A Ride to Boiling Frog Road

January 25-26, 2005

by Kent Peterson

While much of the North American continent is dealing with blizzards or torrential rains, January in the Pacific Northwest has been unusually warm this year and we've actually had some dry days. I decided to take advantage of the weather to take a brief overnight tour up into the Cascade Mountains. I'm preparing for a big, fast tour this summer, racing the length of the Continental Divide on my single speed mountain bike, so I've been doing a series of these small tours in an ongoing effort to check out my gear and toughen myself for the big trip.

My lovely wife Christine is resigned to the fact that I'll be gone for several weeks this summer and she also pretty much understands my need to train and test equipment. Still, the hardest part of these trips is leaving our cozy apartment and rolling out that first day. And the easiest part is when I roll home. I've often said that the smartest thing I ever did was to marry Christine and every day I know that is true. Perhaps Lucinda Williams described it best in her song "Side of  the Road" in which she wrote:

If I stray too far from you
Don't go and try to find me
It doesn't mean I don't love you
It doesn't mean I won't come back
And stay beside you
It only means I need a little time
To follow that unbroken line
To a place where the wild things grow
To a place where I used to always go

This isn't a big trip and I'm not in any rush, so I putter around and wait for most of the fog to burn off. It's about 10:20 AM when I leave home. I ride a few blocks on neighborhood streets, climb up a small hill, cross over the freeway and turn onto a wooded trail. Today I'm just riding and I've got my camera with me so I take things easy, pausing now and then to take pictures. My home area is the Issaquah Alps, the smallish mountains that are the foothills of the larger Cascades. The valleys here used to be farms, with logging camps and mines up in the mountains. Now this land is the eastern edge of the Puget Sound suburban sprawl but the mountains still manage to hold us humans in check. Many of the old rail lines are trails now and some of the old mining and logging roads are semi-forgotten and overgrown. While there still are some miners and loggers and hunters and wanderers, most modern humans stick to the larger, newer swaths of concrete and asphalt. By directing my wide tires onto the smaller tracks I mostly separate myself from a world whose urgency I no longer share. I gradually roll up and east.

At Highpoint I'm back on pavement and ride the small frontage road to the tiny town of Preston. The roar of the freeway off to my right is absorbed by the trees as I turn on to the small rail-trail that heads north to the town of Fall City. The trail winds down to rejoin the paved road at the river since the old railroad bridge was swept away by a flood many years ago.

At Fall City I cross yet another bridge, yet another branch of the river. It is a warm morning now and fishermen are casting their hand-tied hopes onto the high waters as I ride past. I turn left on 203 and then right on a small road that proclaims itself to be a dead end. I know that sign is a two word work of fiction. The end of the road is neither dead nor the end. When I reach the gate at the edge of the valley, I pause long enough to take a photograph before passing through to a trail closed to cars but open to humans, horses, dogs and bicycles.

Road Closed

The old road climbs up to yet another rail grade, the Snoqualmie Valley Trail and I follow its gentle slope up towards the town of Snoqualmie and Snoqualmie Falls. I stop briefly on one of the old bridges to chat with a small group of women who are hiking in the opposite direction on the trail. They started at the tunnel not far from the Falls and are curious to know how far the trail extends and how far they've come thus far. I tell them what I know of the trail -- that it extends for many miles along the valley, past Fall City and Carnation and all the way north to Duvall. As for the distance they've come already, that is three miles or so.

The tunnel under the road

I ride through the tunnel under Tokul Road, and follow the small section of singletrack that loops back around to join the road. I'm hoping to get a photograph of the Falls but this morning it is still just thundering sound wrapped in thick, damp fog. I ride east into the small town of Snoqualmie.

It is easy to succumb to the illusion of independence on these trips, so I try to guard against that. I am not alone on these trips, these are not journeys of discovery through new lands. These are trips of rediscovery and I'm rolling in the tracks of ghosts. The steel tracks are gone, but the grades remain. In Snoqualmie a few of the trains are embalmed with fresh paint and oil and and in the summers they perform whistling, creaking and groaning tricks down short tracks to nostalgia. On the edge of town more iron giants rust very slowly, preserved mostly by their sheer bulk and lack of modern value.

