Monday, October 2, 2017

Biking to the Black Sun


What follows is a long account of my cycling to the eclipse and back. It's part travelogue, part examination of what the trip meant to me, and part reflection on where I am in life. It's very long, so I've marked a "Part One" and "Part Two" to provide a spot to take a break if desired. That said, it's all one blog entry, so buckle up.

Part One

Witnessing a total eclipse has been a personal obsession for the better part of my life.

The fascination began in 1998, when Newsweek ran a small article about the path of totality about to pass through Central America. Included was a brief description of what bystanders could expect to see, and the words awoke something with me. I reread them several times, imagining what it would be like to experience it.

Total eclipses took up residence within me and never left. The concept of heavenly bodies coming into alignment completely independent of anything having to do with us was staggering in a way that resonated from both the gut and the brain. Everything I’ve ever known is located firmly upon this earth, my frame of reference the horizon and the sky, and the forces that create a total eclipse operate entirelyoutside of that. There is nothing I can truly conceptualize about moon-sized objects shifting in front of a distant sphere of hot plasma, all occurring against the backdrop of a vast and possibly infinite void. To contemplate it is to invite delicious terror. It makes my stomach crawl into my throat.

After reading the article in Newsweek I looked up a list of future total eclipses to determine if any were feasible to attend.

“Man, the eclipse in 2017 passes right through the United States!” I remember thinking.

It never occurred to me I might live within 30 miles of the thing.


The first draft of my eclipse 2017 plans didn’t include any biking. I had hoped to travel somewhere for the weekend with my wife and daughter, but we never got serious about it and the news indicated all hotels within the path of totality had been booked for years. My wife wasn’t keen on fighting crowds and burning PTO she didn’t have, and so I brainstormed ways to make some sort of day trip to totality and back.

I considered trying to drive the thirty miles or so to the path of totality, but the expectation for the day was state-wide traffic gridlock and I didn’t want to leave my wife stranded without an ability to retrieve our child from daycare. Biking to the eclipse gradually revealed itself as the best option, but I didn’t quite know what that would entail. I commuted by bike every day, but a ride like this existed on an entirely different level. Travelling the distance by bike was a half formed thought percolating in my brain while we did typical non-eclipse summer things, like going to swim lessons and planning birthday parties.

As the date of the eclipse started approaching I reached out to a work cycling group to see if anyone was planning a bike trip to totality, and a coworker friend named Alex responded. I walked over to his desk and he pulled up the route he planned to take.

The destination was Molalla, a town far enough south to receive a full sixty seconds of totality. It was a logical choice the route there only involved bike paths and smaller roads with large, safe shoulders, which Alex had painstakingly researched on Google Maps. To get there, he planned to take the Max lightrail down to Clackamas, and then bike along the path next to Highway 205 until he reached Oregon City. From there the route took Highway 213 south through and past a small hamlet named Mulino. He’d then turn on S Molalla Ave, which would take him within Molalla, where he’d join an eclipse viewing celebration at Fox Park. The trip was 29 miles one way.

“It’s going to be an adventure,” Alex said. “I’m pretty committed to it at this point.”

“Do you mind if I join?” I asked.

Alex sent me a link to a website called Bike The Eclipse, which was a guide on how to make such a trip and return safely. The website welcomed me with some warm encouragement before launching a barrage of stern warnings. I could expect nothing less than 100% self sufficiency during the ride. Public restrooms would be swamped. EMS services would be limited. Ride support would be non-existent. I’d need patch kits, spare tubes, an extra tire, first aid supplies, toilet paper, tons of food, and as much water as I could carry. Space permitting, I should carry twice of everything. Anything less and I might be walking back, the site made quite clear.

I had dipped my toe within a pool and fell into the middle of an ocean. I wasn’t so sure about this.

Additionally, I never was an “adventure cyclist,” or whatever you call the guys who squeeze into lyrca tubes and bike across the countryside. I was in great biking shape from commuting around Portland, but I hadn’t gone for longer rides since leaving Madison, and those “longer” rides weren’t ever that long. I’m someone who firmly believes in setting yourself up for success via preparation--practice relentlessly for the gig, plan thoroughly for the presentation, etc.--and I had performed no long range biking training whatsoever. If I did decide to embark on the ride, my first trip of sixty miles would be a ride with little support and no cars available to pick me up if things went wrong. Perhaps, I thought, watching the moon cover 99.4% of the sun from the roof of my work didn’t seem like such a bad idea.

