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.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Let's go surfin' now

I rode my bike across the country.  Wow.  What a succinct statement that sums up 3 months and over 5,000 miles of biking.  But simply put, that is what I accomplished by rolling into Anacortes, WA yesterday.  The date was August 22nd and it just so happened to be exactly three months from my original departure of May 22nd.  I am not sure if that counts for anything, but it was neat nevertheless.

The rest of Washington state continued the trend of each day being better than the last.  The central section of the state is mostly desert and temperatures were pushing into the low 100s again.  Climbing a few passes in those conditions made for interesting times, but the heat of Missouri and the climbs of Colorado had conditioned me.  One of the highlights of my trip came on the second to last day- riding over the Cascades.  Riding to the top of Washington Pass that marks the highpoint on the North Cascades Highway turned out to be the easy part.  Descending through the Skagit River Gorge was pretty breathtaking.  The scenery was out of this world.  The winds were as well.  Under calm conditions one could rocket down the gorge and average close to 30mph.  Headwinds kept me in the 10mph neighborhood.  Violent crosswinds throughout the gorge made some sections a bit harrowing at times.  Eventually I was disgorged (ha!) and continued along the Skagit River towards the coast.

Well, now that that is over I guess all that's left is to figure out how to get home...

I've seen plenty "fake" painted cattle guards in national forests along my ride.  They are used to control the swaths of open range that the Forest Service leases.  I understand the concept of physical cattle guards on roads.  I always wanted to see a cow interact with a painted one and see if it actually works.
The effects of 3 months of UV damage can be clearly seen on my bike panniers.  Most mornings I wore a long sleeved shirt for as long as I could bear it.  Otherwise I slathered myself in SPF 50 sunscreen.  Still, my glove tan is pretty impressive.
A short break in the Mazama Store was a good idea to wake up for the climb over Washington Pass.  I kept hoping that Steve House, an acclaimed alpinist, would stop in for his morning coffee.  He didn't.  Mazama, WA
This was my first time through the Cascades and I was excited for the ride over them.
The views did not disappoint along the way.
Yup.  There's still snow up in the pass!  I didn't dilly dally too much right here.  Those cavernous points fore and aft of my bike were formed by big blocks of snow cleaving off the bottom of the slope.  The large rock that my front wheel is sitting against fell off of the cliff face above.  Further up the pass, fresh rock scars could been seen along the cliffs lining the switchbacks.  Newly fallen rocks lay strewn on the side of the road opposite the scars.  Not the safest place for a picnic.
The North Cascades Highway snaking up behind me towards Washington Pass.
The last obstacle between me and the ocean has been surmounted.  Until you descend a bit and still have to climb a few hundred feet up and over Rainy Pass.  But who's counting?
A mini Lotus Flower Tower sits at the top of the pass found me wishing I had brought my rock shoes.  And a rope.  And a rack.  And a climbing partner.  Next time.  And there will be a next time.
Descending towards Rainy Pass
And then descending from Rainy Pass towards the Skagit River Gorge.  The steep part of the descent would go on for about 30 miles.  This was while it was still fun in the sun.  Then the walls closed in and the winds kicked into high gear.  I stopped taking pictures.
The gorge is so narrow in points that the road travels through a couple of tunnels.  That's a good way to spice things up!
I don't know what that means.  But I am sufficiently intrigued.  Marblemount, WA   
I spent the night in Marblemount at Clark's Skagit River Resort.  At the side of the bathhouse, I saw this sign.  What?
Uh, looks like about two dozen loaves of day old bread...
Turns out that one of the hallmarks of Clark's is the rabbit population hanging around.  I asked the owners  how many rabbits were around and they said "no fewer than twenty".  Then I read somewhere that usually they have upwards of a hundred hopping about when they're breeding.  Whoa.
Once through the Cascades, it's back to low lying farmland that reminds me of Pennsylvania.  Right now we're less than 10 miles away from the Pacific Ocean.
Yep.  Just chillin' with the cows a stone's throw away from the saltwater.
Fewer than 10 miles away from completion, they close the road on you.  I laughed a little as I made another slight detour .  It would take more than that to discourage me after so much riding.
The Tommy Thompson Trail leading over Fidalgo Bay to Anacortes
Down at the beach looking out towards the San Juan Islands and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  Yeah, I just wanted to say "Juan de Fuca".  Can't go much further west without getting wet!
The final tally?  Five thousand and forty three miles.  Plus maybe a few more from the times my previous bike computer kept dying partway through the day.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

New states of being

Montana was my last "known point" and I left it approximately one week ago.  Up until that time, I had already traveled through the states that I was seeing on earlier trips by car.  As I have espoused before elsewhere, you see far more things crossing even the same path by bicycle.  You meet new folks.  The trip takes on an entirely new character.  But still, even if you're biking to it, you already know what Jackson, WY is like.  You know that Kansas is about 400 miles wide.  Some of the mystery isn't there.

It was with great anticipation and excitement that I left Missoula, MT and began heading directly north.  I was leaving the TransAmerica biking route and heading up towards the Northern Tier route, meeting it by Glacier National Park.  When I turned westward just before hitting Canada, I truly felt like I was in new territory... because I was.  This feeling only heightened whenever I crossed into Idaho as this was my first visit.  Granted, I spent less than 24 hours in Idaho, crossing its narrow northern Panhandle, but it was a new state nevertheless.  Now I am in central Washington, another new state for me.  The eastern portion contained vast forests and tall passes giving way to a desertscape in the center of the state.  It was really odd making that transition in about 15 miles of riding and 3000' elevation loss.  The 100 degree temperatures and winds make me feel like I'm back in Missouri or Kansas.  The desert atmosphere hearkens back to eastern Colorado or Wyoming.  So odd.

