THIS ISN’T ANNAPURNA
Words and photos by Mariah LaQua
“There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the three-score-years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you.” -Thoreau’s Walking
The night before I leave Seaside, Oregon, the power goes out. I can hear the wind thrashing the town and Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm” gets stuck in my head. I turn on my flashlight and keep packing.
I leave Seaside on a bus. On the way to the stop, it rains and hails on me. The winds blast. It gets eerily calm. Someone at the Chevron station tells an employee that they saw a funnel cloud. Fifteen miles South, a tornado touches down in Manzanita. People tell me these are the first tornadoes in the area in over 20 years.
The bus ride to Portland bounces south down the coast, then climbs east over the mossy forested hills of the coastal range. After a couple of hours through hills, wind and rain, I arrive in the Portland Greyhound Station and remember that anxious feeling of cities. My blood pressure rises and it feels as if I am tuned to every sound, the sounds you learn to ignore when you’re living in it. I find it overwhelming. I pedal to the home of my bike shop sometimes-coworker, Dan, where I’ll be staying with his roommate, Amy—Dan’s out of town.
In Portland I wait. It’s exasperating, going from moving and exploring and seeing everyday, to sitting still. I tell myself to take advantage of the opportunity to rest, so I walk everywhere. Most days it’s 5 miles in the wind and rain, but once the storms pass three days in, I walk to Forest Park, hike on the Wild Cherry Trail, and then turn around and come back.
After waiting a week, my bike arrives at the shop Velo Cult in Portland. I ride there and convince the employees to let me build up the bike, an Advocate Seldom Seen, and box my Krampus, which I’ve sold to someone in Minnesota. I explain that I’m behind schedule, I thought I’d get the bike couple weeks ago, and I’m eager to get back on the move.
The next morning I help Amy move some furniture, and roll out of Portland around noon.
I didn’t realize it in Seaside, but I will not pedal along the Pacific again for some time. All in all, from Vancouver, Canada to Seaside, Oregon, I rarely followed the Pacific Coast Route from Adventure Cycling. Instead I made decisions one day at a time, chose roads that piqued my interest. In Portland I lunch with a woman named Hazel who races for the team Battlekat. I’m shy at lunch but she mentions something that grabs my curiosity —from Portland, if one pedals East along the Columbia River Gorge, they will eventually pass through the Cascades and into central Oregon—the high desert.
After two weeks of rain and storms, I change plans and decide to temporarily abandon the Pacific, hoping to enter into the high desert and experience a break from the rain. I pedal along the Old Columbia River Hwy, a winding road of switchbacks, both climbing and descending, with incredible views of a gorge cut by the river and Ice Age floods millions of years ago. The road changes from two lanes of traffic to a dedicated pedestrian and bike path, and it’s here that I meet Joseph. I’m moving slowly along and see him off to the side, sitting with a loaded bike and eating yogurt. I nod and smile through headphones and he starts yelling at me.
“C’mon stop!” he says, “You might as well stop.”
I hesitate, as any time a strange man yells at me it instantly throws up a red flag, but then decide to stop. Joseph is in his late twenties, his beard reaches his sternum, complimented by long sandy-brown hair tied in a ponytail, and chipped front teeth. He’s wearing white Adidas Sambas with no socks. We chat for a minute and Joseph explains that he lives in Hood River and is biking back from spending the night in Portland.
He has had to stop, he explains, because his foot is infected from stepping on a nail, and his father is picking him up in his truck from Cascade Locks—a town that is home to the Bonneville Dam, about five miles away. He offers me a ride to Hood River. I hesitate again. Joseph seems harmless, but simultaneously socially “off.” He’s the type of person that I think won’t hurt me, but will probably make me uncomfortable. I consider my experience working with individuals experiencing homelessness and severe mental illness an asset in assessing strangers. It’s getting late in the day, though, and Joseph, seeing my hesitation, tells me about cyclists dying where the route rejoins the highway between Cascade Locks and Hood River. I hesitate again and then agree to take the ride. Joseph asks if I know where I’m staying and I say, “Hood River, I suppose.” He says he has a communal farm in the mountains and that I’m welcome to stay. I hesitate but then agree.
