45.4 mi / 9.6 mph / 1381 ft. climbing
Home: Cimaron 5 Motel
Deep in the heat of the Columbia Gorge we had planned to sleep without the rainfly on the tent. But then, for the second night in a row, a strong sunset wind had come up out of nowhere. And this one seemed even stronger than the night before, maybe steady at 30mph and cresting higher. I needed to tie guy-lines to the tent to keep it from blowing down in the wind (I had done this last night too), but the guy-lines attach to the rainfly, so I first needed to attach the rainfly to the tent. This normally-simple sequence of tasks was far more challenging in the wind, especially since the opaque rainfly makes the wind push the tent over more than when the wind could pass through the semi-transparent mesh that makes up the tent body. Also, I didn’t have the tent set up in the best orientation for the northwest wind (thankfully not the worst either), but there’s no way I could have known how to orient the tent when I set it up because this damn wind had been non-existent at that time!
Once everything was battened down, I opened a few of the rainfly’s hatches to again give some ability for the wind to pass through rather than loading all of the force onto the poles. The tent thankfully felt pretty stable, but like last night, the thwap-thwap-thwap of rainfly bits self-flagellating (and simply the roar of the wind itself) made sleep difficult. Burying our heads under the comforter of our sleeping bag helped to provide a bit of isolation and a moment of sleep, but then the wind would actually reach inside the tent, float the comforter off our heads, and force us awake again.
At 4:18am Rett woke up (I was likely already awake at that moment) and wisely declared that there was no point trying to get any more sleep. The wind was down to maybe 20mph, but cooking breakfast would still be nearly impossible (unless we wanted to set up against the shelter of the bathhouse wall), so we just snarfed down some snacks in the tent, packed up as quickly as we could, and hit the road just as the sun was coming up.
Luckily it was a tailwind for the direction we needed to go, but that ended up being fairly irrelevant; there was one moment when a strong crosswind buffeted Rett to a stop as we were climbing the hill out of the campground, but by the time we were back up on the highway, it was just the gentle tailwind that all ~8 sources of weather data I use said we should be experiencing (and had been saying the same all night long). I had assumed that it was a localized Columbia Gorge phenomenon that the weather models lack the resolution to predict (my first ever visit to the Gorge near Portland years ago produced a photo of my brother and I standing on our feet with our bodies at a near 45-degree angle, held up by its famous winds), but I had no idea it could have been that localized! We were still very much in the Gorge, just not at that particular point in the river, and everything was suddenly fine.
The dawn ride south through the gorge was glowing, graceful, and…beautiful (you thought I was going to say GORGEous, didn’t you?) We were making a brief final return to the Palouse to Cascades Trail, in order to use its just-opened-in-2022 Beverly Bridge as our way across the Columbia River. The previous sole option in this area was the shoulderless Interstate (with those strong crosswinds added for extra fun), and Brad from yesterday says he would tell people to just ask a driver at the Vantage gas station for a lift across rather than tempting death. If the state hadn’t spent the money to renovate this public resource (formerly an impassable train bridge), we likely wouldn’t have come anywhere near this part of the state.
We skipped the first trail entrance and stayed on the road as far south as possible (using RideWithGPS/Strava heatmaps to show the point where others had cut across to the trail). Turns out the cut-across point had a locked steel gate (oddly saying Access Prohibited – Construction Zone or something like that), but it was so big that we were able to wheel our bikes under it (I had to take off my handlebar bag). I was aware from other reports of further “construction” oddity: despite the impeccable work on the bridge, the project had left stretches of deep, loose, unrideable stone on either end, as if they forgot cycling was one of the major uses. Turns out it wasn’t as bad as I expected, and we ended up walking less than half a mile on the two sides combined. Maybe an example of how just a year’s usage has packed down the surface?
The bridge itself was perfect. A concrete surface (unlike the railroad trestles in the Snoqualmie part of the trail which tended to be covered in some of the worst gravel), and it even had little bumpouts with benches installed in them. In camp I figured we’d still be walking across it because we’d be catching a horrible gusty crosswind for the half-mile span, but nope, winds here were completely relaxed. It was our second crossing of the Columbia since the beginning of our nomadacy, and this one was far more relaxing than the crossing at Astoria!
We then exited the trail as quickly as possible, down into what the map said was the tiny settlement of Beverly, but actually was a dimensional portal to Baja, Mexico, because I didn’t spot a single thing that distinguished it from one of the many small towns we passed through there. We turned east onto Lower Crab Creek Rd., paralleling the wall of mountains rising nearly 2000 feet hard on our right, a range just as perpendicular to the Columbia’s flow (and just as defeated by it) as the Cascades are further downstream.