Rusting trains

Today does not look or feel like January. The trees are bare but so is Mount Si and the air is tropically warm. There should be snow here and ice and something that feels like a test. This feels odd, like I'm riding through a world that is slightly off from normal. But all my trips are variants on this theme, a bicyclist rolling at 10 miles per hour finds the world is different than the one glimpsed through a windshield at 60 miles per hour. And since I make my living in a bike shop and weekends are the busy time, my schedule also sets me apart from what is common. I work when most folks recreate and wander while they work. I roll onward on wide and mostly empty streets.

Mount Si

Near the golf course I leave the pavement once again and I'm back on the trail. The trail here is wider and more open as it rolls along the upper valley. East of North Bend it crosses the road and the river, ducks under the freeway and back into the trees. It's quiet in the woods. I see a few people walking their dogs and one cyclist who is moving quite quickly despite the fact that he is riding with his young sleeping son strapped to his back in some sort of combination backpack/roll cage device. The family dog runs along a couple of paces ahead, glancing back every few seconds to make sure his people are keeping up.

I catch up with my fellow cyclist and we exchange pleasantries about the weather and our routes. I'm going somewhat further and slower today and the dog doesn't seem too keen on maintaining a conversational pace. The father, son and dog pull away and roll up the trail toward Rattlesnake Lake.

Rattlesnake Mountain

It's a beautiful day at Rattlesnake Lake and I linger for a bit to take in the scenery, take a few pictures and watch the geese glide across the lake. The lake itself covers the ill-fated town of Moncton. Back in 1915 the power company built a dam upstream to increase the storage at Cedar Lake to raise the production capacity at the Cedar Falls Power Plant. Although the dam was watertight, the surrounding aquifer was porous and seeping water submerged the town over the course of the next two months. Moncton became Rattlesnake Lake.

There actually aren't any rattlesnakes living on the western side of the Cascades, so there is some speculation as to how Rattlesnake Mountain got it's name. One theory says the shape of the ridge looks somewhat like a viper poised to strike and while I suppose that is possible, I favor the story of the nervous surveyor. According to this tale the original railroad employee mapping out the area heard dried seed pods rattling in the wind and mistook the sound as a threat from the deadly reptile.

It is very pleasant to sit in the sun and have a snack. My friend Hermine is a fan of my ride stories and as a fellow cyclist, she wants to know details. She wrote me once after reading one of these reports and asked "What do you eat? You travel with much less gear than I do. Do you cook? Do you live on love and air?" Today I have some cooking gear packed with me: a small titanium pot, some coffee and some instant soup and my always handy titanium spork but I'm not really sure if I will wind up cooking. I tend to eat more snacks than meals and I've been known to subsist for days on Payday candy bars. As I've noted many, many times, I am not a nutritional role model.

Today I am snacking better than I have on many of my journeys. I've been reading Gary Erickson's book "Raising the Bar" in which he tells a lot of interesting stories about his life and the Clif Bar company. He talks about having the best trips on the least traveled roads and at one point he mentioned going for a week eating nothing but products his company makes (kind of like the protagonist of the movie "Supersize Me" but with different foods and different results). My reading of the book coincided with our review of some of the bars we sell at the bike shop and it turned out we had a surplus of Clif products that had languished past their sell dates. People who know my scavenging and frugal nature can certainly see where this story is going.

I adopted a large supply of the "past their prime" bars for my personal consumption. Specifically, I wound up with a lot of Luna Bars. Now let me make this very, very clear: I AM NOT A NUTRITIONAL ROLE MODEL. I am not suggesting that people seek out old Luna Bars and try to live off them. I'm only reporting what I've learned.

Luna Bars are pretty darn tasty. And very well packaged. And in the interest of science, I did buy some new, fresh Luna Bars. Fresher is better but even the old ones taste much better to me than any of the other energy bar I've eaten. In general, Luna Bars are lighter and sweeter than Clif Bars and the Clif company targets Luna bars towards women but I've been eating a lot of them lately and haven't grown breasts or anything. I'm pretty sure I can safely continue my cross-eating with no ill effects.