But when your favorite band plays their last show ever down the street from where you live, you don’t go stand outside the venue and call it close enough.


The idea of biking to the eclipse scared the shit out of me. It penetrated my thoughts and lurked in the back of my brain, poking me whenever I forgot this terrifying thing I would possibly do. The trip wasn’t dangerous, although it was technically more dangerous than the sitting stationary at work I would have otherwise been doing that day. No, the terror came from how far this pushed outside my comfort zone. The trip wasn’t just a journey to the eclipse, it was a journey outside the current parameters of my existence.

Something changed within me as the idea took hold, however: the terror received support from a growing excitement. As Alex had said, the trip would be an adventure, and the part of me that longed to do adventurous things was stretching its arms and shuffling out of dormancy. That the trip would take me outside my comfort zone became exactly why I wanted to do it, and why I increasingly needed to do it. None of which lessened the terror, but the terror was transformed into anxious anticipation.

I was going on an adventure, which meant I had some preparation to do.


Not that I don’t love the contents of my comfort zone, because I do. So many aspects of my life fill me with joy on a daily basis, and I couldn’t love my wife and daughter more. The three of us have a lot of fun together, singing and dancing and playing and laughing, and the highlight of my day is when I arrive at daycare and my daughter runs into my arms and gives me a giant hug.

Parenthood is an impossible thing to truly understand before you have kids, though. When Tracy was pregnant I envisioned life with a newborn as an altered version of our life back then--we’d still do many of the same things, except we’d have a baby strapped to us. We’d get less sleep and have less spare time, but it would be a matter of scale. It all sounds so naive now, but my pre-baby life was the only reference I had.

As it turned out, parenthood did not have the courtesy to modify the life we had. Instead, parenthood burned our old life to the ground and built a new one upon the ashes.

Everything I considered a core part of who I was disappeared the moment our daughter was born. We had promised we wouldn’t let this happen, but those were empty words said by people who hadn’t yet experienced a colicky baby who never slept. Our lives became a blurry slideshow of washing bottles, doing laundry, working to pay the bills, and enacting the increasingly elaborate rituals needed to lull our newborn baby into silence.

But as my daughter got older, things started returning. We were able to eat out at restaurants again, albeit with new limitations. We started sleeping through the night, which gave me back my brain. I began to find time to read and play video games--small volumes of time, sure, but they grew consistent. Finally, five months ago, I dropped the video games and began writing again, which I thought was the final piece of the old me locking into place within my new existence.

But then the opportunity to bike to the eclipse arose, and I realized there was one piece yet circling the runway and ready to land.


As biking to the eclipse solidified into something I was definitely going to try, I began getting my supplies in order. The Bike to the Eclipse website made it quite clear I would only have access to what I brought with me, and so I sifted through my gear and filled in the gaps by ordering things on Amazon.

I bought an extra tire (“the number one reason you’re walking home” the website had scolded), extra tubes, and a patch kit. The website didn’t shout concern about my groin, which I considered an oversight as I ordered a pair of padded cycling underwear.

I almost purchased more things, since I tend to overthink and overplan when faced with the unknown, but some texts with Alex defused most of my concerns. The website made it sound like I was putting my life directly at risk if I didn’t have an extra chain, but Alex assured me a broken chain was an unlikely event.

One type of preparation I knew wasn’t possible was any form of real physical training. I only had a few days before the ride, so the time for endurance building simply didn’t exist. My body was what it was, and it was the body committed to a sixty mile round trip in one day.

On the upside, the body would be protected by padded underwear.


I’d been on only two “long” bike rides ever--”long” meaning more than ten miles--and both occurred before I left Madison. One of the rides had been a trip from my condo near Fitchburg to Monona Terrace via the Capital City Trail and back. The other involved taking the Military Ridge Trail part of the way to neighboring town Mt. Horeb before returning. Neither was a marathon trek by any stretch, but as the eclipse journey loomed I reassured myself longer bike rides weren’t completely foreign territory. Additionally, those long rides happened on a labor-intensive mountain bike, as opposed to the lightweight commuter bike I intended to ride to the eclipse.

A few days before the eclipse trip I decided to find out exactly how long those two rides were, hoping the results would provide reassurance. Using Google Maps, I marked out the path of both.

