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.