Desert Solitude: Cycling East from Oregon to Idaho

A SHARP icy wind whips across a steel grey sky in Oregon’s untamed outback.


To the east the Ochoco Mountains loom under a sea of anaemic pines and to the west the barren desert with its ocean of scruffy sage bushes stretches to the Cascade Range.

The only sound is an obnoxious roar from my camp stove that’s doing its best impression of a rocket launch while losing a battle against the wind to heat up a pot of porridge.

Half an hour earlier, while lying in the tent, the temperature gauge showed a pitiful zero. It’s now an optimistic two degrees but with the memories of a Brisbane summer still etched in my skin it might as well be -40.

The porridge begins to bubble and I crank off the stove before plonking the boiling pot straight on my lap to thaw out my ice-block legs.

It’s bliss, and for five seconds I’m back in Brisbane, kicking back on the couch and munching on chips with nothing to do but read my book and nowhere to be but the fridge.

Instead I’m huddled in a down jacket on a mouldy old picnic table preparing to slurp down porridge with a mountain pass to scale and nothing but more icy winds and rain on the forecast.

It’s a world away (well at least half a one, several time zones, liquid cheese and an orange orang-utan) from where we were just three weeks ago in humid Brisbane’s international airport. It was there, in the departures lounge, while trying our best to look like worldly travellers that we waved a panicked goodbye to our friends and family before tackling a sanity-sapping three flights to Portland, Oregon.

Almost 28 hours later we arrived at the house of our fabulous host Susie where we spent a week eating Thai food, pouring over maps and hanging out with some old friends – Emily and Charlie – who we’d met in 2014 on the train to Inverness, Scotland.

Our amazing friends Emily and Charlie take us for a hike near Portland.

Our amazing friends Emily and Charlie take us for a hike near Portland.

It was the best re-emergence into American culture we could have asked for but even though we’d  been gone less than half a year it felt… weird. The USA is a country that’s close enough to ours to feel somewhat similar but different enough to make us feel as though we’re in the twilight zone. Distances are measured in miles, coffee’s served with “cream” and tipping remains a mysterious art form (like the electoral system) that no one really gets but everyone pretends to.

More than any other country we’d been to it also epitomised the age old stereotype “a land of contrasts”. Million dollar Victorian-esque homes can sit a stone’s through from a tent city filled with the homeless and cities featuring some of the most extensive cycling networks, community gardens and progressive eateries are poised just a hundred kilometres from country villages where the confederate flag flies and posters scream a love of Trump, guns and the military.

As we packed up our bikes and headed south down the Willamette Valley – a 240km long food bowl that provides crucial staples such as vegetables, grains and wine – my mind struggled to grasp those contrasts while my legs came close to packing it in and going home. Despite pedalling a flat road with tail winds the shift from couch potato to hermit crab was causing some serious pain (in both the arse and thighs) and by time the flower-lined paths spat us out in Eugene it felt as though we’d conquered Everest.

Willamette Valley or Hobbiton? Either way it's a magical place to ride.

Willamette Valley or Hobbiton? Either way it’s a magical place to ride.

Eugene itself is a mini Portland with its very own fancy pants bike network, a thousand micro breweries and a host of artisan coffee shops that dangle Tibetan prayer flags from the gutters. Vegan pizzerias are a dime a dozen and streets are lined with green maple trees and willows that make you feel as though you’ve stepped into a hipster version of Rivendell.

After soaking up our last taste of leftist Oregon we wobbled east out of town towards the towering Cascades Range. Just 15km down the road a man cycled up to me and asked if we were going far, before telling me I looked too fat to be a long distance cyclist. So I punched him in the face and sat on him. HA! if only. Instead I gave him a withering stare which probably made me look constipated before pedalling off. I then spent the next 90km dreaming up amazing comebacks that seemed to get increasingly more violent as we began the slow climb towards the McKenzies Pass.

