“That’s your job in this hard world, to keep your love alive and see that you get on, no matter what.” ― Stephen King, The Shining
Pacific North Westerners did not invent clever names for athletic events, but it was wordsmith worship that attracted me to my first Summit To Surf diabetes charity bike ride. With its catchy name I fully expected to drive to the top of a mountain, plant a front fork at the driveway of Mt. Hood’s historic Timberline Lodge, then clip in for a bone shaking ride, a near vertical run, some sort of a tuck and go like hell, all the way to the Oregon Coast.
Instead, a couple thousand of my friends and neighbors assembled outside of a one room schoolhouse in Welches, Oregon for 15 miles of slow going, up and over Barlow Pass, before coasting 30 gentle clicks to the water’s edge – Hood River and the “surf” of the Columbia River.
Don’t get me wrong, Barlow Pass is a lovely spot on the planet, but it’s a far cry from the rarefied air of Timberline – the prize waiting for me at the tip top of a crooked and steep fortress of stone, something Dr. Seuss might have drawn on a frisky day. Or so I was told. I’d never been to the lodge. If I’m going to rise at the crack of dawn, work those pedals in a way that resembles a gerbil of crack, play my gears like a concert pianist performing Rachmaninoff, than at the very least, pay my efforts with a million dollar view and architecture listed on important registers. Not to mention that while Barlow Pass pedaling may sound like a formidable accomplishment, when I found myself drafting behind a school group of sixth graders hardly out of breath, drastic measures were called for. Someone throw me a testosterone life preserver, stat, then point out the turn for Timberline.
Two bike lanes diverged in the Oregon woods and I took the one less pedaled. I took the one that held the promise of hypothermia, blowing rain and icicles forming on one’s chin at the tail end of July. My rescue came in the form of a small addendum to the official Summit to Surf brochure; something I’d missed until it was nearly too late, a last-minute Timberline Lodge option for those hearty souls who find pain and suffering their stock in trade. With a gleeful wave, I bid farewell to the elementary school set, peeling off their raggedy back wheels was the sort of liberation on par with graduating from the kiddy table at holiday dinners.
Once away from the crowds of casual riders – folks in their funny hats, theme music, bells, event T’s and dusted off garage rafter bikes, I searched for a rhythm I could live with as the earth began to tilt up. I knew to pace myself on what would be my lonely flight of folly to the top of the world.
Only in Oregon though, can a man commit such a brazen act of independence on two wheels and find himself followed into the breach by a rowdy armada of blue blooded cyclists, fellow inmates from the Lycra monkey house looking for a challenge that might very well put some of them on the evening news or in the hospital.
“Heard they’re offering medals to those who make it to the lodge,” This from a man twice my age who had apparently given up all signs of body fat the way others kick hardcore vices such as heroin or hookers. And he was about to kick my ass off the mountain if I didn’t pick up my pace.
I nodded to conserve energy in case he made a run for it mid-sentence.
“Only for those who make it back down again,” added a serious young man in front, probably a triathlete using this as a training ride. He shook his head as if the concept of medals was laughable.
“Medals? Baah… There’s hot chocolate and homemade pie at the Timberline turn around rest stop,” the old man’s sidekick said, his son perhaps judging from body type and crooked grin.
Now I do like my pie, but the way I was sweating, hot chocolate just seemed silly. But a medal now, that didn’t sound out of proportion. I fell in behind them and had a look around.
I counted eight of us in all. A pair of pretty boys – the sort ready at a moment’s notice to step in as Bicycling Magazine cover models. These posers would be the first to drop when the going got tough. Never dress like a Tour de France team member unless you’re actually in that race, and never ever ride more bike than you can use to successfully pass others. It’s a dead giveaway.
The big guy midway back in the pace line, now he was the one to keep an eye on. Resembling a whiskey barrel which had managed to defy gravity and mount a bike, his tan lines told the real story. This barrel of Booker Noe rode four or five times a week. Anyone strong enough to pull that much heft uphill, while carrying on a conversation, was a bear.
Don’t poke the bear.
The woman using him as a wind block? Poster child for the Pacific Northwest outdoor lifestyle. A peek in her closest would reveal more Gore-Tex shells than cocktail dresses, her bathroom stocked more Carmex than lip gloss and her garage was jammed with wind surfers and snowshoes, leaving just enough room to park the Subaru.
I could love this woman, if only I could find enough oxygen to introduce myself.
Rounding out our band of Timberline hopefuls was a husband/wife team on a tandem. Tandem riders fall into two camps; those who wave and smile at anything that moves, as if in training for the Rose Bowl Parade, as if a soundtrack accompanies their every pedal stoke, one featuring classic hits for 1976, Skyrockets in Flight, Redbone’s Come And Get Your Love, and Frank Valli’s Oh, What A Night, and then there are those who work for Boeing as structural engineers.
The engineers were bringing up our rear. scowling, determined, all systems go.
Every few miles of elevation gained the group access to a new ecosystem. Arboreal forest glistening in the sunshine gave way to sub-alpine with its puffy clouds and crisp breezes, before handing us off to growing shadows across alpine meadows.
Somewhere between admiring natural girl’s calves and thinking about fine hickory smoked whiskey, the temperature dropped forty degrees and the rain began to fall… sideways.
As under prepared as I felt for this assault of elements, my rear pannier held a trove of clothing options compared to most of my compadres. Only the triathlete and the engineers kept going when the pace line stopped for a wardrobe change. The flimsy windbreakers and thin fleece being donned were laughable, but it was all my fellow cyclists had. I lent a layer to the old guy’s sidekick, who mouthed “thank you”, but what I chose to hear instead was “hot chocolate”. It didn’t sound so silly now.
