The Oregon Outback was a self-supported bike ride that traversed 360 miles of linked dirt passageways through the middle of Oregon from just north of California to the Washington border. It was an unsanctioned event that inspired and enabled people to experience some of the prettiest country that Eastern Oregon has to offer. In its second and likely final year (as a ride but not as a route), around 150-200 people showed up, leaving Klamath Falls on May 22 at 7am, creating the biggest bikepacking peloton that you've ever seen. Some riders started earlier or later, but most chose the "official" start time and all were determined to reach the top of Oregon, where the Deschutes River flows into the Columbia. Outbackers brought many different approaches to gear and technique and pacing - I documented mine.
The route in red, East of The Cascades, the dry side.
In preparation for the Outback, I modified my fixed gear Surly Steamroller for minimalist bikepacking.
A pair of Salsa Anything Cages added 8 liters of rack-free capacity.
Day 1, around 8:30am - One and a half hours in, this is the first of many livestock gates on the OC&E Trail. You can see some of my other Outback-specific Steamroller modifications: welded stainless steel pump peg, welded Hite Rite Seat Locating Spring anchor (configured to raise from normal, not lower from normal), and a handful of silver-brazed stainless steel water bottle bosses that provided attachment points for a strapless frame bag.
The first opportunity for services: a Sprague River convenience store, around 35 miles in. Here, I met the first of 3 cargo cyclists.
A light rain fell for the first several hours, making surface conditions fast, friendly, and meditative.
Easy cruising . . . until the harsh rain came.
Day 1, around noon - Cargo bike sighting #2. Collin from Cycle Trucks of Sacramento started a day early on his awesome Beavertail cargo bike for a bit of car camping without the car. And why not? So many different ways to do the Outback. So many valid ways to love the Outback.
Day 1, around 6:40pm - I didn't start the Outback with any pace partner arrangements but met and made friends along the way who provided crucial psychological support. These 5 guys (above), from Klamath Falls, were on a 3 day schedule, matching my half-committed finishing goal. Like other ambitious Outback riders, they had a first-day dinner reservation at the on-route Cowboy Dinner Tree, which encouraged expeditious riding: 120 miles in 11 hours. We traveled well together and helped each other roll into the famous cowboy oasis right on schedule: 5:56pm. I didn't have reservations, but the Klamath crew fed me table scraps and the waitstaff insisted on filling and refilling my cup with lemonade. After two hours of of refueling and re-setting, we got back to it. We pacelined toward the fading sun, into Deschutes National Forest, to face the Outback crux known simply as "Red Sauce".
The Red Sauce, a 20 mile section of the Outback, featuring 3" deep red volcanic dust and gravel (experienced on the 2014 Outback as a frustrating slog), had turned into dense smooth dirt. The day's rain or perhaps a combination of accumulated meteorologic/geologic influences turned it into red carpet.
Day 2, around 9am - Yesterday at the Cowboy Dinner Tree, the Klamath crew and I met Bobby (above middle) who owns a gravel-loving bike shop in Stillwater, Oklahoma. After we all crossed the Deschutes National Forest by way of a midnight gravel paceline, the Klamath guys were ready stop and set up camp. Bobby and I, however, felt too good to stop and given that we both had such minimalist kits, night time camping was not a cheery prospect. I mentioned to Bobby that I wanted to "talk about possibly riding through to Prineville." He responded, "Lets do it!" End of talk - I was suddenly on a two-day Oregon Outback schedule.
We said good-bye, thanks, and good-luck to the Klamath crew and rode off into the night. The clouds parted and our path became lit by starlight (and Bobby's mega-lumen Moots-mounted lighting system). We traded stories and pulled each other through. As the sun rose, we approached Prineville, which meant another opportunity for restaurant food and comfort. We arrived around 8am and quickly found a breakfast spot. After eating, we checked in at the Good Bike Company, where Outback riders were offered on-the-spot repair and encouragement. Owner, James Good, kept tabs on the Outback riders and was able to give us a status report. He reported that my friend, Austin Horse, who spent the first 12 hours of Outback at a scorching pace (25 hour finish time), had been thwarted by the rain and a minimalist kit with little in the way of adequate rain gear. With the easy rain turning cold and heavy between hours 10 & 14, James told us that Austin had began to shiver uncontrollably. Making it to Prineville, he had sheltered for the night in a motel.
Almost while hearing of this, as if on cue, a motel-freshened Austin (above left) rolled up! We took a few minutes to celebrate our chance reunion and chatted about our respective trials. Bobby and I then buckled down to ride as Austin casually mentioned, like Babe Ruth pointing where he would hit a homer, that he was going to eat breakfast and then catch us at the base of the Ochoco Mountains, just a few miles from where we were standing. Austin Horse has a race-winning resume with an inordinate number of messenger race victories. With this in mind, Bobby and I pedaled off, fully expecting Austin to catch us wherever and whenever he wanted to catch us.
