Man, everything about this whole cross-country bike tour was crazy. Quitting my job this past Spring was crazy. Riding through Pennsylvania and Ohio during April (e.g. winter) was crazy. Riding over Loveland Pass during a hail storm was crazy. Some of the crap I dealt with in Wyoming and Montana was crazy. Climbing a frickin' mile in the state of Idaho was crazy. And now, on my last ride before arriving at shelter in Portland, I had to take on one more crazy ride. I would ride 60 miles in the pouring rain, sometimes on interstates, to arrive at the final metropolis of this bike tour.
My riding partner, Dan, and I knew that there would be no shortcuts today. Despite a wet, gloomy forecast, we were entirely set on getting to Portland this very day. It would have taken a monsoon to drown our aspirations. Given that the forecasted rainfall fell short of a natural disaster, we were comfortable with our decision to hit the road. After a nice breakfast with our hosts in Hood River, we hit the road.
Incredibly, over the 80 rides of this journey I had only been thoroughly rained on three times. It happened once in Western Michigan, once in Kansas and once while going over the Loveland Pass. Besides that I stayed pretty dry. On this day I wore my usual riding gear plus long tights and my rain jacket. I would soon discover that on days as wet as today, the rain jacket and tights were nothing more than placebos designed to create some false belief that some portion of my body was dry.
The first 10 to 15 miles of the ride were on the interstate. Ugh. Just the thought of riding on the interstate makes me nauseous. However, despite my negative mental connotation, I will admit that most interstates have sufficiently wide, rumble-strip-protected shoulders and are decently safe to ride on. Nonetheless, the combination of steady rain and riding on the interstate had me pretty nervous. To ameliorate some of the risk, I turned on my front and rear lights to enhance my visibility. Beyond that, I was at the mercy of Michelin, Goodyear and Firestone.
I found myself easing into the ride pretty well. I was surprisingly comfortable on this interstate, even when large trucks were passing. The shoulder was wide enough that I hardly noticed their presence. Around mile 7 or 8, however, the shoulder narrowed as the route bent around a turn. I'm not sure I had much more than three or four feet of clearance from the lane. As I rolled around the bend, another semi-truck blazed by me at full speed. The vehicle's drag caused a gust of wind that displaced me nearly a foot towards the guard rail. Woah. Dan, who was riding behind me, admitted that it was crazy (and a bit scary) to watch me be so rapidly shifted by the charging vehicle. The incident definitely shook me up a bit, but it didn't deter me in the slightest from continuing the ride. I was getting to Portland today.
At mile 15 we were relieved of the interstate and treated to a ride through what felt like a tropical rain forest. Our visibility was limited to about 50 feet due to the steady rain and fog. I was in awe of each new foot of scenery that was revealed along this misty, windy trek on historic highway 30. On either side of me were towering Pines and Douglas Firs, creating the illusion that I was in some sort of natural tunnel. I hadn't recalled seeing lush, green scenery like this since I had visited Central America as a youth. I honestly had no idea that the Pacific Northwest had such a diversity and abundance of flor. I don't know what I expected of the Columbia River Gorge, but I sure wasn't expecting to feel like I was in the jungle.
About halfway through our ride we arrived at the renowned Multnomah Falls. Dan and I pulled over here, though our purpose was not to view the falls. Quite frankly, I felt like I had been sitting beneath a waterfall over the past two hours. I was completely soaking wet. I was so wet that I don't think i could have absorbed any more water. It's like I had arrived at my saturation point. Acknowledging my extreme physical discomfort, I decided to pull over to get some tea and a cookie. I figured it would help take the edge off.
It was in this moment that I realized how crazy Dan and I looked. The Multnomah Falls were a rather developed tourist site. There was a nice lodge, gift shop and restaurant in front of the site. Throngs of tourists, all armed with umbrellas and ponchos, were carefully making their way to and from the spectacle. And then there was Dan and me. It looked like we and all of our possessions had just emerged from a cold shower. What the hell were we doing there? I mean, we just looked so out of place. It didn't make sense that a couple of bearded bums were at such a glitzy tourist attraction, nor did it make sense that anyone was out riding their bike on such a rainy Tuesday. How did I deal with the slight pang of shame that I experienced at the Falls? By not caring. I just completely stopped caring.
Yup, I was wet. Yup, I was cold. Yup, I was totally uncomfortable. But, you know what? I had a purpose, so screw it.
The discomfort worsened when I remounted my bike. Taking the rest stop had allowed my body to cool down which made getting started again really challenging. The rain felt wetter, the air felt colder and I felt terrible. People who know me know that I exhibit some eccentricities. In particular, I can be pretty loud at times. Given that I was soaking wet and my inhibitions were at an all-time low, I reacted to the absurdity of this situation by beginning to holler nonsense. "WOOOOOOOOOOO!" I screamed into the rain. The cool thing about Dan was that he too was an eccentric guy who seemed to have a penchant for making weird noises. In no time we became the lead composers and musicians of an obnoxious symphony. The two of us were blurting out absurdities, stupidities, barbarities, tomfooleries and every other form of idiocy that has ever entered into existence. The anticipation of the night before collided with the onerous morning, giving way to an afternoon of lunacy.