The Capital City Trail ride had been a total of nineteen miles. The ride partway to Mt. Horeb had been twenty-three. On Monday, I planned to bike sixty.

I wasn’t reassured.


There was one additional subtext to the eclipse ride taking root within me as I prepared.

My dad liked eclipses. He had always had a hobbyist fascination with science, and I have fond memories of him making pinhole projectors with my older sister and I for viewing the 1984 partial eclipse. He also enjoyed adventure, and my packing and planning reminded me of the prep work he and I did for the week-long camping and canoeing trips we took within the wilderness between Minnesota and Canada.

Also, my dad was a recreational cyclist. He went on frequent bike rides along the trail behind his house, and in 2009 he rode thirty miles within a local ride called the Tour de Tonka. I was getting back into biking at the time, and I suggested we do the Tour de Tonka together in 2010.

Thirty miles was longer than anything I had ever done, so I developed a training plan. Biking to the aforementioned Mt. Horeb and back was a thirty-four mile bike ride, so that would be the goal I’d work up to over several months. I’d press on a little further each time before returning, and eventually I’d reach the town and consider myself ready to ride with my father in August.

I acted upon this training plan exactly once. In the spring of 2010, I biked about halfway to Mt Horeb and back, the twenty-three mile trip mentioned above, with the next ride scheduled for the subsequent weekend. Before that could happen, my father had complications from a surgery and wound up spending a month immersed within a medically assisted coma. He surfaced a changed man, his authority traded for confusion. It became quickly apparent he was unlikely to climb on a bike soon, let alone for a thirty mile bike ride.

He got better for awhile, but never quite managed to get back on his bike. And then he started to decline.

My father died in August of 2015, five years after the Tour de Tonka we didn’t ride. I spoke at his funeral and mentioned many things, but I didn’t bring up the bike ride that never was. The event was a commemoration of everything lost, and the itinerary didn’t want for more.

My dad would have loved this whole biking to the eclipse idea.


The Friday before the eclipse, Alex and I discussed final plans. We’d get together at his house at 5:30 AM and head out from there. He loaned me one of his panniers to transport supplies in, and he demonstrated how to clip it onto my bike’s rack. I asked him numerous anxious and naive questions (“do I need special clothing that won’t chafe? I can’t imagine those lycra outfits are just for fashion”) all of which he gamely answered (“nope, I’m planning on wearing shorts and a t-shirt.”)

I left work and realized the next time I’d see him was 5:30 AM on eclipse day. The ride was getting real.

The following weekend had normal events, like swimming lessons, but I also worked through my prep list. I got my bike fully ready, and put new batteries in the head and rear lights. I studied a youtube video to learn how to fold a spare bike tire, a skill which  my wife mastered instantly due to her experience folding windshield shades in Arizona. I configured my portable pump for my presta valve tires and tested it out. I bought various supplies at the grocery store, such as a first aid kit and the least sugary sounding granola I could find.

On Sunday night--the evening before the ride--I did one final inventory check. Both my wife and daughter were already asleep in bed, so the house was quiet as I laid each item on the couch and double-checked the supply list from Bike to the Eclipse. Once I determined my gear and supplies were in order, I packed everything carefully into the pannier, unpacked it all to check the list one more time, and then repacked everything again.

Satisfied I had done all that was possible, I changed into my pajamas, crawled into bed, and stared at the ceiling.

Part Two

I can say I was sleeping when my alarm went off at 4:45 AM the morning of August 21st, but it was the kind of sleep that barely qualifies for the definition. I had eked out perhaps three hours of fragile slumber interrupted periodically by me waking and checking the time.

In fact, I hadn’t slept well for several nights. Adventures aren’t always the most relaxing of activities to anticipate.

I snuck downstairs and got dressed. I drank a quick half-mug of coffee, ate breakfast, and checked the current travel time to Molalla by car, just to see how backed up the highways already had become.

“45 minutes with the usual traffic,” Google Maps told me.

“Where’s the gridlock?” I asked.

I finished my coffee, performed one additional inventory check, and headed out the door at 5:10 AM

Night hadn’t yet begun its transition to day, my street dark and still. I latched the absurdly heavy pannier onto the bike and wondered if there was a max weight limit I should have been aware of. I patted my bike, climbed on it, and pedaled onto the long, difficult path leading all the way to totality and back. The journey had begun.

