The Oregon Outback
It all started three years ago on Old Moody Road, when a group of us on tour veered off course and onto this steep gravel road. As a confirmed roadie, I’d never ridden off the pavement before. Soon, I was commuting to work on the unimproved blocks in my neighborhood, and signing up for Velodirt rides like the Dalles Mt 60, the Rapture, and even the Stampede. I am starting to get better at gravel handling, but still consider myself an asphalt lover.
So, naturally, when I heard about Donnie and Gabe’s slideshow presentation of their Oregon adventure ride last summer, I attended. I watched with interest but told Donnie afterwards “no way will you see me on that ride”. Then, in November, when the link to register was posted, I found myself pointing, clicking and committing. From that moment, the tension grew from a small buzz in the back of my head to a fever pitch all around me of social media mentions, news coverage, bikes being built, you name it. Everyone knew about the ride and the words Oregon Outback were on everyone’s lips. The ride was legendary before it even began.
Just in case you haven’t heard about it, the Oregon Outback is a 360-mile, mostly off-road odyssey that dissects the state from Klamath Falls to the Columbia River. Completely self-supported with such features as an eighty mile no water stretch (not even creek water), a twenty mile loose gravel section and extremely limited services on route – this ride was no joke.
The Outback would more than double my lifetime dirt and gravel miles. I’d have to learn to sterilize water and carry at least three days’ worth of food. I’ll admit it: I was a little terrified. Especially as those riders who missed the registration deadline and rode the course a week early reported in with warnings of treachery and danger. Bewildered by self-doubt, I spent boatloads of money on gear and many hours packing, unpacking, weighing and repacking.
At long last, it was time to go. With butterflies in my stomach, I got on my bike and rode to the train station. Forty of us boarded the train in Portland that afternoon. Amtrak put us all in one car for our pilgrimage to Klamath Falls. Boxed wine, labelled Oregon Outback Emergency Water, was circulated. Chammy butter samples were dispensed. Gear talk was thick in the air. I felt like part of something, part of something big that all of the cool kids were into.
Eight hours later, we helped unload our boxed bikes from the cargo car and set to work reassembling and repacking our loads, there in the dark by the tracks. For the first time in many hours, it was quiet. News rolled in that the brew pub had stayed open late in anticipation of our arrival.
I wore my lucky pink jersey with matching lipstick for the early morning start in front of the Maverick Hotel the next day. I had a pretty funky looking set up with my 26″ wheeled, aluminum GT mountain bike, rack, panniers, homemade polka dot frame pack and mega basket hydration system. I anticipated hating that bike by the end of the trip, but instead ending up loving it even more.
Almost two hundred of us rolled out of the Maverick Hotel parking lot that Friday morning at 7am on the dot, Donnie-style. Fewer than two hundred finished. I missed the start and photos by five minutes – all for the worst Americano I’d ever tasted. I could see the group up ahead and raced to catch up.
There was no fanfare except for the spectacle of us. All during the trip, I’d hear townspeople and farmers, a child and a road cycle tourist, talk about seeing Outback riders go through. One lady said, in a whispered awe “I saw twenty five of you ride right through town, just yesterday”. There was a small amount of media present – an NBC sports cameraman with a car early on day one. And, then there was Ira Ryan’s videographer, who I met at the pub in Klamath Falls Thursday night. He’d be meeting and shooting Ira every 50 miles.
I had dreamed and prepared for this ride for months and now it was actually happening. It felt surreal to finally ride on the now famed OCE trail, completely unknown to Portland bike fiends just a year ago. The trail was dicey and slow at times. Sidelined riders sprinkled the route, adjusting their loads or fixing flats. I stopped and let some air out of my tires, hoping for a softer ride.
That first day may have been the best day. I felt like I could see the entire state of Oregon spread out in front of me with no task ahead except to pedal and survive. The route was still crowded so I had the opportunity to ride with lots of different people. There were many, including Nick and Lawson and Sandy and Johnny.
I’ll never forget the few miles I spent with Mike, who was on a borrowed Bullitt cargo bike with a goal of finishing in three days. We swapped stories and skipped the fork to Sprague River. Up the path another mile we encountered a big fence with barbed wire on the top, no trespassing signs everywhere and an “electrified fence” warning. We decided to go back and take the fork after all. Mike made his goal, and rode back to Portland afterwards.
