Columnist Jeff Kish, aka “The Rubber Tramp,” writes a weekly column on a laptop aboard the customized Ford Econoline van in which he lives.
“It’s like riding a bike” is a phrase we use to describe a skill a person never forgets once learned. My bike has been sitting, neglected, in the back of my van for months. I now question the accuracy of that description because I walked the last four miles on a banged up ankle, carrying a bike with two mangled rims down the highway.
Before I bought my van, I hadn’t owned an automobile in 16 months. I preferred to walk or cycle anywhere that I needed to go. I didn’t think moving into my van would change that much, but it has.
It’s not that I’ve become too lazy to ride; it’s a matter of security. I need to move the van daily to keep from raising red flags in the neighborhoods where I sleep, plus all of my stuff is in there. I like to keep an eye on it.
The forecast was unseasonably clear and mild for a mid-January day in the Northwest. Thinking about how long it had been since my last good bike ride, I headed out to my friend’s PCT trail angel house in Cascade Locks. Travelers use his property as a home-base area so I felt comfortable leaving the van parked there for a day or two as I went on a cycle tour of the gorge.
The temperature had not yet climbed out of the 30s when I hit the 84 freeway, heading 21 miles east toward the town of Hood River, Ore. It was a nice ride. The Columbia River was on one side, its gray waters fading off into the distance and blurring into the fog with only a faint shadow where the two met on the opposite bank in Washington State.
The fog burnt off a bit by the time I reached Hood River. I locked up my bike with partially thawed fingers under warm sunlight and pulled open the door of a local brewery for lunch and a pint to power the next leg.
Hood River is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts wedged between the mountains and the steady winds of the Columbia River.
It’s prohibited to ride a bike across the narrow Hood River bridge. I had planned to hitchhike over in the first pickup truck that would stop; an easy task in a town with so many understanding outdoors folk. But a friend from the hiking community ended up meeting me for lunch and offered to shuttle me over in her Subaru.
We grabbed a pint at another brewery in White Salmon, Wash., and then it was time for me to begin closing the 50-mile loop by riding west, back toward the little red box that I call home.
The fog had lifted and the skies were blue for the rest of the afternoon, but a strong headwind sucked most of the pleasure out of the ride and kept me out well past nightfall.
With LED lights front and back, I cranked out mile after mile through the fog and darkness until I reached Stevenson, a small town just five miles from the end of my ride. I thought I’d celebrate a successful half century with a good meal, and so I devoured a basket of fresh-caught fried steelhead and chips, a local specialty, while listening to the locals gossip in a cozy little joint by the river.
When I built up the courage to face the night’s cold, I hopped back on my bike and hit the road. Less than a mile later, I pedaled onto a small bridge at the edge of town. I hugged the white line tight but decided to cross over into the shoulder for a little extra safety from the motorists. The angle that my headlamp shone did nothing to highlight the curb, but I soon found it by touch.
The next few seconds were a breathless blur as my front rim slammed into concrete. The impact knocked me from saddle to straddling my top tube. My frame smashed my ankle into the curb as I came skidding to a stop. I thought I had averted catastrophe when I finished on my feet, but when I pushed off I realized how much damage my wheels had sustained. The front wheel was bent so badly it wouldn’t spin through the fork, and the back tire hung limp off its scraped and battered perch.
It looks like I’ll be driving again, at least for a little bit longer.
—Our columnist, “The Rubber Tramp,” aka Jeff Kish, writes a weekly column on a laptop aboard the customized Ford Econoline in which he lives. You can catch up on Kish’s past stories: Dangerous Beauty: The Glacial Caves Of The Cascades, The Rubber Tramp Diary, Entry One, and his back story about shuttling through-hikers on the PCT.