Sunday, May 10, 2009

lesson seven: tiger mountain

a map

Though it is supposed to be warm and sunny, the skies are dark and rainy, wet streets and a muddy yard. Go back inside and wait for a few minutes and when you come back out the rain is reduced to a damp drizzle . Saddle up and hit the road.

Follow the usual route, across the Montlake Bridge and then through the nice, mossy neighborhoods. Under an old bridge and then to an even nicer part of town with a view of the lake. In the distance, under an unpleasant sky promising a miserable day, the Issaquah Alps are visible. A series of small mountains thrusting out from the grander Cascades. They are today's objective. The nearest is infested with undoubtedly palatial homes almost to the summit. Behind that residential mountain, the peak of the tallest of the visible Alps is shrouded in cloud. A daring objective, to say the least.

Returning to your bike, you find a flat tire. An irritating fact of life. A spare tube is an easy, quick remedy. Tightening the quick release leads to an unprecedented failure: the skewer snaps, rendering itself useless. Better here than in many other places, however: walk the bike half a mile down the boulevard and purchase a new one from the triathlete's shop. Resume riding along the the winding shore of the great lake and climb steep roads up to the altitude of the bridge. The view to the south is the same as the west: the Mountain King is hidden behind grumblingly gray skies. The ride along the bridge and across the island is perfectly pedestrian. A handful of wealthy commuters on expensive machines. Mysterious Dan Henrys stenciled at intervals along the paths and sidewalks.

Now on the eastide, follow the path across the marsh to a new street -- a new road, totally unexplored. Turn right and follow it past bland condos overlooking the spring-lush marshlands. Quickly the little highway, clearly descended from simpler country ancestors, becomes a massive freeway-like thoroughfare, cutting through the woods thick and green on both sides. Some thoughtful engineer considered the occasional bicyclist and included a bike lane for our convenience. Cars buzz by at high speed.

Shortly thereafter the town of Newcastle appears. On its most important road, it is represented by little more than tasteless buildings occupied by the usual nationally branded corporate entities, all dwarfed by their huge moats of parked automobiles. These buildings somehow manage to be more attractive than the town hall, which occupies a shit-brown sheet metal building. A dismal no-place to be left behind.

Not far beyond the main drag is a vestigial farm: a collection of old working buildings in a field of meticulously manicured lawn. The last reminder, isolated by a concrete wall topped with a steel guardrail, of what was once here only a few decades ago.

The little highway is densely populated by large trucks carrying various forms of construction equipment. The first wave in an unstoppable army of development that eats farmland and woodland and spits out the same old boring shit you see everywhere else. The trucks rumble and grumble and spit out fumes and disappear out of sight down the highway. Thankfully, turn left onto one of the remaining ancestral country roads and leave all that behind.

Now ride on one of those perfect two lane highways plowing its way through a deep green valley. Gentle hills ease you along the miles and the road sways and turns against the contours of the low hills. To the right, verdant ranchland populated by alert horses and to the left, woods and the occasional mildewing homestead.

It is one of the perfect bicycle experiences, to spin at a leisurely 17mph along a country road on a warm, cloudy day marked with the occasional sun burst, spooking horses and rabbits and birds. Stop and eat trail mix next to a field where two horses live. They are blindfolded and about a hundred yards away, but somehow they know exactly where you are and run from one side of the enclosure to other, their ears pricked in your direction unsure of any escape route. Watch one tense and then run away when you pull your bike back and remount it.

Later the road becomes even more ancestral, a narrow street through dark green woods. A woman is walking her horse alongside the roadway here. Give her a very wide berth, all the way to the opposite fogline, and still she seems irritated at your "Good afternoon there." Pass her by and follow the road as it edges up the side of the mountain and then back down again. Find a cabin to live in for the summer, foraging berries and snaring game like a hermit.

After a fiercely short and quick descent back into the valley, the road meets a local highway. The bike map refuses to give any information -- just a white line labeled "18." Feel a little nervous about riding on it for a few miles, but convince yourself: "Most highways have a breakdown lane. Why wouldn't this one?" And for a while, you're right. It's easy. You start to feel pretty good chugging up a 6.5% grade alongside the roaring traffic.

Then it turns bad. The shoulder begins to narrow, then all but disappears. A guardrail just to your right, a few inches from your handlebars. Beyond that, a steep culvert leading into the woods. To the left, traffic. Traffic, in all the horrible, instantly deadly senses of that seemingly harmless word. The traffic that maims. The traffic that takes. Semitrucks, passing at top speed within arm's reach. Terror. The feeling that a mistake, yours or theirs, could lead to death, quickly banished but just as quickly refreshed. After each unfeeling automobile passes a feeling of shaking relief overcomes you and you find it hard to keep the bike going in the exact line required of it at this moment. Then the unmistakable ground-rumble of another truck or RV approaches. Eventually, after what seems like hours, a turn out appears in the distance. It proves little more welcoming than the roadway.

Not far past the asocial parking area a branch rests on the side of the road, blocking the scant shoulder entirely. Stop and wait for traffic to subside with a shaky, lightheaded feeling before riding around it. What are you doing here? Why did you do this? Why did you ever think this would be a good idea?

At some point this hell ends and the trailhead parking lot appears at Tiger Mountain Pass, elevation 1,375 feet. Cross the damned highway and find yourself in a parking lot surrounded by SUVs. One mountain biker makes fun of the "ten speed" between your legs. Shrug your shoulders and say, "Worth a try."

The trail is very steep, but doable. However the memory of the 18 highway still lingers. Dread forming at the base of your skull and sowing doubt. Why waste time trying to ride a road bike up the side of a mountain when the sequel to the worst bicycling experience of your life awaits? Stop and sit in a sunspot for a few minutes and try to focus on the woods and the miracle of being here, so far away home, entirely on the strength of your very own legs. A miracle. This is why you ride your bike: to be in the woods by yourself forty miles from home. But always your thoughts turn to the drone of the 18 highway not more than a quarter mile away.

Ride a few hundred more yards and begin to feel more doubts -- with fresh legs, this ride would be invigorating. Sandwiched between two 35 mile rides, however, it feels more like a slog. Stop again and decide. Turn around. Give up. Go home. You're not getting to the top today.

Walk the bike down the steep dirt road and say hello to the chuffing mountain bikers. At the trailhead, do not waste time and just mount the tired old bike for the return trip. The descent on 18 proves to be a significant improvement over the ascent. This side of the highway features a luxurious ten foot shoulder for its entirety, allowing a mind-clearing highspeed ride down the pass. Spin out a 53x12 gear (45 mph) and try out an extreme aero tuck. What was twenty of the worst minutes of your life is transformed into an exhilarating five minute rollercoaster. At the bottom, rejoin the little country road rejuvenated and refreshed, even through the penultimate objective of the entire ride was abandoned. On a whim decide to change the route for the way home: loops, even incomplete ones, are far superior to spur routes. Ride between two of the Issaquah Alp's peaks: Tiger and Squak. Laugh to yourself when you see just how high Tiger Mountain looks from this vantage.

Follow the highway into downtown Issaquah, where you stop to take one last look at your victor. Now dark stormclouds gather behind it, perhaps to celebrate your own failure.

From here out the ride takes a familiar vein -- the I-90 trail through the eastern suburbs of Seattle. The day's weather continues to slowly improves the closer to home you get, and by the time the final span of the I-90 bridge comes into view, it could hardly be better. An almost perfect day ending better than it might have. Tiger Mountain can wait.


  1. you're makin me worry about you. no more writing about you almost dying please.

  2. okay. i will try to avoid near death bicycle experiences.

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