A few days prior, wanting a peaceful ride, my friend suggests a route with no motor-vehicle traffic, guaranteed. Turns out there's a reason there aren't any cars.
Is it coarsely graded, unconsolidated glacial debris, enormous roots undulating beneath packed dirt, a sand bar, gravel, a roller coaster or a stone-cold river bed?
These questions rattle around my head, as do my back teeth, while I pedal and bounce along a section of Carbon River Road that sidles up to the Carbon River in Mount Rainier National Park.
The bike ride starts innocently enough.
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A few days prior, wanting a peaceful ride, my friend the mountain climber/geologist suggests a route with no motor-vehicle traffic, guaranteed. “There’ll be NO cars!” He enthuses – I don’t even look into where we’re going. I’m all in. At 10 miles round trip, I look forward to an easy ride under luminous and variable skies.
Turns out there’s a reason there aren’t any cars.
In 2006, during the worst flooding in a decade, torrential floodwaters gouged out two miles of the road past the Carbon River Ranger Station (the park’s northwest entrance).
In their wake, having disposed of the asphalt, floodwaters formed new channels, replacing the road with heterogeneous moraine. In December of that year, adding injury to injury, a wind storm causing a state of emergency felled trees in this temperate, old-growth rain forest.
Having already repaired it over the years, the National Park Service (NPS) abandoned efforts to mend the wrecked road along the upper reaches of the Carbon River and closed it to motor vehicles permanently. Cyclists and hikers 1, motor vehicles: 0.
Thanks to the NPS and volunteers, this stretch of Carbon River Road provides car-free access to a number of trailheads, including the Wonderland Trail and Chenius Falls. It is one of the few places bicycles are allowed in the park.
At first we roll smoothly under a lush woodland canopy.
The air smells of soggy bark, wet leaves and rich earth. Deep-green moss like sodden velvet covers tree branches in this damp and shady place. The level, hard-packed dirt road crunches quietly under our wheels.
As we ride, a couple of green-horns out for a slow ride, the terrain morphs from an enjoyable scene to technical maneuvering.
Challenged and peevish, I ruminate: Always suspect a friend with a degree in geology. They have minerals locked in on the strands of their DNA. Riding along the brushy fringes of a glacier, where roads used to be, won’t phase them. If anything it encourages them in their quest to live life on the edge.
Heading east the Carbon River runs on the left. Rock flour turns the water milky-white as it rushes along its bed. When the sun breaks through the clouds the water shimmers in silvery bursts. The smell of wet rock fills the air.
I look down, and twinges of adrenaline bloom in my legs riding so close to crumbling slopes. (While never in actual danger – we’re talking a few feet here – I believe the situation calls for dramaturgy.)
Well into half a century, I have lost the nerve to zig and/or zag, along with a lot of the collagen that used to make falling quaint.
I wrestle with these thoughts and my bike.
While my friend enjoys the knobby tires on his old, 10-ton Schwinn, patches of mud suck and grab my smooth tires, sliding them diagonally out from under me, propelling me into skids – tires going maybe left, maybe right …
Turns and twisted descents of varying angles plunge us down small gullies filled with rounded river stones and launch us back up toward new challenges — like sand. Sand, buzzkill of the fast, steady ride.
Fallen trees, laying where they land, get segments cut away to clear the path. They sit like gargantuan sentries on both sides of the road. We roll between massive cross sections of trunks.
Occasionally a root-ball from a fallen goliath encrusted with dirt towers overhead. The root ends, like twisted, bony fingers, look as if they might unfurl a pointy tip and ensnare Snow White during her dark night in the forest (or me, during my worrying in the broad daylight).
The river’s glacial meltwaters deposit layers of sediment causing the river to braid – meandering, separating and coming back together. Like people who need to do their own thing, but like each other enough to come back together occasionally, before eventually joining the Puyallup River in Orting.
To protect fragile trails, bicycle access ends about five miles in. Beyond the Ipsut Creek campground only hikers are allowed and must stay on designated trails. We head back. We face the gauntlet in the opposite direction and stay more or less upright.
In what I think is poetic justice, my friend rolls over a stone that punches the bike seat into his tender backside. His eyes widen then narrow, and a choice expletive erupts and floats away into the valley.
Online, visitrainier.com says, “ … since the 5.0-mile Carbon River Road is virtually level, it’ll be perfect for children, adults towing children and folks looking for an easy bike ride.”
Though there’s little elevation gain, it is not level. This ride is easy to love – but flat it is not.
I wonder, straddling the horizontal tube, and pushing my bike over a gully of stones, have I passed the age to ride like I did when I believed I had nothing but years ahead of me? Big clouds quickly move across the blue sky.
As with Yin and Yang, contrary forces might complement and depend on each other. Yes I ride jostled out of my comfort zone, but the vexation seems a fair price to pay to enjoy a road blissfully free of cars.
Remembering that I’m not made of glass (at least for now) boosts my confidence. I consider another valuable riding lesson — look into where you plan to ride. But I’m glad I didn’t. I might have talked myself out of it.
I would happily do it again, to see that incredible and peaceful part of Mount Rainier National Park.
And to sidle up to a river flowing from a glacier. Like that happens every day.
Marie Koltchak works for The Seattle Times in Resale and Permissions. She received this quote in an e-mail tagline: “In the stream mighty waters draw much stone and rubble along with them; mighty spirits many stupid and bewildered heads.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
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