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Bicycle heaven is just beyond the snowy gates on the road over Mckenzie Pass. The grueling ascent might take a few years off your life but the scenery is to die for, there are no vehicles to kill you and you don’t even have to be dead to get there.
The attending deity for this ride is ODOT, the God in charge of keeping motor vehicles confined to the lower regions and restricting Mckenzie Pass to bike-minded people for a few weeks every spring. This divine bureaucratic intervention, which any reverent bicyclist would hail as a motor miracle, is not to be forsaken even by people who don’t believe in anything. I put this ride on the schedule as soon a I
became enlightened informed myself.
My route started in Eugene and wound East through the Mckenzie River valley, ascending to the high country and lava-land and then down to Sisters. I wanted to spend as much time on the pass road as possible so I reversed the route and went over it a second time, going West. If you can get to heaven at all you should go as often as possible.
The Mckenzie River is an important element of this ride. Route 126 follows this clean, fast-flowing and scenic river and there are numerous camping opportunities along the banks and lots of places offering a chance to sit for a few moments and watch what used to be high country snowpack racing down the riverbed, riding the water cycle back to Eugene.
Day 1: Eugene to Belknap Hot Springs.
I biked 60 miles or so up Route 126 to Belknap Springs which is near the junction with Route 226, where you hang to the right for the high pass. This road is pretty busy but for much of run there are wide shoulders that give ample separation from the logging trucks and Winnebagos, encounters with which might get you to paradise a lot faster but probably a lot worse for wear. The 1500 feel of elevation gain is gradual but one long uphill stretch after another can wear you down as the day goes on.
I camped at Belknap Hot Springs: a small resort that has a man-made pool fed by a combination of river water and a small spring that issues forth at 220 degrees. There’s nothing to do there but soak, which seems to be the way everyone likes it. If you camp there I would suggest bringing your own food as the dining facilities consist only of a small snack bar. My campsite (T8) was nicely secluded and right next to the river, which was noisy enough to drown out the sounds of traffic flowing on the nearby highway. The $25 tent fee is not much more than the fees state parks are getting these days and you get to use the pool. If you forgot your swimsuit, as I did, they have loaners. It’s is sort of like wearing communal underwear but in a pool you are swimming with everybody’s laundry anyway.
Day 2: Belknap Hot Springs to Sisters.
If you haven’t been thinking about gravity recently this part of the ride will get your attention. The route to the summit is a remorseless uphill slog and I spent the whole morning making the 22 miles and 3600 feet of elevation gain.
The road levels off around mile 20 at 5,000 feet and I was quite proud of myself as I passed the elevation marker, only to see two cyclists coming from the other direction. They had started from Sisters and were doing the route out and back, in one day. That would be well in excess of 60 miles and over 6,000 feet of elevation gain. These guys had racing bikes, fashionable biking attire and thighs the size of small tree trunks.
By now I had earned the privilege of biking in that exotic and rarified environment people like to call ‘God’s country’, a term generally applied to places that aren’t taxable. Along the road is a marker recalling one tax delinquent who became a believer: the Pioneer Postman, who froze to death in 1877, not too far from the summit.
The road is a black ribbon with a bright yellow center-stripe, winding its way through the jumble of old lava flows and set against a backdrop of snow-covered volcanos: a sinuous, silky, man-made asphalt flow amid God’s own rivers of lava. The scene is eerie, surreal and beautiful.
The summit, at 5335 feet, features a structure called the Dee Wright Observatory: a curiously elegant bit of masonry that built during the Great Depression by the CCC. It is open to all: Democrats and Republicans, regardless of their feelings about big government and deficit spending.
Getting to the top of Mckenzie Pass is an investment in gravity that pays off handsomely when you do what rivers and lava and people on bikes like to do: go downhill . The 15-mile, 1500-foot descent into Sisters on a deserted, winding road is way too much fun and way too short.
I spent the night in Sisters Town Park. While it might be considered scenic for a parking lot and it does has hot showers, it’s like camping on a traffic island. There are roads on two sides and lots of RVs. I sat at the picnic table in this glorified rest area, feeling a bit odd. If you are camping in God’s Country you don’t need something to do: just being there and taking it all in is quite acceptable. In a roadside campsite this is better described as loitering. Not only is it an uninteresting setting, a guy just hanging around in a place like that can look downright suspicious, especially if he’s are on a solo trip. It became clear that on the next trip I would need to bring things along to both entertain myself and to more visibly legitimize my presence, maybe a sketchbook. As a photograph, this image could pass for a crime scene. As a sketch, it is uninteresting but innocent. Move along … nothing to see here.
PS: This place is only a couple of blocks from bustling, downtown Sisters with restaurants and bars and tourists. There’s something to see there.
Day 3: Sisters to Belknap Springs.
Sisters is at 3100 feet and so the return to the summit of the pass going West is much easier than the ascent from the opposite direction. I was at the summit long before noon and I spent some time at the observatory talking to bikers and anticipating the rest of the ride, one hundred goddamn miles downhill, all the way to Eugene. Technically speaking, any direction you go from heaven is supposed to lead downhill and it doesn’t matter exactly were you are in heaven when you start. If you aren’t always at the top of the heap in heaven then what’s a heaven for?
The descent from the summit to Belknap Springs was a joyful redemption of potential energy. Headed downhill, the winding, deserted road is a gravity-assisted playground for bikes and I took my time to play giant slalom with the center line and stopped frequently to take photos or just look around. I was in no hurry to loose all the precious elevation I had gained and on this warm, sunny day I was in no danger of going postal and freezing to death. Down below tree-line the descent features numerous quick drops, switchbacks and sharp curves which serve to remind the more pious among us that falling from grace a lot more fun than attaining it. Had there been traffic the blind corners, narrow shoulders and steep hillside might have been a torment but no traffic, no passion.
Day 4: Belknap to Eugene
Another day, downhill all the way. It like so many days in my life but this one was fun. The long, gentle slopes help you keep up a quick pace with little effort and the miles go by very quickly. You really don’t know a route unless you’ve done it both ways. What was difficult one way is cake in the other direction, uphill becomes downhill and so retracing the route balances the equation. What goes up must come down, unless you are carrying postage that has no return address. My zero-sum circuit ended in Eugene, which I found to be at the same elevation as it was when I left. If going home doesn’t get you back to where you started, then what’s a home for? It was mid-afternoon on a sunny, blue-sky day and I was near the bicycle paths along the river so I decided to take a ride on my bike. It was a really nice ride.
The sustainable thing about this ride is that it’s a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’ that you can do every Spring. No matter what you believe about salvation and reward in the afterlife, doing this ride will make the wait to meet your maker seem a little less tedious.