There’s a lot missing between the last entry and this one. We have so many stories to tell, and images to share. We’ve been home for just over a week and are knee-deep in summer farm work and life. Stay tuned; when time allows, there are more updates yet to come.
Cycling through the desert was ill-advised at this time of year, and we were told a few times that we weren’t going to be able to do it. It’s been challenging; there was an infamous 65-mile stretch through a blazing-hot valley with no towns, services, or shade; we rode at 5AM that day, each carried 15L of water, and finished the day delirious and spent, pushing through to the campground in Palo Verde because there was nowhere else to go.
The hot asphalt softened our tires and we changed flats in shadeless desert under mid-day sun. On a particularly rough day, when the patching glue turned to liquid and wouldn’t adhere to an inner tube, Kini rode five miles to the next town on the rim of her wheel.
It’s been full of unexpected joys: we rolled into Prescott AZ and found a quaint, artsy city; we lived a tiny, cozy four-day life in the travellers’ hostel there, in the company of the owner and her other guests. And when Kini’s wheel collapsed in the middle of nowhere, far from any bike shop (see earlier: riding on the rim), we were picked up by a kind stranger and for the few days that we camped on her lawn and sorted things out, we were as welcome into her orbit as she was into ours.
The South Rim is over 7000 feet in elevation. There was a day when we climbed 3000 and we had to pull over, short of breath and hearts pounding in the dry heat and thin air.
At the end of it all, we came into the park and set up our tent amongst the pines. It feels like another campground in the forest; you’d have no idea it was right on the edge.
This is how we finished our journey: on the bicycles, light and unloaded, weaving through streets and paths like a couple of kids ripping around their neighbourhood in late-afternoon light. And then we stopped, and everything stopped, and there was this space too huge to swallow with my eyes, and stratifications of rock slanting down to the Colorado River.
For a while I couldn’t move or speak. Family vacations played out behind me; parents scolded and friends called to each other, but I was lost in the grand, sweeping silence before me, standing on the edge of this immense crack in the earth, standing at the end of three months that have just held everything and when you ask me about them I will not have the words.
We are only a day from what is currently known as “California” !
There is a certain excitement that stirs in me when the thought, it feels as though the distance we have accomplished is extraordinary . Because it is the land where so many songs have been written about it, where sunshine apparently never ends. where the Terminator was governor ( I grew up on Arny films!) and where queers and hippies flocked in the mid 20th century to create a space for themselves in this world. For the most part I am getting ready to enter a state where the whole vibe will likely not be as mellow are the first two we passed through, or at least that is what I have heard from various people who have experienced it on bicycle.
First big thing is the beach is not deemed ” for the people” as it has been in “Oregon”, so accessibility to the ocean and sand are likely to be much more limited :(. The second thing is how much harder we have been told it is to stealth camp here ( pitching our tent anywhere that is out of sight, either in the forest, the sea pines or the beach). We have been warned that the police in that state prowl around quite a bit more, protecting the unused land from vagrants. Having all our gear on can feel as though everyone is watching us at points but I guess it goes to a whole other level in Cali in the evening hours ( looking for a spot). We have been told that people are far more likely to call the police if they see you walking your bicycles into somewhere. I mean, I already dislike it when I feel someone has seen me duck into the pines or the beach because that in a sense makes me vulnerable, in reality most people just don’t care as long as you aren’t making a ruckus.. There are apparently also a lot of pot farms in northern section of the state and these place are very, very well guarded and unless they know I am not out to bust them there could be trouble.
With that said we are going to feel it out, I sense that if we are well out of sight as we have been and set up before dark as we have been ( so we don’t have to use our l.e.d lamp) that it will be fine. This type of camping likely strikes people as more dangerous or sketchy, I really beg to differ. I really dislike campgrounds for the most part; they are full of people in thier RV’s or large trucks with trailers ( and sometimes ATV’s! Oh boy, oh boy! Heaven forbid we get caught up in a nature walk) which really takes away from the natural feel I a want when being in nature and the elements. Camp sites are also neck in neck beside each other, so you really don’t get too much space for yourself. The hiker-biker campsites have usually been put smack dab front and centre of the grounds, lacking privacy , vegetation cover and surrounded by all the eyeballs. The worst of all are the racoons…… they are relentless when they want your stuff! I had them steal a bag of my clothes on the first night when having a late supper ( now we eat well before nightfall, especially in a campground). All you see are thier beady, glowing eyes bobbing around in the dark as they are otherwise completely camouflaged in the dark. Two nights ago I had the scariest night by far on this trip ( and in a long time) where I was getting an extra sweater from my pannier in the dark when there was a very deep growl beside me in the trees followed by thrashing noises. I freaked out, cursed and yelled then ran back to the tent and fell backwards into it ( so my back wasn’t ever to whatever it was outside). I had my knife and bearspray but this only made me feel slightly safer ( better than not having them) because we don’t sleep in a large, locked metal box at night like everyone else in the campgrounds. Whatever it was came back and messed with out tarped bicycles. We keep our panniers on our bikes except the food/ bathroom items one that we usually string up into a tree or put in a lockable food box if it is provided. We made hissing noises ( Sara says mine sounds very impressive, like I am a large cat. Meow!) and they left for a few hours then woke us up again in the middle of the night messing with the tarp again. In the morning we saw unused ziplock bags and our brand new spanking mynstral pads spewn about the site. It was totally racoons…. the little bastards. Sara pointed out that they went for plastic/ platic wrapped things because they have been habitualized to the fact that food comes in plastic. The campsites are surprisingly really behind on having simple infrastructure to deter wildlife from being attracted to there, like those garbage bins that have latches that only humans can use. Seriously, they are using trashcans with the lids you just gently push one to put your trash in. They are sometime located right beside a tent site. A friend of mine who did this trip said she made a sandwich while setting up her tent, set it down beside her for maybe 10 seconds to use both her hands , went to pick it back up and it was gone. She looked around and not far from her a racoon had sniped it. She has also described having shone her flashlight into the bushes and being surround 360* by glowing racoon eyes.
