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!)