A little backstory: I've watched Austin do his thing at a few Cycle Messenger World Championships, so in 2013 I invited him to compete in Portland's edition of the Disaster Relief Trials, a cargo bike competition that simulates various post-disaster supply runs. Austin liked the concept, flew in from New York and proceeded to slay the competition, offering impressive proof of cargo bike relief capabilities.
Knowing this, I anticipated that when he caught us in the Ochocos, Austin would lead us up and over as fast as we wanted to go (or faster).
Day 2, around 9:40am - Bobby and I had just started to climb the Ochocos when Austin arrived right on schedule. Upon seeing Austin's smiling face next to me, in the middle of my favorite ride, in the middle of Oregon's Ochocos splendor, I found myself finally letting go of my long-ride survival caution. Shoulder to shoulder, we rode up the Ochocos, putting space between Bobby and us. I rode all out while Austin seemed to be sort of "hastily cruising." For the first time on this year's ride I felt strain and distress but we made it a climb to remember. Once we crested, I thanked Austin and told him what to expect ahead (my second favorite descent in the world) and watched him pedal away. I waited a couple minutes for Bobby to arrive, grin on my face and junk in my legs.
The Ochoco descent involves following and periodically fording Trout Creek on a swoopy dirt road. The stream crossings are all deep and challenging but doable. I cleaned 3 of 4 and learned later that Austin cleaned 4 of 4. You can't charge down a mountain and through stream crossings at full speed without feeling 9 years old and utterly entertained by the world.
The descent gave way to a 20-mile section of adhesive mud, the kind that rudely infests drivetrain components and any space between tire and frame. For a couple miles, the fastest way to ride was to stop riding every 50 meters, find a de-clogging stick, de-clog, and repeat. At the start of the Outback I lamented not having fenders; now I was celebrating my unfettered frame. Anything other than moto-spaced fenders would have been trouble (slower riders enjoyed a firm dried-up version). Lesson logged for future adventure biking.
Day 2, around 2pm - After struggling up a few punchy hills with extreme mud-clog resistance, the toll of the Outback started to dominate my spirit while it seemed that Bobby was un-phased or possibly even enjoying a second wind. I had to admit to myself that our paces were no longer compatible. After 31 hours of continuous focus on pedaling forward, pedaling through, I quickly developed an unwavering urge to be still - to sleep.
To keep my bike light and nimble, my sleeping gear was limited to an emergency bivy sack. This required me to ride through the cold night and sleep during the warmer day. Now with the warm sun finally in the sky, I had my first opportunity to rest. Quickly recognizing this, I easily convinced Bobby to charge on without me. We exchanged 4 or 5 words of encouragement and then I watched him ride away. I breathed deeply, took in the beauty around me, and then started to feel everything slow down inside. I hoisted my body and bike over the barbed wire fence (photo above) and walked 15 feet to an adequate hiding place. I logged 3 hours of dreamless glorious sleep, woke up, and in a comfortable haze, spent 30 minutes resetting my bike and taking pictures. The golden hour was approaching.
And then my next riding partner appeared. Jonathan Maus, editor of bikeportland.org, rolled up with a big smile. He was riding his first Oregon Outback and killing it. We chatted briefly then took off together, riding into the sunset, exchanging reactions of gratitude. The long approach to Antelope, after the Ochecos, is characterized by a smooth descending and rolling gravel road that runs the crest of a rounded ridge-line, framed by grass-covered hills and soaring vistas. Jonathan and I stayed in contact for a few miles but then naturally settled into a dividing pace. Reaching Antelope after dark, I found a hidden water spigot and filled up, taking enough time to run into Jonathan again, who hadn't been too far behind. By now, I had lost my drive for swiftness but was intent on finishing the last 70 miles to the Columbia River. I napped a bit, slogged a bit, then finally saw the sky begin to lighten as I meekly attacked the last big climb that approached Shaniko (the last service town on the route). As I passed through, I waved to Outback campers and noted two closed convenience stores. From here to the end, I maintained a consistent 10mph death pedal as the landscape opened up to ranch and farmland and Columbia River Basin vistas. This last bit of gravel routing uses farm service roads on rolling terrain, offering big Cascade mountain views to the West and agriculture-sculpted fields all around. All alone, I gutted out the final 40 miles. Never straining too much but laboring with a wilted spirit. I finished at 12:30pm on Sunday, Day 3, 53 and 1/2 hours after I started.