When a road’s not a road: Mt St Helens misadventures

“I like maps, because they lie.”

WisÅ‚awa Szymborska, “Map


Looking for a poem recently that I’d read in a writing workshop earlier this year, I came across something I’d halfway written about an old bike-and-backpack trip to Mt St Helens. It’s a story I’d meant to write about here but never got around to, other than an initial overview post that makes absolutely no mention of it (ha! This is a great example of how you can write about a thing and absolutely leave out significant parts of it;)

So, I was re-inspired. Here it is, edited for clarity and to add an end.


(Loowit Falls, one lovely moment on this adventure:)


But sometimes when maps lie you end up bushwhacking with your 65-pound bike around an interminable lake, pushing up ravines and hauling over logs as you follow the “road” that’s clearly marked on your map — that was, in fact, even recommended by Google as the best route, but that yet fails to appear in front of you.

My first hint that something was amiss should have been when the road I was supposed to take led to a private gate, “no trespassing” — which I biked through regardless, because it was open, and that’s where my maps said the road was. If I hadn’t turned back there, my second warning should have been when that road ended at a deep, deep ravine spanned by a high bridge, blocked by a bungee-jumping operation.

“Excuse me,” I said, to all the people waiting in line to jump off the bridge. I’m just trying to get to the other side. The bungee jump operators had no idea if the road continued, though one of them said he thought a Forest Service road went down to the lake, which was, after all, sort of the trajectory I was trying to take. Despite what should have been some pretty good signs to turn around, I continued.


(just your average bungee jumping operation in the middle of the road…)


The other side of the bridge did hold a vestige of road, just enough to make me think that sure, it’s not a paved road, but it’s a primitive Forest Service road, like the bungee dude said, and, certainly, maps don’t lie. And definitely not Google maps! Or, maybe they both lie sometimes, but this was a lie in concert, and how often does that actually happen if something’s not truly there?

So, I followed, and despite the fallen trees, despite the scattered rocks, there was just enough road-likeness to the path ahead of me that I kept going forward. And at a certain point — in fact, a very specific point, after I’d just forded a creek at the bottom of a very steep and slippery hill, had found the least muddy spot to slip-slide across in my bike shoes dragging my bike as best I could — at that point, I thought, there’s no way I’m re-crossing that creek and going back up that hill and retracing about 11 miles of shitty drag-my-bike biking to get to that private road gate again.

Ever the optimist, instead, I thought, it will get better.


(up and down, just part of the “road”)


It didn’t. I crossed another creek, and another. I lay my loaded bike down on its side and tried to push it under fallen trees with tangled branches; I ripped a gaping hole in the back of my shirt trying to force my way through. I clambered over rocks and slammed my bike into my back, my thighs, my shoulders over and over and over trying to drag it after me. For days later I would look, unclothed, like an overripe banana, riddled with misshapen black bruises.

But every so often, hints of civilization! Shotgun shells! Trash! Something giving me hope that someone had been out there and that sometime, soon, this road would materialize in front of me.

When I saw a bridge in the distance — blessed piece of infrastructure!! — I let my heart soar. A bridge! No one builds bridges in the middle of nowhere! It was sketchy: missing planks, one defunct railing, with rocks fallen against it such that I had to take the bags off my bike to get through. I crossed it anyway, in two back-and-forth trips, one with my bike and the second with my bags. And on the other side, happy to be across, I loaded everything back up again, clipped into my pedals, biked off…. and stopped. There was a road for approximately 10 feet before it was blocked by a fallen tree, and another fallen tree, and another.

At this point, at was maybe 4 or 5pm — so, so, so much later than I was hoping. My plan had been to bike all the way to the June Lake trailhead that day so that I could camp there and start my Loowit Trail circumnavigation early the next morning. But instead, I was stuck on the other side of some lake from where any sort of road was, with no idea how long I still needed to bushwhack to get to anything real, and making the slowest progress imaginable. On the plus side, I had everything I needed with me to camp safely, so it’s not like I needed to make it anywhere specific. On the minus side, I was definitely a little cranky by now at dragging my damn bike up and down and up and down and up and down all the bushwhacking hills. I was tired, sore, and not exactly enjoying myself anymore.

