Day 119: Leader Lake Campground to Okanogan National Forest - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

August 9, 2011

Day 119: Leader Lake Campground to Okanogan National Forest

Less than a mile after I start pedaling up I head back down. It's only for half a mile, but it's enough for the cold of the morning to send both of my eyes watering and turn every exposed patch of skin numb. Yet as soon as I bottom out none of it matters, because the highway immediately feeds me a steady diet of steepness and S-curves that leave me sweating inside of a mile. I ride in the sun, pass into the shade for a few moments, and then come back out again. The power lines that parallel the road next to me are so flush with electricity that they fill the air with the echo thousands of little zaps every second.

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Soon I trade the buzzes and hums for the crashing of small creeks that tumble down the side of the mountain. I spend most of the climb buried in the trees with little to distract me except for the mooing of cattle I can't see, so I sing out loud and have conversations with myself—both of which help get me to the top of the pass, but will definitely start to cause me social problems if I can't get them under control by the time the trip ends.

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Just past 8:00 I crest Loup Loup Pass, the pass so nice they named it twice. I think about all of the long and painful climbs I've done on this trip and how I only have one more to go. Thank God. Some riders love the challenge of climbing, but I don't trust those kind of people.

Every mountain pass should come with a finish line.
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I live for the descents. On this one I try to find out if I can coast all the way down from the top of the pass to the junction with Highway 153, which sits at the bottom ten miles away. I push off with my feet and let gravity take over. Within two miles I'm frozen, with my neck stiff, my back tight, my legs aching from staying in one place, and my nipples poking so far out they almost touch the top of the handlebars. But the drop is steady and smooth and the cold is absolutely worth it.

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Eight miles after starting down the grade levels out and I have to sit through a few minutes of awkward coasting at five and six miles per hour. The slow speed and wobbling confuse half a dozen passing drivers before I pick up a little more downhill and continue on. I make it to within a mile of the junction before I round a corner and come to a small hill that kills the dream.

So close.

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The ride on the back road that runs between Twisp and Winthrop is wonderful, with an empty and gently rolling strip of pavement that takes me past lush green fields, old barns, and what's left of wooden grain silos that must be at least 70 years old. I follow the curves of the Chewuch River and look out on low-lying hills of yellow and green with the very tops of the snow-covered Cascade Mountains beyond them giving me a preview of what's to come tomorrow.

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I've been to Winthrop a few times before, but the older I get the more I realize how ridiculous it is. The town tries hard to appeal to tourists by making itself look like something out of the Wild West, with wooden sidewalks, hand-painted business signs that look old and weathered even when they're brand new, and garbage and recycling cans made from barrels. It seems to work, because the place is filled with people from Washington and Oregon and California, all of whom wander around in search of an answer to the same question: what the hell do we do in Winthrop? They find it in a hundred variations all based on the just three things: buying overpriced food, buying overpriced products, and posing for pictures in front of wooden statues of old guys that look like cowboys.

A hundred people are outside taking pictures of a town that pretends to look old and authentic. I'm in the bathroom snapping a photo of graffiti. This is my trip across America in a nutshell.
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From a porch overlooking the main intersection I wonder what the town was like 50 years ago. I wonder how many thousands of dollars worth of polo shirts I'd see if I stayed in the same spot for an hour. And I wonder if anyone I see walking by will go home and tell all of their friends about the totally amazing time they had in Winthrop. Then I watch four cars compete for the same angled parking spot. After that I see a busload of tourists from Spokane headed my way, all wearing big white name tags, just in case they get hopelessly lost on Winthrop's one main street. Not much later I see a motorcycle roll past with a man up front and a woman in back, who cradles a full-grown Jack Russell Terrier in a pillow on her lap.

I love America—because of this trip more than ever—but holy crap are we a nation of goofballs.

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In the afternoon I head west through the phenomenally beautiful Methow River Valley, where the floor shines in a thousand shades of green and yellow as it winds between tall mountains that fade far into the distance in a bluish haze. I tell myself that I'm riding without a plan, that I'll take my time to get to Mazama, continue on to one of the Forest Service campgrounds on the way up to Washington Pass, and then finish the climb in the morning on rested legs.

But it's a lie and I know it.

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I didn't reach the top of Loup Loup Pass last night and I don't want to be denied again. I also know that this time, when I make it to the top, all of the big climbs are over and done with. I want to finish strong, in a way that seems dramatic, and a push up a son-of-a-bitch mountain against fading daylight is the closest I'm going to get.

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I pedal hard to Mazama and then get after the climbing at 5:00. It's a sweaty start, with the sun beating down from above and also reflecting up from the freshly tarred and chipped black surface. Soon the road turns steeper, I ride slower, and all of a sudden the size of the challenge ahead becomes very real. Deer along the side of the road stop when I pass, freezing in place and then watching me go. I call out and tell them that I can see them, which I hope is helpful advice that will better prepare them for a real predator. Then I try to figure out how it's possible to have a headwind both every time I climb a pass and every time I come down the other side.

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The air turns cool the instant the sun drops below the tall peaks that loom large and imposing to the west. It makes sense and would be the safe choice to stop at the campground that sits six miles from the pass, but I ride by the entrance without slowing down. I've come 6,141 miles since Florida and I know that I can dig down and find six more. I'm rewarded with scenery that's as dramatic as anything from Glacier National Park. From a dark canyon I look up at peaks covered partly with snow but mostly with jagged rock that reflects brown, gray, tan, and a few hints of red in the sunlight that still shines above. Higher still, wisps of clouds that look like white-colored cotton candy hang almost motionless. Every mile or so I pass streams that rush loudly as they speed under the road and down to a river I can't see through narrow metal culverts. It's an incredible show for an audience of only a few dozen.

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The breeze gets colder as it gets later. I push higher and higher and eventually ride past giant mounds of snow that sit on the ground next to the highway. Thinking about the cold and about camping somewhere in the woods starts me singing the song "Where Did You Sleep Last Night":

My girl, my girl, where will you go?
I'm going where the cold wind blows
In the pines, in the pines
Where the sun don't ever shine
I would shiver the whole night through

There's no one around so I really get into it, drawing deep and trying to push out the words with all of the scratch and snarl and emotion that Kurt Cobain gave to them when he performed the song on MTV Unplugged back in 1993. I'm a crazy guy on a bike, lost in my own world, looking down toward the ground and singing loudly to no one at all, tired and sore and hungry, crawling up the side of a mountain very slowly. I pedal and pedal and pedal without stopping too much, because I don't have a choice. I know I won't find a place to sleep until I reach the top.

And I wouldn't want it any other way.

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I grunt and grind and don't give up and finally round the last corner just before 8:00, with the sky nearly dark and the chilly air sending me shivering.

"Fuck yeah," I tell myself. "I did it."

I just dominated two tough passes in the same day. Nothing else needs to be said.

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I get moving again after a quick photo because it's cold at 5,500 feet this far north after the sun goes down. I pedal a mile up a side road, set up the tent in some trees near a closed visitor center, and dive inside. The rain fly helps keep out the chill, leaving me to celebrate my victory and my last night alone in the woods in warmth with the huge pine trees all around making subtle swishing sounds as their branches dance in the wind.

Today's ride: 67 miles (108 km)
Total: 6,149 miles (9,896 km)

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