Back to Before: Sickness, Health, and Rediscovery
Having called it quits on the Three Sisters, Three Rivers route for medical reasons a year earlier, Andrew Chapman returned to Oregon with a group of friends for a shot at redemption. Find his reflection on slowing down to appreciate good health and good company here, plus a selection of photos that show off the region’s serene beauty…
Words and photos by Andrew Chapman (@andrewgchapman)
Not knowing what kind of shape I was actually in, Ben tried to give me a few other options for our upcoming bikepacking trip.
“Just thought maybe rail-trails might be better,” he said over the phone. He certainly wasn’t unjustified; I had been sick with Crohn’s disease for much of the previous two years, and the Three Sisters, Three Rivers bikepacking route we’d planned to ride in Oregon was an ambitious undertaking.
“No, I’m fine,” I said, trying to sound reassuring. I was looking to get my identity back. At least one that wasn’t “the Canadian” (I had recently moved to the US), “the quiet one,” or “the sick guy.” Embarrassingly, I do enjoy it when people revel in my ability to cope with medical tubes and wires sticking out every which way. Bike touring, however, was a healthier part of how I saw myself.
I’d like to say I considered Ben’s alternative ideas. Frankly, the moment the route in Oregon was on the table, I was wringing my hands and thinking of redemption. My wife Erica and I rode part of the route before when my health had made a decisive downward turn, and we went home. It would be a grand return to the scene of the crime. Almost poetic. I urgently wanted to finish the route.
We planned to meet up with our friend Jonathan three days into the trip, and then Erica a few days after that. The four of us first met in Patagonia and rode together for several months. This was like a family reunion. Our schedule alone would ensure I was pushed outside of my comfort zone. While I hate to admit it, I was worried I embellished my fitness to Ben. Plus, he is like a cycling Clark Kent: an unassuming tax accountant by day, but on the bike, he can fly. “Where did that guy go again?” I imagined him saying as he glanced over his shoulder on the trail.
We started from the town of Bend, which appeared to be staged for outdoorsy young folks like Ben and me. Surfers rode the whitewater in the Deschutes River, and several breweries within walking distance seemed to thrive. I heard the town sometimes smells like cat pee (something about the Juniper trees), but it smelled distinctly like caramel to us. I was ready to stay, to be honest. From the edge of town, though, we packed our bags and were on butter-smooth trails within minutes.
We rode together for hours. I imagine Ben cycled behind me as a courtesy, but it still was nice to hear him occasionally yell, “Nice line!” He coached me on how to navigate downhill switchbacks. To this day, despite his direction, I’m uncomfortable with such sharp changes in direction.
We made the highest elevation of the trip (6,777 feet) on the first day and camped below the snowy summit. Grisly, charred trunks hinted at a previous forest decimated by fire. A low layer of green foliage strived to fill in the ground. We tried to guess how long ago the fire happened, but neither of us had any idea how long it takes for a forest to recover after that level of devastation.
In the morning, I felt like I had eaten a whole tennis ball. It was likely the lentils for dinner, or maybe the peanuts. Who knows? It resolved mercifully by mid-morning, yet it felt like a sinister voice was saying, “Nuh-uh buddy, you can always lose what you have.”
Nearly a year earlier, Erica and I had come to ride part of this same route for my birthday. I was deep in a flare-up of Crohn’s disease and was also suffering from an inexplicable UTI. While not completely understood, Crohn’s is the result of a misfiring immune system, causing inflammation and damage to the gut. While not the case for many others with the disease, I had always experienced stretches of near-normal health punctuated by periods of debilitating flare-ups.
Why did we go to Oregon with my tenuous health? I think when a window of opportunity to feel like yourself again appears, anyone would take it. Erica, as always, understood. But on the night of my 31st birthday, in pain and sleepless, I left the tent to pee. At the end of the stream, under the stars and miles from any people, I unmistakably farted out of my urethra. It was like I had released an unknotted balloon–a wholly unnatural feeling.
What followed was months of hospital stays and treatment. To rest my bowel, I was fed through a port in my arm with an opaque white liquid that my roommates called my milk bags. During that time, not a crumb of food crossed my lips. You might think that I would’ve cheated at some point, but I didn’t. Due to the risk of yanking out the port, I also wasn’t supposed to bike, but I was far less strict with that rule. Instead, I pedaled around like a 1930s milkman.
I was scheduled for surgery two days after Christmas to remove some bowel and fix the bladder. The day before the operation, Erica and I biked a fun local trail. Then we rode to the hospital the next day, and my mother-in-law drove the bikes home. I felt like it made a statement, but I still don’t know what kind.
During the three days as a pair, Ben and I were ahead of schedule. We were up near sunrise and rode consistently throughout the day. On the second day, a thunderstorm seemed to fully surround us as rushed upwards. While trying to get off the mountain, we found the trail overgrown. “There would be no way to tell there was a trail if it wasn’t for the line on the GPS,” Ben said after we had blasted through thick brush. Thick clouds still swirled as we set up camp that night, but the storm never caught us.
