Oregon Outback and the Long Way BackJan Heine
Last week, I rode the 363-mile Oregon Outback gravel race/ride. It was an epic adventure, and a full report will come soon, in Bicycle Quarterly 49.
I saw the winner Ira Ryan’s tire tracks much of the time, and he even wrote “Go Jan!” in the gravel during one particularly hard stretch toward the finish. Thank you, Ira!
I finished second, a bit less than two hours after Ira. My goal was to beat 30 hours, and I made it with 2 minutes to spare. (I took the photo above after trying to find somebody at the finish, but realized as an “unorganized” event, there wasn’t anybody there.)
After resting for 30 minutes, it was time to take stock. I was 100 miles from the next train station in Portland, and the wind was howling up the Columbia Gorge. Riding into that wind would not be fun. And on Memorial Day weekend, the trains (or at least the bike spaces) might be fully booked. There was some vague talk about a shuttle to Portland from a bike shop nearby, but I didn’t know the details, nor the schedule.
My bike was in great shape, having survived the challenges of the Oregon Outback better than its rider. Not a single flat on the Babyshoe Pass Extralight tires, nothing broke or fell off during hundreds of miles of rattling and bouncing from rock to rock.
The chain squeaked because it was so dry – I should have lubed it before the event! And the spare spokes that I had attached to my fender stays with cloth handlebar tape were gone. The vibrations had worn through the tape, and the spokes had fallen off. That shows how punishing this ride was, but neither were significant issues…
Before I left Seattle, I had heard that Chinook Pass was to open this weekend. So I chose Option 2: just ride home. I figured I could cover the roughly 350 km (220 miles) in two days.
As I was about to cross the Columbia River, I ran into a group of bicycle tourists. One of them, a Bicycle Quarterly reader, recognized my bike and offered some chain lube, which was greatly appreciated. The climb out of the Columbia River Gorge was slow into the howling winds, but the shower and bed in Goldendale’s nice motel were welcome.
I only had brought maps for the course of the Oregon Outback, but at the upper edge of the last map, I could see some small roads going through the Simcoe Mountains as an alternative to the busy Highway 97. It was an easy choice…
So I found myself on the edge of town, heading into the hills. Ahead was a gorgeous view of Mount Adams. Wildflowers were in full bloom. Life was good.
I had planned to re-inflate my tires to their “road” pressures, but had been too tired the night before. Now I was glad…
After a few hours of riding on empty roads, I came to the boundary of the Yakima Indian Reservation. The signs had very specific instructions on what was not allowed: Hunting? No. Alcohol or controlled substances? No. Firearms? No. Sightseeing? Well, I was just traveling through. I thought I passed the entrance exam and continued along the inviting road.
I didn’t see anybody for the next few hours. From time to time, I caught a glimpse of Mount Adams in the distance, so I knew I was still traveling in roughly the right north-easterly direction. (I was off my maps by now.) After a few hours of riding, I got on pavement again, and then saw a sign for a gate ahead.
At the guard station, I was detained by two officers of the tribal police. It turns out that these mountains are restricted tribal land of the Yakima Nation, and non-members of the tribe are not allowed there. The officers were surprised to see a cyclists: “That is definitely a first!” They radioed the head game warden to come and deal with me. They were friendly, and we chatted for an hour while we waited.
Things became a little more tense when the head warden arrived, radioed for a case number for trespass, and wrote me a ticket for $ 100. I don’t think any of us expected that, since I had no ill intent. If I wanted to argue my case, I could take it to tribal court. At least I was free, and allowed to continue… and the game wardens had mapped me a nice route through the reservation.
Eastern Washington has a feel of the ‘Old West’ to it, and nowhere more so than on the reservation. When I passed this man looking for a ride at this lonesome intersection, I called out: “Hi!” His reply was “I don’t get high!” His joke had me smile for miles thereafter.
Food is a problem east of the Cascades – Coca-Cola, potato chips and candy bars get old very quickly. Fortunately, this fruit stand had fresh cherries. I bought a container, put it in my handlebar bag, and ate them while riding through the afternoon heat. Like Hänsel and Gretel, you could follow my tracks by the cherry pits I left behind.
Trying to get around Yakima, I got a bit lost as I went up the wrong canyon, although the lovely roads made the detour well worth the extra effort. Finally, I found my way to Cowiche. A few sprinkles fell as a huge thunderstorm passed to my East.
I had a fright when the road to Naches was closed – which would have meant a long, long detour most of the way back to Yakima, and then riding on the busy roads I was trying to avoid. But the repaving was done, and I was able to pass through on a road that just lacked striping. I was even more lucky to find a hotel room in Naches…
The next day took me across the Cascades. Chinook Pass is a long climb – 80 km (50 miles) uphill. Clouds were covering the mountains, but there were also sunbreaks. The rainbows were beautiful. I only got hit by a few sprinkles, but the roads were wet, so I was glad to have fenders on my bike – during the Oregon Outback, they just also had kept the dust off my bike
After a few hours of gentle climbing in the valley, the road pitched up for the final ascent to the pass. With clouds obscuring the view, it was wintry up here.
Chinook Pass had just been opened, and there were walls of snow lining the road. Time to put on every piece of clothing I carried in my handlebar bag – which wasn’t much, since I had packed light for a race at moderate elevations.
On the other side of the pass, it was raining hard, but fortunately, it wasn’t very cold. Once I left the mountains, the sun came out, and it became another transport stage back to Seattle. I was back home in time for dinner.
The trip back added an adventure to the adventure. Thank you to Donnie Kolb and the guys from VeloDirt for putting on the Oregon Outback – definitely one of the most challenging rides I have done – and enticing me to ride all the way from southern Oregon to Seattle over the course of a long weekend.