Take Three Cyclists, a Volcano-Add Water and Stir by Stefanie Timmermann
Beep-beep. Oh God, already seven again. With the days getting shorter, my will to get up early has steadily eroded. A peek out of the tent shows it's dry, but also registers some ominous clouds. I remember dimly that I wanted to chronicle a typical bike touring day today, so I jump into action. Thirty minutes and a dentist-defying rush with the toothbrush later I scrawl a sign and put Paul's little tripod to good use.
8:45 a.m. Packing is no longer the dreaded chore that used to take forever, and soon we're in town checking out the wonderful bagels with homemade cream cheese in a dozen flavors. Garlic-tomato for breakfast (yummy!), but I've developed stranger cravings on this trip. The place is Three Sisters in Oregon and has the distinction of being on the TransAmerica route, a 4400-mile bicycle trail across the US. I had started biking that route two months earlier on the Atlantic coast in Virginia.
Outside Three Sisters we quickly get onto a quiet back road grandly called Highway 242. The forest here consists mostly of ponderosa pine trees with burn marks on their base, but the trees seem very healthy otherwise. I've read somewhere that frequent fire is a natural occurrence here and keeps the undergrowth at bay, resulting in a unique, fire-compatible composition of flora and fauna. The landscape reminds me of old logging photos that show the crew felling a huge tree among fellow behemoths. What always surprised me in these photos was the emptiness, how the trees were spaced rather far apart, with very little ground cover. An exotic idea compared with the forests I grew up with, where every weed and brush fights for a small slice of sunlight.
11:41 a.m. The curves become a bit narrower and the view is crowded out more and more as we assault the final ascent of our cross-country trip. Mt. McKenzie weighs in at 5,325 feet. Such things sounded daunting to me at the beginning of the tour, but after making 11,542-foot Hoosier pass a couple of weeks back, nothing breathtaking, right?
Yeah, until we come to a wind-whipped lookout place aptly named Windy Point. I've put on several layers of clothing since beginning the climb, but Windy Point is still cold - and beautiful. Beautiful in this forbidden-planet way. Between steady rain and rising fog I can see twisted little trees, looking like gnarly gnomes, trying to find a foothold in an ocean of gray-black lava stones - McKenzie is an old volcano. OK, I admit it looks mostly like an abandoned strip mine in the photo! Must be the camera distorting the view so clearly imprinted in my memory...
12:38 p.m. At the top I pick up a stone or two, store it in a pouch of my handlebar bag. They are quite ugly, and sharply abrasive. There is a visitor's lookout in which we huddle. On clear days, my tour guide explains, you can see the Three Sisters Mountains and Mt. Hood in the distance. I cannot even see to the end of the lava field. But it's a cool place. Really. We all put on even more clothes.
Now it's down the other side of the mountain. The grass is greener on this side. The mosses, ferns and mushrooms drip with water, and the way they are growing, this is not the only rain they've been seeing this week. After the arid eastern slope, this side is a veritable rain forest. I expect Tarzan to crash through the vines at any moment. The road curves for miles and miles downhill, we cruise without exertion. I need my rain pants for the first time on the trip. Jason and Paul have run out of clothes to put on and are getting a bit chilled. Still, I can get the boys to smile for the obligatory photo at a trailhead.
4:59 p.m. McKenzie Bridge has a pizza parlor, where I leave a good-sized puddle of water on the floor when I pay for my slice of fresh hot pizza. We make it to the wonderful campground - and lug our bikes around the closure: the camping season is already over around here, at the end of September. It's a super place; the tree trunks seamlessly covered by mosses, flanked by a gurgling stream (more water, who's surprised?). I find, miraculously, a dry spot to pitch my tent; dry due to a towering giant of a tree that's leaning ever so slightly...but holding up during the night despite the violent wind gusts. Phew.
8:10 p.m. We spend the evening drying out in the local restaurant. What a day. And the worst day to chronicle a typical day on this bike tour, because there was nothing typical about it! The rain, the dramatic changes in climate and vegetation, the unexpected barren volcano top - come to think of it, that's what made it the most wonderful day on the whole trip.
I still have the lava stones I picked up at the top. Now they grace my apartment in Paris. And I'd like to get back to Mt McKenzie some day and have more time to explore the lava fields and the botanical treasures along the roads.