Day 9 Newhalem to Darrington: A Breath of Fresh(ish) Air

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Last night we stayed at the Alpine RV and Campground, who graciously contributed to the cause by giving us space for our 5th wheel and tents for two nights. My stepdad Russell, good family friend Rob, and my dog Linus greeted us at our home on the road with the 5th wheel for me and my mom to stay in (#sleepinside) and tents for my crew. 

We woke up to a bacon and egg breakfast cooked by Russell. Dr. B, a vegan, fed me bacon. What a testimony to his dedication to our friendship! We all scrambled (egg pun!) to get ourselves ready for the day ahead, starting thirteen miles back in Newhalem. Russell and Rob joined us on bikes, bringing my cycling crew to four, with Jimmy running.

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Russell and Rob

The day was beautiful! The smoke was cleared up enough that we could see our shadows for the first time in four days! Monday morning traffic was very light and the shoulder was wide. Temperatures stayed in the 70s and the terrain was gentle. Russell rescued a baby bird from the road, then a little later a mouse needed assistance getting to safety. He's a funny guy, that Russell, one minute rescuing small creatures, the next taunting Dr. B with bacon. 

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The First thirteen miles flew by, and as we passed the campground we were joined by friend and road crew hero, Ben. Jimmy got on his bike. Now there were six cyclists and me on easy roads along beautiful rivers.  The mossy trees were draped with bright green Old Man's Beard, and the songbirds were chirping away. Vanilla leaf was everywhere, marking the transition to my local plant community. We could all ride together and talk. For the first time it felt like a ride, like we were just cruising around having fun, and not a mission. What a relief.

After four long days of Hwy 20, we finally left it, and it really started feeling like we were close to home. We rode along and crossed the Skagit and Sauk rivers, crossing countless creeks. Jimmy took a quick swim in the Skagit because he wanted to feel like a tri-athelete, and I couldn't believe what he told me he saw: an AMERICAN DIPPER! The only aquatic songbird in the US, and more importantly, my spirit animal! 

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 Another Roadside Attraction

Another Roadside Attraction

After lunch (delicious sandwiches brought by my mom), Ben got off his bike and back in the truck to help with the schlepping. Rob called it a day after thirty-three miles, his farthest bike ride ever. Russell stayed with us the whole day!

It was also a record ride for me: 43 miles, my longest ride ever! The Lithium battery lasted almost 26 miles, and the lead battery still had plenty of juice in it. This record will be broken... but not on this trip. I have to save something for later.

After calling out "One more mile!" for about three miles, we finished at the Hawk's Nest Bar and Grill for dinner and hoppy hydration, tired but happy with the day. I gave my nightly interview with 91.5 KSQM, my local radio station that has given me great support on both this ride and 2016. They really help spread the word in my community - thanks everyone!

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Our sponsor of the day was Invacare, the company that makes the chair I have so mightily abused. The designers did not have "crossing the Cascades" on the list of selling features, and yet their product has kept up remarkably well. I travel in my chair thousands of miles a year in all kinds of weather. I am not only proud to be sponsored by Invacare.  I am deeply grateful.

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We went back to the campground and tried to ID the bird Russell rescued that morning with my dog Linus happily hanging out under the night sky. This has been my first time camping since the accident. You never know what life will bring you.  Just do your best to make the most of it.

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

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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! 

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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.

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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.

Day 7 Winthrop to Bridge Creek: Climbing to New Heights and Beyond

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We started day seven about a mile before our planned starting point.  The town of Winthrop has a great multi-use trail, the Susie Stevens Trail, so we thought we should use it.  This brought us to our original starting point, with a little extra sightseeing of Winthrop as a reward.

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Once back on HWY 20 we headed west out of town.  Before we could leave town, though, the Marshal pulled up behind us.  Everyone assumed I had done something wrong, but it turns out he just wanted to give us an escort.  I feel pretty important.

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Somehow we thought we would be avoiding the smoke today, or at least have a better day than yesterday.  This was not the case.  If anything it was worse.  The first fifteen miles or so were flat, but dealing with the smoke made this section less enjoyable than it should have been.  We were surrounded by beautiful steep mountains on both sides, but could barely see them.  Multiple times throughout the day we each took turns complaining that we felt cheated out of what must be spectacular views all around us.

