Sierra Cascades – Ashland to Bagby Hot Springs

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I made it Ahsland safely and found my Warm Showers host (it’s like Couchsurfing for cyclists) Ashland is a university town with a strong hippy/alternative vibe for which the co-op market acts as a hub. The array of silly hats, dreadlocks and armpit hair inside is astounding. Conversation is mostly about wheatgrass and yoga. 

Everyone inside seems to be try hard to look very poor but the shop is astoundingly expensive. I picked up a tomato without checking the price (I am a daredevil, I know) and read later on the receipt that is cost me $4.31. For a single tomato. It was an “heirloom” tomato, apparently, which as far as I can tell means ‘pithy’. 

Ashland is best known, however, for it’s Shakespeare festival. From Spring through to Fall each year performances run six days a week across three theatres. I caught two Shakespeares – The Winter’s Tale and Timon of Athens – and two others – The Wiz and Roe. An intensive five days of culture – and paid only for one. Two tickets my host found for me via her theatre friends and one I was gifted by a stranger while holding up an “Englishman cycling across USA – spare tickets?” sign. I sat next to her and her girlfriend and spent the performance of Roe trying match their cheering and booing in response to the respective victories for and affronts to women’s rights played out on the stage – the play is about the legal battle Roe v. Wade that established women’s right to abortion in America. Afterwards, we spent the afternoon together, drank kombucha (it tastes a lot better than it looks) and they told me about the scandal of the Democratic Convention the day before and the leaked emails that had proven collusion between the Democrat delegates and the press conspiring to cast Bernie Sanders in a bad light. That sounds just like the daily struggle of Jeremy Corbyn! The state of American politics is terrible at the moment but I’m still not sure it is as bad as ours.

 I hadn’t planned to spend so long in Ashland but I was feeling burnt out and my host (who was wonderful) encouraged me to stay longer. When I did leave the first greeting from the road was a long, hot climb up the Dead Indian Highway. I didn’t know it at the time but this was a milestone – the point after which the weather would finally cool down. I rose into the forrest and the next day faced the climb to Crater Lake, one of the longest of my trip; 1600m over thirty unyielding miles.  The pity was that rather than taking me up switchbacks with a shrinking view below I was stuck in a green corridor, fenced in by trees. The road did not twist and turn but curve only gradually and occasionally so that I would be met by demoralisingly long views of the work ahead around each corner. I was in the Cascades now – the second range for which my route is named – and over the coming days there would be a lot of green corridor and climbing witout rewarding views. I would see dramatic snow-capped mountains rising above the trees each day but despite all the climbing would never actually go up them. 

I arrived at Crater Lake spent and fed up. Despite my long break in Ashland I was feeling burnt out again. A fire on the west side of the national park had the road I was planning to take closed so I had to take the circuitous Eastern Rim road inside, heading anticlockwise around the lake. 

That evening I pushed my bike up a trail for my first views of the lake. Crater Lake lies below a rim of jagged mountains of pumice and is almost a perfect circle. It looks like it was created by the fall of a meteorite but it is a caldera when a volcanic erruption blew 5000 feet off the top of Mount Mazama 7,700 years ago. The chief of the Klamath Indian tribe told of the event as it was passed down:

“With a sound as had never before been heard, the throne rock of Lla-O burst upwards and outwards, and great objects and smaller fell through the air, bearing with them the very stars of the heavens. Full seven days no sun was seen and no way to tell this day from another, and there was no light save for the glare of the flaming mountains, and every day of those seven days the yellow water-smoke took told in agony from those that could not live.”

Over hundreds of years the crater filled with rain water to create the lake that is there today. It is fed by no currents and so no sediment is disturbed. It is also the deepest lake in the US at 2000 feet. It is for these reasons the water has it’s famously deep blue colour. 

I sat on the edge if the rim and watched the sun set pink then strung my tarp and lay down to sleep. Soon I heard footsteps on the path and kept still in case in case whoever it was told me to leave. It was dark now and I could see no flitting torchlight however. Plus, the footsteps sounded aimless rather than purposeful; I realised that it was an animal. The footsteps sounded heavy, though, and the were shifting the rocks in a slow, ponderous way. Suddenly I got it into my head that this was not a deer but a bear. 

