Day 5-11 – Clearlake, CA, USA to Seattle, WA – 2,752 km
A few miles past the park entrance Jess signaled and then pulled off at the turnout. I followed and pulled off alongside her.
‘It’s getting too cold,’ she shouted over the sound of the idling motorcycles and through the muffling of the earphones and the crash helmets. ‘There’s frost on the road and look at the snow on the cars coming back this way.’
‘Ok, you turn back. It’s only a few more miles. I’m going to go on as far as I can and if it gets too bad, I’ll turn back. Otherwise, I’ll meet you at the lodge that we passed just before the entrance to the park,’ I said.
She considered this and, although she did not like for me to go on, she relented. I watched her make a U-turn across the highway and return the way we came. Then I pulled onto the highway and continue the ascent towards Rim Village, which is the first access to Crater Lake from the south entrance to the national park.
As I rode further into the elevation I noticed that the temperature reading on my onboard computer display had begun to flash. At first I thought something was wrong with the computer but then I remembered the tutorial I had received from the dealership two months before.
‘It’s programmed to flash when the temperature drops to three Celsius degrees above freezing to warn the rider of possible hazardous road conditions,’ Bob from BMW of Ventura County had explained.
‘Let’s hope we’re never riding in cold enough weather to test that,’ I had replied, figuring that the trip would take us into the cold but to freezing.
Now it was flashing as he had said it would and the flashing made me more nervous about the rode conditions up ahead.
Since we had left Clearlake – a couple hours north of San Francisco – a few days before, I noticed that the conditions were changing noticeably from the still warm weather of Southern and Central California. After Clearlake we had gone north and east away from the coast and back into the Sierra Nevada mountains where we stopped for the night at a motel along Highway 89 just outside Lassen Volcanic National Park. The next day, as we followed 89 through the national park, we saw patches of snow alongside the highway and the temperature reached down to the mid forties. This was cold enough for me to break out my winter riding gloves for the first time but otherwise I wore only a thin base layer and a sweater under my riding jacket. Despite the cold, Lassen was our favorite national park so far on the trip because the cold air made the rock and lakes feel somehow crystalline and it felt very serene because there were few visitors on the road.
After Lassen, we connected with the I-5 at Mt Shasta town and we continued to Weed where we intended to take the 97 north into Oregon and to Crater Lake. While stopped at a filling station in Weed, we spoke with another BMW rider who was coming from Eugene in the general direction we were headed.
‘It’s really windy between here and Yreka. I was riding like this the whole way,’ he said, demonstrating a steep lean with his hand. ‘I was really getting knocked around from the gusts.’
Jess stared at the angle of the rider’s hand and she listen to his description with rapt attention. After she had learned from him what she could, she began searching her iPhone for information about the wind conditions ahead on the 97.
‘There is a wind advisory until tomorrow night,’ she said. ‘Maybe we should stay here.’
‘I’d rather stay in Klamath Falls, otherwise it’s too short of a riding day,’ I said. ‘Let’s go forward and we can always turn back if it gets bad.’
She looked at me with a dubious expression.
‘He was coming down the interstate. Maybe it’s less windy on the 97,’ I said.
It turned out that it was no less windy on the 97 because a storm was sweeping across the entire northeast. As we entered the town, we noticed the wind was considerably stronger than it had been south on the interstate and heading north the winds were probably 30 to 40 mph with gusts maybe half again as strong. Out on the highway, there was a sign that warned of ‘Gusty area next 1 mile’ but we quickly discovered that the high winds extended far beyond the stated limit. After a few miles and several strong gusts that jolted her from the line she was riding, Jess pulled over to the shoulder.
‘I’m not doing this,’ she said. ‘Let’s go back.’
We turned around and rode slowly back to the town, stopping at the first motel along the main street. It was kind of a dump but at least it was cheap and we had a beautiful view of Mt Shasta from our room on the second floor. It was forecasted to rain during that evening and the day that followed and the winds would get stronger before they abated late the next night. When we woke up the next morning and it was still raining and the wind was blowing in strong gusts, it was an easy decision to stay in Weed for a proper rest day. The weather followed the forecast and the winds were so strong throughout the day that sometimes, after a particularly strong gust, I glanced out the window to make sure our motorbikes were still upright even though they were sheltered by the motel, which acted as a good wind break.
The windstorm broke early the next morning so that it was much calmer and only drizzled intermittently as we loaded the gear onto our bikes and lubed the chains. It was very cold all that morning and, after a blueberry scone and a hot chocolate, we changed into all our remaining layers of clothes in the parking lot of a bakery in Klamath Falls just over the Oregon border. Back on the highway the winds were strong again at Upper Klamath Lake and then the temperature began to plunge even lower after we turned onto the 62 and began to ascend towards Crater Lake.