The Sprague River cafe owner had put up a poster on the path advertising his iced tea and burritos. While he filled my bottle with tea and I filled my platypus with water, my teammate walked up to me. “I’m calling it”, he said. I didn’t understand what he meant and asked him to repeat it. His Outback was over. His knee had blown up.
It’s difficult to do justice to the beauty of the land we were passing over. It changed rapidly every day, every mile. I marveled at the views of valleys along riverbeds, canyons, castle-looking formations and breathtaking rockfaces carved into the hillsides. So many scenic sights later, we arrived at camp early – 3pm. There was easy creek access, a soft pine bed, and pretty purple flowers everywhere. It started to feel like vacation then. After dinner we rode a mile down to visit the next camp. Outbackers were everywhere.
Day Two taught me some valuable lessons, one of which was not to trust tire tracks. I spent ten hard miles lost on the OCE, riding uphill on some tough surfaces. At first, there were tire tracks, then after the second or third gate, the terrain changed to grassy sagebrush. When the gravel started again, I didn’t see any tracks. Maybe they’re just not visible in this type of gravel, I reasoned. Then I looked back and saw my own tracks, very clearly the only ones.
I was in tears, sure my entire trip was ruined. Then I heard my Dad’s voice in my head. The worst thing that can happen will be missing the Cowboy Dinner Tree and camping alone. Point the bike north, suck it up, and pedal. Just pedal.
As the day wore on, I watched the crisscross of chem trails, generally pointing north. I was completely alone and felt pretty sure the rest of my trip would be solo. Through woods and canyons and sagebrush-dotted desert, I rode. The terrain changed so quickly it didn’t seem real. Finally on the last stretch, I encountered a man in an ATV (all terrain vehicle). He stopped, turned off his loud engine, and asked me if I had enough water. His tires were as tall as me and twice as wide. Seeing me admire them, he commented “hillbilly tires!”.
Soon after, I rolled into the driveway of the Cowboy Dinner Tree with fifteen minutes to spare before my dinner reservation, another surreal moment. There were a half dozen Outbackers inside, and, amazingly, there was my teammate Michael who hadn’t made it to the start due to a work emergency. I was overjoyed to learn he planned to rejoin my tiny little team.
The Cowboy Dinner Tree was a highlight and not to be missed, according to Donnie. You can choose from either an entire roast chicken or a thirty ounce steak. You must reserve in advance and you must pay cash. I had planned my trip around this oddity. It was an old farm building of some sort, clean and crowded, with bandanas in the windows instead of screens.
I flashed back to my first loaded tour, a San Francisco bike messenger tradition known as the Russian River Ride. It was eighty miles, longer than I’d ever ridden at that point. I was scared and stressed out about that ride. The Cowboy Dinner Tree, there in the middle of nowhere, reminded me of a secret surprise traditional stop on the Russian River Ride. Amidst cornfields for miles, we came across a small shack. This shack was a bar and the tradition was to throw back a shot of whiskey and sprint to Petaluma. It was thrilling to realize that all these years later, I can still find rides that scare me.
The steak didn’t come until after the huge salad, cowboy beans, baked potato and tin of freshly made dinner rolls. And did I mention the bottomless mason jar of strawberry lemonade? My slab of steak was prepared perfectly – bloody on the inside and crisp on the outside. It was as big as a loaf of bread. I put away two thirds of it, to save room for the marionberry cobbler dessert. After this, the best steak of my life, we rode the modest five miles through a spectacularly gorgeous plain to Silver Lake, a small barely-inhabited ghost town. I skipped the laundromat showers with the reasoning I’d only get dirty again tomorrow.
On Day Three I rolled out with Michael and the self-described “old guys” Jon and Ted, who were on Surly ECR fat bikes with four inch wide tires. Ted was a racer for many years, mostly at Alpenrose Velodrome, Portland International Raceway and Mount Tabor. He gave up riding in circles and sold two of his track bikes to buy this fat bike and bikepacking set up. Amtrak had tagged their bike boxes with big yellow cards reading HEAVY, which they saved and tied to their saddle rails. I had also brought a charm, a small Hello Kitty, who jumped ship early on day one. Goodbye kitty. I also had an Oregon Outback burnished leather patch, which I managed to keep tied to my pannier for the entire trip.
