Yep, another crappy day..
My continuing gravel odyssey has successfully emerged from hibernation and I am delighted to report that I am back in the wandering saddle. Following an off season spent on the island of Ismaros the B2 is ready to get gritty.
The high country is still blanketed with white crusty snow but a warmish February has cleared some of the lower roads enabling early season reconnaissance. Conditions dictated a Lewis and Clark attitude with the understanding that you go until you can go no more at which time you turn around.
One of the routes I had studied during the winter was a gravel route from the Methow to the Columbia. I was concerned it might be a boring route that would only be of interest in early season when everything else was inaccessible. As is so often the case; I was as wrong as wrong could be. I was right about the snow preventing me from completing the adventure, but the exploration was worthwhile.
Following the usual back roads I arrived in downtown Carlton without incident. My legs were feeling good and I was on the trusty Velo Noir equipped with the do-it-all Hutchinson Sectours. The temperature had climbed above freezing and the sun was out so I was comfortable and my spirits were high.
Two minutes after leaving Carlton’s business district I passed the beloved pavement ends sign and the fun was underway. I reached my hand out to high five the dirt road. Because roads don’t have hands or arms the road could only kick up in response. I dropped gears and smiled as I began ascending Texas Creek Road.
A group of horses looked down on me from a hillside to my left. I wasn’t very exciting but I was the only show in town and the bored horses stared intently as I slowly rode by. I passed a barn as a very excited dog cheered me on.
The road started clear and dry as I climbed past snow covered fields alternating with clear hillsides. This route was in the heart of the Carton Complex Fire and the black burned trees stood like black spears plunged into the snow. They were stark, lifeless reminders of the fire that raged here last summer. I passed a small stream where I spotted three skeletal rib cages that appeared the size of large deer. No doubt they had sought shelter from the fire near the water. The trees that lined the small stream fueled the pyre that claimed these creatures. Fires seldom show mercy.
Last summer I rode through the area where the 2006 Tripod fire burned. There are no green spots in that area. That fire burned everything that could burn. In contrast the Carlton Complex fire area is spotted with green patches that somehow survived. A hundred yards from the skeletons was a rocky area that would have been safe for them and two hundred yards further up the road were green trees that were somehow spared. Irony can tragic.
One of the lessons that has recently manifest itself in my head despite a lifetime of spending weekends and vacations in the mountains is that you can only take what Mother Nature gives you. You can’t demand good weather or that wild flowers bloom on a particular week. Take what is offered and be glad.
Man is nearly powerless to turn back a wind driven wildfire. My grief at the damage from the Carlton Complex fire has slowly evolved into an understanding that there are forces in play that we can only hope to work with, because fighting them is futile. At a time when we are so risk averse it is hard to accept and acknowledge those things we cannot control.
The snow free February means my skiing season will end sooner than last year and the gravel gets going earlier. I could complain or I can embrace it. I have chosen to go with the flow. I started skiing in November and am still skiing in March. If I start to complain, slap me.
The climbing continued under blue skies. I unzipped and removed my gloves. The dirt road was smooth enough as the road snaked its way up the canyon. As I went in and out of shade I encountered wet mud which I knew would shortly give way to snow and ice. I was glad I had put on a rear fender in anticipation of exactly these conditions. I checked the elevation on my faithful Garmin. I was approaching 800 meters and had already climbed over a thousand feet since leaving Carlton. The grade wasn’t intimidating and my progress had been steady. I decided this was a route that I would repeat later in the season.
I was expecting to be turned around by snow well before this point. I hadn’t memorized the elevation at which this road topped out. I began to wonder if I might hit the top and find the remaining south facing road snow free and be able to continue further toward the Columbia. I made it through a shady patch and back onto a clear, though muddy, road. Might it go? I began to quietly hope.
Still climbing; the next patch of trees in the canyon provided enough shade that the dusting of snow from the previous night was still intact covering ice that had been there since late November. I was solo and had already come further than I had expected. The icy road conditions dictated some discretion. I stopped and turned the Velo Noir around and headed back to Carlton.
11% on ice ? Looks like the better part of discretion to me...
A subsequent check of the map revealed there was a lot more climbing before the road topped out.
Less than three minutes later I stopped and put my gloves back on after zipping up. The heat I had generated climbing was replaced by wind chill and I had lots of riding ahead of me and comfort was critical.
Zipping downhill on dirt, letting my chubby Sectours soak up the bumps I smiled knowing I had the right tool for the job this day. I relaxed and let the bike dance a bit on my descent. The familiarity of the Zen-like focus brought a rush of endorphins. Watching for potholes, rocks and puddles while seeking the smoothest line is totally engrossing. At moments like this there is nothing else in the world. It isn’t hot or cold or quiet or windy, it just is. I’m not riding downhill on my bike; I am my bike and my bike is me. My weight shifts without thought as I slot the bike left of the loose gravel, right of the pothole, floating over some washboard as I set up for the next corner. I am not a graceful man but I feel like a soaring eagle as I carve my way down the canyon. This is the joy of gravel.
Half frozen pond..
Later, on pavement, I eat a bar and finish off a bottle. I reload food and liquid in Twisp and set off to find out what will turn me around when I head west on Twisp River Road. The climb out of Twisp was familiar except for snow adorning the sides of the road. I pass Elbow Coulee and the dirt road looked inviting but my destination today lay west, not north.
Westward on Twisp River Road
I continue on and gradually the snow on the sides of the road began closing in and the two lane road was reduced to one lane. Then the snow left only two tire tracks where I could ride on the pave. When finally all was white, I again stopped, swiveled one hundred and eighty degrees and headed back.
The descent was invigorating both because it was still cold and because I was able to go fast on the gradual downhill. I was well past three hours of riding and still felt good. I was on my forth bottle of the day and my food was now gone. My training over the winter has not been perfect but it has been enough that I felt strong after nearly four hours of riding at a good level of effort.
My legs did have a bit of a hangover from my return to stair running. I convinced myself that it was the good kind of pain. Funny how two words like good and pain that would naturally be on opposite ends of a spectrum can be lumped together to support middle aged rationalizations.
Gravel hangover !
When I finished I was spattered with mud and my bike looked like I just had finished a muddy edition of Paris Roubaix. I shower and eat before washing and lubing the bike. The stairs remind me of just how “good” my ride was.
Check this out !
Check this out !
The gravel season has begun.
Where did the snow go ?