Day Three: Surviving the Colockum

And that’s exactly what I did! I woke up and felt AMAZING! There was no hurry that morning; I wasn’t back in race mode yet and the sun was out. I WALKED to the nearest grocery store for breakfast and a resupply. The first attempt at bursting my bubble was seeing two bikes propped up in front of the store which obviously belonged to XWA riders. I still didn’t put my hurry hat on. Only feet in the door, I came across Aaron B and Patrick M, who both greeted me. They were moving quickly for some reason and conversation was brief, although Aaron took the time to point out a deli sandwich that looked delicious (it was).

I wandered through a few aisles buying things to eat and some comfort items such as deodorant and a toothbrush and toothpaste. That’s right, a dinky bicycle lock which I only used once the whole trip made the weight cut but I had intentionally left out a toothbrush and toothpaste. And deodorant; the public be damned! I also learned a major benefit to refueling at gas stations; the portion sizes were appropriate. At the grocery store, the foods I wanted to take with me were only sold in the “OMG that weighs a ton and could feed a whole peleton” size.

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When I walked out the door, I noted the bikes (and their riders) were gone already; they must have eaten breakfast while riding! This shook me out of my stupor and I power walked my groceries back to the motel for a hurried multi-tasking breakfast. That’s when I looked at my chain and let out a groan. I packed a tiny bottle of chain lube and this morning would be the first of two times I used it… good thing because that was all that fit in the bottle! As you can see in the photo it wasn’t a happy chain, but it cleaned and lubed easily, having only sat overnight.

I texted Aharon and found he had made it to Redmond where he planned to get his derailleur issues sorted and put on a smaller chainring; the front loaded climbing had taken a toll on his knees and he was operating in damage control mode. A glance at the trackleaders page showed I had lots of work to do! There were now 7 riders ahead of me; Thomas was in Ellensburg already and Nat was halfway there, measured from the top of Snoqualmie Pass. Yikes.

Although I appreciated their use, the deodorant toothbrush and toothpaste were left behind. I reused some Ziploc bags Aharon got for me back in Port Angeles and found a place for all the food though.

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Day three I resolved my photo taking drought. I may have overdone it actually; just know you are only seeing a fraction of what I sifted through once the event was over! I was back on my bike, my body seemed to have completely rebounded from the previous two days, I was full of good food, the sun was out, and I had all the rabbits to chase one could ever hope for! The miles melted away in spite of being just uphill enough to remind me I was pushing a lot more weight than I typically did.

The Snoqualmie Valley Trail climbs up out of North Bend to Rattlesnake Lake, which I didn’t visit this time around. When my mother first moved to Washington State she, and later I as well, lived just a couple miles down the road from the lake, so it was familiar and well loved. I was just feeling too competitive for bonus miles. Here the Snoqualmie Valley Trail ends and the Palouse to Cascades Trail begins (although, how many people have ever ridden it in that direction?). This trail is less developed and is a more of a doubletrack than the “groomed” Snoqualmie Valley Trail was. Funny how many grades of gravel there are. I was about to find a few more flavors.

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Somewhere along the way I decided to boost my mood further with some music. The motel brought with it not only 8 hours of sleep, but also 8 hours to charge all my devices! Okay, I only had 3 USB plugs, so that isn’t entirely true, but I was close! In my elated mood and newly found competitive spirit, I tried to pull the headphones out of the top tube bag and put them on while moving. This isn’t impossible, but it nearly took me out. As it was, I had to stop and walk back for dropped items, losing only a small bit of ego to the jogger I had just passed. He had headphones, I’m sure he understood the struggle.

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With good cell phone service I was checking trackleaders more often than appropriate. Unlike the headphones, I was becoming quite good at doing this while in motion, in spite of my full fingered gloves. The gloves were advertised as touchscreen compatible, but I had less than a 50% success rate. [Just to be clear, I love the gloves and I’d buy them again anyway.])https://www.giro.com/p/strade-dure-sg-long-finger-road-cycling-gloves#pid=7076294) Being off road with such a heavy bike, I wasn’t willing to risk riding with no hands, so the process looked something like this:

1) right gloved hand to mouth
2) bite the Velcro strap and peel it back
3) bite the thumb and pull it off
4) bite whatever prominent finger and pull the rest of the glove off
5) right hand recovers glove from mouth and passes it to left hand which is still on handlebar duty (extra kudos to multi-talented left hand)
6) right hand retrieves phone from jersey pocket and operates device

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(occasional results achieved through this process, see above)

7) return phone to pocket
8) retrieve glove from left hand
9) put glove in mouth just so
10) wriggle hand into glove, changing bite position as necessary
11) bite Velcro back into place
12) return right hand to its regularly scheduled programming

I wanted to trademark the 12 step process but someone beat me to it…

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Anyway, trackleaders showed I was making great time and the race appeared to be focused ahead of me without much worry from behind. There was a dot at the Snoqualmie Tunnel, Brent L, who I was actually a bit worried about. His dot hadn’t moved since I’d been awake and I wondered if he was in trouble after the cold wet night.

