“Where are ya going to, where ya been?”
He beckoned to me from his sedan window, bass fishing hat with wire-frame glasses, liver-spots and a stiff collar. The brand of older gentleman they must churn out of a factory somewhere in northern Iowa, now idling before the Center Market in Cloverdale, Oregon.
“Well I started out from Portland yesterday and was heading to the Coast, but got a flat – that’s my bike over there – then another flat, then noticed I had about a one-inch tear in my tire—”
His enthusiasm was dwindling.
“—so I had to stop here and I’m waiting for a friend to pick me up. Do you know anything about campgrounds up on Derrick Rd?”
“Sure, but I don’t think you’re gonna have much luck getting there with a flat!”
“That’s why my friend is picking me up.”
SPOILER ALERT: I didn’t make it to the ocean – on two wheels, at least.
The Wednesday before last I made my roommate Jake take several goobery photos of me standing in the parking lot with my bike and its bulging panniers, all kinds of bungees and straps and cinch-sacked gear, the lighting awful and my helmet’s dumb neckstrap accentuating a double-chin I swore had disappeared three years ago. I had to inaugurate my journey somehow, though, expecting – I don’t know, maybe 24 likes on Instagram, 8 on Facebook? And an eager following waiting with baited breath for that selfie with a sparkling bay in the background and a caption I figured would come to me over the next two days.
My friend Oliviah wanted to camp with me on the Oregon Coast after a night to herself in Tillamook Foresy. Eyeing an opportunity, I suggested she meet me out there – somewhere in the Oceanside to Lincoln City continuum – after I’d pedaled my way over the coastal range. Then she could give me a ride home. I would leave Wednesday morning, enjoy two intimate nights alone with my rig and rock-hard quads, then we would spend Friday night together and head back Saturday. Deal.
For the past five years I’ve been riding my dad’s old steel-frame burgundy Nishiki, a tinkerer with bad brakes and rotting handlebar foam that I’ve since bound together with layers of packing tape. It has served me well commuting on and off from Portland to Beaverton (with some assistance from a light rail train), and with an Alpenrose milk crate zip-tied to the carriage, transport basketballs and picnic fortifications and small farmers’ market hauls. Over the years I’ve envisioned loading the crate with a tent, a down sleeping bag, a tidy assortment of skin-tight spanks and warm, lightweight garments – “touring bike” has always seemed an elegant euphemism for a bike that may or may not deteriorate after two straight days of 60-mile ass sweat, and I wanted to put this cynical notion to bed.
With my departure date set, I spent the first couple days of my first week off in July gearing up. At Next Adventure, a Portland institution that’s like an REI run by a used CD collector, I dug out a pair of $14 canvas panniers from the bargain bin. They were missing one rack clip and featured little zipper tassels that fell off at the slightest touch. Perfect. After investing in a 100-pack of zip ties, some luggage straps and a fashionable purple bandana, I had all I needed.
I chose a Reddit-approved route that would take me on a day of gentle riding down 99W, through Willamette Valley wine country and into the town of Carlton, my gateway to the coastal mountain range via the Nestucca River Road, a quiet highway where I would have the best chance of not being pancaked by a logging truck. Sage Redditers noted that the hill from Carlton to the Nestucca’s summit was quite a beast, but since I’d been bike commuting daily over Portland’s West Hills, I wasn’t too concerned about my body breaking down.
Wednesday morning arrived. The Insta-post went up, Jake waved goodbye, I swung my leg over the heaping milk crate with a high kick and jetted off.
Then came my first flat. As I was rolling down our driveway.
Jake was already inside and we had parted ways with a great bear hug, so I decided to sneakily patch things up in the parking lot, using my car’s bike rack as a stand. Fifteen minutes later I embarked on yet another false start – the patches didn’t hold – and went for my spare tube. Then Jake emerged.
“Jack! You’re still here!”
“I’m gonna walk to the QFC – hopefully I won’t see you when I get back…?”
Another fifteen minutes and Jake returned with a bag of groceries. I was ready to take the show on the road – refusing a second hug – for the third time, which proved to be “the charm.” The tire held all the way through Portland, over the hills and beyond. I had lost an hour, but I was finally in new territory with all my life-sustaining substances strapped within three feet of me.
