Sunday, July 17, 2011

Day 17 - Victory!

It did rain all night, and it was a familiar and soothing sound and smell to sleep through.  We were jolted awake by Zerbert going ballistic in the middle of the night.  Brenton frantically grabbed for the bear spray and peaked his head out of the tent, and nothing was there.  MJ never made a peep and I was sure it was just the campers behind us getting up to use the restroom, but it still took quite some time to fall back asleep.

After cleaning up in the campsite's "rain shower," which was a huge shower head in the middle of the ceiling of the stall, we hit the road.  We were planning on combining the next two days into one, even though the second half would be the biggest climb of the entire trip.  Ever since the horrible windy day on the Washington plains, I have lost my confidence and we have been playing it safe.  I agreed to give this plan a go, but was very apprehensive.

The first thirty miles followed the wild rapids of the Wenatchee River, (Wenatchee is pronounced with a hard 'a' that the locals pronounce almost nasally).  The climb was so gradual that I didn't even notice we were going up in elevation.  The miles flew by as the changing scenery kept us preoccupied with oohing and awing.

It was mostly cloudy and rained sporadically, even down poured for a half hour.  I was shivering inside my rain gear and finally told Brenton I needed to stop to put on my gloves.  No sooner did I pull over, than the rain stopped all together and the warmth of the sun radiated through the thinning cloud cover.

We stopped briefly to let the girls play at one of the many small waterfalls that poured icy runoff down chutes into natural gutters that flowed down the side of the highway and would eventually join the raging river.  There wasn't much time to spare as we knew that the climb over Steven's Pass was looming ahead, and would be the toughest climb of the venture so far.  All the locals we met across Washington had warned us about the pass, and some had implied that it was down right impossible and even insane to try.     

When we hit the steeper grade that marked the commencement of our journey over the pass, we needed no sign to tell us where we were.  We shifted into our granny gears and began the second half of the day, the twenty mile ascent into the mist that clung to the tops of the cascade mountains, shrouding their white caps with a steamy veil.   

Give me mountains over wind any day; I really love to climb.  The steady rhythm of pumping thighs pulling my weighty rig up a mountain makes my heart flutter with the giddy fantasy that I have super human strength and could take on Everest on two wheels.  As I took on Steven's Pass, my anxiety began to subside.  

The girls bounced along side of us with the energy of day one.  We had decided to save their legs for the Pass, and had not run them for the last two days.  The cool weather and many sources of fresh water kept them playful throughout the climb.

The air seemed to grow cooler and wetter with each stroke of the pedal and soon we could see our breaths, which huffed inconsequentially into the immediate vicinity and made our efforts seem trivial as we gazed at the heavy breath of the mountain tops that drew ever nearer.  I looked at the distant fog laden summits and wondered how high this pass would actually take us, picturing myself at the very top; able to turn 360 degrees in a circle and only see the land below me, mist curling around my feet, and sky above.   

The river tumbled along far below us now, and the view became spectacular.  We stopped for a photo op, and had grown so used to pedaling along the vaulted road that it had begun to seem flat, so that the sensation of standing on it caused us to stumble and we fumbled to lean our bicycles on the guard rail without having them roll backwards down the mountain.  

We talked and made up childish lyrics to familiar melodies and boisterously offered these clips to the world, knowing that no one could hear.  We cracked the shells of sunflower seeds in our teeth and spat them over the guard rail and I tried, ridiculously, to yodel at the mini-alps.  I told Brenton to try, but he breathily told me that he would at the top.  I realized that I, too, was beginning to be out of breath from elevation and effort.  

We began to ride silently, laboring too hard to breath to even eat seeds.  Our ETA grimly projected that we had at least an hour to go until the summit, but a couple of little old ladies at the last rest stop that asked Brenton if I would like a cookie, and before I could answer, crooned, "Of course she would!" had told us that the top of the pass was probably right around mile marker 65, and we were at mile marker 68.  

Sure enough, we rounded a bend and could see the lingering snow of ski slopes just ahead.  The resort, we knew, was at the summit.  With swelling pride we passed mile marker 65 and were tickled that the old ladies had known best.  We took a break and put on extra warm layers next to a sign that warned trucks of the long and steep decent to come.  

