Saturday, July 30th
‘It’s all downhill from here”. Five words you rarely want to hear or less you are cycling. They were printed at the top of the information board at Sherman Pass (elevation 5575ft), the first of two mountain passes I climbed whilst covering exactly one hundred miles in an effort to make up for getting sidetracked yesterday. Of course it never really is all downhill, at least it’s downhill until it’s uphill again, which more often than not comes sooner than you think.
I’d set an alarm for 5am and woke up with that feeling of not quite knowing where you are or why you set your alarm that early, but I prised myself out of bed as quickly as I could . There was a reason for getting up this earlier. Sherman pass was around 25 miles from Kettle Falls, and almost of all that would be uphill. I want to get out whilst it was still cool and avoid getting halted by the heat like yesterday.
Tom was already up. He cooked me pancakes for breakfast and after sharing a few more stories and photographs I left. It was 6:45.
I cycled back over the bridge out of Kettle Falls that I’d crossed back and forth yesterday. The sun was up but it was still rising, piercing through the trees as I made the short descent from the house to the river. That would be the last time I’d be going downhill in a while.
The climb began on the other side of the river as I turned on to the route 20. It was a persistent uphill. Not an extreme grade but unrelenting. The road was shaded at the side from the trees and I quickly got into a rhythm, occasionally checking my map to see my elevation gain. I made a decent pace. Usually I’d climb at 4-5mph, but I was hitting 6 or more and estimated I’d be at the top by around 11 after four hours of climbing.
This was routine by now and I enjoyed it to an extent, or at least didn’t feel threatened by the prospect of a 4000ft climb. I was fitter and stronger now than I had been in years.
Around two miles from the top of the pass I saw a cyclist pushing their bike up the hill around the corner. I quickly caught him up to check how he was doing. His name was Daniel and he was on day 3 of a tour without an end. He was heading to the Pacific coast to begin with, from Spokane, and then down from there, possibly to Mexico, maybe further.
He’d worked in Japan for 15 years and hadn’t been back in the states long. His fitness was yet to catch up with his enthusiasm. I passed and reached the summit where the ‘it’s all downhill from here’ sign was and I brewed a cup of coffee on my stove. As it was cooling off Daniel appeared around the corner and we sat at the top for a while talking about Japan and the cycling. I couldn’t help but be a little jealous of the adventure he had ahead of him as mine was just about drawing to a close.
We descended, Daniel took the lead. I caught him up as a sudden uphill took us by surprise as we entered the town of republic, 42 miles from where I’d started in the morning. We both felt the sign had lied and we were tired and hungry and pulled into a large gas station on the edge of town which also housed a Subway. Daniel kindly bought me one and we both sat in the cool, charmless inferior eating our footlong sandwiches.
Two guys sat next to us, they lived in Tonasket, another 40 miles down the road on my route and informed us that there was in fact a decent climb up before a long downhill to the city. We were at a little over 2000 feet or so but the next pas was 4300.
I’d been saying how I wanted to do another 70 miles as we sat down to lunch, but now that felt more than slightly optimistic. But I set off, saying goodbye to Daniel and re-entering the outside world which was now hot as hell, though probably not quite as hot as the day before which was something else.
It was downhill out of town to begin with then the climbing began – around 8 miles of it, but soon enough it was behind me. I paused at the top of the pass to down some of the little water I had left. By the sign marking the elevation other bike tyres left marks in the dirt and gravel. You started noticing things like this – the marks of other cyclists. At any one time there could be hundreds, maybe thousands of people crossing the country. Though it was almost big enough for most of them never to cross paths.
From the summit it was more or less downhill all the way to Tonasket, 3000 feet or so below. The descent alternated between sharp 6% grade downhill with tight corners around rocky outcrops, and slower straighter, less steep sections. About half way down a headwind came out of nowhere, slowing me down on all but the steepest parts of the road.
The landscape was less tree and more rock, again. They same change I’d seen in Montano or Wyoming, presumably because of the elevation change. It became drier and hotter and began to almost resemble the Big Horn basin in its lunar starkness.
The very last two miles to the city were the best. A fast downhill as the city appeared almost underneath you, and treeless mountains lined the horizon.
I’d run out of water about 15 miles ago and at the bottom bought a can of Coke and drank it down quickly outside. Despite the town being of comparatively decent size there was no camping. The gas station doubled as a motel but it was fully booked.
I left and headed downtown where there was another. A few blocks down I saw tents pitched and hammocks strung up outside the town visitor center. There was a van with an adventure cycling logo and ‘Bike the US for MS’ on the outside. It was the same group of people who I’d been crossing paths with a couple of days ago.
I tried to find someone to ask if I could camp there as well. None of them really seemed to be that interested or know what was going on. I walked over to the center but it was closed. A girl was sat on the steps and I asked if she worked there and she replied in the bluntest possibly way ‘no. I’m using the wifi’. I decided I didn’t really want to camp with them so quickly got on bike and headed for the next town, Riverside.
It was 16 miles away but I turned a corner and now the headwind was a tailwind. It took me an hour to get there and was probably the best part of the day. I cycled faster than I had in the previous 9 hours and 84 miles and enjoyed the long steady downhill through the mountains.
This town was a lot smaller, old wooden buildings and a general store where I bought a beer. As I entered the RV park I hit 100 miles. I paid $10 to camp in my tent and sit it up st the end of the lot next to some young guys who were fireman, on call in case of forest fires.
The wind picked up later on as I sat in my tent, blowing through tall trees at the edge of the park which I hoped could take the strain.
As I cooked my food and put up my tent I thought about these were the last few times I’d be doing it America, this routine which felt strange to begin with was now second nature, just part of my day. I have exactly 206 miles left to the coast. Probably just three more days.