I really dislike the racoons and having to deal with them.
Sleeping in a stealth location is far more calmer in so many ways.
Another thing I will miss about “Oregon” are all the places named for The Devil; Devil’s Punchbowl, Devil’s Elbow, Devil’s Churn, Devil’s Kicthen , Drunken Devil’s Road and Seven Devil’s Road . Seven Devil’s Road was a pretty tough one to ride through as it was full of, well, seven really steep hills to climb ( and a few extras just for fun). Someone, obviously a cyclist with a wicked sense of humour, spray painted the name of each devil after you crested that particular hill ( or devil!). The spray paintings went as follows; Devil #1, Devil #2 ( these two were the worst! so short of breathe after both of them), Devil #3 Aren’t you loving it?, Devil #4, Devil #5, The Actual Devil #5, Devil #6 , Devil #7 and You Devil :p. It was a 7.8 Mile stretch of insane hills. It was sort of fun 🙂 .
Portland was a perfect few days of rest. By the end part of me almost felt too lazy to load my bike up and get back on the highway, and another part couldn’t get there soon enough. Being a tourist in a city felt over-indulgent after about two days, eating rich food and being totally comfortable every night; after a while I think we both got a little antsy and occasionally a little fighty.
I did fall for the city, though, with its over-the-top courtesy to cyclists and ever-present indie culture; I saw signs for at least ten upcoming events that I wished I were staying around for, and I could easily imagine living in one of its little neighbourhoods. We drank kombucha on tap at the public library like we were in a Portlandia sketch; this city was beautiful.
On our last morning there we packed up our things, bought groceries at the hipster grocery store around the corner, and tried to make the house look like we’d never been there.
Timmi and Otis had directed us to Tryon Community Life Farm on the edge of the city (with the cryptic instruction, “Go to the Tea Whale.”) We looked up their open-to-the-public hours and figured we’d just swing by, have a look around, and then spend the afternoon getting far out of town.
And then we were late leaving the house, and then city cycling takes forever and part of our bike route was on the Esplanade and was packed with weekend market-goers, and then our map was limited and we took some wrong turns and the entire area around Tryon is full of steep, steep hills on country roads, and we were still getting used to riding with gear again. It was around mid-afternoon by this point and there was no way we were getting out of Portland.
It was such a pain to get to, but we never considered not going to Tryon; Timmi and Otis had said such beautiful things about it (and had met there), and organic farming is a part of both of our lives– we were so interested to see the set-up there and the community around it. It felt important.
We knew it was right next to a state park and figured we could stay there for the night, but we arrived to a ‘no camping’ sign and to find the woods completely surrounded by roads; ducking into the bushes to pitch a tent was going to be difficult there. We went onto the farm knowing we had to see it, not knowing what we would do that night, trusting that something would work out.
Tryon is magical. It’s tucked in behind the trees, and a dirt road takes you past tiny homes and a giant bike shed. You come in and there are goats, a labyrinth planted up with mushrooms, seating areas amongst the trees, a greenhouse, bonzai gardens, a big, outdoor kitchen with clay ovens shaped like animals, a yurt for meetings and metitation, a little sauna, a big swing, trailers and huts that people live in, a composting toilet. The Tea Whale is a whimsical open-air structure in the shape of a whale– it spirals in to a blanket loft and is lined with twinkle-lights, Persian rugs, and benches piled with blankets and cushions. The entire space was a perfectly balanced blend of simple practicality and artistic whimsy, coziness and hard work. It felt incredibly healthy.
We came in really awkwardly, as outsiders to a tightly-knit community. We approached the first person we saw, to make sure we were allowed to be there and to ask if there was camping anywhere nearby; there wasn’t, and Isabel offered to be responsible for us if we camped on the land that night.
(I can’t say enough times how lucky we are, for the spaces and the people who have been so good to us.)
Isabel took the time to tour us around the land and to show us where we could set up camp behind it, and it didn’t come up until then that we were on bicycles. It turned out that they had done the same route (just starting in Portland) a few years back.
It is always affirming and strengthening to talk to people who have done this. There are many other people who tell us stories of touring cyclists who have been hurt or killed on the roads, and it’s hard not to take those in and ride with them sometimes.
(Oddly enough, all of us seem to know, at the very least, one person who’s been in a car crash, and you don’t tell those stories to someone who’s going on a road trip.)
We found ourselves at the dinner table that night, eating burritos with the residents of Tryon, and doing a round of names/preferred pronouns/sharing how everyone’s day had been. There was a wide age range from children to silver-haired adults, a full spectrum of gender identities, and really honest sharing and listening; we were incredibly fortunate to be welcomed into this space. We left after dinner and before their private ‘Hearts Circle’ started, a meeting centred around more vulnerable talk about everyone’s lives.
We drank nettle tea in the Tea Whale, went to bed, and in the morning packed up to sounds of drumming and singing coming from the yurt.
Visiting Tryon was a glimpse into a good community and a very tenderly, thoughtfully-constructed space. I’m carrying it inside of me as an example of what is possible; of the sorts of lives that we’re capable of living, of what we can create.
From Tryon, we fought with twisting and turning roads, steep hills through neighbourhoods where we actually had to climb off and walk, and then finally suburbs and highway ramps. When we were finally on the 26 we pedalled like crazy until suburbs turned into towns turned into farmland, and then we were back to something familiar, those space-between stretches of highway.