Around mile sixteen, the climbing began.  Jimmy was still running (like a lunatic) while Dr. B and Chauncey were riding their bikes.  The hills today have been a concern of mine for a long time, ever since this route was chosen.  Today would require all of my resources.  Today, up to this point I had been using my lead-acid battery, and would continue to use it for the next two miles before switching to the lithium.

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Once the lithium was in use, the pace up the mountain picked up, much to the dismay of my team.  It turns out going up hill is easier for me than downhill, but the reverse is true for my crew.  At some point I caught Dr. B pulling off the road to give Jimmy, who was still running at this point, some Gatorade.  I had to remind him, not for the first time, the name of the ride is Iansride.  I told Dr. B when we got to brewery he would have to write “This is not Jimmysride” one hundred times on a beer napkin.

 Lunchtime visit with the grandparents

Lunchtime visit with the grandparents

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At mile twenty-two we pulled over so Jimmy could switch from  being a runner to being a biker, the way mother nature intended.  Shortly after we stopped, my mom showed up with pizza for the crew.  Yes, there was vegan pizza, if you can even call it pizza.  On her way to deliver the pizzas she was pulled over by Marshal Tindal, the same Marshal who escorted us out of town.  Apparently she was traveling a bit above the legal speed limit.  She told him “Jimmy needs food.”  My mom also has to now write “This is not Jimmysride” one hundred times on a beer napkin.

After food and a little rest we started back up the mountain.  We really enjoyed the wildflowers, including a bitchin’ Indian paintbrush, and many birds, with my favorite sighting today being a blue grouse.  We could see snow high atop the mountains at a few points.  The temperatures were very mild, in the low seventies and high sixties.  This is probably one positive side affect to all the smoke in the air.  

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The lithium pushed me eleven miles up the hill, but then abruptly died.  We still had a little juice in the lead-acid battery, so we switched back over and continued on.  This lasted for about one mile.  Dr. B waved down my mom to let her know it was time to switch me into my backup chair.  As I mentioned before, I would be using all my resources today.  We were about a mile and a half from the summit and we were hoping my backup chair could get us there.  I don’t use this chair often, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.

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We reached the summit of Washington Pass (5477 ft) and were all very excited.  We made it.  The remainder of today’s ride was mostly downhill.  As I mentioned downhill is more difficult for me.  My chair  is harder to control while descending, but at least I knew my battery would make it.  The descent was beautiful, but we still felt cheated out of what it could have been without the smoke.  We reached our planned stopping point, but I wanted to get a little bit more out of the day.  We rode on for one more mile.  As it turns out this last mile would pay off in the form of beer.  A trail angel (bringing beverages to travelers along the Pacific Crest Trail) stopped and gave us some tasty IPAs.  Sometimes it pays to be a celebrity.    

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Overall the day was hard, but good.  We added two extra miles, one in the beginning, one at the end.  We reached the halfway point of our ride, and we reached the highest point along our route.  Both milestones were hard earned and rewarding.  Once the riding was over, we piled into the support vehicles and headed back to the Old Schoolhouse Brewery for another night of tasty beers and dinner.  We can’t say enough positive things about Troy and his crew at the brewery.  They outfitted us with shirts for a day, and put up with our shenanigans. 

Day 6 Okanogan to Winthrop: Into the Cascades

I woke up on day six at the Quality Inn in Okanogan happy to be starting five miles ahead of schedule, but had some punches to roll with: the lithium battery wasn't plugged in, so we were going to have to charge it as much as we could that morning and wait for my mom to deliver it en route. Dr. B lost his tiny but very masculine wallet (found under the seat of the van). Jimmy broke the valve for his tire tube while trying to pump it up. Good thing we had those five miles in the bank!

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We finally started rolling through beautiful orchards, ascending into the Okanogan National Forest. The temperature was in the low 70s, and we think it might have rained a bit the night before clearing away some of the smoke. My cycling team are a trio of endurance junkies who really enjoyed the climbing.  We added a male Western Tanager (piranga ludoviciana) to the list of birds seen on the trip.

