AXC - The bike

AXC - The bike

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Anatomy of a Good Day

The title for this blog has been in my head for weeks, and I've been meaning to write this. (I also thought about writing it's inverse, the anatomy of a bad day.) But in both cases, I just never got around to it. Besides, the good days keep coming, and which one do I write about?

Finally, the day was SO good, I just had to write about it, not just to share it, but to make sure I wrote it down to remember it. 

The day was Wednesday, July 30. Riding from Sisters, OR to McKenzie Bridge, OR. Crossing McKenzie Pass along the way. 

The evolution of the really good day actually starts several days back with a handful of bad days. That's actually an overstatement, the days weren't bad, they were just very difficult and compounded on one another over several days. In the span of 3 days, we crossed 5 mountain passes, culminating with a nearly 90 mile day (including climbing a pass that day.)

Then we had a couple of less difficult days, which included a 40 mile ride from Prineville to Sisters that was so easy I was done before noon, which was a first for this trip. Then, having practically a whole day in Sisters was a treat as the town was very cute and nice to walk around in and kill an afternoon. Heck, the bike shop even had a tap with 6 beers and a guy who would just as soon tune your bike as pour you a pint! With almost a whole day to spend in a nice town, it practically felt like a rest day. 

That leads me to the good day. 

Things started off like pretty much any other day; wake up, break down camp, eat a little something, and get on the road. I knew there were no services the whole way so I stopped at a convenience store on the way out of town to pick up a gatorade and extra water. 

The ride to the top of the pass was 17 miles uphill. On the road, the climb started pretty much right away. It was very gradual at first, only 2-3% grade, and along a nice shaded road with a view of the mountains in the distance. 

One unique thing about the day was that there was another bicycle group also doing the pass. An Oregon group based near Portland that was doing a 10 day, 500 mile loop of the state. This is an annual event, and draws a big crowd - there were about 45 riders in this group! Only a few miles into my ride I ran into the first couple and chatted with them a bit. We played leap-frog for a while when we each stopped for a little something and would pass each other. I chatted with them several times up the mountain. There were many other people I talked to on the way up and had good conversations with all of them. I'd ask them about their tour, and they'd ask me about mine. It was interesting, enjoyable, and really helped pass the time. I even encountered a nice guy who has been reading my blog! (Shout out to the nice guy on the funky recumbent! And btw, 'AXC' stands for 'Aaron Cross Country.') He said he found my blog linked from Adventure Cycling Associations e-mail newsletter. I said I knew they linked to the blog, I just didn't think anyone actually read it! ;-)

Pretty quickly, the hill went from the gradual grade to a more substantial climb of 5-7%. This isn't steep, but it's steep enough to have to get in a low gear, and gets me breathing a little harder. Even so,  one of the little things I enjoyed about the climb was passing other riders from this group going up the hill, on my fully loaded bike while most of them were riding bare-bones! Hey, I've been working out!
One guy even commented on the size of my legs and that I looked like I was clearly in good shape. 88 days on the road will do that to you!

About halfway up the mountain there was a lookout spot where I pulled over to take in the view, snap a few pictures and have a snack. I downed my gatorade and felt pretty good so far. 

The overlook was the start of the McKenzie Pass lava fields. The top of the mountain is covered with lava rock from eons-old lava flows. It is a surreal landscape that looks a little like the surface of the moon. It is also something brand new that I haven't seen before on this ride, and was thoroughly interesting. 

Back on the bike, I caught up with some of the other riders from my own group, chatted for a bit, and then we all continued on up the hill at our own pace. I stopped here and there to take pictures, and was enjoying not only the company of the other riders, but just the fact of not riding up this hill by myself. A side benefit of so many bikes being out that day was that drivers coming up the mountain were encountering riders the whole way, and were thus more cautious about their speed and coming around turns on the narrow roads. 

A little over 2 hours into the ride, I turned a corner and saw the 'Observatory.' One of the other riders had told me this was at the top, but it felt like there was no way I should be at the summit yet. However, sure enough there was the sign; "Summit McKenzie Pass Elev. 5325."
Hell, that was practically easy! 

At the top I saw most of my own gang, as well as throngs of other people in brightly colored spandex. For once, I didn't stand out! I went up to the top of the observatory and met up with others from my group. We admired the view, and talked about the climb up; the general consensus was that this was surprisingly not hard, and much quicker than we were expecting. 

We talked to the other riders, swapped stories and just enjoyed the view and the fact that we crested the mountain much sooner than expected. Meaning we had the rest of the day to go down the other side and get to camp, so we could take plenty of time to relax. It was very fun having most of the group meet up at the top and chill. Some days we go the entire ride without seeing each other, so this was a rare mid-day hang out

I had my lunch, took a lot of pictures, and also talked with other riders. 

Then it was time to get back on the bike and head downhill. Always my favorite part of any climb!

