Back home again: progressively following the Naches River to Chinook Pass, Mt. Rainier Park, and down again to Silver Springs campground. Up 4,400 vertical feet, down 2800', going from duff basalt desert ridges through dry lodgepole forest, into the cloud belt rain forest. An uphill slog of 65 miles, then down 10 more.
On most days, this would have been an awesome ride. Today, it was all of that, but it also almost took our lives. The weather was vaguely overcast, portending incoming marine air and a mild pacific storm. NOAA called for the possibility of "brief, intense afternoon thunderstorms and showers." We worked our way up the pass, pausing every 2 hours/20 miles to rest and see the kids.
With 15 miles to go before the summit, clouds began to coalesce, and I asked Cheryl if she thought we should prepare for rain. I brought along a jacket and pants, we loaded up with water, instructed Cody to meet us seven miles up the hill - we were starting the final climb, now - "and come and get me if it starts to rain", Cheryl said.
After three miles, I saw a squall line building to the southwest in front of us. When I saw a small curtain of rain develop, I swerved left to the closest trees, hoping to get my pants and jacket on so I could wait out the rain under the evergreen canopy in relative comfort, as I had through all the other mountain thunderstorms we'd seen.
I walked in about 15-20 feet, leaned my bike against a Doug fir, took off my fanny pack, and got the rain clothes out. Rain drops started to drift through the 150-200' canopy of the forest. Just then, I saw the squall line hit - with an unexpected force.
From all around me came the unmistakable bone deep crunch of large trees breaking off and crashing to the ground. I've cut down a few trees in my life, and the sound one one falling you never forget. It's also one you don't want to be anywhere near. I was in an "old growth" forest at about 3800', with trees ranging in diameter from one to five feet. I looked up, and it wasn't just branches tumbling down. Whole trees, even the biggest ones, were swaying, then bending sharply overhead in the sudden gale force wind. I raced toward the highway, which was 25' wide with about 20-30' of cleared ground on either side. The middle of the road, though the safest place to be, was still potentially in the path of any tree coming down.
When riding on an airplane, I've read the instructions and heard the speech, about leaving your belongings and heading for the exit when told to do so. I've occasionally wondered whether I would follow this advice. No way, I think; of course I'll pick up my computer (or whatever other valuable item I might have with me). Now, though, I know exactly what I'll do.
It never entered my mind to grab my bike or my fanny pack, which held a cell phone and a digital camera. I raced to the center of the highway unencumbered, in full flight, full of fright, but ready to fight.
Cheryl was there, too. We rapidly spun in circles, trying to simultaneously watch for the danger from above, or from the highway. She took the downhill lane, I, the uphill. We watched for traffic and for trees, arms akimbo, eyes spread wide. The rain was horizontal, blowing directly (thank God) down the road. Trees fell all around us, parallel to, not across the road. The screech of the wind, the roar through the trees, and the crack and thunderous rumbling fall of their bodies was all around us. We had to shout to be heard.
"Watch for traffic," I yelled.
"I'm waiting for Cody," Cheryl answered.
"How do you know he'll be here?!"
"I told him to come back if it started to rain hard!"
"Do you think he'll assume this is hard?" I said. Just then, hail the size of buckeyes pierced my skin. It was hard to look up the road, into the hail and wind, but a glance in that direction revealed Bikrutz slowly motoring towards us. Cheryl and I raced to the side door, which whipped open hard as we entered.
"Let's go, Cody. Let's find someplace more protected. Trees are falling all around us!" I shouted.
"What about the bikes; we got to get your bikes!" Annie blubbered.
"Don't worry about the bikes, Annie," Cheryl soothed. "They're safe, they're hidden behind the trees."
I was struggling with the door. It slammed open twice as I tried to pull it against the wind. We were drenched, and still worried about getting crushed. There didn't seem to be any safe place; trees lined the highway for miles in each direction, with no large cleared areas either way. We rolled slowly downhill as we discussed what to do. After about a mile, we decided that it made no sense to ride in the direction the storm was going; it would be better to go back and get the bikes, then go on to the next campground. Hopefully, we'd ride it out.
By this time, the hail had stopped, and the wind gusts had eased. Trees were no longer toppling. We stopped about a mile after getting the bikes, at a turnout for slow vehicles. No one was passing us in either direction. We just sort of hung out, attempting to make a plan for the rest of the day. After an hour or so, the rain died down; I started to get my riding gear on, and put fenders on the single. This took another 30 minutes, by which time the sun had come out. We told Cody to drive on to the summit, and we began to pedal again.
For the first four or five miles, it was a pleasant ride; a little cold, but we were dressed for it. The sun was in front of us, the clouds were lifting, and the road was clear of traffic, except for a state patrol car, which went by twice, and a snow plow, which was pushing branches off the road. Someone had already chain sawed the two or three trees which had fallen across the highway. It seemed a little odd the traffic was so light, but then I figured that, with the storm and all, people just didn't want to be driving up the pass. Soon, the grade steepened, and we had to find our lowest gear. By now it was 5 PM, the temperature was dropping, so the extra work helped keep us warm.
We could see the pass, probably three miles ahead, but by now we were used to the idea that those three miles would probably take half an hour, and the sight of the summit would just haunt us during that time. All of a sudden, a whole pack of cars and pick-ups came rumbling up. We realized the road must have been closed below, while it was being cleared, this whole time. We kept on pushing, marveling here and there at the fallen giants, and how they all missed the road.
At the top, we switched to fleece uppers, ear warmers, and gloves, and pulled the hoods of our rain jackets over our helmets. It was 45 F, and foggy, with a misty wetness saturating the road and our clothes. Our 3,000 foot drop through Mt. Rainier Park was work, not fun. It was also done, for me at least, in a post-exhaustive state. The falling trees had depleted all of my adrenaline stores, and I had no reserves of courage or strength left for the descent. So I just survived my way down, calling on the instincts of the past 3300 miles to get me down safely.
We made it by 6:30, enough time to make and enjoy a spaghetti dinner in the forest service campground just outside of Rainier Park. This is a place I've driven by many times on my way to ski at Crystal Mountain, 6 miles up the road. Now, it looked like the best place to be. Our only worry was: tomorrow, what route would we take to get home? Our choices were, after the 42 mile downhill to the outskirts of Tacoma: through the industrial tide flats (no hills, but semis everywhere), or through the inner city (lots of hills, not necessarily a friendly environment), or go around both through the suburbs (hills, 10 miles out of our way). At this point, its very frustrating having a vehicle, and knowing we could be home in a little over an hour. But no one has suggested we drive it all at once, not yet.
**Next Day's Journal**
Miles: Al 75; Cheryl 56.
Total Miles: 3394