Sunday, September 18, 2016

Windy Road Insanity

Sandpoint, Idaho to Deception Pass, Washington (4,855-5,260)


No, I'm not having a lively cereal for breakfast. I'm 30 miles west of Spokane, Washington on Highway 2, and the sound comes from behind, down low, where the derailleur attaches to the bike frame. I stop and twist around. My chain is broken, derailleur ripped off the bike and sucked into the cassette. I dismount and turn my bike upside down, study the situation while trucks rumble past. I have a spare master link, which will allow me to stitch the chain back together, but I've lost the ability to shift gears and I'll have to turn the bike into a one-speed. Gone are 26 speeds, several of which I would have used to ride up the hills between here and the city.

I thread the chain out of the derailleur, and it falls to the ground. Littering isn't my style, so I pick up the derailleur and tuck it under a taut bungee cord. The derailleur is twisted out of shape, no fixing it—

"Do you need some help?"

I'd been so concentrated on my problem I didn't notice the SUV stopped on the other side of the road. I look from my bike to the woman outside the driver's door, back down at my bike, back up at the woman. I can repair the bike enough so it's rideable, but there isn't a doubt in my mind that I'll have to push the steeper hills. The woman repeats her question. She's in her forties, has brown hair and wears a dark t-shirt and plaid pants, looks at me expecting an answer.
Cancer survivor volunteering at a bake sale to help kids

"No," I say. "No thanks. I'm okay."

We talk across the road, yelling over the vehicle noise rushing past.

"Are you sure?" she says.

I look down at my greasy hands, at the disabled bike, try to ferret out why I'm reluctant to accept the offer. She looks nice enough, no danger there, and it sure would be nice to get to a bike shop right away, so why my hesitation? I think it boils down to self-reliance. I have the tools and the skills to solve this problem—

She walks across the road, comes right up to me.

"I saw you and turned around," she says.

We both stare down at my bike, more than a little disgustedly.

"I drove past," she says, "but then I turned around because I'd want someone to stop if I was in your shoes. Name's Stormy."

She holds out a hand, and I turn my palms up, showing her the grease on my skin. Stormy tells me she works construction, isn't scared of dirt, shakes my hand anyway. Then she goes back to her car and drives it to this side of the road. Apparently my bike is going to Spokane, with or without me. We cram it into the hatchback and off we go, making small talk about nothing important. I ask if there's a bike shop on this side of town. Stormy swerves and slams on the brakes, and I brace my hands on the dash. The car veers off the road, and she holds her phone to her nose.

"Got a GPS in this thing," she says. "If I can figure out how to work it."

She comes up with a location, revs the engine, veers back onto the road. Tires screech behind us and horns blow. I hold back a grin. The adventure continues, this time with a maniac driver. We talk as the car rips toward town, and I glance at the speedometer from time to time. I guess traveling 90 on a 55 mile-per-hour road isn't that bad. At least we aren't going double over the speed limit. She slows down and tailgates a Fedex van, taps her phone.

"Why isn't she talking to me?" she says.

Stormy taps her phone again, then bangs it against the steering wheel. Holding it to her nose, she stares at it for a little too long and the car veers off the road onto the shoulder. She yanks the wheel to the left and the car goes back onto the road, then she yanks the wheel to the right and we fly over a hump into a parking lot.

"Talk to me!" She taps a mysterious Morse Code on the face of her phone. "There!"

We exit the parking lot and merge with traffic, and the sweet voice of the GPS woman says our destination is a mile up on the right.

"Fixed it," Stormy says.

She drops me off at the shop and zooms into traffic, and I roll my bike to the side of the building. I watch her swerve from lane to lane, smile as she vanishes into the city. She was part of my life for only fifty minutes or so, but I doubt I'll ever forget her. I just wish fixing my bike was as easy and cheap as tapping buttons on a cell phone.

The bike shop has the chain and derailleur, but they don't stock the hanger, which is also broken, something I didn't realize until I started replacing parts. Dan, one of the mechanics at North Division Bicycle, takes an early lunch break and returns with a hanger he took off his personal bike. The hanger isn't an exact match, but after a modification I'm off and riding again.


Without Dan's generosity I would have been stuck in Spokane for a week waiting for a new hanger to arrive. I'm grateful for both him and Stormy, am pleased I once again have a mechanically sound bike.



