Day 14: Modoc National Forest to Modoc National Forest - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

September 9, 2014

Day 14: Modoc National Forest to Modoc National Forest

We wake up to the sounds of cows mooing in such a pained, dramatic way that it seems like they must all be receiving some kind of rectal examination at the same time. It's a strange backdrop to the rest of the world, which is still and beautiful, and cool but not cold with the sun shining down through cloudless skies. It's a great day to ride bikes in Northern California, and that's what we do.

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We have at last gotten to the point where we go to bed with tired leg muscles, but when we start riding the next day they only feel a bit sore. That helps us go strong up the morning's hills, where quail run away into the bushes when we pass, and the most exciting thing that happens is when we pass through an agricultural inspection station without giving up the tomato we bought in Oregon.

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When we turn off the highway to head south toward Lookout, we stop to refuel with honey-roasted peanuts and a Cherry Coke that still holds the cold of last night. My plan to break Kristen's healthy eating habits is working.

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After the turn we lose all of the traffic but gain one of the best back roads we've found so far. Tall pine trees crowd in around us and let us ride in the shadows. Something about the sun hitting the needles must activate their scent, because the air fills with the strongest smell of pine, complemented by a hint of smoke from the forest fires we haven't yet seen. With all of the cars and trucks far distant, all we hear is the whoosh of the wind, the rustle of squirrels in the brush, and the hum of our chains and tires.

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Farther on the road drops down and to the right shoots us out onto a ride that sits above a valley. It looks totally different from where we were five minutes before. There's minimal agriculture and few livestock that we can see, just waves of earth covered in yellow grass and sagebrush and junipers, bound to the east by a tall and lumpy line of mountains covered by a patchwork of yellow and dark green, all of it washed out by the haze that funnels up from the south. Above a cattle pen six vultures circle. Down in the hand of the valley old barns built of dark-colored wood with sheet metal roofs reflect silver in the harsh noontime sun.

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"Jus' about the only time anyone on a motorcycle or bicycle ends up here's 'cause they're lost," says an old man with a big white beard and a bigger stomach when we stop at the the post office in Lookout, population 84. "Only way to get anywhere from here's back the way ya came in."

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We eat lunch under the awning of the building, next to an old stop sign with loose bolts that clangs in the wind. That clanging is the start and the end of the action in Lookout on this Tuesday afternoon, and also I imagine on every other Tuesday afternoon.

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From there we pound dead east across the unimaginatively named Big Valley. It is dry and it is hot and it is yellow. Antelope bound along irrigated fields, dust devils spool up on the tracts that aren't, and tumbleweeds lodge themselves within the fence line. Few vehicles pass, but most are farmers in dirty pickups who give a slow wave of the left hand and a little nod from beneath a wide-brimmed cowboy hat as they pass. In the peak of the sun's brightness and the afternoon's heat it has the feel and the sound of West Texas.

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After filling up on sandwiches, potato chips, cinnamon bread, apples, and ice cream among dozens of wall-mounted buck heads at the general store in Adin we head south once more. As we do, we find ourselves in what has become a familiar routine over the past few days: ride away from a small town, continue on to the end of valley in which that town sits, and then start cranking up into the mountains, where we'll find national forest land and a place to lay our heads for the night.

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The routine is familiar but it's never mundane or repetitive. On this night we bang against the wind for an hour before we start to head up. Once we do, we feel the cool of Willow Creek, which winds down a narrow notch in the hills at tight angles. Because agriculture and livestock fill the land near the creek bed, we face tough riding on a road that rises like a set of steps along the undulations of the hillside. With the smoke lessened by the afternoon wind, the sun casts its familiar orange spotlight over everything we see.

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Just past a sign marking 5,000 feet of elevation, and a full 15 miles after leaving Adin, we pull off into a Forest Service campground. Because fall is fast approaching, we get only half an hour before the woods fade to black. Inside the tent our stomachs rumble with hunger while we listen to Billy Bragg and Wilco cover Woody Guthrie's California Stars and look at elevation profiles for the days to come. We'll ride as high as 6,200 feet and then drop all the way down to 250 feet in just three days. As we sit among the crickets and the forest silence it's harder still for us to imagine that at this time next week we'll be among millions of people as we make our way along the edge of San Francisco Bay. But that's part of the magic of California. We're so happy we get to be a part of it.

Today's ride: 66 miles (106 km)
Total: 631 miles (1,015 km)

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