After a long train ride out West, we spent some great times traveling around Washington, British Columbia and Oregon by train, bike, bus, krr, boat, foot and dogsled. Ok, not the last one. We met lots of friends, old and new, and spent time in stunning natural beauty.
Idaho (Aug 29) Transit only
We passed through Idaho on the train to Seattle.
Washington (15 nights: Aug 29-Sep 3; Sep 8-18)
|Distance cycled:||326 mi / 524 km / 2,117,849 RJP|
|Elevation gained:||15,147 ft / 4,617 m|
|Elevation lost:||15,129 ft / 4,611 m|
Our route took us from Seattle up to Vancouver Island, British Columbia via the San Juan Islands, back to Seattle and then around the Olympic Peninsula. We cycled through incredible beauty in Washington and met really great people there. We also had some of the more challenging days of our trip so far in that state, both physically and mentally. We added the Olympic Mountains to our growing “must revisit with more time” list, but do not really recommend cycling the Olympic Peninsula. I had been looking forward to that ride for quite a while, but in the end it did not deliver. It was a nice ride, but the scenic views were too few and far between to be worth putting up with the absolutely horrible log truck drivers. These guys to date constitute the very worst group of people we have encountered on our trip, by a very wide margin. We felt in danger the entire time we were there and it is only a matter of time before someone is killed by their willful negligence.
We chose the perfect time to visit western Washington because the rains had not yet started and there was an unbelievable amount of apples, pears and especially blackberries available for picking on the side of the road.
The ferries throughout the San Juan Islands were a nice treat, although we didn’t see any whales. Orcas Island claimed both of our brake failures. On a steep downhill, Brandy lost a screw, which dropped the pad it was supposed to hold in place. This is a serious design failure in some otherwise excellent brakes. Luckily she was able to find the pad and poached a screw from another, less crucial spot. I had a brake cable snap while coming down a very large hill. Luckily I had been on the road previously and knew I could coast it out without worrying about some busy junction or crazy potholes. I would find out in a couple months that I had made a serious rookie mistake of not investigating why it snapped (hint: that should never happen).
British Columbia (5 nights: Sep 3-8)
|Distance cycled:||85 mi / 136 km / 549,770 RJP|
|Elevation gained:||2,155 ft / 657 m|
|Elevation lost:||2,178 ft / 664 m|
We had a short, but sweet visit to Vancouver Island. The cycling was fantastic and almost entirely on trails. Our host in Sooke, Justin had been a Couchsurfing guest of ours in NYC back in 2013 right after we first decided to take this trip. We stayed at his parent’s beautiful B & B / blacksmith shop and had a good time catching up.
Victoria is a cute, but pricey town where we had the best sushi of our lives and our first intro to bike polo! I think this town has some good soul, but we just weren’t there long enough to get too far into it. My cousin came down to meet us and we took a krr trip out to the isolated tourist town of Port Renfrew. Everyone says this part of the island is incredibly beautiful. It is definitely pretty, but I was a bit underwhelmed, perhaps because the coast here is so much like Lake Superior so the scenery was not much of anything new for me. We got some more time with BIG trees, which is always magical.
Vancouver Island is HUGE. We only got to see a tiny part of it. Hopefully we’ll get a chance for further exploration in the future.
Oregon (23 nights: Sep 18-Oct 9; Oct 16-18)
|Distance cycled:||215 mi / 346 km / 1,398,469 RJP|
|Elevation gained:||4,340 ft / 1,323 m|
|Elevation lost:||7,926 ft / 2,416 m|
I had not been back to Oregon since I lived there in 2008, so I was excited to come back to this place I loved, but I was also nervous that it might have changed, or I might have changed or my expectations would prove ruinous in one way or another. I am happy to report that Oregon withstood the scrutiny. Portland was as comfortable and welcoming as ever. I was a bit disappointed to find that the city seemed to have stagnated a bit in terms of cycling infrastructure and ridership. Portland was still high on its early cycling successes when I lived there and there was so much optimism about capturing an even greater share of travel. They hadn’t backshifted, thankfully, but there did not seem to be much new, aside from a sweet car-free bridge they were about to open. People I spoke with in the industry seemed a bit disheartened about some negative governmental changes and lack of energy. The low-hanging fruit has been picked and the momentum doesn’t seem to have been enough to take it to the next level. Nevertheless, it is still an awesome city for cycling. I was not at all surprised after six years living in New York to find Portland much smaller and quieter than I remember.
