"Sal, we gotta go and never stop going 'till we get there". "Where we going man?" "I don't know but we gotta go" - Jack Kerouac, On the Road -

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Day 28: Through the desert

Burns, Or - Lakeview, Or: 139 miles. Total: 3379 miles

5:40 and the alarm on my phone goes off. One foot down, two feet on the floor. Come on, let's do it. My body wants to stay in bed and I do my utmost to find a reason to please it but I manage to drag my ass to breakfast where I do my usual demolition. Back to my room where like a machine I go through the same routine of the past 27 days. At 7.15 I am ready and out of the door. I am staring at a very cloudy sky to the west and to the south. The forecast, with the weather warning in effect adds intrigue and excitement to what is turning out to be a difficult day. Do I really need the extra excitement? Probably not but I'm confident and happy to be facing this challenge. Yesterday my legs weren't really moving, today I hope they will be as light as a hound's. I need them today, next town is 140 miles away. All or nothing.

And as soon as I start the ride I realize that even a few hours' rest did me a lot of good. With no wind and no rain I zip through the first 23 miles. West out of Hines there is nothing for about 20 miles but then to my great relief I come to Riley which is nothing but a junction with a gas station out of the 70s. The place is a wood en shack with old neon signs. Looks like another world, another era. The heater is on and the air is so stuffy that I buy a bottle of water and need to get out. Why this is signaled on the GPS as a town is a mystery. Anyway, past Riley there is really nothing for 90 miles, just me and the desert denizens. I am riding heavy today, two extra bottles of water and two packs of biscuits; with the flash flood warning in effect and the long solitary ride and the heavy gray sky that is developing ahead I need to be prepared. For good measures I wrapped all my gear, the ipad, the phone and the wallet in double plastic bags, so in case of a storm and nowhere to hide it should be a while before water gets to it. I decide that I go south to Lakeview, 113 miles from the junction. This would give me a 140 mile stage but with no wind and in this good a shape I should do it. Bend is closer but would mean a longer ride south tomorrow and winds have been blowing from the south recently. I hope this turns out to be good planning.

The sky looks pretty promising toward Lakeview so I go for it. And so begins the toughest ride that I have had to face and certainly the most unique land I have had the pleasure to witness on a bicycle. The first twenty miles go smooth, even though a breeze is beginning to pick up but nothing worrying so far. The road surface is very rough and the shoulder is unusable. I am not worried though as the traffic averages one car per 5 miles. The land gets arid and desolate by the minute. I stop to take pictures and just stare at all of this and I cannot believe the scenery; the sweeping, liberating, open desert is unforgettable. Its immensity is also frightening and humbling. No human being belongs here and those who dare cross it should do so with a measure of respect. 

I past a place called Wagontire, an abandoned rest stop smack in the middle of the desert. Eerie and utterly strange. The structure still stands and the doors seem to be locked but it is clear that it has not been used in years. I continue south and the wind picks up for real now. As it does and as I proceed quietly on my bike I see large dunes of white sand on the sides of the highway, the sky is bright blue and the air is dry and hot. What is this? Where am I? I am stunned by the sand dunes in the Oregon desert, I feel I am in some fake scenery created for some movies or am I in a dream? A place this desolate makes you wonder and makes you question anything because nothing is what is seems here. Life, death, nature, past, present. It all seems to merge in a confusing and fleeting snapshot. It is all too big for me ,for my mind, for my bicycle, all I can do is bike through this silent immensity. I ride slowly through it all without actually capturing the essence of this lifeless environment, I feel only a tiny spectator watching a movie too comprehensive, too difficult to grasp. If I could see myself from way above I would see a tiny black spot moving slowly across an empty white, yellow and brown universe. The wind is here now, the road flickers in the sun and I can't make out what stands against the horizon, the sound of the wind through the dry bushes ignites scary and unrecognizable hisses, this place cannot be trusted and nothing should be taken for granted. It is the weirdest place I have ever ridden in, no question about it. From amazement and innocence to hostility and survival. Within 30 seconds the wind increases blowing straight at me from the south and I soon find myself fighting a losing battle against the most unforgiving and relentless of all the elements of nature. I have 85 miles to go and there is no way I can win this battles. This is going to be the toughest day that I had to face on the bike. I struggle to keep the front wheel on a straight line as the wind cuts my trajectory from below the wheel. My face puckers, my body tightens, I push hard on the pedals, this is incredibily difficult. What to do? Keep a cool head number one, number two save water for later. I have no choice but to keep going into the wind and with still 8 hours of daylight, if I can average 10 mph I could make it. But what kind of miserable day would that be? It's the only way I can squeeze out of this situation, the only card I have and I am lucky to be holding one card. Fine, I take it, of course I do, what were you expecting from a trek of 120 miles across the desert? I accept that the rest of the day will be an unending drudgery. The extra water stock decreases quickly, as I know well by now, thewind makes me incredibly thirsty. I reach out for my water bottle. I am running out of fuel, I am not able to save my water as I would like to. By mile 90 I am down to my last bottle and I am in desperate need to drink it. I will drink it and then I will try to hitch a ride. I need to be rational, forget about the ride, save your ass, stick your thumb out and in less than two hours you will be picked up. If you are too arrogant this could end badly.

