Day 16: Lassen National Forest to Lassen National Forest - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

September 11, 2014

Day 16: Lassen National Forest to Lassen National Forest

When we look out from under the rain fly in the morning we see the sun sparkling off the flawless surface of Eagle Lake through a frame of pine trees. We waste little time returning to the road, where we wind left and right and left and right up gentle slopes in the shadows of the trees. Mountains covered in dark green rise up in the distance and we pedal past pine cones the shape and almost the size of a football that have fallen into the ditch off to our right.

It's a warm morning, much warmer than the last few, and within a few miles I've already ditched my gloves and jacket. After a few more I'm down to only a t-shirt (and shorts) because the road continues to climb and trend up at steeper angles. Along the way we talk about other kinds of adventures that we'd like to undertake some day, like traveling by sail boat, living on a remote island, or returning to these national forests in my Volkswagen camper van. Now that we've made the leap to give up the structure and the stuff of a typical American adult life, a bunch of audacious dreams that never before would have seemed possible now feel not so much out of the question.

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We also look up and down and into the woods and savor the beautiful part of America through which we're riding. We've seen such a long string of stunning and isolated country over the past week that it's started to become familiar. I have to remind myself to enjoy it while it's in front of me, because by tomorrow night we'll be down near sea level in the Central Valley. At least I try to appreciate it. Enjoying anything proves tough as we head farther up and face ten and twelve percent grades that leave us swearing and dumping sweat even in the cool of the morning. It's far and away the hardest sustained climb we've experienced so far.

But for all of the hard work we're rewarded tenfold. We start down still in the tunnel of trees, but then we round a corner and find ourselves on a treeless ridge looking down at an open expanse of pines and a valley that extends a few thousand feet down and dozens of miles into the distance. Two large deer bound across the road twenty yards in front of us at one point, and we watch white rabbits shoot off into the underbrush, but for the most part we drop all alone at twenty-five miles per hour, leaning left and right all along the way, without having to even think about turning the pedals. Farther down the road takes us back into the trees, through more tight turns, and leads us to scare the shit out of all the little chipmunks who like to forage in the bushes that sit just a few feet off the pavement.

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A couple of miles of howling highway connects us to the Bizz Johnson Trail, a gravel path that's about as wide as a big truck, and that we didn't know existed until about twenty minutes before. At 25 miles in length it's somehow the longest rail trail in the entire state of California. But even though it's short, it's wonderful riding. Because it was built with trains in mind, the route's sole focus was finding the flattest possible way through this stretch of mountains. That means it charges into the woods on its own, far from the highway and houses and all but a couple of farms and pastures. Once we're out of earshot from the road we start to see butterflies chase each other in jerky patterns, hear chipmunks squeak from on top of rocks and stumps, and listen to birds chirp about whatever it is that birds chirp about — probably my horrible tan lines. At several points we ride next to stone cliffs that are eroding and falling down to the trail one pebble at a time. The background music for all of it is the sound of the wind spooling up and then winding down through the branches of the trees that box us in.

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We never have to worry about being run over by a dirty pickup truck, and instead of bottles and cans and fast food wrappers littering the trail's edge, all we see are bushes and twigs and beds of amber-colored pine needles. It's the most intimate connection with the forest we've had so far.

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Well, at least the first half of the twenty miles we travel on it today are that good. As we hit the crest of the rise and start down the other side the trail turns more into gravel and loose-packed dirt. It rocks our bodies and our bikes and each of us comes this close to dumping it at least half a dozen times. At the same time, the view around us changes from thick forest to areas that were recently clear cut, which is less attractive and also puts us under the full weight of the heat and glare of the early afternoon sun.

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But we have big-time motivation to reach Westwood at the trail's end. We haven't seen a city, a town, or even a gas station in two full days, and a bit of phone research along earlier in the afternoon revealed that Westwood not only has a large grocery store, but far more importantly a pizza place that waits to take our order for a large pizza with half healthy stuff and half not-at-all-healthy stuff the moment we walk in the door. That faith keeps us going.

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We make it and the pizza does not disappoint. It's every bit as good as we hoped it would be. But what stands out the most is Ryan, the guy who runs the restaurant. After school gets out, kids ride up and lay their bikes on the grass out front. When they walk in the door Ryan greets them by name. He gives them high-fives, asks them how they like their new teachers, and talks to them as people and not like children. When Lorraine comes in, he asks her if she's wearing new glasses, because he remembers how last week she mentioned that she was going to an appointment with her eye doctor. He stands around the front of the restaurant with his customers and friends and neighbors as much as he's behind the counter or in the kitchen, and he seems to know everyone who walks in the door. Ryan talks about how the restaurant is helping sponsor a memorial golf tournament, and he wants to play, but he can't because he's involved with the peewee football tournament that's happening on the same weekend. He has a genuine interest in people. He asks a lot of questions. And it doesn't seem to matter if you're a regular, or you live in the next town down the highway, or you're riding all over the place on a bicycle, he cares what's going on in your life. As we sit and eat and fill ourselves with soda it becomes more and more obvious that he's one of those kinds of people who hold small towns like this together.

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At one point while we're eating, the high school football team jogs down the street in full pads, all of a sudden stops in the middle of it, turns to face the pizza place, and then busts out out a series of jumping jacks before continuing back to the field from which they came. Later, a boy of about six years old comes up and asks us if we've seen any animals on our trip so far, just because he's curious about what the world's like out where we've been. All of these things come together and reveal to us that Westwood is a small town and a welcoming town. It's a town that unlike some of the others we've passed through makes us feel uplifted instead of a little sad. It leaves with me this kind of warm, satisfied feeling that never in my life will I grow tired of.

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Amped up by liters of soda and rounder around the middle from stuffing our faces with pizza, we crank to the west with the sun marching down toward the hazy layers of mountains in the distance. We know we have twenty miles to go before we re-enter national forest land, and barely enough light to make that happen, so we savor the big downhills and push ourselves hard on the flats.

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Beyond the town of Chester we angle up and climb into the woods. With the days becoming shorter and shorter, we do what we've done on so many evenings of this trip, which is ride until it's almost dark. This time we go until there's so little light that the trees lose all texture and become only outlines, and we hear the chirps of the bats overhead before we see them. In the last ten minutes before the world turns black, we pull off the highway and set up for what will likely be our last night in a national forest on this leg of the trip. Under a canopy of stars, with coyotes yelping not too far to the west of us, and with bodies exhausted from days of climbing over mountains, we settle in and prepare ourselves for one last charge across the Sierras.

Today's ride: 64 miles (103 km)
Total: 737 miles (1,186 km)

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