Now as Jess was heading back to the lodge and I was ascending to Rim Village at Crater Lake, my bike’s display was showing the temperature getting closer and closer to freezing and the snow I was seeing on the hillsides above the road was creeping closer and closer onto the shoulders. After a couple more miles the snow was stacked along the sides and center lane divider but the tarmac remained clear where the vehicle tires cut parallel tracks. A mile or so from Rim Village everything was snowed over but I continued ascending because the signs showed that I was so close to this goal, which had suddenly become important to me beyond all reasonable proportion. Also, I decided, my traction felt surprisingly good as long as I controlled my speed and stayed in the trail of the car ahead of me.
Coming around a final tight bend, the hillside opened to a bleach white parking lot of snow-covered cars and a few groups of people walking briskly with hands deeply planted into jacket pockets. I maneuvered through the parking lot avoiding the piled snow and patches of slush as best as I could and then I parked beside a truck in a space with quick access out of the lot. The display showed that the temperature was several degrees below freezing before I turned off the bike and began to walk to the path where there was a lookout. Through the haze I could see the lake and Wizard Island in the middle of it. The clearing held just long enough to snap a photograph and then the fog thickened and the island disappeared.
As the fog thickened, the snow that had been falling lightly now began to fall much more heavily and this made me nervous about the road conditions for my descent back to the lodge. Growing increasingly nervous, I hurried back to my bike and hit the ignition. The first mile or two of the descent I rode mostly in first gear, feeling more confident about my traction at higher engine speeds. At lower elevation it was not quite as cold but the snow was falling there too. Despite the bike’s heated grips set to high, my fingertips were tingling from the cold. When I approached the lodge just outside the park, I saw Jess standing outside waving to me.
‘I’m so glad you turned around when you did!’ I said. ‘I really got myself into a fix up there.’
Inside the lodge as we ate a cup of hot soup I told her about the cold and the snow and the winding road up to Rim Village and back down again.
‘It’s still snowing down here,’ she said after I finished, ‘so we should probably go in case it’s going to get worse.’
The road that skirts the crater and connects Highway 62 at the south entrance to 138 at the north was closed past Rim Village and, besides, we wouldn’t have had any intention of going back up through the snow. So we returned the way we came, taking the 62 back to Chiloquin where we reconnected with the 97 and then went north to Bend. At Bend we found a nice motel, which felt disproportionately luxurious for the poor quality of our accommodations in Weed. After a hot shower and a rest, we went to the very lovely downtown for our first evening of nice dinning out. Back at the motel, warmed from the glass of wine but then chilled again from the ride, Jessica set the thermostat so that now I was properly broiling.
‘Babe, why are you all clammy?’ she said.
‘Maybe because you’ve made it like an oven in here,’ I said.
We bickered back and forth about the temperature until we reached a stalemate and then I changed the subject.
‘I really like what I’ve seen of it here,’ I said.
‘You mean Bend?’ she said. ‘Yeah it’s nice but what would we do here?’
‘I don’t know but we should think more about where we would be happy to live,’ I said. ‘Otherwise, we might as well go back to Africa where we can easily get work but will probably not enjoy where we are living.’
‘Yeah, maybe so,’ she said and, after considering it for a moment longer, ‘Let’s don’t think more about it right now. I’m not ready to think about what we’ll do after the trip.’
The next day we rode 40 miles north to Madras where we took Highway 26 northeast past Mt Hood on the way to Portland. All morning it was cold and rainy weather riding and we wore all the layers of clothing we had to stay warm and comfortable on the bikes. At the closest stretch of highway near Mt Hood where the road ascended to it’s highest elevation the temperature dropped to freezing and the raining became snow. At Government Camp we pulled over at a filling station for a cup of hot coffee and we asked the attendant about the conditions up ahead.
‘It’s like this for another two miles or so and then you go down and it’s only raining,’ he said.
‘So better to press on forward than turn back?’ I asked.
‘Yeah, you’re better off going forward,’ he said. ‘You’re most of the way through it now.’
We stayed in the filling station for a few more minutes, sipping at our coffees, until we noticed that the snow was coming down more heavily and blanketing the road more quickly than the highway traffic could clear it away.
‘Let’s go now before it get’s worse,’ Jess said emphatically.
Back outside, we found that in the ten minutes we had been away the bikes had been thickly covered in snow. The sight of the snow-covered bikes was a least as nerve-wracking as the snowy highway beside which they stood. As we put on our gloves and helmets, three motorcyclists that we had passed and been passed by at several points throughout the day pulled into the filling station and parked alongside us.