And I'm eating enough of these things that I think any ill-effects would become apparent. Already today I've eaten a couple of Luna Bars for breakfast, enjoyed a couple of more while riding and I eat a few more here by the lake shore as I watch the geese. Eventually, I might get sick of Luna Bars but the folks at Clif make quite a range of flavors and I've got a pretty good assortment. They also make Clif and Mojo bars, so I can see how Gary was able to do quite well in his week long experiment. On my Divide Race it will be impossible to pack along all the food I'll need and I'm sure for much of that race I'll be living off all kinds of odd things I'll find in the small back country stores I encounter en route. But for my various shorter training rides I'll be packing a lot of Clif products. I'm sure the folks at Clif wouldn't endorse my eating old versions of their food but they do support a wide range of good causes and they also support many individual athletes in their endeavors. For 2005 I'm fortunate enough to have been chosen as a Team Clif Bar sponsored athlete. So once I make it through my stock of old Luna Bars, I can get a pretty good deal on my new supply of Luna and other Clif Bars. But I don't think Clif's sponsorship really biases me too much. Like my other sponsors. the folks at Clif are people whose products I really use and they are folks whom I sought out. The Divide Race is going to be hard and all my gear and supplies really must be things that I know will work for the long haul.

The Iron Horse Trail

I leave Rattlesnake Lake and ride east on the Iron Horse Trail. The Iron Horse follows the old route of the Chicago Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad. The old grade heads east up to Snoqualmie Pass, through a tunnel under the summit and then continues across Washington all the way to the Idaho border. Over the years I've ridden much of this trail and next June this will probably be the route I'll ride on my journey to the starting point of the Great Divide Race.

The Iron Horse Trail crosses various small creeks and just before one of these crossings, I see a small trail off to the right. The trail leads to a small clearing near the creek and I stop to fill one of my bottles. A quart of water weighs about two pounds and while it's a burden to carry too much water, it's essential to carry enough in the back country. My compromise is to carry two and sometimes three one quart bottles and I also carry water purification tablets.

Out in New York there is a little girl named Chloe who has many wonderful adventures on bicycles with her mom and dad. Chloe heard about some of my mountain rides and wanted to help me have my own adventures. She wanted to donate her precious wishing rock to me so I could take it with me to help me on the big Divide Race this summer but I wrote her dad back and explained my need to travel light. I suggested that she should keep the rock for herself and maybe draw me a picture of herself and her family out on a ride. But I think of Chloe every time I drop a little tablet into my water bottle. Chlorine Dioxide is what they call these tablets back in the lab. Out here on the trail, I call them Chloe tablets.


Signposts along the trail identify places that are mostly forgotten now. I don't know much about the history of Garcia but I think it was an old mining area. Mine Creek cuts a notch in the rugged mountains here and Garcia Road intersects with the Iron Horse Trail.

The Monocog is a bike that favors adventure. Like Robert Frost, the Monocog is most at home on the road less traveled by and that makes all the difference. Garcia Road heads off the trail, up and to the right. The path ahead is known, a continuation of the railroad grade. Garcia Road is steeper, darker and without a doubt the proper road to take today.

Garcia Road is quite steep and after a bit of climbing a still smaller road branches off the right. This is a forest road, numbered but not named, and its number is 9021. It's smaller size and roughness seem to recommend it, so once again the bike and I turn right. We have now somewhat doubled back on our course, but the road arcs left and up, working it's way up the Mine Creek Canyon.

The road gets rougher and smaller and steeper. In many places it is more of a ledge than road. The surface is rough gravel that becomes courser and more stone-strewn as the road climbs. In places, rock slides cover large swaths of the path. The signs of men are few and they aren't comforting: beer cans and empty rifle cartridges. Scattered bits of bumpers and mufflers tell the stories of four-wheel-drive fantasies that somehow went awry.

Forest Road 9021 is a boiling frog road. Years ago I heard the story of the boiling frogs. Supposedly if you drop a frog in a pan of boiling water, he will hop right out. But if you place a frog in a pan of cool water and slowly raise the temperature, the frog will stay in the pan until he cooks to death. I have no idea if the story is true and in fact I suspect it isn't. But the metaphor itself is true and I think we all find ourselves now and then at places where we ask ourselves David Byrne's question "My God, how did I get here?!?"

