Tandem, An American Love Story

Through our tent door, ponderosas spike in silhouette against a star-glow sky. The thrumb-tumble of Early Winters creek drums white-noise just beyond Zippy. I hear an owl on the far bank.

Claire turns and nuzzles my shoulder and makes sleeping sounds. She is warm in the sharp mountain air. Our world now. A tent and two, a bicycle. Time stretches out before us, diffuse, unfettered, like the continent ahead. Full of hope, suffused with joy, and just enough apprehension, just enough to make an adventure.

I slide deeper into the sleeping bag. Claire instinctively turns into the spoon position and I comply. Only four nights on the road and our snuggle choreography is complete; the advantage of a small sleeping space. I let her full warmth soak in and focus again on the night.

The scents are new here, sharper and more distinct than the moist full rounded ones west of the Cascades. I turn and look overhead, attracted by a treetop breeze. It seems to be higher pitched, somehow thinner, like the spacing of the trees. The stars are closer, sharper, here in the dry air of the high country. At sea level things are indistinct, muted, edges softened, colors diluted; here all is bright and hard edged—what you see is what there is.

The owl sounds again, across the rushing waters from the far bank, and I find it difficult to sleep, so many things to remember, savor.

Claire at the bath   The Bath


            The day has been long, in the 90’s, and I am sweaty. I want to be clean. I stick a foot into the creek. I snap it back. Whoa! Northwest mountain waters are  cold this time of year; they’re not long from being snow. Eventually the desire to rid myself of the salt deposits, leftover sun screen, bug juice and road grime begins to overcome my natural aversion to cold water.

I stand on the bank of this stream putting off the inevitable and pondering this thing we call a bath:

I am convinced man was able to make the first steps toward socialization in Africa because the water is warm there. We were never meant to bathe in cold water. Humans are so poorly adapted to cold water that there is something called the drowning reflex that every kayaker fears. It seems most humans draw in an involuntary deep breath when suddenly submerged in very cold water. If that doesn’t get you, then hypothermia will.

Nope, we were not meant to bathe in cold water. That is what hot showers are for. So why am I standing here contemplating getting into that horrible cold water? Because there is no shower here, hot or otherwise, and I stink. I look at Claire and she looks like she stinks too.

Me first.

I wade in calf-deep. Brrrr.

Splash a little under my armpits. IEEE!

Splash other critical body parts. IEEE! Yeeooow! Soap up vigorously.

Now what?

Well, not much choice but to splash some more freezing, barely liquid misery on me to get the soap off.


Now time to wash my hair. Oh boy. Here goes.


That done, all wet now, I’m beginning to get comfortable with the cold stuff. All body parts are now equally wet and soapy.

Why not?

Splash! Plunk down in the stream and under.


I explode out of the stream and splash up on the beach as fast as I can move on cold-cramped calves. Then I stand in the sun, sponging off with a postage-stamp-sized, poor excuse for a towel.

Finally I am beginning to get warm again. The sun has never felt so good to me. People probably take all kinds of drugs to feel this good; this is free and I’m squeaky clean to boot.

The best part is getting to watch Claire go through the freezing and shivering part. I tell her I am standing guard over her modesty in case someone wanders by. Really I am just getting perverse pleasure watching her shiver and hearing her squeal. This is what camping with your mate is all about. Mutual suffering.


Looking back on our first week: 357 miles and four passes so far. Our poor little legs and butts are toast. My shoulders are tired and sore from wrestling the heavily loaded front end of Zippy at four mph pass climbing speed. We had rain the first day , but since then it has been sunny and warm. It’s mid May, but we feel like we rode into August.

Mostly we eat from grocery stores: Pork and beans, summer sausage, carrots and multi-grain bread, made up one memorable dinner. None of this is hot. Space limitations on the tandem led us to decide to leave our stove at home. It has been a good decision so far. Not only do we have more space, but less weight, we don’t have pots to wash, and there’s no smelly fuel to get on packs and hands. We eat lots of carrots, bananas, apples, granola bars, yogurt, tub cheese, bread and crackers and tortillas.

We eat in restaurants now and again. Just the other day, I had a breakfast special of two huge pancakes, two strips of bacon and two eggs. $2.29. Claire had her usual, French toast. We’re beginning to notice a distinct desire for protein, and accompanying fat, both of which were low in our diets at home. This level of sustained exercise is probably going to demand some adjustments to our diet. I’ll probably be forced to eat more ice cream. Too bad.

