Blazing Saddles: Pedaling Oregon’s longest scenic bikeway from John Day

By CHRISTINA COOKE
1859 Oregon’s Magazine
July/August 2014

Photos by Talia Galvin

old west road

A veil of rain moved toward us, then over, as we cranked our loaded touring bicycles along a two-lane road in Eastern Oregon. My cycling partner, Donnie Kolb, and I still had 10 miles to go before we reached our campsite along the John Day River, and we knew if we wanted to arrive before dark, we needed to keep pedaling, even if it meant getting completely drenched.

Then a bolt of lightning lit a wildfire on a nearby ridge.

We hit the brakes and eased our bikes to the side of the road, not eager to become the next target.

Just over halfway through the 174-mile Old West Scenic Bikeway, one of 11 scenic bikeway routes Oregon Parks & Rec has established throughout the state, we considered our options. We could ditch our bikes and hunker down in a low spot to wait out the storm, though the wide-open landscape would offer us little protection and we’d likely end up finishing after dark. Or we could pedal on until we changed our minds or reached camp, whichever happened first.

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“Let’s make a break for it,” I said, trying to ignore the wildfire on the ridge, which had ignited a pine tree and was in the process of engulfing it in a giant blaze of orange.

We pushed our bikes back onto the road, and bracing ourselves, gunned it through the storm. Several times, when lightning struck too close for comfort, we sprinted for the protection of roadside barns, where we awaited a break in the weather among hay bales and old pickups. Several other times, we navigated through roadway floods, doing our best to dodge errant rocks, sticks and chunks of mud. The conditions felt so absurdly apocalyptic we couldn’t help but laugh.

We reached our campground along the John Day River—finally—as the sun was sinking and the storm starting to dissipate. As we pitched our tent under a juniper tree and changed into dry clothes, the wildfire burned high on the black ridge above us. Thankfully, by the time we awoke in the morning, it had disappeared.

***

Our bike touring adventure had begun under sunshine and blue skies the day before in John Day, Oregon, a 1,700-person cowboy town populated by restaurants like the Squeeze-In, Snaffle Bit and Outpost.

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We parked at Kam Wah Chung, a state heritage site based around a former general store and medical clinic for the Chinese immigrant community in the area. After spreading on sunscreen and affixing our panniers to our bike racks, we set off on a counter-clockwise loop through Grant County that would take us up (and back down) a total of 10,200 feet in just over three days.

Accustomed to the damp mossy greenness of Portland, I was excited to explore the dry eastern expanses of the state, where tumbleweed bumbled across wide-open fields, collecting in barbed-wire fences, and rains came all of a sudden or not at all. I wondered how I would acclimate to the extreme, often unforgiving landscape, and what I might learn on the journey.

Donnie had bike toured many times before, but I’d gotten my first taste of multi-day riding earlier in the summer. Still, I found the Old West trip easy to pull off. For one, Travel Oregon’s RideOregonRide website makes planning easy. The site offers an interactive map that displays the amenities along the way, including lodging options like campgrounds, hostels and bed-and-breakfasts; food-and-drink establishments such as restaurants and convenience stores; attractions like a paleontology center and 1860s gold mining town; and a bike shop for repairs. It also provides a downloadable a map and cue sheet we could carry with us, in case we missed the roadside signs marking the turns.

In addition to the practical help, the state’s endorsement of the route offered us the assurance that the roads had manageable traffic levels and relatively wide shoulders, the services fell at reasonable intervals and the course was interesting and beautiful enough to justify a trip.

During our three-day journey, I was surprised at the diversity of the terrain. We experienced not only the parched high desert I’d expected, but also mountains, meadows, river valleys, pine forests, fossil beds and a handful of towns, most smaller than five square blocks.

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The weather, too, delivered variety. We encountered rain and lightning, yes, but also temperatures so hot we poured water over our heads to cool down, winds so strong we dropped into our handlebars to decrease our resistance—and conditions so pleasant we lingered extra long during breaks to soak it all in.

We rode 30 miles the first day, to the well-manicured lawn of Bates State Park. Day Two’s 84 miles took us through a wide, grassy valley, up and over Ritter Butte, the ride’s most grueling climb. Later in the day, we rode alongside the Middle Fork of John Day River to scrappy, dirt-floored Big Bend campground.

Pedaling through the open air, we could hear sounds normally blocked by windshields and window glass: locusts clicked and snapped as they leapt across the pavement, hawks kee-eeee-awwwed as they circled overhead and redwing blackbirds took off in a flurry of beating wings.

Throughout the ride, Donnie and I dismounted in every town we passed to take a break from the saddle, chat with locals and stock up the food we’d need for the next stretch of road.