The ride to Alex’s house was a relatively short 2.7 miles. The route primarily snaked through one sleeping residential street after another, and the morning air was comfortably cold without carrying a penetrating chill. I passed several cyclists and resisted asking if they were part of the eclipse club that felt secret and daring. They were most likely just heading off to work.

I pulled up at Alex’s house fifteen minutes later. We made final preparations in the kitchen, the overhead lights illuminating the objects spread out on the dining table, and it felt like the middle of the night. My tired body didn’t understand what I was doing.

We moved out to the garage and loaded the bikes. I took the opportunity to ask my last ditch naive questions. “I have all sorts of worst case scenario fears,” I said, “but my biggest practical one is the fact that I’m probably going to need to poop at some point during this bike ride.”

“Yeah, that happens,” Alex said, laughing.

We did one final gridlock check on our phones--Molalla was currently a fifty two minutes drive away by car, the usual traffic--and then we pedalled down the street and began our adventure in earnest.


We cut through his neighborhood and headed south on the bike paths flanking interstate 205. Morning crept in and illuminated the city in a pale blue light. Vehicles already sped down the interstate, with no visible signs of gridlock. It was a pleasant ride, with space enough to bike side by side and talk.

We reached the Max stop quickly but decided against interrupting an enjoyable ride to sit on a train, and so we biked straight through. We passed clusters of homeless tents pitched along the trail. Most of the occupants were asleep, but one couple was up early and gave us a neighborly “good morning.” We ascended a hill to find Mt Hood emerging through the rich dawn haze, and I made Alex stop so I could take a picture.

At 6:40 AM we reached Clackamas, a location I considered the end of the first leg of the journey. The vast commercial sprawl of the mall visible as we curved onto SE Sunnyside, and the sight of it represented a personal benchmark. Clackamas typically was the furthest Tracy and I were willing to drive for “normal” Portland life, and even then we’d second guess whether the twenty minute trip was worth it. And now I had biked there, tying it to my house with a pedaled thread. And we were only getting started.

Clackamas also marked when we began seeing other cyclists heading for the eclipse, identifiable due to their lightweight clothing and packed panniers. We offered help to a cyclist adjusting his brake pads, but several others had already stopped to assist.

We were all biking to the eclipse together.

We crossed a bridge spanning the Clackamas River and rode along the south bank. The view of the river was stunning, and I biked in a state of constant conflict as to whether I should force Alex to stop for pictures of the scenery. Each turn of the path brought on a new sight.

Oregon CIty was our first resting spot, although we didn’t feel much of a need when we rolled into the charming riverfront town. I had recently read some historical information about the American western frontier, and I enjoyed seeing the modern incarnation of what once was the bustling center of the Oregon Territory, back when Portland was a neighboring dirty upstart settlement. Dawn had fully conceded the day to morning, and there was a thicker concentration of cyclists upon the streets.

“My dad would have loved this,” I thought.

It was a little after 7 AM, which meant we had been biking for over ninety minutes. “We’re around halfway,” said Alex. “I think there’s a McDonalds further on that we can stop at for a break.”

“Sounds good.”

We continued on, and the street ahead of us banked up sharply. From a distance, it appeared our path ended in a wall made of road. Alex biked straight toward the incredibly steep hill.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said.

We climbed the hill. I was no stranger to the occasional severe incline, but we were hauling panniers packed with water bottles and extra tires and granola. We reached the top and I realized we had not reached the top, for the street turned and tilted up toward another hill.

We biked up the hill and found another, and another. Every time I thought we’d reached the top I’d instead find a brief lull before the next hill. My breath grew ragged and thick with lactic acid. We took a short break to drink water, and then we continued uphill.

Finally, somehow, we ascended one final hill and didn’t find more inclines waiting at the top. “I had no idea Oregon City was so hilly,” I said. That detail hadn’t made it into any of the historical information I’d read.

We rested for five minutes, rehydrating and refueling lost calories. I checked my phone and saw it was 7:20 AM. Somewhere out there a normal morning proceeded as my wife prepared for work as my daughter watched Paw Patrol.

A normal morning, that is, except for the absence of the father and husband, who was coated in sweat and trying to catch his breath at the top of Oregon City.


