IT’S A QUESTION OF ELEVATION
Monday morning found Elisabeth and me in Fall City, Washington, just a short fourteen miles from Issaquah and another fifteen to the Iron Horse Trail. What we’ve learned is this: Establishing a rhythm on our bikes is just like establishing a rhythm in regular life – it’s a process. For an out-of-shape, overweight, adventure-oriented kind of guy, the process is slow going. But as Elisabeth so wisely noted, “It is what it is, honey.”
And so, we pedaled on.
It may be “what it is,” but, when at breakfast, Elisabeth asked the $64,000 question, “What is the elevation of Fall City? and a Google search revealed we were only a mere 107 feet above sea level, the After-Fifty Adventure Man should have been alerted that the road ahead would be steep. Instead, I blithely prattled on about how, despite being so near sea level, our surroundings, including a beautiful mountain river and lush conifer trees, was almost Colorado-esque.
(Note: The elevation of the old railroad tunnel at Snoqualmie Pass, where we were headed, is 3200 feet. Again, we were having this conversation situated at 107 feet. While I failed to do the math, I invite you to do so, now.)
THE IRON HORSE TRAIL
The road ahead, however, has a way of doing the math for you. After departing Fall City, the climb toward the overlook above Snoqualmie Falls made me wake up and smell the coffee. (Elisabeth, however, pedaled on undaunted. I lagged far behind her, occasionally catching a glimpse of her tirelessly cranking her way ever higher up the mountain. The sight of such indefatigable motion reminded me of last year’s hike on the Appalachian Trail, when the steep inclines left me gasping and wheezing – only to witness the amazing power of my young son Alexander as he miraculously hauled his heavy pack ever higher in advance of his dear old dad.)
While our day’s destination was not set in stone, we were hoping to find a campground somewhere along the Iron Horse Trail – and that the next day, Tuesday, we would crest the Cascades at Hyak, Washington, via the 2.3-mile old railroad tunnel at Snoqualmie Pass. There we would begin the descent towards Ellensburg and the drier climate of the eastern slope of the mountains.
The Iron Horse Trail, as you might have guessed, is the remnant of the old railroad bed that crossed the Cascade Mountains between Bend and Ellensburg, Washington. The 110-mile trail has become popular for horseback riders, hikers, and cyclists. There are four established campsites along the route, complete with water availability (running streams) and composting toilets. Basically, luxury camping.
By midafternoon, Elisabeth and I had worked our way within three miles of Iron Horse State Park, on a paved road that wound its way up the mountain from Bend. We stopped at a general store to stock up on water. From the looks of the encroaching forest, this store appeared to be the final outpost for supplies. As I mounted the Surly, I spied a hand-painted sign that said, Iron Horse Trail 4.5 miles. Underlined in red was the word UP.
“No worries,” I told myself, in a silent falsetto. (I mean, how bad could UP actually be?)
The answer to that question came rather quickly. Elisabeth and I pulled over on the side of the road to get a better look at the tight corkscrew of roadbed that lay in front of us – heading, as you may have guessed, UP. Surprisingly, none of the curving asphalt of spaghetti slowed the steady stream of cars and trucks that whizzed past us. However, staring UP, my knees went a little weak and a sour taste crept up the back of my throat. I pulled out my phone to locate an alternative route.
ANGEL BOB COMES TO OUR AID
As I have stated before, I believe God looks out for fools on bikes. Tuesday proved the truth of this belief yet again. Before Google Maps could offer a single solution to guide us, a gold Ford pickup slowed to a stop on the opposite curve. A burly man with a friendly countenance and an enormous smile sauntered across the road. He started chuckling and pointed a large finger up (UP) the mountain before he even crossed the double-painted yellow center line.
“Don’t want to go that way,” he said. “Liable to get yourself killed, for certain.” He laughed as if mangled bikes and the potential human carnage were the funniest things ever. But he didn’t stop there. “The curves don’t slow us up, around here,” he added, making a blanket apology for all the drivers zooming past. “Those damn curves just make us want to drive faster. It’s kind of a challenge thing, I guess.”
“By the way, my name is Bob,” he said, with a smile as infectious, warm, and inviting as any I can remember.
Elisabeth and I were completely captured, both by his dark humor and by his solid presence, which seemed to anchor the earth around us and wrap us tightly in a comforting blanket. All the angst that had wound itself tightly inside my chest released like a giant, coiled spring. Bob the Angel had arrived, beaming his healing energy in every direction.
