Friday, August 7, 2009

Day 5 Desert Rain Unity, OR – Emmett, ID 114 miles

It broke cloudy and cool in the morning in the little town of Unity. It was a welcome change to the heat of days past. I learned that the campground owner is a wildlife rehabilitator herself. We chatted about our travels before I got on my way. Sandhill cranes cackled in the distance as I departed town as descended into a pretty desert valley below.

The weather stayed pleasant the whole day and I felt invigorated that the heat had loosened its grip on the west for a while. A couple brief rain showers fell across the desert. I could see them from miles away as I wound through treeless hills and buttes of eastern Oregon. The precipitation accentuated the smell of sage. Many kestrels and shrikes jumped off fence posts and power lines as I made my way towards Idaho. A tremendous tailwind developed from Vale all the way to the state line. Few times before have I made that kind of time on a bike, especially one loaded with 40 pounds of gear. I stopped just long enough ahead of a storm cloud to have a stranger snap my photo.

Ontario, Oregon and environs are home to some serious agricultural production. The irrigated cropland was a dramatic departure from the arid hills I had just left. Water is drawn from the Snake River watershed to grown all types of fruits, vegetables, even flowers of dazzling colors (right). How long will the water last? Marc Resiner’s Cadillac Desert was an account of the looming water shortage in the western states. I thought about the book as I passed countless irrigation ditches through flat farm country between Ontario and Emmett. I too was a recipient of that irrigated water as I stopped at a farm stand and inhaled four peaches before I got back on my bike.

The irrigation also has an oasis effect; wildlife is abundant here. A few miles short of Emmett I stopped to gaze at a large buteo at the top of a phone pole. It was unhappy by my presence and squawked at me frequently during our 10 minute glare at each other. Father along Route 52 I spotted a rookery of black crown night herons that make their home in a cottonwood grove near a small irrigation ditch.

In retrospect, Oregon was everything I could have asked for to start a bike trip. I did not spend a lot of time there, but 13 miles per hour for 500 miles allows one to absorb a lot more of the countryside than the modern traveler moving sixty down the road. The natural diversity of the state is stunning, and I was fortunate to bike through a swath it: coastal rainforest, Cascades, and mountain desert. Route 26 was very diverse. The brutally hot, wilting climb over fire-charred Santiam pass is something I won’t soon forget. However, the twenty miles over Dixie and Blue Mountain Passes on a cooler, cloudy Wednesday eve were what a bicyclist lives for – to pedal on a smooth, empty road with outstanding scenery and abundant wildlife.

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