7.19.2003 | Coulee Dam

How do these long rides get so awful?

Because we make the mistake of taking them out to the sticks, where there are no people or buildings, or stoplights, or mini-marts, or infrastructure of any kind except the hot black pavement.

So yesterday we're in Grand Coulee for an 80-miler. The route's supposed to cross the dam twice, but nobody crosses the dam now, not after 9/11. Instead we start from the rest stop at the north dam on Banks Lake. It's a cooker. The car says it's 95 degrees.

In the park, a hot rod show is happening. Tricked-out cars suck up all the shade and we park in the dirt lot under the searing sun. The Beach Boys blare from giant speakers near the bathrooms.

From the park, the route is a swift downhill to the junction with 174 and then a five-mile incline to the plateau to the west. The road curves around a butte and under humongous power lines tethered to the Grand Coulee Dam far below.

Then we're on top of the rock and it's just us and the sun. Nothing. No agriculture, no structures. No trees. Just the fucking road and heat penetrating our skin. It is so goddamned hot! At five miles we stop and rest in the shade of a highway sign. Andrew feels a little sick, I'm just hot.

We think it'll get better—we'll find some wind, a downhill, maybe some shade. So we continue. But none of that happens. It's rolling hills with an overall incline. It's a constant headwind—wind coming from every fucking direction but the tail. And the worst: no shade.

We're completely exposed and I suffer slight panic at the thought that there is no shelter, anywhere.

Almost no traffic on the highway. What traffic there is exceeds the speed limit and swings wide. Then a herd of motorcycles screams at us head-on. They consume both lanes. A motorcycle passing head-on at 60 in the lane next to me is too fucking close. Once they pass, I listen for the sound of a collision with some truck or semi-truck and trailer on the blind side of rolling hill, but none comes.

At 24 miles we turn onto highway 17. The intersection is barren. We rest in the shade of a sign.

Progress is achingly slow. I look down, I'm going 12. Downhill, I'm going 19, maybe. I can't go; I can't make the fucking bike go.

It's so hot I can't feel that my hands and ass are completely asleep. When I shift or brake, I go to move my fingers and discover I can't control them; they tingle from the waking. But I can feel that the metal and plastic parts of the shifters and brakes are too hot to grab and the rubber is malleable.

We brought extra water—bottles in both cages, bottles in our back pockets. But the going is too slow and the climate too draining and the water's almost gone. At about 30 miles into the ride, a farmhouse appears on the left and we decide to inquire about water.

The place looks deserted but there's a truck parked next to the house. I wheel up the sidewalk, dispersing a colony of inbred cats. Then a man's voice calls from the house and I look up to see Colonol Kurtz's face materialize behind the screen door. Before the old man can say anything, I start to explain that we'd like to fill up on water. The old man interrupts to ask how much. I say a full bottle's worth. And he says that he's got some "city-bought" water in in the fridge, that his well water isn't cold. In a jiffy he hands me two cold bottles of water. We thank him histrionically and walk the bikes out to the highway before drinking the water halfway down.

We're glad for the cold water, but it would've been better to have four full bottles of hot water rather than one cold one. I wish I had asked for that.

It goes on. Rolling hill after rolling hill. At each crest the next hill comes into view and it looks just like the last. It is so fucking discouraging I start to get pissed off and defiant, like, "I refuse to go on!" Yeah, but against what god and to nobody's defeat but my own. There's nothing out here. We rest in the shade of an embankment, twice.

I tell Andrew that the only way I'm getting myself to Coulee City is by promising myself that when we get there, we're catching a ride back to Electric City or getting a hotel room.

We're out of water now. We calculate seven miles to Coulee City. Only seven! But seven. We're ravenously sucking the last drips of water from each of our bottles. The stuff evaporates though; each of my bottles is completely dry and softened from the heat.

Finally, we begin to descend the plateau. Now we're going 30 and we're resting. We turn onto highway 2. More downhill. I watch Andrew swerve into the mini-mart at the junction with 17 South. He's after a Coke.

We sit on the sidewalk drinking from two bottles of Coke and a gallon of water. We're sharing an Idaho Spud. Across the lot, a trailer holds three despondent horses in a row.

Two guys in a Honda hatchback pull up close to the door. From the car careens some annoying piece of rap music. They buy four cases of Bud. One of them complains to the other about not helping.

So now, slaked, we have to see about a ride. Not having hitched before, and being a shy wussy and ashamed of asking for help and all that shit, this task suddenly seems like a huge hassle. I decide to ask the two little old ladies minding the store if they have any ideas.

Before I engage them, I figure it's a good idea to clean up a little. I go to the bathroom to chip off some of the crust around my nostrils. In the mirror I see that not only is my nose encrusted, but a thick line of salt coats every contour of my face. My eye sockets and the creases in my eyelids. My hairline: Clumps of salt large enough to use for something cling to my hair. It reminds me of botfly eggs.

After making myself a little less gross-looking, I tell the two women that we need a ride, that the heat was too much and we don’t think it's a good idea to continue to Electric City. They suggest riding to the other side of town and asking at the gas station there.

