Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Article for the Neighborhood Newsletter About the Bike Trip.

This is an article we wrote for our neighborhood newsletter about our 6-week bike trip from Astoria to Boulder. Plenty of photos here:

Who: Pat White of 3315 Elm Terrace and Mike Evanoff of 3319 Elm Terrace
What: 6-week bicycle tour from Astoria, Oregon to Boulder, Colorado with a total of 2270 miles of riding.
When: 23 May through 4 July

40 years ago, in 1976, a group called “Bike-centennial” rode bikes across the USA to help celebrate the Bi-centennial. We both remember that adventure and have wanted to ride the route ever since. Bike-centennial is now the “Adventure Cycling Association” but the route has remained and has been refined over the years. If you Google “transamerica bicycle trail”, the first hit will be the route we rode. The route is over 4000 miles, and generally takes about 10-12 weeks to ride. Since we could only take six weeks off to do the ride, and we did not want to try to rush across the country, we decided on riding only the western half this year. We wanted to visit the sites, talk to the locals, soak in the hot springs and generally go at a pace that would allow us to drink in the experience. The eastern part of the route will have to wait for another year.

We are both long-time bicycle commuters, riding back and forth to work to avoid traffic and to stay in shape. However, Pat had never been bicycle touring and Mike’s experience was limited to a few trips in college and a 10-day trip last summer. Pat had not slept in a tent for more than 20 years. Clearly, this was a big and uncertain undertaking for two novice bike tourists.
Mike and Sherry went first to Washington State to visit Mike’s parents and then picked up Pat in Portland to start the ride in Astoria, Oregon. We had already shipped our bikes to a local bike shop in Astoria, so our first order of business was to pick them up and put them together. Once we started riding, Sherry shadowed us in the rental car for about 7 days, which made for a nice easy first week because we just threw the bags into the car and could ride unloaded. Sherry would get to the campsites and have cold beer ready for us on arrival. When Sherry left us near John Day, Oregon, we were all alone for the first time. Kicked out of the nest and having to fend for ourselves.

Everything we needed was on the bikes. We each carried a tent, sleeping bag and sleeping pad and we shared the group gear which was mostly cooking equipment. We camped most nights, but stayed in roadside hotels or cabins when the mood hit, or when there was no good camping option. Several towns would allow people to camp in the city park for free, and several churches allowed bike riders to sleep in their basement or social halls. Otherwise, commercial campgrounds and RV parks generally had some form of tent camping option. The beautiful thing about bike touring is that you pass grocery stores and liquor stores on a daily basis. No freeze-dried camp food or instant oatmeal for us. We had eggs and grits or french toast for breakfast, and our dinners ranged from stir fry to pasta sauces with locally grown sausage to big fat chunks of salmon. We were the travelling gourmets. It is amazing what you can do with a propane burner and an Ace Hardware frying pan. A lot of the small towns in the west have a local meat shop because there are so many cows and ranches. We had really nice grass fed beef, some lovely pork loin and the best beef jerky that either of us had ever had. Many hours on the bike were spent daydreaming about what we would cook for dinner that night.

The bikes held up really well - we each had one flat tire and that's about it. We oiled our chains and kept the tires mostly pumped up and suffered no mechanical issues of any significance. Other than Mike pitching his tent on top of a very powerful sprinkler head, and realizing his mistake when the sprinkler came on at midnight, we didn’t have any real disasters in camp, either. Since we were on the most popular bike touring route in the country, there were usually other cyclists in the campground with us. We had a small brotherhood of lunatics wherever we went! While most bike tourists seem to be men between 55 and 65, there were a number of younger people, several couples, lots of Dutch people and one young couple who were too beautiful to be roughing it, yet here they were. Bicycle touring is physically demanding, but if you go slow, and just keep moving, even marginally  fit people seem to be able to complete the distance. We rode about 60 miles per day and then took a few rest days inbetween riding days, and every day was a challenge in some way.  In the end, between the uphills and the headwinds, we each lost about 10 pounds.