99W appears as a thick green line on Google Maps, runs parallel to I-5 and passes through the garish commuter villages of Tigard, Tualatin, and Sherwood – since I’d never needed or felt to compelled to visit these places in my three years living in Portland, the road was foreign to me. While it is much uglier and somehow visibly hotter and angrier than the lush West Slope of Portland, the huge thoroughfare maintains a wide shoulder all the way to Newberg, though it is littered with shattered taillights and beer bottles and the occasional shard of semi tire. For a highway it had an awful lot of stoplights, exaggerating the distances between each fast food hovel and providing some valuable insight into how shitty the lives of some of my former coworkers must have been, commuting up and down even a small section of this road every day.
Thirty exposed miles of hot tar and the balls of my feet and the balls of my crotch were ablaze, but I had made it to Newberg in great time. Here I would stop for lunch, consult my maps and cool off.
One of my favorite things about cycling – or travelling in general – is finding places to rest that are perfectly suited for my needs, but designed for everything but. This place was a Jack-in-the-Box. Huge glass panes beset its shaded, uninhabited patio area, where I rested my precious rig and kept a close eye on it while ordering my two-taco combo. After fumbling with my Camelbak and spilling a quart of water over the dining area tile, I returned outside and dug an avocado out of my pannier, slicing it with my grandfather’s hunting knife and spooning it over the greasy meat pouches. During this process I incidentally shot “don’t-touch-my-shit-boy” glares at the pasty teen who had to shepherd pallets out to the dumpster area every few minutes. Poor kid, I bet he gets that a lot.
I could not sever my mind from the road. Already this was the longest I’d ever cycled in one sitting and I was eager for more, so I compartmentalized my brief respite accordingly. While I digested and my phone charged at the deviously convenient outlet by the patio entrance, I stretched my calves and quads thoroughly, consumed all the water in my auxiliary bottles, promptly refilled them, and flooded each inch of my waistband with foot powder. I considered reading a few chapters of my book, but decided against it, not daring disrupt my pavement-centricity. There would be plenty of time to ruminate at the base of a tree, on a bluff above a narrow creek, endorphins and lactic acid coursing through my body and smug satisfaction written on my furrowed brow. With this bucolic fantasy in tow, I said goodbye to the friendly patio and my pasty ward and set off towards Carlton.
Things got rural fast, for better and for worse. Better would be the rolling, golden hills, the ancient clapboard barns, the intense contrast of gold grain and cerulean sky, landscape I’d never before witnessed while living in Oregon. Worse would be the razor-thin shoulder, the sudden proliferation of jacked-up pickups and the way the cerulean sky and its white eye burrowed its gaze into my handlebars and my seat, the nape of my neck and the soles of my feet. I breathed water and constantly shifted my ass up and down on the seatpad, at times lifting it high in the air like a scared cat to let the rushing air do its thing. I stopped only once, though, at a huge blue sign with a “YOU ARE HERE” sticker and a constellation of text boxes indicating little wineries that I will never have a chance to visit. I took an underwhelming photo of this immensely picturesque scene and kept pumping towards Carlton, a little blip in the corner of the map where unmarked black lines diverged as they approached a smattering of creased, stippled ink.
For a boonie little one-street town, Carlton was surprisingly lively at 3 in the afternoon on a Wednesday. The community pool just off the main drag was clearly the town’s nucleus, and I was intrigued by the possibility of a quick dip. Rolling my bike through a small grassy park, I saw a teenager with pink-rimmed sunglasses and spiky blonde hair dancing in place before two younger boys, who were either his brothers or a couple of amused latchkey kids. “I know how to dance to Uptown Funk, and a lot of other stuff.” He continued stoically popping his elbows and running his palms down his hips as the boys looked on, and I couldn’t help but think that I was walking through a deleted scene from Napoleon Dynamite.
The high school girls behind the counter in the pool lobby told me that open swim would resume at 5, after swim lessons were over. Disappointing – with a long, arduous climb just ahead, I couldn’t risk killing ninety minutes in Carlton. In hindsight, I wonder if they would have let me sneak in and splash around for a minute had I preyed on their sympathies and explained how I’d just biked forty miles, I have twenty to go and my crotch was on fire – maybe, though they probably would have made me take a shower first. I settled for a naked shit and a costume change in their gender-neutral bathroom.
