I have now arrived in Caldwell, Idaho, about 30 miles west of Boise. The past ten days or so have been spent on a tour through Eastern Oregon. I now consider Eastern Oregon to be its own distinct region of the world. Sort of the same way that West Virginia is a distinct region of the world. To gain access to Eastern Oregon, I spent four grueling days pedaling east up the Columbia River Gorge, beginning in Vancouver, WA, and ending – at last – in Biggs, Oregon, after crossing the river. It would not have been grueling – and would, in fact have been pleasant – if it were not for the wind. There is a steady easterly wind that runs through the Gorge, which made a 7mph pace into hard, cold work. I spotted a barge or two out on the river, plugging away upstream, and tried to keep up as they chugged along. My efforts were fruitless. They were going about 8Mph. At one point, I checked into a hotel after a 19 mile day, feeling thrashed, frozen, and really excited to be in a hotel. The next day was the day I crossed over to Biggs, made my way to Wasco, and began my Eastern Oregon adventure. One of the purest, loneliest, easiest, best parts of the Seize The World tour to date.
As the ride began, I found myself climbing right away from Biggs Junction, Interstate 84, and the Columbia River, into cloudy, desolate country. There is even sage brush there. I was riding toward a place called Wasco, where I hoped to get a bit more food (hah!) and would then be moving along to another town called Condon, about 40 miles further along.
Those 40 miles wound up being some of the strangest, least comfortable, most interesting, 40 miles of the tour. I was riding through freezing fog that I could feel on my face. Visibility went down from about 200 yards to about 70 yards or so, in a murky white blanket of weirdness in which an occasional reflector post or fence post covered in 6 inches of snow on one side was the only evidence of a world outside of the black tunnel of highway 7. Bizarre. The snow was accumulating on one side of all surfaces because the fog was cold enough and wet enough to freeze when it touched things, and the wind was strong enough – 10mph or so – to blow the fog into those things. The result was that all SE-facing surfaces (such as my face, my glasses) would get covered with about 6 inches in snow after 30 minutes unless it were swept away. I noticed white lines forming on my panniers and on my jacket. I found myself talking to myself about two or three times more than I usually do – which is usually a lot anyway. Put differently, I was listening to an uninterrupted monologue about whatever was running through my brain. I was reminded of the shows that occasionally run on the Sci-Fi channel about the Bermuda Triangle in which a fishing boat will be floating through fog and will then suddenly see a 200 year-old pirate ship. I was wondering if I might arrive in Condon to find myself in the year 1849. But then I would hear the tires of a Dodge Ram pickup truck approaching from 1/2 mile behind me, and watch it roll by lazily, reminding me that I was still in the present day. Or at least sometime within the past few years. I got to Condon and was relieved – though a bit disappointed – to find out that it was still 2010.
I pulled up to Condon’s only coffee shop – Thank God there was one!!! – and the shopkeeper, Darla – a Doc Martins-wearing, woman in her mid-forties who self-consciously informed me that she likes southern Gospel music – gave me a free chicken sandwich and a thermos full of espresso. I could not hear much of what she was saying over music about Jesus, but when she did come over to join me at the lone coffee table in a shop full of flowers, chocolates, picture frames, tea, and potpourri, I felt as though I were having dinner at a place where I have dinner every day. My clothes and helmet were still dusted in snow and I felt spent. My bike was leaning against the window outside, flashing so brightly in the dark that it was a bit uncomfortable to look at it. I looked back into the coffee shop. I don’t turn the lights off ever… The food was insanely good, as was the coffee and the company. After about 3 minutes more of hanging out and enjoying coffee and talking with Darla, I told her that I should probably take off in order to find a campsite before it became fully dark and cold, though I could have stayed there for the rest of my life. I was still in a dream state after pedaling for 6 or 7 hours through freezing fog. After she gave me a bag full of snacks for the road, I took off, back into the fog, to find a campsite.