As it turned out, we hadn’t yet reached the top of Oregon City, as the road continued at a steady but mild incline. We biked on, passing various establishments of civilization: a Plaid Pantry, a Taco Time, a House of Pipes bong shop. We arrived at the McDonalds and took turns washing up in the bathroom. The faucet only produced warm water, which wasn’t as refreshing when splashed upon my face as I had hoped. The place was packed with senior citizen, and numerous other seniors arrived to meet up with the ones inside. They glared distrustfully through the window at us, two sweaty guys hanging in front of a fast food restaurant we weren’t patronizing.

We biked on, taking Cascade Highway south. The shoulder on the road was wide and gave us plenty of room to ride, and the traffic was still reasonably sparse.

“Where the gridlock?” I asked.

The city began to fade block by block, and we found ourself in rural territory for the first time. The highway was surrounded by a horizon of green conifers interrupted by small patches of farmland. We encountered more cyclists, all heading south in a loosely distributed single file procession. We also saw more cars, although the road was far from impassible. At one point we biked past a fallen cyclist receiving assistance, and shortly after an ambulance drove up the oncoming traffic lane. It was sobering to see a fellow cyclist injured, but it was comforting to know he was getting the care he needed.

The road began rise and fall with hills, a series of peaks divided by valleys. The waves came one after another--we’d push ourselves to ride up one hill only to crest and find another dip in front of us swooping up into another incline. The downhill half never quite seemed to offset the uphill effort. For the first time our biking settled into a consistent, ongoing miserable grind.

I mentally cataloged all my aches and pains, the novice in me wondering if they would eventually develop into something brutal. My lower back was sore, and my knees were complaining. The groin padding was working, but something weird was definitely going on down there. As for my legs, they still pumped away admirably but the muscles hummed from overuse.

At the top of a punishing hill we pulled over to assist two cyclists lying in the grass next to their fallen bikes, and one of them stood uninjured and enthusiastically yelled at me. He was a coworker named Jesse travelling with his friend, and we all greeted each other with boisterous laughter.

“Do you want some peanut butter chocolate cups?” he asked, holding up a plastic tin.

“Sure,” I said. Alex and I both ate one.

“Do you have any peanut butter chocolate cups?” Jesse asked.

“No, I don’t.”

“What are you eating, if it isn’t peanut butter chocolate cups?”

I had to think for a second. “The least sweet granola I could find.” I wasn’t sure why I had just eaten a peanut butter chocolate cup. I noticed his friend was making the trek on a beat up fixie. He didn’t have a helmet. He was wearing flipflops.

We chatted for several minutes and coordinated plans, and then we left them to their peanut butter chocolate cups and headed on our way.


We reached Mulino at 8:30 and pulled into a Chevron parking lot to take a small break. The town teemed with cyclists--they were biking down the streets, standing around at street corners, lining up at port-a-potties. It was a gathering of strangers all drawn by the same journey: pedalling numerous miles along county roads to see interstellar objects align in the sky.

“We’re in the path of totality now,” Alex said. “We’ll continue on to Mololla, but we’re guaranteed at least thirty seconds of total eclipse.” The weather was cooperating, as the clouds had disappeared and the sun hung unobstructed.

I put on sunscreen.

We had travelled twenty-four miles, with around five to go. The worst of our journey was behind us, although my body communicated quite clearly that it had used up a good portion of the resources reserved for the day.

Jesse and his friend biked by. He waved and yelled, “Slowpokes!”

We mounted our bikes and continued.

After the gruelling hills following Oregon City, the ride to Molalla was refreshingly pleasant. The road was mostly flat, with traffic thin enough to make the small shoulder nonhazardous. I felt buoyed by the knowledge we were on the last leg of our journey there, and a sensation of community with my fellow cyclists settled in. I smiled and nodded at everyone we passed, and a complete stranger asked if our destination was Fox Park.

“My dad would have loved this,” I thought again.

After a half hour of riding, the small county road widened into a town thoroughfare, and residential houses started popping up around us. We had reached Molalla, which proved to be picturesque mix of newer construction and older, western-style buildings. People had already staked out eclipse watching spots throughout the streets, although the town wasn’t flooded with elbow-to-elbow spectators.

We biked down the center street, coated in a light sheen of sweat. We’d made it.