Before getting to the beloved Nestucca River Rd., you must climb the less renowned Meadowlake Rd. from the outskirts of Carlton to the range’s summit at the McGuire Reservoir, a 13-mile haul. Meadowlake evolves into Nestucca the way a Magikarp evolves into a Gyarados: before the sudden, miraculous transformation, there is a lot of parched, slack-jawed flopping. Five miles of rolling countryside and the fun began, steep grades eddied by tiny plateaus and fleeting sighs of relief. I emptied my Camelbak much sooner than expected, having asked a gorgeous bakery worker in Carlton to top it off and being too bashful to protest when she handed it back only ¾ full. I brought along a brand new water filtration system that I’d purchased while gearing up in Portland, but another unfortunate quality of the pre-Nestucca River climb was there was no Nestucca River. An inkling of panic mingled with my burgeoning twinkle-vision. But soon enough the properties shifted from ranchers’ “NO TRESPASSING” signs and formidably long driveways into cute roadside chateaus with sprawling decks and wind chimes and dogs, and that’s how I met Ray.
At the crest of a long, sinuous calf-buster, his wide, flat front yard was a welcome sight. I stood there panting for all of thirty seconds, letting his big black-and-white dog howl and bark at me. That got Ray’s attention, and he emerged to scold his pet.
“Could I trouble you for some water, sir?”
I really hammed it up with the when-in-Rome over-gracious cityboy shtick.
Ray waved me into his home immediately, and it quickly became clear that he provided this service frequently. After showing me to the sink, he led me to a wall-to-wall fridge in the back of his garage where he housed every soft drink a thirsty boy could possibly want. I grabbed a red Gatorade and joined him on the porch where he pulled a cigarette and we started talking. He explained how – as I presumed – hydrating cyclists was a common occurrence, how he lets those in particularly dire straits pitch a tent on his lawn. He’s met cyclists from Australia and France, a pair of pros on bamboo frames who started in Alaska and were on their way down to Mexico. He mentioned that they’d been keeping a blog and wrote a little bit about him, which I took as my place to plug my own little blog operation. When I told him the url he sorta pretended to look for a pen, then resumed his kind eye contact and amused grin.
I took another accurate gander and pegged Ray for more of a biker than a cyclist – yes, and he was planning to head down to Yosemite for a long tour but realized California wouldn’t honor his conceal-and-carry permit. “I don’t go anywhere without my gun!!” This was the same response he gave his daughter when she proposed a family excursion up to Vancouver, B.C. I liked Ray. He was a man of principles.
We finally got around to brass tacks and Ray gave me a seasoned lay of the land, all of the information I could possibly need in a few pithy phrases.
“Campgrounds start at mile 13 – you see the mile markers coming up? This is 1. The summit’s at 6 miles out, right when you hit the reservoir. Just after here it – man, it gets steep as shit.”
I hadn’t noticed the mile markers yet – probably because I was only now at “1” – but once Ray tipped me off, those bright little yellow squares with big black digits were all I could look forward to for the next two hours. Because it was steep as shit, and even with all the new electrolytes buzzing through my system I started to feel my rhythm deteriorating after saying goodbye to Ray. Where before a steep grade would yield a few moments of wind-in-your-hair bliss, the six miles up to the summit were relentless – and for the most part viewless – hills.
By now it was past 6, and I’d been riding since well before noon. All day my thoughts had been about the ride; unable to care about anything else, I pathologically avoided my book and my journal, dream-images of a dusky campsite like drying leathers bordering my velo-myopia. In the middle of a long, straight climb, I swung my left leg over the frame and abruptly pulled into the gravel.
Since the inauspicious parking lot flat, I worried that my bike – my tubes, my chain, something – was going to let me down somehow by the end of the day. But the rig had so far proven sturdy, and now it was my body that was finally failing me. Minutes ago my calf bulged and my forearms strained to the point where to bulge or strain any further would take me to the very limit of my bulging and straining powers – any serious athlete or gym rat experiences this a couple times a week, but for a fair-weather outdoorsman and cyclist the revelation was not encouraging. So I walked the hill.
