Halfway (USA Day 90)
We woke up in Halfway, Oregon exactly halfway through our trip. Ninety days in the USA gone, ninety to go. I only realised this coincidence another fifty-five miles down the road, when it was far too late to revel in it.
With a bonus hill to make it over before the official day of riding even began owing to yesterday’s brevity, we set off early from our church hall, feeling more than slightly guilty that we appeared to have broken the oven. The thousand foot climb between Halfway and Richland was a puffy delight, and we sweated through our last set of clothes far too early in the day, but as we crested the summit I couldn’t help but think back to our first thousand foot climb on the route: over the Blue Ridge summit just after Gettysburg. I remember the anxiety, the lack of self-belief, the sheer exhaustion at the top. None of those things existed today as my gears clicked over into something more powerful, I listened to Amy’s do the same, and we glid all the way downhill again to the tiny cowboy-laden town of Richland.
We expected cowboys in Wyoming, in Kansas, but not in Oregon. But the east of the state is true ranching territory, and they’ve clung on to the old ways in the most adorable fashion. We found ourselves riding alongside a man and his horse, tethered to his four-year-old son and his pony. The horses were called Ed and Bob. We never asked for the humans’ names.
The remainder of the day was all slightly uphill, climbing gently up the remainder of Hell’s Canyon through cattle ranches at first, then back into the leathery hills and babbling rivers. We saw three humans: two cyclists aligned by both initial (Jeff and Joe) and kit (some eagle-themed cycling club) and another cowboy, who hollered,
“You goin’ across?”
“All the way!” I said.
He tipped his hat in respect. “You’re some tough sons of guns.”
I don’t think I’ve ever been described as tough before. It felt good. Sweaty and good. Our parents (guns) would be proud.
Baker City glowed in the kind of heat we haven’t experienced since Kansas. We caught the club cyclists at the city limits with our heavy bikes and fully-laden egos, greeted them warmly, then sprinted into town at new frontiers of speed, knowing that our rest day awaited.
In a park in town, we found hundreds of old cars, polished to within an inch of their life, patrolled by hundreds of old flame-shirted folks who clearly lived through these vehicles. Cars have been the backbone of American industry for a century: their control over the way people here move about their world is stunning. Trains exist, but they’ve been throttled by decades of politicking. You drive for your vacation to sleep in a big squishy car. You drive to dinner and eat in your car. You drive your bike into the country to go cycling from there. This right here was a fetishisation of cars on a level we’d never seen before: leather seats, popped hoods, grumbling engines, go-faster stripes, proud owners with their arms folded over their bellies, nodding proudly as they fielded questions from breathless admirers. The announcer hushed the crowd to give out awards to the best-dressed cars: ‘Coolest Chick-Magnet’, ‘Coolest Hod-Rod’, ‘Coolest Make-Out-Mobile’, ‘Coolest Looks Fast When Parked’ which isn’t even a grammar.
At some point, a kind man took a liking to us and bought us two tickets to the town’s annual Steak Feed, which sounded barbaric yet delicious. A couple of hours later, showered and changed thanks to our lovely host, Judith, and her gorgeous house apparently built a hundred years ago by a high-school woodworking class, we cycled over to the golf course to initiate Steak Feed protocol.
The flashy car men had sputtered over in their prides and joys, which now glistened on the fairway amongst a cloud of charcoal smoke. Local cowboys manned enormous black barbecues, heavy with steaks, or great fire pits where pan-baked breads puffed steam. Dazed, we staggered along the serving stations, saying “yes” a lot, until our platters were piled high with enough carbs to hide the meat far beneath. Accompanied by iced tea and half-remembered country music performed by a sleepy couple, we joined the rows-upon-rows of guzzling diners, and lived up to the event’s name by feeding on our steaks.
Our cowboy fun wasn’t over yet: across town in a repurposed school hall we met Judith and a collection of fleet-footed locals for a spot of line dancing, officiated by a nervous teen in a baggy white shirt and excellent jeans, who walked us through some steps. We gripped our belt buckles and stamped around, kickin’ and spinnin’ to Cotton-Eyed Joe and so on, hoping our Englishness wasn’t given away by the diminutive size of our belt buckles.
We’ve a rest day tomorrow, though resting doesn’t seem necessary. Lucky really, because they’re often the most tiring days of the lot.