Out on the hot, dry plains
605km Davis to Lakeview
It’s a hot, hot day when we set out from Davis. It doesn’t matter that we rise at 5:30am and start out an hour later. Already we can feel the strength of the sun rising to the east and our water bottles, which we froze in Dave and September’s freezer the night before, are totally melted just a few miles down the road. So much for our hopes of icy water until at least mid-morning.
The weather forecast is for temperatures around 100F and by the time we reach Knights Landing, a little crossroads village in the middle of nowhere around 9:30am, we can’t imagine how it can get much hotter. We park our bikes in the shade of a small corner shop and go inside to buy something for lunch. The first thing that hits us is the overwhelming smell of grease. It’s an odor that will come back to us time and time again in small towns across California.
Somewhere among the stale french fries and burgers we do manage to find two sad little tomatoes and a large wedge of cheese for our lunch. It’s not ideal but it’ll do.
Now we are back on the roads of the Central Valley. The land is perfectly flat. You can see a turn in the road miles before you ever get to it and small settlements are marked on the horizon by clusters of trees. In between there’s little shade so when we get to Grimes we grab the chance to stop on the balcony of a Scout Lodge for our midday break. Most of these towns are filled with a few houses and a cluster of sad-looking abandoned buildings, some of them full of character in their own way like the Butte City Emporium. “Ducks Plucked Here” it says in large lettering on the side.
When we decide to start out again an hour or so later the heat is even more intense than before and although we only have 20km remaining to our campsite in a State Park, it nearly kills us. We feel as if we’ll die of heatstroke before we get there. We could make tea in our water bottles. And as if this weren’t enough, we pass an ammonia plant and a large cloud of gas hits us in the chest like a sledgehammer as we cycle by. It’s gut-wrenching stuff and when we finally reach Colusa we collapse under the canopy of the first supermarket we see and take a good half hour to recover.
The next day brings more of the same – heat and ammonia factories – but at least we don’t have as far to go and we’re very glad to reach the shaded balcony of Katie and Aren, two more kind WarmShowers hosts who are taking care of us in Chico. They lead us to their local swimming hole and normally the water would be too cold for us but it’s hot enough that we jump in straight away and it feels great. Later that night we hit their local ice cream spot and a double-scoop of homemade goodness goes a long way to restoring our energy and our morale.
The next morning, Katie makes us delicious pancakes for breakfast and Aren leads us out of Chico. He’s into cycling in a big way. Mountain biking. Racing. Touring. This guy does it all but despite his obvious talent for the sport, he’s not too proud to take it slow with us as we work our way up the hills and towards the mountains. We really appreciate the kindness of both Aren and Katie, two more fine folks we’ve met on our big tour.
Now we are climbing steadily upwards and we stop for a break in Forest Ranch, the last village we’ll see for at least a day. We buy a couple apples and a cool drink in the shop and as we’re sitting under a tree outside, the woman working in the shop comes out and asks if we want an orange.
“I’ve got to rotate the stock,” she says. “I’ll throw them out otherwise.” The next thing we know we’re presented with a box full of fruit. Oranges. Apples. Melons. “Take what you want she says.” We just can’t believe they’re throwing out this perfectly good food. We fill our bags and feast on the fruit for the next 3 days. Their loss. Our gain. It makes us think we really should get into dumpster diving. If only you didn’t normally have to do it after dark, when we’re usually asleep!
The higher we go, the more shaded the road gets, and it’s almost always flanked by a rushing river. Occasionally it opens up into an alpine meadow and we can really appreciate the beautiful scenery around us.
The days pass by quickly as we push through Deer Creek, Chester and Susanville – the last outpost before we turn onto Route 395, a desolate highway going straight north to Oregon. By the time we get to Susanville we haven’t had a shower in 3 days but we’re not desperate enough to pay $7 each for the privilege at the local gym. The man in the tourist bureau understands and directs us to a cold river, where we can at least have a splash around. It does the trick perfectly.
A few miles further and we come to the last outpost of Litchfield, which has a few houses, a general store and a feed store. We go into the general store to get extra water and we can’t help but notice all the sayings taped to the cash register. Along with some Bible quotes, and one that reads “Ask the American Indians what happens when you don’t control immigration”, the owner is getting ready to add a new one to his list.
“A guy comes in this morning and you know what he says to me?” he rattles on to no one in particular. “Even a blind squirrel finds a few acorns eventually. Well, how about that, huh? I never heard that one before!” He says, chuckling to himself.
“Thaaaaat’s right. That sure is right,” say two construction workers. “Uh-huh,” one of them adds for emphasis. Outside a man sees our bikes and wishes us good luck. “God will take care of you,” he says. Conversations don’t last long out here but the thing that strikes you again and again is that people say just what they’re thinking in a very honest and endearing kind of way.
From Litchfield the landscape gets increasingly dry and we’re amazed to find a fountain running with cool, spring water at a rest stop. Wherever does that come from? With our bottles refilled, we head out into the scrubland to camp and it’s here that our next surprise awaits: a sheep dog. We spot her behind a tree as we’re setting up our tent and she’s timid but by the next morning she’s still there and comes over when we call her. We offer her water and she drinks over a liter in a few minutes.
We wonder whether she’s lost or abandoned and when she decides to follow us we’re not sure if our trip will become 3 instead of 2 but just down the road there’s a fire station and the men there think they recognize her from one of the nearby ranches. They agree to make sure she gets home and we’re happy we found her because who knows how long she’d have been out there if we hadn’t come along.
It’s another full day of pedalling all the way to Alturas, broken only by a stop at an RV park in Madeline for a shower. Water, glorious water! In Alturas, the first thing we see is a sign that bills the town as a place where ‘the West still lives’ and it’s true. Everywhere you look, people are in cowboy hats and driving big pickup trucks. We join the locals for a milkshake at the local frosty and then keep on going, all the way to Davis Creek and the Plum Valley Campground high in the hills.
This turns out to be our longest day in some time – a full 140km – but somehow we manage it and we even get up the next morning to carry on over the border to Oregon and the traditional town of Lakeview. Imagine this. A town with 2,500 people (5,000 if you count the surrounding area) and 25 churches. The lady in the tourist bureau spends quite a long time telling us all about their strong community, so tightly knit that every child from this town has their college education paid for from a local trust fund.
We resolve to spend a few hours here and then it’s back on the road for more of the same: a desolate road, lots of sun and not much water. They don’t even build barns out here for the hay because there’s not enough moisture for anything to get moldy. As soon as we restock on food, we’ll be turning the pedals around once again.