The Four-day Getaway — Part II
By Darren Dencklau
After pedaling his way from North Bend to Vantage, Wash., mostly riding the Iron Horse Trail, Darren prepares for the return trip and a few more adventures. We find him on day three after getting only an hour of sleep due to the previous night’s windstorm on the Columbia River.
Although the last day took longer than expected, I celebrated with the appropriate beverage at the end.
The following morning, feeling tired and lifeless, I broke camp and fueled up for the long day ahead. The wind blew so hard the night before I failed to hear my new neighbors arrive, a few twenty-somethings returning from the weekend-long Sasquatch Music Festival at the Gorge. They didn’t appear to have gotten much sleep either.
Now having to make my way back to Seattle, I decided to retrace my route from the day before and ride the Old Vantage Highway back to Ellensburg. Knowing it was going to be a difficult climb, especially on a somewhat loaded down bike, I tried to focus on the task at hand. What I didn’t anticipate was the addition of one of the nastiest headwinds I’ve experienced in all my years of cycling.
The canyon walls siphoned any breeze heading west until it congregated and presented itself directly in front of my bike. Crawling along the highway at roughly three miles per hour, often cursing Mother Nature at the top of my lungs for her unabashed cruelty, I thought to myself that maybe it was payback for all the wrongs I’ve done in my life. Mentally debating about hitching a ride, I kept looking over my shoulder for the right setup, maybe a rancher’s pickup truck or a group of traveling hippies in a van. No such luck. There were no signs of life out there besides the swaying brush and the creaking of my knees.
The previous day’s tailwinds were but a distant memory and now I fought against its force, traveling the opposite direction, my pedals rotating in slow motion like a high-definition movie scene playing on a slow computer. Taking frequent and numerous rest breaks, I even got off and pushed my bike for a few miles intermittently. The double chainring meant for road riding was doing me no favors.
After what seemed like a lifetime, the summit finally appeared before me and the road eventually leveled out a little. The wind, however, didn’t care that I had a glimmer of hope, and it kept coming at me like an angry prizefighter losing a round in front of his own mother. The turbines scattered throughout the plateau were doing their thing, white blades turning rapidly against the gunmetal sky. To the west I could see Ellensburg in the distance and practically smell the food that was surely cooking on the grill.
Motivated by the thought of eating a giant meal, I finally covered the last miles to town where I sat down to a lunch of epic proportions, the type where seconds and even thirds were required to fill the insatiable void that was my stomach. Following a much-needed coffee stop to equalize the early afternoon food coma, I regained my composure, determined to make it to Lake Easton by nightfall.
Once again on the Old Thorp Highway and leaning into the wind, lips chapped like leather, I again envisioned trying to hitch a ride at a popular gas station and fruit stand located just off the interstate. Once there, however, those thoughts were quaffed by my pride and determination. Defiantly I jumped back on the gravelly goodness of the Iron Horse Trail to fulfill my lifelong desire to suffer and conquer my doubts.
The further west I traveled, the less the wind howled, and by the time I neared South Cle Elum, where I would reconnect with the IHT after the 14-mile reroute, I was once again smiling and feeling strong. At one point during the afternoon I looked back at the valley I traversed most of the morning and could see all the way past the open farmland, past Ellensburg to the high desert beyond. The debilitating climb from Vantage was now history, in the books.
Once again on the IHT where the surface becomes smoother, my spirits soared and my pace hastened. I pedaled like someone possessed, head down, eyes completely glazed over — in the military they call this the “thousand yard stare.” I didn’t stop or slow down for what seemed like a long time.
Upon arriving at Easton Lake just as darkness descended, I decided to splurge and stay at a designated campsite once again. The campground had bike/hike only sites and the entire place was practically vacant. Following a quick backpacker’s meal and a cold shower (oh the luxuries), I pitched my tent and fell asleep almost instantly.
