Portland’s official slogan is “Keeping it weird” and, as we disembark off the bus, it’s easy to see that they are achieving it in abundance.
The pavement, and a large chunk of the road to the bus terminal, is lined with tents, as was the verge of the highway for miles. Far more tents than most of the campsites we’ve been in all summer and that’s saying something, a parallel city of canvas. The mood for now amongst the tented street dwellers that we pass is one of quiet watchfullness but it doesn’t feel a great place to be.
Whilst housing and health care may be a problem here in Portland, cycle lane provision appears to be something the city excels at. Its multiplicity of bike paths snaking along the river quickly carry us out of the city centre where, for nearly 10 miles, they provide traffic free riding to an air b&b on the outskirts of town where we’ve decided to take a break, see the city and plan (or replan) what next.
The traditional bike touring route through the West of the US is down the famous Pacific Coast Highway (101) from Washinton to San Diego, California. I’ve ridden this route before however and was keen for a different experience this time. I wanted to go inland and go high, ultimately to the city of Bend, for no other reason that I’d heard it was a great place to visit. At 3000 feet above sea level however it also posed some significant logistaical challenges if we were to make our flight deadline in LA in early November, let alone a vast amount of climbing up mountain roads it would take to reach it.
Chatting with various people we’d met, including our wonderful Air b&b hosts we’d compiled a ‘hit list’ of places to visit and a friend had even suggested a cycle route. However we tried to fit all the pieces together though, we just couldn’t and, after a few days of frustrated planning attempts, the answer became clear. We needed more wheels (and an engine), time to rent a car.
Decision made, there was time to explore Portland briefly (after a warning to avoid the very area we’d arrived in due to high crime levels) and soak up it’s weirdness, coffee shops, colourful street art and eccentric locals.
Departure day and the car we had booked was a modest Ford Focus, just big enough we decided to squeeze all our gear in to. The car we got however was somewhat larger. Nicknamed the ‘Monster Truck’ our upgraded Ford Explorer was more than roomy enough for bikes, luggage and to bed down in if needed. It also came with more bells and whistles that I knew existed in modern motoring. As someone who is still impressed by power-steering I was blown away to see auto parking, auto accelerate and brake, ‘smart’ wing mirrors and, Mike’s favourite, a heated steering wheel.
It was definitely odd being on the road again in a car. It felt an odd mix of excitement (we could go up hills really fast) and guilt, like we were cheating somehow. Excitement won out though as we headed out on our original biking route to explore the high plateaus and wild west landscape of Oregon.
The route out was via the scenic Historic Columbia River highway. Completed in 1922 this was a ground breaking project of its day. Taking advantage of the rise in popularity of the model T motor car, its architect (Samuel C Lancaster) wanted to emulate the great scenic roads of Europe by designing a highway that spanned some serious landscape, not as a blight but fitting into its beautiful curves and offering some stunning views of the gorge and mountains, passing watefalls and wide river beds. Delightful though it was to drive, I became increasingly glad we hadn’t cycled it. The road was either narrow with no shoulder or, at one point, deviated onto the main highway due to roadworks.
This gorge, as it turned out, was the beginning of some of the most stunning and wild scenery I’ve encountered for a long time.
For the past 9 days we have camped by near deserted lakes and been woken by the brightest moons reflecting on the water or sat at night under fields of stars. We’ve crossed canyons and, at Smith Rock, stood in awe in a valley dominated by the massive cliffs soaring above us, burning gold in the intense desert sunlight, mellowing to glorious reds and pinks as the sun sets.
At Crater Lake we’ve skirted volcanoes which tower above the surrounding landscape, forests of scorched trees, looking down into extinct craters filled with mirror-still water.
At Lost Lake, we’ve swum in glassy clear water so cold it sets your skin on fire afterwards and we’ve camped in temperatures of 30 degrees (celsius) in the day, plunging to 5 degrees at night. And at Diamond Lake, marvelled at the autumn colours laid down in a multicoloured carpet of leaves that made if look as if the whole lakeshore was aflame.
There have been some downsides to the car too though. The first being a cracked windscreen which appeared mysteriously after a night of camping. Most probably a falling pinecone, but an expensive replacement on the hi-tech monster truck (hopefully covered by insurance).
Campsites too are still problematic, and with a car, we’re even less likely to get a ‘sympathy spot’ in a full park, unlike on the bike, which we discovered to our cost (and another expensive motel room) one night.
As much as I have loved having the range of a car, it isn’t the same without a bike and, I’ve found I’m missing being on 2 wheels just a bit. To remedy this and to get a fix we hired mountain bikes in Bend. The locality is famous for its phenomenal trail network and it didn’t disappoint.
For 2 days and over 50 miles, we explored an area known as ‘Phils’, a massive network of nearly all natural trails which make the most of the elevation and geography available. The second day of riding we set out on a self-planned ‘epic’, climbing up 3000 feet via dusty single track and gravel roads, culminating in 4 steep miles of the North Fork , 7 waterfalls trail, a technical shared hiking/biking path full of tree roots, rocks, skinny log bridges and lung-busting switchbacks to reach over 6000 feet above sea level. At the start of the trail I was enthusiasticly taking photos of the waterfalls and vista, by the end I was eyes down on the path, praying to the hill gods that the summit was near.
Seven waterfalls and one near meltdown later and garmin informed me that we had indeed reached the top. What came next is known locally as the Mrazek trail, 12 near unbroken miles of pure downhill single-track. Never have I descended for so long, uninterrupted by anything, including other riders. There were a few stops to ease cramped legs and fingers but other than that, for the next hour we descended down the mountain on sinuous, dusty trails, slaloming through trees, tight corners, the odd rocky or rooty section, scattering chipmunks in our wake and leaving us breathless and whooping for joy.
We finished the day, and our sojourn in Bend, full of smiles, having thoroughly explored both the town itself and miles of countryside around it.
We still have the car too, for a few days more, the next stop being California where we will turn back into cycletourists again. I think….?
Huge thanks go out to Gonzogirl for the original route suggestion, to Randal and to Sandy, Jim and Dave for both the haven and top notch suggestions they provided.
If you enjoy reading about adventure, travel, cycling or all 3 why not check out my book: How To Cycle Canada the Wrong Way.
It’s the story of a forty-something woman with no clue in life and no cycle touring experience. What she does have is a sense of adventure, a second hand bicycle and a skirt and the idea of riding across Canada….the wrong way.
Available on Amazon in e-reader and paperback formats.
17 October 2022 at 7:36 am
Stunning photographs .
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17 October 2022 at 5:24 pm
There’s some amazing landscape here, really enjoyed exploring it 😍
17 October 2022 at 8:08 am
That downhill sounds just amazing! Shame about the tent village – I’ve read about it before, such disparity in our world!
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17 October 2022 at 5:30 pm
It was certainly an eye opening experience all round, a visual of the effects of the last few years. A real contrast with the the other beautiful bits of Oregon we’ve seen. And yes that downhill…..just brilliant! 😁
17 October 2022 at 4:28 pm
Wasn’t sure how to tell you about the tragic homeless situation in Portland. You kind of have to see it to understand. And sooo glad you experienced central Oregon. Amazing every time!! Funny how adventures can be so unexpected. Good and bad. Love you take on it all.
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17 October 2022 at 5:33 pm
The tents were like a second city living in parallel, it was so strange. Talking to many locals they also felt helpless about it but also felt unsafe living there. You feel there must be a better solution but….?
Thank you for the advice on Smith Rock, perfect. It is a beautiful route, so so glad we got to experience it x
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