Reaching the Columbia River

This trip was planned with several key areas of interest, the Columbia River being one of them. Although technically we saw it above the Grand Coulee Dam, there it masqueraded as Lake Roosevelt. Today we reached what I consider the flowing river.

Our route to get here revealed a changing climate and farmland use. We left behind the wheat fields, which we have now learned is termed “dry wheat” for its lack of irrigation. In its place, we traveled through more diverse farm interests. Corn fields, green crops, even vineyards and the ever famous Washington apple orchards dominated the landscape. And the long spiny rotating irrigation structures were prevalent everywhere, fed by the waters of the Columbia River. We also coined a new term, “vegetarian roadkill,” for the fallen onions, corn cobs, zucchini, apples and other produce that had fallen on the roadside on the way to market.

We crossed the river from Pasco to Richland WA, greatly impressed with the bike lane provided. Not only did it have it's own separate and safe approach, but once on the bridge we were cordoned off from the traffic by tall barriers and were equally well protected from the edge of the bridge. I wish all bridge crossings were so comfortable.

Having gotten an early start this morning, we had plenty of time to take in the wonderful bike trail along the river. We started with a rest stop in the park near the bridge. There we gained a critical piece of information – directions to the nearest ice cream shop along the trail. It was indeed a good recommendation, and we savored huckleberry ice cream cones while overlooking the river.

Our Warm Showers host home was just 5 miles up the river – virtually all on bike trails. It was the easiest and most scenic approach to our lodgings ever!

The Columbia River will be our neighbor for the next week of cycling. Tomorrow we will round the bend of the river and then proceed down the river gorge. I have already picked up a map of all the vineyards along the way. And I'm sure there will be plenty of other nice sights as well. I think I'm going to like this trip down the Columbia River.


In the Zone

Progress to date: 10 days, 574 miles

Day ten of our trip, and I think I'm finally getting there. The initial adjustment period has passed and I've ironed out the kinks in my routine. I've reached the point where daily cycling is the norm and other responsibilities have faded into the background. I am In the Zone.

I recognize this condition from last year's cycling trip. It's a state of being characterized by a number of uniquely identifiable behaviors. The list goes something like this:

  • Losing track of the days. Knowing what day it is is only important when it impacts when shops or cafés will be open, or if a motel might book up more quickly.
  • Letting go of the need to plan ahead. As long as today's destination offers food and lodging options, that's enough to know.
  • Checking the weather takes precedence over checking email.
  • Being able to adjust like a rubber band. Waiting out a breakdown, flat tire or other delay is no longer a world ending event. Rearranging our route is no big deal.
  • Thinking that taking a daily shower at 4:00pm is normal.
  • Feeling my body change. The extra pounds that crept on before the trip are melting away. My legs are getting increasingly stronger.
  • Needing food. Lots of it. With each passing day, adding fuel assumes a greater importance. The search for ice cream intensifies.
  • Wanting the cycling to go on and on. Not wanting the trip to end.

The Zone is a good place to be. Life is simple. Exercise is plentiful. No shortage of fresh air. The scenery is constantly changing. I plan to stay In the Zone for several more weeks.




A Worthy Detour

If not for the advice from a cyclist on Crazy Guy on a Bike (a portal for journals of touring cyclists), we would have missed it entirely. Our planned route had us continuing straight on highway 2. But taking the shortest distance between two points is not necessarily the best choice. And that was most certainly true in this case.

Angling up to the Grand Coulee Dam instead allowed us to travel through the area below the dam which is an ancient riverbed, now home to several lakes. Called the “Grand Coulee,” it stretches for about 60 miles and is a feast for the eyes, particularly on a bicycle.

It is an extremely arid area, with less than 12 inches of rainfall a year. Huge basalt cliffs border the lakes and form an impressive landscape. One rock named Steamboat Rock, is definitely a standout. Particularly on the upper end, the road clings to the base of the cliffs and we rode in the shadows of their huge height. At times the road cut through the rocky formations, and sometimes we rode up and over the lower ones.

