Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Deets: Part 7: Ellensburg, WA to Toppenish, WA (Day 9)

The next morning, Michelle and I spent almost all of our free time examining the map and trying to find a way south that didn't involve riding on the freeway. Our map wasn't very good, though, and so we eventually put our trust in Google and went to breakfast. It was a pretty tasty breakfast, mostly pastries and chocolate, and after that we fueled up at the Safeway or City Market or whatever before taking off down the road towards Oregon. The ride out of town was mild and easy, and the weather was sunny but not yet hot. The streets were effectively empty as well, and so the spin to the edge of Ellensburg and off into the wilds of Eastern Washington was a fairly easy one.

One thing our map did have was an alt-route of sorts for highway 97: it was a twisty little piece of tarmac that wound its way through a canyon along a river. Everything we had learned about touring told us that that would be the best way to go, not only because it wasn't a freeway, but because it was an twisty bit of road and straight stretches are boring. 

Once the town ran out and the canyon began, Michelle stopped to put her headphones in, and I continued down the road alone.

With the exception of the road surface, the canyon was everything I hoped it would be. It was twisty, turny, and scenic. Since the road was slightly downhill, as it  was following the pitch of the river, it was an easy but high-speed spin along the crappy, chip-n-seal surface that I hate so very very much. I don't know what the deal is with chip-n-seal, but it seems to be all over the goddamn place. I can understand that it's cheaper than the smoother pavement, but is there really any reason to use the big chips? Those things are like three cm in diameter, and are a) extremely uncomfortable, and b) a danger to ride on because they're liable to cause flats. I would have no problem at all with my hard-earned tax dollars going to re-paving some of these roads and giving them a better riding surface. Jesus.

Anyway, the canyon road was pretty good. I waited for Michelle somewhere along the line in the shade of some trees that appeared to be cottonwoods, but could have really been anything, before continuing. 

The canyon itself was quite deep for that area of the world. I hadn't been expecting much since we were well outside of the Cascades and the rest of the surrounding area looked about as mountainous and interesting as Kansas. We were in the plains, though, so the rolling canyon walls were completely barren of any sizable plant-life. The largest flora that I saw that wasn't parked right up against the river was a bush that was maybe 10 cm high; it was another rocky, rugged martian landscape to ride through, with a sprinkling of greenery near the bottom.

At the end of the canyon, there was a small hill where the road crew decided, "Let's stop following the contours and just go straight up and over this thing." And then they did. I'll admit, though, they picked a pretty cool place to go riding up the side of a hill. 
I guess the railroad got there first.
And with the hill behind me, the canyon ended and the riding returned to grinding through the flats while I returned to wishing I had more sunscreen. At that point, an hour or two into the day, the sun had taken position directly above, and since we were out of the canyon and away from the river, the heat had gone up and the shade had gone waaaaay down. I was sad.

The next town after the canyon ended was Selah, a strange, narrow strip-mall of a place that, to me, had exactly 1 redeeming feature: a gas station with water. We stopped to top up and got out as soon as we could. Then, continuing with Google's advice, we ended up on what seemed to be a bike path. At first, this was very exciting since it meant that we wouldn't be on any roads at all, and therefore wouldn't have to deal with traffic or any of that crap. It quickly dawned on me, though, that this bike path was only semi-optimized for bikes. The gaps between bridges and the path were large and square-edged, making me fear for my already flimsy tyres, and every 200 meters or so, there was a speed limit painted onto the bike path. It was 15 mph. I'm no expert, but that seems ridiculously slow. Besides, I couldn't check my speed at the time, so I just ignored it. In fact, nobody I saw on the bike path had the equipment necessary to keep track of speed, making the limit look even more stupid.

The location of the bike path in relation to the town was weird, too. It was far enough away that you could only sort of see the town in the distance a few hundred meters away, but there were enough people on the path that it appeared to be a popular thoroughfare. Also, it was becoming increasingly hot, and the path, like the road, offered almost no respite whatsoever from the sun. Then we found a playground.
Old skool.
It was big, sprawling, wooden, and dangerous, and it reminded me of the playground that I used to clamor around on in elementary school before the politically-correct people got their hands on the playground plans and built a small, steel disappointment in its place. Even though I don't go there any more, I'm still upset about it. Damn. 

But this play structure was still sprawling, wooden, and dangerous, like all play structures should be, so Michelle and I derped around on it for a while to pass the time and take a quick break from riding. I found an interesting feature, and Michelle took a picture because I thought it would be funny.
I still think it is.
Then Michelle found her first-ever tumble-weed (she claimed). In the process of posing for a photo which she asked for, she nearly hit a guy in the face with it as he rode by.
The weed in question.
We left, eventually, to continue our ride. After the playground, the bike path became a bit of a navigational wreck; Google was not up to date with what the path did, and so we were routed, more than once, through either a closed gate or into an empty field. Using our superior intellect, we navigated our own way along the weirdly laid-out bike path until we got to the end of it. There, we stumbled across three or four roundabouts with no pedestrian crossings and lots of truck traffic, before ending up in our next town: Union Gap. It was, like the last town, a narrow, strip-mall-esque series of buildings that just squatted in the sun and looked as miserable as the heat made me feel. For an all too brief moment, I though the town wouldn't be too shit when I saw that a roadside fruit stand had huckleberries. When we went to look at them, it turned out that they were only sold in 3-lb bags and were frozen, so nevermind.

Hopes dashed, we continued on to an intersection where Google just gave up on keeping us off of freeways and spit us directly back onto highway 97. Unlike some previous sections of the highway, this one actually had the full four lanes and high speed limit that I've come to love when driving, but isn't so great for riding. Not only that, but the highway was arrow-straight and tedious, making for the worst stretch of road on the day. Up to that point, at least...