We got poured on, but it was warmer this time, or we were used to it; it didn’t matter so much. We stopped at a roadside restaurant where we were the only customers, and then went across the road to a jerky/dry goods store (‘VEGAN JERKY’ on the sign was a reminder that we weren’t as far outside of Portland as it felt like we were).
There were absolutely no campgrounds on the 26 between Portland and the coast, so we knew we’d be ducking into the bushes that night. We took off up a logging road at the end of the day and climbed it high, away from the highway. Most of it was replanted land and didn’t look like it was being used, and we figured at 6PM the workday was well over anyway. Because of the slope of the land there was nowhere we could really hide from the road, so with wet, cold fingers we set up the tend beside it and resolved to be out early in the morning.
We had just finished setting up our camp and I was full of anticipation of getting into the tent and dry clothes, when a pickup truck rolled past us in the direction of the highway– the last guy there for the day. he stopped a short way down from us and Kini went down to talk to him; he was friendly, but had to tell us to leave. Our hearts sank and we packed everything up again, still cold and quickly losing light, ranting to each other about the irony of not being allowed to tread so lightly on land that had already been so thoroughly destroyed.
I think that night market to me the ways I’ve toughened to the level of this trip in the past two weeks. Cold and damp with the sun going down, I wasn’t despairing or worried; there was shit to get done and we had to do it fast. We were far from any town and we had everything we needed to set up a comfortable sleeping place; we just needed to get out of sight and get it done.
We got back on the bikes and went a short way down the road, to a forested spot that was almost definitely part of the same logging area, and threw our bikes and ourselves into the bushes. We found a place away from the road and had to carry the bikes and the gear up separately, over logs and through bushes until we were safely hidden, surrounded by moss-hung trees. We could see the glint of cars as they went past, and darkness actually came as a welcome cover.
We have an established routine at this point, of setting up the tent immediately, setting the sleeping pads up to inflate, and then throwing all of our bedding, books and light into the tent, separating out the food, locking and tarping the bikes, cooking dinner, doing dishes, and hoisting the food bag into a tree. There’s a comfort and security in it all, and there’s humanity in the hot meals and brushing my teeth twice a day. The tent has become a safe space in my mind, the cozy home where I keep the light on to read at night. I’ve been sleeping so soundly lately, wherever we are, all through the night.
I think you have to tell yourself myths of total safety to actually be okay in the world. I learned this back in the winter, when I got up and faced a creepy stranger in my kitchen in the early hours of the morning; in the aftermath the forcefield of security that I’d imagined around my home was destroyed, and it was challenging to build it back up, to sleep at night, come home to an empty house, or walk in the dark.
Even before leaving on this trip I was still creeping carefully around corners of the house at night and starting at every sound, and in the beginning the man in my kitchen followed me a bit on these travels; I was feeling incredibly prone to the world, and every time I imagined somebody approaching the tent I imagined them with his face.
We are prone in our tent-home, and we sleep with a sharp knife and a can of bearspray within easy reach. With each night that we go undisturbed, though, I feel the immense improbability of a person or animal coming across us in a way that would compromise our safety. Our tiny camp blends easily into a forest, it nestles into the dark, we are part of it, there is space enough for us in this world.
I’m going to probably misquote a writer whose name I can’t currently remember, but this is the most perfect thought I can imagine by which to travel, or to live:
“You did not come into this world; you came out of it, like a wave out of the ocean. You are not a stranger here.”
There is a strong tendency in our society to isolate in vehicles, houses, or digital spaces, and a certain type of individualism that keeps us separate from each other.
I think something I’m in the process of trying to internalize is that we are all made of literally the same material as everything around us, and we aren’t separate from each other at all; in a very close way, I am a part of the same world and living the same collective life as every person I meet.
Bicycle touring is an intensely beautiful way to travel. We are out in the open air, we’re part of the world, we experience the elements in a full-on, total kind of way, and we move through places slowly enough to really be there, to really see them. We sleep in woods and on beaches; we find our home in the spaces around us, not in the ones that are prescribed, formalized, indoors.
Being in the open air and doing something that attracts curiosity also opens us up for interaction and conversation. Anytime we stop anywhere, everybody talks to us. They’re kind and they want to hear our stories, share their own, talk about places, and give us their encouragement and their blessings. We are out here sharing space with strangers in a way that we wouldn’t be, travelling by car.
~ when asking a person sitting outside of a dollar store where we could find groceries he responded, in a southern drawl, that everything we needed was just around the block; ” Safeway. Pause. Wifi. Pause. Starbuuucks”. ~
We just arrived in Florence, Oregon about a hour ago it is a little unbelievable to me the distance we have traveled on our bicycles so far. It really struck me after we made it back to the coast from Portland. The road on this stretch was particularly hairy with a small shoulder coupled with a lot of curves, an abundance of traffic ( especially RVs), steep climbs up mounatin sides ( we went over 1000ft) and a chilly day with freshly powered snow on the ground. We also had to set up and take down camp in a hurry the night before, we had to move from our intial spot on a cutblock after being spotted. It was private property and who knows unspeakable damage we could cause to the logged forest moreso than the heavy machinery.
The roads themselves have been really welcoming overall, I was a little nervous about having to share a roadway at first just because of my experiences with city commuting . Vehicles have been super courteous with space and speed , no crazy near misses on the highways at all.
I feel that this trip is already changing elements within myself, finding my truths and having a idea of where I want my path to you. Also realizing the small fears of blocks I have been putting up around taking the steps in those directions. Or even just making conscious time in my day to day to keep myself grounded, rather than letting the days slip away. The idea of making it to Mexico on a bicycle can be immensely daunting if one looks at it in it’s entire scope. Taking it day by day, however, really makes it a realistic reality. Everyday is different and it’s own little adventure.