We had arrived at the 40-mile marker, indicating the commence of the last major climb of the ride. The serpentine road stretched upwards through the gorge, carrying us deeper and deeper into the dense mass of precipitation. Atop this climb we would arrive at the Vista Point. On a dry day, we would have been treated to an expansive view of the grand Columbia River. On a day like today, however, we were left with the hollow silhouette of a dark ridge. Perhaps our severely limited visibility was a gift in some respects. It served to eliminate the overwhelming distraction of all the beautiful views. Yeah, I guess that's sort a perverse way to look at it, but hey, at least I'm being optimistic!
We were so excited to arrive at the Vista Point. This meant that it was all downhill from here. Encouraged by arriving at this landmark, Dan I peddled forth with gusto. Not only did we peddle with a renewed sense of purpose, but we hooped and hollered with a renewed sense of purpose. We were so close to our destination, why not start the celebration early! We were excessively cheery as we made our way across the top of the ridge until...
My rear tire went completely flat. Oh, man. I can't tell you how quickly that sobered me up. Not only was the air completely drained from my rear tube, but the air had similarly been drained from my lungs. There was not a single puff of air left for me to let out a single celebratory cheer or excited "hurrah". However, there was a bit of air left for in my lungs to grumble a few obscenities at my tire. The rain cared not that I was frustrated or that I needed dry hands to fix my tube or that I was growing colder by the second. I just had to stand there on the side of the road and fix my tube irrespective of the weather, which certainly was not favorable.
Twenty minutes later we were back on the road. My mood was a complete reversal of the jolly, triumphant one that I enjoyed before the flat happened. My body had totally cooled down and I was beginning to shiver. I thought of the comment that Orvin, my host in Newton, Kansas, had made to me, which was that if you feel your core temperature changing then you need to seek shelter. The combination of my nerves, the cool air and my fatigued muscles made it hard for me to determine if my health was in jeopardy. I quickly conferred with Dan, then shut my mouth and put my head town to ride the final 15 miles to Portland.
By the time I arrived at the city limits I was emotionally drained. The consternation of my last 15 miles simply took it all out of me, leaving me with a numbed feeling of relief. I could mentally verify that I had arrived in Portland, but my emotional apparatus didn't really care to elicit a response. In all honesty, that was fine. I didn't need some grand celebration right now. All I really needed was lunch. Dan and I found a great little Teriyaki spot where we enjoyed "free" jasmine tea and tons of pseudo-Japanese cuisine.
Dan and I prepared to part ways as we approached downtown. I would be staying on the West side of town, he on the East. Before riding over the bridge, we reflected on the nutty and adventurous ride that we had just safely completed. We committed to getting some donuts over the next few days, then parted ways. Dan was a great dude who I was thrilled to share this last leg of my journey with.
I found myself at the end of my journey in the same state that I started it: solo. The rain seemed to be done and the cloud cover was lifting. As the air in this surprisingly green town warmed, so did my spirits. Feeling safe, my mind's auto-pilot turned off. I began processing the scenery around me. While doing so, I was overcome by an unrestrainable smile. I had safely arrived at my destination. This was all that I had desired over the past five months. Here I stood atop the Hawthorne Bridge, for the first time gazing upon the city of Portland. This was the moment where my aspirations converged with my reality. I made it.
In the months leading up to my arrival in Portland I had been experiencing a good bit of cognitive dissonance. I simply couldn't make up my mind about where I would end my journey. I knew that I had to get across the country, that much was clear. Arriving in Portland signified that I had accomplished that goal. But ever since Chicago I had been throwing around the idea of keeping the tour going beyond Portland. I wanted to follow the Pacific Coast down to San Francisco and possibly even L.A. When I was flying high there wasn't a doubt in my mind that I would make it to SoCal. As I pleasantly cruised through Kansas' Quivira Wildlife Refuge or triumphantly scaled Vail Pass I was California Dreamin'. But then, when I met my lowest lows on the interstate in Wyoming or in a ditch on the side of the road in Washington, I was unsure if I would even make it to Portland. My erratic behavior precisely reflected my feelings on the matter. One day I would be making plans to meet friends in L.A. and purchasing route maps for the Pacific Coast, then the next day I would be looking for a bus service to just get me to Portland so I could be done with this whole fiasco. I had been quite unsure about how I would feel about the journey once I got to Portland.
As I stood atop the Hawthorne Bridge, overcome by perhaps the most genuine smile that had ever reached my countenance, any and all doubt was removed. The voice that came to me in Wisdom now rung as clear as ever. "Colin. It's time to wrap this thing up." I had no choice but to acquiesce. Not only had I made it, but I was done. Ahhh, and what a relief that was. No more climbs. No more headwinds. No more marauding trucks. No more sleeping in a new place each night. I could finally...just...relax.