Day 7: Willamette National Forest to Sisters, OR - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

September 2, 2014

Day 7: Willamette National Forest to Sisters, OR

We wake up to the sound of bird wings fluttering. Down below us, steam rises off the cold surface of the lake whenever beams from the rising sun make contact with it. As with last night, we're surrounded by a world where everything is natural, where there's no noise from trucks or generators or screaming six-year-olds. I know there are many more beautiful places to come, and that we're only starting our seventh day of the trip, but it seems hard to imagine that any place could compare to Scott Lake.

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We're cranking slowly on the last six miles up toward the pass when we round a corner and the forest disappears. In its place isn't a prairie or a vista, but a giant field of black hardened lava that stretches into the distance so far that it starts to climb up the side of a mountain.

And then, in less than a quarter of a mile, we're tunneled in trees again, like the lava never happened.

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Near the top of the pass we ride into the lava fields again. This stuff is seriously old, like even older than the 1970s. We're talking between 1,500 and 3,000 years old — which still makes them some of the newest in the United States. The flows that created the fields came not from just one volcano, but three separate craters, and together the flows cover an area of more than seventy square miles.

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By the time we hit McKenzie Pass we stand more than a mile above sea level. For a couple of out of shape riders loaded down by heavy bikes and full camping gear it's no small achievement. We hang out at the top at an observatory built out of lava from by the Civilian Conservation Corps and finished in 1937. From there we're up high enough that we can look out at almost a dozen different mountain peaks, about half of which still have snow on the top, even at the end of the summer. The wind blows strong and cold, and the air is crisp and clear and free of any kind of pollution. It's the first mountain pass that Kristen has ever climbed, and I don't have the heart to tell her that she might climb a hundred more and none of them will be as spectacular as this one.

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While making a sandwich next to the Summit McKenzie Pass Elev. 5325 sign, a bearded man on a recumbent who just finished riding up from the east coasts over our way.

"Where you guys headed?" he asks.

"Los Angeles, eventually," I say, "But just down to Sisters tonight."

"Do you have a place to stay there?"

"Maybe. We were thinking about camping in town."

"Do you want one?"

"Yes."

It turns out Jim is a Warm Showers host who lives only a couple miles north of Sisters. Even on the top of a mountain pass, our good luck in finding helpful, friendly people continues.

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We bomb down the east side of the pass, leaning left and then right, over and over again, as the road switchbacks its way down and away from the lava fields. Kristen shouts "You fucker!" at an RV that decides to drift several feet over the double yellow line at the center of the road because the driver is so old, disinterested, or overmatched — or some combination of the three — that he no longer has the ability to keep such a wide vehicle pointed in the right direction at all times.

At one point we hit a stretch where we travel more than eight miles without pedaling and without a single car passing us. It's a symphony of wind noise, tires howling on the pavement, and fast-spinning hubs. As we drop lower, with our hands sore from gripping the brakes and our shoulders tired from leaning forward, we drop into a different part of Oregon, where the trees stand farther apart and have redder trunks and fill our noses with the smell of pine. When we step off the highway and into the woods for a moment, the dried needles and pine cones crackle beneath our feet.

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There's also a psychological change. I've left Western Oregon behind. I've left behind the kind of landscape that I grew up with in Seattle and that I lived with in Portland for the last six months. And in so doing, this trip now feels like it's leaving charted territory — it's heading off into places more unfamiliar than familiar. I get excited just thinking about what might be coming, even though I have only a vague idea of what that might be.

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"You're visiting the produce stand instead of the gas station in front of you?" Kristen asks after we roll into Sisters. "Who are you?"

In case you're afraid I might be going healthy, don't worry. We order pizza five minutes later.

After lunch we head to Jim's house, where we meet his wife Jill and their sons Chad and Travis. We spend the rest of the afternoon cleaning up and relaxing and learning about Jim's ride from Montana to Kansas City next spring, and how he and Jill moved to this part of the state last year so that they could take advantage of all the hiking and biking opportunities in the area.

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With the wind picking up and clouds rolling in, Kristen puts together for us a dinner of kale, blackberries, trail mix, and apples thrown into a flour tortilla big enough to suffocate an adult, which tastes better than it sounds. And again I'll point out that it's still not as appealing to me as, say, pot roast and mashed potatoes and gravy, with chocolate cream pie for dessert. But I've decided that although there are many things I want to accomplish on this trip, congestive heart failure isn't one of them. Of course when later I'm offered some of Jim's home-brewed beer, along with apple cobbler and ice cream and also chocolate, I say yes to them all, because it would be impolite not to.

We eat and drink while spending time with the family around the dinner table, trying to understand the rules and scoring of the railroad empire-building game they're playing, which is tough because our bodies are still recovering from the long, slow climb up the mountain yesterday. They've been trying to convince us to go to bed since like 4:00 in the afternoon.

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Tomorrow we'll recover. Our plan is to ride three miles back to Sisters and then not do anything else for the rest of the day. Nothing else could be better right now.

Today's ride: 26 miles (42 km)
Total: 291 miles (468 km)

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