When we caught the stoic couple on their two-seater, they’d managed an in-motion head-to-toe clothing transformation. Mussolini would have been proud.
For another three miles we concentrated on making little circles with our pedals, battling back that coppery taste of blood in the back of throats as conditions deteriorated at cartoon velocity.
“It ever snow in July?” I asked, realizing, even as the words left my mouth, that images of Mt. Hood always, always proudly display snow on them.
Whiskey barrel seemed not to notice the icy rain or biting wind, but one of the two pretty boys was grunting and barking, making a spectacle of himself, the other suffered in silence. That’s when the lodge came into view.
I had to wipe my glasses twice before it registered. This being my first time setting eyes on the famed landmark, it jolted me upright in my saddle. Even through blinding rain and wind gusts strong enough to blow a bike right over the edge if one wasn’t mindful, the front facade of Timberline released a fight or flight burst of adrenaline, mixed with so much emotional vertigo that I had to grip my handlebars and bite down hard not to lose my place in the pace line. Crashing everyone to the ground is considered poor form on any ride.
Something hot and damp danced down my spine.
“Wait a minute, this looks…”
Sidekick nodded. He knew where my head was at that moment.
“Here’s Johnny!” He howled, waiting me out. “You really didn’t know they filmed the exterior shots for “The Shining” here?”
I shook my head. Rain flying off as the stark realization leaked in.
Struggling the final yards into the parking lot brought it all back. Forced to view the film way too young, every reel of that movie had left an impression. One sweltering Florida afternoon of terror. Mom claims she didn’t even look at the title, she just saw the movie poster with all that snow, knew the theater was air conditioned and took in whichever family member happened to be in tow. Me.
Later, when questioned by my older sister as to what she was thinking taking me to a Stephen King horror film, Mom pointed out that she was a Florida housewife with four children during humidity and cockroach season. An unkempt axe-wielding Jack Nicholson seemed laughable in comparison.
Now here it was in the flesh… or stone and masonry. Scaring the crap out of me all over again.
As soon as we came to a stop something else sent fear through the group.
“Where’s the hot chocolate?” someone whined.
Several tables with party skirting stood abandoned beside a locked, darkened lodge.
“Where’s the rest of the rest stop?”
Triathlete pointed at a white blob hanging in the low branches of a Spruce tree. Upended and covered in mud, the party tent invited anything but celebration.
When Dan Stathos introduced the bicycle bill back in 1971, I wonder if he ever envisioned that funding projects would lead to cyclists behaving in such a manner so early on a Saturday morning. Probably, after all, Oregon rarely tells its people what they can’t do in the name of physical fitness.
A murder of crows flew a tight formation over the tables, landing only long enough to pick at the mushy remains of breakfast muffins.
I do believe that’s when the pretty boys lost all hope.
Whiskey Barrel yelled something, but gale force winds swallowed it whole.
“At least it’s stopped raining.” I heard when he tried again.
And there it was, the core Oregonian spirit embodied in a rolling barrel of Booker Noe and Columbia Sportswear windbreaker. The eternal optimist facing down ridiculous meteorological conditions. It reminded me of British explorers stumbling about, frostbitten from days on the polar ice, asking only for a spot of tea before it’s back into the breach with them. I would do well to emulate the big man, seeing as we had recently chosen Oregon as our final stand.
That’s when it started to snow.
Not storybook flakes, sleigh bells and caroler conditions, but a swirling, dervish of chaos. A cold, white whirlpool of loathing. I took one last look at the haunted house of my childhood – a regal structure made so wrong by the magic of Hollywood – and headed for the low country as fast as my legs would send me. Echoes of “Redrum, Redrum,” nipping at my heels, ice and snow stinging my face.
I assumed everyone followed, but did I take an actual inventory? There was still a bit of east coast in me that needed to be purged. In time, I learned the customs of our region, a land where people made eye contact, conversed in coffeeshops with complete strangers, and held doors open for no other reason than… it’s the right thing to do.
Not until I was safely back into the warmth and light, rolling across the finish and into the feed line, did I notice we were a couple of people short. Tandem couple offered a nod, nature girl held her face to the sun, whiskey barrel already had his plate, the father and son team were showing off their medals, but the pretty boys and triathlete; absent. I scanned the bike corral for their expensive rigs, nada.
A woman with a clipboard, radio and red ribboned medals came to our table.
“You guys slipped up the mountain before we could close the road. Congratulations.” She handed us our medals.
“We had to send an ambulance for two other riders. Hypothermia.”
“Who called it in?” I asked.
When we followed her finger, it led right to our Triathlete, sucking down a power drink, still in the saddle. As if on cue, he pedaled away, in the direction of the mountain. More than likely riding the course in reverse, back to his car.
You know he didn’t take a medal. The only true Oregonian among us that day.
Of course, being a vain little creature in spandex, I kept mine. I did put in a good word so that the pretty boys in the hospital would get theirs as well.
It’s another summer. Two roads diverge in the Oregon woods and like a good hunting dog, one that can’t keep put on the porch, I gear down and head up the hill for another crack at it. Another chance to leave none of my neighbors behind. The chance at another shining moment on Mt. Hood.
Joe Kurmaskie is a journalist, syndicated columnist, and contributor to numerous magazines including Outside, Bicycling Magazine, Men's Journal and Parenting. He's a bike advocate, activist, found of Cadence Press, and a Random House author of seven books including Metal Cowboy, Mud, Sweat and Gears and A Guide To Falling Down In Public.