Cycling to Eugene: Day 1

My, my heart like a kick drum
(thump thump thump thump thump)
My, my love like a voice …

A fittingly exuberant song greeted me as I rolled across a Clackamas River bridge into Oregon City. The wide swath of water glittered under a mid-morning sun. My iPod, tuned to the Avett Brothers, provided a battery-powered soundtrack to the start of a long bicycle-powered journey. It was the first day of September, which was shaping up to be a summery month for the Portland region. At merely five miles into a 150-mile route, my cycling legs felt ready for anything as they carried my self, my bike, and my luggage toward the first hills I would encounter that day.

Oregon City is like a split-level house. You can take an elevator, operated by a local tour guide, to the upper level; or you can tackle a San Francisco-grade hill. I remembered that climb from months before, when I had taken my first bike camping trip and traversed the same route I was using now. Back then, the hill defeated me the moment I saw it. Unlike most other cyclists in the group, I chose to walk my bike the entire way up. At the top, everybody gathered to rest and to cheer on the others, including my friend Evelyn, who was also relatively new to cycling but rode her weighty bike all the way to the top. I looked on with admiration and frustration.

Today, there was no question about it: I’d be pedaling up that hill no matter how slowly I went. By this time I had taken five bike camping trips—one of them solo—that involved rides of 22 to 35 miles each way. I had also embarked on some lengthy day rides through Portland and beyond, and I was eager to keep challenging myself. That’s the main reason I had decided to make this three-day trip, alone, from Portland to Eugene.  I was also motivated to visit an old college friend in Eugene, and to explore the Willamette River Valley. Oregon City was the first of many small cities and towns I’d be passing through. And its hill—which I did, in fact, climb without getting off my bike—was just the beginning of that day’s adventures in elevation gain.

After reaching what appeared to be the tippy-top of Oregon City, I stopped on a quiet residential block to catch my mildly asthmatic breaths and apply a layer of sunscreen for the day. It was getting to be late in the morning. I unfolded my packet of printed-out Google Maps to verify the next few turns on the route, then re-mounted my bike for another stretch of riding. I enjoyed about two blocks of flat ground before the next hill, which was a familiar foe: winding, narrow-shouldered, and reasonably gentle but steadily inclined. I silently praised my newest accessory, a tiny mirror mounted upon the left arm of my glasses, allowing a view of the traffic behind me. It made me a little paranoid, though, and my eyes were constantly darting between the mirror and the roadway ahead.

The hill leveled out as I approached the outer city limits. For the next ten miles, until I reached the town of Canby, I’d be continuing on the same route I had traveled months earlier. On that trip we had stopped for lunch and groceries at the Fred Meyer store in Canby. This time, I was prepared with a bucket full of snack foods and had no need for a grocery run yet. I took my “lunch” break at the Canby transit station, tearing open packages of Double Chocolate Milanos and Fruit Leathers. Sweets were the only thing I craved and, for once, my body was entitled to them. I had probably already burned off the calories consumed at breakfast.

Around noon I departed Canby for new territory, heading south on a rural state highway toward Silverton. The terrain was mildly hilly and draped in farmland. Traffic was pretty light on this Thursday midday, and no drivers honked or gave me the finger. The first time I had gone bike camping, a BMW driver had glared at me and yelled, “Get a car, a**hole!” as he drove past. I had flipped him off, hoping he saw the gesture through his rearview mirror. This time, I knew better and planned to simply smile and wave at anybody who antagonized me. How could I possibly respond in anger? I was not at work; I was traveling freely through beautiful countryside on a sunny day; I had good music to listen to. During one of my frequent, quick photo stops, I stretched out an arm to take a portrait of myself smiling as I sat atop the bike. I had rarely felt so happy.

Panda portrait

Silverton was about 40 miles from my starting point. By the time I arrived, around 3:00, I was famished and ready for a substantial rest. I’d been keeping a close eye on my hunger the whole day, and snacking to maintain a steady fuel intake, but at this point I longed for a proper meal. I was planning to camp out that night and didn’t have cooking supplies. (My plans for a PB&J sandwich were spoiled, too, since I’d forgotten my camp utensils and neither peanut butter nor jam are good finger foods.) I sojourned inside a Thai restaurant with a book, some cashew chicken stir fry, and two sweet, gloriously cold iced teas. The waitress saw my bike out front and was impressed when I told her how far I’d ridden.