I have spent many nights alone in the woods over the last three years and have often been anxious of discovery but never fearful of my safety – not until this night. After the thought “bear” entered my head I heard snuffling, froze then sat up and shook my tarpaulin to make some noise. If it was really a bear then I needed (against instinct) to let it be known that I was there. The worst kind of bear is a surprised bear, all the advice goes. And then I sat there, knife in one hand, torch in the other and my whistle between my lips. I’m not sure how long I sat there or which of the following noises I heard or half-heard were really imagined. Each time I lay back down some new noise of movement, licking of lips or gnashing of teeth would have me upright again, heart racing. A beating pulse against a rustling sleeping bag sounds just like a sniffing animal. Eventually sleep overcame me, however, and I woke in the morning to find that everything was alright and in – hindsight and with a clear mind – it very probably wasn’t a bear. 

Two more days of riding took me to Bend along the way I passed many lakes and cooled lava flows, like great ridges of black rubble and pollyfiller forty feet high beside the road. Sharp mountaintops poked their heads over the trees. I faced a fork in my GPS route on the screen; a flat, easy, but probably boring route along the highway or a scenic route around more lakes and over Windigo Pass. Well, I’m not in this for easy I thought and took the scenic route. After eighteen miles the tarmac ended and the road turned into gravel. So this was why I was given an alternative option! The 16″ wheels of the Brompton would clearly not excel here but I didn’t fancy backtracking all that way now that I was this far. So, foolishly, I continued. The gravel road was longer than expected and shifted to fine, deep dust to washboard dirt. It was a very long fifteen miles. Tarmac would appear fleetingly at times only to vanish again. My mood was not great. 

I could see another cyclist’s hopelessly veering tracks in the dusty dirt though and it gave me a little strength to know that someone else had managed. The front wheel would go in a vaguely straight line but the rear wheel would fishtail back and forth, trying hopelessly the find traction; the tracks look like an erratic beat on a headrate monitor. 

The next morning I found a Sierra Cascades bike map by the side of the road and knew in my gut that it belonged to the owner of those wobbly tracks. I had not yet met anyone on this route going the same way but now I was hot on someone’s trail. With failing energy and motivation I made it over Mt. Washington and down to Bend. At my Warm Showers host another cyclist was staying and sure enough it was his tracks I had followed and his lost map that I had found. I would stay longer in the city than him so we would not continue together, however. 

Bend has more breweries per capita than anywhere else in the US (perhaps the world) and is a mecca for outdoors enthusiasts; hiking, biking, mountain biking, kayaking, white-water rafting and skiing is all on it’s doorstep. There are no obese people in Bend, though in Oregon in general there seen to be fewer than in California. The city is green and clean and lovely. I could really imagine myself living there. My original hosts headed out of town but I wanted to linger longer so I messaged a friend of my host in Ashland and she kindly welcomed me. Annie and Dave were just great. I had only asked to stay a single night but like in Ashland I was made welcome to stay as long as I liked. I hope they weren’t just being polite! Dave is a chiropractor and took me to his clinic to work on my back, which had been causing ne misery since Bend. I also bought a hammock from REI that would turn out to be a revelation for my back compared to sleeping on the ground. 

From Bend I made a detour up to Smith Rock in the high desert. It was ‘discovered’ by rock climbers in the 80s and has since become world famous for it. My first impression of it was of a jagged Uluru, hemmed in by a winding river at it’s base. I strung my hammock at the edge of a precipice and fell asleep then woke up to the magnificent view. 

After a hike up a very steep trail to the top, down the other side and along the river I continued Westward on my bike to rejoin the forrest at a town called Sisters. The next day was my longest yet – 109 miles and 1600m climbed – over Santiam Pass then along the Clackamas River and deep into the Mt. Hood forrest. It is dramatically more damp here and broadleaved, rather than pines dominate. Rather than a clear bed of needle the forrest floor is a strangled growth of ferns, creepers and rotting logs. 

The reason for the big push was to reach the trailhead for Bagby Hot Springs by nightfall so I could make it there early the next morning before it got busy. Bagby is a log cabin in the seeming armpit of nowhere with water from a hot spring channeled by gravity down hollowed trunks and into wooden tubs. The water comes out of the ground at 56°C so you add buckets of icy water from the cold stream that runs adjacent to achieve the perfect temperature. It was blissful and I stayed there for several hours. I realised looking down that my body has become hopelessly disproportioned. From the waist down I look like Arnold Schwarzenegger but from the waist up more like a castaway. A bit like Bradley Wiggins I suppose. I must be doing it right then! Although my beard would have to go for the sake of aerodynamics. 

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