Day 13: Winema National Forest to Modoc National Forest - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

September 8, 2014

Day 13: Winema National Forest to Modoc National Forest

The morning starts with a clumb up the last two-thirds of the almost thousand-foot pull to the summit of Bly Mountain Pass. When we reach the top we're rewarded with a view out to the valley below and then the mountains beyond. Those mountains have added importance right now, because they're our first look at California, the state we've been riding almost two weeks to reach.

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After bombing down the back side of the pass we cut south and enjoy an easy ride to Bonanza. As we get closer to town the pine trees drop away and we find ourselves surrounded by farms, with their sprinklers chugging and reflecting rainbows in the rays of the morning sun. We also find ourselves dragging from a lack of energy. With our food supply all but gone, and having not eaten nearly enough in the last two days, we're both weary as we roll extra-slow into town past dozens of double-cab Ford pickup trucks, almost all of which pull rusty horse trailers behind them.

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And a self-serving a-hole.
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I nearly shout for joy when I see that El Sombrero Loco is open for breakfast. There we load up on burritos, rice, beans, eggs, french toast, and coffee. From the moment our food arrives we look at each other from across the table with goofy smiles and then right away start laughing in a crazy kind of way, all out of satisfaction. Any kind of warm food would have been wonderful considering our hunger, but what we're eating is so perfect and delicious that we're perched on the edge of giddiness.

During the hour we're in town, at least half a dozen old men stop to ask where we're going, how many miles we ride each day, how we avoid the interstates, and where the heck do we sleep while we're out there. When they aren't talking to us, they fall into conversation with each other, and with no hint of irony say things like, "You're gonna win some, you're gonna lose some," "I'm like a blind dog in a meat house," and "But hey, that's life". They're the kind of people who live in the kind of small town that when someone asks "What's happenin'?" the most common response is "Not anything!"

It's wonderful. For as stunning and challenging and just plain fun as this trip has been, it's also been very much a two-person story. We started in a part of Oregon where the population's so big that no one talks to anyone they don't know, but then right away we jumped into the mountains and forests where there isn't anyone at all to ask the question, "Where you headed on them two-wheelers?" Bonanza reminds me how much I've missed these kind of interactions, however fleeting and insignificant they might seem, because travel isn't a complete story unless you find yourself in conversations with people you've never before met and won't ever see again.

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The clunk of a gear change sends ducks and herons squawking and flying from their floating spots in the half blue and half green stagnant water of the irrigation canals. The canals run out to the Poe Valley, where the haze of smoke from far-off forest fires blurs the distant hillsides, and where every somewhat flat square foot of land shines green because it's been put to use for agriculture or raising livestock.

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Soon we crawl up a climb, coast down the other side, pedal a few more flat miles, and then without any kind of sign or change in pavement quality we hang a left and cross into California. The air fills with the strong scent of just-harvested mint and we lag behind a big John Deere tractor with some kind of red and silver implement hanging off the back.

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Worst state line crossing and worst state line crossing picture ever.
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A few miles farther and we arrive in Tulelake. It's a town of about a thousand people that used to be thriving but now stands mostly dead. The first thing I do is head to the grocery store for honey buns and some other healthy things that's not worth writing about. What I find knocks me back. Inside there's booze everywhere, from vodka and gin to whisky, brandy, cognac, tequila, sake, sangria, and absinthe — and there are at least three and sometimes dozens of brands of each. There's also every variation of wine you could think of, along with craft beer, fruit beer, beer in twenty-four-packs, beer in singles, beer from all over the world. And of course there's everything that goes along with all of this, like margarita mix and bitters and triple sec and all sorts of glassware. It's a carnival of different bottle shapes and glass colors and stylish packaging and banners that try to convince shoppers to pick one brand at the expense of the 400 others. All of this stuff takes up literally half of the store, and it's not a small store. The inventory by itself might be worth more than any piece of property in town. By the time I walk out the automatic swing-open front door, there's no mystery about what a lot of people in this remote corner of the state do with their spare time.

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Storefronts advertise a hotel, a market, a hardware store, two auto parts stores, a plumbing business, and a second-hand clothing boutique, but they're all gone. The front of what used to be a movie theater remains, but it's clear that it hasn't been used for that purpose in decades. About all that's left are a credit union, a health center, the branch office of a farm credit agency, a small building housing both the DMV and the Highway Patrol, and an even tinier library, where we escape the afternoon. Sitting among the stacks of books and watching the locals come in and out, I think about how, if I lived here and didn't have the education or the job prospects to leave, I'd probably drink a lot too.

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I try to see the good in every place I travel, but out here that's tough to do. This town makes me think about how I'm so lucky to have the career I do, to have gone to a good high school and university, and to have the desire and the ability to travel the world. If I'd started life somewhere else, or made a few different choices or mistakes along the way, Tulelake, California could just as easily have ended up as the center of my life, and the path of my future would look different in almost every way.

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But I'm fortunate. After only a few hours I can leave Tulelake behind and choose never to come back.

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With the help of a generous tailwind we speed past fields of wheat and potatoes and ride parallel to railroad tracks dotted with empty rail cars. As we continue to the southeast we approach a massive volcanic something that is at the same time rounded and hard-angled and striated in shape and texture, depending on where you look. It stands in such stark contrast to the table-flat farm fields that surround it on all sides. And as we pedal past, we see the colors and shadows change with each passing minute as the sun makes its charge to the opposite horizon line.

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The valley ends and we head up again, among sagebrush and yellowish grass that looks kind of like wheat, with the sun a well-defined but pale orange ball behind the smoke haze. The air is still warm, the tailwind still blows strong, and most every car has returned home for the evening.

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As the full moon rises with a pinkish glow we once again pull off the highway, ride down a dirt road, and then set up the tent in the just-wide-enough gap between a pair of juniper trees, one tall and full and the other younger, shorter, and narrower. Cows in a nearby field moo like we've offended them, while a handful of crickets whir in a monotone.

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We look to the west, the sky fading from a medium blue at the top down to orange, then pink, and finally back to a light shade of purple.

"Man, we are here," I say.

"That was our driveway," Kristen responds. "This is our bedroom."

It is tonight. And tonight it's so good.

Today's ride: 58 miles (93 km)
Total: 565 miles (909 km)

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