It’s not that I don’t like people. It’s that I love solitude. Most days, as I’ve mentioned, I ride alone. That said, there’s something about sharing a special experience with someone else.
When it comes to the McKenzie River Trail, it’s nearly impossible for it not to live up to its overwhelming hype. That I first hit the trail with my older brother Tom sent the vibe to galactic proportions.
Tom practically leaped out of his car, his eyes simply glowing with that devilish smile ripping across his face when he arrived the morning of our ride. I knew that look better than anyone. My initial two-wheel off-road adventures began around kindergarten in the wire cage back fender baskets of Tom’s Columbia three-speed. He would somehow manage to goad me into climbing aboard, promising ever-so-big-brotherly to take me on a nice ride while lying through his teeth.
Never one for pretense, Tom would transform into Mr. Hyde/Werewolf/Thanos/Satan within the first few pedal strokes, belting out a diabolical laugh as we ripped out of the driveway. As fast as his legs would take us, we’d head for our neighborhood version of “Deadman’s Hill” and, upon reaching the top, we’d slow to a crawl.
I’d close my eyes.
He’d attack the hill with everything he had and, a quarter of the way down, throw his weight to the right and send us flying over the gravel onto the grass of the deep ditch separating our frontage road from the busy Highway 100. For the rest of the way down the hill, he would careen up and down the ditch, like a crazed snowboarder attacking a halfpipe-from-Hades although this was decades before we’d ever seen a halfpipe. When gravity finally regained its hold of us, I’d be screaming like a newborn. He’d be laughing like a nut.
So, as he hurried across my driveway on this day, I knew the depths of his look. “I’m so excited I couldn’t sleep last night,” he said.
When Tom learned we had relocated to Eugene, Oregon he almost instantaneously sent an email with a detailed account of the McKenzie River Trail mountain bike ride, and a note: “See you next September.”
A year later, the day of reckoning finally arrived. Since I prefer surprises to spoilers, I knew little about the McKenzie before Tom’s insight. We drove up the McKenzie Highway in separate cars, parked his car at the McKenzie Ranger Station, and continued up to the trailhead. His knee bounced nervously as I drove the final 20 miles to the start.
“I can’t remember the last time I was this excited,” he said.
Oh, I can. I looked at my inboard thermometer. It read 49 degrees. Ah, perfect. Revenge is a dish best served cold. The gray clouds hung low as we started down at the top of the trail, crossing the bridge and gently rolling down the soft fir needle packed singletrack. Shortly after our first major log bridge crossing, I emerged from the forest as sunlight poked through the billowy white morning clouds turning the ripples of Clear Lake into a twinkling delight.
Autumn leaves of yellow, orange and red burst up from crevices in the dark brown lava fields like rockets ascending to the heavens. I turned as a bright blue figure zigged and zagged along the trail carved into the edge of the shoreline, his mountain bike floating along on a magical ride.
Tom chugged up a slight hill with a smile tearing across his face, and he belted out his diabolical laugh. Chills exploded up my spine. We weren’t 30 minutes into our McKenzie River Trail adventure and the experience had transcended all expectations in too many ways to fathom. You must understand the enormity of that task. There isn’t a biking magazine or website that hasn’t reviewed this trail with lofty praise that makes you question the sanity of the reviewers. Honestly, can any mountain bike ride ever live up to that kind of hype? The answer is yes, and you betcha, and, oh my, yeah baby. Thank you very much.
It’s difficult to capture it in words. I still wonder at times if it was nothing more than a dream.
We stood looking out on a palette of fall colors and textures surrounding Clear Lake that previously had been limited to our imaginations, despite our vast travels throughout the world. This was long before we danced along the edges of a string of waterfalls, whose steady roar cranked up the intensity of the ride another few notches and echoed the true power of the McKenzie River experience. This was long before we crunched through another lava field, rolled through a sweeping turn and suddenly watched the Blue Pool reveal itself to us while simultaneously taking our breath away. This was long before seeing a seemingly endless display of variations of the forest theme, like a Beethoven symphony — towering old growth trees the size of small skyscrapers, lush neon-green fern jungles almost swallowing us alive, and on and on.
Take away the scintillating scenery, and the ride itself becomes spiritual. Fast, slick, curvy sections mixed in with rocky technical sections blend together like a heart-racing beat of a master hip-hop DJ. I caught myself so swallowed up in the zone that I hammered, tiptoed, slammed and shuffled through sections on my bike that I have never even thought about attempting, much less successfully navigated before. I’d pause a little longer at places like the Blue Pool to selfishly hog the experience to myself. Give your riding partners a 10-second head start, and it’s as if you have 25 miles of singletrack all to yourself.
Everyone warns that no matter what your level of fitness and despite the overall descent, this is a full day of riding. While we spent most of the day on the trail, it filled our minds with a fountain of memories.
It blew my mind. Tom’s, too. Maybe mine, just a little more.
You see, little brothers have no say in the matter. When it comes time to define hero, your big brother commands the spotlight, whether you like it or not. Other heroes come and go, but big brothers survive all challengers. At least in little brother’s minds.
They survive challenges, too.
More than a few years back Tom faced the ultimate challenge: drug addiction. He had hit rock bottom by the time I arrived at the hospital in Las Vegas. The roaring fire of life in his eyes was reduced to nothing more than a slightly flickering spark.
The nurse just finished a crash course on addiction telling me not to lift a finger or spend a penny unless he’s ready to change. “Just flush the money down the toilet,” she said. It has to be up to him.
I laid it on the line. I asked Tom what he wanted to do. The family was willing to do anything to help, but only if he was ready to help himself.
He looked me in the eye and said, “I want to live.”
Years later we were living large, my hero and I, on the McKenzie River Trail that day. I’ll never forget that feeling.
Time to ride.
RAZ’s CONFIDENTIAL CAMPING TIP
Midweek after Labor Day the kids have returned to school and the childless once again rule the outdoors.
Throughout most of the summer, landing a campsite at Paradise Campground — perfectly placed along the McKenzie River Trail on Highway 126 — would prove nearly impossible without a reservation, even during the week.
With families virtually out of the equation, the childless abide.
If you’re childless and camping that probably rules out two vehicles for shuttling on the McKenzie River Trail. That makes Paradise, well, Nirvana of sorts.
You can hop on the iconic trail right from your campsite and head upriver (for a long ride) or down (for a short one). Before you groan, understand that the McKenzie River Trail does include about 1800 feet in elevation gain, but that stretches over 25 miles. Heading back up hill isn’t the grind it appears.
Actually, the slower pace allows you to savor the beauty of the McKenzie that can get swept up by the downhill rush. When you do flipflop and head back, you’ll enjoy an inherent perspective of the trail. Eventually you’ll be back where you started, at a beautiful campsite along the rushing McKenzie River.
Time to ride.
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