First mountain passes

Oh man. There is no way I’m going to remember all the things I wanted to say. I have a feeling this is going to be a theme of the trip, and I really should get a little notebook and make notes to myself about this stuff.

And I am tempted to check a thesaurus to write this entry. I am running out of words for “beautiful.” The landscapes we passed through…pictures don’t do them justice, and neither do words.

After taking the train from Vancouver to Mt. Vernon, we spent a couple of days biking up the Skagit River valley. Everything was lovely, of course. Lots of little creeks and rivers, and forests, and all that. We came across a guy on a recumbent trike (I love recumbent trikes, I’d probably ride one if they weren’t 1. low to the ground 2. a bitch to get uphill 3. rather pricey) who talked to us about our routing, as we’re following part of Adventure Cycling’s Northern Tier Route. Speaking of which, we found little reminders that we were on a bike route in unexpected places, like the restaurant in Marblemount that had a “bike food” sign and then, indoors, a request for people to cover or remove the metal cleats in their shoes. Or the sign specifically advertising bike-camping a few miles before Winthrop. Haven’t seen any other cross-country tourists yet, but the passes we did yesterday only opened up a couple of weeks ago!

Yesterday Shawn and I rode our first two mountain passes, the second of which was over a mile high. We started the day at about 1,500 feet, so to climb from there to over 5,000 feet was hard work, no lie. We did 35 miles of what felt like straight up, riding in our granny gears for about half of it. For the Portland folks: if you’ve ridden up to Rocky Butte or Mt. Tabor, imagine doing that for 35 unrelenting miles. Yeah. Four to eight percent grade for pretty much the whole thing.

But the scenery, oh man, it was so worth it. We passed a thousand nameless waterfalls and rushing creeks of melted glacier water. And it was amazing to watch the thick forests become more alpine, to feel the air go from muggy to crisp. We couldn’t help but get excited when we got to the lowest levels of unmelted snow, even if they were just dirty drifts hiding in shadier spots. The weather was perfect, too! The sun was shining, giving me a light sunburn despite my sunscreen, and when there was wind it was a tailwind helping to push us uphill, and giving us a refreshing breeze when we stopped to catch our breath–we got quite hot and sweaty doing all that climbing.

Speaking of catching our breath: the closer we got to the top, the more I had to stop. In Vancouver I got slightly larger gears on the back (which means I had lower gearing available to me), and a day before I’d finally put my toe cages on and moved my saddle a wee bit up and forward. All of which I was very grateful for as we climbed. But it was still a long uphill ride, into higher and higher altitudes, and so between less oxygen (I can definitely feel it past 4,000 feet) and just plain old fatigue, I was stopping more and more often as the day went on. But we did make it to the top, where we stopped and ate a little and admired the four feet deep snow on the sides of the road (it’s still melting, temperatures were above freezing and the roads were clear).

The views, though! Oh lord. So worth it. Just amazing. Unfortunately I don’t have any cell reception here, and my computer doesn’t recognize my phone, so I don’t have pictures up yet. When I do, they will be posted here.

There were lots of roadies on the route, too; as well as motorcyclists, and whenever we stopped we got quite the ego-stroking from both groups, who seemed to think we were badass for doing the passes on loaded bicycles. We were curious about the quantities of roadies until I had a chance to ask one about it, it turns out there’s a group of friends who ride there once a year, and this was their eighth year riding up the mountains together. Pretty awesome. They were, of course, much faster than us; they were riding unloaded racing bikes! One even told us that we should help ourselves to some of the bagels at their next food stop (they had people in cars doing support) but we never found them again. Alas. Probably good for them, Shawn and I likely would have eaten every bagel they had.

The ride down the other side was tiring in its own way; we lost all that elevation rather quickly. I generally dislike descending steep hills and this was no exception. Thankfully the weather was good, the traffic was low, and the roads were clear and smooth with wide shoulders. I’m sure I hit 30 mph at some point, but I had to keep stopping completely in order to shake out my arms and hands, as it’s hard work to brake that much! The whole descent was an exercise in trying not to ride my brakes. I hate going so fast that I couldn’t stop any time I wanted to, and if you’re on a bicycle and going, say, 25 mph, it’s actually dangerous to try and stop immediately. Not to mention that if you ride your brakes too much, your rims (the part of the wheel your brake pads rub) can overheat, which can make your tires explode! So it was this constant mental battle reminding myself that it’s okay to try and keep myself from accelerating too fast, but I don’t need to be so slow that I could stop any time. My favorite thing was when I could see where the descent leveled out, because then I knew that I wouldn’t keep gaining speed indefinitely, and I’d dare myself to not brake for that one section.

Once the hill leveled out a little, we were still going generally downhill (with a slight tailwind), but not so much that we had to use our brakes. I spent a little time pedaling in the highest gear my bike has, just because I could!

We visited Mazama (alas, everything was closed) and Winthrop (which was a like a Disney version of an old-west town) before making our way to the little town of Twisp after dark, and from there getting to the house of Shawn’s friend Amy. Twisp is a cute town, one of those little liberal outposts you sometimes find, where there’s both a farm supply store and an natural foods store.

And of course, it’s gorgeous out here. We’re definitely out of the rainforest part of the Pacific Northwest, but we’re not really in high desert just yet. The trees lean less towards Douglas-fir and more towards aspen and ponderosa pines, and there’s less undergrowth. But there are rolling foothills in every direction, and at night there are deer everywhere. We got here after dark, and I had to stop pointing my helmet light into the fields on either side of the road, as I always saw eyes. I knew they were just deer, but it was still kinda creepy.

It strikes me as somehow strange and unnerving that the landscape can change so much in one day while riding a bicycle–from a lush river valley to snowy mountains to the early summer of semi-arid hills. It just boggles the mind, really.


Today is a rest day at Amy’s house, and we’re taking the time to do laundry (which we can hang outside and know it will dry fairly quickly) and wash all our dishes and (hi!) post to our blogs. Shawn’s going to head into town and buy veggies and stuff for grilling later.

It’s hard to believe we’ve been away from Portland for over two weeks. The days themselves can feel very long, and yet they somehow melt into one another, making it hard to remember where I slept two nights ago. I remember thinking that five months was a long time, and at this rate they will just fly by!

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3 Responses to First mountain passes

  1. Todd says:

    Hi April. Thanks for the post. Great to hear all is well and still fun.

  2. Ed says:

    Awesome, you’ve officially been over the highest paved road in washington state. So jealous of you guys. Keep it real, or if that doesn’t work, fake it.

    • Really? We’re doing a slightly higher one, Sherman Pass, tomorrow….I assume it’s paved!

      And I’m slightly jealous of you! I am tired at the end of a 50 + mile day, and totally wiped at 70. But then, we did 70 the day we did Washington Pass…

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