Riding the Red Lines

A Tour Report

by Kent Peterson

September 7th-8th, 2004

William Least Heat-Moon wrote of traveling the blue highways, the minor roads on the map. Today I'm riding still smaller roads and on my map these roads are the tiny red lines that designate state forest roads. While a map is not the terrain, it is perhaps the most important fuel for the journey. The thin red line that becomes a dotted line and winds back on itself tells a story: here is where the pavement ends, here is where the old road climbs or perhaps the it is descending? I cannot know these things in the comfortable confines of civilization. The map pretends to be reality with it's color-code and tiny symbols: here is a place called Pyramid Peak, here is where the Pacific Crest trail crosses this tiny road. But in the end the map must reduce to two dimensions a world that is far more complex than any piece of paper. The map informs my dreams with this one notion: I can ride there.

It's 12:15 PM on Tuesday September 7th. A warm sun is shining down on the small town of Greenwater Washington. I'm eating a Payday candy bar and sipping on a Powerade in front of the Greenwater General Store. In my job at the bike shop I work most weekends but now I'm in the midst of a three day break. I spent yesterday with my lovely wife but today she is working and I'm on the road. A motorcyclist is also taking a break at the store and we fall into conversation.

"Where you headed?" I ask.
"Over the pass and then up the Yakima Canyon," he replies.

I know this road well. the canyon section is beautiful and twisty, winding along the river. It can also be damn windy and I make a comment to that effect.

"I've never really noticed the wind," the biker replies.

"You notice wind a lot more when you're pedaling," I assure him.

"So where are you headed?" he asks, eying my rig.

"Over old Naches Pass." The biker looks a bit puzzled, so I elaborate. "Forest Road 70 connects up to 19 via some little dirt roads up there," I say waving my hand in a vaguely easterly direction.

The biker is intrigued and we talk about the little I know of the route. His motorcycle today is some sort of pavement-only street machine but he mentions that he has a DualSport at home. "Do you think that could make it over on that?" he queries.

"I think so," I reply, "I've heard this is an old stage coach run and I've read about four-wheel-drive trucks and ATVs going over it. This is my first time going up there, but I think a knobby-tired bike should be fine."

The biker agrees that his DualSport could make it over and then we talk more about our planned rides: he's out for a day ride, while this is a two day trip for me. He approves of my compact gear, wishes me luck on my trip, fires up his bike and then he's gone. I finish the last of my Powerade, throw a leg over my bike and head east slowly. It's a good day to ride.

At 12:38 PM, I turn off Highway 410 and onto Forest Road 70, I'm 79 kilometers from home now but this really feels like the start of the ride. My maps are a couple of pages photocopied from a benchmark Roads and Recreation Atlas, but the thin lines do little to prepare me for the beauty of this road. Forest Road 70 winds east and up into the Cascade Mountains.

Steep Road

Forest Road 70 works its way up along the channel of the Greenwater passing by tiny riverside campsites and then climbs upward into the mountains. The pavement is smooth and on this weekday there is virtually no traffic. The climbing is not relentless, in places the road drops back down, following the contours of the land. But there is far more up than down and in places it's rather steep. I chug along, spinning the Monocog's 32*16 gear.

Over the years I've realized that I have no real interest in luxury, I'm more interested in learning what I can do with minimal equipment. My bicycle today is a Redline Monocog, a basic steel bicycle with a single gear. Certainly there are faster bikes, but I don't need to be fast. I am persistent.

Pyramid Peak

My map tells me of a 5700' mountain called Pyramid Peak and I suspect it is the mountain I see in the distance. For much of the time, the views are blocked by trees but occasionally vistas open up and I can see large chunks of wild land.

Pavement Ends

At 1:46 PM, I reach the end of the pavement. It has taken me more than an hour to cover 9 kilometers but I know I've already climbed up quite a ways.

View from the Gravel Road

It's 2:29 PM now. Back on the paved road, I'd thought that I was climbing. Twelve percent grades are steep, but what I'm going up now is steeper. I'm 100 kilometers from home now and it's steep enough that I wind up stopping to rest every 500 meters or so. This is not a conscious schedule, it's the rhythm dictated by the land. I ride until I think "hey, I should take a break" or "hey, I should stop for a quick snack" and when I look down at the cyclometer I see that I've only gone half a kilometer since my last break. But this is the right rhythm for this land. I chug along then stop and then chug along again. And I am gaining ground.

My maps are vague on the details here and I wind up following Forest Road 70 too far. It ultimately ends at a trail to small to be on the map and I know I must have gone wrong. I backtrack to a fork in the road and follow the other route. This road goes alarmingly downward before deteriorating into untrailed wilderness. My wrist compass tells me this can't be right and I backtrack again.

Several kilometers back, I'm at yet another fork in the road. The route to the left is clearly not Forest Road 70 but it looks as broad as 70 and seems to climb in a promising direction. As I turn onto this road an elk crosses in front of me. I take this as a good omen and continue upward.

