I think I was nervous about the Outback. I didn't sleep well for an entire week leading up to it. My mind was wound up with to-do lists and what-if scenarios. I had managed some good hard 60 to 70 mile road rides, but hadn't done much fully loaded. What about the Bay Area Ridge Trail? That was 300 miles in 3 days, but that was six months ago and we packed light. What if I implode on day one? etc. etc. The Amtrak from Portland to Klamath Falls was brilliant. All the staff were super cool and accommodating. Turns out I didn't even need to box my bike, since they added another baggage car. It was a real treat just to be able to kick back and see the state beyond the I-5 corridor. Misty cliffs and trees as far as the eye could see rose above the tracks. It was fantastic to not have to deal with car traffic to start this adventure. We gathered on the platform excitedly, eyed each others rigs, asking about itineraries, pretending we were cool.
Before we get into the meat of this thing: my official write-up, let me just say that I'm sensitive to the fact that this route is already very well documented and described via the interwebs. These are funny and magnificent times we live in. What follows is my take on the Outback. I wanted to strike a balance between experiencing the thing and documenting the thing. If I put too much of an emphasis on photographing, then it feels like I'm working and not involved in the thing, so my challenge was to take a step back and get personal images that reminded me of my experience. I also don't want to over-describe the thing, since as we learned this year, it's going to be different every year and weather conditions can change everything. And in the end you're going to have to go out and experience the Outback for yourself.
All right…let's do this. 5 guys in a room at the Maverick Hotel. Alarm goes at 5:30. We wake to the sound of rain. Ugh! Really? We scurry about the room making preparations. I make oatmeal and coffee, put on kit, stuff clothes in seat bag. Are we going to do this? Mike says “I’m not taking another day off of work, so we’re doing this” And that’s that. It’s one thing to limp home from a cold 2 or 3 hour ride around town, but yet another to ride in the rain for 12 hours. Weatherman says 60 percent chance, which in Oregon means a 100 percent chance that it will rain 60 percent of the time.
I think it’s funny that we went to great lengths to ride Amtrak down with the group. We stayed at the hotel where everyone departs, but when it comes close to “Grand Depart” time, we decided to head out a half hour early to “beat the pack” and avoid traffic. We had a 7:30 pm reservation at the Cowboy Dinner Tree. Not to be missed, they say. 30 ounces of steak, they say. Someone said if you want to catch your dinner time on day one, you’d better leave early. There seems to be a lot of that kind of word-of-mouth knowledge about the Outback, especially since last year was the first official group run of this “event.” We push bikes to the parking lot and pose for the obligatory group shot. And we’re off! I spend the first five minutes pushing buttons on my Garmin, trying to get a track that I can follow. I don’t think I could tell you what Klamath Falls looks like. It looks like a wet bike path and I’m chasing my crew. This crew is Brent, who is my friend and former cyclocross nemesis and his usual long-distance riding buddies: Steve, Mike, and Tom. Steve and Mike are riding road bikes with 40c tires. Tom, Brent, and I are riding mountain bikes. Everyone seems to have taken the same approach to packing: frame bags.
We race each other on the bike path and slow for the cross streets. I finally load the correct track and now I can calm down and pedal. We hit fairly smooth dirt with scattered rocks at mile 11 and Steve flats. I feel the group vibe deflate as quickly as Steve’s tire. It’s not like none of us have flatted before, but it’s like flatting on race day. It’s a buzz kill and you start to wonder just how many flats will we have over the course of 4 days, since what we just rode though was in no way rocky or rough. The real buzz kill is how many folks pass us at this early stage. So much for getting out ahead of everyone. I try to remain positive and see the opportunity to take photos of everyone riding together. I know it will only get strung out after today. We hoot like it’s a cross race and cheer the crowd. Steve installs a new tube and we’re off, passing when we can, saying hi to all. It’s mostly all flat and fast doubletrack with gates. Gate after gate. I loved the pack energy with people holding gates and saying whatsup! to each other. This race-not-a-race thing is pretty cool.
I had imagined that we’d hit Sprague River around 10:30, which turns out to be about right. There isn’t much in Sprague River, but there is the Running Bear Deli, which is open today and serving up hot coffee and oversized burritos. It’s not pissing rain at this point, but it is cold when you stop pedaling, so I head inside and wait my turn to fill my bottles and order food. The friendly couple seems a bit overwhelmed by this horde of dudes in helmets and outerwear, but they’re handling it and beggars can’t be choosers. I bought two chocolate chip cookies for a dollar and head back outside. I had brought a roast beef sandwich on a baguette, which I devoured on the spot and threw the bean burrito in my backpack for later.
We roll out into cattle country and promptly flat at mile 43. You just have to give into these occurrences and help out as you can. We triple-team the flat change. Someone gets out the fresh tube and pumps it. Steve checked the casing and found a crazy little razor sharp sliver of stone protruding. We remount and keep rolling through cow country. Honestly, the rest of day one is a bit of a blur. I remember chasing storms in the distance…or were they chasing us? I remember getting into the trees and an endless pumice climb that empties onto endless paved rollers. I remember gate parties with Franzia boxed wine and the dudes on tall bikes. I remember the dude from Chicago on a Trek with his classic rock and positive attitude. He always had either Eagles “Hotel California” or BOC’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” playing on his portable speaker.
We stopped by Long Creek for a snack break. This part of the day had become a bit of a grind. We still had a good twenty miles to go before we were done for the day. The road turned to washboard with standing puddles. I remember switching tracks on the road, looking for relief from the jarring. I ran across Alan, from Portland at this point. He looked haggard and he spoke about guys that had called it a day already and had opted for bush camping a few miles back. He said he was aiming for Fort Rock, which seemed ambitious, but I wished him well. We hit pavement and rollers with charred trees. Steve and Mike got excited about an area for bouldering with official camping sites nearby. How do you calculate the difference between pedaling a road bike with just two water bottles and minimal tools and a 50-pound loaded mountain bike? If math was your thing, I’m sure you could produce an equation, but I know what it feels like in my legs and in my mind. In the end it always comes down to ignoring that desire to plop down on the side of the road and collapse or that urge to grab the edge of the passing pickup or just beg a ride. I never actually want to quit, but just imagine different scenarios beyond the obvious pedaling this heavy rig over another gravel roller.
And finally we arrive at The Cowboy Dinner Tree! It really is a low-slung cabin of a steak house in the middle of nowhere. We arrived with only 10 minutes to spare for our 7:30 reservation. We sit down with the same determination that got us here. We will destroy that salad, those cowboy beans, those rolls, that baked potato, that pink lemonade. My god! What adult drinks pink lemonade? Today, we do. And by the time the ridiculously thick and oversized steak came, I felt slightly defeated. I can only manage maybe 8 of the 30 ounces of red meat. Not to worry, we weren't the first to have leftovers at the CDT. Plastic bags are handed out and we carried this meat for the next two days. Some speared it with a knife and tore caveman-style chunks off. I added it to my chili at camp the next night for an extra protein boost. I ate it for breakfast lunch and dinner until the weather turns warm near Prineville. But I digress…we still had six miles to pedal into Silver Lake and it was almost fully dark by now. We joined a gang of Portlanders with grills strapped to their bikes. We chased lights into the distance until we found ourselves at long last in the city park. When we arrived at the park there was talk that a local had opened up his barn and there was a fire going. Seemed like a great place for a party, but we wanted peace and quiet, so despite the prospect of a rainy night, we set up right there on the grass. Tom and I had tents, the rest of the gents just had bivies. A sip of whiskey and lights out for these weary travelers.