When I begin riding tomorrow, I only have about 3 days of riding left until I hit the Pacific coast at Anacortes, WA.  From there some island hopping with the assistance of ferries will get me to Seattle.  It is so odd to be sitting here only days away from completing a cross country bicycle ride.  On one hand, it's nigh impossible to believe that you biked across the entire United States and only have 3 days left.  Then you reflect on the past 3 months of pedaling, think back to the climbs, the dogs, the miles, the junk food, the campsites and remember all of the effort that went into it.  It makes it a little more believable.  My sense of accomplishment is a little diminished, not because it wasn't difficult as it does take some doing.  It's diminished a little because the trip was so fun with each day better than the last.  It seemed like such the right thing to do.  It's so logical to bike across the country.  Somehow, with it seemingly making good sense to do, it has less of an impact on me.  Odd.  Don't worry.  I'm still quite pleased with myself though.

FULL DISCLAIMER:  For anyone who haven't followed my travels the whole way, my ride may not qualify as an "official" full cross country ride.  I started in State College, PA and rode southeast first and came closest to the Atlantic coast at Baltimore's Inner Harbor.  No, I didn't dip my wheel in.  Since I had ridden 500 miles to join up with the TransAmerica route in Ashton, VA I didn't bother to go approximately 80 miles east to the coast at Yorktown.  So, I guess I won't bother contacting Guinness...  The reason I mention this is that some cyclists that I have encountered actually care about this stuff.  I am not one of those people.  Obviously.

Of course this is assuming that I can pull myself out of Omak, WA and finish the remaining 210 miles to the Pacific.  Talk about putting the cart before the horse.  Jeez, Tom! 

If there is one thing that I will remember my cycling partner of three days, Justin, for it will be his drinking.  I mean that in the nicest way possible.  I just found it so humorous for us to pair up with one another.  I completely quit drinking to go on this trip.  Justin was never without a beer in hand.  Never.  Breakfast, lunch and dinner.  It just seemed a bit comical at times, the disparity between us yet how well we got along.
Justin getting his portrait taken at Adventure Cycling headquarters in Missoula, MT.  His portrait and mine will be part of the National Bicycle Touring Portrait Collection
Greg Siple, one of the original founders of what would become Adventure Cycling, taking our portraits behind their headquarters
The moment we've all been waiting for.  Greg asked me to guess the weight of my bike and I wrote "115 lbs".  As I lowered my bike on the scale, he first said "Oooh, triple digits!  We don't get many of those."  Then he followed it up with "Wow, this is one of the heavier bikes we've seen this year."  Damn.
The final tally?  112 lbs.  Justin's bike weighed a full 20 lbs less.  When I relay that number to other cyclists they usually begin making fun of me.  In response, I ask "Do you remember all of those mountains?  Do you remember all of those miles?  Do you remember me riding them just as fast or faster than you?  Did you hear me even once complain about how heavy my bike was?"  The conversation usually comes to an abrupt halt.
The police in Missoula have a far lighter bike lock solution than I
Drift boat fishing for trout on the Blackfoot River along the route leading north from Missoula
Let's play "Spot the Wildfire"!  It's not too hard.  And if you win, it means you're an idiot because you're biking within sight of a wildfire.  So I guess you lose.  Condon, MT
That isn't early morning fog.  A pall of smoke from a wildfire hangs over the Swan Range.
Convenience store wisdom.  So true.  Swan Lake, MT
It wasn't until I got on this gravelly backroad in northern Montana that I realized I had been riding on state and federal highways exclusively for the past 2000 miles or so.  It was so nice to be on a true backroad again.  This particular descent transported me to Rothrock State Forest and the descent on Bear Meadows road down to Detwiler Run.  I found myself actually getting slightly emotional for a moment.
I ran into this couple on day One of their Great Divide bike trip.  How did I know it was day One?  They're still smiling.  Just kidding!  Sort of.
Biker gang at Cafe Jax in Eureka, MT.  The Great Divide and the Northern Tier routes intersect here so you get a number of cyclists passing through.  The pancakes were delicious.
My friend, Kipp, should be a fire marshal.  He doesn't go anywhere without a bucket of fresh bacon.
Likewise, this stretch of road into Libby, MT made me think of the road that you take into Gemini Gullies.  Same crappy road and jumbled cliffs.  Same railroad and river.  A woman warned me that I should be careful as the road is "really narrow and people drive really fast."  Once on it, I had to laugh as it reminded me of 95% of the roads I ride in central PA.  I felt quite at home actually.
The shores of Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho.  It's pronounced "Pawn du Ray".  Get it right or people will snub you.  I asked while I was still in Montana.
Same lake and beach again at dusk.
I don't want to sound cocky, but the zero shoulders and coal trucks of Kentucky make Washington feel like you're  on a separate bike lane with Matchbox cars passing you.  But it was nice that they posted a warning.  Overall, the state feels much more accepting of cyclists.
As I was biking 4000' feet up Sherman Pass on a 95 degree day a couple who had ridden sections of the Northern Tier stopped their van.  They put out quite the spread for me!
I think that while it certainly wasn't the steepest, Sherman Pass was the most difficult climb overall on this ride.  It rose 4,000' in 25 miles or so.  It was really hot.  There were two construction zones on the uphill.  But I carried on and the descent more than made up for it.
Did you smear cupcake frosting all over your hat again, Tom?  Nope.  That's all sweat- the fruit of my labors over Sherman Pass.  I'm going to visit Outdoor Research in Seattle.  I'll commend them on their hats' sweat crusting technology.