Dry Falls bisects the Grand Coulee. Stopping at the roadside overlook, we were amazed to see the sight of what was once the world's largest waterfall. We were only a few thousand years too late to see it, as it was wiped out by the Ice Age floods that swept through the area, leaving it high and dry. But it was still a captivating sight, especially as we tried to imagine it in its former glory.

The basin broadened out below that, but was still dominated by the other-worldly cliff structures that were so prevalent. It didn't hurt that we had yet another cloudless blue sky to reflect off the lake waters and fill the day with sunshine.

The Grand Coulee ends at Soap Lake, which is actually a natural salt water pool and contains 23 different minerals. We didn't bathe in its healing waters, but we did settle into a unique lodge on its shore to enjoy the view and savor the day's ride. We are most grateful for the good advice. In fact, I'd say this cycling and scenery was my favorite of the trip so far. The detour was worth every extra mile.



Grand Coulee Dam Camping

Cycling to the Grand Coulee Dam, we were surrounded by golden wheat fields. Farms stretched as far as we could see, just as they have since we left Spokane. We could see the long parallel rows where tractors had recently harvested the grain, it's stalks making interesting patterns in the fields. Although it was fairly flat, there were plenty of ups and downs as the terraine undulated, and we could often see long straight stretches of road in front of us.

I saw the road sign with the truck pointing downhill, but I thought it was overkill as the descent was fairly modest. Then suddenly, the road became twisty and huge cliffs rose all around me. The landscape changed entirely, with scruffy vegetation covering the rough mounds and the road plummeting down through what had become a canyon. Down, down, down it went. For six miles! Dread filled my thoughts as I pondered the reality that we'd probably have to climb back up from this abyss. So it was with great relief that I saw glimpses of Lake Roosevelt ahead of me. It was still a long way down, but at least I knew our destination lay at the bottom of this free fall.

We camped at Spring Canyon in the Roosevelt National Recreation area. It was a beautiful spot, right on the lake, surrounded by wilderness rather then the bustle of a town. We knew it was several miles to get to the dam, but what wasn't apparent on the map was just how hilly that distance would be! We were thankful that we no longer were loaded down with gear as we made our way over to explore Grand Coulee Dam.

Despite being surrounded by grand sights, my favorite part of the whole day was the evening. Heading down to the lake to see the beach area, I was drawn to the long docks at the boat launch. I plopped down at the end of the longest one and didn't move for the next hour. The sun still held its warmth, the air was still and it was so serene. I remained through sunset, feeling greater calm than I have yet on this whole trip. The outdoors is the best lodging ever. We really must do more camping.


Back to Spokane

I've been craving a coffee stop. The kind where I can sit over a latte, soak in the sun at an outdoor table and savor an unrushed break. Although the West clearly is serious about its coffee and roadside espresso stands abound as well as coffee houses, they don't always appear at opportune moments in our day's ride. And so I wait.

Today I got my wish, but in a backhanded way. In fact, I'd prefer to have skipped this coffee moment, as it is the result of a bicycle breakdown. While Rich took off in a cab with his bike in the back end, I sit outside a Starbucks watching over the remainder of our gear. And sipping a latte, of course.

All things considered, it was a lucky break. We found a good route out of Spokane which not only avoided traffic but gave us a short but enjoyable run on the Centennial Trail overlooking the Spokane River. With only 40 miles to cover for the day, we could afford a late start and a leisurely pace. Tooling along west of town, we found ourselves surrounded by flat golden fields with the mountains retreating far into the distance behind us. All was going according to plan until suddenly Rich's bike developed a distinct wobble. A quick assessment revealed a spoke that had broken free of the wheel. It wasn't something he could fix, and with no bike shops in our near future, there was little alternative but to retreat. Back to Spokane. Fortunately, we were only about 10 miles out from the populated airport area, where we could set up camp at Starbucks, call bike shops and set about getting a new wheel.

There are a lot worse ways to suffer through a breakdown. We were fortunate to be so close to a major city, with repair shops within reach. And although our arrival will be significantly delayed, we can still make our intended destination. It's just 20 miles farther than we had planned. And even if we don't it won't be a problem. We have no firm commitments at this stage. We just hope we needn't return to Spokane again.


