Day 8 Bridge Creek to Newhalem: Plummeting Down the West Slope of the Cascades


Right at the outset, I want to apologize to my poor mother who closely watched what we did all day. If you’re quadriplegic and like a good adrenaline fix, I highly recommend going down the west slope of the North Cascades on Highway 20 on a Sunday during peak summer travel in a wheelchair that was not designed for such travel. More on all of this to come, but let’s go now to to the beginning of the day.


Dawn arrived as smoky as ever. It was a move day, so we had to pack everything up and leave Winthrop for good. Around 6:30 AM, dozens and dozens of trucks were stopping at the market, gas station and coffee shop near our lodging along the highway. The local coffee shop was giving beverages away to firefighters courtesy of donations by local residents. The sun rose blood orange through the now typically hazy grey sky. We feel like we’ve forgotten what a clear day looks like, what fresh air feels like. The gear and people shuffling all settled by 9 AM, our target departure time. The views were even more constricted than they were the day before. We headed over Washington Pass, which we had worked hard to gain yesterday, and once again moved from the rain shadow of the interior to the more moist Pacific slope of the Cascades. We began where we left off yesterday, about one mile downslope of Bridge Creek Trailhead. 


The morning was cool. Most of us had some kind of hoodie on. We had borrowed my grandpa’s jacket while still down at the hotel, and my mom put it on me at this point. Everybody unloaded and prepped their gear, and we were soon on our way. Jimmy was on foot. The challenges began right away. The smoke grew thicker. When we think that the smoke can’t get worse, it does just that. The descent was steep and constant, and you’ll recall that descending is more difficult for me. The wheelchair, with me and gear on it, comes out to almost 600 pounds, and when descending steep slopes, I feel that I am constantly countering gravity’s inclination to run the chair downhill as fast as it can via the path of least resistance. Unfortunately, the sip and puff system’s command for a gradual slowdown is pretty similar to the command to turn left. A misread attempt to slow down could lead to the chair turning left, which is what happened multiple times today. This, of course, puts me into the path of traffic as we travel down the right side of the road. Trying to avoid this was a challenge throughout the day. As we went down, those of us who weren’t running were chilled by the smoky sunless air. 


The Sunday traffic swelled through the late morning, to the point that it was relentless by late morning. City dwellers of the Puget Sound region were heading back home, and legions of motorcyclists were out for day rides. We were on a windy mountain highway with surges of heavy traffic regularly passing us at high speeds. Quiet spells just ushered in heavy onslaughts of vehicles yielding to the same gravitational forces that pulled at my chair. The quality of the shoulder varied: some sections of asphalt were cracked and warped, many stretches were narrow, while some others were smooth and wide. Dr. B rode ahead of me and moved rocks and other potentially unmanageable objects out of the way. I’ve had a couple of incidents over the last few days where hitting a rock caused me to suddenly careen to the left or right. As we made our way down, I became cold, so cold that I couldn’t feel my toes. I still can’t feel my toes, but the point is that I was getting chilled. 

My mom observed how invisible we were to approaching vehicles (yes, that’s how heavy the smoke was) so we set some lights up on my chair and on Chaucey’s bike. At 12 miles in, Jimmy passed 100 miles of running for the trip so far. He jumped on his bike at mile 13, turning on both his front and rear lights. The crew and I have been traveling together for 8 days and almost 300 miles. We settled into our routine with all of the guys keeping an eye on traffic, communicating the conditions to me, and seamlessly trading a number of duties. We all felt that today was the most stressful day with regards to traffic and road conditions. There have been some other challenging days, so that’s saying a lot. I continued to struggle with the way my chair wanted to pull left. The smoky air got to us all, and I had to use the cough assist more than I usually do. Chauncey always promptly and graciously helps me with this while we are on the road, and I appreciate this.


By the early afternoon, when my mother met up with us with some lunch from a deli in Newhalem, my body temperature was 95 degrees F. In the span of a couple of days we went from frequently spraying me down and reloading my ice vest for cooling purposes to my needing to go into the van with the heater at full blast to warm up. Thank goodness we borrowed my grandpa’s jacket. We didn’t anticipate dealing with conditions that were this cool. I had to sit in the van for 45 to 60 minutes to warm back up, during which some of the members of my crew took power naps or just rested.


After I got back out of the van, Dr. B put my Diestco canopy and flags back onto my chair. He has appreciated the new canopy at least as much as I have, because during Ian’s Ride 2016, half of Dr. B’s efforts went toward procuring, repairing and maintaining numerous umbrellas that invariably fell apart or slid out of place when exposed to the rigors of the road. This canopy has held solid through this trip, and has protected me from the sun and heat (which we could use a little bit of now) all along the way. The flags greatly increase my visibility, giving us all greater peace of mind. And today the canopy provided the perfect mounting spots for multiple lights. In that regard, it is fitting that Diestco is sponsor of the day. Thank to the folks there for such a fine product! 


When we continued on, I had my hood on and used socks as makeshift hand warmers. The traffic stayed thick. We appreciated the beauty of the route when we could, during the intermittent quiet spells. We admired the glacial till creamy blue of Ross Lake, that which we could see through the smoke. Evidence of being on the Pacific side of the Cascades burst forth all around us in the green verdancy of the canyon sides and moss coated rocks. Ferns provided a soft understory to big leaf maples and Doug firs. We passed some large cedars and grand firs. Springs dripped off of the large rocks and cliffs. We’d enjoy these kinds of things for a little while, until the next line of cars came by.

We went over some narrow bridges and through two tunnels. Each time the team would come together to ensure safe passage. My mother escorted us from behind through the longer of the two tunnels and over one of the longer bridges. My wheelchair kept plugging away. It is a testament to the quality of Invacare’s wheelchairs that I am doing this at all. My chair was not particularly made for going across entire western states and major mountain ranges, yet here we are doing just that.


By the time we got down to Newhalem, which was the only town of the day, we were all done and ready to get off the road. Jimmy proclaimed that he wanted some whiskey. My mom gave everybody great big hugs. It was by far the hardest day of the trip for her, and I want to deeply thank her for not only putting up with my wild aspirations and for willingly witnessing me travel along major roads and highways in sometimes stressful and dangerous conditions but also for embracing and supporting my ambitions and for helping every step of the way.

Hopefully tomorrow is a bit more mellow.