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Editor’s note: First of two parts

The trail through town that bears the name of a celluloid cowboy is the longest rail-trail conversion in the United States. Following the route of the former Milwaukee Railroad, the John Wayne Trail stretches about 250 miles and two-thirds of the way across our state from Rattlesnake Lake, four miles south of North Bend, eastward to the Idaho border.

Last year a few state legislators tried to shut down the entire section of trail east of the Columbia River by sneaking language in a bill at the last minute and passing it before anyone noticed. Only a typo, proposing to close the trail “from the Columbia River to the Columbia Ri1ver,” prevented it from being implemented.

Once people realized what had nearly happened, public meetings were held for people to say what they thought about closing the eastern part of the trail. At the meeting in Ellensburg, I testified in support of the trail but expressed frustration with trying to travel across the section east of the Columbia River.

I’ve run and cycled every inch of the trail west of the Columbia River, but not one inch east of the river. When I contacted the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for information on how to do it, the process was so complicated (getting a permit, keys to locked gates, navigating around trestles in disrepair, saying where I would camp each night), and their information was so incomplete that I threw up my hands in despair.

After the hearing, Gaylord Perkins, dressed in western finery, approached me and gave me his card. He invited me to join the John Wayne Pioneer Wagons and Riders Association on their 35th annual cross-state ride, this year from Easton to Tekoa, six miles west of the Idaho border. He was organizing this year’s ride, and his group knew all the logistics of how to work around the obstacles.

I sent in my money, cleaned the cobwebs off my mountain bike, and wore out the trail west of town getting ready. Steve Varga, a former Ellensburg resident now living in Salem, Oregon, decided to come along, too. His broken neck from a biking accident in California two years ago had healed.

As the day approached, I packed a sack of Louis L’Amour novels and promised friends I wouldn’t ask whether the riders and wagons would be followed cross-state by pooper scoopers.

The day before the ride began we parked in a large field at the Double K Christian Retreat Campsite near Easton for a briefing by Gaylord, who wore coveralls and sported an impressive white, curling, waxed mustache above an equally robust white beard. About 100 riders from six states would participate. Our caravan, mostly people on horseback, would also include about 10 people on bicycles and four with horse-drawn carriages. Our median age was about 60, no ethnic diversity was apparent, and about 60 percent were women. Most were veterans of the ride.

Steve slept in a tent while I slept in my Honda Element. That night we shivered as the temperature dipped into the upper 30s.

The next morning we left our horses, bicycles and wagons in Easton and at 7 a.m. drove our vehicles behind a large yellow bus to park at the night’s campsite in South Cle Elum near the restored railroad depot. The bus returned us to Easton and we began the day’s ride. This daily pattern of shuttling vehicles meant we often started riding about 9 a.m.

Because horses are sometimes startled by bicycles, we cyclists stayed largely together and near the front to minimize passing. I got acquainted with Jeff, a retired railroad man and his wife, Deb, a retired accountant and had a fine conversation with Robert, who heads a Friends of the Trail group and supplied some of the photos for this article.

The ride was mellow. We cruised east, reached our campsite, and walked the Rail Yard Trail on the south side of the South Cle Elum depot, learning about the railroad operation starting there more than a century ago. Serenaded by a braying mule tethered to a horse trailer, we slept under a soaking rain that left Steve’s tent surrounded by a moat the next morning.

I discovered a broken front derailleur on my bicycle, reducing my number of usable gears from 24 to eight. But hey, it’s a railroad grade. I thought eight should be enough. Onward.

In the morning we pedaled east along the Yakima River to the Thorp Mill, passing through two tunnels on what, for my money, is the prettiest section of trail west of the Columbia River. The youngest biker, 11-year-old Hunter, biking with his parents Bob and Genevieve, shared his enthusiasm with all of us. Camille, another 11-year-old, the youngest horseback rider, was with her grandparents and also drew our cheers.

The bikers, on average, traveled faster than those on horseback, so we would typically arrive at our destination in the early afternoon. Without horses to care for, we had extra time on our hands for reading, napping, socializing and bicycle maintenance. As I walked around the Thorp Mill campsite I couldn’t help but notice a sleek critter with a glistening fur coat amble across my path. I’m not a skunkophile, but I’ve never seen a better looking specimen.

The trail was unbroken until we neared Ellensburg. The first sign of concern with the trail and its users came when we reached Faust Road, which was rebuilt up and over the trail, blocking users in both directions and making them exit south down a short hill, cross the road, and then climb north back onto the trail.

The second sign was, of course, Ellensburg, where CWU and the city erased the route through town and used that land for their own purposes. With a police escort from the west trailhead, we paraded to the fairgrounds on pavement with an enthusiastic crowd that reached almost double digits. There we had Cowboy Church with locals Dave Lundy and Barb Riley providing music, a chance for Steve and me to meet local friends Jeff and Diane Jones, and dinner for 42 at The Porch.

The third sign happened the next morning when an angry Dar Brady, Ellensburg resident and president of the organization, suddenly learned KRD (Kittitas Reclamation District) — unlike in previous years — would not allow us to travel less than a half mile near their siphon just beyond the I-90 trestle east of Kittitas. They said it would be unsafe and they feared liability. Instead we would have to exit the trail earlier, ride pavement over the freeway, and then travel a few more miles on paved Boylston Road to our campsite.

One young rider on an inexperienced horse told me she almost lost control and felt panic at the freeway crossing. Others had to dismount and walk across. To add insult to injury, we saw from our campsite at least two KRD vehicles patrolling their space, wasting their time checking for cheaters. Steve said, in disgust, “There’s too many lawyers in our country.”

Once in camp I climbed to the south edge of the I-90 trestle, staring at the 12-inch-wide iron beams Steve and I had walked across years ago, swaying as the wind blew on our backpacks, staring at the vehicles racing far below, and picturing the final spat we would make if we slipped.

A sun-kissed morning greeted us. Seven bikers started near the front as we headed east on the sandy surface through the Army Firing Range, bypassing the Boylston Tunnel. Steve disappeared on the horizon and finished an hour before the rest of us, who drifted into a mellow mood for the 20 miles across pretty, shrub-steppe terrain, reaching our campsite along the Columbia River near the boat ramp just downstream from Wanapum Dam. The wind howled all night. No surprise to us locals.

How do we cross the Columbia River from here? The railroad trestle a mile downstream was off-limits, though Steve and I walked across it and back years ago. Wanapum Dam was also off-limits, though I ran across it years ago and this group used to cross there.

But today we just loaded up the horses, wagons and bicycles and drove across the I-90 bridge, then exited south and unloaded at Beverly near the railroad trestle we couldn’t use. From this point the trip would be new territory for me as our route east gradually would drift farther south of Interstate-90.

The story will pick up again next week when the group traverses the rest of the John Wayne Trail across Washington.

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