At the top, I got back on the saddle, unproud. Walking the heavy bike was easier than I’d anticipated, but far more shameful. I can’t quite remember what mile this embarrassing lapse occurred, but it definitely wasn’t 6½. I had a ways to go; I wanted to sit and read and ruminate by dusk, dammit! So I decided I would not be walking any more hills (alright I think I walked on more) and instead stopped for quick breaks at every switchback, guzzling water and at one point peeling a hardboiled egg on the shoulder and swilling it down with a timely flush of Gatorade. Traffic had thinned out to one car (maybe) every fifteen minutes, so I swerved in exaggerated loops through both lanes. The song in my head: “I Shall Be Released,” The Band version, sung by Richard Manuel.
3½. 5. 5½. An info panel about the Scenic Byway.
“I see my life come shining! / From the West down to the East!!!”
A blinding flash burst through the leaves, growing as the road carried me into a beautifully paved downhill cruise. Flashing, shimmering, and growing constantly was the reservoir. As I swept down into the tiny valley, I half expected a little piece of paper to be flitting beneath the next mile marker – “You Did It!!” – scribbled out in sharpie by some playful cyclist. But “7” came and went just like the rest, although it was printed on an orange slab instead of a yellow one.
Dovre campground is small, unremarkable, and secluded, and only a quick roll-down-the-ol-hill to a lush streambed. One of the most frustrating things about writing from memory is how blindingly effective our senses are – I can barely remember what I thought Dovre would look like, what I wanted it to look like while sitting outside the Jack-in-the-Box in Newberg, but I recall vividly the lull of woodsmoke and the low hiss of rushing water, rounding a bend in the road and seeing the first Dodge Ram stacked with coolers.
There were three or four open sites. I prize natural barriers – large trees, hills, bushes and brambles – over physical space, so poking around the first couple Ram 3500-friendly glades did not impress me. A small band of adults pulled in next to the site I was surveying, and began their own quality assurance. Two women and one skinny, grizzled dude in a salmon tank top. I heard him curse a couple times under his breath; suddenly neurotic as the endorphin swoon wore off, I assumed he was bemoaning my presence on an otherwise unclaimed spot. When I first started poking around, I spied this crew checking out a small terraced area just by the entrance, and heard something about shattered heels.
“Was there something wrong with that spot y’all were just looking at?” – it is very, very hard to say that without sounding passive-aggressive.
“Oh, well, it just doesn’t have enough – concrete, yknow, and I –”
I went for the save: “Gotcha, I was just curious because it looked good for me and maybe y’all could take this one and I could go over there…?”
“Oh, well, yeah that would work! And hey if you need any firewood I got a whole trunk full of it. I got beer, I got weed…”
I was excited by the prospect of free firewood, and mildly intrigued by the last two things. After setting up my tent and laying out my sweat-drenched garments, I returned to break bread with my new friend, who was now alone and carless.
As I attempted to split big, dry logs with a small rusty hatchet, he offered me hits of mid-grade marijuana from his crack pipe. We drank Keystones and I mostly listened as he he told me his story: born and raised in McMinnville, plumber by trade, now disabled, two kids, divorced then remarried, tubes tied, Army veteran, Special Forces trained.
“My name’s Sebastierrr – just call me Thor.”
I realized quickly that there would be no clean exit from Thor – he was simply too generous. Each time the thought crept in of cobbling up my meager shards of wood and leaving, his pipe would be on my lips or a fresh, lukewarm Keystone in my palm. Thor was lonely, I was his entertainment, and I was okay with this arrangement, even if it meant putting off my ruminative fantasy for the next night. He didn’t seem too crazy.
I brought my dinner – a bag of 99¢ pasta – over to Thor’s picnic table, where in the sickly gaslight of his new Campmore lantern he regaled me with tales of his combat trauma and the life that had carved out for him.
“So I was sitting under a tree, and there was a dude’s ribcage hanging from a branch above me. I was eating these C-rations, this beef with barbecue shit that was, like, 85% fat. I decided I couldn’t eat another bite, so I throw it in front of me and there’s this dog there, he comes up and sniffs it, then trots a few feet away and starts munching on the dude’s hand.”
“Wow man, that’s pretty fucked up.”
“I know – the beef was that fuckin’ bad!”
