There was no reason to ride to the Johnston Ridge Observatory on the Tour de Blast in June 2021. The observatory, which sits five and a half miles from the crater on Washington’s Mount St. Helens, was closed because of the COVID pandemic. No movies of the 1980 eruption, no snack bar.
Plus, I had ridden my bike there before during the 2013 Tour de Blast, probably my best day on a bike. From the Toutle school at 495 feet elevation, you ride up, up, up to 3,714 feet elevation for lunch at the Elk Rock Viewpoint. Then down, down, down to about the Hummocks trailhead at 2,400 feet. From there, it is a thigh-burner to get up to 4,314 feet and the Johnston Ridge Observatory, named in honor of David Johnston, the U.S. Geological Survey volcanologist who died during the May 18, 1980 eruption, He was one of 57 people who lost their lives in the eruption. The return trip to Toutle is the reverse of that – down, up, and then down again.
In 2013, it took me a long time to conquer the three hill climbs (hills?). But on the last descent I was riding through rain when a sponsoring Rotarian passed me in a truck and yelled out wondering if I was OK. The endorphins had kicked in by then, and I shouted some giddy yelp through the raindrops, gave a thumbs up and pedaled on only to find that the finish sign had been taken down, the pasta feed was over and my truck was the last in the parking lot. Still, I made all 84 miles.
So, no reason to ride to the observatory except for some never-quit idiocy that lives somewhere in my brain. It helps to tame that fellow if someone else suggests that there is no reason to do something except for some misguided machismo. Jerry said that at the end of a previous STP and Beyond Ride after we had ridden 55 miles from Welches, OR, to Hood River, OR. Except for some macho reason, should we ride 22 more miles to Skamania Lodge or pile the bikes into the truck and drive there, Jerry asked. Bikes in the truck right now.
So who was standing next to me at the start of the 2021 Tour de Blast when I asked if we should ride to the observatory? Jerry looked askance as if there were only one reason, which he did not need to say, for even asking the question. No, Jerry said, he wanted to go camping later that day with his wife. It put my bad hombre into a brainwave hammock for a siesta.
The thing about Jerry is that he is a much stronger rider than I. He got to Elks Rock so long before I did that he could have eaten three lunches, ordered and hiked in from Portland. I ate mine, had a photo taken and turned around and sailed back down to Toutle for a 54-mile ride. Lots of time left for Jerry to spend with Wendy while I drove back to Seattle wrestling with some compete-with-yourself demon I’m still trying to exorcise.
For anyone who has been sitting on the edge of their seat wondering what kind of bicycle I bought (as mentioned in my last post, oh so many months ago), sit back.
After shopping online and riding my bike to bicycle shops, I realized that the answer was beneath me — my Trek 2100 road bike. I had been riding that bike for more than a dozen years, and I loved it. So why not look at what Trek had to offer in the way of a gravel bike?
As I had found out in my bike-shop visits in February, not many bicycles were making appearances on the display floors of brick-and-mortar stores because of pandemic slow downs in production and an increase in demand by pent-up slugs who finally decided a bike was a way to get out of the house and go somewhere — anywhere.
But Gregg’s bike shop in Seattle had a Trek Checkpoint ALR4 gravel bike on the floor, and I rode it home.
Since then I have put 1,400 miles on it, which was not enough.
Not enough to keep up with the people I rode with or with some of the rides I tackled.
Not enough to keep up with the week I rode with my sister and her bike gang from Cincinnati. Not enough to do the first — and uphill — part of the Tour de Blast, and not enough to do the 95-mile first day of the Montana Road Tour comfortably.
The first ride came on June 1 when my sister and the BABES, which stands for something not nearly as politically incorrect as you might think, showed up to ride from Seattle to St. Louis. My sister’s original idea was to ride from my house to her house in Cincinnati. And I thought I was the madcap schemer in the family! But someone talked some sense into her: Two months is a long time on a bike, some of us are still working and, in my case, we had a graduation party to host for a grandson.
Nine of us started from Seattle with three support vehicles (thank you, Don, Kathy and Pete). I made it to Quinn’s Hot Springs in Montana. Others dropped out in Cody, Wyoming, more in Omaha, Nebraska, and three made it to St. Louis six weeks later. It was an honor to be included, even though I was kept at a safe distance — usually several miles behind them trying to catch up.
They kept a better blog on the trip than you will read here, but I have some daily thoughts on a long-distance ride that are trying to get out of my notebook:
June 1 — Despite the accusing question from my sister — “What is the longest ride you have done to prepare for this ride?” — all of my 56-mile longest ride covered the route on the first day. Down to the Burke Gilman Trail to Sammamish River Trail to Marymoor Park, then onto the East Lake Sammamish Trail. This is where I decided that the $1,700 for my new bike was money well spent. I spilled on the gravel part of this trail some years ago while on my road bike. On the gravel bike, the knuckles could relax. Then to the Preston Trail — more gravel, no sweat — but then the hills came. Anything over a railroad grade (2%) is Mount Everest to the weakest part of my body, be it legs, breath or maybe my will. From Fall City to Snoqualmie Falls, I fell behind. And Highway 202 is a crummy road to ride on. Narrow, bad shoulders, lots of traffic. I did not ride past the group who were down viewing the falls, mostly because my sister hailed me down as I chugged past. But a few oranges, some water and many other treats supplied by our excellent SAG staff had me leading our way to our motel in North Bend. Especially enjoyed the ride on Southeast Mill Pond Road past Borst Lake and the North Bend schools and athletic fields.
