Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Travelling habits of the city-bound human

I've long felt that cities are my wilderness, my unknown.  When I am out in the woods or the mountains or the open road, sure there are plenty of things that can happen that you cannot wholly prepare for.  But I feel ready for most situations and can calmly rationalize my way through others.  Having lived my life in suburban or rural areas though, cities are a bit of an adventure for me.

A few months ago I had ridden through the hearts of Baltimore and Washington D.C.  From there though, the ensuing months only saw me travelling through tiny towns and cities.  Sure I had hit Pueblo, CO with a population of about 100k, but the new norm for me was towns with populations numbering in the hundreds.  So you may imagine my shock when the Bremerton ferry deposited me right in the midst of Seattle's downtown.  Riding right off of the ferry and through the terminal and then BAM! you are at 1st and Yesler with speeding cabs and tour buses and pedestrians.  The towering buildings around you form narrow gorges that leave you disoriented and you receive scant help from the streetsigns.  And at some point, you need to pick a direction to move in.

When visiting a new city, many folks might make a list of popular attractions to visit.  Or jump in with a tour group.  Have a friend show them around.  Undoubtedly in this day and age, they will have their smartphone tuned in to tell them where to move, where to eat and what to look at.  Just as I spent a week in D.C., I pick a street unknown to me and start riding.  No real idea where it will take me or what I will see.  I'll carry a paper street map of the city stuffed into my back pocket.  At a stoplight I might whip it out and quickly confirm a turn that I want to make, but largely I travel on serendipity.

Sometimes this can lead to trouble.  In Seattle, the real problem has been taking small streets that go up gut wrenching hills that other thoroughfares would have avoided, had I taken the time to think.  NW 65th Street comes to mind.  With all of my touring gear still on my bike I found myself crawling uphill in my smallest gear and hallucinating that I was back in eastern Kentucky. In D.C. such aimless wandering can easily deposit you on a limited access freeway.  One day my brother, Andrew, and I wanted to ride "over there" to Teddy Roosevelt Island.  Without stopping to plan or look at a map, we found ourselves on a bridge, six speeding lanes of traffic across with jersey barriers preventing our escape.  My bad.

But largely, just going with the flow usually pays off.  I want to find the places that haven't been recommended and sought out by every visiting tourist.  I want my eye to be caught by a random neon sign and get drawn inside.  I mean, this is how I figured out what was going on in every little bitty town across America so why should Seattle be any different?  One of the hidden gems that I found in my travels was R+E Cycles, a custom bike building shop and home to the Rodriguez and Erickson brands.  It was a treat to look at their scads of beautiful frames including tandems with S&S couplers, a style I secretly covet.  They have been building bikes there for over 30 years and there's plenty of history on display at the shop.  I also like to avoid urbanspoon or any of the other restaurant recommendation sites, opting instead for Lady Luck to guide me.  In Manhattan, I was strolling the streets after dark and went into a nondescript Mexican cantina.  I was the only Caucasian in the joint and Spanish was the only language in use.  The meal was one of the best I've had in a long while.  Similarly, my friend, George, and I ducked into a Himalayan joint in Salt Lake City once on a passing whim.  This was quite literally was a "hole in the wall" as rooms were joined by big holes crudely hammered through the brick walls.  Not really knowing what to expect from the cuisine, we were both extremely pleased.

Of course, I still visit popular tourist areas like the museums and parks and shopping avenues.  I'll take the suggestions of friends or complete strangers that I've struck up a conversation with.  My friend, Lisa, told me that I "had to see the seals chomping down on salmon at the locks".  Yeah, you can't pass up a spectacle like that.  Or when my brother tells me which Smithsonian museum is his favorite I am definitely going to take the advice and visit.  But by and large, I enjoy experiencing and feeling a city by making my own choices, taking wrong turns and getting lost.  I love entering the current of rush hour traffic and letting the flow whisk me along, all of the city on display with its attendant sounds and smells and pulse.  Eddy out on a sidestreet when something cool crops up.  Maybe I miss some really great sights, but I'll sacrifice that for the taste of adventure.

A lot of people always ask how many sets of tires you used riding cross country.  Also, a large proportion of traffic to this blog is from folks researching Schwalbe Marathon Mondial tires so I thought I'd give an update.  This is what the tread looks like on my tires after almost 7,000 miles of riding.
In 7,000 miles I have only gotten two punctures.  This is the front tire where a shard of glass cut through within the first 1,000 miles of riding.  As you can see, the rubber has not eroded away from the cut and the lug remains largely intact.  I also got a bit of wire in my rear tire that resulted in a slow leak.  Both tires exhibit those micro cracks from sun damage presumably.
Right at the bottom edge of the reflective striping, there is a little bit of separation now in places.  I would guess this is where the tread overlaps the casing?  In any case, it's not sufficient to make me worry although I am carrying a spare folding tire at this point.
The Olympic Peninsula and the Olympic Mountains off in the distance.  I am on Whidbey Island and will take a ferry to Port Townsend and onto the peninsula.
I know this snapshot sucks but I needed to remember this moment.  I was minding my own business on the streets of Port Townsend when I saw some folks struggling to lift the bow of some sort of boat out a door.  I proffered my help and took up a spot at the bow.  What eventually emerged from the restaurant's door was a 30 foot wooden rowing shell for 4 or 5 people.  It was so long it had us doing acrobatics lifting it over parked cars and stopping both lanes of traffic to get it completely out of the building.  The owners stored it as decoration in the restaurant, but they needed to get it out for a wooden boat festival that weekend.
Break out your low tech maps.  It's time to go to the city!
When you get on a ferry, roll your bike up to the front of the cargo bay and tie it to a wall.  Then go up top to enjoy the sights around you.  This was the ferry from Bremerton to Seattle.
Sighting the Seattle skyline for the first time
Tom, prepare for Seattle.  Seattle, prepare for Tom.
All sorts of commercial and recreation craft can be spotted in the Chittenden Locks that allow passage from Puget Sound into Lakes Union and Washington.  Here's the commercial variety.
This is decidedly of the recreational variety.
Discovery Park is a large greenspace on the western part of town looking out towards the sound and complete with lighthouse.  I rode around for a couple of hours on the trails there that varied from smooth pavement to grassy singletrack.  It wasn't until afterwards that I discovered you weren't supposed to bike on most of them.  Whoops.  The park was nearly empty during the week so no harm, no foul.
The hills in Seattle rival anything that I rode in Virginia and Kentucky for steepness.  If I lived here I would ride a carbon fiber bike with a triple crank.  Or remember to avoid the hills.  Yeah, that'd be cheaper.  What am I saying?  I enjoy suffering.
My friend, Lisa, invited me to come and cheer her softball team one evening.  I readily agreed.  Before this trip, I doubt I had ever attended a softball game.  Kim took me to a couple in Steamboat Springs and I found it a blast to cheer and jeer the teams.
The biking infrastructure within the city is impressive with plenty of bike lanes on streets or devoted bus/bike lanes.  Depicted is a pretty cool feature of their bike lanes that I've seen a couple of places before.  The bright green swath of pavement is where the bike lane "flip flops" with the left turn lane.  This helps limit cyclists getting cut off or sideswiped because it alerts the drivers that they should start paying a little attention.


  1. Dude, dont you hate it when you post a comment and then blogger screws up for some reason even when you are logged in and then you come back and feel like a dork trying to remember how you cooly framed the original comment? I do. So dammit Ill just say youre story is sawsome. Wish mine was as clear and relevant ! Crank on brother !

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