of Prineville is done on pavement. No tracks to follow. But it's one road out and you're on it for long enough that I don't bother to see what's next as surely I'll come across other riders or tire tracks. It's taking me into Ochoco National Forest, more specifically *up* into Ochoco National Forest, and I'm taking it easy on purpose. Once again, the riders from Eugene catch up to me and one of them has gps. Kinda like a greyhound following its rabbit lure, minus the whole fast part, I follow the group as we just go further and further up. Stick-arrows appear, and they've become so ubiquitous to the ride that we turn in the direction they point and climb some more.
It takes about two miles before the only one of us with gps to realize we've gone off course. Later in the day I'd find out those arrows were put there by some local campers to help friends find the way to their campsite. At least turning around means another fun descent on gravel, and a turn that we suspect to be a shortcut puts us onto yet another downhill gravel road in this forest. Surprisingly, we totally got the road right and it dumps us back onto the route at an intersection where others have stopped to find their bearings.
"Don't go that way."
So, what the route was actually doing was bringing riders far up in elevation in Ochoco purely so we could have a blast riding back down towards the town of Ashwood. There was mud. Lots of it. Swollen creeks from the rain (now two days behind us) made for interesting creek crossings. Folks kinda took one of two methods in crossing. Patience, and maybe even dismounting from the bike to walk across the slick, wet stones took time, but kept you dry and your bike free from smashing into any big rocks that may be hidden beneath the cloudy water. Then of course there's the fun way, my way, of sprinting into every crossing, pulling up the front end, and hoping for the best. You get wet, you smile, but apparently for some this lead to flat tires and more than one derailleur was ripped off in the process. No matter how your bike faired through the crossings, you could still coast the rest of the way down into Ashwood.
This is where lunch finally happened, at a group of unguarded picnic tables in the shade- a hose laying nearby made for good enough desert. Again, if this is serving as recon for your own attempt at the Oregon Outback, you'd do well to stop here to eat and get water. Remember when I said with every descent comes another climb? What follows is a doozy. A nasty grade that is taking you, as best I can tell, to the top of central Oregon. It is hard. You will want to stop. You may even result to walking if your gears don't go low enough. You will do this for hours.
But that hard work pays off.
This might have been the most emotional part of the ride for me. My climbing style dropped me off the back once again, and after all that pedaling I stopped and took my time to reflect on where I was and what I was doing. It was privilege, pure and simple, and I was grateful to have it. Being up there felt special, and it took me thirty minutes to remember it was only, like 2pm and from where I was the road was making it's way back down off this plateau. I think my spell was broken by seeing other riders again. Seeing other cyclists in this landscape reminded me "oh, that's a nice photo. They're gonna go down hill and it'll look cool."
And it did. And once again I was just ripping down another amazing ribbon of gravel, finally dead ending on a chipseal road towards Antelope, Oregon, with it's promise of water but not much else. A local pointed out one building as the town's original jail, but otherwise the real draw was for the next town. Shainko existed somewhere up, you guessed it, another climb that was maybe the most perfectly serpentine belt of pavement I've ever seen.
I can't thank Brent Wallace and his group enough for stopping in the midst of that climb to take some photos of me slowly making my way up. I hope my wheelie lifted y'all's spirits! But even if it didn't I think anyone on the ride suffering found some relief in the ghost town Shaniko, Oregon. A tourist destination for sure, despite the dilapidation this town does have an ice cream/snow cone shop and a fully stocked general store. Both store's proprietors had their hands full handling the swarm of ravenous cyclists, and stayed open for hours after closing to meet everyone's needs. The town itself was quickly becoming a makeshift campground all the while.
This turned out to be the point where I'd say goodbye to the guys of Cascadian Courier Collective. While most people who had planned to ride the route in three days were rearranging their work schedules to accommodate the extra time needed to finish, work for them couldn't be postponed. More importantly, work for them is still riding bikes all day long. It was a sacrifice, for sure, but that doesn't take away from what all they'd done the past three days.
I was at a deciding point as well. The finish was only sixty miles away at this point, much of that being easy pavement, and it was only 5:30 or so. I debated the merits of pushing through, to say I finished in three days. But remember what I said at the beginning of this post about wind? It was that time of day, and it howled through Shaniko, coming directly from where the route was headed. Is it worth pushing through just to say I finished in three days?
Things were too good, too cozy. I'd string my hammock up one more time on the Oregon Outback, share a beer with new friends, but I was snoozing before the light left the sky. One of the eugene guys had decided to stay and finish with me, and we made plans to wake up before first light and knock out this last, small section of the route in the beautiful morning light. People were celebrating, though much more respectfully than the night before, so I moved over to a much more secluded part of the town to sleep in peace.