It was quick work to find a place to sleep, just a matter of descending for five minutes after leaving from Condon and turning left onto an overgrown gravel side road, then pitching the tent. I began to warm up immediately after putting on three layers on my legs, two on my feet, my down jacket, my awesome Mt. Hardwear hat, balaclava, etc. I watched about 45 minutes of The 40 Year Old Virgin before closing my eyes to try to sleep. This has become a nightly routine – that movie is sort of like my social life out here in a way, strange though that may sound. My other choices on the iPod are Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, District 9, and Garden State. I have pretty much decided to just watch The 40 Year Old Virgin every single night. And I do.
I still got quite cold once I settled into my sleeping bag and stopped moving. The freezing fog had not lifted, but had, in fact, invaded my tent. Many of you are familiar with the experience of being in a steam room. This was sort of like experiencing a steam room that emits 28-degree steam. (Fahrenheit) Although it was not terribly cold that night, the humidity made things chilly. I resolved, that evening, to contact my friend Jessie in Denver in order to see if she might be willing to mail me her zero-degree sleeping bag out to the road. It should be in Boise tomorrow. Thanks Jessie!*
*I had initially brought a zero deg. bag of my own out from Telluride but it was too bulky, so I mailed it back…good to keep the Postal Service busy I suppose. UPS too.
SO…the following morning, I resumed my journey, breaking free from the fetal position an hour or two later on in the morning than I should have, and climbing out of my sleeping bag. The fog had lifted and the skies were clear. I began to cruise across Eastern Oregon in earnest.**
**Condon is in north-central Oregon geographically, however it is still a part of the greater Eastern Oregon region as described in this entry. In fact, you could say that it is the Gateway to Eastern Oregon. They should say that, in fact…
The days blended together. I would ride along for about 30-40 miles each day, seeing a lot of scenes like the one below…
I applaud the Oregon Department of Transportation for their excellent signage of the entire Eastern Oregon Region. In case travelers fail to notice any of the various elements that make up the Eastern Oregon Landscape, ODOT has posted signs to remind them what they are:
Didn’t quite know what to make of this one…perhaps it was referring to my nasal drip, a condition experienced by all of Eastern Oregon’s visitors.
ODOT gave no warning of this thing, however.
After reaching a point about 3/4 of the way through the Region, I found myself in the town of Unity. Unity is as out there as out there gets, having a population of less than 200 people, and being a long way from anywhere in terms of groceries, entertainment, etc. Being aware of the second element – entertainment – the ranchers in Unity (everybody in Eastern Oregon is a rancher) have come up with one of the most fascinating entertainment systems that I have witnessed in my entire life. The Burnt River Bulls, the high school sports team in Unity, Oregon, is that system. You might be saying, “ah…high school sports…not so fascinating.” Read on.
The squad is composed of ten players. Two of them are the sons of ranchers in the Unity area. Eight of them are imported each year from countries around the world, chiefly in Asia. When I stumbled upon this team – and, in fact, this entire system: Unity is only one of many towns in the Region that brings in exchange students to play sports – I was amazed. Ranchers all over E.O.R. import their sports teams so that they can have Friday Night sports. Unity just seems to be better at it than its neighbors. Or at least they were on the night that I was there.
When I arrived, it was a typical end to a riding day at 4:30p.m. with the sun going down as I rolled into the icy parking lot of the high school. I had noticed a school bus passing me just outside of town. When I spotted it offloading students in the parking lot a few minutes later, I checked the school marquee. There was a basketball game on the schedule to start in an hour. My mission was now to find a place to sleep ASAP so that I could make it to the game. I checked into the empty RV park at the other end of town for $5, changed my clothes and put on deodorant in an effort to be semi-presentable. Then I rode my bike back to the gym. You cannot understand the excitement that I felt upon suddenly having the opportunity to watch a high school basketball game. I had spent the past six hours – really the past 15 months – riding through empty country with not much to do besides mutter things to myself.
Before leaving the RV park, I was given a short briefing on the nature of the Burnt River Bulls by the manager of the adjoining convenience store:
“Oh you’re going to the basketball game? Enjoy it. Our team has about 8 foreign exchange students. They’re doing pretty well in basketball. Got kinda crushed in football, but we’re doing a lot better in basketball.”