We always only just have day by day. There are definitely things we can plan ( or think we can plan) or look forward to or not look forward to or stress over….. but taking it day by day, moment to moment is really what it is. The power of just being. There is also the simplicity and humbling over what we really need and what really makes one happy; being warm and dry ( especially when sleeping), a full stomach and kindness from others.
Having a warm blanket wrapped around me on a chilly night while looking up at the starry sky does far more than what an abundance of money could ever do for me.
This update comes to you from the public library in Florence, Oregon– we’re halfway through the state! I’ll be picking up where my last entry left off, on a journal entry written April 10th.
We’re using the seminal guide to this trip, Bicycling the Pacific Coast, and mostly it’s been indispensable, giving us accurate and detailed descriptions of every stretch of roadway and telling us where to expect weird turns, difficult hills, narrowing shoulders, etc. The only thing that keeps us from relying on it fully is that the last edition was published ten years ago. Every once in a while this becomes evident. Cape Disappointment was one of those times: the book described the state park as having a small handful of ‘primitive’ hiker-biker campsites, and we went in expecting another quiet night, possibly another free one in an off-season out-of-the-way campground.
We found the state park and pushed our tired legs up its steep hills, and when we arrived in the middle we were suddenly in a sea of giant camper vans and Easter Weekend vacationers. There was a woman outside the ranger’s office who babbled frantically to us about how she couldn’t find the key to her yurt. Kids ripped around on bikes; a man in an undershirt grilled hotdogs; televisions were on. The sun was just hitting the horizon; we had to stay here.
It was definitely our sneakiest night: we bypassed the ranger’s station where we were supposed to pay by credit card over the phone and then presumably pitch a tent between RVs, and at the very end of it all we found the blocked-off-for-the-season circle of campsites, chose the most hidden one, and set up camp. We kept our voices low, did our reading and writing under a blanket so the tent wouldn’t glow, and set a 6AM alarm.
I don’t feel badly about the space we’ve ‘stolen’ so far, to sleep for the night. It really amazed me that night, having to sneak around but seeing how little space we take up: our camp is a tiny tent, two bikes under a tarp, and a food bag suspended in a tree. No fires, no garbage, no use of amenities; when we leave it’s as though we were never there. There is this empty space amongst the trees; we are not the RVs plugging into electrical outlets to run their televisions. There is this bizarre concept in North America that the basic act of sleeping through the night is always supposed to cost you something.
We ripped out of the campground early in the morning, before the ranger’s station opened, and then bypassed another gate to walk our bikes along a steep trail up to the Cape Disappointment lighthouse, where we sat in the parking area and cooked coffee and oatmeal with a view of the open sea, and of Oregon across the inlet.
The state line felt significant; it’s an arbitrary boundary, but it made it feel like we’d made it somewhere; we were making progress, we were succeeding at travelling between places by bicycle. Washington was mountainous and rainy and we’d actually made it through and never considered giving up. There have been a few moments, coming over the top of a hill, or coming into a new place, where I’ve pedalled up behind Kini and shouted, “WE’RE ACTUALLY DOING THIS.” It still seems improbable that our own bodies could carry us and everything we need this far.
Travel is the other thing that is always supposed to cost money; it’s a service that you hire. In some ways, we are getting in touch with some lost ways of moving through and existing in the world; we are claiming those abilities for ourselves.
I think it’s important here, though, to acknowledge how privileged we are, too. We’re incredibly lucky to be able-bodied enough, at this time in our lives, to pull this off. And as much as this is possibly the cheapest way you could travel– we don’t pay for transportation, we’re rarely paying for lodging, and a subletter back home has alleviated all our rent costs for three months– we had to buy a fair amount of gear to start touring, and feeding ourselves for three months without an income is a luxury that’s completely out of reach for many (or most) people. We’re lucky to live in a country where the minimum wage is still enough to live comfortably (as a single person who lives cheaply). We’re lucky that if we need new bike parts, or want the occasional night in a motel, we’re able to make it happen.
We’re insanely fortunate; I hope we do it justice. We say it a lot on sunny days when we’re faced with glorious mountain- or forest- or ocean-views, or when we sleep comfortably at night, or cook something as simple as coconut rice and beans on the camp stove and get to enjoy a hot meal at the end of the day: We’re so lucky.
Day Seven: The bridge to Astoria. I’d initially been excited about this one: it’s about a mile long, we’d been told it was a highlight of the route, and on Google Street View it looked astounding– riding over ocean water into another state. The guidebook got me a little nervous (“Just take a deep breath and don’t stop until you’re on the other side”), and my stomach started turning in knots as it came into view and a huge amount of logging traffic barrelled past us to get to it.
We did it; there was no way around it. It was harrowing. I think twice I managed to glance beside me and quickly observe that all around us it was actually beautiful. The rest of the time: we had a shoulder, but a narrow one, and the wind came in powerful, unpredictable gusts that would either try to throw us towards the rails, or to suck us into the slipstream of passing trucks. The end of the bridge is a long, near-vertical, terrible hill, and near the top was heavy construction that funnelled four lanes of traffic into a single one. The traffic controller gave us a head-start, and then with fear and adrenaline pumping through my veins I was frantically pedalling, not-fast-enough, up this impossible hill, before the rest of the traffic was unleashed behind us.
That’s how I came into Oregon: shaking, breathless, leg muscles spent, but grateful to have made it over. We didn’t linger long in Astoria; we stopped in the tourist office for a map of Portland, ate lunch, and got the hell out of town.
The highway is comforting far away from cities; it’s simple and relatively safe, and it’s always joyful coming back to it, being able to just let the traffic go. Most of the 30 to Portland has an enormous shoulder on it, which often is actually marked as a bike lane, and this is where we first ran into a handful of other cyclists. It’s reassuring when we’re not the only ones, and when it’s acknowledged that we exist.