Joseph and I pedal together to Cascade Locks and he talks the whole way. I realize that Joseph is knowledgeable, but not in the way that comes from curiosity or a drive to learn—it seems more driven by a desire to be right and prove others wrong, to hold power in that manner. If I offer my opinion or insight, he corrects or interrupts me. This makes me uncomfortable but I choose to laugh about it internally, and realize that I can engage Joseph comfortably if all I do is ask questions and express awe at the breadth and depth of his understanding.
As we near Cascade Locks, Joseph explains my bike to me—telling me that the Seldom Seen has an “aggressive downhill geometry.” At this my internal laughter bubbles over and I giggle a little outwardly. I contain myself, nod and smile, but an aggressive downhill bike the Seldom Seen is not. It is a fully rigid off-road touring bike, capable of handling trails, but made to comfortably carry a load on rough terrain rather than to shred downhill dirt at high speeds. Joseph explains that he is a skilled mountain biker. Of course he is.
Part of me wants to offer to take all my bags off the bike and send Joseph on a Black Diamond downhill trail with it. There’s plenty of mountain biking in the area. “Have fun!” I would call after him dropping in, but I like the bike too much already to put it in his hands. Working at a bike shop, I’m used to these microaggressions. I spot them. I smile like Clinton during the debate and work them to my advantage. In the shop, I would often defer customers like this to a male coworker, and listen on as my coworker gave them the same information they had just received from me.
We pass a search and rescue party just before Cascade Locks. Joseph says something flippant about how it’s probably “some spaced out hiker that didn’t know what they’re doing.” I think that it is probably someone that is loved by someone else. Joseph makes a joke that we should hop in front of the camera and get on the news. I shake my head. I find his behavior disturbing. Joseph asks one of the search and rescue party team members “Someone missing?”
“A girl,” responds a young search party member.
“A young girl?”
My heart jumps, “I hope you find her.”
Her name is Annie Schmidt. As of the writing of this, she has been missing for 11 days.
We meet his father, John, in Cascade Locks. John and I load up my bike into the back of his truck and I ride to Hood River. During the car ride, Joseph talks almost the whole time. I ask John a question about the mountain peaks, he names them and tells me both the names given to them by Native tribes, and the names given to them by European explorers. I like John quite a bit. We stop at his house and he carves up a turkey he had cooked the previous day and hands the meat in bags to Joseph.
While getting ready to drive up to Joseph’s, Joseph insists that we pedal there. I ask if his foot is okay, he says that it’s fine—more strangeness, given that the reason for the ride in the first place was his foot. Joseph says that the ride is all uphill and approximately seven miles. John offers that I might stay in his yard or on his large boat instead. I don’t know what to do. Joseph says that his farm is more fun and there’s an amazing view of Wy’East (also Mt. Hood). I agree to ride up to the farm.
As we climb dusk settles in and Joseph continues to talk. Three trucks pass with loud engines and lift kits, and Joseph yells, “Aggressive bros!” he pauses, and then to me, “Hyper masculine in their man trucks. They don’t know that I’m just like them.” I don’t really say anything. Though his comment was sarcastic, there’s some truth to it—Joseph seems very insecure in his masculinity.
I want to like Joseph. I know he and his father did me a favor, and I want to be grateful. But as we continue to climb, my trust deteriorates. It’s pitch black and the shim holding my front light in place has fallen out, so my light is bouncing around and reflecting back into my face off of my handlebar bag. There is only the yellow dividing line to guide me. It starts to rain.
We continue to climb—Joseph keeps talking. I’m internally deciding whether or not to turn around and book it back down the mountain. Joseph starts asking me questions, and on top of the climbing, social discomfort, trying to breathe and answer questions, my whole brain clouds. I feel confused. The rain switches to snow.
We’ve climbed nearly a thousand feet in seven miles. Joseph estimates three more miles of pedaling. I apologize for being slow. “It’s fine,” says Joseph. “I guess I’m just a beast. I do this ride every day.” This interaction keeps repeating, me apologizing, him referring to his beast-like-ness, insisting that he does the ride every day and, more subtly, suggesting that I need to toughen up. He talks about a woman cyclist he rode with and how slow and inexperienced she was, but how patient he was with her and the great personal growth he gained as a result of his patience.