The landscape changed, which is always a pleasure to see when you pedal through it. We rode from high desert, to old-growth forest, to popular hiking paths with hordes of people, only to find out the hiking path was rated the best mountain bike trail in the United States (do yourself a favor and don’t go on a Sunday). Since Ben and I are both quiet and slow-moving, we spent much of our time in comfortable silence. Our conversations while riding often consisted of banal statements: “Sure is green in this forest” or “that downhill was fun.”
Then we met up with Jonathan.
We had left my car for him in Bend, and when he pulled into the parking lot where we waited, the trip changed in an instant. He has a genuinely positive energy and is almost cartoonish. He has a green mullet, which he makes look like a superb achievement.
As he built up his bike and loaded his bags, he effused, ”Should we get some chicken tenders in there?” gesturing to a corner store. “I’ve got so much space in these bags. I should load it with more snacks,” he said, poking through the empty pockets.
So, we packed snacks–three days’ worth–and continued.
The three of us climbed deeper into the misty backcountry when another biker snuck up behind us. Hayden was traveling a similar route to us but planned to return to Bend. “I’ve been following your tracks for three straight days,” he said as he scanned our bikes. “And I’ve got your water bottle,” he continued as he pointed at me. I had ejected one unknowingly off my bike two days ago. He was lighter and faster, but we invited him to ride with us.
Just as the sun burned off the mist, the left side of the trail fell away into a steep slope. “What’s that mountain?” Johnathan asked Hayden, an Oregonian, as we rode. “Don’t know, have to look at the trail,” Hayden responded. I felt slow and shaky through this section; Doubly so when I took a selfishly long time to fix a fussy brake. Sure, Johnathan got a flat and ate his three-day supply of snacks in a single day, and Ben advocated for a lunch stop in a lean-to, but I wondered if I was responsible for our slow pace.
I began to hear two conflicting voices: One that wanted to finish the route and make some previous, sicker version of myself proud. And one that urged me to loosen up.
Hayden appeared equally torn. “I’ll meet you guys at the brewery in Oakridge,” he said, acknowledging our slow pace. Then we’d come around a corner every so often, and he’d be waiting for us.
After our route separated from Hayden’s, we rode until dusk. At that time of year in Oregon the mosquitos swarm in big black clouds. We set up camp with only our faces and hands showing. “What do you think they eat when we’re not here?” I asked. There certainly weren’t a lot of obvious mammals around. “Is there really enough blood for them out here?” But none of us knew much about the struggles of mosquitoes, and we fueled the fire in hopes of smoking them out.
Despite ourselves, we made it to our rendezvous with Erica and our dog Ozi. Ben bought us matching USA-themed hats at the market for the 4th of July, and we met Erica grinning proudly. The next day we needed to shuttle our vehicles, retrieving our car from where we met Johnathan and delivering it to the endpoint. “Maybe look for a spot to park around 30 miles from the finish,” Ben whispered as Johnathan and I left early in the morning. I nodded in agreement. We’d never make it to the end. With four of us (and a short-legged dog), the laughs would grow while the mileage would certainly shrink.
The drive took seven hours, which was longer than anyone expected. The idleness was jarring and provided plenty of mental space for negative rumination. My redemptive moment at the finish was lost. Did I slow us down too much? Were my friends going easy on me? All of my optimism was gone, deflated by a long car ride.
I knew it was dumb to be thinking like this. I’d counted down the days to this trip, and here I was in a grumpy mood, pretending not to be. As it was, we packed and started riding at 5:00 PM. I’ve never been good at listing things I’m grateful for, especially when I’m frustrated. But I was grateful. Acknowledging it was the path back.
That night, as we cooked more food than we could eat, I thought about how I couldn’t eat anything only six months earlier. I thought about how I feel relief every time I urinate without air bubbles. I thought about all the people with passions that were inhibited, and for more time than I endured. Most of all, I sat quietly and admired my company.
When I arrived in Patagonia for my first bike trip, I titled a journal entry “It’s all about the bike,” but on that trip I met my wife and two of my best friends, so the riding itself was rather trivial. In Oregon, I made the same mistake, assuming the riding would push me outside of my comfort zone and guide me toward self-assurance. We’d pass safely through Dread and Terror the next afternoon without much thought. And as we washed up at camp, the mosquitoes arrived as if to a second dinner seating–driven by gut instinct, not questioning their sudden good fortune.
Learn more about the Three Sisters, Three Rivers bikepacking route here.
About Andrew Chapman
Andrew Chapman grew up cycling in Nova Scotia with his sister and father. Andrew now lives in San Francisco, where he works as a science editor, and rides the local trails and surfs tiny waves with his wife, Erica, and dog Ozi. In his spare time, he also writes, sews bikepacking bags, and takes photos. Follow him on Instagram @andrewgchapman.