We pulled into Fox Park at 9:10 AM, which had a pleasant but not overwhelming crowd. People were sitting on towels and lawn chairs and blankets distributed across the grass, although there was still plenty of unclaimed space. Children played on the splash pad and multiple playgrounds, shrieking with joy. Several people adjusted expensive cameras mounted on tripods. The morning couldn’t have been better for a social gathering centering on the sun, as it was warm but not hot and there wasn’t a cloud visible in the sky.

We found a break in the grass and sat down, our bikes sprawled horizontally next to us. Full totality wouldn’t happen for another hour, but people peered up through cardboard frame glasses. Parents helped children with modified glasses attached to cut up paper plates.

A man in front of us passed back a pair of binoculars with protective filters taped to the lenses. He said, “Check it out through these, it’s a lot more impressive.”

I looked through them and he was right, the view amplified to fill the frame. The sun was a bright orange disc suffering a spherical blackness encroaching from the lower right.

Alex and I ate sandwiches and bananas and took turns using the bathrooms. It felt good to let my muscles unwind as we sat there in the warm late morning sun, and a sharp sense of satisfaction and pride overcame me. We made the journey all the way from Portland, and we accomplished it by the bikes visible in the grass next to us as we ate out of the panniers. We were colossuses striding across the earth, travelling great distances using only the power of our legs. The return trip was distant enough to ignore.

It got colder, and the light gained a unique, dreamlike quality as the eclipse progressed. The sun beat down from overhead as usual, but everything had a sunset haze, as if we were in a cheap movie faking dusk by applying a dark filter to a scene shot in the middle of the day. I stood up and noticed my shadow had blurry, double-vision edges. Fox Park had grown alien as the moon swallowed up the sun.

Water stopped spraying from the fountains in the splash pad. Parents gathered up their playing children. Nervous chatter swelled into exclamations of, “It’s happening!” The crescent of sun visible through the glasses kept getting smaller and smaller, until with a rousing cheer from the crowd the final last sliver of light disappeared into the darkness.

Everyone took off their glasses and looked up.


Late-evening darkness had enveloped the sky, a blanket of rich blue-purple glowing along the horizon. Stars were visible, and the street lights flickered on. A cricket chirped somewhere in confusion. And there, at the center of it all, were the remains of the sun.

The sun was nothing more than a backlight for the perfect cold sphere of the moon. Dots of color traced the circle--flashes of red and pink. The sun’s corona surrounded it all, a ghostly diamond hanging in the sky and stretched in four directions.

Totality resembled every full eclipse photo I have ever seen, and yet none of those photos had prepared. Time stood still as I repeatedly whispered, “oh my god.” The sight of that black sun flowed down and pinned me to the ground. Tears welled up. I ached to have my daughter in my lap and my wife at my side.

And then time no longer stood still, and in fact had never stopped hurling forward, and the blinding tip of the sun began arcing around the moon. We cheered and clapped and put our glasses back on.

“That was the fastest minute I’ve ever experienced,” Alex said. I agreed, but it was a minute thoroughly saturated, sixty swollen seconds of unimaginable cosmic splendor.

It was the most amazing thing I had seen in my life.


The awe-struck gathering immediately began dissolving around us as people gathered their belonging and departed. Alex and I didn’t have traffic to worry about, and we ate more sandwiches and relaxed. The park was again bathed in the otherworldly direct-dusk-from-above light, and I spent a couple minutes trying and failing to capture it with my smartphone camera.

Jesse and his friend spotted us and walked over. We chatted about how incredible the sight had been, but eventually conversation turned to the matter encroaching upon my mind now that the sun had returned to normal. “The ride back is going to be a little rough,” I said. My legs weren’t as recovered from the long break as I had hoped.

“Yeah, I’m not looking forward to going up that hill,” replied Jesse.

“I don’t think it will be too bad,” I said. I didn’t know what hill he was referring to. “The trip back is more downhill than the trip here.”

“Oh, that’s good,” he said.

“It’s going to be a little rough,” I repeated.

“You’ve got this! This is what you’ve trained for!”

“I didn’t train!” I said, laughing.

It was a joking exchange that made me realize he saw me as needing reassurance, which wasn’t reassuring at all.


My two longest bike rides preceding this trip--the ride to Monona Terrace and the ride halfway to Mt. Horeb--had shared a similarity I couldn’t help but find relevant. The first half for either ride had been exhilarating, the sort of biking experience where energy seems an infinite resource. As soon as I turned around, though they became punishing exercises in endurance.

