Sunday, May 27, 2007

Thirty Mile Windy Bike Ride

Portland’s big secret is when it's grey, cloudy, raining and chilly in the city, a forty five minute drive east gets you sun and blue skies. For several years this is exactly where we have gone for a good day-long bike ride in the spring or fall. Fulton Canyon is our favorite. Never in summer or winter, only spring or fall, when the weather is cool, skies are blue, the sun warm and the air dry. My husband and biking partner and I pack a snack, grab helmets, snap the bikes into the car rack, then hit the road driving east on Highway 84 through The Dalles to the Deschutes River Park exit. From there we drive along the frontage road, over the Deschutes River as it flows into the Columbia River to Fulton Canyon Road and park the car at an undesignated parking area: a wide graveled area at the intersection, the kind of place that state road crews store piles of gravel in freezing weather.

Once the bikes are off the car, and helmets adjusted, we head up Fulton Canyon Road pedaling a slow, steady pace for the climb. The road follows the narrow canyon that cuts down through the Oregon Columbia Gorge hills, to the wide Columbia River below. The climb is steady but not too steep on a road without much traffic. This gives me time to think, look around and wonder. Two lanes of asphalt with a freshly painted yellow dash separate each direction. It makes me remember the words of Jim Hightower, the politically outspoken Texan, that in his state the only two things in the middle of the road are, “yellow stripes and dead armadillos.” So, when a pickup truck passes on the other side of the road, I start to wonder if the rancher driving will take exception to our parked car’s bumper stickers, and if our parked car is safe. Instead, drivers are polite, giving us wide space and often giving a friendly wave. As I ride slowly up the now steeper grade to the Columbia Plateau, fresh green wheat fields flow and wave with a light wind on one side while Tuscan brown fields on the other show tracks of recent tilling. An urban person, I wonder as I ride what it would be like to live on a farm, to know when and what kind of wheat is planted. Even though we have biked this route often we see only a snap-shot view of the hillsides for a few hours each season. On a recent spring Sunday, crisply painted and trimmed farm houses with front porches and freshly mowed front lawns stand facing the road. Second storey front bedroom windows stare out to the road and hillsides beyond. Houses, farm yards, barns, equipment, but no people are visible this day. Butler bee hive shaped corrugated metal silos, John Deere tractors and harvesting equipment stand idle in side and back yards. As we pedal upward, the wind picks up, pushing from behind, making the eight mile climb easier and faster.

Down to plain wood with no paint, a clapboard one room school house stands by itself; its windows open without glass, inviting birds and mice. The steeple rises forlornly above a broken roof, weather and vandal beaten and alone by the side of the road. Pedaling further up the grade the wind blows harder as we come over a rise. The road curves east towards Highway 97 and in the distance is the small town of Wasco. In front of us, the road stretches ahead, rising and falling with the land over hills and down ravines. The yellow lines dashes in the center rising and falling with the road. When we reach the top of the next rise, silver flashes of giant wind propellers twirl in the distance, part of the newest crop on Columbia Plateau farms. The flashes disappear as we coast down into the next ravine. Up to the top of the next hill, we pause to look around: Mt Adams with a full snow cover and its north humped back shines above the Washington Columbia River hills. Mt Hood glistens in the sun light in a backward view on the next rise. This is big wheat country, few trees, wide views and big spaces. Occasionally a car or truck passes, swerving politely out of our lane. Down the hill into Wasco, the town park is a patch of soft green lawn, a couple of picnic tables, and water from a hose to fill those now empty water bottles.

We have the park to ourselves, eat our snack of dried fruit and nuts and lie back on the park lawn and gaze up at the trees and clear blue sky. After the leisurely rest, we’re up on our bikes again and turn into downtown Wasco. On this Sunday the streets of Wasco are empty, no people walking around and most buildings barely, if at all, used. A few brick buildings, one with a mercantile sign stand empty in a town too far from freeways and too close to bigger stores. An old two story wooden building, once a travelers road house and rooming house, purchased a few years ago by an urban couple, now stands with a for sale sign posted out front. This is knowledge from an earlier snap view and brief conversation on another spring or fall ride the exact year lost in memory. The sign made me wonder what it would be like to own a building in Wasco. The owners had hoped to run a weekend business and rent rooms for guests and family gatherings. There isn’t much for visitors to do in Wasco, except look at grain elevators or wind turbines spin in the distance. The population of about 300 people doesn’t support a restaurant or movie theater, and in fact the town is listed as a ghost town on one website.

The loop back, following Scotts Canyon down to the Columbia River, is longer, with steeper hills and deeper troughs, and the wind much stronger in the later part of the afternoon. Morning wind reports had said gusts, but pedaling along I begin to wonder if gusts meant being blown off, as I lean my bike sideways into the wind, nervous, and imagining the worst. The image of the author of Miles from Nowhere who describes being blown from her bike in high winds runs through my brain as I grip my handle bars tighter and concentrate on the road directly ahead and miss the views for several miles. Shoulders tight and strained, head down, eyes intently the road, I miss the sounds of meadow larks tweet-tweeting and their golden yellow breasts catching sunlight as they sweep across fields on either side. The Columbia River wind is great for wind surfing, but for bikes more a challenge when the wind hits at a ninety degree angle. A narrow stream dropping with the grade is about all I notice in this intense part of the ride that seems longer and steeper than the road up.

Once back to the Columbia River and the road junction at Rufus with a road side cafĂ© and gas station, we stop to laugh about the wind and pledge that next time we’ll get out of Portland earlier in the morning. Back on our bikes we head west for the final 8 mile leg along the old highway road to our waiting car.