BY MARIE KOLTCHAK
“Take out your calendar right now and write in these dates,” my friend Marian commands on the other end of a tinny cellphone connection.
Exasperated with the minutiae of our work-a-day lives, we were determined, this year, to put in as many bike rides/adventures as possible, fighting off the stupor of winter, routine and, um, fat.
I pencil in “ride” for every other weekend, with a margin of forgiveness should life get in the way of a good time (which, of course, it promptly does).
We take a solemn vow for one Epic Bike Ride per month, increasing our target mileage 10 miles each time, taking turns designing the rides. Epic is defined as someplace new, somewhat challenging and off our beaten paths. That’s it, a measured approach to Greatness. Our motto: We’re not fast, but we’re slow.
Cut to: The Yakima River Canyon Scenic Byway that carves up the hills of the Yakima River Canyon between Yakima and Ellensburg.
Cue up: Feelings that make me feel tremendous and tiny at the same time, with beauty so striking that I almost cry – for joy, for humility, for gratitude, for awe.
Pan to: Blue-green velvet sage and scrub blanketing the towering canyon walls, formed by millions of years of cataclysmic lava flows, cut and carved by successive glacial floods. Rivers, cut stone, basalt columns rise from cliffs, some more than 2,000-feet high looking like they have stern visages carved into their facades.
Wildflowers cover hillsides and shiver in winds famous for their tenacity and strength, but thankfully tame during our ride.
Promontories jut out, and deep brown-black and red crevices (nesting for hawks, eagles, and falcons) lay underneath the carpet of tender, new growth. Moss stains the canyon walls, a polka dot party festooned in fluorescent greens and yellows.
The Yakima River flows below, meandering in fat, wide turns, shimmering as if covered in billions of shards of glass, or stars, changing color with the sky.
Any pain I feel during our 30-miler (we end up logging about 80 miles in three days) instantly melts with the views as I ride my new bike, light with buttery gears. Seeping worries (“Did I fill out the insurance alternate-beneficiary information correctly, the car needs a tune up …”) give way to irresistible beauty. I feel lucky, and amazed, and think, “I can’t believe this is my life.”
“Anything we should know about the road?’ I ask the two handsome park rangers at the Umtanum parking area, before heading south.
“The road is narrow in some places and some people drive too fast,” says one.
“Any rattlesnakes?” I ask, my voice rising with each affirmative answer.
“Always cougars,” the other ranger answers, bemused.
For the record, we do not see cougars or rattlers or even goats, but we do see other not-so-wildlife. The parking lot fills with cars, which spill eager hikers – families, kids, dogs. Well-maintained parks along the river attest to the Yakima River Canyon’s rank as a beloved destination. Traffic on this particular Saturday in early May seems relatively light, and drivers show consideration, giving a wide margin to us.
Vowing to return in the fall, we also decide, while hopped up on mouthfuls of life-giving chocolate, to be back sooner rather than later and use a local rafting outfit to float our families down portions of the Yakima River, known for its year-round, world-class fishing.
This ride is my birthday present, and it’s a game-changer that raises the bar for our Epic Adventures.
Our next ride is now under construction, but it’s probably in Eastern Washington, where we count on the sun with more success than in the Emerald City; where roads are often quiet and smooth; where generous locals tolerate fluorescent-clad riders seeking to burn off energy and soak up the sun.
And where, if the riders are very lucky, they are reminded they have a little time to say “Amen.”
Marie Koltchak grew up in New York and lives on Vashon Island. She works for The Seattle Times as a resale and permissions specialist. She loves riding her bike and eating chocolate, but distrusts snakes and speeding traffic.
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