A typical day started with one of us getting out of the tent and making fresh drip coffee - Pat’s black and Mike’s with half-and-half, often a collection of little containers liberated from a diner. Next we made breakfast while packing tents and sleeping bags, or we just went to a diner if we thought there would be one within the first 20 miles down the road. Most days we would also incorporate a breakfast beer at the top of the first climb, or just some time before the beer started to get warm. Mike, the organized one, would leave camp a little before Pat, but would get caught pretty quickly. We would typically stop at each small town we passed if nothing more than to fill up water bottles or buy a snack. Lunch would last from 9am until 3pm and consisted mostly finger food in the handlebar bag. We were both partial to Fig Newtons, Mounds bars, bananas, and PB&J sandwiches. We were riding about 60 miles per day, and had an average pace of about 12 mph, so each day saw about 5 hours of turning pedals. Sounds like a lot, but we broke it up with rests, small towns and the occasional swim break. During the day, we each spent some time daydreaming about what to have for dinner, and we planned the day’s ride around where to shop for food. We had a lunchbox style cooler that would fit a six-pack, some ice, and a few other cold items, and we packed the rest of the food into whatever space we had in our bags. Finally, we would roll into our destination town and find the park or the RV site or a church or a hotel and settle in for the night. We stayed in hotels or cabins a little more than we had first anticipated because Mike was sick for about two weeks from Missoula until late into Wyoming and a good night’s sleep helps considerably.  We had record high temperatures in eastern Oregon and Idaho, we had unseasonably cold weather in parts of Montana (we got snowed on going over one of the passes) and the winds in Wyoming are not to be underestimated. The only thing we mostly avoided was rain. There really was no typical day, because each day had a challenge built into it somewhere.

Since we are both social and inquisitive, we interacted quite a bit with the locals in the towns along the route. We were both surprised at the entirely different way that “Westerners” view the country relative to our eastern views. Since our trip was more of a journey than a destination, we went to the museums, read the roadside history signs, and generally took our time. Mike was constantly chatting up people we met in restaurants, on sidewalks and by the side of the road.  In Baker City, OR, after talking to a couple with a beautiful tandem bicycle, telling them about our tour and geeking out over their cycling equipment, Mike was told about a couple in Halfway, Oregon named Whitey and Katie who might put us up for the night. Whitey said to come ahead (“look for the green dormers, that’ll be us”) and suggested they’d feed us as well.  

Whitey and Katie welcomed us, told us to put our bikes in the barn, and then showed us to our private bunkhouse rooms.  They explained that they had built the bunkhouse for their visiting sons and daughter and grandkids.  After we’d showered and had a couple of beers, we got better acquainted on the front porch and they began to make an amazing spread, including homemade hamburger buns (!) and a chocolate peanutbutter dessert.  

After dinner, Whitey and their dog walked us around their property and we met llamas, who have the personalities of lawn furniture, but with amazing deep dark brown softball-sized eyes.  He told us about taking pictures of the wildlife that is all around them, but seldom seen, except with his motion-detector camera, and was quite proud of the mountain lion he had photographed.  Walking through what had been an orchard, we saw at the edge of their property a big animal with its head thrust up into an apple tree.  At first we thought it was a deer, and as we startled it and it bounded into the woods, realized it was an elk, probably female.  

As a kid I remember reading about how hobos network and even leave symbols at individual houses where the family was welcoming (or not) and willing to give food or share food in exchange for work.  The cycle touring network functions in much the same way, and during our eastward ride we were constantly talking with westbound cyclists and exchanging intel about church basements, campgrounds and the availability of groceries (and beer) at our next waypoint.  So we learned that the Baptist Church in Jeffrey City would let cyclists overnight in the basement, that there was no water or retail or anything in Lamont, and that Lander had a great city park that allowed overnight camping.  We also fell into shifting cohorts of riders on our eastbound route.  “Ohio Mike” was a grizzled retired mechanical engineer who grew up on a farm in Iowa, was going to ride to Muddy Gap and then head for Iowa’s famous Ragbrai Ride to meet up with this daughter, loved to poke fun at Pat for having boiled our only pot dry on the camp stove and destroying it, and explained that his wife let him tour on his bicycle so that he wouldn’t get tattoos.  Ron and Marion.  Marcia and Husband.  Tom and Katie.  Bart and Ian.  John and his third attempt.  

I think that we were both surprised at what environmental disasters had been inflicted on the west. Most of Montana is treeless because of clearcutting around 1900 and then the overgrazing by cattle and sheep. Many of the towns, including Missoula, had mining operations that dumped all manner of toxins and heavy metals into the rivers, and the cleanup did not even begin until the 1960’s. Gold mining has left many stream beds completely ruined with endless mounds of tailings. There was a period where timber and mineral extraction was carried out on large scales without any concern for the environment or sustainability. I think that the east had similar treatment, but more years have passed to allow the land to heal. In the west, it is still quite apparent and the scars are fresh. Many of the small towns that we passed through had been timber or mining towns, but now the population is in the hundreds (or dozens), not the thousands that used to be there. These towns are dying or barely clinging to life with no apparent economic miracle on the horizon.

For a couple of middle-aged east-coast city boys, this trip was enlightening, difficult, awe inspiring, completely outside of our comfort zones, thrilling, crushing and, in the end, a real journey. We each have a different appreciation for the people and the landscapes that we passed through, and for our own abilities to travel through them.

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