The slow and scenic climb to McKenzies Pass in the Cascade Range

The slow and scenic climb to McKenzies Pass in the Cascade Range

The following morning we packed up camp, shifted the bikes into granny gear and began the slow  grind to the top of McKenzies. In a brilliant stroke of luck this 40km long pass had just opened to cyclists but remained closed to vehicles so while our lungs and legs screamed we were free to wobble all over the road before eventually reaching the summit five hours later.

As we neared the top a sea of black rocks revealed the remnants of an old lava flow and snow as high as six feet or more lined the narrow road either side of the peak.

Snow makes everything better! Nearing the summit of McKenzies Pass

Snow makes everything better! Nearing the summit of McKenzies Pass

One hour and a huge descent later Oregon’s rich forests were swapped for high desert with light purple sage bushes and short juniper trees dotting a sandy and rocky landscape framed by snow-capped peaks.

It was magic. And for the first time since flying back to the land of stars, stripes, half and half milk and bloody huge contrasts we felt at home.

A gentle 40km ride to the outdoor mecca of Bend was to be our reward the following day but after being escorted by some over-enthusiastic roadies on carbon fibre race bikes (who lead us to the the bloody hilly and longer back routes) we arrived sweaty, exhausted and horribly sunburnt.

This high altitude town neatly divides blue (Democratic) Oregon with the red (Republican) side of the state while serving us a surprisingly metropolitan outdoor adventure training hub for pros.

A sea of high desert meets snow capped peaks near Bend in Oregon

A sea of high desert meets snow capped peaks near Bend in Oregon

The result is a weird mixture of incredible athletes, nature buffs and rednecks who seem somewhat happy to ignore their political differences over a pint of locally brewed IPA with notes of dark chocolate and cherry.

From Bend we forced our aching legs along the spectacular Crooked River Highway which snakes around a deep canyon to Prineville. Ranches began to dot the landscape and with them a horde of angry dogs and aggressive “no trespassing signs”. I don’t know how many unsolicited visits these blokes get on remote secondary roads but we received the message loud and clear which is a big, loud and paranoid “f#ck off”.

Sand and scrub lands form stark contrasts east of Bend

Sand and scrub lands form stark contrasts east of Bend

East of Prineville the road again rises through the Ochoco Mountains and as we pedalled out of town the sun disappeared behind a growing mass of clouds and the temperature plummeted. Locals had warned of the weather extremes in this part of the country and as we threw up our tent in a modest state campsite the wind began to howl and our fingers began to freeze.

That night the temperature dropped to zero and we huddled into our cosy sleeping bags while hoping we wouldn’t need a midnight loo run.

And that brings me to a freezing morning with nothing but a pot of porridge to warm my legs.

After reminiscing about Brisbane summers to get me through a bitterly cold breakfast we ditched our Arctic camp spot and began the 40km uphill pedal towards the pint sized town of Mitchell.

Our favourite sign! The climb to the Ochoco Mountains pass was a long one but well worth it!

Our favourite sign! The climb to the Ochoco Mountains pass was a long one but well worth it!

During an icy lunch we finally came across our first group of loaded tourers who were tackling the popular 4,300 mile Trans American bike ride. There’s a race version of this long distance route each year and the current record holder is a bloke named Evan Deutsch who smashed it in 17 days!

That night we all bunked together in a fantastic church turned cyclist guest house called the Spoke’n Hostel.

The following morning the hermit crab convoy set off and 70km of hills and headwinds later we wobbled into John Day’s famous fossil beds.

A bit on John Day. This guy was allegedly robbed by ‘Indians’ in the early 1800s and as a result had a river, town and a bunch of historical monuments including thousands of years old fossil beds named after him. Whatever the truth of the matter it’s clear JD had the last laugh and we explored some remarkable fossils and striking hills (all in his name) before pedalling into the one horse town of Dayville, With our new cyclist friends we shared a big dinner and stories – from Brian the free-spirited and lovely computer programmer, to Tony the quick-witted and fascinating sport psychologist, to the bubbly and hilarious Lindsey and her uncle John who were trans-am’ing together.