Crossing Three States

In the last two days we have cycled in three different states. Yes, we upped our our daily mileage to about 70 miles, but mainly it wasn't far across Idaho to fill the gap between Montana and Washington.

Continuing along the Clark Fork River, we cycled a long span with little in the way of civilization. We also experienced our first clouds of the trip, which prolonged the morning warm-up. Our breakfast turned out to be a moveable feast, as we cobbled together findings from a little general store – complete with old hardwood floors and low shelves – to a modern convenience store. I quickly shed my coffeehouse snobbery to down some machine-made mocha, which was heavenly for its sweet warming effect. Apart from that, we greatly enjoyed the lack of traffic and the unspoiled beauty along that stretching the river.

We also met a young man who had spent the morning picking wild huckleberries up in the mountains. We'd never had them before this trip, but had quickly figured out that they were a local delicacy. In fact, we've already sampled huckleberry ice cream, vinaigrette and ice drink. So we were intrigued when he took us out to his truck to show us the buckets of berries he'd picked, and the long pronged contraptions he used to colllect them from the bushes.

Crossing over into Idaho, the river eventually emptied into Lake Pend Oreille. The road skirted the edge of the extensive lake, making for a scenic ride. Although the clouds kept us from getting too warm while cycling, we did wish for the return of blue skies to show the lake off to better advantage.

Stopping for the night in Sandpoint, we were hosted by a wonderful Warm Showers family that immediately enveloped us with their multigenerational family members and made us feel so very welcome. The kids eagerly showed us their egg-laying chickens, gave us a tour of the yard, and introduced us to their old cat Peanutbutter. We set off this morning among the familiar flurry of making school lunches and getting kids off to class.

We happily followed the Pend Oreille River out of Sandpoint, but once over the border into Washington, we left the river and headed toward Spokane. Despite riding through beautiful pine woods much like home, the traffic increased and it felt too much like just working to get from Point A to Point B. We did take a brief detour through a county park, which was a nice interlude. On the bright side, it was easy going with more downhills than up and the wind mostly behind us. So we have few complaints.

We won't be adding another state for a while, as it will take us a while to make our way through Washington. But in case you're wondering, next up is Oregon.


Following the Clark Fork River

It was a day of contrasts, but the one constant was the Clark Fork River. We cycled along its east bank for the entire day. That kept us nestled between the Cabinet and Coeur d'Alene mountains, surrounded by tall pines and and frequently within sight of the ever changing river.

Returning to our preferred routine we were off early, shortly after sunrise. We love the early morning hours, when the sun casts a golden glow and the rest of the world has yet to surface. The road was blessedly deserted despite being a state highway, and it was flat easy traveling. Even the river was quiet, reflecting the mountain scenery.

There was a downside, though. With the sun so low, it was a chilly 42 degrees and I'd underestimated the amount of warm clothes I needed. I kept adding layers as we went along, but could hardly wait to reach our breakfast stop to hug a hot mug of coffee.

By the time we emerged from the breakfast cafe, it was warming quickly. Once again the day was transforming from cold to hot. There seems to be no in between. With half our mileage already completed and plenty of day left, we took a leisurely ride through the park in Thompson Falls to see the dams and waterfalls.

For the remainder of the route, we followed the advice of last night's motel owner. We would never have found Blue Slide Road without his directions, and it took us off the highway on a beautiful country road all the way to our destination. We saw nary a car along the way, and reveled in the peaceful and beautiful mountainside scenery.

Of course we did know that venturing off the main road would entail more ups and downs, and this route had some doozies. They weren't as long as yesterday's climbs, but were much steeper and twisty. I managed to cycle up them, but even I needed some rest stops. One look at Rich's face will tell you the toll they took on him!

Even with the hills, we didn't realize just how high above the river we had climbed until the trees opened up to give us a view of the river – way down below.

Near the end of our ride, the river widened out into a huge reservoir, which is a popular recreation area. It makes for a lovely place to sit and relax after the day's travels. Here the breeze helps keep the heat at bay, and I feel I earned this nice rest. Somehow it even makes enduring the morning chill worth while.

I don't know what tomorrow will bring for cycling and weather, but I do know we have another day following the Clark Fork River.