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It’s 94 degrees and unusually humid. My helmet has been off for most the day and my jersey, splayed and slapping my back, couldn’t be more unzipped. I lost count of water bottles somewhere in the mid-teens and I’ve had at least three Cokes. I've been throwing back handfuls of Enduralytes like they were nuts or candy, stuffing them greedily into my crusty cottonmouth. I am now quickly moving from a state of underpreparedness to all-out panic.
It starts with a sticky-tight twinge. A salty torrent has been cascading off the brim of my hat and into my eyes, stinging them, for as long as I can remember. My shifter hoods are swampy and hard to grip. Sweat is flying off my legs, neck and back like an acidic waterfall, a caustic vapor trail for the rest of the pace line to deal with. For hours now I’ve felt submerged or coated but that’s changing. I’m drying up, shrinking back into myself, taut and stingy. Jagged, white chalky lines of salt are starting to show on my bibs and in a ring around my torso, like moraines left by receding glaciers or a high water mark.
Outside the only reliable market/deli in town, Ryan Thomson crouches on the sidewalk beside a very used Chrysler Le Baron. It’s off-white, where it isn’t covered in rust and profane bumper stickers. With the windows rolled down, obscure and unfathomably bad Heavy Metal permeates an otherwise silent ghost-town afternoon. What’s left of the car’s windshield shakes with a rattle and muffled, fuzzy reverb. Across the street, a large wooden building houses several thousand sets of full-sized deer antlers, all in mint condition. A motorcycle and its two riders, all three covered in black leather, American flags and eagles, pulls up behind the Le Baron. Ryan is in the midst of an esoteric conversation with the vehicle’s long-haired, teenage driver. They’ve been shouting and nodding at each other across a passenger seat covered in Budweiser cans for several minutes. I smell exhaust and cigarettes. Dufur is a small town in the rolling, arid and agricultural high plains of Oregon, 70 miles to the south–east of Hood River. Dufur, the ride, is a 125-mile loop which runs along the Columbia River Gorge, up the high rollers, plains and alpine woods of Eastern Oregon and back over the shoulder of Mount Hood before returning to Hood River.
Six or seven gradual switchbacks roll, in less than a mile, to the top of a small hill just outside Hood River and the start of a paved path closed to motorized vehicles. The path continues high into the hillside, wending north and running parallel to the Columbia, periodically revealing majestic views of the wide, flat blue river hundreds of feet below, and the massive mounds of dusty, tan hills, spotted and patched with green, bordering the Gorge to the north. A mile in, the path tunnels directly into the hillside for several hundred yards. Inside, barred windows and breaks in the wall allow sun, fresh air and glimpses of faraway mountains to spill in.
After a short, banking plummet into Mosier, Dry Creek Road climbs on dirt and gravel for three miles atop a rolling rural hill covered in farms, orchards and the occasional stand of pines. At the top, and back on pavement, Seven Mile Road descends in a series of grand and sweeping switchbacks through the bottom of several ridges and valleys, all cascading on to the plains below. From the bottom, Browns Creek Road climbs up the valley, through modern homesteading’s remix the bucolic ideal, behind the town of Dalles. From the road come glimpses of barn-red paint, corrugated steel, raised garden beds, water barrels, pastel Ford F-150’s, solar panels, llamas and native plants, the props of ‘future farming’ or some kind of ‘neo-rural’ lifestyle.