BOB, LIKE GOOGLE MAPS
Then Bob announced, “I am a cyclist, myself,” and in a matter of seconds, calculated several routes of escape. Then he stopped and took a long, hard look at us, as if he were secretly gauging our anxiety levels – and, possibly, our sanity. Then he re-calibrated the options he was offering us, much like Goggle Maps might have re-routed our position had we driven past an important turn. “If you want to follow me about a mile down this side road,” he said, his big finger pointing the way, “I can put you on the Snoqualmie Trail . It’s safe, and the grade is not nearly as steep.” (In other words, not straight UP.)
I let loose a cry of “Thank you, Baby Jesus!” A glance at Elisabeth, and I could tell she had just gotten a bit of religion, herself.
With that, Bob crossed over to his truck and got in. It took a moment for us to settle our nerves and, in turn, cross the steep road so we could follow him, but Bob waited patiently. Once we were behind him, he drove at a crawl, so we would not lose sight of him – and kept shouting back that he was in no rush, as if the only thing on his docket for the day was to save us from certain disaster.
Soon enough, Bob stopped and pointed out the Snoqualmie Trail, which lay hidden on the edge of a neighborhood, less than a mile to the east of Deadman’s Curve. True to his word, the grade was much gentler here. We thanked Bob, lauding him with every accolade we could think of, and rode away.
As I pedaled, I was in direct communication with every spirit being I could think of, thanking them for sending Bob our way. Then Elisabeth dropped in beside me and said, in her matter of fact manner, “That guy just saved our lives.” I nodded in agreement. “Yep. He damn sure did, baby.”
THE SNOQUALMIE TRAIL
Once on the beautiful Snoqualmie Trail, we felt like we had left civilization, as we knew it, behind and entered the realm of the Hobbit’s forest. A green, spongy moss covered rocks and fallen trees. Waterfalls and rushing streams marked almost every bend in the trail – and large animal scat littered the way ahead, reminding us we were no longer at the top of the food chain. The mythical beauty of the Washington forest was all around us, separating us from reality, soothing our previous angst, and sending us back to a time when the spirits of the forest ruled over all, making their presence known through the owl, the elk, and the bear.
Bob had informed us that camping was not allowed at the entrance to the Iron Horse Park, dashing my hopes for setting up camp on the shore of Rattlesnake Lake. He had, however, suggested an option eight or ten miles ahead. But with the afternoon drawing to a close, Elisabeth and I knew we would never make it that far.
Apparently, Angel Bob had the same thought.
It was about forty-five minutes after embarking on the trail that I saw Elisabeth, always a quarter of a mile ahead, stopped and talking with another cyclist. As I got closer, the other cyclist began waving. It was Bob. He had ridden down the trail to find us!
“I got worried about you guys,” he hollered as I approached. “I just knew you guys wouldn’t make that campground I suggested, so I thought I would ride out and show you one of my secret spots, Bob said in a mock-secret-whisper. It is about a hundred feet from the Iron Horse Trail,” he added.
I couldn’t believe it. “Who is this guy?” I asked myself. First, he saved us from certain disaster on the road, and now he was making sure we found a place to camp. Bob’s generosity seemingly had no bounds.
BOB SHARES TALES FROM HIS PAST
As we set up camp, Bob took a seat at the picnic table and captivated us with his stories. He told us about his life as an IT guy at Microsoft, and how, now retired, he splits his time between North Bend, Washington, and his cabin in Lincoln, Montana. He also mentioned that when he was a young kid playing in his parents’ cabin, Ted Kaczynski (the infamous Unabomber) used to throw rocks at Bob and the neighbor kids, shooing them away for disturbing his privacy. (The Unabomber? But with his certified Angel status, nothing Bob could tell me would come as a surprise.)
Bob warned us of the high bear population, before he left, and I let him know I planned to hang our food in a nearby tree. (When it came to it, though, our inventory wouldn’t fit in the single bear bag , so I placed the extra supplies in a small backpack and hung it in the nearby composting toilet. I figured if the bear could open the door, then he had earned a few treats for his efforts.)
When Bob could see we had things under control, he departed – but not before giving us his phone number and urging us to call him should we encounter any difficulty. He kept repeating that he couldn’t remember anyone loaded like we were for a long distance tour, much less San Diego. “I have lived up here for a long time,” he said. “Never seen anything like it.” Finally, Bob rode around the bend in the trail and seemingly out of our lives.