Fortunately, we were able to turn off the highway fairly quickly and get onto a back road with less traffic. Initially, this seemed promising, but when we got a good look, we realized how un-promising it really was: It was straight. It was chip-n-seal. It was hot. It was exposed. It was, in short, everything I hate about riding all put into one stretch of road. There were no other options though, besides the highway, so we just put our heads down and took off. 

In my many years of riding bikes, I've developed a way of coping with super shitty roads because sometimes you just gotta man up and make it happen. Michelle, on the other hand, does not have these coping mechanisms, so no matter how miserable I was on that stretch of road, Michelle was more miserable. I can understand why, though; in the end, the road was 17 km dead-straight, dead-flat with really bad chip-n-seal in the heat after about 90 km of riding already. And if all of this wasn't bad enough, the road spent a large amount of time right up next to some fruit processing facilities. Combining that with the heat created a strong, sickly-sweet musk of fermented apples that hung, putrid, in the humid air for a majority of the 17 km.

Eventually, though, we got away from the facilities and arrived in the sketch-ball town of Toppenish. We thought the day was over and it would be smooth sailing for the rest of the evening. We were wrong.

We wandered through the town until we found a campground to set up in. I went in to pay for a site and deal with whatever paperwork was needed. During my conversation with the lady at the desk, she mentioned that a bike had been stolen from that very campground only the night before. Definitely another confidence-inspiring place to spend the night, but since there were no other options, I got our permit and Michele and I wandered through the massive and almost completely empty campground until we got to the tent-camping area. We set up camp, contemplated The Uncanny, took showers in the provided facilities, and then went to go get some food.

According to the paperwork I had received, there was a restaurant across a small creek. The bridge across the creek was closed (which should have been our first clue), so we walked around the whole damn creek to get to the restaurant, which is where we found our second clue. The parking lot, though massive, was nearly empty. Not empty like the restaurant closed at 5 and we arrived at 5:09, but empty like the restaurant closed in 2002 and we arrived in 2014. We didn't even bother walking all the way around to the front of the building; we knew it was extremely closed, and so we made our way back to the campground over the 'closed' bridge. I cut my hands up a bit trying to climb over a fence, but in the end, we just walked around it. Clearly, the security at the campground was second to none.

Our next best food guess was a casino that we had seen on our way in, so we hopped on our bikes and rode in that direction. Before we left, though, I did my best to lock everything we had to everything else we had because, not only had I been warned of thefts that had already happened, but, as we were setting up and wandering around, a white car had been circling the campground going about three mph, and every once in a while, the car would pull into a campsite. And then just sit there. Nobody would get out, and they were very pointedly not camping. I assumed that these people were trawling the campground for stuff that wasn't bolted to the earth to snag. The fear was very real.

Unfortunately, the food wasn't, and the casino that was open was almost as disappointing as the dilapidated restaurant that wasn't. Michelle waited with the bikes outside while I went in to check out what the food situation was like. First, I had to have my ID checked by a very serious-looking woman and as soon as I was in the casino proper, I knew we wouldn't be eating there. A quick once-over revealed nowhere to actually sit down and have a meal. I was pretty sure I saw a bar off in the smoke-laden distance, but ultimately decided that it wasn't worth it. I left, and on my way out saw somebody else, who was very obviously drunk, showing his ID to the serious-looking woman. He said something along the lines of, "You're very pretty." The look the lady gave him was just.... so good. From what I knew of her, which wasn't very much, I knew she didn't suffer drunken idiots very well, and this interaction re-enforced that idea. She lowered his ID and looked at him with a look that said, "If you make another comment, they'll never find the body." What she actually said out loud was just the flattest, most emotionless, "oh," that I've ever heard. I swear the guy actually recoiled when she said it. I wanted to give her a hi-five, but decided against it and left the casino.

Our next, and last, option was to wander into town and just find something to eat. Anything, really. And so it was that the first thing we saw was some food truck parked on the side of the road and I decided that, yes, that was definitely happening. We ordered some pile of truck-prepared, grease-infused Mexican stuff, and then proceeded to wait for it to be dredged from the bottom of a boiling vat of animal fat. The evening was cool, but not cold, and the sun was mostly behind the horizon, making a dome of burnt red where it had set, surrounded by a deep purple that faded to black. As we admired the sunset and debated whether or not that Chinese restaurant over there was a front for something extra-illegal, all I could think of was that everything we owned was being loaded into the back of a white Toyota Corolla and making its way to being pawned off for prices far lower than what they were worth. It didn't take long for this to get to me, and I told Michelle that I would take the drinks (that we already had) and head back to camp to make sure everything that mattered was still there.

I crammed the drinks into my pockets and took off back towards the campsite at what I would describe as 'messenger-pace.' This meant... questionably legal maneuvers. And lots of them. I've always seen traffic lights more as suggestions anyway.

When I got back to the campground, the white-car people were out of the car and had some camp chairs set up, but were no longer in a campsite. They had relocated to parking lot, and were generally acting all kinds of conspicuous. As sketch as the whole situation was, all of our bike gear was still exactly where we left it and, after a bit, Michelle arrived with the food. 

Dinner was exactly what you'd expect out of a roadside truck selling Mexican food and not speaking English, and while we ate, the white-car group actually decided to set up their friggen tent and stop being the sketchiest people in the campground. Yes, it turns out they were camping after all; they just really sucked at it. 

We finished dinner and went to bed less than 10 meters from the people who I had been certain were stealing everything I held dear. Apparently they were just really awkward at camping. Who knew?