After about 5 miles, just before I decide to drink my last drops of warm water, I see a rest area sign, one mile to go, I cannot believe my eyes, was that a mirage? Was I dreaming? Or is it a joke? I clench my teeth and the muscles in body stir to life, the bike suddenly gathers speed, if I saw myself in the mirror I am sure I must look like a crazed man. Usually rest areas have water fountains, will this apply to this absolute desolation of the Oregon outback? It does, I see the water fountain and I dive for it leaving my bike sprawled on the ground and my backpack too, I glue my mouth to the fountain and I drink what it feels like a gallon of water. Life streams back into my body, awareness, energy, brain stimulus, water brings it all back to life and I can reason again. I am saved, this could mean that I can make it to Lakeview. I fill the empty bottles that I have and when I am about to defy the wind once more a biker pulls in and asks me if I need anything, I tell him that this rest area saved my life and I should be okay. He asks "are you paddling with or against the wind?" I just make an unhappy expression by twisting my lips upward and the guy says "your balls are bigger then mine". That was just a surreal encounter in the middle of nowhere.

I know that I have used the expression "middle of nowhere" in South Dakota or Montana or even Iowa but this is different. This is really nowhere. You know those places where they do nuclear experiments? Well... those place are like the Queens garden compared to where I am cycling today. This is absolute desolation, total nothingness as fas as the eye can see. All I am thinking about is I hope I can make it to Lakeview tonight, if I can make it this is going to be massive for my ride and I hope the pictures will help me relive the feeling of total desolation and alienation of such a weird place.

I follow the rough surfaced road which runs along Lake Albert. I am too tired now to write about it but if you look it up this is another interesting sight along what turns out to be an incredible region of Oregon. I am constatly pummeled by the wind which bends everything that stands in its way. The dry grass by the side of the road tilts violently toward me, if I spit I lose sight of my own saliva, dust, sand and debris swirl madly in the air and are thrown fast behind me. Nothing stands the test of the wind. I am wearing long sleeves today, it is not cold but at 4000-5000 ft this is a high desert and I feel more comfortable covering my skin.  

There is something exhilaratingly addictive about the wide-open sweeps of America. There is a romantic and almost visceral pull that the American desert extends. What intrigues me is the knowledge that once you venture into it you cannot possibly know how you will emerge, if you are a traveler that is. A tourist on the other hand knows the date, the time and the seat number of his return trip. What defines the magnetism of wanting to lose yourself is exactly that: not knowing much about the process and the end result. Why do you go there and, most importantly who do you find there? Explorers, photographers, painters, they all had well-defined objectives for wanting to travel to far away and desolate lands. The drifters…well that’s another story. Throughout my excursions into the desert I have come across many drifters: their expression is an essay of loneliness, their voice a searing rattle of desolation, their hands and faces a patchwork of wrinkles and memories. I can’t figure it out. Why do people run away? Human beings have their own reasons for wanting to disappear into the enormousness of the desert. The bicycle is different. The bike excludes all of the above; it includes a destination and a promise of return. During a bicycle trip, unless you break down (not only metaphorically) or are a victim of a violent deed, you can’t disappear. Or can you? You will emerge with funny tan lines and weathered features chiseled by days of wind and sun. In 2010, after a day spent cycling in the Utah desert, washing my teeth before going to bed I found desert sand in the toothbrush. That’s the baggage a cyclist carries with him through the desert. But he will emerge. What circumscribes all those who venture into the desert, cyclist and drifters alike, is the obsessive and perplexing need to redefine themselves, which is the prelude to exploring. A sharp pain pieces my heart every time I see something beautiful and I can’t stop. It feels like a good-bye, like I am leaving a love behind. I keep traveling in the hope to catch it all and make it all mine but there's no time, never is time enough.

The wind is relentless and what defines my incredible 140 mile jaunt across the Oregon desert is my my own personal fight with the gusts of wind that put me down but not out. At 7pm, after 12 hours against the hardest wind I have ever fought and riding in the most alienating and desolate land ever seen, I trudge into Lakeview pumping my fist and letting out a shout which releases all my tension. I cannot believe I made it through the desert. If I got through today I can get through anything. I am going to the West Coast. Nothing will stop me now. I have found my swagger. 


  1. Hai ragione, se ce l'hai fatta oggi ce la puoi fare sempre!
    Baci, bravo, ti seguiamo tutti

  2. New definition of brave - Leaving your camera on the yellow line while you pedal away to get an awesome shot! Or, Carving a clue in the wind swept sand that you passed through the area. Or, pedaling for hours in a strong head wind with limited water in a desert. Or having thoughts of falling victim to violence and disappearing. Or having a discussion of ball size with a biker in an isolated rest stop in the middle of no where. Take your pick they are all either brave or crazy. I think the determining factor is if you live through the experience, you are brave, but suffer misfortune and you are crazy. Hindsight makes us all wise and omniscient. You have been walking the brave/crazy tightrope since you left DC. The Wallenda's just called and said they are interested in speaking with you about joining their act.

  3. It amazes me that as you fight through the desert with water running low you find an oasis to refill and fight on to the next town. This is exactly what you are riding for WATER. Something that we take for granted everyday. The oasis is what saved you and you are what will be saving people that don't have this precious commodity. You're doing great keep it up.