We only made it as far as Knappa, a short way from Astoria, that night; we were both exhausted from the early morning, the lighthouse climb, and the bridge, and we came across a tiny campground next to a creek.
We really pushed it the next day. We had 70 miles to go until Portland and we were sure that we could do it. I’d written down directions to the cheapest result of a search on hostels.com. We had a plan. I was driven forward by excitement to spend a few days in a new city.
I got a flat tire on a long, flat, sunny stretch between the mountains; I heard rushing air and knew exactly what was happening. Kini came back to help; it took a while, having to take all the gear off my bike and put it back on again, and my handheld air pump was acting up a bit, but we got it done and carried on.
There were long, easy, flat stretches and long, hard climbs, one over the top of a mountain– we made it up with far more strength and stamina than we could have ever managed on Day One. We rode in perfect sun until the road turned south towards Portland; it rained, the roads got busy, our bike lane stayed, but Kini (blindingly visible in her rain gear) had some near misses with distracted drivers as we passed through St. Helen’s.
We were exhausted, a little damp, Kini was grumpy about the cars, and we’d been over some serious hills; I could feel it aching in my body, but kept reminding myself that we were about to have a few days’ rest. We crested a hill and I could see the bridges and a skyscraper peeking up in the distance, and shortly after that we passed the 10-mile marker; we whooped at each other, and I was filled up with the exhilaration of arriving, of having made it this far.
My fantasy of arriving in Portland was something along these lines: It would be a smallish city, not too much bigger than Victoria. We would have a leisurely ride in, joining a parade of bicycles along streets lined with independent bookstores and community gardens and flowing with craft beer. The Decemberists would play us welcome songs and we would make our way to a quaint little hostel full of other travellers with whom we’d swap adventure stories over coffee in the morning.
Here’s what really happened: At the 10-mile marker I was swimming in these fantasies of our imminent arrival in our hipster homeland, when suddenly I felt the familiar bumping and slowing of a flat back tire for the second time that day. We pulled over onto a side-road. I was still cheerful; at least I’d already practised this today! I was going to change this tire like a champion. I dismantled my gear, took off the wheel, found where a piece of wire the size of a staple had pierced the inner tube, got out the new one…
… and the hand-pump was still acting up. The piece inside of it that needed to press the tube’s valve open was coming off, and then it was off, and there was no way it was ever going to work again.
It doesn’t matter how prepared you think you are; there will always be something.
Earlier in the day, one of us could have biked the offending wheel to the next gas station, filled it with air, biked back, and we could have continued to Portland. As it was, we had about an hour of daylight left, and biking the four-lane highway in the dark was out of the question. We were surrounded by private property; stealth camping for the night was not going to happen. We were next to a city bus stop, but fully-loaded bikes were not guaranteed to fit on a bus rack, even it both spaces on it happened to be open.
We did the thing neither of us wanted to do: we gave up on the triumphant ride into Portland, called Directory Services over my patchy cell phone connection, and got a cab-van to take us and our bicycles on a $30 ride into the city.
It’s just as well, almost: the roads that looked friendly and straightforward enough on the map were congested highways full of on-ramps and off-ramps and lanes we never could have made it across.
The driver had always lived in Portland, and he told us stories of how he’d once been an aspiring touring cyclist; in his 20s he’d set out for New York, but only made it about 200 miles before his bike and his knees both gave out.
“You callin’ that a hostel?” he said when I told him where we were going. Turns out the Banfield, i.e. the cheapest search result on hostels.com, is very definitely a motel at the side of the highway. The receptionist was gruff and gave me the key to a dark little room that, despite being non-smoking, smelled like cigarettes, with TVs blaring through all the walls around us. The room still totalled $74 for the night. We were both completely empty-bellied; we ordered a pile of disgusting food from Domino’s and reflected that unless we could find cheaper accommodations, this city was going to be completely inaccessible to us for anything more than a day.
We’d had a possible place to stay in town that we were sure hadn’t worked out due to timing. Somewhere in our greasy-food-fuelled disappointment we went on the motel WiFi…
…and found this beautiful message from Otis saying that his sister had just left town that day, and there was a key waiting for us on the porch of her house.
Nothing but relief and gratitude.
So we’re here, in Portland, completely on the overwhelming kindness of friends and strangers. We’ve been staying in a beautiful house full of interesting art, being snuggled by cats, and sleeping peacefully at night. The streets are quiet, tree-lined, and spilling over with blooming flowers.
It feels pretty special to travel for over a week through places you’ve never been to, and then to arrive in an unfamiliar city and have a housekey waiting for you, to a place where there are photos of your friends above the fireplace.
The world can feel so small sometimes. I think it would be true to say that every place I’ve ever been to has had its own way of welcoming me home.
The past few days have been an odd gear shift. We’ve indulged in good coffee and beer, lined up outside Voodoo Donuts and food carts, wandered busy city streets and browsed comic book shops.
We’re staying in the Northeast, a good distance from downtown, so we’re still biking every day to get around; it definitely feels, though, like a break from bicycle touring. The first time I got on my bike with a single small pannier on the front rack, it was actually hard to ride; my bike felt feather-light and shaky without all the extra weight on it. It feels luxurious now, zipping along city streets, locking up anywhere without having to watch our things.
Also, a strange thing happened the moment we took to the city streets with our bikes: drivers actually respect us. Immensely. Almost too much. Consistently, if we’re at a stop sign waiting for traffic to clear, everyone will stop to let us through; they will freely give up the right of way to us. Narrow streets aren’t scary; no one cuts it close trying to squeeze past us.