In other words, both rides completely collapsed on the return journey

Partially this was due to pushing myself too far before starting back, but the larger common culprit was the sudden appearance of oncoming wind during the return journey. Wind can be easy to miss when it’s guiding you forward, but it presents a wall of resistance when approached head on. The ride back from the Terrace was particularly gruelling, as it also was uphill. I made it home without walking, but each mile was a miserable slog.

It would be okay now because I wasn’t trucking along on a heavy mountain bike. It would be okay now because we rested in the middle and refuelled properly. It would be okay now because the return trip was mostly downhill.

It would be okay now because I couldn’t detect any wind.


We packed up the panniers and reattached them to our bikes. We asked a stranger to snap a quick picture of the two of us in front of the Molalla Fox Park sign, and it was an obvious choice to include our bikes. I felt increasingly sentimental toward my bike as it expanded into the role of long distance travelling companion.

Finally, with no further reason to hang around the lovely town of Molalla, at 11:00 AM we climbed on board our bikes and began to pedal our way into the long journey back.

The buildings fell away, our surroundings transitioned back into farmland, and a terrible wind whipped up against us.


We cut through the countryside as quickly as we could, but the wind turned the gentle decline into an endeavor requiring work.

“This wind is no joke,” I said.

“Yeah, this happens,” Alex said. “Wind sometimes rises up later in the morning.”

I reminded myself the trip back was more downhill than the trip there.

We came upon a string of cars stuck bumper to bumper, the first true bit of gridlock we’d seen all day. We biked past it, but the shoulder was narrow and safe passage frequently required slowing to a crawling roll. The air smelled of exhaust.

We arrived back in Mulino at 11:35 AM and took another short break to refuel, although the break wasn’t long enough. I was biking harder to achieve less, and we still had 24 miles to go. There was no choice but to hop back on our bikes and keep going, which is what we did.

I then discovered the hill Jesse hadn’t been looking forward to going up, a slow, steady incline over several miles. With a sinking heart I realized it was almost meaningless to focus on which trip was more downhill. Our trip’s elevation was a line chart that veered wildly and ended in a destination only slightly higher. There was no easy one way.

Everything within my adventure began to fall apart. The sun had reached the perfect point in the sky to beat down directly. The wind pressed against us. Sweat dripped down my face as each incline transitioned to another incline. Twin sharp pains had developed in my knees. Alex always seemed so far ahead, although he’d pause to wait and give encouraging words. Each distance check resulted in some discouragingly small amount--another half mile, another quarter. I stared at the back of cars passing us, and fantasized about ditching my bike and hitching a ride.

“My dad would not have loved this,” I thought.

Most cyclists were having a similarly tough time of it, and we passed two women who had stopped riding their bikes entirely.

“Alex,” I said. “How do you feel about walking our bikes a bit?”

As if on cue, a serious cyclist in full lycra gear barreled past me, his shaved legs and diamond-cut calves pumping with factory floor efficiency.

We didn’t walk long before we reached a relatively flat plateau and I found the strength to get back on my bike. The path began alternating between slopes up and down, which wasn’t easy in my depleted state but did reduce the death march quality of the ride. The country road transitioned into a street and the buildings of Oregon CIty coalesced around us.

“I don’t ever want to do that ride again,” said Alex.


We rolled back into the McDonalds at 12:45 PM. We washed up again in the bathroom and took a break within the shade of the building. Placing those gruelling hills behind us and reaching Oregon City had raised our spirits. I was exhausted, but the worst was behind me.

“How much would I regret getting a McFlurry?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” Alex said.

We continued on our way and reached the incredibly steep Oregon City hill that had given us grief several hours earlier, except now we were on the enjoyable side of the experience. We hurled our way downward through the empty streets, the river stretching below us like a miniature model. Wind whipped through us and cooled our sweat, granting a brief reprieve from the heat.

We followed the trail out of Oregon City. “Are we going to take the Max at Clackamas?” I asked.

“I sort of feel like biking straight through,” Alex replied. I understood, there was a conceptual purity to avoiding motorized transportation entirely.

Unfortunately, my body had other ideas. The remaining ride followed a gradual slope uphill toward Portland, and I discovered I didn’t have any more strength to give. The ride to Clackamas was mild enough, but I struggled for every turn of the pedal. I found myself biking just to reach the next break, and each break was never long enough.