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I reached the tunnel and found a nonplussed utility worker sitting in his truck, but no sign of the mysterious idle dot. I would later find out he bailed at this point on the route. He found out about XWA only days before the Grand Depart, so he had little preparation time, and he used it as training for Tour Divide, which wasn’t so far off.

If you’ve not had a chance to ride or walk through the tunnel, it’s a trip! If you followed the link above, you’d know it was 2.3 miles long with a slight kink at one end, so it looks like you are riding into the depths of the earth for awhile. It’s also real cold, losing about 12F to the outside air on this particular morning, and the roof leaks, so you can often get a bonus chilly drip of water down your neck - good morning!

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Just past the tunnel is a major trailhead at Hyak. There is a fresh water spigot outside, picnic tables, and individual restrooms with showers; aka bikepacking paradise. I had a shower at the motel, so that wasn’t needed. I later learned the restrooms were heated and some of my compadres had spent the previous night huddled inside hiding from the rain and cold while I lived it up in North Bend. I may have been hours behind, but I think I made the right choice for me.

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Before I wheeled away from the trailhead with refilled water bottles I checked trackleaders and found Valerie was likely to be the next dot I came across. She was putting in an incredible ride and I spent a good number of available brain cells thinking of encouraging things to say once I caught her.

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This all went out the window though - as timing would have it, when I finally rode past her, she had taken a moment to answer the call of nature at the trailside. Bikepacking removes most modesty filters we have put in place to navigate society for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that you spend a LOT of time without seeing another human being. Sorry Valerie, I did look the other way as I passed. I don’t remember what I said, but I’m confident it was none of the things I had planned. She went on to continue crushing the course, coming in 6th place overall and setting the female course record at a time that will give pause to next years ladies!

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I didn’t take note of much between passing Valerie and Ellensburg. There was lots of cool scenery to be soaked in. Cell coverage was less reliable on this side of the pass, but I knew I was slowly closing in on Aaron and Patrick. I really didn’t want to stop and resupply until Ellensburg. I really had no idea what lay between Ellensburg and Wenatchee, save that water didn’t seem plentiful, and it was clearly a very stiff climb. From my own observation and confirmation from Lo text messages, I knew both Josh and Thomas had moved incredibly slowly through that stretch, so it must be more than just some climbing.

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At last! A moment of glory. I could SEE another rider up ahead! I don’t remember the mileposts, or even what ballpark, but there was a section of the trail which was very difficult to ride and had eaten into my spirit a bit. Clearly a large number of horses had been through and the gravel, which was typically divided by two nice tracks of ridable dirt, had been reorganized into a deep bumpy mess that was costly to ride through. Now I had a visible target.

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It turned out to be Aaron. It took me what felt like forever to overtake him in spite of my renewed drive. We both removed our headphones and chatted for a bit. I immediately liked the guy. Riding at such similar speeds, we stuck together for awhile before I eventually pushed a little harder. After all, he let me know Patrick wasn’t too much further ahead.

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Funny story, since that’s why you’re here, I passed Patrick without even knowing it. I was fumbling with my phone to get the above photo without stopping and rode right past his bike propped against a sign board on the trail! I’m not sure where he was at the moment, probably using the restroom.

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This led to some confusion when he passed me again later, but I’d be getting ahead of myself. I discovered where the pass had happened days after the event when I saw someone’s photo of the same building with his bike against the sign; must have been Aaron’s photo.

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Anyway, good times. The lack of knowledge kept me pedaling hard-ish to Ellensburg.

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Although the Snoqualmie Tunnel is by far the largest and most interesting, there were more tunnels along the trail.

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I endeavored to photograph them all; if I succeeded, that makes 4 tunnels.

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All this pushing to a particular town had me just about out of water and craving foods of varying types.

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Ellensburg finally came, welcoming me with construction blocking the trail. It only took a minute to confirm on the map that the detour would be very small, but I snapped a photo anyway to show why I had gone off-route.