In the high trees

The road is in fact the right road. It goes up and up and eventually crosses the pacific crest. My map had told of a gate followed by two switchbacks and then a second gate and I rejoice at 4:45 PM when I find the first gate. It turns out that the first gate is pretty much at the summit and the switchbacks are long, swooping descents down the other side. After hours of climbing, the switchbacks are a definite change of pace. What would be climbed very slowly is descended very quickly. As I pilot the Monocog though the swooping turns I have the quick thought that there is no way I would climb this road from this eastern side. But in the next instant I realize that of course I could climb this, and what I'm swooping down is no worse than what I climbed up on the western side. It's not a question of strength or gears, I have a single gear and not much strength but what I have is enough.

After the long pair of switchbacks I come up to the second gate. As I roll up to the gate I hear something mechanical groaning, grinding and crunching civilized sound of that can only be made by largish piece of rolling machinery. Looking in my helmet mirror, I see a truck winding it's way toward me, slowly descending the switchbacks. I wait just past the gate and wave at the truck's occupants as they rumble dustily on by.

The truck is not what I'd expect. I'd seen a few four wheel drive pickups and SUVs earlier on the road but as I've gotten into the higher country, I've pretty much been alone. This truck is far bigger than an SUV and my first thought is that it was a logging truck but in this case my first thought is mistaken.
The truck contains two men in the cab but in the back are many thousand passengers, snug in their hives. The truck is hauling bees. The writing on the side of the truck tells me it belongs to a honey farm based in Yakima.

At first I'm puzzled as to why anyone would transport their bees over this old pass but then I realize that the ranch must have the bees spend the summer up here in the mountains. Wild flower and fireweed pollen are prized and now it's harvest time. In a few weeks the snows will come and close this pass for the winter. It's time for the bees to move to the lower meadows.

I continue downward an at 5:27 PM this dirt road joins up with pavement as I turn left onto Forest Road 19. 19 is a beautiful strip of pavement rolling south and east and down for miles. Along the side of the road there are dozens of inviting looking off-road-vehicle trails that look like they'd be terrific for mountain biking. Some other day I'll have to come back here and do some more exploring.

I'd started my trip with three bottles of water, two large bottles on the bike and a smaller bottle in my backpack but I'm running on empty now. There were many mountain streams and if I'd needed to I could've stopped to purify water en route but I'd figured my rations correctly. I figure I can stop at one of the campgrounds along the road and fuel up.

At 6:25 PM, I stop at Kaner Flat Campground to fill my water bottles. The water from the pump is clear and cold and I take a couple of photos of my bike, myself and my gear. the campground is a bit more civilized than I prefer and it seems wasteful to me to spend $10 or $15 dollars to camp on public land, so I roll onward.

The Pack and the Bike

Kent and his bike

At 6:45 PM, I turn left onto the Hwy 410. The Bumping and Naches Rivers converge here and just off the road I find a nice, quiet spot to camp. I pitch my tarp, lay out my gear, eat a simple supper and enjoy a quiet evening by the river. Before I settle in for the night, I pack all my food in a bag and hoist it into the high branches of a handy tree.

Stealth Camp

By the river

I wake at 6:45 AM. The morning is clear and crisp but not too cold. I eat breakfast, pack up the bike and I'm back on the road at 7:33 AM.

It must be a good year for chipmunks because I see hundreds of them on the climb up to Chinook Pass. It seems like every ten meters or so I hear one let out an excited squeak and scurry off into to forest. If the chipmunks would just sit there, I might not notice them as much but they all seem to like to squeak and run.

The climb to Chinook is always beautiful and I stop a bit en route to take pictures, rest and have a snack.

Up 410

Toward Chinook

At 10:57 AM, I'm at the Chinook summit. I layer on my warm clothes for the descent.

Chinook Sign

I'd figure that I'd just roll down quickly but just past the summit the lake is just too picture postcard perfect. I have to stop and take a picture.

Lake at Chinook

Chinook Switchbacks

The switchbacked descent off Chinook is fun and at 12:55 PM, I'm back in Greenwater. I celebrate my return to civilization with a latte at the Wapiti Woolies store. At 3:55 PM, I roll into a rainstorm near Lake Retreat but I'm no stranger to rain. At 5:03 PM, I'm back home.

The total trip was a very relaxing 307 kilometers spread over a couple of days. I figure I logged a few extra kilometers in a few wrong turns up in the mountains. Now that I know the way, I figure it's about a 300 kilometer loop. Kicking things up a notch, starting earlier in the day and running later, it's a randonneurs day ride. But not for this year, the pass will close soon for the winter and most of my rando pals are already starting to go dormant. But next year, I think I'll be able to talk at least one or two of my buddies into joining me on this trip.