She also told me that this might be the last year that the team would operate – and, in fact that it might be one of the last years that the school would be open, with only about 50 students K-12 including the foreigners. Oregon was going to put an end to the system of foreign student dormitories that these small schools were using to house their imported sports teams. In the case of Unity, the dorm is a double-wide trailer not too far from the school. Bearing these things in mind, I began the 1/2 mile ride over to the school, where I was pretty confident that I would be at the heart of the action in Unity that Friday night.
I got to the school parking lot to see what must have been pretty close to 100% of Unity’s fleet of flagship pickup trucks: Dodge Ram 2500s, Ford F-250s, Chevy 2500s, all lined up, shining under the pair of lights that were illuminating the parking lot in the cold.* I was getting in the mood pretty fast. I locked my bike to the flag pole right in front of the door and walked in, getting out my wallet as I entered.
*In the E.O.R., ranches typically consist of a house, a few animals, a shed, and some vehicles; not including tractors, A.T.V.s etc., a typical fleet of vehicles might include a sedan or two, a few disembodied pickup truck beds for use as trailers, anywhere from one to three pickup trucks between one and 3.5 tons made between 1950 and 1995, and one 2.5-3.5 ton pickup truck made within the last five years – the flagship pickup truck.
“You don’t have to pay to get in,” was the immediate response to my taking out my wallet, from a 16 year old sitting behind a table with an array of baked goods.
“Raffle tickets for the cake raffle at half time are 5 for a dollar.”
“Alright, I’ll take 5.”
I made my way into the gym and took my seat in the back row, camera in hand. I took as many pictures as I thought I could get away with without seeming creepy. Afterall, nobody knew me there.
There were, indeed, eight foreign exchange students on the Burnt River Bulls basketball team. What I had not been aware of before arriving was that the team had only ten players. There were only two local kids – Caleb and Justus if I am not mistaken.
Before the game got underway, the seniors from both teams were announced by name. Then everybody stood, and faced the U.S. Flag hanging on the west side of the gymnasium as we listened to the Star Spangled Banner. We did not face east, toward the various flags hanging on the that side of the gym – China, Korea, Vietnam, Serbia, Thailand, others – to hear their anthems. Without further ado, the game got underway. The Bulls (in white) got off to a bit of a slow start, but it was clear that they were a better team. By the end of the half, they were easily controlling the game. By the end of the third quarter, I did not quite understand why both teams were not playing their second string players, as there was no way that the game was going to be won by Long Creek. The Bulls, at one point, were up by 17 points I think.
I was quickly reminded, however, that it was still a high school basketball game. The Mountaineers rallied, the coach shouting for a full court press, the Bulls got a bit sloppy, and somehow, by the end of the game, the Bulls had won by only two points: 57-55.
Through it all, I could not get over my simple feeling of awe. Sitting on one side of the stands, I kept looking out over the audience, many of whose heads were capped with baseball hats and cowboy hats. It was a mix of ranchers in their 50s and 60s, as well as a smattering of high school-age kids, and a few people my age. Most of the 100 or so people there likely did not have kids in the school, though many did. It was fascinating to me that this community of people had organized themselves to a sufficient degree that they could import Friday night entertainment all the way from Asia. I gazed once more at the flags hanging – appropriately – on the east side of the gym, and saw them not so much as flags representative of their countries, but more as a big “Made in China” sticker, and it put a smile on my face. Absolutely amazing.
The following day, my ridiculous thought of the day – I have one or two ridiculous thoughts each day that build throughout the day in terms of their level of insanity. They sustain me by keeping me smiling and by preventing me from thinking too much about cold, wind, etc. My thought that day was about the process by which Unity had imported its team from Asia:
I imagined the basketball coach, sitting up late in his doublewide, 20 miles outside of town on his own small ranch, burning the midnight oil as he pored over hundreds of applications that had come in from students around the world to study abroad. His task for that night was to make a short list – 30 or so – of the best athletes within that group. Because the next day, that same fleet of flagship pickup trucks that I had seen at the high school would be parked in front of the Church to make the selections for next year’s basketball team. At 1a.m. he had come up with his list and gone to sleep.