I lingered for only an hour, as I wanted to reach the campground before dark. Silver Falls State Park, my destination, was about fifteen miles southeast of Silverton. A friend had told me, before I left, that it was “a bit of a climb” to get into the park. This shouldn’t have surprised me, but I had traveled to the park only by car before and hadn’t much noticed the hills. Landscape variations are enormously more visible from a cyclist’s perspective.

So, I had somewhere between eight and ten miles of uphill riding to get through. It was a tremendous slog. During the tough parts (i.e., most of it), I paused for a brief rest every 100 yards, pulling over in spots where I’d be visible to drivers coming around the bend. My leg muscles groaned at each interim of pedaling, badgering me despite the fact that the bike was already in its lowest gear. My breaths were heaving. In spite of my faltering pride, I tried to counteract the physical discomfort with rounds of mental cheerleading, like a birthing coach: “Push … push … push.”

Highway 214

Since I hadn’t quite reached the forest yet, I was still riding through private lands. As the sun began to sink, I was rewarded with an evening glow that highlighted fields, barns, silos, tractor dust, and tree farms. The day’s warm temperatures had released fresh smells from the needles of Christmas trees being fattened up for winter. So I didn’t carry the entire burden of cheering myself up; the endless beauty and near-stillness—car traffic was light—of my surroundings helped me along. I kept stopping to take photos.

After a long while, I encountered a general store dressed up as a tidy log cabin. The proprietor told me that I’d reached the top of the hill and was about four miles from the Silver Falls park entrance. I took this news with relief, and celebrated with two icy Otter Pops. Outside the store, I called my parents. My dad had left a concerned-sounding voicemail a few hours before. (I would find out later that nearly everybody in my far-away family had worried about me taking this trip alone. I may have forgotten to tell them that I had a backup plan, i.e., a Portland friend with a car and bike rack who stood ready to rescue me if needed.) I was tired, but elated, as I spoke to them. The worst of the day was now behind me. I guessed that it would take about 40 minutes to reach the campground.

From the store, which sat at about 1,500 feet elevation, I continued on to a series of downhill runs and short climbs. A forest canopy started to envelop the roadway, and me with it. I began to see signs directing visitors to various landmarks. There are some beautiful waterfalls within the park, but I didn’t want to leave the highway until I needed to, since I couldn’t afford to get lost in the deepening darkness. But I soon ran into a viewpoint that was just off the road. Nobody else was there. I pulled over, leaned my bike against a fence, and gazed at the sight: a tall, narrow waterfall sitting in a bowl of half-sunlight and half-shadow. Through my growing exhaustion, I tried to grasp the fact that I had just ridden 55 miles … over nine hours … to a waterfall … in the mountains. I can’t say that I was ecstatic, but I was pleased.


But I still had to find the campground. My map of the park didn’t show any context or scale, so all I could tell was that my campsite was (presumably) quite close to the main road and could be reached by a bike path. I found the path easily enough, but went through a maddening number of twists and turns before I knew where I was. It was about 7:00. My heart was beating worriedly—feeling more like a bongo than a kick drum—and I cursed every small incline of the trail for making me pump my legs when I was more than ready to finish riding for the day. After chancing upon a wooden sign that finally told me where to go, I rolled into the campground and found the site that literally had my name on it.

It was dusk. A family with a huge tent, a minivan, and a bunch of bikes, occupied the site next to mine. The kids were roasting marshmallows over a fire. As I settled in, one of the boys asked me, “Did you ride your bike here?” I smiled (or tried to; I was completely worn out) and said, “Yep!”

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1 Comment

  1. Awesome! Sometimes the best trips are the ones that leave you exhausted at the end of the day, but where you get to ride in after sunset, after having watch it gloriously set over the mountains/plains/city. Sounding pretty epic here, way to go!

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