We found water spigots at the four corners known as Fort Rock, named for the dramatic rock formation a few miles north. I ran into the “Whiskey and Wheelies” team, or the Danielson gang, as I called them. This would be our last water for eighty miles. This would also be the day we’d encounter the “twenty mile loose gravel zone” (insert menacing voice of doom here). Instead of loose gravel, the surface was more of a soft, red, slippery sand. I named it Martian Sandscape School. School, because I finished that part with a much better knowledge of bike handling then when I entered it. I learned to glide through it, pretend I was swimming, and stopped freaking out at every fishtail.
To my surprise, this was the easiest day of the trip. My mantra had been “is this the hard part?” because there had been so many warnings about treacherous terrain and so far it just felt like a bike ride. A new mantra, on the lips of many Outback riders, was “twenty eight hours“. That’s the amount of time the first finisher, Ira Ryan, took. I took six. Days, that is. It was so boggling to the rest of us out there, we’d chant his time during the hard sections. Another catch phrase I heard was “how many days?”. Everyone wanted to know everyone else’s ride schedule to anticipate who they’d be riding and camping with.
On Day Four, I woke up to the taste of blood on my lips. Turns out the biggest challenge of my trip was a little bit of a princess problem. In my effort to be a minimalist, I had packed just one lipstick, a pale pink to match my lucky jersey. Without chapstick or a more opaque lipstick, my lips were beyond chapped, to the point of bleeding. I felt lucky and thankful that this was my only problem.
After oatmeal and coffee and a luxurious morning, Michael and I turned left out of camp and slogged through twelve more miles of Mars. If we had gone straight, like everyone else who stayed on course did, we would’ve been on regular friendly gravel almost immediately. Instead, our bad turn added about twenty miles to the day.
Finally back on route, we plodded along the barren but beautiful Crooked River Highway. I had developed a nice rest stop routine, which went like this: kickstand down, butt pillow out, map packet open, cop a squat and relax. Studying the map was a fun new hobby. A farmer in a pick up truck stopped to offer water. He wasn’t the first and he wouldn’t be the last. People out here were downright hospitable!
The descent into the Crooked River valley, and the view of the Prineville Reservoir, were absolutely dazzling. I cried and yelled and sang in sheer happiness. I had just finished the last of my water so I stopped to fill up, feeling competent now at water sterilization. My plan to camp along the Crooked River crumbled and I set my sights on Prineville, home of beer and lipstick.
I nearly cried for the third time of the trip when I learned that the brew pub in Prineville was closed. Then we found Dillon’s Grill, sat on the patio with our bikes and our beers and not a care in the world. Except that Michael’s hand hurt. He decided to stay at the hotel, along with Jon and Ted and some others, but I headed south to the RV Park, dead set on getting my money’s worth from my new tent. I enjoyed my first shower in days and shared the small tent site with a road tourist from Sisters. She had seen many of our group during her last few days of riding.
The next morning I found Michael in front of the hotel, ready to pack it in. He hadn’t been able to use his hand since yesterday and was afraid of permanent nerve damage. Jon and Ted had just left, so I took off, hoping to catch them. Alone again, the ride out of Prineville was bittersweet. Sweet because I felt so fantastic myself, but bitter because my teammates were missing out.
Fueled by real coffee and an omelet, wearing my new pink cowboy shirt and darker lipstick, riding in my new team of one, I still felt relatively fresh. Nothing was sore. Spirits were high. I didn’t know it then, but this would be the hardest day of the trip. I caught up with Jon and Ted at the entry to the Trout Creek area. I was glad to see them, not only for the company but because I knew the “easy to miss” turn was coming soon and I didn’t want to get lost again. Thirty lost miles was plenty.