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We ascended into the pines, Chauncey and I feeling more at home among the towering trees than in the yellow fields. Patches of fireweed (chamaenerion angustifolium) dotted the road, which Jimmy took special delight in because that happens to be his Spirit Flower. We were lucky to catch them before their bloom was done!

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The lead battery performed very well, climbing eleven miles and 2200ft up before it ran out. We stopped for a quick break near a cattle guard, which Dr. B promptly peed on. My mom was only a few minutes away with the (mostly) charged lithium battery, and the team went into pit-crew mode loading it on my chair and plugging me in. Freshly powered, we hauled ass the remaining few miles to the summit.

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Since we didn't have a sponsor for the day, it was rider's choice for shirts. Jimmy wore his coveted tri-blend technical shirt, Chauncey wore thin merino wool, and Dr. B wore the remains of the original umbrella from the 2016 ride as a cape. It would flap behind him in a very superhero-like manner as we flew down the hill. We are quite the spectacle; I wonder what the people passing us in cars made of us.

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It got a little spooky the farther down we went, past charred trees from a recent fire. The smoke grew heavier as we plummeted into the valley. We were all filled with a sense of foreboding, wondering what was in store for us in Twisp. It's really strange how the fire would devastate so much, but leave little surviving patches here and there.

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Twisp looked like a war zone. Giant trucks and machines scattered everywhere, coming back from or heading into the fire. We met up with my grandparents for lunch, then returned to the smokey journey, unsure if we would be able to make it to Winthrop or if we would get turned back by officials (or worse, flames!). But car traffic was moving, therefore so were we. Onward!

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The sky turned to an eery and ominous orange-grey. Were we riding into the fire? Perhaps, but the team felt ok and there's a really good brewery in Winthrop. Adding to the challenge was a busy road with no shoulder. I just kept thinking about how overcoming obstacles makes beer taste even better. That, and staying on the white line.

We had a little bit of respite on a mile-long side road that followed the beautiful Methow River. The skies lightened, as did our spirits. We were so close! An Osprey (pandion haliaetus) flew over us with a fish in it's beak.

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We pulled into the western-themed town of Winthrop with ash snowing down on us and went straight to the Old Schoolhouse Brewery. The day was done, but not our hiccups: the door to the van got stuck and wouldn't close. Fortunately, Jimmy was able to fix it by hitting it with a bike lock. Thanks, Jimmy! I was finally able to enjoy my flight of beer after a long, stressful, but fun day.

Before I sign off, I really want to give a shout-out to my good friend and crew member Ben, who has been a HUGE help. He's not just schlepping our stuff around in the Uhaul - he's on the road checking up on us and on the conditions ahead, tending to vehicular maintenance, running all of our errands to meet the needs (and wants) of myself and the rest of the crew. It is no hyperbole to say we could not be doing this without him - we are all so lucky he offered his help. Thank you, Ben!

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We're all settled in to our rustic cabins now, about to get some much needed rest. We have an even bigger climb tomorrow, which should be fun for the cyclists. I can't wait to see what the new day will bring!

Day 5 Whitmore Lookout to Okanogan: Cattle Guards and Cedar Planks

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According to Woody Guthrie, the world’s “greatest wonder is in Uncle Sam’s fair land, it’s that King Columbia River and the big Grand Coulee Dam,” the latter of which we passed on our way to the day’s start point, the former of which we rolled alongside for a little while at the beginning. People began building that behemoth dam in 1933, and 9 years later the final concrete was poured. At peak flow, the dam is the largest power generator in the United States.  