The road narrows and loses its painted lines. It’s still snowing. In the blackness, I sense the steep, rocky drop off past the road on my left. A truck pulls up and Joseph says, “Hello, Tom.” and approaches it.
Tom, Joseph’s neighbor, offers us lights, Joseph refuses. He offers us a ride, I’m further from the truck and call “I’ll take a ride!”
“We’re fine,” interrupts Joseph. The truck pulls away.
Stopping for this moment in the snow, my confusion clears up and suddenly I realize that I’m ready, that I need to go back down the mountain by myself, rather than continue in this company. I realize that I’ve been ignoring my intuition since we left John’s. I feel frustrated with myself for breaking my own rules. We start to pedal upwards again and I carefully communicate.
“Hey, I’m gonna turn around,” I say. “It’s just so dark and I can’t see anything and the riding is so hard.” Half true. This isn’t Annapurna. “I’m really freaked out by all this,” true.
“I guess I’m just such a beast,” says Joseph again. It’s dark so I roll my eyes.
Joseph then says that he’ll show me where to camp and help me set up.
“No,” I say. “I’m experienced enough.”
“But I know the area,” he says.
Joseph then asks that I give him my contact information so I offer to text him. I do, knowing this will get me off the hook. I start to turn around and make my way down when an Astro van pulls up. “It’s my friend Nichole,” Joseph calls after me
She explains that she lives on the farm as well, and I immediately feel better. She offers to give us a ride the rest of the way. I am grateful and accept. In the van, she asks how I know Joseph. I say that I don’t, not really, we just met that day and he likes showing touring cyclists hospitality.
“And you’re making her bike up the mountain when she’s been touring? Real nice,” says Nichole. “Even you hardly bike up this road.”
“That’s funny, Joseph told me he bikes up here every day,” I say innocently.
“Ah ha. The truth comes out.”
She asks Joseph where he is staying, “I think we’ll stay in Aaron’s cabin,” says Joseph. It becomes clear to me that Joseph doesn’t actually live there, it isn’t his farm. She looks over to me and says, somewhat quietly, “You can stay in the community room if you’d like.” I’m relieved.
When we arrive Nichole gives me a can of beer and points me to the community room. She makes her way to a separate cabin on the farm, explaining that it is a collection of small buildings and individuals that make the farm up, and that WWOOFers stay in the community room.
Joseph and I walk to the community room and there’s a young woman in there, named Aline. She asks where we are staying and Joseph suggests again, that “we” will stay in Aaron’s cabin.
“Can I stay in here,” I immediately ask Aline.
“Totally,” she points out all the sleeping arrangement possibilities.
Joseph suddenly becomes sulky and sour, and for the rest of the evening while I settle in he directs all his conversation towards Aline. If I speak, he cuts me off with something rude. I just laugh a little, stretch and set an early alarm.
After Joseph leaves, Aline asks me how I know him.
“I don’t.” I say, I explain how we met and don’t say much else.
“He’s a funny guy,” she says. I understand.
Aline makes a phone call in Russian and I drift asleep to it.
The next morning I wake up early and the clear sky view of Wy’East is incredible. I take a few photos, pack up, and leave. I bump into Joseph outside and say good morning and thank you. He completely ignores me. I’m relieved.
I ride out of Hood River very early and get to the next town, The Dalles in the early afternoon. After a stop in at the bike shop, I decide to push the 15 miles to Dufur despite the dying afternoon sun. I see a sign on the side of the road leaving The Dalles with a truck pushing up a steep hill and the caption “Next 3 miles.” It’s my first mountain pass. I’m thrilled.
I make it to Dufur, a tiny town with a population of 600, where I hang out in the Post Office charging my electronics and eating snacks before going to crash in a baseball dugout in the city park.
A woman walks in and is surprised to see me seated in the corner. We chat a bit and after learning I’m on a bike tour she says, “Well sure, but what are you doing in Dufur?”
I laugh. “I’m not sure. It’s beautiful here, though.” She seems delighted and wishes me well. I sleep happily in the park.
Mariah LaQua is currently on a solo bike tour from Vancouver, B.C. to San Jose del Cabo, Mexico. This series is a collection of excerpts from her writing during the bike tour that have been edited for space from their original version. To read the posts in their entirety, or to see more from Mariah, visit www.mariahlaqua.com.