I was not at all let down in the brewery department. There are tons of good ones and we even took a brewery bike crawl one day. On the west coast I discovered that it’s not that I don’t like IPAs, I just don’t like crappy, stale East Coast IPAs. The difference is night and day. On the flipside, IPAs are great on the West Coast, but the diversity seems to be a bit limited. Everyone makes great IPAs, but not much else. It could be worse though, it could be 1976 and everyone could be making light American lagers only.
We also made it down to Bend, and so did our bikes despite being strapped to the top of a Ford Focus. The town was a little more car-oriented than I expected, but we had a nice time, and again, the breweries did not disappoint. The ride over the mountains to Corvallis was spectacular and we got some hot springs action.
We had been looking forward to cycling the coast down to visit my family in Humboldt County, CA, but when we compared the timeframe with the distance, it was looking like we’d have to do some heavy pedaling and I was starting to have some pain that couldn’t be ignored. When my friend Araby offered us the use of her krr AND said she’d go with us to the Phish show in Eugene, it was a done deal. I realized that I probably would not have enjoyed cycling the coast too much anyway. There is too much tourist traffic, not enough shoulders and not enough views. I think the way to see it would be to hike the Oregon Coast Trail and I intend to do that someday. The sea has captured my affection on this trip in a way it never has in the past. Although I consider Humboldt County to be part of the Pacific Northwest in spirit, it’s still in California, so I will lump it in with my Southwest summary.
My conviction that Oregon is a very special place has been reinforced. We had an incredible time checking out some new parts, drinking delicious beer and best of all, reconnecting with some great friends I hadn’t seen in a long time. I have also had my conviction reinforced that krr travel is for the birds. It could be great for certain things (like Phish tour!) and some of my greatest childhood memories are of grand road trips out west. These are the trips that started it all for me! But man, sitting in a krr driving around just sucks the life out of me these days. It puts me into a state of hypnosis where I just float unconsciously from one place to another. The air is stale, even with the windows rolled down, there is no connection to the places we pass through and I become insanely tired for no reason at all. After all the cycling touring I have come to realize just how much of the experience of a place is missed when boxed in.
The ride out of Sooke was again a smooth one along the Galloping Goose and Lochside Trails. I should note, however, that there are three spots where bridges over roads had been removed when the trail was built. It is quite a surprise after several miles of 2% maximum grade to suddenly drop into a gully and have to pop back up a 10%+ grade on gravel. It may have been even steeper because there was no possibility of riding. My bike with all the weight on the back was especially fun to push because the light front end coupled with the slight offset of me standing on the side and utter lack of traction made the bike naturally glide right off the side of the trail. I’m not going to say I did any cursing, but I’m not going to say I didn’t. Obviously we were expecting it on the way out, so it wasn’t as bad.
The ferry out of Canada was loaded with touring cyclists, from the crazy young Brits heading wherever south with cobbled together equipment to the large elderly group on folding bicycles doing a week-long supported tour. The computer on the American side had broken down, so they almost left the foreigners behind in Canada. When we got to the States, the customs guy was standing there holding a bridge hand’s worth of passports while radioing into another office to run the information. We were the last and by the time he got to us he was looking pretty weary and in the mood to get the hell out of there. Us too.
We had hoped to find a decent spot to stealth camp just outside the ferry terminal, but the topography was all wrong, so we opted for a fairly nice hiker/biker site at the nearby Washington County Park. We had dreaded climbing the massive hill out of the terminal and wanted to save it for morning when we were fresh, but when we climbed it that night, it was much easier than we had remembered. The campground was on a dead end at the bottom of a huge hill, so we got to have our morning climb anyway.
Our first hill out of the campground the next morning would be a pale comparison to things yet to come. The rest of the way to Whidbey Island was an onslaught of steep hills. Brandy was ready to kill me because my map-based hill predictions were consistently off. Well, not exactly. Wherever I said there would be a hill, there was a hill. It’s just that there were a lot more hills in between those hills. I was a bit confused about why the cycling map chose to show some hills and not other, more odious ones, but I was happy to have a cycling map at all.
The geologic history of the area as a heavily glaciated subduction zone has led to some very interesting island shapes. Whidbey Island is very long and quite narrow is some spots with many knobby protrusions, and you know I’m a sucker for strangely shaped landmasses. It has been claimed to be the longest island in the continental US, which is, of course, a preposterous claim to anyone who has lived in New York. It is the fourth largest though, which I found surprising considering that I’d never heard of it before this trip. It is also topographically challenging, so we enjoyed several more solid climbs through the rest of the day. Cycling was a bit of a hassle owing to the fact that your options were either massive, steep hills with lots of extra miles, or a highway with an inordinate amount of traffic of some of worst drivers we’d yet encountered in the PNW.