The diverted path led me to continue down whatever road until I found a Shell gas station. This was a good stop. I drank a lot of fluid and refilled my supplies. This was the one time I used my bike lock because it was a very busy gas station with a lot of teenagers coming and going. I was once a teenager. No strikes you’re out kid. One of my cleats had begun squeaking which I knew meant it was coming loose. Not wanting to lose a screw by waiting too long, I took this opportunity to retighten it. I also ate gas station chicken nuggets. Oops. My fond memories of the boneless wings from the pizza shop on the first day clouded my knowledge of gas station food.

The day had turned much warmer and I didn’t expect to find much water during the next stretch to Wenatchee, so I loaded up with extra. Water strategy is one of the more troublesome parts of bikepacking. You can’t ride without water for long at all, hot cold or in-between weather; it’s necessary. For a one-day event, you can take risks and run yourself into the ground if it isn’t particularly hot outside. For a multi-day event, that would be bad news bears; practically unrecoverable. The challenge is that water is about the heaviest thing you can carry on a bike. The metric system makes this easy, and since bike people speak of weight in grams, I can escape an American conversion here. I carried two water bottles (710ml each), a small water filter with attached flask (600ml), and purchased two water bottles at the gas station (590ml and 1000ml). One liter of water (1000ml) weighs approximately 1kg (1000grams). So my new water capacity, when full, weighed 3,610g. Ermagerd. If you’re a non-bike people, that’s basically 8lbs of water; 4.8lbs of which I had not carried yet on this trip. On the surface this doesn’t sound like a big deal, but seat of the pants it was actually horribly demoralizing. The only way I could find to mount the two extra bottles was to my handlebar bag, which meant all that weight could be felt in the steering.

The GCN show on YouTube did an experiment with almost this exact weight difference. The TL;DR is that they agree with me, but it’s a fun watch, especially if you haven’t experienced a sudden weight difference like this on a bike yourself:

GCN YouTube video
(don’t forget to right-click and open in a new tab or window!)

Within minutes of leaving the gas station, my stomach rebelled and let me know the chicken nuggets were a not a good choice. Between the stomach pain and the extra water weight, my going was slow and attitude poor over the next stretch, which was too bad because it was gorgeous farmland.

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The climbing began gradually and the road surface switched between pavement and well groomed, frequented, gravel. This eventually gave way to a more rugged doubletrack road and, with the transition, a less forgiving gradient. In a moment of frustration I stopped and poured out both of the extra water bottles I had purchased. I had considered it for miles and it had just seemed so wasteful, and not a small bit of risky. But, the relief was welcome.

Here was where I made another mistake, nearly more disastrous than those of the previous day. I felt a tightness in my left leg, the calf muscle and ankle in particular. It didn’t hurt, but as you spend hundreds of hours a year on a bicycle, you know when something isn’t right. With lots of climbing time to think, I figured I must have set my cleat to a new angle when I tightened it back at the gas station and my body didn’t like it.

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Aharon had admonished at the start of the event that when a problem arose he would stop immediately and resolve it. I thought this had been great advice, I just chose to ignore it and press on. I still thought I was chasing Patrick and I really wanted to be done with this difficult stretch before nightfall. Bad idea.

Very suddenly there was a shooting pain in my left shin! I’d never felt anything like it before. Sure, I’ve hurt myself before and maybe had a worse pain, but this was a type of pain I’d never felt before and it wasn’t to be ignored. For lack of any experience or knowledge of what I felt I think it may have been a shin splint? Whatever it was, I couldn’t push through it try as I might. I came to a stop over and over, unable to push on my left pedal at all. I unweighted the foot entirely and the pain would gradually fade, only to return in full with any pressure. Feeling a bit ridiculous and helpless I just stood there holding my bike up for a few minutes. I was mad at myself for not stopping to check on what I’d felt, but not enough to do something I’d regret, like quit or go back to town.

After a short time the pain reduced to a point I could walk, provided I didn’t put much weight on the left foot. I started walking up the road, pushing the bike and using it for support. I had a laugh out loud moment during this difficult time when I came to a cattle grate. These are not uncommon during gravel rides and don’t usually pose much of an obstacle; you just ride over them with enough speed that your front wheel doesn’t turn and don’t think about it. The spaces between the slats can actually be quite large, more than enough to swallow a poorly positioned bicycle wheel, even with tires as large as mine. The laughter came because this was the most difficult cattle grate I had ever crossed. My bike was heavy and barely moving so I had to work to keep the front tire pointed straight ahead and footing was insecure in my cycling shoes.

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I eventually paused for a longer stop. I ate my remaining Doritos from the gas station, drank some water, watched some cows in a pasture, and sat down in the road to fix my cleat position. It was visibly angled, how had I not notice that? Or maybe it slipped again since the gas station, but I found that unlikely.

