The Mighty Viking

Conquering those things we must, one story at a time

Archive for January, 2015

The Lay of the Land

Let’s go back in time a couple years – and a few millennia while we’re at it.

January ride report – 2012:

The Dalles, OR.

Those who know anything about the history and geography of the Columbia Gorge will understand the pivotal influence this town has for the region. The Dalles lies at the western end of the Oregon Trail.  The ghosts of Wagon trains still scent the air, assembling in a spirit that almost can be heard in the roaring spill-water of the modern dam.  They once gathered there – in a very different river – for breakdown, to be turned into rafts for river travel through the wild River highway of the Columbia Gorge, or to be fitted for the even more insane route over the rugged Cascades, depending on the mind of each wagon owner.  Each way was treacherous, and the expectancy of peril can still be felt, if you step away from the interstate just a little way.

Now, the area is central to the flow of grain, livestock, fruit and nuts from their sources in the vast range, farm, and orchard-land to the markets down-river. On top of the drone of nature’s historic obstacles a rhythm of commerce drives daily life up and down and around the River.  No one moves here but to its beat.  The Dalles is its heartbeat.

Riding up the Gorge last night from Portland, I began to feel something I often feel when leaving the Big City – that sense of the real world coming out from behind the mask of urban protection. There is something Vital that is lost on those who dwell in the sanctuary of the City – a place that is a refuge from the harsh reality of nature. The open-ness of riding the motorbike unseals the mystery of how the world is made, and why we develop the way we do into cities, towns, ports, and villages. I rode last night out from the lights on either side of the Freeway into the black, unlit road, and the blacker river beside it.  The loneliness of being out there, away from People, on my own without the support of the corner hardware store weighed on my mind like an adventure.

This ride from Portland to The Dalles, or more usually the other way around – it was, long ago, the ride of a lifetime. Not by road, there was no way to build a road on the steep edges of the Gorge, but by raft. The westward Overland Oregon Trail ended at The Dalles, and from there folks either went over the Cascade mountains, or down the river rapids by raft. There was no way to travel overland through the Gorge with wagons. One did not just ease down the interstate. There were no dams, no road, hardly even a path, and the river was a wild maze of rapids.  It was not unusual for a raft to leave The Dalles and pass silently as splintered debris past the wide waters of the Willamette River delta – and the burgeoning insulated city of Portland.

Into this history I rode, between the two cities.  One city protected, insulated from the elements, fed by a lush lowland valley, and the other closely tied to the fickle quirks of nature: geology, the comparative frailty of the human body, and the stout tenacity of a different sort of people who prized their freedom more than the ease of urban life. The lights of the Bonneville Dam seemed meager compared to the giant mass of black night that surrounded it. As the road darkened, so too the City’s languorous apathy dimmed and my senses quickened.  The traffic dwindled to the occasional semi, and I was left, for the most part, thinking about what I knew by day of the shapes I could only identify by silhouette in the night.  I knew this highway well, and it only took occasional recognizable landmarks to place myself in its full landscape.

I rode on this way, white dashed lines tolling beneath my feet until I came around a final shared bend in the river and road.  There, before me, was the blazing pocket of lights against the endless horizon of darkness – the port they called “Grandes Dalles de la Columbia”, the Great Rapids of the Columbia. Seeing it like that, at night, and in its function to me as a harbor for the night, a harbor from the Great River and the adventures coming west from the Outlands, made me more keenly aware of how it fit in to the landscape that usually was just a blip on an interstate. And that awareness hung with me through the night, and into this morning.

The geography of this area is immense, and very much in your face about itself. The mountainside on the north side of the Gorge shows its sharply defined sediment lines like an experienced bodybuilder, competing for your admiration.  It shows how it used to be buried before it pushed up and into the light. At one place the lines cant crazily down into the river, in others they act like level tide-marks from another era. I studied these lines as I sat at breakfast at a country Inn.  The lines read like a story to me, a mystery that I would have to ride over to understand.