While you probably assume I was sitting white-faced and silent as Thor went off on manic tirades, that’s only slightly correct. We got along well, I got to know his ticks (cackling maniacally and throwing his forehead down on the wood) and when the conversation got a little scary, I would ask about his wife, who would be returning to camp with him the next day and whom he seemed to really love. Which is how this story came up:
“On our first date my wife and I had a Super Soaker fight in my yard. Thing is, yknow, I’m Army-Ranger-Special-Forces trained, so when I shoot I shoot to kill. She was holding the gun like they do all in the action movies,” he mimicked the chicken-leg elbow and furrowed brow of a pretend marksman, “but I was just shooting from the hip, I was still hitting her between the eyes every time! Later I tried to explain I just can’t help myself…” Thor was shaking his head. “She ran inside after about five minutes, crying. I went to head in and see her but my mom was with her at the table and when she saw me she just pointed and said get the fuck out of this house! I’m not much of a mechanic but when I left I went and just checked all the spark plugs, all that, just to –”
“Just keep your mind busy –”
“Man, that is not how you want a first date to go!”
I said goodnight to Thor after several pulls of his Black Velvet – his wife didn’t know he had it, and he made me promise to keep it a secret – and many life stories punctuated by him shouting for his dog –“Claire!” – when she should run off to flirt with the neighboring dachshund – “Claire!! Leave your boyfriend alone!” I gave Thor a few leftover gummi edibles as thanks for his company; when I left I said I’d join him for breakfast, and asked if he needed any help putting out the fire.
“No no I’m an expert with campfires, y’know I’m Army-Ranger-Special-Forces trained…”
In the morning I helped myself to an onion bagel with cream cheese and three thin rounds of the curiously titled “Land O’ Frost” ham. Thor had already helped himself to a few kips of cheap Canadian whiskey, and was repeating things he had told me the night before. I felt extremely guilty for feeling so bemused while simultaneously enjoying his lavish hospitality. Thor had buttered me up well for the day’s journey, shared some interesting (if painful) insights, and even took me through the brush to a neat little series of pools and waterfalls across the road from campground. We had a nice time together; we respected each other. And he showed me his gun!
Within a few minutes of leaving Dovre, I started to understand why most of the /r/cycling junkies were such enthusiastic advocates of the Nestucca River Rd. For miles the highway snaked along a burbling creek, no cars in sight and all downhill. Yesterday’s climb was a distant past. The air was cool and the sky a welcome overcast; in a soft shell and shorts I achieved a perfect equilibrium. Those quiet midmorning hours embodied all the best parts of cycling, and put me in a very zen place. For weeks (months) prior I’d been going back-and-forth in my mind about my decision to move back to Virginia. It took me a long time to hone my explanation for inquisitive strangers and friends alike, and still what comes out is something like “I’m just looking for a change of scenery.” At that moment, though, riding a bicycle down a strange, beautiful highway out to one of the most scenic coastlines in the world felt like the exact right thing to be doing. I was extremely aware of my body and its physical boundaries, yet deeply satisfied with the uncanny way consciousness extends from the body and brings new life and new information back into it. I’m a living-breathing organism and I am doing what I want to be doing, and something deep down is telling me “yes” – what kind of jackass would question that?
Emerging from the foothills into a series of sleepy farming communities that smelled like shit, I craved a sit-down luncheon and phone-charging session, at a crappy diner with big vinyl booths. The town of Beaver will have this, I imagined, along with a quaint inn with Lincoln Log lettering on the sign next to an olde-time general store that sells huge wands of glittering rock candy. Sign me up!
Beaver sucks. You would think that the terminus of a popular cycling route and a junction of 101 halfway between Tillamook and Neskowin would boast more than a Shell station and a hybrid mini mart, but lo, the Beaver Firearms-and-Grocery was clearly the locus of the community. I stopped in to top off my water supply, then inquired about sit-down dining options. “None here.” Got it. However I did receive an enigmatic tip from a man in a pinstripe jumpsuit who was jawing with the surly clerk. “There’s a sporting goods store down in Hebo – in the back they make a damn good burger!”
So instead of taking the Google Maps-approved route up 101 and over Sandlake Rd to Cape Lookout and its hiker-biker campsite, I headed four miles south towards Hebo and its burger-flipping Modell’s.
