Nate Betteker has had some firsts with me by following the mantra of "yes" whenever I suggest some crazy adventure, but when recent plans were squashed it was me taking on something new with Nate as the guide. Originally we were both set to be on the John Muir Trail by this time making our way south, but due to a historically record high snowpack we found ourselves in search of something different. Nate being the avid bicyclist he is, a bike ride came up as an idea. After throwing out ideas, good friend Patrick Newell mentioned a ride named the Central Oregon Explorer, so on Monday we left the already warming Portland with a loaded GPS, and a vague sense of what we about to get into.
After sweating through some necessary bike adjustments we set off from the truck in downtown Prineville, OR. It was mid afternoon and the temps were spiking 96+ on the hot pavement below us. As we steadily rolled out of town with the arid mountains in the distance I wondered what I was about to put myself through. Heat is a huge obstacle for me and it created some early doubts in my mind, but once we crossed the first cattle guard and the Ponderosa Pines began to take over the industrial crop lands those doubts began to subside. Craggy rocks and giant spires walled the canyon we were riding up. Soon the grade of the road began to change and with it came fatigue from the sweltering temps of the first day. As we crested the ridge the paved road gave way to packed dirt and loose gravel. It would turn out to be the most challenging part of our journey, but we were about to be rewarded with a final steady roll down the national forest road to our camp for the first night. We descended with a cool breeze beginning to come through until we came to a fork combining two creeks. This was home for the night.
The next morning I felt ready to take on the day and push forward, fat from the multi packs of ramen noodles, peanut butter and burritos the night before. Nate was the least bit phased from the ride so far, so for good reason he was ready as well. We began descending again, slower this time, peering the gravel ahead for creek crossings. The first one was manageable but the lower half of our bikes and feet had taken on some water.
Each stream consistently became deeper and longer to traverse. By time we reached our last one of the day our shoes were gushing water from every seam. The heat had begun to climb though so it became a welcoming feeling, helping to moderate our core temps a bit. We continued down a further 16 miles passing grazing cows and some type of horned lizards that were blazing across the dusty road as we passed. Soon we came to a split in the road. Around us was an old church, a small house that I guess was a post office, and a meeting hall that resembled more of an old barn. Welcome to Ashwood.
We slowed to an area of thick green grass, shaded by a large oak in the center of, town I guess you could call it. Old farm equipment sat rusting at the edge of the properties and a few dusty pickup trucks were parked in front of near by ranch houses. No sign of life though. It was like stepping back into the dust bowl era of the 1930s. It was a short look into the past before we left the two blocks of pavement and started climbing up the gravel again.
Even after over a decade spent in Oregon it still surprises me how the landscape morphs so quickly with every ridge, hill, or mountain. At one moment you find yourself engulfed by thick green; the next moment gives way to vistas of rolling plains and all new habitats.
Only to be swept back again into rocky outcroppings and timeless volcanic monuments. A clash of 19 century farm land developed in this prehistoric land of the John Day River Basin was waiting as we descended again from the dusty mountain roads to the north of the Ochoco's. This is where the heat began to take its toll again. Nate was working through his second flat at this point when we realized a water source would be needed soon. Finding a near by Creek after breaking away from the John Day we decided to chance it and fill up. Something to note here. When you are in cattle country you need to consider whats in the water you might be drinking. Being able to filter the water can be a life saver. After filling up in a more than adequate creek we began our way back to the road, only to be talked to by a local farmer checking on the fields we were cutting through. A quick hi and we were off again, heading for the Painted Hills. Not long down the street though the farmer caught up with us. He had mentioned the dangers of "Beaver Fever" and, the one I know more about, Giardia. Nate and I both felt safe enough but decided to empty the bottles out and refill again at our next stop.
So those Painted Hills out there, they are supposed to be pretty magical. I couldnt tell you though, because after riding 60 miles to that point, with 10 to go, we couldn't find the energy to justify an extra 3 miles to see. We did see some incredible landscape from the entrance though, under the protection of some welcomed tree shade and soft green grass. The sun was setting so we were back on the road again after much needed water and food.
Mitchell, Or was our destination for the night and it was just the right amount of civilization to appreciate without taking away from the outdoor adventure. We found camp in the park central to this small logging town of days past. Hopes of stocking up would have to wait though cause the store and cafe close at 5:30.
The next day had promise of cooler temperatures and one long hill climb back into and over the Ochoco's once again. By far this was the best day. It was a steady cool ride up through thicker Ponderosa Forests and green Alpine Meadows. Cows were plenty, and supposedly wild horses too, but it wasn't in the cards for us to see them. Nate found several treasures on this journey but he struck gold finding his perfect deer skull, cleaned by time and bleached by the hot sun just off our path. We continued to push, up to 6,000' elevation before deviating from our path ever so slightly and dropping down into the large valley floor between the mountain tops that make up this national forest. Dry, rocky fields painted in purple filled the ground around the old growth trees. Wildlife was around every corner.
We met a good group of people that day; al ready to ask about our travels and talk about life for them in this incredible Central Oregon land. A large group of women on horse back were working on an annual count of the wild horses, an elderly couple were making their way around the valley, appreciating this small bit of nature they grew up with before the future gets hold, rafters, campers, people of all types enjoying this pristine forest.
As we crested the ridge the road became paved again, signing the change of our hard climb into a long cruise 20 miles back down into town. the wind blew our hats back as we rolled throught he thick green vegetation on the west side of the Ochoco's, passing vacationers and tourists along the busy 26 highway back into town.
With only two flats and a couple bike malfunctions I'd say it was a successful trip. Bodies sore, minds blurry from the melting heat, stomaches hungry for a big fatty meal, but we were forever changed by it all. The ride was a test of endurance, especially for me being the newbie to bikepacking, but it was also a way to see some of the wonders and ways of life we forget still exists. When's the next one?