We took side roads as much as possible, but hopped on the highway at points to avoid the >>> on the map, indicating mega hills. We seemed to have more or less chosen the reverse of a classic car rally route as there was a consistent flow of old-fashioned cars heading in the opposite direction, complete with passengers in period dress.
We ended our day at South Whidbey Island State Park where we had some nice hiker/biker sites secluded from the regular camping next to a trail along some cool bluffs. Another cyclist showed up after we’d gotten settled in and we shared our hot dinner with him and he brought over a local beer in a large-format bottle. Yes!
Smugglers Cove Road (I’m also a sucker for cool road names) out of the park was a dream, but we were a little disheartened by how tough things had been the previous day, and not really looking forward to a day of suburban cycling into Seattle (Brandy the former, Lewis the latter). We have a bit of mental disconnect we need to work on to improve our cycling moods. We both have different conditions that affect our headspace, which can lead to one of us bringing the other down and negative attitudes. Brandy is frustrated by surprise hills and terrain that is tougher than it seems like it should be. I absolutely despise suburban riding and am greatly affected by driver behavior. As of writing this in November, we’ve gotten way better at dealing with each other’s negativity flashpoints, but it is always an ongoing process when cycling with others.
The ferry to the mainland dropped us into Mukilteo, a huge suburb with a nice, big climb out of the terminal on a busy highway. We participated in some delay tactics by lounging around at an ice cream shop at the terminal.
When we could no longer put off the pain, we began the long climb along the busy highway out of the terminal. As my patience with traffic is short, I led us off the first opportunity to flee the horrible highway and butted right into a hill of biblical proportions. As I ground the million percent grade at about 0.01 mph, I didn’t dare look back. I could feel the daggers of Brandy’s eyes in my spine well enough. The bicycle maps provided by the counties in the area are generally quite good, but in this case, there was no >>> for this >>>>>>. Of course, this >>>>>> meant this < the rest of the way into Seattle, so we had that. However, the next several miles through Mukilteo and Lynnwood were a suburban nightmare of high-speed multi-lane roadways, strip malls and heavy, aggressive traffic. The guy who slowed down to give us the thumbs up on our trip was a boost, but that was more than wiped away by the scumbag who swerved at me and then yelled at us to get where we belong when I calmly asked him why he did that. Ass. That experience makes me hope to never see the borders of those towns again.
Once we got to the I-5, we were able to finally hop on a nice trail most of the way into the city. It was fairly well signed, except at one point where we missed our turn and got to enjoy a nice, unnecessary hill. After finding our way back to the trail, we ran into our friend from the night before and rode with him the next several miles. He had gotten lost as well and got to enjoy the same little detour we had
Riding through Seattle was easy enough and we got to our friend’s place in Capitol Hill without incident. I was in a pretty negative mood at this point, so we promptly went out for drinks at a funky bar after a quick dinner and shower.
We met some kids at the bar who were on an adventure of their own. They had ridden across the country on 30+ year-old motorcycles. We invited them over to our friend’s rooftop which has amazing city views and had a fun after party with them chatting about travel and adventure and life. This was exactly what I needed to erase all of my negativity and renew my travel excitement. I got to feel the serendipity of their day ending in a place they never would have expected, and my day ending with some people I would never have expected. This is exactly why I travel. You can have the worst, most defeating day and it can still end at the top of the world sharing the mutual energy of beautiful people randomly entering your life.
The route out of our hosts’ place took us through a few miles of residential neighborhoods of Lake Stevens. Pulling up to a stop sign, I almost toppled over when my cleat wouldn’t come out of the pedal! As happened to Brandy in Wisco, one of the screws had come out and was lost, adding yet another item to the maintenance inspection rotation. I also discovered that I’d stepped in dog poo. While stopped we noticed some blackberries down beneath the bridge we were on, so while I was fixing my issues, Brandy grabbed a bungee and went ‘fishing’ for blackberries. If only we’d known the virtual bonanza of berries we’d encounter throughout the next couple weeks. Really, I have never seen so many. At the first huge, untouched patch I wondered if they were in some toxic soil or something, but as we passed drooping vine after overloaded bunch, we realized there are just so many blackberries everywhere that nobody even cares to pick them anymore. Obviously we indulged frequently.
