Right now, the sun is setting over burned brown grass and sagebrush. Once in a while, through the left side window of the train, a patch of water goes by below the hills. On the right side is the wide Columbia river, blueish silver and still. I can see a long way in all directions.
At a crossing a man's pulled off the road. The driver’s door of his van is open. He stands in front, making a video of the train passing. As the engine goes by, he pivots his body with it. An LED light on the back of his phone is on. Then the train enters a small town. Horses sit in a paddock beneath a cottonwood. Then the town is gone and the desert is back.
The hills come together then fall into the distance. The Columbia disappears somewhere beyond them. The train pulls into another town. People step off. Distant houses sit below a grove of trees, the only shade for a long ways.
As the sun falls behind distant hills in a dark red haze we pass a group of pickups lined up and parked in a field. The doors are open, and their headlights are on, while the men sit inside, watching the last light of day leave the sky.
I wake up. We’ve stopped in the middle of the night. An orange light is flickering far off in the blackness. I put my elbow on the seat rest and prop my head on my hand, watching through the window. The light blinks on and off, as with wind, then goes out. A fire, I realize. Far out in the blackness, on the other side of the train, the moon has risen. I can’t see the land that lays between train and the fire. It could be flat, or a deep canyon. All is dark. I lay my head back on my rolled up jacket, shuffle my feet between my stuffed panniers, and fall asleep again.
I wake up in Spokane. The moon has set. Out of the train I climb, down to platform, down more stairs, to baggage claim. Here I am in a new place, and it’s dark and I don’t know quite where I am. I slide my bike box outside, re-attach the pedals, turn the handlebars back, tighten the stem, check the brakes, repack and hook my panniers on, load up the seatpost rack with tent and ground pad, fill up my water bottles and clip a light to my back, turn on my headlamp, and air up my tires. Then I roll into the silent cool streets of downtown Spokane. My watch reads 1:30am.
I pass by the university, then further to where the streets narrow. A hill appears. I switch my headlamp to high beam and fly down. I’m looking for a place to camp. I notice a trickle of water along the road. I follow it through a forest, where it flows away from the road and into a river. Next to the stream is a flat piece of ground surrounded by pines. I stop and lay my bike down. I dettach my panniers and lay out sleeping bag and pad. I can hear water flowing all the while. I am alone now, no one around for a long ways. It’s quiet, the stream covers up any sound. The sky’s dark still, a while til morning. Amidst the plants, under the trees, I lay down, and look up at the sky. The stream runs by, and my mind flows along with it, and soon dreams overtake and I fall asleep.
The sun rises. A crisp morning. A tom turkey walks down the hill past where I’m laying. He pauses, looking at me in silence. I don’t move. The tom’s eye is bright, not a hint of sleep. A short flight takes it over the stream, to the other side. It disappears into the trees.
It’s so dry here nothing has dew on it. I pack everything up, and skip breakfast. I have about 100 miles to ride today, based on a rough route. I don’t know what the road is like, whether there will be wind, or if I can actually do it. I’m planning on meeting an old friend in Sandpoint, Idaho. He’s flying a small plane there from Montana on his way to Oregon.
On my way out of town, I make a wrong turn and follow a creek for thirty minutes, losing elevation. I make it up via a brutally steep hill that I almost have to walk. I stop at a park for late breakfast. There’s a water fountain so I fill up my two bottles. Sitting on the park bench under a willow, I feel good about the day ahead.
Hours after I leave the park I descend a long hill into a forest near the town of Elk. I figured this part would be flat. Instead, it’s a series of rolling hills that make it the hardest part of the ride so far. I’m starting to feel it. Even small gains in elevation are troubling. I stop at the town of Elk, a few houses grouped next to a stream in the bottom of a narrow valley. The trees around are toothpick thin, can’t be more than fifteen years old. Next to the river sits a building, labeled Elk Sentinel, the local paper. A woman drives up and goes in. I follow her and look around. The walls are covered with old logging implements. The woman mentions that Elk had a booming timber industry, and could have been like Spokane. But the timber industry failed, because they ran out of trees to cut. Now less than a hundred people call it home. “It’s a very quiet life,” she said, “But, I like it that way.”
As I ride away, I feel happy Elk didn’t become another Spokane. Even now, decades later, the devastation of the forest can be seen and felt. I wonder what it was like before all the trees were cut, how tall they were, and what animals lived here.
The road begins to rise. I did not see this section on the map. The hill becomes a small mountain. I climb for over an hour. The forest on both sides is beautiful, but I can’t notice. My legs, ankles, feet, hands, and neck are in various states of pain.
The road steepens, then turns to loose gravel. My mind shuts off. The rest of the climb is a blur. Somehow my legs keep going. At the top, the road flattens. The still, heavy air of the climb is pushed away by a gentle wind.The breeze pushes me forward, clearing away my sweat. The leaves of plants and trees move with the wind. Then I too am in the wind, flying down the other side.
The descent lasts only minutes. But all my energy has disappeared. I can only take turns and apply brakes, take my feet off the pedals and let my legs float in the wind. At the bottom, another huge hill rises. I only feel numb looking at it. I have over fifty miles left. I get off my bike, near a cut over section of pines, and rest.
No cars go by, no people are around. On the side of the road I sit, staring blankly into the thick trees, breathing, drinking water and eating a few crackers. I know that if I sit too long, my legs will stiffen. I have to keep moving. But my mind is vacant, a blank space behind my eyes. My body hurts. I hear something. Cows lowing further down the road. I pull out my phone and look at a downloaded map. I stare at it for a while. Slowly, I become aware that the road up the hill could be circumvented. To my right runs a spur road through a valley. I decide to take it.