Just about the time I started fantasizing about a boat to take me across the lake, guess what appeared: a beach far below me, with a family, with two boats.

I won’t write all the details of that self-proclaimed redneck family or of our interaction, except to say that they berated me for being out in the wilderness without a gun, definitely thought I was stupid and helpless for being out there, and “teased” me about how they’d thought about asking me to show my boobs before they offered to help. I was annoyed, and I didn’t much like them, but I was walking a very fine line with an interesting power dynamic because I really, really, really (I can not say that enough) wanted them to boat me over to the other side so I didn’t have to keep biking that damn non-road.

Eventually, two of the dudes hauled my bike into their boat, welcomed me aboard, and gave me an unexpectedly respectful lift to the other side of Yale Lake. One of them even gave me his phone number, purportedly so I could call and let him know I was okay at the end of my trip. (No, you are probably not surprised to hear that I didn’t call him.)


(just a bike on a boat getting taken back to civilization;)


I didn’t make it all the way to June Lake that night. By the time I got to itty-bitty Cougar, it was getting dark, and, exhausted, I ducked into Cougar Park and Campground for the night. It was still about 14 miles to June Lake, but I figured I could do that in the morning and then start my backpacking trip — a little behind schedule, but so much more appealing in that moment than spending another single moment on my bike.

The next day, mostly chipper once more if a little more tired than I was hoping, I made it to the trailhead, swapped out all my gear, and started my backpacking trip. By the time I got home, the non-road was just a small part of the adventure, and by the time I wrote about it, apparently, it didn’t even bother a mention. Thus it is with adventure: sometimes maps lie, sometimes a road’s not a road, but you always find a way.


(worth it!:)

(More pictures here.)

(Also, it turns out the road I was trying to follow had in fact once been a logging road, but was decommissioned in 2008 after many parts of it — wait for it — washed out. I’m sure I scrambled up and down many of those wash-outs. The last 3.7 miles of it will eventually be a hiking path (more here), but damn I was in for a long haul to get out!) (not to mention the “200 foot chasm” I would have eventually made it to…)


  1. Ha! This reminds me a bit of the time I tried to ride “Rattlesnake Road” outside of Arlington OR. It’s a line on the DeLorme Atlas, but now the road goes through turbine territory, and unceremoniously dead-ends. There was no portage of bike over ravines, rather, just turning around.

    Also: Ick, the rednecks. How gross. They are always surprised when people like us don’t carry guns going into the woods. I’m not condoning violence, but the only reason I’d ever need a gun is to deal with these same people…

    • heh. I think you might be better than me at turning around;) Maybe one day I’ll learn how not to just forge ahead and hope for the best…. although it DOES always work out somehow… ha! Which is, of course, the thinking that gets me stuck on the wrong side of a lake with no road in the first place … ;)

      I remember you writing about that tour, and I remember thinking that Rattlesnake Rd was a road I was going to take when I biked out to Boise (because it was on my Benchmark atlas too), but I don’t remember if I just missed it or what, but I didn’t end up taking it. And when I read about your excursion, I was happy I hadn’t tried harder;)

    • Also, I feel like I should add that it’s not like the family I ran into were like horrible people or anything, and I think they were ultimately concerned for my well-being, they just had a very different way of showing it than I’m used to (and, yes, they also had kind of icky conceptions of using a female body for barter or something, whether jokingly or not — which, at least, they had the sense not to actually act on).

      I guess I try really hard to understand where people are coming from and not be too judgemental when it’s a different place than where I come from, and I think that helps us get along… but would I actively choose to hang out with them? Probably not. But I’m definitely thankful for my ride across the lake, which they didn’t, after all, actually have to give me:)

  2. That was an entertaining read. I’m hoping your experience with the family was just an attempt at really bad humor on their part. I’m all for being sarcastic to people at times and giving a little dose of the old ribbing….but you’ve got to read your audience too.

    • Possible, I suppose. Though I think you’re right that ribbing is most effective when everyone knows that it comes from a place of care (“reading your audience”), which didn’t feel so much like the case to me here. Ha, it also helps when it doesn’t feel like blatant misogynism. But again, hey, they gave me a ride, so YAY:)

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