As we ride across the Dry Falls dam, a woman in a blue Honda Civic hatchback pulls over and motions to us. When we pull up, she asks if one of us left a wallet in the gas station. We check our pockets and tell her no. Then I ask her if she's going to Electric City. She says she isn't.

We ride on. I'm starting to feel better.

At the gas station, all the cars are headed the wrong way. Because we feel better and hate the idea of trying to find a ride, we decide to ride the rest of the way. I buy a bottle of Gatorade, two Power Bars, and a sesame snack, which we eat immediately. We're loaded up. We head out.

It feels good. The sun is low, almost behind the bluffs of the plateau across the lake from us. I look up at its crest, shuddering at the hours we spent up there, vowing never, ever, to go there again. We're maintaining 19. We're next to Banks Lake, and the canyon and buttes are gorgeous in the oranging light. I feel strong. Rehydrated, now.

The sun falls below the bluffs and the air suddenly cools. Up ahead, the first hill of this stretch. I'm not looking forward to it, and drop down to low gears.

Just then, a pickup honks and pulls over. It's one of the women from the gas station. She says she explained our situation to her friend, the burly man driving truck, and he suggested they ride out to find us. At this point, I'm not sure about the ride. I feel good! But they came looking for us. The man says, "If I were you, I'd put your bikes in the back here." And we do. The man apologizes for the tiny backseat of his truck, but there's no need. He has no idea of the discomfort we've experienced. I thank him so much and he says it's no problem. He says now they have an excuse to eat Chinese food in Electric City.

We ride leisurely toward our car, watching the sun change the colors of the rock and the water. We talk with the couple about the area. We talk the shallowest talk imaginable so as not to risk taking the relationship any deeper than what it is. They point out the million-dollar mile. They talk about the houses springing up on the outskirts of Electric City and speculate on how those houses get water. There is some dispute over the existence of a water tank on a hillside.

Fisherman and jetskiers populate the lake at twilight.

I see a Honda Civic hatchback coming from Electric City and recognize the woman behind the wheel.

Andrew spies a water tank nestled at the bottom of a butte. The dispute is settled.

At the rest stop we find the Volvo alone in the dusk. The couple lets us out and I offer them gas money. The man says, "All you need to do is say thanks. This isn't about money." We say a loud emphatic thanks and the guy shakes my hand briskly, like in the movie The Last Emperor.

The nicest people!

When you drive through Coulee City, a large sign advertises that Coulee City is the "Friendliest City in the West." Could it be true?

As we pack the bikes into the car, a group of women stroll by. They ask the usual: How far'd you go? Is it hard to pedal in this heat? And so on. Except one of the women adds, "Did you know it was 102 today?"

Holy fuck! 102! That's like riding your bike in a hot tub! (But without the water.)

We clean up (no sunburn—sunblock is miraculous!) and drive into town and to Grand Coulee dam. The place is packed. Everyone is waiting for the laser show. It's still 85 degrees. A bunch of us wait in line at a little snack shack. I get a cherry slush puppy.

Waiting for the show to begin, cold drinks in our hands, it's safe enough to talk about being out there and about running out of water. How scary that feels. How the tissues of your throat chafe and how, when you do take a sip, you almost choke because your throat and mouth are too dry to swallow. I tell Andrew I thought about whether I would try to drink from one of the occasional tanks we saw along the route. Whatever was in those tanks. He says he looked for half-empty bottles on the side of the road, and I say that I did too. I tell him about the mostly full Sprite bottle I saw and how I wondered if it was full of piss and whether I could tell the difference and at what point I would actually drink something I found on the side of the road. He says he'd been thinking all the same things. Then we ponder the thirst and how strong it must of have been.

We watch the show and it's not spectacular. It's a little propagandistic, but that's OK: it's government-run, what can you expect? It's more fun to marvel at the size of the dam and how it has benefited the region and at laser technology, which is somehow diminished by laser shows.

It's late, we're driving home.


Much of the way I kicked myself for knowing better than to go for a ride in the desert in the middle of summer. Normally, I make conservative decisions about what is possible to do within the range of weather possibilities. I turn back or don't go or pack way too much gear, just in case. So I can't believe I wasn't more on top of it this time.

I just didn't have a good idea of the terrain and the last weather report I heard set the temp in the nineties (like that makes much of difference from the 100s). The route description in our book didn't indicate that half the route lacked any services or shade whatsoever. Hiking books, for example, are very good at indicating when you can't get water or shelter. Biking guides, overall, have proved to be quite poor at describing routes generally and route conditions at all. In the end, you just don't know what to expect until you get out there. On the long rides, once you're out, you're out—turning back is as far to go as going ahead.

We took a lot of extra water and wore sunblock and all that, but we just didn't anticipate how much the heat would sap our strength. And it was the heat. After drinking a bunch and once the sun dropped low enough to lose much of its potency, we felt strong again.

A benefit of all the training we're doing is learning how our bodies react to different conditions. It's really amazing to witness how one variable—excessive heat or rain, or a too-high seat—can radically alter ability.