The Gates of Hell

May 13-17th 2016

My first 60 mile day was too easy. The sun was bright but not too bright, the wind was at my back and I flew up the road, and the rolling grasslands and tall rock outcroppings of the gorge were beautiful to gaze at as I daydreamed the miles away. I cycled an easy 15 MPH, stopped often, rolling into camp in the early evening and was greeted by two white Pelicans swimming in the marsh at the entrance to Crow Butte Wildlife Refuge. My legs felt their strength and I cycled a lazy cadence to my grassy campsite. Sleep came swiftly, and the birds woke me before sunrise. I was ready for another tremendous day. But as I cycled out of camp, I discovered that the wind had other plans for me.

It struck me head on, and captured my panniers like a kite.

The wind continued steadily all that day and the next bringing rain with it. I bundled into my rain gear and got in the road early. As I cycled through vineyards towards Eastern Washington’s wheat fields, the gorge narrowed, funneling the air into a wind tunnel. I could see the storms creeping up behind me, and was dumbfounded how they could be moving toward me while at the same time the wind ahead blew me back into their maw.

The rain finally caught up with me at the mouth of the gorge, where I turned east towards Walla Walla. I knew it was on me. I had been taking a break at a rest stop at the crossroads of two highways, talking to my guy when it struck. I had enough time to whip out my blue tarp, wrap it around me and Old Blue, and hunker down for the three hours it lasted. My fingers turned white from the cold and my body shivered deep convulsions trying to stay warm. But as soon as the storm passed the warm air returned and I cycled the rest of the way in the hot afternoon sun.

I felt triumphant from that. The road had given me my first obstacle, and I had still managed to continue on. I cycled the next few days with the strength of confidence, even a cocky arrogance that allowed me to look around and witness the beauty of rolling wheat. My first 70 mile day I cycled with a smile.

The next day was also a 70 mile day, and although I still smiled, it was not a road to enjoy lightly. This road littered with dead animals. Mile after mile of carcasses, most of them large. Deer, coyote, birds of all kinds and sizes, including something the size of a pelican but the color of an Ibis. All of them half exploded by the vehicles that struck them, the secrets of their innards exposed for everyone to see. I cycled the pathway of the dead, and my destination at the end of the road was called Hells Gate.

The last miles I descended into the gates, a thrilling 30 minute coast breaking constantly to maintain 28 MPH. I was so proud of myself for how well my body was adapting to the road that I bought a slab of blueberry BBQ ribs at the restaurant in town and paid for a hotel room instead of camping. I fell asleep easily, dreaming about two days ahead when I would begin the 100 mile clime over Lolo Pass and wondering how difficult it would be. I do not know that in between me and the pass were 14 miles of Hell.

It began at Orofino. The road followed a river, and as the curves and turns rose up out of grassland into mountain forest, the shoulder slowly disappeared until all I had was a few inches of space to call my own. But traffic didn’t seem to care. Large trucks took the curves like water takes to rapids, speeding up and rushing the corners. The two lanes narrowed and creeped towards the river bank. To make the road safer for traffic, a concrete barrier was placed on the river side, stealing any space that might have been used for a shoulder on that side too.

I had no room to exist, and traffic did not want me on their road. I had been funneled into a death trap, and by the time I realized it I was too far in to turn around. I was going to be killed by one of the trucks coming up from behind. It was only a matter of time before two trucks passed each other at the exact spot I was cycling and the one behind me wouldn’t be able to swerve into the other lane to avoid me. I was going to be smooshed under its tires, and the road of the dead would have it’s first cyclist as trophy.

I swerved into the oncoming lane’s shoulder, a six inch strip of sandy fill up against the barrier. I was still wider than the shoulder, my panniers stretched out over the white line, but at least from this direction I could see traffic coming from farther away. When I saw a vehicle up ahead, I would look back and if the road behind me was clear I would swerve back into my correct lane until the vehicle passed. If the road behind was not clear, I would stop, sit on the top of the concrete barrier, and lean away from the oncoming vehicle.

For 12 miles I swung back and forth across the lanes, panic setting my pace, stopping at the infrequent turn-outs to catch my breath; and once stopping to sob and shiver with fear on the side of the road. I felt like the frog in the old video game Frogger, which I had never been very good at playing and had always gotten squished early on.

It was only a matter of time.

And then I rounded a curve and saw on the curve up ahead what looked like a work truck that paints the lines in the road. The two pickup trucks that had just passed me, one blaring its horn irritably at my presence on his road, were coming up fast behind the slow moving work truck. I pressed hard on my pedals, desperate to get close, to use the workers as a shield against the aggressive traffic. When I drew near, the two pickups were still stuck behind the creature that creeped at 2 MPH around every curve. But it was not a work crew after all. It was a wagon, covered with canvas, being pulled by 4 blonde horses. I laughed out loud and snuck passed the pickups until I was directly behind the wagon.

And I stayed there, cycling a lazy 2 MPH, laughing at the obvious impatience of the pickups as they irritably revved their engines, then backed off, then revved again.

After three or four curves the wagon found a pullout and let the pickups pass. I cycled forward, pleased that traffic would be stopped by this strange creature for a while and let me have the road to myself. As I passed, I laughed out loud again. On the side of the wagon were written the words Jesus Saves.

Although I am agnostic and prefer to not believe I know what happens after death, I was more than willing to let Jesus save me from Hell today.