Solstice, or nearly so

“A javelin of white and flashing red, threading down shining dark tarmac; winding along a river torrent in a land long-ago ripped asunder where jagged scars rise above the deep water.” or  “A middle age man biking alone in freezing rain.” The same thing except for the perception the words create.

The week before Christmas I sit in my car watching the frozen centers of raindrops hit the windshield and melt against the glass. The night is the trifecta of Columbia Gorge winter weather; cold from the North wind from the East, rain from the West, while the south, blocked by a atmospheric wall of wind stays silent. I curse my luck; the last chance before the beginning of the annual holiday madness to get out and ride and this is what the world offers me; rain, wind, sleet. The air a bone chilling mix of water and near-freezing temperatures numb my fingers as I get the bike ready. The only heat is the fire within some days; and on those days the only solution is to get moving.

The Dalles Oregon River Bike paths wind through industrial areas and swampy low lands; past a floating crane yard, the animal shelter and the new Google plant. The river runs through the Gorge Created in the violent upheavels of the Pleistocene ended a mere 700,000 years ago, then scoured by repeated floods at the end of the last ice-age leaving behind a raw and beautiful landscape of thousand foot walls around a mile-wide river. It is beautiful country even in the wind and cold. Despite the current rain the land is dry and the plants typical of the High Desert region; grasslands with pine and sage cling to rocky slopes. Pedaling along the miles in silence, the darkness broken only by my own lights while my skin hardens to the sting of sleet I feel first resolution, then rythm and finally joy in this journey; this is not bad luck but an unintended consequence of a lifetime of decisions, both good and bad, that bring me to this place. Like the night there has been both good and bad, pain and beauty, and whether it has been a failure of an adventure entirely depends on how one looks at it.

The dark and narrow trail follows aincient paths worn by feet; in a previous time this place was the nexus of human life in the region as the annual Salmon runs fed nations. It was made at walking speeds and biking in the dark requires care; there are no guardrails above the cliffs or warning of turns, but  given the weather oncoming traffic isn’t much of an issue either. By the Google plant where these words are housed the path widens and a young pair of workers walk in the rain; his voice deep and carrying and her long hair braided as she nods in agreement to something but the meaning is lost as slip past and continue along the river and under the Railroad and up a hill to the end of the trail at an overlook by a museum.

The rain pauses finally and in the stillness the smell of pine and wet sage fill the air with the memory of spring. In a few months the skies will clear and the hillsides explode in yellow and purple for a few weeks before the heat rises and the sun bakes the grasses brown, but in that time the sage will be sticky and sweet, pungent even, and the moment between the rain allows that future to be recalled from memory as the seasons will turn around again. Here at the bottom of the season, the darkest hour of the longest night of the year is the hope of Spring. The night was not ill-luck because  the ability to enjoy this place despite the weather, to have the strength of limb and time to reach that moment, these are gifts denied many, and I am realize rather than curse my fate I should thankful for it. And so I turn around and pedal back in silence.

Of all the many gifts I received this Christmas, the whiskey and fabulous new watch, this and my daughter passing out on my lap Christmas morning are my favorites.

But the watch is pretty neat too; more on that later.


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