The heat has become our enemy. By noon it’s nearing 90, and by 2pm on the highway the temperature is well above 100. It doesn’t start cooling down until 6pm or so. “We go in and out of heat like this in August,” said a local man at a rest stop on Thursday afternoon. The Methow River was just below us, running cool and clear over large smooth stones, but a steep slope of nasty-looking brush separated us from the water. “It can go up above 100 for a few days like this,” he said. “Nobody goes out in it unless they have to.”
Unfortunately, we have to. The forecast is: hot on Friday, hotter than that on Saturday, and hotter than that on Sunday. Each day we have to climb 3,000 feet to a mountain pass. So what we do to make it work is get up before sunrise and do as much of the ride as possible before noon. If you’re on the road after 1pm, it isn’t fun any more; after 2pm, you get cranky; and after 3pm, things could easily go seriously wrong in several different ways. But we had a great time despite the heat. On Friday, Day 4, we started at 8am and ended at 2pm at one of the best campsites yet. It was another beautiful ride, although a different kind of landscape this time.
We woke up at the KOA in Winthrop and rode south down the Methow Valley in slanted early morning light. We startled the mule deer, ogled beautiful old ranch houses, watched a hot air balloon on a morning joyride, and clucked with disapproval whenever some software millionaire’s Sundance-style palace appeared. Before long we were in the town of Twisp, which wasn’t much, and I looked in vain for some indication of how they came up with that name.
Heading out, we were hailed by two of our new friends: Jason Paulsen, director of the Methow Conservancy (left), and board member Tom Doran. We chatted for a while and they told us about some really exciting stuff there were up to, including a $20 million capital campaign. We were reluctant to leave, but the sun was climbing.
We turned east and started up a truly deserted road, climbing toward Loup Loup Pass (“Loup Loup” is another word for a Pomeranian or Spitz dog, but I didn’t see any). Sage and rabbit brush lined the road at the base, along with a farm where fresh-cut alfalfa was drying in the field. Before long we passed the entrance sign to the Okanogan National Forest, pronounced with a long “O”. Trees started to appear: Ponderosa and Lodgepole pines, Cottonwood and Manzanita along the banks of a small creek we could hear but couldn’t see. We went up 2,300 feet over 12 miles and hit the top of the pass right at noon.
The downgrade from Loup Loup Pass was delightful. It was not as steep as the Big Down from the Cascades that Kenny Cuthbert had warned me about, so there was less white-knuckled braking and more cruising with the wind in your face. We went down and down some more until we had lost more elevation than we had gained. The trees thinned out and the sage came back, and before long there was hot air, and then hotter air, and then air much hotter than yesterday’s hottest air. None of the Forest Service campgrounds we had passed had water, and we were getting low when our saving graces, Sara and Catherine, passed us and pulled over and refilled everything. After thanking them profusely, we turned north again and started down into the Okanogan Valley, and then it got really hot.
The Okanogan Valley is prime fruit-growing country, thanks to the great big Okanogan River flowing through the middle of it. Nothing would grow without irrigation, but when you combine the water with the desert’s lack of bugs it produces delicious pears, plums, cherries, and lots of other fruit. It also produces apples that are not as good as New York’s, because they never go through a real cold snap. But since Washington apples are cheaper to produce and ship, they are often the ones you’ll find in New York supermarkets. So if you’re grocery shopping and it doesn’t say where the apples came from, always ask for the ones from New York.
If Winthrop was all make-believe Wild West for rich tourists, the connected towns of Okanogan and Omak were a harsher Western reality. Just east of these towns is the huge Colville Indian Reservation. We could see small houses out in the desert baking in the sun. It was the kind of road where you’d find a large kitchen garbage bag, full of food waste and other crap, casually tossed in the ditch. We rode past a plant that turned pine trees into pellet fuel for stoves; we saw tents out in the fruit fields, so the workers would have somewhere to get out of the sun; and it got hotter. The Okanogan River is a beautiful, deep channel lined with trees. It was a balm to our boiling eyeballs as we slowly pedaled down a long, straight road toward our goal. Fortunately the road was flat, and there was a tailwind. On one of the most desolate stretches I saw one of those roadside memorial crosses. It had plastic flowers at the base and the words “MARY, 1968-2002” burned into the unpainted wood.
We got to our destination – Riverside, pop. 300. We went into their one little store to drink the coldest thing they had. Sitting out front, we said hello to an elderly man with a cane, and then to his wife, who was wearing a pink t-shirt that said Wauconda Garden Club, blue jeans, and white deerskin gloves. “I’m on my way to the garlic festival in Tonasket,” she said. “The hippies grow it up there.” The club sold barbecue and last year they had raised $1,000, she explained. I asked whether it was a formal event, because of the gloves, and she laughed and said that she was wearing them because her steering wheel was too hot to hold onto. Across the street was a great-looking old-fashioned western store. I would have bought a straw cowboy hat if I could have carried it in my bike bag.
When humidity is low, the contrast between sun and shade is dramatic. Margie’s RV Park is a small mom-and-pop place near the highway with big green lawns and shade trees, and as the afternoon wore on it seemed like the best place in the world. Our campsite was under a Catalpa tree, a variety that Sara and Jim both had in their yards when they were growing up. We went down and jumped in the Okanogan and chatted with a young man who was with two little kids and a pretty girl. The girl was pregnant and smoking a cigarette. Then Jim and I got back in the truck and went to Wal-Mart in Omak to get energy bars. Sara and Catherine had done a big grocery shop earlier but had not found these, and Jim and I were surprised to find out how finicky we are in this category. HE likes Luna bars, even though the packaging says they’re made for women. I like Clif bars because they remind me of the big messy cookies you used to get in hippie bakeries in the 1970s.
Back at the campsite, we had burgers and chocolate and quickly packed up and went to bed. The forecast for tomorrow is even hotter than today’s forecast was. As soon as the sun disappeared, it got pleasant; as the night deepened, it got cooler; and somewhere in the middle of the night, I pulled on my down sleeping bag.