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A pilgrimage to Stonehenge, a circumnavigation of The Gorge and the happy consequences of ignoring people who are well-informed.
This ride includes dirt roads, backroads, antique roads, state highways, interstates, bicycle paths and short stretches of grass. Most importantly, the route traces what is left of old Route 30, the Columbia River Scenic Highway. This is simply an amazing bicycle trip: a five-day, 250 mile loop of the Gorge, on both the Oregon and Washington sides.
Sam Hill is the patron saint of this journey: the man responsible for the Scenic Highway, the reproduction of Stonehenge, the town of Maryhill (named after his wife) and a fabulous mansion that became the Maryhill museum. He began his wide-ranging career as a lawyer, winning so many lawsuits against the Great Northern Railway that he was hired by the company and married the boss’ daughter in the bargain. It’s amazing what one energetic, visionary man can do if he marries into money.
Day 1: Gresham to Viento State Park.
The Historic Columbia Scenic highway must have been an incredibly hard thing to build. They did it with picks, shovels, wagons, horses, and a lot of dynamite. Large parts of the road were destroyed or abandoned in favor of a more modern throughway and it’s hard to believe that it was allowed to fall apart simply because it was considered obsolete as a automobile route. Today, it is being revamped as one of the best bicycle routes imaginable and ODOT is working to complete a dedicated bicycle route from Gresham to Hood River.
The amount of work going into Route 30 is an impressive testament to Oregon’s commitment to sustainable transportation and it nearly scuttled our trip at
the outset. Ten miles or so from our starting point we got to a hilltop called ‘The Woman’s Forum’ only to find that construction had closed Route 30 ahead. According to some experienced bikers we met at the roadblock, the only solution was to backtrack almost all the way to Gresham and use I-84. Charley, looking at his ‘Biking the Gorge‘ map, saw no alternative to a serious re-routing and was ready to abandon the trip right then and there. I was looking at my iphone GPS and found a route that brought us around the construction but the nature of the roads was not clear. We gave it a go and discovered a quick work-around that included a wonderful, deserted and nicely paved road and a short, deserted dirt road (zoom in on the map above for details). Executing this detour was one of the best moments of the trip. Score one for the GPS-phone and one for ignoring the advice of informed people.
In the waterfall area Route 30 hangs low in the gorge but in other places it ventures high into the bluffs and is accessible only to bikes and pedestrians. It is wonderful to be on a bike in the forest and this is a rare opportunity to do so. In the meantime, for a few short stretches on this ride where interstate route 84 is the only alternative.
If you go bike touring you will end up on an interstate at one point or another. It isn’t as bad as it sounds. One thing going for you is that the break-down lanes are wide and for the most part you can keep some distance between you and the big tractor-trailers and other fast-moving vehicles that rip up the air, making that tearing highway sound that carries so far. This is nobody’s first choice for a bicycle path but it does provide a necessary link between more pleasant venues. Interstates can actually be safer than smaller, winding roads with narrow shoulders where a driver might not see a biker until the last second. Interstates get you where you are going quickly, feature gradual changes in elevation and quite often, good pavement. Of course, breakdown lanes can be littered with fragments of tires, loose gravel, litter, automobile debris of all descriptions and the occasional road-kill but other than that, they are bearable and in some stretches almost pleasant.
Viento State Park offers camping and hot showers: exactly what you need to wash off the sweat and highway grime. I had a short conversation with another bike rider there, Danny, who said that he was headed East through the Gorge towards The Dalles. He had ridden all the way from Vancouver on I-84, forsaking the joys of old Route 30 for the interstate. I thought that this was a little strange but he seemed to be interested in moving quickly. Danny was the only other through-biker we saw all day and it seemed to me that long-distance cyclists might not be all that numerous. Later in the trip this impression would be confirmed. People who migrate on bikes are still relatively rare birds.
Day 2: Viento State Park to the Deschutes River Recreation Area
After a seven-mile early morning sprint on I-84 to Hood River for breakfast, we took Route 30 all the way to The Dalles and loved every mile of it. From Hood River to Mosier the route is a dedicated bike path with narrow tunnels through rock formations and sweeping vistas from high above the river. The route continues to The Dalles on a light-traffic road that tops out high on Rowena Point and then a steep return to the river level in a wonderful serpentine descent. Outside of town you can pick up the Riverfront Bike Path which covers the last five miles.