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I hadn’t been walking for much longer after my sit down when Patrick caught me. As I mentioned before, this was a confusing moment because I thought I’D been chasing HIM! He said something encouraging as he passed, not knowing why I was walking, and mentioned Aaron wasn’t far behind. Well great. I grew to like Patrick over the next couple of hours, but in that moment I felt reasonably demoralized, walking my bike.

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Somewhere in this stretch the road really began to show it’s true colors. Even walking wasn’t so easy. The road dipped down into a gully for a few feet and I reasoned it would be faster to get on my bike and coast rather than walk. Without thinking, I put in a pedal stroke at the bottom as the road tipped back up; no pain! This lasted for a couple of glorious pedal strokes before it hurt again. I tested a few positions and finally figured out I could put some pressure on the left pedal if I kept my ankle at a certain angle. Beyond that angle the searing pain came back. I could ride my bike again! So I did. Right past Patrick who had stopped for a food break. I muttered something so completely out of character I actually apologized to him later; I think it was akin to “F#@& this road!”

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It was rough. Real rough. Loose rocks in many places, one (sorry, two photos up now) spot I couldn’t ride at all and had to walk. Other spots had the opposite problem, fixed sharp rocks that bounced you all over and gave worry for tire damage.

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It was like this ALL. THE. WAY. So hard. Difficulty of a climb can be measured in several ways, but this is the hardest climb I have personally done. I spent so much time standing because that was the only way to make forward progress without getting bucked off the bike!

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The elevation of the hill was somewhere around 5,000ft from bottom to top, but there was not one top.

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We repeatedly crested only to descent again an unforgivable distance and start scrambling uphill again!

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I say “we” because Patrick and I rode much of this within speaking distance of each other and often stopped to watch each other cross difficult sections to make sure the other made it safely. It was that rough.

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Icing on the cake would be the view. The sun was setting with beautiful colors and we intermittently had broad views of the valley we would eventually descend into.

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There was even a large herd of elk. Very large; I’ve never seen so many in one place. No photo of the elk since they were in the trees at some distance and stampeded when we got close.

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Typically the reward for climbing a 5,000ft mountain is the descent on the other side. Not the case in the Colockum Wildlife Area.

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It must have been faster, but the descent was no easier. Adorned with a “no vehicles beyond this point sign,” the road had suffered much neglect. I think Troy refered to it as a “decomissioned Jeep trail.” Now I know what that looks like, because Jeeps will drive just about anything!

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It even offered multiple water crossings; gratuitous shots of Patrick to follow.

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I think I walked this particular one. I’m not often one to just “send it” anyway, but I felt very remote and unreachable here so much of my focus was on avoiding injury.

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So much climbing for a descent!

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Eventually we were forced to turn our lights on, night had caught us fair and square, and we were not done with the hill. Even when the road opened up a bit there were so many large and hidden rocks you couldn’t allow yourself to pick up speed for fear of being pitched off the bike. If there weren’t large rocks the grade was steep and loose.

Patrick and I paused for a break in the dark. Although the road had expanded to a usable and obviously traveled gravel road, it was still the most technical descending I have done outside of proper MTB drops and my hands were too tired to grip the brakes anymore. I put my jacket on and stuffed the empty water bottles into my now empty pocket. They had still been attached to the handlebar bag and were not just obnoxiously bouncing around but interfering with the necessary headlight. I didn’t have the heart to litter, but it was a poor choice to bring them from Ellensburg.

Then, what’s that noise?! Brakes! Another headlight swung into view and Aaron came to a stop to join us. Man were we all happy to see each other! I don’t envy anyone who had to do that road alone. Aaron had heard us from a distance and had been trying to catch us for a long time. If we’d known we would have waited; there was no racing the Colockum that day. Patrick and I were both on rigid bikes while Aaron had a suspension fork, so we let him lead and find all the large bumps on the way down. It was slow going for awhile, but not long after we became a trio - glorious pavement!! It felt like it pointed straight down - wow that was steep! We were essentially descending Mission Ridge in the dark.

They left me for dead; I had no confidence left and all I could think about was misjudging a corner and pitching over a guardrail into the unknown. Once the road flattened out, I was just in a valley in the dark, and I was tired. Wasn’t Wenatchee on the other side of all we had just been through? Of course, but not immediately. These tired highway miles seemed to really drag on. In the dark there was little to mark the passing miles and I didn’t know how far until we made it to town. I also wasn’t willing to stop and check the route to find out; I didn’t want to get off my bike until I had reached “somewhere,” and I was passing through “nowhere.” Looking back now, it is simply called Colockum Road, but it sure seemed like a major highway. There were actually few cars and the shoulder was generous, but after spending most of the last day on segregated trails and in the wilderness, their noise and speed were unwelcome.