The next morning, however, when I awoke early and sauntered to the toilet to retrieve the backpack, I saw Bob, hiking up from the parking lot with a large outdoor umbrella and stand under one arm and a large paper sack under the other.
“Thought you guys might like some breakfast!” he hollered. “You need some real food to keep going. Roasted a chicken for you, as well. Hope I’m not bugging you so early in the morning.”
Bob’s presence in our lives just about renders me speechless. How is it possible we could be so incredibly lucky as to have someone like him to look out for us? “Holy crap, Bob, ‘bothered?’ Are you kidding? What’s the umbrella for?”
“Weather says it’s supposed to rain. Didn’t want breakfast to get wet.” And with that Bob zoomed past me heading toward our campsite.
At this point, I have to dig a bit deeper into the mystery that Bob represents. Have he and either Elisabeth or I shared some past life together? Is he paying some karmic debt? Or does he simply dedicate his life, now, to helping others with the same gusto with which he has extended himself to us?
As Elisabeth and I sipped coffee and breakfasted on the crisp bacon and hard boiled eggs Bob brought us, he declined an offered cup of joe for himself, telling us that he doesn’t do coffee for it gets him too energized. As I watched his right knee keep time to an unheard beat, I saw what he meant. Breakfast over, Bob folded up his umbrella and bid us a final goodbye. (Somehow, though, I thought, “We will see this wonderful guy again.”) As he took his leave, Elisabeth and I both shouted out, “Are you sure you don’t want to come with us? We will miss you, Bob!”
Bob turned back toward us, and I saw he was seriously considering our offer. But then he shouted back, “Nah. I will bug you to death with all of my talking, and I took on a new job at Boeing this morning. There is only so much hunting, fishing, and cycling one man can do.”
I decided then and there that I love this guy. I don’t care if he murdered me in my last life. Right now, in this time and space, I absolutely love Bob Kuntz!
FLORIDA FOOLS IN CASCADE HIGH COUNTRY
Tuesday was another slow day. After having breakfast with Bob at his “secret” campsite, the day was wet and cold, and we made only 13 miles along the Iron Horse Trail . Still, we appreciated the beauty of the Cascade high country. As the trail took us over high mountain railroad trestles , feats of early twentieth century engineering, we were literally suspended several hundred feet above the forest floor. We wondered how those giant gaps were bridged? How many men had it taken? How many lives were lost in the process?
And then we pedaled on.
On Wednesday morning, as I lay in the pre-dawn darkness, I was glad to hear no rain plinking on the canopy of our tent. A quick check on my phone, though, showed a new message from Bob urging us to get moving early. Big rain is coming. I texted him as Elisabeth lay sleeping beside me, and he suggested we hunker down at a hotel in Hyak . Of course, he provided directions. Angel Bob was still watching out for us.
At 2 p.m., we were completely soaked, feet wet, gloves – which were supposed to be waterproof – waterlogged. On the edge of hypothermia, Elisabeth and I were still smiling, though, because, in front of us, lay the opening of the Snoqualmie Tunnel . And at the other end of its 2.3 miles of darkness we knew there would be the light, Hyak, and the Summit Inn.
We had been warned to stick together during our passage through the tunnel, in the event bears might be lurking somewhere in all that darkness. With our lights on their brightest setting, and the occasional hoot to alert our fuzzy friends of our passage through their territory, Elisabeth and I crossed the eerie space inside the mountain unharmed. The short ride from Carter Creek took its toll, however. Wet and shivering, our muscles spent, we struggled to make the 2.5 mile climb to the hotel. Elisabeth (of course) kept going – though I could see she was having difficulty. But I was done and had to dismount and walk the remaining distance in the rain.
We were Florida fools on bikes – but angels seem to abound in Washington State. And Jim and Joe, two young men, stopped to help us, loading our bikes for in the back of their pickup and driving us straight to the Summit Inn and Pancake House.
It is Thursday now, as I sit in the lobby writing this. Outside, all there is to the view is heavy rain and clouds hanging so low they almost touch the parking lot. Bob just called to inform us he will be here first thing in the morning to whisk us away to the dry of Ellensburg . Then he texted a map of our safe route for tomorrow, all the way to Yakima.
Yup. Angels abound. And Bob is the boss of all of them.
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