The bike path has come alive again and so have we. Songbirds call from tree to tree and Bear Creek roars white, frothing up the sides of its banks. My wheels kick up the beeswax musk of crushed cottonwood buds. It is almost unbelievable, this sunshine, streaming unapologetically through vapor lingering in the air. The hills in their returning greenness glow with the sheen of water and light.
I may glide along the path weightless, if it wasn’t for the thirty extra pounds securely attached to my bike: food, sleeping bag, pad, clothes, sunscreen, toothpaste… Jeff and I are preparing for even bigger adventures ahead: testing, training, balancing, hoping we get it all right. Yes, riding bikes sometimes seems like a metaphor for a relationship: pushing through the uphills, calves straining until you don’t think you can go on… Until you reach the summit, of course, realizing how grateful you are to even be here in the first place. And then you relax into the glorious descent (as long as it’s not too steep). Sometimes your feet feel stuck, all clipped in, but then there’s the flipside: liberation in the continual turning of wheels, always taking you someplace new.
Biking riding is vulnerable, though too, body subject to the changing weather, delicate and susceptible to a devastating crash. But. But because we are vulnerable here, riding our bikes, loving each other, everything is so much clearer: vapor rising off warm concrete, the spray of the Applegate River in the sunshine, smell of rain on road, water dripping off our helmets to rest on noses. Because we are vulnerable, we feel more alive. The world seems more real.
This is the earliest either of us have ever toured: late March, a precarious time in Southern Oregon. Last year, we biked to a cabin, but woke to snow. So this year, we choose to stay closer to sea level, but gamble with chilly rainstorms and late frost. The sky is steely grey but bright as we leave the bike path, heading West through the Medford metropolis, soon reaching the colorful fields, open roads, and quiet neighborhood streets of Jacksonville. After a good night’s sleep at our friends’ cozy abode, we’re off, greeting the day with a warming hill climb, actually many. The steep Sterling Creek Road to Little Applegate is the much preferred route between Jacksonville and Upper Applegate Road, quiet and rarely traveled, a consistent up and down over rugged Siskiyou foothills almost meditative.
As we always do, we keep pedaling: past smooth-barked and peeling Madrones, under dripping Douglas-firs and Ponderosas, and alongside Douglas Squirrels, Flickers, and Chickadees announcing their presence. The hills above us are bare and tall, just beginning to blush green. The miles pass that day in a Sunday laziness, sky opening periodically to dust us with a spring shower. However, once we reach Jackson Campground, only ten miles from our destination, we pull our raingear out of the depths of our panniers and pedal furiously for shelter. We spend a restless night lulled by the rushing Cougar Creek at Carberry Campground, dripped on by a leaky tent.
The next morning, the drips ease and we glimpse blue sky breaking behind a heavy Madrone canopy. Stuffing our wet gear in our bags and oatmeal into our bellies, we start pedaling again. The morning glistens, vibrant and refreshed. As we look behind us at the end of Applegate Lake, we see that the Red Butte peaks in California have just received a new dusting of snow. The epitome of Spring is alive in the mountains.
We see only a few cars as we bike the length of the lake again, turning onto French Gulch Road over the Applegate Dam. Catching a last snapshot of the snow covered mountains, we bid adieu, disappearing into the forest again. We begin another climb: 1,000 ft and 5 miles of gravel, Squaw Creek and muddy puddles our stalwart companions. This is the kind of road where people report cougar sightings: silent, remote, rugged, flanked by deep woods on either side. “It’s like we’re not even supposed to be here,” Jeff remarks in awe. I agree. A secret, clandestine bike invasion, party of two.
Soon enough, muscles about to give up, we reach Squaw Lakes, shining blue-green in the afternoon light streaming through conifers. Relieved, we nourish ourselves, lay out our wet gear to dry, and hike around the circumference of the lake, seeing it from all angles. That night, we go to sleep wrapped in the silence of solitude. We’re the only ones sleeping there that night, bar the otters, bobcats, and coyotes we know are just nearby. And our bikes, well, they rest too. Learning against the picnic table, flecked with mud and rain, they wait for us to start pedaling again in the morning.