When we reached Clackamas an hour later, I no longer cared about conceptual purity. “I think I need to take the train. I get the appeal of doing this entirely by our own feet, but--”

“You want to be able to walk tomorrow?” Alex finished for me. “We’ll take the train.”

We bought tickets, hung our bikes from the train’s interior racks, and sat down. The air conditioning felt glorious on my sweat drenched skin.

I drank one liter of water and had started on the second when the train closed its doors, lurched forward, and effectively closed out our adventure to the eclipse and back


We rolled into Alex’s driveway at 2:41 PM, the full afternoon sun granting the house a different personality than the purple dawn had earlier. I stayed for ten minutes to drink ice water and commiserate over the ride, but I was eager to get home and shower off nine hours of sweat.

The odometer on Alex’s bike read 53.18 miles travelled via cycling, train ride not included. Also not included was the 2.7 miles biked to Alex’s house that morning, which was a reminder I still had a short distance to go before my own adventure concluded. I said farewell, climbed back onto my bike, and began the last leg of the journey.

It was an easy route at a slight decline that nonetheless proved to be a slow paced slog. My last, lingering reserve of energy had departed at Alex’s house and I had nothing left to give. I was trying to scoop soup by scraping the ladle over the bottom of an empty cauldron. The few cyclists I encountered blasted past me in the same way I would have on any other day. The eclipse had converted me into a hobbling old man.

Instead of turning into our street I continued struggling along at a glacial pace for an extra mile to pick up our car which was parked near our daughter’s day care. I knew once I climbed off my bike there would be no climbing back on.

I entered our house at 3:21 PM, in a daze as I greeted our cats. With my additional biking bookending the trip, I had biked a grand total of 59.28 miles. Not quite sixty, but close enough.

I stumbled through the house in slow motion before finally making my way to the bathroom. I stripped off my clothes, entered the shower, and wondered if I’d ever want to ride a bike again.


Rehabilitation for the adventure didn’t take long, as lounging on the couch after a shower managed to resuscitate the spark somewhat. I was less sore the following day than I expected--although my bike commute was barely at quarter power--and the wonderful parts of the experience gained prominence as the awful parts grew distant.

And truth be told, the trip would have resonated far less with me if the awful parts hadn’t happened. It was the most punishing physical experience I’ve ever endured, and I pushed through and made it to the end. Alex was incredibly supportive during the entire ride, but the mental trench warfare against quitting is fought alone. Nobody else can will your depleted legs onward and uphill. I went on an incredible journey, saw the most impressive spectacle I’ve ever seen, and conquered a hell of my own choosing to return.

My legs felt almost normal as I walked out to the garage on Thursday morning, three days after the ride. As my bike came into view a sentimental affection welled within me, an outpouring of love for this thing that worked with me through the glorious and the gruelling.

“Hello there,” I said. I approached my bike and ran my fingers along the handlebar tape. “When are we going on the next adventure?”


The temptation exists to extract some personal conclusion about my father’s death from the act of biking to the eclipse, but to do so would be dishonest. My father was in my thoughts before and during the experience, but almost collapsing from biking sixty miles didn’t change my understanding of his passing.  No unfinished business was addressed on the way to Molalla and back.

I did, however, discover what I was capable of and gain a better understanding of who I am. I learned more about who my father was, and how pieces of him live on through me. I won’t ever go on that ride with my dad, but I can be the father who goes on bike rides with his daughter.

My wave of insomnia broke with the trip to the eclipse, and each subsequent night followed a similar pattern. I’d tuck my daughter in for the night, write about the journey, and collapse into bed next to my wife. I’d close my eyes and find myself back on my bike, exhaustion still distant as I pedalled through the crisp morning air. I couldn’t see my family but I knew they were right behind me, sharing the experience as each crested hill revealed a new horizon more beautiful than the last.

Appendix - Photos

Mt. Hood in the morning haze.

Traffic on road between Oregon City and Mulino.

Mulino. Notice the cyclists congregating across the road.

The festivities at Fox Park, Molalla.

Myself and Alex at Fox Park, slightly before the total eclipse.
An attempt to capture the blurry-edged shadows resulting from the partial eclipse.

Alex and I and our steeds.

Cool biking bridge outside Oregon City.
Afternoon view of Mt. Hood.