The Modern World Pedaled Through
THE highway that runs through Oregon's Whitney Valley is a major bicycle route and marked on the maps as such. What isn't marked on the maps is the weather. Many bicyclists ride through that area of the Blue Mountains during sunny days and nights warm enough to survive and probably don't realize what kinds of storms they've slipped between. The cyclists begin to appear in late May and early June, a period of "unsettled" weather, when anything can happen - snow, sleet, hail, graupel, rain, lightning and t hunder, even warm sunshine.
I worked on a ditch near the highway one early June day and stayed with the job when sunshine changed to clouds and wind and snow. I continued because I wanted to finish the job, and because I was close enough to the house that, if the storm continued, I could run for it just before I froze solid.
Two men, one with grizzled beard and hair, pedaled into view, bent low in the face of snow in the wind. One of them saw me and stopped, and the other stopped beside him. The older of the two asked me, "Don't you ever have any good weather in this country?"
I couldn't help myself. I said, "I don't know yet. I've only lived here for seven years." I could see why they didn't find my answer as funny as it appeared to me. They weren't backed up by a warm house a hundred yards away. I said, "This snow might keep up for a while yet. Come on down to the house, and I'll fix some hot tea."
The members of my family, who would usually have been there with a fire going, had gone to town. But it took me only a few minutes to get a blaze roaring in the kitchen stove, and a few more minutes to bring water to a boil for tea. My guests were grateful for the hot stove. I think they might even have regretted not having laughed more heartily at my joke about the weather. In any case, we talked amiably about the weather, local wildlife, my job, and where and when they had started their trip, weeks and
hundreds of miles before.
People ride bicycles clear across this wide nation. More power to them, but someone should write on the maps, "This area has unpredictable weather. Go prepared with all manner of clothing, tents, and sleeping gear." Maps did use to warn, "Here there be serpents," so that the sailors would not be caught unaware.
We finished our second cup of tea. Their clothing was almost dry. Clouds and snow blew away to the east. The sun shone warmly, and the wind calmed to a pleasant breeze.
One of the men asked, "Will the sunshine last?"
He probably only wanted reassurance, and his question might better have been, "Is there any future in returning to the pedals?" and I could have answered, "Always. Excelsior," since the stretch of highway they had to pedal next was a steep climb of over a 1,000 feet in five or six miles. But I gave an accurate, mundane answer, "There isn't any way to tell. If you're not equipped for bad weather, you should probably make all possible speed over Huckleberry Summit. Once you clear that, it's downhill most o f the way into Baker, about 43 miles from here. When you get off the mountain, you're a couple of thousand feet lower, and whatever the worst of the weather does there, it will be warmer than here."
They pedaled away into the warm afternoon. I watched until they rode out of sight over the first hill. Then I picked up my shovel and walked back to the ditch I'd been working on.
Cyclists continued to come through, alone, in pairs, in small groups, and in groups of 10 or 15. Many of them stopped when they saw signs of human occupation in one of the weathered old buildings that made up the town of Whitney, listed on some maps as a ghost town. The riders had just come about 20 miles from the last human habitation near the highway. Some of them were not accustomed to being away from people for that long and needed contact. Many of them needed to refill their water bottles. Since we brought in our drinking water, having found our well water too sulphurous to drink, I hesitated but then decided the only acceptable policy was to give freely of our water. We brought it in a vehicle with a motor. These people would have to pedal several miles out of their way to get good drinking water.
By giving refuge from storms, water, tea, advice on good places to pitch tents, sometimes the use of our yard for tents, sometimes a meal, we met and shared existence with a wide variety of people. Sometimes, when the small cabin across the road was not being used, we offered that for a night's lodging.
Two young men from New Jersey accepted that offer and also ate dinner with us. The contrasts between their city background and our rural habitat was of enough interest to keep conversation going rather late. The day stayed unusually warm as dark settled in Whitney Valley, and a million bright stars shone above us. After a long time of silence in the yard there in the small mountain valley, one of the visitors said, "You have stars in the sky here. They took those away from us in the city many years ago."
Whether they arrived on two wheels or four, by gasoline, pedal, or hay power (a woman and a man rode horseback across the nation one summer and stayed an afternoon and a night in Whitney) many tourists told us, "Oh, I would love to live like this, if only my husband (or wife, girlfriend, boyfriend, economic situation, or family) would let me."
I always thought that was easy to say. Living out on a ranch, without plumbing or electricity, with limited social contact, with a large garden, and children educated at home, seems like a romantic way to live and fulfill so many aspects of the american dream: simplicity, rugged independence, and self-sufficiency. We have loved living that way, but giving up the modern conveniences and living close to the bone - not just for the duration of a vacation, but year round - might dim the bright, romantic idea ls for many.
But I thought if any among our visitors from the modern world could actually do it, they would likely be among those who traveled through these mountains by pedal power or horse power, and stayed with their course no matter how steep the mountain road, and no matter what weather the days and nights brought them.