Boiling Frog Road

I have an almost super-human ability to find hunks of metal. Even when I'm miles from home, even when the piece of metal is very small, I will find it. Unfortunately, the tool I often use to detect the metal is my bike's rear tire.

I stop my climbing to repair the rear tire. I find the hunk of metal, cast it harshly away and repair the tube. A wiser man would search carefully on the off chance that there might be a second bit of wire buried in the tire casing but I'm more impatient than wise. I pump up the tire and resume my journey.

It's getting on toward the time I should be looking for a campsite. Now I could say that is quiet and peaceful here but that really isn't true. I'm miles from home now but this ridge I'm creeping along overlooks the valley of the freeway and the sounds of traffic echo off the mountains. And from somewhere out on other forests roads I hear the sounds of gunfire. I'm not in a very social mood now, so I'm looking for a spot to camp that is somewhat off the road. It is hard to get a good night's sleep when you are worried about a four-wheel-drive truck plowing over your lean-to or a stray 30-06 round ripping its way into your hide.

I continue onward and feel my rear tire going soft again. I think that perhaps my patch isn't holding or maybe I missed another bit of wire. The road is very steep now and I was moving very slowly even when both my tires were inflated. Rather than stop again to make the repair, I get off the bike and walk along beside it.

Eventually I find what I'm looking for, a small, overgrown spur trail off the main forest road. I walk the bike through the alder trees and find a place to set up camp.

A clear place to camp

I will be getting one of Henry Shires' very clever Tarptents for my Divide Race but for now I'm still using my tiny silnylon poncho as a lean-to, I've traded my Themarest pad for a slightly lighter (albeit more bulky) Z-rest pad. I quickly set up camp and repair my rear tire.

I had in fact missed a second bit of wire. I dig out the offending wire, replace the rear tube and settle in. The light is starting to fade now and the wind is picking up.  I don't see any need to build a fire, so I eat a couple of more Luna Bars, place all my food in a bag up in a tree a good distance from my camp and settle in for the night.

Tarp Camp

The wind comes as the sun leaves. Here in the mountains wind is as much a matter of geography as meteorology and each night a great river of cooling air tumbles and rushes down toward the lowlands. In the morning, the warmth of the sun will reverse this tide and a warm breezes will climb up the hills and push the air back into the high country. This is knowledge I rediscover every time I come here and it is knowledge I can use when I'm racing.

The night never gets really cold, the temperature probably only drops down to the low 40s but the wind is really howling. The great sky river tumbles along the valley, buffeting my tarp. The fabric snaps and flaps until finally one corner shakes the small stake free of the ground. There is too much stone here and not enough dirt, a single stake cannot retain its claim to the ground. But all this stone and gravity have been tugging us downward all day and now it is time for us to rest. It is time to be small and stationary and hunkered down. I settle the Monocog next to where I want the tarp to stay and lash the tarp's corner to the bike's rear wheel. I wrap myself snuggly in my sleeping bag and go to sleep.

I wake briefly around midnight. The wind is still raging but the full moon is shining so bright it seems like dawn. It would be easy to ride home now, breaking camp quickly and riding wide-eyed through the night, the wind urging the bike down the valleys, along the glowing rail beds, past the great ghosts of the Snoqualmie Rail Yard, seeing the rivers shine silver in the moonlight and finally returning on sleeping streets to home. It would be easy...

And yet, this place is also home. Here, with the wind blocked by a tarp and the hard stone covered by a thin layer of foam, with stars in the sky and the moon above, I'm where I must be. I go back to sleep, thinking of Christine. The words of a song remind me

on the chilliest night
I travel light
and it's always enough
for I wear your love.

In the morning I break camp quickly, the wind has quieted now and the clouds are rolling in. This morning doesn't need coffee or a campfire and that simple rediscovery is in itself warming. It occurs to me that I'm really happiest when I'm relearning these simple truths.

The trip home passes quickly. Descending is easier than climbing, although rock dodging and picking a line on a rough trail is more work for the mind than the body. The body just has to remember to stay loose while the mind is thinking about three rocks ahead.

Clouds are rolling in now and the wind is against me but like all days, this is a beautiful day to ride. I stop at the Falls and today it looks like a postcard. I snap a photo and roll on home to Issaquah.

Snoqualmie Falls

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