Thirty Windy Miles
When it’s grey and dreary in Portland, a forty-five minute drive east rewards you with sun and blue skies. For several years, this is exactly where my biking partner husband and I go for a day-long bike ride in the spring or fall. Fulton Canyon is our favorite. Never in summer or winter, only spring or fall, when the weather is cool with blue skies and the sun is warm and air dry.
We pack a snack, grab helmets, snap the bikes onto the car rack, then hit the road driving east on Highway 84 through The Dalles to the Deschutes River Park exit. From there we drive along the frontage road, over the Deschutes River as it flows into the Columbia. Where the asphalt of Fulton Canyon Road joins the frontage road, we park the car at a wide graveled area, the kind of place used by state road crews to store piles of gravel for freezing weather.
Once the bikes are off the car, and helmets adjusted, we head up Fulton Canyon Road pedaling a slow, steady pace for the climb. The road follows the narrow canyon that cuts down through the Oregon Columbia Gorge hills, to the wide Columbia River below. The climb is steady for several miles on a road with only occasional traffic. This gives me time to look around and think. Two lanes of asphalt with a brightly-painted yellow dash separate traffic in each direction. The yellow lines remind me of Texan Jim Hightower’s quote about social politics in his state. “The only things in the middle of the road are yellow stripes and dead armadillos.” When a pickup truck passes on the other side of the road, I start to wonder if the rancher driving will take exception to Spandex clad bicyclists on the road that is mostly traveled by pickups. Instead, the driver is considerate, giving us wide space and a friendly wave.
As I ride more slowly, breathing deeper, up the increasingly steep grade towards the Columbia Plateau, fresh green wheat fields flow and wave with a light wind on one side while Tuscan brown fields on the other show tracks of recent tilling. Even though we have biked this route several times, we see only a snap-shot view of the hillsides for a few hours each season. An urban person, I wonder what it would be like to live on a farm, to know when and what kind of wheat is planted. Left foot pushes down then the right foot down. I pedal slowly up the canyon road, reflecting that farm life would have a rhythm, too. Tilling, planting, harvesting and tilling, again.
On one spring Sunday, crisply painted, trim farm houses with front porches and freshly mowed front lawns stand facing the road. The windows of a second storey front bedroom stare out to the road and hillsides beyond. Houses, farm yards, barns, equipment, but no people are visible. Butler bee hive corrugated metal silos, green and yellow John Deere tractors and a collection of harvesting equipment stand idle in side and back yards. As we pedal upward, the wind picks up, pushing from behind, making the eight mile climb easier and faster. Occasionally the wind carries the lilting songs of meadow larks across fields to my ears, or their golden yellow breasts catch sunlight as they bob.
Down to plain wood with no paint, a clapboard one-room school house stands by itself; its windows open without glass, inviting birds and mice. The steeple rises forlornly above a broken roof, weather and vandal-beaten, alone by the side of the road. Pedaling farther up the grade the wind blows harder as we come over a rise. The road curves east towards Highway 97 and, in the distance, the small town of Wasco nestled in its fold of hills. In front of us, the road stretches ahead, rising and falling over hills and down ravines. When we crest the top of the next hill, silver flashes of giant wind propellers spin in the distance, part of the newest crop of Columbia Plateau wind farms. The long metal legs of the wind towers march across the plateau in an engineer’s straight line, designed to catch the best wind currents. The flashes disappear as we coast down into the next ravine.
At the top of the next hill, we pause to look around:. Mt Adams, with full snow cover and its humped-back north, shines above the Columbia River Hills on the Washington state side. Mt Hood glistens in the sun-light as we glance backward on the next rise. This is wheat country, few trees, wide views and big spaces. Occasionally a car or truck passes, swerving politely around us.
Down a long hill and into Wasco, the town park welcomes us with a patch of soft green lawn, a couple of picnic tables, and water from a hose to fill our now empty water bottles. We have the park to ourselves, eat our snack of dried fruit and nuts and lie back on the lawn, gazing up at the trees and clear blue sky. Midnight black crows caw from telephone lines while song birds flit from limb to limb in the trees above us.
After the leisurely rest, we’re up on our bikes again and turn into downtown Wasco. On this Sunday the streets of Wasco are empty, no people walking around and most buildings barely in use. A few brick buildings, one with the faded word “Mercantile” painted on the side wall, stand empty in a town too far from freeways and too close to bigger stores. The population of about 300 people doesn’t support a restaurant or movie theater, and in fact the town is listed as a ghost town on one website.
We turn left at the corner onto a wider road and a two story wooden building with flaking paint fronts the main street. Long ago a travelers’ road house, it was purchased a few years ago by a city couple who had hoped to run a weekend business renting rooms for guests and family gatherings. It now stands with a “For Sale” sign posted in front. There isn’t much for visitors to do in Wasco, except look at grain elevators or wind turbines spinning in the distance.
The loop back to our starting point, pedaling down Scotts Canyon Road to the Columbia River, has steeper hills and deeper troughs. The wind is much stronger in the later part of the afternoon. A morning wind report had said “gusts”, but pedaling along I begin to wonder if gusts mean being blown off my bike. I lean my bike sideways into the wind, hoping that the strong blasts will keep me from falling. Nervous, and imagining the worst, I worry that the wind will suddenly stop and I’ll fall flat sideways on to the road. The image of Barbara Savage, author of Miles from Nowhere, who described being blown from her bike in high winds, runs through my brain as I grip my handle bars tighter and concentrate on the road directly ahead. Shoulders tight and strained, head down, eyes intent on the road, I miss the sights and sounds of the landscape. A narrow stream dropping down the canyon adjacent to the road is all I notice in this intense part of the ride that seems longer and steeper than the road up.
Once back to the Columbia River at the road junction with Rufus, there is a welcoming roadside café and gas station. We stop to laugh about the wind and our imagined fears. The Columbia River wind is great for wind surfing, but for bikes, when the wind hits at a ninety degree angle, it is more of a challenge. We pledge that next time we’ll leave Portland earlier in the morning, and turn our bikes west for the final eight-mile leg of the ride.
Francie Royce writes about her travel experiences at http://www.francieroyce.blogspot.com/
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