We have met all kinds of people already. People see Zippy and our red bags and American flag flying, and they just want to get close and ask questions and smile and smile and smile. Everybody loves a tandem: the log truck driver in Riverside, the apple refrigeration expert at Early Winters, the cowboy at Mazama, the three couples who stopped us in the street in Winthrop, the class of school children we saw at Loup Loup Pass learning fire safety, the Harley motorcycle couple from British Columbia and a whole campground full of RVers at Riverside. And more.

We are finding drivers to be more respectful on this side of the Cascades. Maybe it’s the bags and flag, or Claire waving at most of them, I don’t know. It may be there are far fewer drivers here.

Zippy is beginning to get used to being loaded. He complained at first about not being told he would be a pack horse, but he’s settled into the routine. He handles like a truck uphill, but tracks steady on the downhill.

We are becoming a team, even more than we imagined we would. We talk to each other all day about everything imaginable, I philosophize and pontificate (a male thing), we point out items of interest, drivers reactions to us, cows, an unusual flower or cloud. One day, we went for several minutes in silence climbing a pass, and then both of us thought, at exactly the same moment, about the pretty horse five miles back.

We’ve been in beautiful country, with open areas of  trees, grass and more big sky . The landscape continues to change from huge forests of large conifers to mixed conifers and deciduous stands in island mountains above prairie valleys.

Claire just learned that her father, David McCabe, has colon cancer. She finally got the straight scoop from his wife, Lynn, everyone else seem to be in denial. He’s been in the hospital since the day we left. When Claire asked what he was going in the hospital for, he said  “routine surgery.” I figured that meant the removal of some polyps, not that uncommon in people nearing 70. The truth turned out to be a much more difficult procedure, removal of part of his colon. The doctor doesn’t think it spread, but Dave will begin chemotherapy soon as a precaution. Claire is taking it as well as possible, considering DeLee’s death not so long ago. We make frequent telephone calls to check on his progress

The highest pass in Washington (Sherman) wasn’t as hard as we’d been told, 3,000 feet of climbing in our lowest gear, but we could have pushed harder. It was a chilly 40 degrees at the 5,575 foot summit.

We decided to take the advice of a couple we met in Colville, and ride a flat 20 more miles to some nice lakes to camp. Three hours and at least 2,000 feet higher we gave up at a DNR (Washington Department of Natural Resources) dry campground, in total bonk and freezing. Never believe strangers about steepness of grades or distances; things look different from behind the wheel of a Mercedes.

Total for the day of 74 miles and at least 5,000 feet of elevation gained. Too much too soon. I shivered so hard during the night that I began to suspect a fever of some sort. Claire was just getting over a nasty bug when we left. Two days later,  in Newport, Washington, I finally figured out I was sick. I’d been getting major bonks (total exhaustion) almost every day, to the point of practically falling off the bike a couple of times. My legs kept working, but my upper body simply gave out. I had a fever. Old bull-head just tried to keep pedaling. Took a rest day in Newport and improved.


Tandem, An American Love Story — 3 Comments

  1. Thanks for the memories, and the update on your own adventures. That last few days back to Sequim was bitter-sweet after more than a year on the road. We’ve never been the same; a good thing.

  2. What a marvelous and beautifully descriptive article about a simply amazing woman – Karen Landis. I’ve had had the serendipitous experience to create and nurture a friendship with Karen after I underwent a hip replacement and three hip fractures and realized I needed to request the local “Meals on Wheels” service. And of course, if she didn’t have enough on her plate, Karen serves the Chino Valley community two days a week by delivering meals to people in my circumstance.
    I loved Karen the first moment I met her. And when we started chatting I knew I had met a soul mate. I’ve been looking all my life for a role model, a hero, an amazing example of humankind. I don’t know if she realizes what an outstanding example she is of a strong, independent, intelligent, talented woman. Sometimes as women, we have a dentency to undervalue ourselves. But Karen, I want you to know you are the real deal. You are just so beautiful in your authenticity. And I a so appreciative of the value you have added to our environment by caring for the land and the animals under your watchful care. Your abilities and strength simply boggle my mind. And thank you for your loving service to me these past four months. You rock girl!

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