The southwesterly gusts coming down off the Cascade Mountains slam against me, slow me until the bike barely moves. I grit my teeth and pedal onward. Relief is in sight—I hope—a long hill that branches to the east, a natural wind block that will alleviate some of my strain. I'm in dry country, moisture sucked out of the air by the mountain chain to the west, and the brown grasses on the side of the road rustle as their stalks undulate in the wind.

My butt is hurting again, spinning into the wind does that, and I eye that long east/west hill, urging my bike to close the distance, to find shelter from this friggin' wind.


Gusts increase to 40 MPH, slowing me almost to a stop at their worst, and it's all I can do not to scream out loud in frustration. Screw it. I let go and holler at the wind, shake my fist at it, holler some more.

The demonstration doesn't help; it's still windy and I'm still frustrated.

Then I'm there—FINALLY—behind the long hill, the shelter I've been eyeing for the last few hours, and immediately my speedometer climbs up to 12 MPH, which is more or less my cruising speed.


The devil wind changes direction, abruptly, now blowing from the west, directly into my face. It's stronger than ever, a sinister evil force trying to stop my ride, and I gear down and pedal onward. The wind isn't evil, of course. It's just wind, but try telling that to a cyclist who pedals against it for six or seven hours. Sure, early in the day, when you're fresh from a good night's sleep, the wind is nothing more than an obstacle to overcome. It's a benign irritation—a muscle soreness that will go away—a hill that will end—a thorn that will work its way out of your skin. I'm not sure when the wind morphs from obstacle to evil entity, but it surely does and apparently there's no escaping its wrath on the eastern side of the Cascades.

I ride closer to the mountains, stop and drink a few swallows of water. I walked across the Pacific Crest in 1997, a PCT thru-hike, and I remember getting caught in a storm on Goat Rocks, a narrow ridge line with drops of over a thousand feet on both sides. The wind was so fierce I was almost blown over the side, and I went from standing to crawling to lying on my belly in the space of two seconds. The wind was trying to kill me, nudging me constantly to the edge, and I threw a leg over the upwind side of the ridge to stay in place. The storm blew over in short order, and I continued my trek across the rocks.

Now, so many years later, facing the broken skyline, with its ridges and peaks jutting into the blue sky, I think about that near-death experience and try to use it in some way, find no correlation between then and now. The wind on Goat Rocks was trying to kill me, to blow me over the side and dash me on the jumble of boulders far below, but this wind, this being that blows against me today, this vicious monster, has its own desires.

It wants to drive me insane.

I giggle madly and shove my water bottle back into its holder. What kind of madman will I become? Surely not a dangerous one, at least not someone who will hurt another human. No, I'll become the bearded, long-haired guy, the one who smells and wears dirty clothes, the bent and broken man who talks to himself as he pushes his crammed-full grocery cart down the sidewalk. When people try to help me, perhaps handing me a quarter or two, I'll look at them with glazed eyes and mumble, the wind, the wind, the wind, the wind. . . .

This wind.


But then, with the grace of a purely sung song, the road makes a turn to the south and the headwind becomes a shoulder wind. Though stiff shoulder winds are annoying, because they try to either push you into the highway or off the road completely, I can pedal in them without too much extra effort. The wind morphs from evil entity to just wind, and I cycle onward—sanity restored, peaceful in mind and body, a man who fought through a devilish gauntlet and came out the other side.


I pedal over the Pacific Crest at Stevens Pass, coast down the highway and stop in the first town down the mountainside. I meet a few PCT thruhikers who are in town to resupply, wish them well and continue my journey. A couple of days later, I camp at Deception Pass, the point in my journey where I turn to the south and head toward Seattle, the first star in Ride between the Stars. Jets take off from a nearby base, engines roaring so loud my tent quivers from the vibrations, and I put in my earbuds and try to sleep. The jets continue this routine for half the night, startling me awake on each pass, and I revisit the vision of the old man pushing the cart, this time whispering, the jets, the jets, the jets.
Deception Pass

Sometime in the dark hours after midnight, the flying ceases and peace returns to my campsite. Good, I like peace. I drift off to sleep, thinking about Seattle, Seattle, Seattle.

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