I do get where rage against cyclists comes from; I’ve seen some do some dangerous, obnoxious, stupid things on the roads. In panicked or oblivious moments I’ve sometimes done them too. I’ve also navigated around enough distracted, impatient, rude and inconsiderate drivers that I find myself feeling a similar anger and intolerance for motorists.
I have found, though, that the occasional run-in with a bad cyclist translates for far too many drivers into a generalized hatred for cyclists, no matter what we’re doing. Even in my small, friendly island city this attitude is everywhere; it’s palpable when I’m on the roads. The day before we started the trip, Kini and I had gotten off our bikes to walk them across Douglas on the pedestrian crosswalk, and a man leaned out his window to shout, “You’re not pedestrians!” Kini tracked him down at a gas station across the road to talk, and his reasoning was, “Cyclists are just always zipping out in front of cars.” He was angry about something that we weren’t in any way doing; his aggression wasn’t toward us, it was toward people riding bicycles. On the flipside of that incident, I’ve been similarly shouted at to “get on the sidewalk,” i.e. something it’s not legal for me to do. There is no ideal place for us.
…Except for Portland, apparently.
Note: Most entries from hereon out are backlogged from paper journals; hopefully the timing and places in them are still clear enough to follow.
I’m writing from a dry, sun-warmed tent to the sound of huge, roaring waves; we’re at South Beach campground, a little before the town of Queets; the campground is only open in mid-summer and the gate closes traffic out, so for the second time we have a really beautiful place to ourselves for free. Not legally, but we’re lighting no fires and leaving no traces, and we’re prepared to explain to authorities that we’re travelling on bicycles and seriously have nowhere else to stay the night.
Backing up: Day One, we finished packing our things, hugged our roommates goodbye, walked our bikes across the busy road to a side-street, and the moment I tried to ride, my bike tried to topple over. Sinking feeling in my stomach as I realized that as well as I’d thought I was packing, my loaded bike was an unmanageable Goliath that couldn’t possibly be ridden. I questioned how I was going to do any of this at all. Quickly, aware of the ferry time, I undid my careful packing next to the sidewalk, dumped out all of my water, moved heavy things around, and was finally able to take off awkwardly down the road.
My bike is a familiar creature; I ride it everywhere, every day, I do my 22km-each-way commute to work and back on it. I thought I was ready to ride it fully-loaded after Kini and I strapped all of our camping gear on and biked to Gabriola Island and back a couple of weeks ago. The extra weight of carrying groceries and everything turned it into something heavy and unwieldy that I couldn’t trust; that initial ride through downtown Victoria is the scariest ride I’ve had in the past three days.
We made it; we caught the ferry and stood on the deck as it pulled away from our home-city and it started to sink in that we’re actually doing this. People immediately started talking with us, asking us questions, offering us a place to stay in San Diego… I think during that ride, half of me was buzzing with excitement and the other was asking What are we doing? We are those people with the crazy loaded bikes and brightly-coloured spandex, ready to ride on highways in the pouring rain, carrying a tent on a bicycle; we look and sound insane. Are we those people? Are we just trying to be those people?
We landed in Port Angeles, got past the gruff border guards, and took off right into a construction zone. Took a convoluted route through some neighbourhoods that reminded me of New England (it may have just been the American flags in the windows) and country roads that eventually got us to the highway.
And then we were off, for real. My bike was feeling more like my bike, just a little more sluggish than usual, and suddenly we were passing right through the Olympic Mountains in the sunshine (you can see these from Victoria; it was surreal to actually have them rising on all sides around me).
Highway cycling is something that can sound terrifying and dangerous if you haven’t done it– and I’m sure on many highways it is. We’re spoiled by being on a heavily-cycled route; the shoulders are often generous and so far every driver has been, too. City cycling, the kind I do every day, is full of left-turns and disappearing bike lanes and stops and starts and white knuckles. The highway, just as it is to drivers, is a continuous line where you rarely need your brakes– and on a big shoulder you can mostly ignore traffic and be in the place without thinking much about cycling.
We hit an 11-mile stretch (I still don’t have any concept of what a mile is, but I’m being forced to work on it) that our guidebook had warned us would be rough– twisty, with minimal and disappearing shoulders and speeding logging trucks. We went in dreading it, but at the beginning we found a button to push that would warn entering traffic for an hour that there were cyclists on the road; soon after there was a ‘cyclists, pull over and read the sign in 1/4 mile’ sign, and then a sign with a well-worded explanation of what was ahead. And then we coasted downhill along the edge of a clear glacial lake lined with mountains. The logging traffic had finished for the day and we were careful around the cars that passed us, pulling into the turnouts to let them pass and keeping a watch on our rear-view mirrors (the best thing that I almost didn’t buy but did anyway)– and the drivers were more consistently gentle with us than any that I’ve ever encountered. It was actually a glimpse of what I wish cycling could be like everywhere, all the time, i.e. signs and motorists simply acknowledging that we exist, and helping us in our efforts to stay alive. That acknowledgment prepared us and got us through a difficult stretch of road so safely, with no near misses.
At the base of Lake Crescent we hit Fairholme Campground, where we’d planned to stay that night; we’d wanted to ease into the trip with one simple, legal, paid campground stay, but it turned out to be closed for the season. This is starting to be a running theme, and also an unintended perk of starting in the off-season; these places would be vastly different flooded with other tourists in July. As we did tonight, we bypassed the gate and chose a tucked-away spot with an amazing view of the water, set up camp, used the metal food-storage locker on the site, and slept through the night.
We’re cozied up in the tent by a river in a tiny logging town called South Bend. We’re camping legally tonight, in a spot next to the highway; the late afternoon light snuck up on us and we had to find something. It’s just started raining, but it’s warm and we had a dry day. I realize I need to keep up a more regular practice of writing; at the end of Day Five, Day Two feels a long way away.
