Monday, August 1st
There are two poems at the top of the mountain. Attached to rusted railings around Washington Pass overlook. The snow topped peaks feel almost touchable, the cars disappear to the size of small bugs. the air is clear and the sweat on my back is dry.. I’ve climbed almost 3000ft to read them. But that’s just today.
I’ve actually cycled about 4900 miles to read them and, without wanting to analyse them word for word which would seem to undo the special properties they seem to hold, it feels like they have been waiting for me, as each one fits this day and this moment, as I stand and look out from the highest point I’ll be in America until I’m flying back over it in a weeks time.
Perhaps any words on a plaque would have done, much like a horoscope or a fortune cookie, both vague enough to contain the meaning you bring to it, but I like to think these poems were put here for people like me, at the end of some long journey, either just up the mountain, or across a country.
Here they are in full, both by Jonathan Stafford:
To be a mountain you have to climb alone, and accept all that rain and snow. You have to look far away when evening comes. If a forest grows, you care; you stand there leaning against the wind, waiting for someone with faith enough to ask you to move. Great stones will tumble against each other and gouge your sides. A storm will live somewhere in your canyons hoarding its lightning.
If you are lucky, people give you a dignified name and bring crowds to admire how sturdy you are, how long you can hold still for the camera. And some time, if you last long enough you will hear God; a voice will roll down from the sky and all your patience will be rewarded. The whole world will hear it: “Well done.”
A Valley Like This
Sometimes you look at an empty valley like this,
and suddenly the air is filled with snow.
That is the way the whole world happened —
there was nothing, and then…
But maybe some time you will look out and even
the mountains are gone, the world become nothing
again. What can a person do to help
bring back the world?
We have to watch it and then look at each other.
Together we hold it close and carefully
save it, like a bubble that can disappear
if we don’t watch out.
Please think about this as you go on. Breath on the world.
Hold out your hands to it. When mornings and evenings
roll along, watch how they open and close, how they
invite you to the long party that your life is.
I had a nightmare last night that my dad was mauled to death by a bear, he was spraying bear spray from a black egg shaped object but it wasn’t enough. I thought i’d woken up from this but it was like I was in two layers of sleep and I had to wake up again to actually believe it wasn’t real. I suppose this is the culmination of a consistent background, almost subconscious worry, about my vulnerability when camping on my own, not just in ‘bear country’ but anywhere. For most of this trip it’s just been me and the darkness.
I had a tough day ahead, a 25 mile climb to Wahsington pass, the highest point of the North Cascades highway at an elevation 5477ft. I should have left earlier to make the most of the cool, windless morning but by the time id made breakfast, signed the guestbook, and packed my bags it was getting on for 8.30. Not exactly late but the day was already warming up.
I had to make a $10 donation but only $4, I left a note in the guestbook about how I’d mail in the remaining $6 as soon as I could.
Around 8 miles up the road was Mazama, the last chance for food, drink or gas before the other side of the pass. You could tell you were close to the big metropolitan cities of Seattle and Vancouver as things started to be labelled ‘organic’ and cost about $3 more than they should but they sold the coffee that was roasted in Twisp. So I bought a bag of Highway 20. It’s not everyday that you get to drink coffee roasted on the road you’re riding on.
I drank a large cup of coffee there and took one more for the road which I balanced on my handlebars as I rode over the last flat section of ground before the climbing began. A national forests sign with a glacial landscape painted like a textbook illustration marked the spot. It was all uphill from here.
Though these long climbs were routine now and I liked to think I could take them in my stride without even really thinking about the mountain I was cycling up, the reality was they are hard and require constant effort for many long hours.
In this case about three. It was by far the most scenic of the passes I’d climbed to over the last three days and the mountains which inched closer beyond the trees ahead of me provided a distraction from the gruelling work of moving foot by foot higher up toward the pass.
The higher I climbed the more the road and view opened up as it cut up and around the mountain edge. These roads always seemed like an optical illusion and you could only really make sense of the highway layout, and how it relates to the mountain, from directly above where everything appears unfolded.
I stop and pause to talk to the same girl I’d passed the day before – Andrea, as I see her at the side of the road from a distance. Other riders pass me on the way up, but all on light racing bikes without the weight of panniers tents and their life on the bike, I let them go.
A mile to go and a large switchback takes me up to the top of the pass with finally emerges around the bend. I take a photo by the sign then take a right into a parking area which has the overlook, the poems, and the views. I make some coffee and snacks then take the short walk out to the overlook. It’s all downhill from here.
As I leave I speak to a father and daughter visiting from Washington. It’s his 80th birthday. I talk about how I’m thinking of visiting the San Juan islands and she runs back to her car then gives me a $10 map she just bought of the islands. The generosity of complete strangers continues to surprise me.
The descent has some slower, flatter stretches but a lot of it is fast and steep with views ahead of jagged Crater Mountain. On the mountain side of the road, occasional streams or the trickle of a waterfall, on my right I see the tree filled valley gradually divide and widen as granite creek flows into Ross lake and Diablo lake.
The water is a viscous green-blue colour which looks almost synthetic but it’s caused by something which I read on a sign at Diablo lake and have completely forgotten.
As I return to my bike a guy asks me where I rode from and before I know he gives me an ice cold Gatorade from the cooler in the back of his car along with a nectarine and a slice of cake his half-Polish wife baked. I thank them and take it all. The last services were 55 miles back and I’ve eaten my way through all my pop tarts and granola bars and my water is low.
I decide to have a shorter day, leaving 90 miles tomorrow to the coast, which should still be possible with an early start.
I pull into Colonial Creek campground, one of several close to the lake. I spot two guys looking tired by the reception, their bikes leaning against the wall. Conor and Aidan are cycling the Northern Tier and thus was their first day. I decide to camp with them and we set up in spot 67 in a wooded area where the glow of the green blue water is visible through the trees.
I jump in the lake and its glacially cold. But when I get out I feel amazing. We sit on the pier chatting, me half reminiscing about my ride, trying to pass on any wisdom or tips I’ve accumulated. They are both wide eyed and fully of energy. I feel a little jaded.
Meeting these two on their first day, as I’m just about to commence my last is a little bit like looked at a version of myself 3 months ago – excited and a little anxious. Lots of uncertainty but endless possibility.
As we go to sleep I can hear them occasionally turning over on their new sleeping matts, trying to find the sweet spot. It makes me think of my first night camping on this trip, and the night camping after I bought my bike back in Half Moon Bay in March, and how that set all of this is momentum.
Tomorrow will be the semi-official end to this trip, at least the end of the coast-to-coast ride which composes 98% of it, and I feel like most of the stuff I’ve written today wallows in sappy sentimentality. But it’s hard not to feel that way now this big adventure I’ve been on is very nearly over and the experience is already beginning the inevitable transformation from something lived into a series of fuzzy recollections.