June 2 — If the gravel bike paid off on Day 1, it made it’s worth 100% certifiable on Day 2. The Palouse to Cascade Trail through the Snoqualmie Tunnel is all gravel. Despite running into the side of a bridge and bleeding like someone who takes blood thinners, it was a successful day. I apologize to my sister for not carrying a first-aid kit, but everyone of the BABES had enough bandages to handle an amputation. I’m also sorry for not having a light that would get me through the tunnel without running into the side of it. Thanks to my sister for the light on her electric assisted bike. We probably looked like a train coming through the tunnel. I have since upgraded the light on my bike. Two bears were spotted on the ride today by Steve and myself. It’s amazing how fast bears can move. Katherine was riding right behind me, but the black bear and his long shaggy coat disappeared into the woods before Katherine saw him/her. Looking forward to riding this trail again in 2022. We had a nice snack break where we could pet horses nearby.
June 3 — My worst bike-ride heat day ever. (Worst bike-ride cold day ever was on the Coeur d’Fondo. Rain soaked me through before the 8 a.m. start. I dropped out at 38 miles to take the boat back to Coeur d’Alene, shivering all the way, which. whenever I am in the cold, returns to me.)
I led out of Cle Elum to Highway 10 where I waved goodbye to the group, telling them to follow 10 to University Avenue in Ellensburg and then on to Vantage Highway. Hills, of course, were what put me way behind, But I caught up at a convenience store in Ellensburg. I am sorry to my sister for pouring my unfinished coffee into my water bottle, which is apparently not allowed on a BABES ride. The descent down to the Columbia River on the Vantage Highway was a gas. The ride on the other side of the river? Not so much. I can remember little of this part of the 90 plus mile, probably because your mind blocks out the horrid things that happen to you. I remember someone said it reached 107 degrees out there on Highway 26, that my right foot felt swelled up to the size of a Sequoia stump and the rocks in the Columbia National Wildlife Area all looked like hot potatoes. And I apologize to my sister for her having to wait 20 minutes while I did my walk of shame up the last hill before Othello.
June 4 — My best decision of the ride: Only rode 45 miles, half the distance to Colfax. I pulled up at the lunch stop in Washtucna, which has the only shade trees between Othello and Colfax. Rode the rest of the way with Kathy in the truck.
June 5 — Yesterday’s decision put me back in the driver’s seat — make that in the bicycle seat, without a sore hot butt. Out of Colfax on gravel roads. Yes, yes, yes. My gravel bike had me flying over stones, rocks, dust, sand until I got to a T in the road. Left? Right? I apologize to my sister not having a map, a Garmin and not anything on my cell phone that would tell me which way to turn. So I waited there for someone to catch up and tell me where to go. They did by rolling right by me. But off we went to Tekoa, WA, where we were supposed to meet for lunch in the park. Katherine and I got there first, and no one showed up. Who knew that Tekoa, with a population of 779, had two parks? Spotty cell service led us to the right one.
The Idaho border and the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes were just a few miles beyond Tekoa. Several bikers were gathered at the start of the trail in Plummer, Idaho. We asked why so many bicycle riders were there, and one of them said, “We live here, and it’s Saturday, which may not mean too much to you.” Obviously this came from someone who had been on a long bike or hiking trip where days of the week become pretty much meaningless. That’s the day we were in Oakesdale and rode 60 miles, rather than that was Thursday.
Is Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes the best trail ever? Could be in my book. Flat, paved, scenic. A great ride into Harrison, Idaho.
June 6 — I got a late start on this day, waiting for Kathy before she headed out with the truck and someone who needed to go for a COVID test (negative). The first person I spotted on the trail was a moose, which I think is paid to stand there. The rest of the group had seen him too. Since then, everyone I have talked to about the trail asks if I saw a moose. He could be on a billboard advertising the trail. We rode on the trail to the Snake Pit, a restaurant that has been in Enaville, Idaho, since 1880. We turned off the trail there and headed to Prichard, Idaho. We had a line going up the grade to Prichard, and I rode in the middle of the pack. Felt comfortable, don’t think I slowed anyone down. No reason to apologize to my sister. Waiting for our room to be ready, I spent part of a Sunday afternoon in the Prichard Tavern, which had an excellent Bloody Mary buffet (celery, shrimp and other things to dump into your drink), lots of tRump T-shirts and maybe the oldest tavern singer still standing (probably thanks to the grip on the microphone stand, which looked very tight).
June 7 — Any comfort I had in bike riding was instantly dissipated by Thompson Pass. Who puts these things there? Who chose this route? Why am I pedaling so slowly? Should I stop? But then a truck passed me by. Through the rain and the sweat and my glasses that make me see double, I recognized the driver as my wife. Did I want a ride? Did I! I took it, and within a half a mile we were at the top of the pass. Coulda, woulda shoulda. Oh well. I need to apologize to my sister and MK for not carrying any gloves for the descent into Thompson Falls. My hands did get chilly, but the coffee in Thompson Falls warmed them up. And I did not pour it into my water bottle. Nice ride into Quinn’s Hot Springs, the end of my ride. Some on Highway 200 (yikes!) but nice meandering through Plains and along the Clark Fork.
Special thanks to Don and Pete, the other SAG drivers during this part of the journey. We were well supported.
Next up: Chugging up to Elk Rock on the Tour de Blast — and no farther, thank God.