We climbed and climbed, then climbed some more. Jon saw a chalk note telling Mat and Kim to meet someone at Trout Lake. The higher we got, the lower the temperature dipped. I finally gave in and dug out my puffy jacket. The dirt downhill was soft and supremely fun. Jon and Ted flew ahead while I navigated a bit more slowly, or, well, a lot more slowly.
Soon I was picking my way around a never-ending ridge along the Trout Creek river valley. I heard the rush of water and came to a dead stop at this first creek crossing. I recalled the warnings of a thigh-deep river crossing. This one was only ankle deep, but each time I heard the rush of the river, my heart jumped into my throat. But, just like the entire ride had been, the fear was bigger than the reality.
We entered Ashwood, which consists of a grange hall and a couple of farm houses. A farmer waved us down. “Do you guys need water? The folks yesterday sure did. Come on over and fill up. You’ve got a five mile uphill up next.” I had hoped he was exaggerating, but he was right on. I couldn’t believe how good I felt on that climb. I think there’s something in the air over there.
That night, Jon and Ted and I camped in Antelope. Morning doves hoo-hooed but otherwise it was hauntingly quiet there. Each evening, I’d rate the day from one to ten (one is easy, ten is hard). My rating system included terrain, hilliness and overall toughness. Nothing was ever harder than a seven, except for the terrain on Day Six, which I rated as a nine. The average of all numbers from all days was 5.55, which makes it sound pretty easy. Another nightly habit was to wipe down my dusty bike, lube my chain and check all the bolts. I never did have any mechanical problems, not even a flat.
Jon and Ted shared the last of their brandy with me, celebrating their last night. We left early the next day, our last day, and climbed the tarmac up to Shaniko, where a box awaited me at the post office. There at the park, we found a big gang of riders just about to leave. I asked them to wait while I opened my box and champagne to share.
I jumped on the fast train of riders on highway 97 and experienced the highest speeds of the week. You could see forever on these high rolling plains. A dark pillar of rain touched the horizon to the west, and it was headed our way. The weather had been stellar all week. Cloudy and sunny and only sprinkling occasionally, but always when I was in my tent. The rain didn’t catch us until were safely inside the cafe at Grass Valley. I enjoyed a Cowboy Dinner Tree-sized cobb salad and homemade strawberry rhubarb pie. By the time we went outside again, it was sunny and dry.
Turning west onto gravel roads, I knew we’d be on the last section of the Oregon Stampede route soon. Just the thought of that deathmarch day, my hardest day ever on a bike, slowed me down. I spied the gang waiting for me at the top of the next hill and heard myself say to them “I’m slow and chickeny on the chunky stuff, so don’t wait for me.” I had gotten into the habit of making chicken sounds when descending slowly, partly to amuse myself and partly to warn other riders.
Solo again, and on the last page of the map with just twenty miles to go, I felt sentimental and sad that this adventure of a lifetime was almost over. So, I slowed down and savored it. The wind kicked up, reminding me of my fear of gorge gusts. It felt like a big hand on my chest, pushing me back and taking my breath away.
Finally at Fulton Canyon, I raced ahead, already reviewing the ride in my head. The Columbia River came into sight, my eyes filled, and just like that, my Oregon Outback was over. Each day was its own tough, fun, stunningly beautiful exploratory adventure through our magnificent state. Much like a kid’s favorite carnival ride, I plan to get back in line and ride it again and again.
I am very grateful to all of those who helped and supported me, including:
Linda, for the bike.
Brigid and Laura, for the go get’ems.
Mom, for the polka dot vinyl.
Dad, for the homemade jerky.
Butch, for the seatpost.
Kim, for the tire inspiration.
Smithermania, for the inspiration.
Seth, for the advice to reinforce my mega basket with a strip of innertube.
Nick, for the trunk bag and spirit.
Donnie, for the ride and those last minute maps.
Gabe, for the hats.
Matt, for believing in me.
Brad, for the souvenir patch.
Trevor, for the chamois butt’r.
Nick S, for the laughs.
Kelley, for the finish line beers.
Lawson and Michael of Team Relegate, for leaving me high and dry.
Farmers and Landowners and Motos and ATVers, for the offers of water.
Portland Society, for asking me to recap my trip before I’d even started.
BicycleKitty blog readers, for staying with me every mile of the ride.