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From Whitmore Lookout, we rolled west along the river for a little while, alongside the tall mullein stalks and the Conyza spotting the roadside before the expanses of sagebrush. The smoke was as thick as it has been on this trip. On the plus side, there was barely any traffic on Columbia River Road (BIA Route 140) through the Colville Indian Reservation, which we spent the majority of the day in. For the first few miles, nobody passed us going in our direction. Only a few passed going the other way. Before long, we turned northwestward away from the Columbia toward Omak Lake. We passed small wetlands and tule rimmed ponds along the way, enjoying the waterfowl and the dragonflies moving about. We were able to ride quite freely on the roadway and to converse with ease. Chauncey would shout out “Car Back!” whenever a car appeared behind us, and we’d all fall into a line along the road side. Jimmy, who ran the first 16 miles, didn’t speak much while his hearing aids were off. He can’t wear them when he sweats, and the day’s heat steadily built. We transitioned from relatively smooth asphalt to a fresh, pitch black chip seal that provided a different feel beneath our tires (and running shoes). It made things feel hotter. Dr. B began spraying me regularly at this point. He would generously spare some water on Jimmy, who was sweating copiously at this point. Right around then, we noticed clusters of wild horses running about. Before long, we moved in over the clear blue waters of Omak Lake.

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While we were rolling alongside the lake, my mom appeared with our friend Lena Lemke in tow. She used to live next door to us in Port Angeles, and she has since moved to central Washington. Food and liquid reinforcements had arrived! We replenished ourselves. After 16 miles, Jimmy jumped onto his bike. At this point, we had gained about 1000 feet, and there was another 1000 feet of elevation gain ahead of us. Lena and my mom leapfrogged ahead of us. We cruised ponderosa dotted slopes down to low gullies filled with elderberries. We continued to thoroughly enjoy the sparsely used road and the ability to ride more freely. 

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At mile 25, we ran into our first major road impediment of the trip: a burly cattle guard that I could not cross without the smaller wheels of my chair being swallowed by gaping chasms. I almost thought about cheating and going into the SAG van to get over the cattle guard, but as it happened Lena had cedar boards on the back of her truck that, once appropriately set up on the guard, I was able to drive over. Those cedar planks enabled me to cross over that section that otherwise would have been insurmountable. Thank you, Lena!

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About three miles on, we encountered another cattle guard. This time, despite having the cedar planks on hand, we decided to attempt going around the guard on the roadside. I quickly got my chair stuck in soft sandy gravel. Jimmy and Dr. B pulled me out of that one, but a mere 6 feet from there, on the other side of the cattle guard, I really got bogged down in some soft sand and gravel. Fortunately, I’ve got a lot of muscle with me, and Chauncey, Dr. B and Jimmy all worked hard to get me out of that quagmire. If it wasn’t for them, right now I would be a shriveled, dried up piece of meat being feasted upon by turkey vultures. My heartfelt thanks to the crew.

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Throughout all of my journeys, many things rock me all around: potholes, cracks in asphalt, uneven concrete, rocks and other objects on the roads and paths, attempts to go over or around cattle guards, etc. I’d like to extend a special thanks to BodyPoint, our sponsor of the day, for the straps that they manufactured that keep me solidly in my chair. They have been very supportive, in multiple ways, of Ian’s Ride 2018. Thank you, BodyPoint!   

Onward we went through the pretty country of north-central Washington. We passed some more native sunflowers, which appear to be Dr. B’s spirit flower, given the level of interest and passion that he directs toward them.

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After about 31.5 miles, we arrived in the town of Okanogan. We went through charming neighborhoods. A diverse vegetable garden grabbed our attention. We moved through downtown, and decided to add 5 miles to the day’s journey to get a little ahead. We are now coming into the North Cascades, and the next 2 days have high elevation gains. Tomorrow we climb more than 4000 feet, so we whittled away at that with some additional miles today. Julie Martin, a local who found out about our efforts through social media, provided a cheer along the way. We all really appreciate the supportive waves, honks and cheers that we get from many people as we work our way along. We started up state route 20, which will lead us through the entirety of the Cascades. In a few days, after another 120 miles, we will be meeting Russell in Marblemount.

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After we settled in the Quality Inn of Okanogan at the conclusion of the day’s ride, we enjoyed some beer that Lena generously provided, and enjoyed visiting with her. My mom appreciated Lena’s SAG companionship. We had a fine Mexican dinner at the very hospitable Rancho Chico Family Mexican Restaurant in Omak. 

Now, we prepare for venturing into the Cascades.