I focused on the taillights of Aaron and Patrick, who had finished the descent ahead of me, and slowly reeled them in. At some point I realized I hadn’t set ANY goals beyond going without sleep until Ellensburg. The last day could be summarized as waking up cheery, chasing dots, and surviving the Colockum. Before adding the water weight in Ellensburg, I felt amazing. It felt like so much time had passed since that Shell gas station it was hard to formulate next steps. Although I hadn’t crashed passing through the Colockum and my shin splint issue had faded into the background, I still very much felt beat up and adrift.

It was in this state of mind that I caught the two riders. We didn’t talk much, or at least I didn’t. I can’t remember who but one of them asked where I planned to stay that night and I sheepishly answered I had no idea - I paused and volunteered that I was considering riding through the night. I don’t remember if there was a direct response, but it was clear that wasn’t part of their plan.

Aaron and Patrick continued their conversation and I continued my pace, very slowly pulling away into the night. Their non-response to my overnight thoughts served only to bolster my interest in following through. I started to form a plan. In the meantime, I just hoped whatever building lights I saw belonged to Wenatchee proper. They never seemed to, but no doubt I was still on route and moving forward so the city had to come eventually.

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Wenatchee held some good memories for me. It played host to the first criterium race when I tried road racing in 2017 and I remembered there was an Applebees across the street from the hotel I’d stayed at with Michael C. Suddenly, I was craving Applebees food. I lit up with ideas and quickly pulled my phone out. Yes, there was still an Applebees in Wenatchee, and yes it was open until midnight! I could probably make it too! I knew exactly what I would order.

With a goal in mind, the distance to town melted quickly and the city streets were reasonably enjoyable since there was hardly any traffic. Somewhere along the way I passed a hotel Thomas had stopped at for the night after surviving the Colockum. He had texted offering to let me crash there with him if I wanted; I don’t remember if I replied, but I was leaving the door open to continue riding, so didn’t take him up on the offer.

I made a quick stop at a bike shop, Cycle Central, for a photo. The owners are super cool people who really helped me out when my bike broke on a weekend tour in Chelan. They pulled parts off a bike on their showroom floor to fix mine, only to later discover there was frame damage and the bike couldn’t be ridden. In the meantime, the owner loaned me my first adventure bike (a Felt) out of his home garage so I could finish the tour! Wow, who does stuff like that?! Someday I will buy a bike from them to say thanks. For now, a quick photo I subsequently forgot to post to social media would suffice.

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Applebees! Tired and getting cold, I propped my bike near a window and walked in. A few minutes went by without wait staff and I eventually walked to the bar and asked if the kitchen was still open as it was 11:30 - yep! Take a seat anywhere. I plopped down at the same window as my bike so I could watch it and ate like a king: a large milkshake and an oriental chicken salad. I was warm and had wifi so I checked trackleaders, everyone had stopped for the night. I was 4th into town after Thomas, Ricky L, and Nat. With Aaron and Patrick rolling into town not long after, there were 6 of us in the same town who had passed what I assumed would be the greatest obstacle of the route. At least 3 of them were consistently riding faster than me. I exchanged a few text messages I think with Lo and Michael back home, left a tip I hoped would offset my crashing their closing hour, and left Applebees for the cold night air.

Thankful again for so little traffic, I had some trouble navigating the (very nice) bike path across the Columbia River in the dark. I eventually got onto it and followed the route along the opposite side of the river I had entered town on. Suddenly, bodies on the trail! Okay, they were at least six inches off the trail, but I likely woke up Ricky, Aaron, and Patrick when I rode by because they were all laying out in the open. Nat earned the stealth badge for the night as a I definitely didn’t see him when I passed his dot a bit further along.

I stopped at a Shell station just before the turnoff for the final significant climb of the route, Rock Island Grade. There were no other customers, so the girl running the station let me wheel my bike inside while I used the restroom. She seemed quite curious about the event and I later regretted not giving her the trackleaders link. I had my favorite mocha Frappuccino for some caffeine, stashed some calories to go, and wheeled out into the night again.

Click the link for the next segment:

Day Four: Gaining Ritzville

 
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XWA: Getting There

This story really begins back in June 2017. Four friends met to celebrate a successful double Everesting; something that had stretched each of us. Ben H greeted us by throwing the RAAM (Race Across AMerica) rulebook on the table in front... Continue →