Richard J. Severson

I wrote this little essay for the staff newsletter at Marylhurst College, where I worked as a librarian for a number of years.

I decided to follow in my boss Jan Fortier’s footsteps and do the Cycle Oregon bike ride.  Jan has done it twice, most recently in 1995.  This year the route was in the Great Basin area of Southern Oregon.

The 470 mile ride is not easy.  For seven days you give up much of your self to become part of an itinerant bike town.  Our tents outnumbered the homes in every community we visited except Klamath Falls. 

You get used to things as the week progresses: standing in line to use strong smelling port-a-potties; guzzling water by the pint even after you’ve developed an aversion to it; listening to the guy in the next tent wheeze, snort, and fart his way through a blissful night’s rest; chowing down on pasta salad at every meal; feeling numb and wounded in your backside and crotch.

The scenery is spectacular, of course, though it is hard to appreciate when you are tired and sweaty and worried about whether you can muster the stamina to make the next hill.  No kidding, on day 5 of the ride there was a 3-5% uphill grade that extended for 30 miles.  I made it to the top, but I lost all hope first. 

I didn’t see much wildlife–a jackrabbit, 3 dead deer, numerous ground squirrels, geese and ducks on the wing, one small herd of pronghorns. 

Most memorable to me was the humor that people displayed in the face of their fatigue.  A Richard Gere look-alike from San Jose told jokes at a rest stop on day 6.  They weren’t especially funny jokes, but, feeling tired and homesick, we laughed loud all the same.  Here’s one of them: A horse walks into a bar.  Bartender says, why the long face?

At lunch on the Crater Lake day, a silver haired rider did a perfect leg kicking jig to a sweet blue grass tune.  (We had live musical entertainment at every lunch stop.)  After lunch, as I was beginning to pedal up the hill, I overheard the old dancer bantering with his cycle mates.  Apparently, they were teasing him about his next birthday.  He proclaimed that the only present he wanted was to have a choir of naked 90 year old women serenade him with “Amazing Grace.” 

The Cycle Oregon tour promotes rural Oregon life.  Two thousand riders represent a substantial economic windfall to tiny towns like Bonanza and Prospect.  Young and old usually had something to hawk: papers, water, pies, wheel barrows, Bibles, private tent space, wild west heritages.

We got the best morning send off from Lakeview, where citizens perched on lawn chairs lining the highway just outside town.  Two old ladies–auntly spinsters, I imagine–stick out in my mind.  They sat erect and proper in house dresses and bonnets, waving politely, charming us with their inviting smiles.  We got the best welcome from the citizens of Chiloquin, who cheered us lustily as if we were Olympic athletes.

I went on the ride with a friend from high school who now lives in Boise.  Back home in South Dakota we used to go duck hunting together.  Typically, we would sleep over at another friend’s house, get up at 3 AM, wolf down coffee, bacon and eggs at Country Kitchen, drive 80 miles to the Whitewater game preserve, throw on chest waders, then plow through freezing waters so that we could begin shooting half an hour before sunrise.  Cycle Oregon proved to be just as memorable and insane.

My favorite town was Bly.  I’ve never seen a tinier church than St. James Catholic, which must have a capacity of less than 50 sinners.  Four equally spaced red signs with white letters grace the highway as it wends into town.  First sign says: A Man A Miss.  Second sign, 100 feet later: A Car A Curve; third: He Kissed The Miss; fourth: And Missed The Curve.  For me, it was kitsch worthy of the quiet, gentle, funny spirit that still survives in rural America.

One final thought: if Jan Fortier decides to take up sky diving, I will not follow her.

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