Shaking it down in Skagit County - Part 1 - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

Shaking it down in Skagit County - Part 1

March 17, 2011

It takes me four tries to attach the right-rear pannier. Once I finally get it, I realize how heavy the bike is. It's fully loaded, hard to move around, and seems to be trying its hardest to tip over. I try to remember the last time I had all four panniers and a tent on the thing, ready for a long ride. Eventually I realize it was August 2009, more than a year and a half ago. Back then I was sweating through every piece of clothing I carried, slogging through the windy and ridiculously hot Central Valley of California, and narrowly avoiding being run over by a two-trailered semi on Pacheco Pass as I tried to reach Hollister.

There's none of that today. Darrington is cold; maybe 38 degrees. The sun is out and the skies are mostly blue, but two minutes after I start riding I can't feel my ears and my fingers start to freeze up. And it's raining, too. OK, it's not really rain, but the snow melting from the branches of the trees that parallel the snow-covered shoulders of Highway 530 sounds and feels exactly like rain as it drops on my head, splashes off my yellow jacket, and soaks the road below. At first I think I'm riding through fog, but soon notice that it's steam rising from the snow as the sun strikes its surface.

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The weight takes awhile to get used to. The Novara Randonee isn't a sporty bike when it's empty, but now it's even less responsive than normal, and it's wobbling a bit because someone didn't balance the bags up front quite right. Despite that, it's a good ride on smooth pavement. I find myself thinking about how pleased I am with the bike and how happy I am to be out here. Every few seconds I pull as much fresh air in through my nose as I can and then push it right back out of my mouth in a puff of white that the breeze quickly pushes away over my right shoulder.

There isn't much out here: the occasional logging truck, some old homes, an obviously poor Indian reservation. A car passes every few minutes, but other than that I ride alone. Eventually I start hearing pops of gunfire and buzzing chainsaws.

12 miles up the road I leave the highway and pick up a deserted back road that takes me to Concrete. The clouds have mostly pushed away the sunshine by now, but a few snow-covered mountain peaks still manage to punch their way through, shining white and green against a pale blue backdrop. Even though it's day one of the NCAA tournament, arguably the greatest sports day of the entire year, I still decide there's nowhere else I'd rather be at this moment. That's saying something.

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Not 60 seconds after I make those notes in my journal, I hear gunshots from across the river. That's not unusual here. What makes this out of the ordinary is that the bullets are headed in my direction. Two guys stand on the rocky shore on the opposite side of the river about a quarter of a mile away, one throwing rocks or beer cans up into the air in the direction of the water, while the other tries to shoot them before they splash down. I'm wearing my bright yellow jacket and could not be more obvious. There's also a truck parked along the road less than a half a mile south of me, where two men also very clearly stand just above the banks of the river. It makes no difference to this hillbilly; he keeps shooting like no one's around. I stand there for a moment, just staring across the way, trying to make sense of what I'm seeing. It's not until after the fifth or sixth shot that something clicks in my head and my dumb ass finally realizes the danger I'm in.

"If I'm going to die on a tour," I think to myself, "It won't be like this."

I hop on the bike and get out of there as quickly as I can.

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I live my life by a few important guiding principles: make sure your girlfriend knows you love her, shave before you shower, check the expiration date, and never, ever eat lunch in Concrete. I was here just about a year ago and had the single worst meal of my life, a completely foul combination of cold, limp roast beef, nearly black gravy, and heavily burnt toast that jiggled together slowly in a solid mass each time I nudged the edge of the table. I vowed never to have another meal in Concrete.

Today I'm weak. I've only had a small sandwich all day, I'm getting tired from hunger, and I'm pretty sure there isn't anything between here and the campground. In a lapse of judgment I pull into Cascade Burgers, hope for the best, and order a pair of grilled cheese sandwiches from a young girl wearing the kind of thick, distracting, bright green eyeshadow you can only experience in rural America. As it turns out, she makes some killer grilled cheese. They're golden brown and lightly crispy on the outside, with thick and chewy cheddar sneaking out over every edge. I'm happy I'm alive to eat them.

You know you're moving up in the world when your show gets moved from the White Horse Grange to Skidders in Darrington. I didn't notice the awesome teacup poodles sign at the time.
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I ride seven easy miles west to Rasar State Park. I set up the tent, climb inside, and immediately notice how quiet it is out here. The park is empty except for one or two other people, and they're not close by. No cars drive past, no kids yell, no dogs bark. It's not raining, there isn't a breath of wind, and I can't hear any planes or helicopters above. There's only the subtle drone of the Skagit River as it drifts slowly by a few hundred yards away. It's only 6:30, but I lay my head down and fall asleep immediately.

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