And so the morning began.  Breakfasted, and geared up against the brisk winter morning air, I warmed up the bike in my usual manner – partly at rest while I checked my rigging, and tires, and lights – and partly in a moving meditation of thoughtful riding, listening to the bike‘s mood, the road‘s mood, the timbre of the wheels over the tarmac, sensing the grip of the tires, and the balance of the load on the back.  Finally, with everything satisfied and ordered in my mind, I turned the bike across the steel bridge that passed in front of the Dam‘s spill-water, and eagerly began my day‘s journey.

The climb began immediately.  Up this wall of history my road climbed, pulling me epoch by epoch out of the Gorge and the past, and dropping me on top of the landscape and present, in the form of rolling volcanic hills. To the west, the volcanos themselves loomed in a row with snow capping their now-silent craters, but everywhere there were the reminders that this landscape was, not that long ago in geographical terms, a violent, dangerous place to be, where the very ground moved and fumed and if you were slow, would kill you.

I reached my first pass, between Simcoe Butte and Lone Pine Butte, and took a moment to look behind me. The climb hadn’t seemed so hard, but looking back south the rugged drop-off is startling, brought into stark contrast by the looming Mt. Hood on the far side, which looked ready to hop a creek to come after me, but which was actually 60 miles behind me on the other side of the river. Lone Pine Butte became the gate that cut me off from the Gorge, dropping down into the valley below and leaving the giant icons out of sight, and out of mind.

For the rest of the day, I climbed, dropped, transited, and just rode. The balance of the bike beneath me was a sensuous dance that drew me into my surroundings so naturally that I forgot the difference between bike, rider, road, and the land around me.   Buttes, Bluffs, valleys and basins, canyons, gorges, Plateaus, heck, I think I even punched through a Draw at one point. I was going upstream, in every sense of the word. Portland sloughed off of me like a too-small skin. I went up the river, from whence came the people, the water, the crops, from where the city gets its comfortable life. I found where the water came from, and could see how and why it came from there. I sensed how the ranchers and farmers found these places so ideal for growing their crops, herds, and orchards, and how everything funneled into a larger and larger system, reaching the denser populations in the lowland cities, where life was easier, and often taken for granted. A farmer wouldn’t last a week in the rat race of the city, but a flatlander would struggle to cope with a world where the corner market, the salon, coffee shop, Home Improvement Center, and amusement parks weren’t all within a few miles, heck, aren’t even in the vocabulary of the locals. “A few miles” up here, at the Root of All Things, doesn’t hold much in the way of convenience.

If understanding is what you seek, if you want to see how the world – both the geographical and our human culture – is put together, spend a day, or two, or three, riding north. Ride out of the Big City – any city – upstream. Ride through wild places, look at what you pass over, and between, and through, and into. Leave the gorge where the rapids are so epic they bear names the French Canadian Voyageurs used. Ride over a bluff so big it merits its own elevation sign at its peak. Slip onto a back highway with the name of a smaller gorge, using the deepening purple shadows of the impending gloom at the end of the short winter daylight as your guide, and follow the freezing and frozen river up the steepening walls of the canyon until they are sheer, and the only way out is up through to the headwaters, where the floor of the canyon rises, and gradually disappears into a draw, and then into bluffs, and finally a vast plateau, where yet another world awaits. Ride the full circuit, understanding that all that goes on down below, all that you’ve left behind, now lies what used to be weeks worth of travel. Feel the distance in the culture when you stop for gas at a lonely outpost, and stand drinking the cup of coffee they offer while you chat with the person at the counter. Enjoy the vile brewing methods, and appreciate that at 27 degrees without wind chill factor, any coffee is good coffee, and anyone who makes this coffee for you is good people. And then ride on, into the dark, until your motorbike is nothing but a wake rippling under the falling blanket of darkness, streaking across the Plateau toward another Adventure.