We woke up late by the lake that morning, and realized we needed to keep an earlier schedule when a man strolled through the campground and saw us as we were eating breakfast, with the tent still up. He was just walking and didn’t confront us, but we’ve had a 6:30 alarm set since then, and we pack up camp before we get out the stove.
We did another short day; we’re still getting used to packing and unpacking our lives every day, setting up camp, tearing down camp, and we got a late start and started looking cautiously early for the next campsite.
We passed through Forks that day, the setting of the Twilight novels; our first sight coming into town was a dad taking pictures of his three young teenaged daughters in front of the ‘Welcome to Forks’ sign. We went quickly through town and only stopped at the grocery store, but what I saw was exactly what I think it was: a tiny rural logging town that’s had a teen vampire fandom thrust onto it and has no idea what to do with it. You can sense some irritation (“Edward Cullen did NOT sleep here” on the flashing sign outside a hotel) and some cluelessness (‘Twilight Firewood’, a tiny roadside stand, or ‘Twilight Books’ on the banner outside a thrift shop– these weird, sort of desperate attempts to capitalize on something that must have completely blindsided the town when it happened).
There were no other towns on Day Two; this has been the most remote stretch we’re likely to pass through. We turned off for a campground called Cottonwood and ended up going downhill along a steep gravel road with the occasional pickup truck passing by, and when we decided it wasn’t worth taking ourselves any further down the hill (i.e. having to climb it the next morning) just to see if the campground was cheap/closed, we pulled over and took off into the woods.
I slept relatively well that night– biking all day will do that– but I also remember feeling fear. The woods were thick and dark and made my skin prickle, listening to every sound, keeping watch amongst the trees. At one point in the evening we heard a twig snap and Kini took off to investigate with a can of bearspray and a hunting knife. I was aware of being tucked away a long distance from any town, and of being just another creature in the woods, thinking about my place in the food chain, methods of defense, what I need to survive. We talked about fear and risk and dying that night, how these things exist in the city too but can feel much more raw out here.
Tenting in the woods in the middle of “nowhere” (I think we impose extremely unfair criteria on what qualifies as a “place”) is much more familiar to Kini, and she loves these moments in the deep wilderness. I do, too– we’ve passed through incredibly beautiful mountains, valleys, seascapes, views of lakes and rivers and tall, tall trees, and I love having a relationship to all of these. Going into the woods to sleep forces me to confront something primal in myself, and it’s important.
I also loved Forks, though, as I’ve since loved Hoquiam with its 1950s American small-town charm, the young tattooed people who will probably leave, the bike shop owner who has stayed. I loved Raymond with its iron sculptures of people and animals that line the streets, its tiny shops and houses that are straight out of another era. I love the grocery stores here, where you can buy God Bless America t-shirts and cheap booze.
I think Kini gets it, too; earlier this evening she biked back into town to break a 20 for the camping fee, and came back with Easy-Cheese in a can, so that we could have the cultural experience of squeezing it directly into our mouths (which we did without shame within plain view of the highway).
Where she often sees towns and cities as being centred around commerce and industry and needless luxury and thus being about something empty, though, I think I still take a huge amount of comfort and fascination in human civilization and culture. I get excited coming into new towns, I get into their idiosyncrasies and the thought of people living out their lives in this specific place, calling it home.
It’s not that either of us is disinterested in the other thing; I love cresting a hill and seeing a vast landscape of trees and water spread out in front of me, and she loves the tiny houses, the roadside sculptures, the weird things in the grocery store. The difference is more in where our comfort levels lie: something in me is pulled to stay around where the people are, and she’s pulled out to be with the trees.
Day Three, we got up and it started pouring with rain. We were in rainforest territory; we’re incredibly lucky that we got to ease in with two dry days.
If you’re unsure of whether your gear is waterproof, try riding for hours in the rain. Turns out the hiking boots that have kept my feet dry in the city and on rainy commutes to the farm start filling up with water about two hours in. Double layers of wool mittens? Always effective up until now (Kini says this was my worst “rookie move”). Waterproof pannier covers will, sooner or later, start collecting the rain (Ziplock bags are the only thing that saved me here).
I’m kind of a wimp about the rain. It’s uncomfortable; it stresses me out when it starts up. I feel the world changing around me, and my body fills up with longing for shelter and warmth.
We rode for hours in the rain; in the middle of it we pulled off the highway to visit a giant cedar tree, and when I got off my bike my hands were numb and aching and I was hit by a wave of lightheadedness and nausea (I really am a wimp about the rain, though). I drank water and put handwarmers in my soggy mittens and we went to see the tree– a giant with a powerful presence, dark and old and quiet, you can feel the hundreds (thousands?) or years radiating out of it.
Sadness, too; the most salient presence on the peninsula is that of the logging industry, and you don’t start to grasp the scope of it until you’re passing miles upon miles of cut-blocks and clearcuts and rows of tiny identical trees; they fill entire mountainsides. People want it, too; it keeps their communities going, and we’ve passed numerous signs against Wild Olympics’ “land grab” and “wilderness expansion”. More wilderness means fewer jobs. I get it; how else would you support a family around here? Big Cedar, though, is a sight that turns your stomach a bit– these trees can live so long, this is what they’re all supposed to be, there is a different magic and life in old growth, and we’re losing almost all of it.
There’s an irony here: we’re both very definitely against the destruction caused by the forestry industry, but we’re a little like these small towns in how we benefit from it, from writing on these paper journal pages to feeling comfort at knowing that as long as there are unused logging roads off the highway we’re guaranteed a quiet place to pitch a tent, and the bear population is no longer big enough to worry about much. Or, most prominently, that half of the money funding this trip comes directly from the logging industry in the form of Kini’s treeplanting savings; it is actually the thing that’s made this possible for her. I hope she’ll speak a bit to this tension, because it’s an interesting one, as we pass the clearcut and replanted land that she worked on in order to be here; it’s both familiar and devastating.