Just out of town we stopped at the Burkett Lake Recreation Area and its shaded picnic area (and vault toilet) to cook up our real breakfast, since it would likely be the last shade in our day. A short while later, the paved road turned to the first 10-mile section of gravel. Rett had been so good on the rough Palouse to Cascades surfaces that I figured we’d do pretty well on this road, but there was still no way to know until we got on it and felt its current conditions.
Overall the surface was pretty similar to the less-nice sections of the trail. A bit more washboarded, and the “smooth” areas needed to be constantly sought-out (rather than the two parallel compacted tracks on the trail), but it was a lot wider so there were more places to seek (and vehicle traffic was nearly non-existent, perhaps 5 cars in 25 miles).
Unfortunately a mile in, the softness I’d noted in Rett’s rear tire turned into a full-on flat. Luckily there were still enough creekside trees (and the sun angle was still low enough) to work in the shade, but some biting flies were the tradeoff. A sharp bit of metal or glass right in the middle of the tread had gotten through to the tube; hopefully just bad luck and not an indication that Rett’s new Schwalbe Marathon Efficiency tires have less puncture protection than we’re used to. The break also gave me the opportunity to lower the rest of our tires’ inflation pressure again, which definitely made the washboarded sections far less-jarring.
Half a mile later Rett stopped again, this time with a shifting problem. Somehow her rear shifting was completely out-of-whack, unable to even drop into the four highest gears. I was briefly mystified until I noticed that the ferruled cable end had popped out of its hole in the derailleur body, presumably when I was reinstalling the rear tire. Phew, easy fix.
After three stops in less than three miles, Rett was getting frustrated that our crazy-early start wasn’t going to lead to an early arrival at our destination, but my take was that we’d be even worse off without that crazy-early start. And it was still only 9am (an hour before any of our previous starts this week) and we already had 10 miles in the books!
Rett did an incredible job, with all three of us (including Lamby) regularly exclaiming “who is this woman?!” Out riding a rough gravel road on a loaded bike through a remote sagebrush wilderness! It’s not just a return to the level of riding she was at last year, it’s riding at a level she’s never reached before. My triple-proudest moment was actually when she wiped out once. First she had the guts to attempt to cross a loose section of gravel to find a smoother line. Then, when the bike started sliding out, she smoothly ejected herself and let the bike go down without her; perfect! Finally, she hopped right back on and kept going. An physical and emotional skill-set I didn’t think I’d ever see.
I mean, this is country where you may find rattlesnakes lying in wait in the middle of the road. And we did! Well, at least I did. Rett didn’t even see it, presumably because she was occupied with finding her line on the left side of the road. So at least neither of us rolled right over it! I shouted out that I was going to get a picture, and she just kept right on riding (I snapped one photo and didn’t dawdle any longer either!)
The road returned to pavement for a 5 mile section through the agricultural non-town of Smyrna (during which we saw zero cars, even with a 15-minute break in the middle). We debated bailing out on the next 10-mile section of gravel, but it would have added mileage and crossing a ridge to get back out to the main highway, so we ended up deciding to stick with the gravel.
Which was more of a risk than we intended, since we immediately were greeted with a “Road Closed Ahead” sign. I was pretty sure the road wasn’t actually closed, and there was another sign that named another road that was closed that was different than the road we were on, and, even if it was “closed”, bikes often have more capability to get through a closure than bigger vehicles. But still! Going down 8 miles of rattlesnake-filled gravel in the hot sun and then needing to turn around would have sucked! Turns out I was right and there was no closure (though there was a steep climb through a narrow cleft that truly felt like we were in an episode of The Lone Ranger). But maybe make your signs better! To me, the unspoken prefix to “Road Closed Ahead” is “This road, this one that both you, and me (this sign you’re reading) are on, is Closed Ahead”. Not “Some other road, maybe connected to me somewhere, leading to a place you probably aren’t going, is Closed Ahead.” C’mon man! Be specific!
The surface quality, just like the trail, went through many variations throughout the 20 miles. It’s said (not exactly truthfully) that the Inuit have dozens of words for different types of snow, but I can truthfully say that Rett’s eyes, brain, and body have now absorbed dozens of different types of gravel, and how to deal with each. In the last mile, it got extremely rocky and rough, and we were finally forced to walk it. Tuckered out, we set up our chairs under trees at the edge of a property and put together some lunch to eat.
Then a final push on the pavement of WA-26 brought us into Othello, a big (3 motel!) town for the area. It felt vaguely like Palm Springs, due to its grid of extremely wide streets relative to the amount of traffic. We got a room in the furthest motel, near the Taco Bell and Walmart, both of which we would make use of! The familiarity of rolling our bikes into the motel room door for the first time since leaving Monroe felt unexpectedly weird, since an earlier version of us would have required the roof sooner than five days into this epic trek across the state, where temperatures ranged from 45F to 85F. Because, yeah, despite “only” going 45 miles, and not a ton of climbing, and no dramatic mountain passes, this was one of the most epic days of bike touring we’ve ever done.