Day 117: Republic, WA to Wauconda, WA - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

August 7, 2011

Day 117: Republic, WA to Wauconda, WA

I wake up indoors with a place all to myself for the first time since Lander, Wyoming. There's no way in hell I'm leaving early to go tackle a mountain pass when I can sleep in and screw around for hours. I knew I'd feel this way, so last night I made a plan to ride only as far as Wauconda, a town just beyond the top of the pass. It's a tiny place that almost everyone on the route breezes through on the way to somewhere else, which seems reason enough to stop there and make it a short day.

As I coast down the hill to the laundromat I try to remember the last time I washed all of my clothes and the towel. I draw a blank. I can't even ballpark it. My standards have fallen lower than I ever thought possible.

The woman who runs the laundromat wears an ankle-length pink and floral-patterned dress with white tennis shoes and may be the oldest thing in town. Over the course of an hour her son, two of her daughters, and a grumpy son-in-law filter in and sit in a semi-circle of white plastic chairs in the back of the dimly lit room that's lined with washing machines on the north wall and dryers on the south.

"Do you want a piece of pie?" one of the daughters asks.

Some people say there's no such thing as a stupid question, but asking a touring biker who's been on the road for four months if he wants free pie is the definition of a stupid question. But I keep that to myself, say yes and please, and eat a half-frozen slice of marionberry pie with my hands like a piece of pizza in awkward silence.

Eventually the same daughter mentions to me that her mom and dad took a trip from Olympia, Washington to Oakland, California on bicycles on their honeymoon just after World War II.

"They used a couple of old Schwinns," she says. "They only had three speeds, so they had to walk a lot of the hills. It was totally different from what you guys do today. The whole thing was, really. A lot of the roads weren't paved back then, so they rode very slowly."

I agree with her, and say that not only do the reliable and comfortable bikes make traveling easier, but that with the laptop and powerful phone I carry it's easy to stay in touch with people at home and hard to get lost.

"I remember Mom saying that one time she and Dad were on this side road," the daughter explains. "They knew they were near the highway, but couldn't figure out how to get there, so she stopped and then looked at Dad and said 'Go climb that tree and find us a way off of here!'"

And he did.

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Every new thing I learn about their trip amazes me more.

"Another time they were riding along and happened to spot this 50-pound box of nails next to the road," she says. "This was right after the war, when they still had rationing, so it was a huge find and worth a lot of money. So they took with them! They made space on the bikes and in their bags, split up the load between the two of them, and continued on with 50 pounds worth of nails."

In comparison I'm just a candy-ass with a hard piece of pie and no idea what tough is.

After we say goodbye and the group wishes me a safe end to the trip, the same daughter asks from across the room, "Do you carry a pistol? You know, for protection."

"No," I shout out. "Just a smile. That's all I need."

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I don't leave town until 2:00, and all I can think about is how I get to climb a pass during the hottest part of the day, on a Sunday afternoon when all the weekend travelers head home. I prepare myself for all of it, along with the possibility of more gravel-covered roads.

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As it turns out, the sun drifts in and out of the clouds, the gravel never comes, the shoulder stays wide, and the heavy traffic doesn't show up. I know I have less than 20 miles to ride, so I send any thoughts of speed to the back of my mind and cruise as slowly as I feel like, staring up into the trees, looking out into the mountains in the distance, and telling the flies that they'd better stop landing on me or I'm going to kill them.

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Yesterday's big climb set the bar for mountain passes so high that the push up to Wauconda Pass ends up feeling like the easiest summit of the trip. I keep waiting for the steepness and switchbacks to arrive, for my legs to turn tired, for the sweat to pour, but it never happens. I simply keep pedaling, round one last corner, and, oh hey, there's the pass, as if the 1,800-foot gain from Republic was just a warmup.

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A few miles down to the west I roll up to the Wauconda Cafe, which is also the gas station, the store, and the post office for a town that's so tiny the ACA map doesn't list its population. About a dozen people pass into and out of the cafe in the hour I'm there. The tattooed older woman behind the counter flips shit at all of them and I'm the only one who doesn't know everybody else. Everyone's impressed by the bigness of my trip, a response that's becoming stronger as I get closer and closer to the Pacific. Some people would turn excited back in Florida or Kentucky when I mentioned where I was headed, but now the scale's been tweaked so that it starts at "Wow!" and goes all the way up to "Holy fuckin' shit!" Three months ago I was still mostly potential; I could just as easily quit somewhere along the way. Now I've almost finished what I set out to do and people really respect that.

The keys to the mailbox, sitting on top of the mailbox.
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At the counter near the bar I talk to a local guy in his mid-60s, with a bushy white beard, a gray t-shirt, and a black U.S. Navy Veteran hat. He's like a bigger version of Bill from Guffey, Colorado. When he finds out where I've been, he tells me about the time he spent in Key West, back when he sailed a boat from New York to the West Coast through the Panama Canal.

"I remember when I was—"

"In jail?" the woman behind the bar interrupts.

"Yeah yeah yeah, very funny—when I was in Key West. There was this young girl anchored nearby. She lived on this tiny sailboat. She worked as a cocktail waitress in town, and every night at 7:00 she'd get in the dinghy and motor into town. Well, she'd always wear these really short mini-skirts. And you know how you start an outboard motor, right? Man, she was all bent over trying to get that thing started. Every night! I always made sure to be out and up at 7:00, you know?

"I coulda helped her with it, gone over and fixed it and made it start a little easier, but why in the hell would I go and do that?" he says, his voice rising and then running off into a huge laugh and smile.

One of the best things about traveling is that it forces my interactions with people to be short, which means that I hear only the stories that they love the most. It's a quick look into their world that lets me see what rates as funny or ridiculous or memorable in their minds. I'm going to miss those stories more than just about anything after I'm home.

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I set up the tent behind what used to be the Wauconda schoolhouse. It's a red-sized building that's now empty, with windows that hang open and let birds fly in and out. As the sun sets the moon becomes more defined in the southern in the southern sky and I look out onto rolling hills covered in a mix of thick pine trees and grass that fades from green at the bottom to yellow toward the top. Bugs hum all around the tent, with the flies making a buzzing sound and the mosquitoes more of a high-pitched whine. Every time a dozen or so of them land on the mesh I give the tent a shake and send them scattering in all directions. I'm sure they think I'm a prick.

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I tuck into the sleeping bag just before dark, because the air cools quickly up near 4,000 feet. A tattered flag flaps 30 feet away in a light breeze, birds make rustling noises inside the schoolhouse, cows moo on a nearby hillside, and two sprinklers chatter in not-quite-equal time. A live version of Jeff Buckley singing "Hallelujah" spills quietly out of the laptop speakers, coyotes howl out to one another from up in the mountains, and the yellowish-white half-moon moves almost imperceptibly across the sky. It's calm and peaceful and wonderful. All of the people who motor through town on their way to points east and west have no idea what they're missing.

Today's ride: 18 miles (29 km)
Total: 6,015 miles (9,680 km)

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