Biking towards the epic John Day Fossil Beds

Biking towards the epic John Day Fossil Beds

At the one and only town of John Day we said goodbye to our new family as the lovely Jerry (a fantastic local with dreams of conquering the world on his trike) had offered to put us up and show us the sites.

Jerry had worked all over the world as a technical communications guru (including Egypt and Argentina) and his quirky home was a jungle of projects that were slowly being completed (and then changed and added to).

We planned to hit the road the next day but instead we went morel mushroom picking and then morel mushroom eating.

Two days later we eventually got back on our bikes and headed straight uphill along the famed Oregon Trail with Jerry in tow (who’d decided to pedal with us for a day to test out his kit).

Checking out an enormous old wagon on the old Oregon Trail

Checking out an enormous old wagon on the old Oregon Trail

That night we bush camped in the national forest and watched an explosion of stars light up the sky before huddling down into our sleeping bags for a frosty night.

We woke to a bright and clear morning and fried up some morel mushrooms as a final shared meal before waving goodbye to Jerry. He’d have an easy downhill roll back into John Day but for us a rollercoaster of tree-lined passes would take us back up and down into Oregon’s high desert.

Camping in the national forest east of John Day with Jerry

Camping in the national forest east of John Day with Jerry

As we pushed further east the weather continued to be more hormonal than a teenager, swapping from blistering heat to ice cold in sometimes the space of an hour.

Each day I would emerge from the tent and fish out my sandals in preparation for another scorching day only to dive for my goretex hiking boots and thick socks after breakfast. By lunch time I was sunburnt and sweating in a salt-stained tee.

The Oregon trail is a 2,170 mile (3,490 km) historic East–West, large-wheeled wagon route and emigrant trail in the United States that connected the Missouri River to valleys in Oregon and as we headed towards Austin Junction the scenery dived back into oceans of pines and babbling brooks. Once the last of the pine coated passes were behind us the desert world of purple and green sage bushes were back and with it a raging headwind.

Not all passes are giant sized!

Not all passes are giant sized!

East of Brogan on the Oregon Trail

East of Brogan on the Oregon Trail

The fragrant sage bushes, the kamikaze ground squirrels (who would dart across the road as soon as they heard us coming) and the fierce headwinds kept us company as we struggled down route 26 towards the Idaho border. At times the scenery looked like Central Asia and if you closed your eyes and listened to the roosters crowing and the motorbikes roaring it almost sounded the same too.

The sad looking town of Vale marked our last stop in Oregon and after scoffing down a family-sized loaf of onion bread we turned once more into the wind for the final pint-sized pass into Idaho.

Idaho is a big north-western state that’s famed for its mountains, ranches, rednecks and potatoes (in fact their so proud of the their spud prowess it’s plastered on just about every car license plate) and as we crossed the border the trucks got bigger the cowboy hats wider and the irrigation systems longer.

After a long and hard 110km day we spent our first night in the state of “Great Potatoes” camped in a riverside park where we cooked up an enormous pot of rice and omelette with a serving of bugs.

Hello Idaho! We thought there'd be a giant potato at the border so imagine our disappointment...

Hello Idaho! We thought there’d be a giant potato at the border so imagine our disappointment…

Boise, Idaho is the fairly progressive capital city of a pretty conservative “red” state and after a hot windy and hilly final 70km into this thriving hub we wheeled into the home of world cycle tourers and epic adventurers Rachel and Patrick. The fascinating couple had kindly agreed to put us up for as long as we liked (a dangerous offer when you’re tired and suffering a relationship break down with google maps and the bike) and after a hot shower and a pot roast we were beginning to forgive Idaho its rough start.

A storm rolls in across the farmlands of Idaho

A storm rolls in across the farmlands of Idaho

With nothing but some needy cats and R&R requiring our attention we took a load off and pondered the road ahead. Should we take another detour to Yellowstone or haul ass down to Utah before the heat and summer holidays struck with gusto?

Whatever the choice we were happy to kick back in our “own private Idaho” and fool our legs into thinking the punishment was over.. at least for a couple of days anyway.

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