In Multnohmah County, the city of Gladstone on the whole has a very weird vibe, like a bomb site or a slave plantation. When I lived there it was a pretty neighborhood on the riverbank, with big yards and nice trees. I believe this lingering gloom is because of some forty thousand Multnohmah people who died of smallpox. The whole scene there, of Gladstone, and old downtown Oregon City is always so forlorn, for such a busy, picture-postcard area.
This incident happened in 2000 or 2001. If grim historical fact comes into play, it is more likely that of people freezing to death beneath overpasses in modern shanty camps. I avoided the easy bike route along the I-205 after dark, just in case you wonder, in part because of these hidden camps, but mostly because of the people who prey on them.
Years before I lived in a little house there, I would ride my bike home through Gladstone, east over the hill, when I stayed with "Marco's" grandmama. There were two routes over the high ridge. One was a steep, blind intersection, tricky either way. Even in daylight, riding or walking my bike up that hill was not safe. I worked at a cinema, and usually got home around three a.m.
(In any case, I kept an eye out being alone after most traffic and all the good people were off the roads. I am always armed, but the only trouble I have ever had has been from the police. I am not afraid of anyone else. So, I always ride super legally, with a headlamp, and two headlights, plus taillights, on the bike itself. There are bike lanes/routes, and it is legal for bikes to take the whole proper lane on roads with less than 35 mph limit.)
So, I picked the longer way over the ridge. This was a wide, well-lit residential two-way, with parking and painted bike lanes on both sides. This wide street went straight and very steep for about eight blocks. One could see all the way up to the top of the hill. Even in the rain, I could pick a mailbox, or a jeep or something, and set a goal to pedal at least that far up the incline. As weeks passed I made it a little farther every time I tried.
One very wet, dark winter night after work, the residents had put out their bins, blocking off the bike lanes. It was probably around 1 a.m., so after spotting on a red truck parked halfway up the hill, I began huffing and puffing right up the middle of the auto lane. I made it to the red truck. The road ahead was clear. I did not want to give up yet.
My hoodie was steaming in the streetlights, a buttery topping-flavoured halo of my own warmth. There was no wind. It was so quiet I could hear the water flowing downhill over the blacktop, every individual tooth of my chain on each gear. My own blood was loudest in my ears. I weaved a little, trying to maintain momentum. Not exactly the Grand Prix.
I was struggling very slowly, standing up on my pedals. I looked down into the fog of one breath, and when I looked back up, he was suddenly there, motionless at my right hand. If he had been real I would have hit him, I should have knocked into him. I swerved and almost tipped off my bike, heaved sideways uphill, into him. But there was no impact, somehow.
He did not move, and stared me straight in the eye as I passed within a breath of him. There was no fog from his breathing. He had shaggy, light hair, with a long mustache. He was all pale grey, like ash or snowy, but not reflecting wetly in my headlamp or the streetlights, as one should. He had no smell or warmth. His eyes were desperate. He looked bone cold. That downward pedal's worth of a moment seemed like several minutes, but it was less than a blink of time. He could have grabbed me if he were trying to, as I wobbled in toward him. I looked right in his eyes. He was so cold.
I was so scared I did not look behind to see if the pale figure was following me, or even really there. God rest him. I can barely remember correcting the bike, or getting home. I only know that was the only time I ever pedaled all the way up and over that hill; and the last time I rode home along the East side of the Willamette, through Gladstone, after dark.
I would prefer that this was a person picking trash, who caught me by surprise. But as I swerved, they would have either jumped back instinctively, or reached to brace himself/catch me. How were they suddenly in the middle of the road? I should have hit them, would have smelled someone that close, and felt his body heat. His smallest breath should have been like smoke, like mine.
Also, I would have seen his breath, then simply rode up the (downhill) opposite side of the street, from the bottom of the hill. A person in a blanket, picking trash in the wee hours, would not have been frightening in the time before fentanyl.