On the second day, for example, we stopped at The Stampede Restaurant in Long Creek (pop. < 200) for sandwiches and homemade boysenberry ice cream, and 20 miles later at Boyer’s Cash Store in Monument (pop. < 150) for the mac ’n squeeze cheese and two jugs of potable water we’d need to make dinner.

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Despite the fact that I was outfitted in spandex and sports glasses, about as sore-thumb as you can get in cowboy country, people treated me well. Many drivers waved at us as they passed, and a number of businesses, like the charming Oxbow Restaurant & Saloon in Prairie City, displayed “Two Wheels Spoken Here” signs out front to indicate their bike friendliness.

On 51-mile Day Three, we hit the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument around 11 a.m. The massive, bone-dry formations towered over us in cake-like layers of red, orange, cream, blue, and green. Paleontological resources dating back 40 million years, the John Day beds contain remnants of long extinct plants and animals (including tiny, fanged creatures called mouse-deers!).

That night, we slept on a futon in the Bike Inn hostel in Mt. Vernon. Located in a small, side-yard structure of part-time cycling tour leader Christy Rheu, the by-donation hostel offers a futon, a bed and floor space sleeping bags—as well as a full kitchen stocked with eggs laid by resident chickens.

Lounging on Rheu’s deck at the end of the day, Donnie and I chatted with four other cyclists and downed two large pizzas from the gas station down the road. Eight miles the next morning, and we were back at the car.

The Old West Scenic Bikeway holds a raw and mighty beauty that left us awestruck. With soaring temperatures, scarce water and fierce storms, this piece of Oregon demanded more from us than passive admiration. We had to offer it our respect as well—and be willing to embrace its wildness as we pedaled toward the fire.

Genesis of a Biking Mecca
By Christina Cooke

john day bike

When it comes to cycling, Oregon has long been a pioneer. It was the first state to pass a bicycle bill requiring all roadway updates to include facilities for bicycles, and it has hosted the wildly popular weeklong Cycle Oregon ride for more than two decades.

More recently, the state has blazed yet another path: it has become the first in the country with a Scenic Bikeways program.

“Not only do we have a lot of low-volume country roads, but we have the scenery, the friendly people and the small towns,”says Alexandra Phillips, a bicycle recreation specialist with Oregon Parks & Rec.“Everything comes together here.”

old west

With the help of Travel Oregon, Cycle Oregon and the state department of transportation, Oregon Parks & Recreation established the program’s first route in 2005, a 132-mile course that meandered north from Eugene through Willamette Valley wine and hops country.

Building on the pilot’s success, the partners have established 10 routes since, ranging in distance from 25 to 174 miles and traversing all types of terrain. From the mostly flat 38-mile route between covered bridges south of Eugene to the hill-heavy 110-mile Blue Mountain Century, the routes cater to riders of all levels. Several additional courses are currently in the planning stages.

Routes undergo an extensive vetting process before earning an official Bikeway designation. Once the partners receive route nominations from locals, they send a team to pedal each one and rate it according to its natural beauty, human-made features and basic road conditions. So far, the partners have selected only about half the nominations they’ve received—only the best of the best—Phillips says.

In addition to an interactive website, paper maps and cue sheets, the Scenic Bikeway program offers roadside directional signs and the probability of support from locals along the route.

Cycling has proven an economic boon to many of the host communities. According to the Oregon Bicycle Travel Survey conducted by Dean Runyan Associates for Travel Oregon in 2012, recreational cycling accounts for $400 million of the $9 billion tourism industry in Oregon each year.During rides, cyclists drop cash on food, campsites, hotels and accessories and tend to stay in places longer than by-car travelers.

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John Day resident and retired high school counselor Mike Cosgrove, who proposed the Old West Scenic Bikeway route, says while Grant County residents were not naturally receptive to the spandex-clad tourists on the edges of their roads,many have begun to recognize the economic benefit of catering to cyclists.

In a county with one of the highest unemployment rates in the state, every bit helps, Cosgrove says. Cycling money has been the last little bit that’s kept some businesses open, he says, and several establishments—including three bed-and-breakfasts, a microbrewery and a coffee shop—have opened in the last year to cater specifically to the biking crowd.

Cosgrove sees the influx of out-of-towners as beneficial to the John Day culture. “Cycling has added a new dimension to our community,” he says.

While Travel Oregon aims to limit the number of routes in the Scenic Bikeway program so as not to dilute the quality, Kristin Dahl, director of destination development for Travel Oregon, sees room for tremendous growth in Oregon’s recreational cycling industry.

“If we were to continue to make investments in our world-class assets,” she says, “I think Oregon stands to gain a lot.”

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