IDAHO FALLS – After cycling nearly 350 miles east through northern Washington, I became obsessed with taking a hot shower.
It wasn’t just that I had had a sweaty and grime week pedaling through five mountain passes – I couldn’t wait to warm up completely. For the past few days, I had woken up in my tent to see frost on the ground outside. I started each day on my bike wearing almost all my layers.
The ride began October 2 in Anacortes, Washington. Sweetie dropped my brother Chris and I at the edge of Padilla Bay and we started to take a walking trail across the bay and headed east on State Route 20 near the Canadian border. It was 9:30 a.m. Seabirds left shellfish on the path and our wheels cracked on pieces of crab and clam.
Cycle tourism is a kind of cross between hiking and car camping on two wheels. (This helps embrace your inner homeless.) We cycled the road carrying only the minimum amount of gear in saddlebag sets attached to our rear bike racks. In addition to the camping gear, we also took clothes, a repair kit and phones. It’s always an uncertain balance between too much and “I wish I had that”. The consolation is that, like car camping, you can always stop by a store along the way to purchase food, fresh batteries, or check in at a motel.
Heavy traffic halved after crossing Interstate 5 north of Mount Vernon. The first day we drove mostly on flat and easy terrain through small forest covered towns. The overcast sky threatened to rain, but it never came.
After 62 miles we have arrived in Marblemount, Washington. It’s not really a town, just a place before you get to North Cascades National Park, where the Cascade River meets the Skagit River. There are a few gas stations, housing for park service workers, an RV park, and an inexpensive $ 10 campground. We opted for cheap camping. Everything was wet and there were large puddles on the dirt road through the campsites.
âWe had three days of uninterrupted rain,â said the campsite owner while collecting his fees. âMost of the people are here for fishing. The roses are running.
After setting up our tent, we headed to the nearby Cascade River and observed a dozen anglers fishing for salmon. A boy in basketball shorts and standing up to his knees in the water laughed as he started to stir a fish, then lost it. Nearby, a man landed a large salmon.
I asked Chris how he was holding up. He struggled to get in shape for the ride with life’s obligations and a last minute appendectomy.
âIt was tough,â he said of the day’s hike. “My buttocks hurt.”
I told him the next day was the real test – 5,000 feet of gain on Washington Pass.
Hills and climbs that would normally be a minor challenge for riders take on a different force when carrying over 30 extra pounds stuffed in bulky panniers.
The next day, about a third of the way up the pass, we stopped at the Ross Lake Viewpoint in the National Park for lunch. Chris complained of a sore leg and said he doubted he could get out of it.
“I’ll go get us,” I said confidently. I went to beg. I asked people with trucks or trailers if they were heading east. Most people just wanted us to go. A cyclist in a Toyota van heard us and took us to the top of the pass, wedging our bikes in his vehicle.
âI hiked this pass last year with my family all the way to the east coast,â he said. âIt’s brutal. My son took my panniers on his bike to help me.
From the top of the pass, Chris and I hurtled down the descent to the town of Winthrop, another 30 miles away. We spent the night at a KOA style campsite and woke up to tame deer near our tent and in 38 degree temperatures.
Chris was only planning to ride with me one more day to Omak town. But he would first have to cross the Col du Loup Loup, a little better than 2000 feet of elevation gain. With the help of plenty of rest areas, ibuprofen and snack bars, we made it to the top. Getting down on the other side was a snap.
After 45 miles, I dropped Chris off at the Walmart in Omak (we had left his car there three days earlier), and continued another 25 miles to the town of Tonasket. Some locals laughed at the way I pronounced it. It rhymes with basket.
Behind the town’s visitor center, in an area the size of a large carport, there is a small sign reading: “This camp is for itinerant cyclists only!” The toilets nearby were closed “Due to COVID-19”. I was glad it was free camping. The only amenities I could use were a cement picnic table and a grass lawn.
The next day would be my most brutal. Only 60 miles, but about 6,000 feet of elevation gain. I had two passes to climb: Wauconda and Sherman. Between the two passes, I refueled in the town of RÃ©publique (about 1,100 inhabitants).
Sherman Pass was relentless. I figured it was basically the same as doing three Sunnyside Hills back to back to the landfill east of Ammon. When I finally made it to the top it was cold and I just wanted to find the campsite that my map roughly indicated. I started to descend and passed a picnic area sign, but no camping sign. After a few miles I gave up on finding the campground and instead took a forest service road, found a flat spot, and camped.
My camping setup consists of a small one-man tent, air mattress, sleeping bag, and earplugs. Earplugs do wonders for a good night’s sleep, muffling the sounds of the forest and noisy road traffic. For breakfast I tried a mess of freeze-dried cookies and gravy that made me want the real thing.
From the top of Sherman Pass to the town of Kettle Falls, it’s about 4,000 feet of descent. Early in the morning at 25-30mph my toes were screaming from the cold. Despite the sun, I was unable to remove layers.
In Kettle Falls I had cell service and called a “bike hostel” listed on my Adventure Cycling Association card. I dreamed of a hot shower. The woman who responded said she did not expect there to be more bikers after October 1. After checking in with the homeless, she texted me saying it would be OK if I stayed the night. But she didn’t send me the key code to enter the building until after I got out of cell service. I waited at the locked door for two hours before giving up and continuing. The hot shower would have to wait.
I hiked another dozen miles uphill when the sun was setting and needed a campsite. It came in the form of a recess along the road announcing a view of Crystal Falls. I looked down the slope to the falls and saw a picnic table. I pitched my tent right behind the table, ate some soup, and lined it up just as it was dark.
The next morning it was freezing cold and I had decided to find a motel in Newport, about 40 miles away, and warm up. After Crystal Falls the road is “mostly” flat as you pass Pend Oreille Lake and follow the Pend Oreille River to Newport. After about 45+ miles, I arrived in the bustling crossroads town of Newport (population approximately 2,100). Found an overpriced and well used motel, turned up the heat and took a hot shower, then walked about a mile to a good Mexican restaurant and got drunk.
When I returned to the motel, I took a hot bath. The next morning I took another hot bath and put on several layers to brave the icy ride to Post Falls. My darling, Julie, was to meet me there at noon.
I almost called him to tell him I would be there early, but I’m glad I didn’t.
After two apartments and miles of road construction, I arrived in Post Falls at noon. Total mileage around 430.