After lunch we biked 10 miles or so on I-84 to the Deschutes River recreation area. I had wanted to check the place out and it was so nice that we decided to camp there even though we were only six or seven miles from Maryhill and Stonehenge. This is a beautiful oasis in the dry country East of the Cascades, situated on the confluence of the Deschutes and the Columbia rivers. There is a lot of wildlife in this park, including a large number of geese that love all that soft, green grass in the camping area even more than some tired biker who is obliged to rake away the goose shit before setting up his tent.
Here we ran into Danny again and we all shared a campsite. It turns out that he is a veteran long-distance rider who holds two UltraMarathon Cycling Association records for crossing the state of Oregon. We had a great evening listening to his stories, exchanging notes and admiring his bike. He was out of there at sunrise the next day. Charlie and I took off shortly thereafter.
Day 3: Stonehenge, The Maryhill Museum and a Salmon dinner.
It was a short ride to Maryhill State Park and we had set up camp by mid-morning. Stonehenge is only 2 miles away and we set out to complete our pilgrimage to this
full-scale replica of the old Druid monument, accurate even to its orientation to the heavens. They built it with poured concrete and rebar and made the surface irregular in order to simulate stone but it really looks more like a collection of lumpy concrete slabs than ancient, quarried monoliths. Sam Hill has this thing constructed as a monument for local soldiers who had been given up to that industrial-scale, state-sponsored orgy of homicide that we like to call World War I. At the time, it was thought that the original Stonehenge was the site of human sacrifices to some more personable God of War (a notion that is no longer believed) and Mr. Hill, a Quaker, provided the dedication on a plaque posted on a concrete pillar.
”To the memory of the soldiers and sailors of Klickitat County who gave their lives in defense of their country … in the hope that others inspired by the example of their valor and their heroism may share in that love of liberty and burn with that fire of patriotism which death alone can quench”
There are 13 names on plaques in the monument. One of them is Henry Allyn.
The Goldendale Sentinel, Goldendale, WA., August 1, 1918, page 1 CORP. HENRY ALLYN DIES IN FRANCE
Henry Allyn is dead. His body lies in the embrace of the friendly soil of France, but “his soul goes marching on.” He is Goldendale’s first son to die on foreign land in this present war. “Liberty, equality and justice” was a phrase full of meaning to this man. He felt that wrapped up in this motto were things worth fighting for, so one day, early in November, 1917, Goldendale gave him up and he became more definitely a citizen of God’s big world. He enlisted under the Stars and Stripes to fight for freedom of the oppressed and wrong. He was a man – though not twenty-one years of age – who knew what “duty” and “obligation” meant. He never have the joy of reaching the front. He never experienced the thrill that must come from an active engagement with the thugs employed by the Potsdam gang. He died of diphtheria in a quarantine hospital.
It’s hard for me to reconcile the ‘joy of reaching the front’ and a thrilling engagement with employees of the Potsdam Gang with what really happened in the senseless carnage of WWI and the incessant warfare following The War To End All War. I wondered what would Henry Allyn and twelve others, dead from combat or disease, think of all the flowery language and tortured grammar in the obituaries. What would they think of this monument to misconceptions on a bluff overlooking the Columbia River? It is a lovely spot and a sad one, as so many war memorials are. Thirteen young men from Klickitat County, Washington: killed in a nightmare and remembered in a dream, most definitely citizens of God’s big world.
The Maryhill Museum, four miles from Stonehenge, is an imposing chateau originally built by Sam Hill as a residence but never actually lived in. There is a large collection of sculptures by Rodin and a genuine copy of the crown worn by Queen Marie of Romania, who had befriended Sam Hill when he was in Europe, selling stock in the Great Northern Railway.
The Maryhill Winery is also in the vicinity. We dropped in for a taste and attracted a bit of attention as ‘the men who had biked from Portland’. Chicks dug us and one gave me a big high-five, reminding me of how eagerly some people encourage others to do senseless, dangerous things like riding bikes on the freeway or to march off in a war to end war. Charley and I had been awarded the status of minor heroes, distantly related to the guys at Stonehenge who had received their high-fives under far more tragic circumstances. For one thing, we actually did experience joys and thrills on our adventure. For another, we hadn’t been killed yet. We picked up a couple of bottles of estate wine and pedaled back to the town.
Sam Hill intended Maryhill to be a utopian community back in the day but by the time we got there it seemed to be a little shy of achieving the ideal. In a perfect world everything is at its own, perfect temperature. In a utopian world you need a refrigerator and a stove but you have both. In Maryhill we needed only some ice to cool off our wine but there was not a single cube to be found.
