The day we dreaded had come. We said goodbye to our sweet, sweet dog Annana who passed from us on Friday, October 19th. She was ready. We were not. Kristin and I had spent all but one of our fifteen years of marriage with dogs. You never realize how alive the house is even when the dogs are sleeping until you come home to a house with no dogs at all. Not wanting to spend the weekend sitting in the newfound quiet, we distracted ourselves from our pain on Friday by loading up our touring gear and readying for a weekend in the mountains. A bike overnight, spent mourning a pet.
The first significant snow of the year was due to hit the Cascade Mountains late afternoon on Saturday, just as we expected to reach Snoqualmie Pass. There were other places we could have gone, but embracing the cold and the snow just felt right. It’d also give us a chance to test out our new tent and the cold-weather suitability of our Thermarest 35-degree “alpine blankets” and Sea to Summit’s +25 degree liners, the unorthodox-but-modular sleeping system I’ve been referring to in previous posts.
We rolled out of our driveway Saturday morning in 44-degree weather and quickly did our only descending of the day. We dropped from our ridge-top neighborhood into town and was soon on the Snoqualmie Valley Trail (SVT), one of the two gravel rail-trails we would spend all but a few miles on this weekend. The sky was gray, the fiery leaves flickered and danced in the breeze.
We reached Rattlesnake Lake, the junction of the SVT and John Wayne Pioneer Trail (JWPT), about 90 minutes after setting out and were taken aback by the clear blue skies. As my sister Jessica would say after seeing the photos, “It looks like summer!” It wouldn’t — and couldn’t — last.
The JWPT climbs steadily for roughly 19 miles towards Snoqualmie Pass. The trail corridor, extending eastward all the way to the Columbia river along the old Milwaukee Railroad, constitutes Iron Horse State Park and contains multiple access points leading to rock climbing, hiking, and fishing opportunities, all while myriad mountain creeks crash down from the ridge above just feet from the trail. The views from the trestles, despite the trail running a few hundred yards south of Interstate 90, are breathtaking. The mileposts counted off a descent beginning at 2136 as you climbed your way eastward, with each mile announcing your progress towards Chicago, the original end of the line.
We rested briefly at the entrance to Snoqualmie Tunnel, a 2.3 mile-long tube deep inside the belly of the mountain upon which resides the ski resort where nearly every adolescent in the greater Seattle area first gets their turns. The world-famous Pacific Crest Trail also crosses directly above this tunnel. Having towed our fully-laden Burly Nomad trailer up 2500 feet of damp gravelly gain, I took the opportunity to rest atop a picnic table. The sun was so bright I had to bury my face in my arm.
The tunnel, usually a parade of hikers and cycling families on weekends, was devoid of human life. My NiteRider MiNewt 600, a secondary light I use when mountain biking at night, lit the way for the two of us as we pedaled in eerie silence through the pitch black. The only noise being the soft crunching of sand and the occasional dripping of meltwater seeping through the concrete surface of the tunnel walls.
We emerged in a blinding snowstorm. Annana was on our minds continuously as we climbed the pass, but now we couldn’t help but laugh. A mid-October snowstorm, “And we chose to ride into this?!” I laughed. Hungry and in need of some water we decided to ride into the small community of Hyak and get some burgers from the gas station near the ski resort (a post-snowboarding ritual of mine). We loaded up on burgers, filled our bottles and my dromedary bag with water, and most importantly of all, snagged a few extra plastic baggies for our feet for the next day. And what a difference they would make!
The snow had somehow intensified while we were munching down our burgers and was now rapidly accumulating on our handlebars and our jackets as we rode back to the trail. It was clear we weren’t going to ride all the way to Lake Easton State Park, as our initial plan had called for, so we opted for a stay at one of the backcountry campsites along the JWPT near Lake Keechelus. About four miles further down the trail, tucked amongst the fir and hemlocks, is the Cold Creek Campsite. A lone vault toilet and picnic table are yours to use for the honor-system donation of five dollars. We pushed the bikes past the postage-stamp tent pads and found a nice snow-free clearing amongst the trees to set up camp.
It was our first time setting up our new Hilleberg Nallo GT3 in the wild and we were both taken aback by how much larger the tent seems in its natural habitat. Buyers remorse set in, if only briefly, when we saw how much real estate we’d need to secure each night in order to set this nylon mansion up. Later, tucked inside the roomy interior, with our gear dry and safe inside the vestibule, we reached a different opinion: every square inch was precious!
Dinner this night was somber. I had packed a couple of the Mountain House freeze-dried meals I bought in bulk from Costco (a food item I have been meaning to sample for nearly twenty years, but never had… the verdict: not bad if you get them cheap). We spiked our hot cocoa with some whiskey I brought along and sat in the supreme silence of a snow-capped forest. Nearly six inches had fallen by the time we hit the sack. And nearly twelve hours passed before we were jolted away by the bombardment of bough-fulls of snow free-falling out of the trees onto our tent. Though the temperature hovered around 32 all night long, we both slept soundly with our sleeping liner and down blankets.
We packed in relative quiet and pedaled off into a rapidly melting snowscape. The 45 miles back to our house went by fast. Too fast. For an empty home awaited us. Just as it would for the 17+ months to come before we embark on our bicycle trip into the great unknown.