photos by Talia Galvin
We anxiously watched a veil of rain move toward and then over us as we cranked our loaded touring bicycles along a two-lane road in Eastern Oregon. My cycling partner, Donnie Kolb, and I still had ten miles to go before we reached Big Bend campsite along the John Day River. We knew that if we wanted to make it before dark, we needed to keep pedaling, even if it meant getting completely drenched.
Then a bolt of lightning set fire to a nearby ridge.
We hit the brakes and eased our bikes to the side of the road. Just over halfway through the 174-mile Old West Scenic Bikeway, one of eleven scenic bikeway routes throughout the state, we considered our options. We could ditch our bikes and hunker down in a low spot to wait out the storm, though there wasn’t much to hunker under, and we’d end up finishing after dark. Or we could push on until we changed our minds or reached camp, whichever happened first.
“Let’s make a break for it,” I said, trying to ignore the wildfire on the ridge, though it had ignited a pine tree in a giant blaze of orange.
We pushed our bikes back onto the road and pedaled through the storm. When lightning struck too close for comfort, we sprinted for the protection of roadside barns, where we waited among hay bales and old pickups. Lightning aside, we navigated flooded sections of road, doing our best to dodge errant rocks, sticks and chunks of mud in the torrent. The conditions were dreadful—we couldn’t help but laugh and press on.
As the storm dissipated and the sun set, we reached our campground. We pitched our tent under a juniper tree and changed into dry clothes. On the black ridge behind us, the wildfire burned high. By morning, it had disappeared.
Our bike touring adventure began under sunshine and blue skies the day before in John Day, a 1,700-person cowboy town populated with restaurants such as the Squeeze-In, Snaffle Bit and Outpost.
We stopped at Kam Wah Chung, a state heritage site based on a former general store and medical clinic for the Chinese immigrant community in the late 1800s. After spreading sunscreen and affixing our panniers, we set off on a counter-clockwise loop through Grant County that would cover a total of 10,200 vertical feet in a little more than three days.
Accustomed to the damp mossy greens of Portland, I was excited to explore the dry eastern expanses of the state, where tumbleweed dances across wide-open fields, collecting in barbed-wire fences, and thunderstorms blow in without warning. I wondered how I would acclimate to the extreme change in landscape, and what I might learn on the journey.
Kolb had done many bike tours before, but I’d just gotten my first taste of multiday riding earlier in the summer. Still, the Old West trip seemed relatively easy to pull off. For one, the planning was straightforward. The Oregon Scenic Bikeway website offers an interactive map that displays the amenities along the way, including lodging options, food-and-drink establishments, bike shops, attractions—including a paleontology center—and an 1860s gold mining town.
Also, because the state endorsed this as a bike route, we knew that the road would not be overrun with cars, there would be an adequate shoulder, services along the route would fall at reasonable intervals and the course would be beautiful enough to justify its “scenic” title.
During our three-day journey, we experienced both the parched high desert I’d expected and the intense thunderstorms I had not foreseen. We traveled over mountains, meadows, river valleys, pine forests, fossil beds and a handful of towns, most smaller than five square blocks.
The weather, too, delivered variety. We encountered rain and lightning, yes, but also temperatures so hot we poured water over our heads to cool down, winds so strong we dropped into our handlebars to decrease our resistance—and conditions so pleasant we lingered during breaks to soak it all in.
We rode thirty miles the first day, to the well-manicured lawn of Bates State Park. Day two’s eighty-four miles took us through a wide, grassy valley, then up and over Ritter Butte, the ride’s most grueling climb. Later in the day, we rode alongside the Middle Fork of the John Day River to scrappy, dirt-floored Big Bend campground.
Pedaling through the open air, we could hear sounds normally blocked by windshields: locusts clicked and snapped as they leapt across the pavement, hawks kee-eeee-awwwed as they circled overhead and red-winged blackbirds took off, feathers beating in a flurry.
Throughout the ride, my companion and I dismounted in every town we passed to take a break from the saddle, chat with locals and stock up on food we’d need for the next stretch of road.
On the second day, for example, we stopped at The Stampede Restaurant in Long Creek (population 200) for sandwiches and homemade boysenberry ice cream, and twenty miles later at Boyer’s Cash Store in Monument (population 150) for the mac ’n squeeze cheese and two jugs of potable water we’d need to make dinner.
Despite riding into cowboy country in spandex and sports glasses, I found a friendly reception. Many drivers waved as they passed, and a number of businesses, such as the charming Oxbow Restaurant & Saloon in Prairie City, displayed signs out front that read, “Two Wheels Spoken Here.”
On the fifty-one-mile third day, we hit the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument around 11 a.m. The massive formations towered over us in cake-like layers of red, orange, cream, blue and green. A paleontological site dating back forty million years, the John Day beds contain remnants of long extinct plants and animals (including tiny, fanged creatures called mouse-deer).
That night, we slept on a futon at the Bike Inn hostel in Mt. Vernon. Located in a small, side-yard structure of part-time cycling tour leader Christy Rheu, the hostel (pay by donation) offers a bed and sleeping bags—as well as a full kitchen stocked with eggs laid by resident chickens.
Lounging on the inn’s deck at the end of the day, we chatted with other cyclists and downed two large pizzas from the gas station down the road. After eight final miles the next morning, we were back at the car.
The Old West Scenic Bikeway holds a raw and mighty beauty that left us awestruck. With soaring temperatures, scarce water and fierce storms, this piece of Oregon demanded more from us than passive admiration. We had to offer it our respect as well—and be willing to embrace its wildness as we pedaled toward the fire.