We spent most of the day on the Centennial Trail, which is a great paved rail trail. I love being in the woods away from krrs on a nice grade, but you do tend to give up some of the better views you can get on roads. As soon as we got off the trail the view opened up into a quaint valley before we plunged into a forest of great pine trees. Coming into Conway we got to enjoy the counterpoint to the huge climb we had the previous day and sailed down into the Skagit Valley.
We had just had dinner and were looking out for some camping when some dudes at a house hollered at us asking where we were headed. We stopped and gave them the story, which is getting a bit old (our lame way of telling it, not the telling). I wish we could just say we’re cycling to S. America, but I always feel the need to qualify it with the fact that we’re not just cycling, etc, and we may not even go to S America. Then people ask where we’re from and I go into the whole spiel about living in NYC, but really I’m from WI and she’s from VA. After chatting for a bit, the owner of the place, Pete, offered us to pitch the tent in his yard. Sweet.
It was about this moment that we looked back across the valley and saw the incredible view of the hills we’d just descended beginning to be lit up by the setting sun. Yet another great moment in this world.
The next morning we finally got up at a somewhat reasonable time and we were even slug-free, despite the utter infestation of the giant slimy beasts. We were chilly and clammy and the tent was covered in moisture, but when you’re in the Pacific Northwest sliding into autumn, what can you expect?
The morning landscape was flat through colorful farms of various flowers and food crops. Interspersed among the farms are steep sided heads, very similar to what one would find around Wisconsin Dells but covered in fir trees.
The farmland gave way to pine forest once we crossed a cool steel arch bridge into the Swinomish Indian Reservation, and the land began to roll in earnest. We had the roads mostly to ourselves and had a nice ride into Anacortes where we stopped to gorge on more berries and picked some apples and pears, which are almost as abundant as the blackberries. By the time we reached the ferry terminal we’d put in a comfortable 27 miles of easy riding.
Our first ride on the Washington State Ferry system was a pleasure because it is just so damn easy. You roll right on to the front and lean the bikes against the wall. We always tied them down, but the boats are really stable so it’s likely not even necessary.
The San Juan archipelago consists of several hundred islands in the Salish Sea between Vancouver Island and northern Washington, although only four are accessible by Washington State Ferries. Each of the islands had been recommended to us by different people, but we chose Orcas because of the great hike to the highest point in the islands, the state park with hiker/biker sites and, quite frankly, the cool shape. I’m just a sucker for isthmuses and weirdly shaped land bodies.
The hour-long ferry ride gave us time to decompress and look at all the pretty islands, and also for our body to pretend it wasn’t on a bike tour. Although we’d arrive on the island at 5pm, we figured we shouldn’t have trouble riding the 14 miles to the park. We could happily pedal the quaint roads seeing the sights of this bucolic island and duck into the woods if we ran out of light. We nonchalantly rode off the boat with a ‘Ho! Ho! Let’s go!’ attitude and were punished instantly as the road jumped out of the gate at an immeasurable grade. We were in the wrong gear, ferry traffic was streaming past and we felt like fools for our hubris. It’s not that we weren’t prepared for climbing, we knew there were hills on this island, including a biggie the final four miles into the campground. We just weren’t prepared for THIS hill, THIS soon. It wasn’t even that long, but it certainly was demoralizing.
The traffic subsided as we coasted down through dense forest into grazing land, and bam! we were broadsided by yet another beast of epic proportions. This one was definitely steeper and way longer than the first. The gears clattered down to their lowest limit and I STOOD UP to pedal for the first time. This soul-crushing monster cast serious doubt on our projected destination. Halfway up we powwowed about whether we should just bag it and find a place to camp. Keep in mind that I had not heard anything about other hills on Orcas, but had heard very much about the BIG ONE at the end. If THIS is what this island is like with these hills not even worthy of mention, we would have no chance of making it at all, much less before dark. However, we were determined not to be defeated just yet and decided to churn it out and made a go for it.
