It was early April when I announced that at the end of the month, I would be leaving the publication I helped start seven years earlier. Barely a day later, Sean Lerner, a friend from college, posted on Instagram seeking company on a three day westbound “Tour Da Gorge” from his home in La Grande, Oregon, near the Idaho border, to Portland, along the length of the Columbia River Gorge.
Four weeks later, I found myself straddling a borrowed Rivendell Hunqapillar I’d never ridden, about to embark on my first ever bikepacking trip: a breezy 304 miles over mixed terrain with 14,000 feet of elevation gain in three days. Unsurprisingly, I was the only person to answer Sean’s call.
Michael zooming through the nearly abandoned canyon roads between Estacada and Hermiston. Photo: Sean Lerner
Prior to this trip, I’d never ridden more than 70 miles or climbed more than 4000 feet in a single day. Nor had I ever spent the night in a bivy sack. Nonetheless, Sean assured me that I was “probably” in good enough shape to hit the planned campsites on the scheduled timeline. Besides, we could always extend the trip to four or even five days if needed. I put my odds of needing those extra days at around 50% before we even hit the road.
Wind farm in Goldendale, WASHINGTON. Photo: Sean Lerner
By the time I landed in Boise with a runny nose and signs of an oncoming cold, I was already looking into alternative campsites. After an on the fly reroute through the Yakima valley on day two that added an extra 15 miles and some 4000 feet of unanticipated climbing, I was too spent to even look at a map. And on the third day, as the sun set while we passed the century marker for the third time in as many days—with another 20 miles ahead of us—I was simply grateful that the unholy discomfort I was then experiencing in other parts of my body (from a combination of a blistered perineum and having to contain explosive diarrhea through 6000 feet of elevation gain) was just enough to distract me from the fact that the blood in my veins had long since been entirely displaced by lactic acid.
Sean riding the dirt backroads above the gorge in Fairbanks, OREGON
In the end however, Sean proved right. We completed our tricentennial tour in the planned timespan, without injury. And as ragged as I felt by the end of the third day, the lowest of the lows were far exceeded by the enormity of the highs.
Sean enjoying the extensive logging road network in the Mt Hood National Forest. Photo: Michael Zhao
Each day had at least one descent that had roads and scenery to rival the most iconic stages of Europe’s most renowned races. We could hardly believe our eyes, but all doubts evaporated as rubber hit road, descending along immaculately cambered curves along backdrops that looked more like parts of Zion National Park than the Pacific Northwest.
Michael rounding the final bends to the apex of Rowena Crest. Photo: Sean Lerner
If you ever find yourself within riding distance of Emigrant Road going into Pendleton, the Bickleton Highway heading out of Bickleton, or Maryhill Loop Road (some fence-hopping required) off of Highway 97, seek them out. Or better yet, plan a ride that takes you down all three in three days.
Michael Zhao left his post as Wirecutter’s deputy editor in 2019 in order to spend more time traveling with bikes and cooking in various restaurants in Brooklyn.
You can keep up with him on Instagram at @mhzhao.