There was advanced notice that the downhill was very winding and twisty, and somewhat steep at points, so be careful. I started off rolling down, but there was a false downhill, as just a half mile in I had to climb again! But after just a mile or two of that, the real downhill began. It was steep at first, and certainly very twisty. I describe this as a 'technical' downhill, meaning there is technical skill needed to do it. The downhill wasn't just 'point the bike down and let gravity do the work.' There is skill and experience for knowing how to brake going into turns, how take turns at high speed and not drift over into other lanes, and apply brakes properly to slow down enough when you need it without panic-braking. The hill wasn't so steep that I was bombing down at crazy speeds, it was just enough to be exciting without being dangerous. The technical aspect kept it interesting, and in all it was just fun. Then, as I became comfortable with the downhill, I was able to start looking up and around at my surroundings. 
Coming up the mountain, we were in a forest that was healthy and pretty. But on the backside of the mountain just a few miles down, the lava flows gave way to a forest that was thick and rich and deep green. The trees were huge and healthy and centuries old. There was dense underbrush, a little humidity, and the smell of the forest in the air. It was lush. 

And the downhill just kept going and going, through the most gorgeous forest I've seen on this trip. The bright blue sky peeked through the heavy canopy here and there, casting starkly contrasting shadows on the road. I wound down the twisty hills, thinking this felt like it was out of a luxury car commercial or a movie. 
And still the downhill just kept going. 
I was lost in thought, pulling on the brakes and navigating the turns by instinct while my mind wandered - taking in the deep greens and the magnificence of the trees around me. I barely pedaled, didn't have to. Occasionally other bikes would fly by me, I paid them no mind. 

I knew as I was going through this spectacular forest that it was something special. For a bit I rode with my head turned to the sky and watched the tips of the trees go by. I tried to take in all the details;  trees a dozen feet wide and a hundred feet tall, the dense underbrush that looked almost like a tropical rainforest, the smell that permeated the air, and the cool breeze. At one point the trees opened up into a clearing and the hot sun beat down on my back and felt wonderful, then I was back in the canopy and the cool air was rushing by again. 

Time seemed to go away for a while, and I was just experiencing the world around me while gravity did the work. 

Finally, the downhill ride came to an end at a 'T' intersection in the road. I looked at the sign that pointed back the way I came and it said 'McKenzie Pass 22 miles.' I had just gone 22 miles downhill. For almost a hour and a quarter I had barely pedaled. It was beyond description. There have been some magnificent downhills on this trip: Nine miles in Wyoming past of some of the most stunning mountain views of the trip. An epic eight mile bomb down a highway in Idaho that was more thrilling than any roller-coaster. A scenic 10 mile decent into Breckenridge from Hoosier Pass, and many more.
But this ride down McKenzie pass was my favorite downhill of the trip. It wasn't the fastest, and might not have even been the most scenic, but it was fast without being worrisome, endlessly beautiful, and relaxing in a way that was just plain enjoyable. It is the first time I thought that I would be willing climb a hill over again, just to experience that downhill again.

Still, the day wasn't over, and I had another 5 or 6 miles to camp. A few miles down the road I stopped by a river and sat and ate an orange while listening to the water rush by. I was hungry, and the orange tasted like ambrosia. 

A little futher down I ran into the whole gang stopped at a general store. I stopped as well and had a nice root beer. It was not ambrosia, but a cold drink was still delicious. 
Camp ended up being less than a mile from this store, and this wonderful day's ride was done by 1pm. To cap off such a nice ride, the campsite was beautiful, setting up tent among enormous old trees and next to that rushing river. 

This was a day for the books. One of the last days of the trip. 

At the top of the pass, looking out over the lava flows at the Three Sisters glaciers, another rider asked me "have you seen anything this beautiful?" And I felt bad thinking "yeah, kinda." It felt a little like 'been there, done that.' I just wasn't as impressed as she was, and I felt like maybe a little bit of the wonder had faded, or was jaded. But that downhill showed me there are still wonders, enjoyment, and surprises over every pass. I smiled so much that day, my face hurt at the end of the day. 

There have been many good days on this trip, more than I can count or categorize. This was not the 'best', but rather, it was yet another really good day. 


  1. It's almost like being there! See you soon.

  2. Really quite amazing. Well written and great photos. I'm so happy you got to do this.

  3. Hi Aaron
    You wrote: He said he found my blog linked from Adventure Cycling Associations e-mail newsletter. I said I knew they linked to the blog, I just didn't think anyone actually read it! ;-)"
    I got that newsletter because I joined up to find out about riding the divide, and I followed your link. As a result I lost a good chunk of a day reading your posts starting from day one, and I've found it entertaining, enlightening and motivational. I'm now torn between doing the divide in 20-16 or doing this trans America ride. Incredible effort Aaron, well done.
    Best regards, Alistair, New Zealand

    1. Thanks for the note Alistair!
      I don't know a whole lot about the Divide ride, but the TransAm was spectacular. You probably can't go wrong with either!
      - Aaron