‘It’s really bad out there,’ the one who pulled up nearest to me said.
‘The guy inside said it goes back to raining a couple miles further on from here,’ I said. ‘He said from here you start to descend.’
‘Yeah but can we make it that far?’ he said as though deferring the decision to me.
‘We’re going to try to push through it because it’s only getting worse here,’ I said.
The biker repeated what I had said to his mates and after a moments discussion they were back on their bikes and turning onto the highway. Now Jess was on her bike with the engine on and waiting for me but I was having trouble with one of my riding gloves. My hand had gotten wet while fixing the strap of my helmet and, when I tried to slip it into the glove, the wetness had seeped into the lining. Somehow this made the lining stick against my skin so that my fingers could not settle into place. After a few more tries, I looked back and saw that Jess was in earnest. So with my hand deep enough into the glove to wrap around the grip and clutch lever, I pressed the electric starter and followed her out onto the highway.
The ground was slushy around the filling station but the traction was better on the highway because the traffic was helping to keep the snow from turning to ice inside the lane. Even worse than the conditions on the road, the snow came down like a blasting flurry traveling at 50 mph and, with the ice that collected on the windshield and helmet visor, the visibility was extremely low. The several miles of gradual descent away from Government Camp seemed to stretch over a very long time for the snow and the cold and the poor visibility. Then suddenly we were out of the snow and back in the cold, drenching, wonderful rain and we were very relieved. A few kilometers ahead at the town of Zigzag I signaled to pull over so that I could adjust my gloved hand to fit like something better than a flipper. The rain, which was at first a relief, and the cold followed us the 45 miles into Portland so that once we had found a motel and were off our bikes, we were decidedly against going back out for dinner and assertively for staying in and ordering a pizza.
That evening, as we stuffed the pizza into our hungry, exhausted faces, I thought about how incredibly Jess had held up and kept high spirits throughout the day and especially during the most precarious moments in through the snow.
‘When we pulled into the filling station at Government Camp, I was petrified to pull alongside you because I thought you’d be pissed because I was the one who wanted to take the route past Mt Hood,’ I said.
‘No, that’s when I’m very good – in those situations,’ she said. ‘That’s why I thought to keep going to more and more dangerous places.’
‘Yeah, I’m sure you were great that time when you were caught in the fighting in South Sudan,’ I said. ‘Anyway, as we were coming down I kept thinking how great it was that you were smiling and that you weren’t pissed because then I could just worry about riding my own motorcycle through it.’
We were fully prepared to fall in love with Portland because we had heard good things about it from a variety of people. We decided to stay over the next day to visit downtown and to drop in on my former employer in Liberia, which is headquartered here. But all through the next day it was overcast and rained and, when we tried to ride downtown, it poured so heavily on us that we had to turn back because there would have been no way and nothing to sightsee once we were there.
‘It’s so dependent on timing and circumstance when you’re traveling like this, isn’t it?’ I said when we were back in our motel, hanging up our sopping jeans and blow-drying our iPhones, which had been caught in our jeans during the downpour. ‘I mean if we had come a day or two earlier or later, maybe we would have loved it here.’
We turned out the lights to this thought and for a while I lay awake thinking about it. At first I felt unsettled with the idea that maybe the glimpse you would get of a place would be very far off the mark and that you would leave carrying away a misconception. Then I thought that maybe this misconception would somehow taint the trip – like maybe how passing Mt Hood when it was too cloudy or snowy to see it would take something away from the experience of the trip. But then I thought about how I had read that often your first impression is the truest because it forms before your conscious mind can make a confusion of it. Also – and what impressed me more so that after I passed into a comfortable sleep – I decided that the glimpses that you get and the impressions they form are what make the places you pass uniquely yours and not what someone who came before tells you it is. The glimpses form a string of impressions and together they are what make the trip yours and no one else’s – uniquely and independently and very specially yours – even when so many other motorcyclists have come before you.
The next morning we detoured through the downtown of Portland before we connected with the I-5 north. It was still overcast and it looked rather dreary even though it was no longer raining. I didn’t love it as I was prepared to but I liked what I saw – maybe, I thought, the same way but no more or less than I would have liked it had I visited it under any other weather conditions or circumstances. After this briefest glimpse of Portland, we made a beeline for Seattle, reluctantly but decidedly bypassing Mt St Helens and Mt Rainier because the weather conditions were still unfavorable and we had had enough of traveling winding mountain highways through heavy rain and snow – at least for now.