The following day, the fleet had arrived, carrying the ranchers and their husbands or wives – no kids present for this meeting. After all, it was the ranchers who would foot the bill for the exchange students. Once everybody had settled in, the coach would begin by showing slides of five or six of the players who he felt were at the very top of the list, and were worth going after with recruitment packages: give them free cowboy boots, hats, access to a truck for making runs into Boise, etc.
“This kid Kim Lee is going to be our only hope of beating Prairie City next year…and if we want to take ’em down, we gotta get him. Simple as that. He’s from Korea, and I have it from a reliable source that he was a starter on the team that won the basketball championship in Seoul last year. No joke – kid can play.”
***much shouting, pointing of fingers, and pointing of cowboy hats***
“Settle down! Settle down!”
“Just how do you know all this Jim?”
[ahem] “Well…it’s a bit strange actually…But my daughter’s been playing Starcraft online with him…well, in fact Caleb and Justus have too…so have all the kids. They’ve gotten to chatting, real casual, and they found out about all of it. Don’t worry, the guy’s not too good at Starcraft – meaning he spends his time playing ball I think. Well . . . he still kicks our kids’ behinds. He is Korean after all…Matter of fact, I’m a bit concerned about how much he’s been chatting with my daughter, but that’s another matter…”
“WHAT in Tar-nation is Starcraft? What are you talking about? Are you going to get us in to another situation like 2004?”
“That don’t matter Mr. Hutch! Just take it pure and simple on faith here – I know the kid can play. You’re going to have to trust me on this one. Alright? Okay – next player here is…”
The slides continued to click through, the bottom third of the screen silhouetted by the outlines of cowboy hats, perms, and ball caps. The discussions heated up, or cooled down, but decisions got made. With difficulty.
After going for several hours, the good citizenry of Unity had, in classic town meeting style, decided upon which athletes would be recruited with scholarship/bonus packages, and which would simply be “accepted” as exchange students, just as they had applied.
By 8p.m., the hour at which basketball games are typically over, the parking lot had cleared, and the coach was, once again, alone, in a town with nothing to do. Reminded of the importance of his task. The following day he would make his calls to the exchange office in Portland, which would, in turn send out acceptance letters. But he would, also, be making a few personal calls to Hong Kong, Bangkok, and other cities, making offers of scholarship packages to the families of the kids whose athletic potential seemed like it might give them a hope – finally – of crushing Prairie City come next season.
I do not know how close to the truth the above description might actually be, but it would not surprise me in the least to find out that it is actually pretty close. It was incredible to watch Unity’s team destroy Long Creek – a town nearly twice its size – with kids from Asia who could really play. Especially when I had no idea that such imported basketball teams even existed!
Sadly, the team will face challenges next year when they lose funding from the state of Oregon, which, as I understand it, pays for some of the expenses of the dormitory that houses the kids. Too bad. Because this is awesome. It is a phenomenon that promotes cultural exchange, active lifestyles, and entertainment. Incredible. There is, doubtless, a component to the issue of which I am unaware – I believe that Oregon wants to force ranchers to drive their own kids in to the schools in order to play ball rather than importing Chinese players and homeschooling their own kids – but it seems a sad thing to pull the plug on such an amazing program.
Over the next few days, I made my way to Caldwell, Idaho, just outside of Boise. Tomorrow I will meet up with Diane from the Epilepsy Foundation in Boise, and on the 21st there will be a slide show in Boise. Stay tuned on Twitter for details about the show, and I will post them here as well. If you know people in Boise, send them along to the show! Look out for time, location, etc. on the Twitter sidebar of the site, or on our twitter page! Follow us if you’re not already a follower. Okay then. Thanks for reading!
Cold morning getting out of the tent. Clear roads, however.