That day, in the rain, we also arrived back at the coast; we took a turn down to Ruby Beach and locked up our bikes to walk down and see huge grey waves crashing around towering sea stacks. Some other tourists chatted with us; we’re always met with some amazement towards what we’re doing, and sometimes total disbelief. This time we were challenged with “But there are hills in California” and the confusing comment, “But pedestrians aren’t allowed on the 101” (the highway has periodic signs warning drivers to watch for cyclists).
I sink into a sense of despair in the rain, but it makes these moment unspeakably glorious: blue skies and warm sunshine showing up out of nowhere, and pulling into a wide turn-off with a sweeping view of blue ocean and beaches stretching down the coast. I cried a bit. I took off my shoes to dry in the sun and Kini got out the gas stove to make coffee and tea.
I thought a bit about what it takes to trust the world to do this. Many times a day, we ride difficult hills that feel like they’ll never end; we push through it with the knowledge that there’s a rewarding view and a long downhill stretch somewhere on the other side.
The cold rain feels never-ending, it feels like despair; you’re in a remote stretch of land in Washington without a warm cafe in sight, you just have your wet gear and the forests. It’s hard; there’s nothing to do but keep pedaling, to move forward to stay warm. If you stop for ten minutes you start to freeze. It’s hard to trust that it will end; you don’t know when. When it does, you’re flooded with gratitude.
These are the raw feelings that come up out here. You’re outside, you’re completely in the world around you. Cold rain brings despair, sunshine and warmth bring soaring joy. Food, shelter, and water bring a sense of security.
We were so fortunate that afternoon; we biked past Kalaloch, a weird American luxury camping resort and stopped there to buy groceries and fill our water bags, and then continued to closed South Beach and took a spot at the far end, on a cliff overlooking the ocean, and set our things out to dry. The sun mostly held; we enjoyed it, and climbed down to the beach to walk barefoot on the sand and be chased by waves. Filled our bellies with coconut curry rice for dinner.
Day Four, the rain was back with a vengeance. We left the coast to skirt around the Quinault Reservation; we’ve had some talks about it, and aren’t comfortable guerilla-camping on rez land, not for our safety, but for not wanting to come in and help ourselves to the space any more than we already have. We stopped at a trading post in Queets and Kini bought us little white glove liners and heavy-duty dish gloves to keep our hands dry. Someone warned us that there was snow up ahead. We pushed on through the cold and the downpour and ignored the turn-offs to anything interesting. We didn’t hit snow but we did get hailed on. I gave up on my numb, wet feet and tried to forget they’d ever been part of my body.
We’d planned to stay around Humptulips (yes), but we were fast and got there in the early afternoon, and it turned out to be a tiny town with nowhere to stay and not so much as a laundromat. The rain had reduced to occasional spitting and we were soaked through.
The motel was my decision; we pushed on to Hoquiam, making it our first 100-ish km day, and I needed some relief. The guidebook had described Hoquiam and Aberdeen as “congested twin cities,” but Hoquiam felt like a small town that hadn’t changed in 60 years.
We found the big, old, wonderful bike shop that had been recommended by a shopkeeper in Humptulips and met Terry, the softspoken owner who very kindly stayed open late to slowly and meticulously work on Kini’s rear axle– it had filled up with water and had been clicking alarmingly for a while. We checked into a motel next to the bridge to Aberdeen, turned up the heat in the room and put everything out to dry; crossed the street to the grocery store for food, beer and cider, and after we’d eaten I had probably the best hot shower of my life, followed by deep sleep. Hot water and a bed, even after only three nights without them, felt beyond luxurious.
The motel was our resetting time at the end of the Olympic Peninsula; we washed and dried our clothes the next morning, too. I haven’t craved that level of comfort since, and we haven’t been through that kind of downpour again. Even the cheapest motels are generally way out of our budget, but I’m glad we went for that one; it was so needed in that moment. The next morning, at the continental breakfast, Kini made waffle after waffle and stuffed a plastic bag with them, to try to get our money’s worth.
I’m behind on journalling the trip, so there might be some fuzzy days around this point. On Day Five we didn’t leave Hoquiam until around 1PM; we stayed outside our room long after check-out to tune up the bikes and took turns using the computer in the lobby, and then stopped at the first Subway we saw to fill up before we really got on the road again. There was a hellish highway ramp coming out of Aberdeen, and it made me nervous for larger future cities (Los Angeles is a dark, ugly ink smudge on my mind’s map of our route, where I have absolutely no idea what we’re going to do).
We made it to the town of Raymond, with its river lined with lumber yards and iron sculptures lining all the streets. We’d planned to guerrilla-camp outside of town, but it just gave way to another town, South Bend, and the sun was getting low in the sky. We asked in at an RV campground with lots of extra space, but they wouldn’t allow non-RV campers (this doesn’t make a lot of sense to me in the off-season). They pointed us to a boat launch at the edge of town, where there was $5 tent camping on a little green space within full view of the highway; we took it. Kini stayed awake, agitated by the sound of cars and trucks rushing past; I slept soundly and cozily, finally used to the tent and feeling safe in it.
We biked back to South Bend in the morning to have breakfast and coffee in an artsy hippie cafe full of plants and windows on all sides overlooking the water; it felt incredibly cozy and homey, and we lingered for hours to write in our journals.
We set our sights on Cape Disappointment that night, as our final stop in Washington– it’s about 12 miles from the bridge to Astoria.
(To be continued when possible!)