South of Tulelake, where horseradish fields stretch to the horizons and Mr. Wong's potato trucks rumble by, stacked high with unwashed Russets, civilization drops off in a way that's only possible in the mountain west. For six days we rode through the backcountry of NE California, at one stretch - between TuleLake and Adin - we pedaled for 73 miles without seeing more than a few lonely houses. We pedaled big miles because there was nowhere to linger. The landscapes were epic but the weather harsh, with piercing high-altitude sun, raking winds, and below-freezing nights.
Luckily, we know some pretty awesome people, like one Mr. Jared Cure, who decided to ride his BMW GS Adventure up from Oakland to join us for a couple of nights of wild camping. He showed up in the dark, after we'd finished a 52 mile day, busted out a bottle of Crown and a can of tuna to ward off the cold and proceeded to freeze his ass off for the rest of the night. We were just as bad, sleeping in every layer of clothes we brought with us. When it gets down to 25, whiskey can only help so much. The next day, eager to hang out and talk to someone other than ourselves we put in a short, but grinding day - 22 miles of varied ascent, the road rising through a gash in the trees like a series of stepped plateaus. Some 50 miles into California there was an agricultural check station, the woman working looked bored and waved us through without a second glance. At Howard's Gulch, a free, limited-service campground that seemed plush compared to the clearing we'd slept in the night before, we arrived right as Jared was returning from an expedition to the closest store, some 30 miles up the road. Camp tacos, salami, and grapes, might not sound like a feast, but if you ever find yourself through the Modoc National Forest, such foods present as wondrous and exotic as spices from the West Indies.
After Jared zoomed away on his 1,170 cc rocket ship, we got back to the task of putting in some serious miles. For three days we rode over mountain passes and through flat, cattle range valleys. Kelly's first years of life were spent next to cow pastures in northern Kentucky and as a little girl she'd spend hours watching and talking to her bovine neighbors. Now, rarely seeing a person not clad in automotive armor, the herds upon herds of black angus made this wide-open landscape seem a little less lonely. Often I'd hear Kelly's voice ahed of me and yell, "What?!" into the wind. "Just talking to the girls..." she'd respond more often than not.
The miles, mountains, sun, and wind took their toll on our bodies. After seven consecutive days of riding, even gentle gradients started to feel like L'Alpe D'Huez (one of the monster climbs in The Tour de France). Our worst day of the trip came when we pedaled out of our campsite amongst a herd of Hat Creek's noisiest cows, and the road that had been described as "mostly flat" by every motorist we'd asked was actually a 1,000ft climb over 12 miles. We stopped for lunch in Old Station at a place called JJ's Cafe where the new owners had sold their home in Hillsboro, Oregon to settle near Lassen Mountain. There we learned that the road, that was "pretty much all downhill to Redding" actually continued to climb another 2,000ft to Eskimo Pass. Blazing sun, toasted muscles, a tuna melt (damn you tuna melt!!) sitting heavy in my stomach and wreaking havoc on my blood pressure, all combined to wreck our afternoon. Four or five miles from Old Station and I could barely turn my cranks. We pulled over and I laid on the ground for 10 minutes while Kelly held my legs above my head - a bizarre scene for passing motorists, I'm sure. Trying again, my blood pressure slowly got better but my arms felt leaden, and then even heavier. I looked down and saw a now familiar sight, flaccid rubber of a punctured tire. Dejection and anger. We pulled over again, now already past 4pm and still 8 miles from the summit, and over twenty miles from our destination for the night. Even at without mechanical issues, the fatigue and terrain were making it uncertain whether we'd have enough light to get where we needed.
As we worked on the tire a lady towing a horse trailer pulled over and asked if we needed any help. Sometimes when you're at your lowest point the kindness of strangers is impossible to pass up. She offered to throw our bikes in the trailer and give us a ride to the summit and we accepted. The bikes nestled amongst hay and horse dung, us packed in the cab and it felt like the weight of the world had been lifted from our shoulders. Britt lives in Orland, CA but runs free range cattle up in the mountains, and they'd been rounding up 18 cattle that got lost and were wandering near the road. "I was worried that you'd run across some as you were riding,"she said as I reveled in the engine's rumble. "But you'll be past them up at Eskimo so I guess I don't have to worry about that anymore."
After a long descent and a short night in a cabin we kept riding. Mostly down for real this time, but every hill that kicked up, Kelly and I could barely turn the cranks. Our bodies were breaking down and we had to listen. So yesterday we took a rest day in Red Bluff, two-nights of luxury in a Best Western that Kelly's parents generously booked for us. It felt fantastic. Today we had the kind of day we needed, 50 miles of fast, flat, and tail-wind aided. All of a sudden we're riding through olive groves and onion fields. With any luck we'll be in Oakland three days from now, resting and recovering at my sister's house, and preparing to keep pushing South.