Day 15: Modoc National Forest to Lassen National Forest - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

September 10, 2014

Day 15: Modoc National Forest to Lassen National Forest

It's always cold in the morning when you camp at the elevations like we've been camping at. When we wake up, we try to guess whether it's just kind of cold or if it's really the sort of freezing-ass cold that makes sleeping in until noon seem like a reasonable idea. This morning Kristen walks over to the table at our campsite and finds the clothes she washed last night frozen solid and joined together in a small icy ball. It's officially freezing-ass cold. We counter the cold and our numb fingers and toes by riding up, up, and then up some more on the five-mile climb that marks the start of our day.

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On the way down we pass what the map shows as a small lake, maybe half a mile across. But when we look in that direction today, all we see is lake bed. There's no water left at all, only a broad expanse of brown surrounded by a ring of yellow grass that soon gives way to sagebrush. Farther on we drop into a valley, where cliffs hang a few hundred feet above us on the right, and to the left we look out on flat land that extends for miles but is populated only by a dozen cattle. There's so little traffic that I can hear Kristen singing Disney songs like "Let It Go" and "Part of Your World" as she rides far behind me, and when we stop she can do a full set of push-ups in the middle of the highway without worrying about being run over.

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The climb and descent that follow take us to Eagle Lake — or at least what's left of Eagle Lake. Looking down from the highway we see a small sheen of blue in the distance, but surrounding it is a skirt of dried mud and dying grass and other plants that look like they extend for at least a mile between the water and the shoreline. It's a clear visualization of what kind of effect three long, hot, drought-stricken summers have had on this part of the country. As a result, the one general store and restaurant we find are both closed, and have been for some time. Pine needles lay in dry piles like little mountains on the deck and the signs printed on white paper and then posted on the doors are starting to yellow at the edges.

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A depressing RV park behind the store remains open and it becomes our home for the next several hours. We escape the hot and shadeless afternoon in its funny-smelling laundry room, which features half a dozen warning signs that are big on clip art and ugly fonts and all-caps text, and where the first magazine at the top of the stack is an issue of Time from 2008 that's heavy on Sarah Palin content. When I take a shower for the first time in eight days, the water that falls off my body runs in black droplets down the walls and settles in a murky pool around my feet before it swirls down the drain. One woman walking a suspicious old hound dog says hello from a distance, but that's the only person we see in the more than three hours we spend camped out in our restroom-laundry compound.

In case you've forgotten.
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I embrace my new-found clean for a couple hours before drowning myself in sunscreen for the rest of the afternoon and evening's ride. We stay fresh for all of seven minutes, after which a series of steep climbs up and away from the lake drop us to our lowest gears and send the sweat pouring down our temples and the backs of our necks.

After flying down the backside of a hill at better than thirty-five miles per hour, we round a corner and find cattle standing in the road, grazing at its edges, and leaving behind piles of shit everywhere. But it makes sense, because we've crossed back into a national forest, and every national forest we've traveled through during the past few days has dedicated tens of thousands of acres not to preserving the land for future generations or helping ensure the survival of native plants and grasses and trees, but rather to letting cows graze wherever the hell they want. That forces us to yell Go!, Go on!, and Git! to a bunch of large and confused livestock in order to keep our day moving.

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But soon after we find ourselves on one of the most delightful stretches of the trip so far, pedaling in the shade of the thickest stands of pine trees we've yet seen, looking at types of bushes we also haven't yet seen, talking about our families, and of course laughing at farts because it's impossible for us not to. All of this happens in that sweet spot between the afternoon's hot and the night's cold.

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Our plan has us turning off the pavement and onto a gravel forest service road that will carry us toward Westwood while allowing us to bypass the traffic and noise of Highway 36. And it's a great plan except for one hitch: the gravel road is unrideable. The grade is tough, but not so tough that we couldn't grind through it. The problem is that the surface dirt is so loosely packed that it's difficult to keep upright even when we're moving. And whenever we have to stop, we spin our rear tires and expend massive amounts of energy just to get going two or three miles per hour, while always feeling like we're on the verge of face-planting into a pile of rocks. If we had been on the road longer than two weeks we might keep going. If there were no other choice we'd continue on and push if we had to. But we're still riding into shape, another option exists, and we'd really like to keep from blowing out an ACL or two, so not long after we start we say fuck it and head back to the blacktop.

Power dinner in the middle of a Forest Service road.
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With darkness almost on top of us we ride south through thick clouds of bugs as bats angle through the indigo sky above. Within fifteen minutes we're out of light and pull down a side road, where we wheel the bikes between the trees and set up on a thick pile of pine needles that crunch like a bag of potato chips with every step. We crawl into the sleeping bag to the sound of a thousand crickets and a few unknown somethings scratching and snuffling in the brush around us.

Today's ride: 42 miles (68 km)
Total: 673 miles (1,083 km)

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