I crested the ‘destroyer’ and began bombing the other side with Brandy a few dozen feet behind me. A steep descent and around a corner, then a longer more gradual descent, coasting as I watched my mirror for Brandy to round the bend… Finally, stop, watch, wait. Still no Brandy. Sh!t! I reluctantly pedaled back up to the steep part, parked my ride and began running when I saw her bike sprawled on the shoulder. Uh oh. My overactive imagination was able to conjure up a couple grizzly scenarios in the short time before I saw her walking down from about a hundred feet up. Oh, whew, she must have lost something. Indeed! As she bombed the hill, she heard a clinking in her spokes and assumed it was a stone or something. When she went to brake, the front emitted an excruciating metal on metal squeal and she realized that her brand new, expensive badass fatty bo-batty front brake pad we bought 200 miles ago had fallen out of the mounting bracket. Luckily she was able to find it in the middle of the road. A quick check found that ALL of the bolts holding the pads in were unacceptably loose. The rear pads are in no danger because the mounting orientation keeps them secure, but once the bolt is gone from the front, the pads can slip right out. We yoinked a screw from the rear to secure the front and rolled on. It is simply unacceptable with the cost of these pads that we need to check them every time we ride. They make special bolts and washers for this kind of application, it’s not rocket science.
We got some relief after this as the terrain leveled out a bit and all of the hills before the town of Eastsound were manageable. We picked up some groceries there and reconvened the powwow. Again we decided to go for it. The ride was only four miles, but it was a doozy and getting dark. A little less than half of that was straight uphill, not quite as steep as the death hill earlier, but seemingly endless after such a day. We were in a pretty ragged state by the time we pulled into Moran State Park. Moral was low. Orcas had put the fear into us. If we couldn’t handle this silly little island, how could we possibly tackle the Andes??
The regular campgrounds were full for Labor Day, but we were the only ones in the hiker/biker site and snagged the new lean to. The ‘primitive’ campground turned out to be quite lovely and still had great water and a very clean pit toilet. Much to my delight they had also recently done a small amount of cutting and milling, so there was tons of great firewood scattered about.
We decided that the place was nice and we wanted to explore a bit rather than just beating our asses up those hills only to turn around the next day and take off to another island, so it was unanimous as soon as we set up camp that we would spend two nights in the park. We could take a rest day and hike Mount Constitution. After enjoying the great fire in the solitude of our camp, we climbed into our hammocks for some much needed rest. Once in bed, we noticed an eerie sound – complete silence. There were no conversations, no cars, no human noises whatsoever. Not only that, but the air was utterly still with not the faintest rustle in the pines. The oddest part was that there were no nocturnal beasts at all. We heard not a single insect or creature snuffling about. We cast off to sleep under a thick blanket of stillness.
Up: 2,806 ft
Down: 2,806 ft
It seems like quite a coincidence that up and down are the same, considering we did not start/end at sea level. I double checked the numbers though, and it seems legit.
Up: 15,873 ft
Down: 15,269 ft
*All numbers are relocation miles, most of which are loaded. They do not include cycling around town. “Entire trip” does not include Hawaii.
(This post was written over a month ago on our first night in Washington)
We awoke on the train no longer in the Midwest. One night had taken us from the lush fields and forests of Wisconsin to the golden expanses of the Great Plains, and another night had delivered us into the arid and majestic high desert of Washington. Pine-covered mountains soon replaced the stony valleys and then we were descending into the populated Puget strip.
I realized I had made a horrific mapping error when they announced Everett as the next stop. I had chosen my WarmShowers* host in Everett after purchasing my ticket to Seattle because Everett was the final stop on the local commuter rail line. I had not checked to see if the Amtrak would actually swing 50 miles north and go through the dang place on the way to Seattle. I simply hadn’t fathomed that the train would loop way to the south south and then still connect with the coastal line back north of Seattle. It was too late, bags checked to Seattle, head hung in shame. Might as well make the most of it.
It wasn’t such a disaster having to do the train twice because it was a nice view along the sound. There were a lot of people out on the shore and it seems like people really like to wave at trains, except for the one guy who flipped us off. Whatever, brah.
Our host Jack’s place was about five miles from the Everett station along the beginning of the great US Hwy 2, and then up a long hill on WA 204. The hill was busy but had a very wide shoulder. It was fantastic to get back into the saddle after sitting on a train for almost two days and get a nice climb right off the bat.
Despite having been done with work for almost four months and having put on at least 700 miles cycling, we finally felt like the trip was truly underway and were no longer circling home bases. It was wonderful and liberating to be free from the known with a blank future in front of us!
*WarmShowers.org is a great resource for touring cyclists. It is similar to Couchsurfing, but for cyclists. Most of the hosts on the site have done touring before, so they have a good understanding of what you need when you get off the road and usually have great advice for your route ahead. We hosted several cyclists in NYC who got us excited for the upcoming trip.