The sun was high overhead. I rested my bike at a picnic table and laid out my sweat-and-foot-powder stained spanks out to dry in front of the lovely sporting goods store with its hanging geraniums and “hot deli.” A burger seemed a bit heavy, so I opted for a crispy cod sandwich with a small side of potato salad. Delicious! The tartar sauce was chunky, loaded with dill and spread with a heavy hand on both buns! I lounged at the table for a while, journaling for the first time. Inside my phone was juicing up behind the counter: the sweet matronly cashier proved to be a real shark, because when I asked to charge my phone she charged me a dollar! She rebounded a little later, though, coming out to kindly ask about my trip and warn me about the dangers of getting mowed down by a Subaru. “It’s just the mother in me, I suppose…”
At some point during my sojourn in Hebo I’d noticed that my rear tire had developed a small tear in the tread – you could see the gum wall through the black rubber, and it was fraying fast. Eh. It was only another 8 miles to Pacific City and once I was there I could assess the situation and—
In front of a barn just south of Hebo I got my first flat since the parking lot. I’d packed an extra tube and a loaded patch kit; the hot sun and the tall grass surrounding the pullout would be a nuisance, but at least I’d finally figured out how to tie my bandana so it would properly shade the back of my neck!
Leaning the frame against a telephone pole I set to work poking and prying the tube from the rim, and within a few minutes the glue was setting when Mark strolled up.
“Hey man, you got a cigarette?”
I had passed Mark right as I set out from Hebo. He was skinny, blonde and scraggly, humping an enormous tan paramilitary backpack. I didn’t have a cigarette for him, but I did have some shitty weed that Thor had deftly sealed with a touch of flame into the plastic film from his Marlboro’s. I slid a few crumbly nugs into an empty gauze packet, then asked Mark he would stick around for a minute and help me lift the bike while I loaded the wheel back into the dropout. He agreed. And where you coming from, Mark?
“Just spent the night in the Tillamook jail.”
Yikes! He quickly explained that they picked him up on a bullshit charge and promptly let him loose, that it was his girlfriend who was beating the shit out of him! He showed me the black eye and the bite marks – “yep, she’s a biter!” and “she’s crazy as shit, but I love her.” He was hoping to hitch his way back to Pacific City, hoping his girl was still there – like me, he was trying to patch things up. Deploying some of the conversational tactics I’d developed with Thor, I probed into his wild relationship.
“We met in Boulder, where she was hitchhiking around too. Then we made it out to Montana, and after a while we came out here.”
“Got in trouble in Lincoln City – we were in the parking lot of that museum there, just fuckin’ in broad daylight. We didn’t give a fuck!”
It was hard to concentrate on the wheel and Mark’s whirlwind narrative, so I rushed the patch job and fit the wheel back on hastily with his help – only to discover that it was bleeding air. I let Mark off the hook, and gave him the rest of Thor’s weed for his trouble. He seemed like he would need it.
Resorting to the spare tube, I started back out towards the sea, where the sky looked just a little brighter and bluer resting over the—
My cycle tour ended on a small dusty road just off 101, above a sign welcoming northbound travelers to wonderful Cloverdale, OR. In plain sight of several loud, judgmental chickens, I privately conceded that my ripped-up tire would make the next 7 miles a hazardous endeavor, even if I was able to properly patch up the damaged tube, which I wasn’t. The chickens’ caws grew evermore scathing and critical as I phoned Oliviah, told her my situation and maybe would she mind picking me up in Cloverdale in a few hours?
By the time I rolled my bike into the empty party room at The Dory Lounge, I had already sort of lost interest in how I’d gotten there. In a world where a two-mile gravel stretch of the Nestucca River Rd didn’t gnaw up my tire, I would be peeling off my socks at the base of a towering cedar, exhausted, greedily unpacking the items necessary for a just-add-water campstove supper. Sipping drinks in a surprisingly cozy video poker lounge didn’t quite feel like cheating, but it didn’t really feel like I’d earned it, either. If I didn’t have someone like Oliviah around to pick me up, I would be in a whole other place – maybe in the trunk of a Pontiac heading south along I-5 towards Medford.
Weaving through the Nestucca hills, through wine country, through Multnomah Village, I thought my story would end at the ocean. But Dory’s had $3 rum-and-cokes, $5 martinis, adorable old couples eating fish-and-chips in silence and a nice view of the river below. And two hours to kill until Oliviah would be there to pick me up.
Like I had done all trip, I took what was offered.