At dawn I awoke to gray skies and made breakfast while breaking down camp. I was on the trail by 7 a.m. and somehow missed all the detour signs that would point me to the interstate again. Riding on loamy and forested singletrack located on the west end of the lake, I eventually reconnected with the IHT. From what I could tell, there was really no reason for taking an alternative route in the first place, albeit there was one small reroute around a closed tunnel that I may or may not have went through...
From there I made great time, although stopping more than usual to take in the views of the surrounding mountains and revere in my last day on the trail, certain that it would be an easy ride to the van from there on out. And so I thought.
At Snoqualmie Pass I faced a difficult decision: either ride against traffic on the shoulder of I-90 to hook up with the same radio tower service road I used on the way out, or take the Old Sunset Highway Heritage Corridor which lies between and below the two interstate sections. Choosing the latter seemed like the best option and for a while it indeed was. The road was closed to all automobiles due to the snowpack and I had it all to myself. A few large snowdrifts had to be navigated, but overall the asphalt was clear of debris and the forest was incredible near adjacent Denny Creek.
From an online satellite image I studied the week before, there appeared to be a Forest Service road that intersected with the IHT following a short climb up from the valley floor. I found the road easily enough and so I began to climb, looking for the trail. I climbed and climbed and climbed some more, eventually dismounting and pushing my bike up the steep rutted grade for about an hour before eventually coming across a group of people working for the Forest Service.
“You know, you’re about to reach snow level and you’re not going to be able to go any further,” one of the men said.
“So, does this road hook up with the Iron Horse Trail or not?” I confusedly asked.
“Oh, you missed that miles ago, before the switchbacks.”
“Seriously? How could I have not noticed it?”
“You can’t miss it, there’s a trestle about 40 feet overhead. You’ll be able to see a small trail leading up to the Iron Horse Trail underneath the trestle.”
Disheveled, I smiled and turned around, cursing myself for not seeing the trail before. After bouncing down the steep and rutted road, navigating the sharp turns, I finally saw the trestle he was referring to — only it wasn’t 40 feet above, it was closer to 100 feet. I failed to notice it on the way up because my head was down, my eyes scanning the road for the connector.
While searching unsuccessfully for the small path the man was talking about, an SUV suddenly pulled up next to me.
“I didn’t say it was a legal trail, but there is a trail there, from what I’ve heard.” It was the same guy from before.
“Hey, it’s all just a part of the adventure, right!” he said while winking at me as they drove off. I am pretty sure they were laughing and I don’t blame them, it was pretty comical from an outsider’s perspective.
Dismounting and performing reconnaissance, I eventually found what could only be described as a “Billy Goat” path — steep, rocky, slick and heavily wooded. My only option was to hike my panniers up to the IHT far above and then come back for the bike. Difficult yes, but certainly not impossible.
After lugging the heavy bags to the top, I slid my way back down to the road to grab my bike. To get back up the hill I had to lift it up with each step and place the wheels perpendicular to my body, resting it on the ledge above me, then carefully step up to repeat the process again. The whole procedure took about 30 memorable minutes and by the time I reached the trail and re-cinched my bags, sweat was dripping from every pore. I could only laugh.
Gaining composure, I eked out the remaining distance to the Cedar Falls Trailhead where I parked just three days before. Those dozen or so miles seemed much longer this time around, but at last I reached the trail’s end and the parking lot, thankful to reintegrate myself back into civilization.
Thinking ahead earlier that day, I stopped at a convenience store near Summit at Snoqualmie and purchased the perfect celebratory beer in anticipation of finishing the ride — a bomber of Iron Horse IPA. I cracked the warm bottle open almost immediately upon arriving at the van, smiling from ear to ear and thinking to myself rather sarcastically, “It’s a good thing you hauled the additional weight of this beer down the pass, then all the way up a dirt road, only to have to turn around and lug it up that ridiculous cliff.”
Maybe the Forest Service man was right. It really is all just part of the adventure, and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.