Fortunately, there were quite a few land yachts in the State Park and so I asked the couple who were lounging in a nearby RV if we could cop a chill for our wine in their cooler. Jeff and his wife were all to happy to oblige.
Jeff has a large Recreational Vahallah, an 18-foot fishing boat and two vehicles to tow them. He and his wife were in the process of filleting an enormous salmon they had caught that morning. Jeff wanted to know if we’d like some after he had cooked it and we had no problem with that at all. An hour later he walked over to our camp site carrying two plates, fully loaded, with sour cream on the side. Cold wine and a dinner of fresh salmon, baked potato and cole slaw. Utopia at last!
Day 4: A long ride on Route 14 to Beacon Rock.
We decided to do the return trip on the Washington side and I was glad to have done so. Route 14 is a beautiful state highway that contours high on the north-side hills overlooking the river. We began by biking to the top of the bluffs overlooking Maryhill. It was Sunday morning, traffic was almost non-exisent and from high above the river we had unobstructed views all the way to Mt. Hood.
Route 14 is much more direct than the roads on the Oregon side and we made excellent time. We stopped for a late breakfast in Lyle, Washington, at a little diner that serves pancakes the size of frisbees. There was a sign on the wall advertising free WiFi. I asked the waitress if I could log on. She smiled and went back to the kitchen, returning with the password written on a piece of paper: ’6fc6fwv7bc45an7′. There was a PIN to type in as well: ’49382357′. The WiFi was free alright, if you can type 25 random characters into your phone with your fingers all sticky with pancake syrup. I thought it was a wise move on the management’s part. If you are offering something for free it’s a good idea to make it inaccessible.
We continued on Route 14 to Hood River and considered crossing there but the bridge is closed to bicycles. We could either put out our thumbs and hope for a kindly person with a pickup to give us a ride across or continue West on Route 14. We chose to stay on 14 and I think it was a good idea. We biked on to Beacon Rock.
Beacon Rock is the core of an old volcano and a landmark on the Western end of the Gorge. We camped in the State Park there and met two bicyclists who were on their first leg of a trip to … Stonehenge! They were ready to pull the plug on the whole enterprise because of what they considered to be a toilsome and discouraging ride on Route 14 from Vancouver that day. Since we were planning to take that route back home we were eager to find out what the problem was. There were many: road construction, annoying drivers, hills, large trucks and so on, every single complaint they mentioned is commonplace on any route and Charley and I were a bit confused about two capable bikers wanting to throw in the towel over everyday road conditions.
Day 5: Beacon Rock to Portland
The first order of business after leaving Beacon Rock is to get up the imposing hill that marks the end of the Gorge, before the descent into the flatland just East of Vancouver. The summit offers one of the best views of the Gorge and we could see across the river to places we had biked on day 1.
Soon after leaving the summit we came to the construction site the two bikers at Beacon Rock had mentioned. It was a pretty extensive piece of work with flag-persons at either end managing the one-lane route through the construction and we joined a line of vehicles waiting to ride drive through. The construction extended for several hundred yards or so and on the other end was a long line of vehicles waiting their turn. Obviously, it would take more than a few minutes before another set of vehicles going our way would show up so we paused to let the cars in our group go on ahead. Now we had the whole lane going downhill to ourselves and we were treated to a quiet, exhilarating and safe ride for three or four miles to the bottom of the hill.
Strangely, our Gorge loop ended in the same way it began: we ignored the opinions of informed people and had a lot of fun as a result. The road construction that our friends at Beacon Rock had described as one reason to abandon the ride and the closed road that had nearly ruined our trip at the outset turned out to have provided two of the best moments we had on our journey.
Sometimes it’s smart to follow the advice of informed people. On the other hand, it is possible for a person to be informed and confused at the same time and also possible that even an informed, comprehending person might know less about the matter at hand than you do. It’s hard to figure. Critical listening is important here and I have been experimenting with ways to sharpen that skill. Every now and then I stop and ask directions from strangers when I know precisely where I’m going, as sort of a practice for when I really need to. I decided that the best policy is: ’Always ask. Never believe.’
We finished the trip by crossing the I-205 bridge from Vancouver to Portland and riding the familiar streets and bike paths of Rose City.
I loved this ride and I recommend it highly to anyone who doesn’t listen to well-informed people. May you have the blessings of good weather and lots of road construction.