Each thrilling decent of the trip has seemed to be more terrifying than the last, and this one was no exception.  Though the shoulder was wide, it was wet and I was terrified that it was slippery.  I didn't dare fly down this mountain the way that I had taken these kinds of grades in the past.  I rode my brakes and my heart fluttered every time that I swerved around an obstacle.  It was twenty-five minutes before I could pedal with any resistance.  

The campsite that we wanted to stay at was only a short ways down the other side of the pass and we reached it in no time, but needed a hot meal and decided to go the extra way into the next town to find a restaurant.  Time seemed to have sped up to an unbelievable pace as we covered miles in a short jaunt downhill to the tiny town that sprang up out of the woods as if my hunger had conjured it.  

This side of the pass already had a distinctive nautical feel.  The town of Skykomish seemed like it should have been on a rocky cliff with crashing waves lipping at the base of a lighthouse.  It was as if all the greens and browns of the world had been washed away by too many rainy days and salty breezes, and had left in their places nothing but shades of blues and grays.  We turned a corner and sauntered into the bar.

Dim orange light glowed against the log tables and walls of the tavern like the warm light from the dying embers of a fire.  The bartender stood with his stalky and hunched shoulders, with the course black pony  tail hanging between them, towards us.  There were two women conversing in low voices at a table near the bar, and an old man in a plaid flannel sitting behind the taps.  My fatigue and hunger overwhelmed my confidence as the burly bartender turned around with his face looking through the bar top as he wiped it down and his deep voice greeted us only loud enough to be heard clearly and no more, without his eyes acknowledging us.  We ordered beers, split pea soup, fish and chips, and polish sausage with kraut, and the barkeep nodded and finally gazed nonchalantly towards us, with surprisingly soft, hazel eyes.

The soup was homemade from a hambone.  We ate gratefully, savoring every bite.  It left a soothing, warm tingle in our stomaches, and we marveled over the distance and heights that we had accomplished in one day.  Finding camping without back tracking seemed like it would be a feat, and we determined that if we went down hill for just another twenty miles to the next town, we would be combining three days of riding and could justify the cost of a cheap hotel room rather than paying for three campsites.  Night was coming quickly and we still had not replaced our forgotten tail lights, but we decided to go for it.  

We had celebrated our conquer of the Cascade Mountains with a couple of beers each at the restaurant, and were feeling buzzed and happy with our full bellies.  We put head lamps on, mine backwards and blinking for the traffic behind us, and Brenton's forward and full-on so that we could see the road, and set out.  Brenton's head lamp was running out of battery and was barely visible, but it was too light out still to notice it.  We road happily along, and the Boy called out to me, "Sing me a song, Blinko!" (Stinko B-linko being my nickname) and I did.  I sang some folky songs, some gospel classics, and some show tunes.  I sang loudly and my voice sounded great to me, ringing boldly over the air rushing passed my ears as I rode triumphantly along the thinning shoulder of Highway 2.  

In my memory, there was a specific point at which the night went from a dimly visible, to pitch black and my elated mood went sour at that moment.  With the dark, we realized that Brenton's headlamp was less than adequate, and that the white line that separates the road from the shoulder was quickly sliding closer and closer to the rubble and weeds that crept towards our tires, threatening to squeeze us out.  

I began to feel panicky and was certain that every time the reflectors on the road lit up from car head lights, we were going to be run over.  I braced myself, but relaxed as I heard each car hit the rumble bars that ran along the center line, and I knew that the driver had seen us and was getting over to allow us adequate room to ride.            

We crossed a bridge and the dwindling shoulder disappeared completely.  Brenton hollered over his shoulder at me to ride hard.  I begged him not to ride so fast and "smoke me like that," but he was now too far ahead to hear me.  Immediately behind me I heard a high pitched shriek of some kind of animal, and I squealed back in terror just as I hit a hill.  I could only gauge the steepness through my ailing legs as it was too dark to see more than a few feet ahead of me.  My bike and I slowed to a crawl and all that I could think about was getting across that shoulderless bridge and the unidentified shrieking animal behind me.  I flew through my gears frantically, and my chain fell right off of my front chain rings.

I screamed at Brenton that my chain had broken again, and he pedaled back to save me.  I was past the bridge and stumbled off of the shoulder into the gravel.  To my relief, the chain was not broken, and Brenton slapped it back on my bike effortlessly and took the opportunity to change the batteries on his head lamp.  The difference in visibility was reassuring and we rode on into out cozy hotel with no more incidents.  We completed 72 miles that day.  

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