Circumstances offered up a late season get away with DG. The weather looked iffy at best but mental health status increased our flexibility regarding the weekend weather requirements. At the agreed hour we loaded up and headed over Highway 20.
The colors had peaked days or weeks before and every leaf that could turn color had done so and all were on the decline. The yellows and oranges were dull and tinted brown. Many leaves painted the ground like a soggy thanksgiving-themed quilt.
On the drive over as we approached Rainy Pass there was snow on the hills. At Washington Pass the snow on the sides of the road and thick fog surprised us and necessitated cutting our speed in half. When we got below the fog the clouds overhead were thick and we would not see any blue sky the rest of the trip.
It was so quiet it almost felt like there was a mood of foreboding in the Methow. The snows are creeping down from the mountains. Fall has given way and the forest is just waiting for winter to move in. Though it hasn’t happened yet, the change is inevitable and it feels as though every living thing is braced, dreading the coming of winter.
There is a pronounced lull between summer and winter recreation and the seasonal tourists are back in the city watching football. Riding conditions aren’t ideal but the trails are deserted and for those willing to wear some extra layers and go a little slower you are rewarded with a unique though solitary experience.
On Saturday morning we checked every weather source known to us including looking up at the sky seeking a sign from God. Expecting that rain would find us sooner or later we dressed accordingly and headed out. Our confidence bolstered by the powers of Gabba we found a comfortable rhythm. Even with embrocation, my calves felt a twinge of cold. The sky was dark and the temperature was below forty. Despite our selection of miracle clothing we were adding and shedding layers seeking a balance between sweating and being cold.
Veering off the Chewuch onto 5130 the road kicks up sharply. The climb seemed harder than I expected but soon the grade lessened from eight percent to the steady two to three percent that we would be on for the next twenty five kilometers until the crazy steep climb at the end.
The forest was dark, wet and silently waiting for winter. We saw no deer or mammals or even birds. There was no breeze. It was spooky quiet. In the two hours we would spend on this gravel road we would see one truck. We joked this was a great place and time of year to hide dead bodies. DG looked at me suspiciously.
I had checked the night before and found I had ridden this in back in July of 2015 and at that time the washboard was among the worst I had ever ridden. Additionally on that ride the gravel was soft and slow. This time the gravel was stable and faster but the washboard was still ridiculous. It was so pronounced in spots that we pointed to it and commented. It looked like waves of dirt frozen in time. My bike had ejected a bottle when I rode this sixteen months ago and I confess I kept looking on the sides of the road hoping I might spot my long lost grey buddy.
The floor of the valley we were riding went from narrow to wide and back again several times. One minute the mountains crowded in upon us and the road and river were the only things splitting the two sides. At other times the valley floor was as wide as a farmer’s field.
The road went on forever. After years of using a heart rate monitor I have gotten pretty good at guessing my heart rate for a given level of effort. Based on my level of effort my heart rate should have been about 150. It was over 160. I wondered if I was getting sick or if it was the loose surface or perhaps the elevation. I couldn’t explain why my HR was so high.
The road wasn’t especially curvy and the undulations weren’t excessive. Even though it wasn’t technically challenging the washboard had us hunting back and forth trying to find a decent line which made it tough to grab a bottle or food with our gloves hands.
I finally called for a stop and we ate, drank and adjusted clothing. After a couple minutes we set off again and felt measurably better. The cumulative fatigue from the washboard and the effort required by our bodies to battle the uphill and cold was wearing us down.
We had decided earlier that we would turn around when we encountered one of three things; the end of the road, snow on the road that made it unsafe or significant rain. We still had eight km to the end of the road and it started to rain. We kept riding. Uphill.
As we climbed we inched closer and closer to the snow line. The rain was still light and the uphill effort was keeping us warm. We spotted patches of snow by the side of the road. Finally we reached the base of the final climb. The road got rocky and steep. We climbed the double digit grade and reached the Billy Goat Trailhead. No cars in the lot today. There were patches of snow on the ground.
We laughed that we had met all three of our “turn around” criteria at once. We were at the road end, there was snow on the ground and the rain was picking up and there were flakes of snow mixed in with it. Any one of those would have been enough to turn us around but having all three was ironic.
We were two and a half hours into our epic adventure. We had climbed over a thousand meters on gravel. This combined with keeping our bodies warm had burned a lot of calories. We ate and drank and took photos so that if anyone found our bodies they could look at the pictures and tell our next of kin that we were having fun right up until we died.
We put on rain jackets and in fact every piece of clothing we had in anticipation of the chilly descent. When we started to roll the surface was steep and rocky so we coasted braking frequently. This was safe but it also didn’t generate any heat. I gritted my teeth for an hour and a half of type-two fun.
There is just something about hypothermia isn’t there? This wasn’t a situation where if we got a flat we would die, but if we had a mechanical I imagine one of us would work on the bike whilst the other did jumping jacks to stay warm.
After the steep part we were able to start pedaling on the sustained two to three percent downhill and that helped generate some heat. Also the drop in elevation brought with it some warmer air which we noted with relief.
Pushing the pace had the dual benefits of generating heat and shortening the time in the rain. When we got back on the pavement the road still had potholes and rough spots that prevented pacelining. The rain was softer now but the temperature was still cool.
We were cautious on the slick final portion of the descent back to the Chewuch. We ate the rest of our food and I felt a sense of relief that we were in the home stretch. I was tired, much more tired than I should have been. As we went along the rollers that lead to Winthrop my HR stayed high.
I didn’t think I was bonking and my brain searched for an explanation. One month ago I had ridden for nine hours with three times the elevation gain and I had felt downright strong at the end. Only later would I realize that this day I was a bit underdressed and that the energy to keep me warm had to come from somewhere.
DG wasn’t in a hurry and we worked our way back to the cabin. We joked that it only rained for the last three hours of our four plus hour ride. Mercifully, aside from the initial descent, it didn’t rain hard until we were back at the cabin.
That ride left a mark on both of us.
We did what all good masochists would do and after a good night’s sleep we put on our costumes and did it again, this time on mountain bikes.
Our Sunday ride stayed closer to civilization and we only got some drizzle the last half hour of our ride. Our legs were tired but our spirits refreshed. It was a blast.
I recall the words of Scott Z who pointed out that one man’s vacation is another man’s nightmare. Experience has taught me that you can’t explain this kind of a weekend to most people.