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Friend of the travel world

Hi everyone, I’m working hard on the Iceland write up. In the mean time, I thought you would like this from a travel friend I met in the States in April. He’s an interesting guy. Have a good read, Tony

http://picasaweb.google.com/bf.intransit/Usa2007WestCoast

Greetings from Eugene, Oregon.

My bike is currently at the Bike Friday HQ having a service, so I’m taking the opportunity to write some notes at the local library. Rather than ride 60 miles from the coast on a narrow overcrowded road, I was able to simply fold the bike and put it in the back of the daily minibus.

Over a month into the trip a lot seems to have happened. Straight off the plane at Portland I picked up a pre-booked rental car. My requested “compact” was not available – they never are – so I was offered an upgrade – in this case a V6 Toyota 4WD SUV (sports utility vehicle). Getting out of the city (fortunately not far) was a bit of a trial, but once on the highways it was great – visited some waterfalls and an impressive dam the next day, then drove through some beautiful forest towards Mt. St. Helens, camping in a State Park campground about 50 miles away – as near as you can camp approaching from the west. On the early morning drive in I was able to appreciate the degree of devastation from the 1980 eruption. The blast zone is huge, and within, all the vegetation is relatively young, allowing you some fine views. The visitor centre has a superb movie/computer simulation which gives a realistic impression of the complex series of explosions and avalanches and explains various aspects of the landscape changes. The crater is constantly smoking as new cones build within it. The mountain will grow again and one day erupt – but not in our lifetimes.

The weekend I was at Mt. Ranier National Park was the last public holiday of the summer, so it was very crowded. That hardly detracted from the magnificent scenery and the superb weather. A section of Freeway I had to drive along to get there (I generally tried to keep to the quieter roads) was fairly intimidating. I was at the 65 mph speed limit and everyone (3-lane road) was streaking past me, including heavily laden trucks, virtually bumper-to bumper.

Locals said it’s rare to get three consecutive clear days at Mt. Ranier, but that’s exactly what I got. On my last night the campground was deserted, everyone elsehaving headed back to work/school. On my final walk I came virtually face to face with a black bear. As some people I had passed just before had said they may have seen a cub, I decided to make a detour. Getting between a mother and its young is bad news! Unfortunately I beat a retreat before I thought of taking a photo.

I drove on to Seattle, dropping off my gear, returning the car to Portland, then taking a very pleasant train journey back. In Seattle I stayed with a couple of photographers I’d met in Thailand at the beginning of the year. Seattle has some fine urban bicycle routes, many following closed-down rail corridors; I’ve never seen so many commuting cyclists in a city. With the bike & trailer loaded I made an early morning departure, taking the ferry to nearby Bainbridge Island and covering over 50 miles (80 kms.) on the first day. That done I could travel at a more relaxed pace around the Olympic Peninsula. Though a large chunk of it is National Park, much of the coast is logging country, which means huge trucks. Fortunately, in the busier areas, the main highway has a wide shoulder, so they are generally little bother. Another section of closed railway line is slowly being converted to cycle track, so I was able to get away from the traffic on a few occasions, though in one rough section I had to push the bike & trailer through separately.

I had been warned about the heavy sea mists that cloak the mornings and leave everything soaking, but have only had to contend with a couple so far. Generally the weather was fine or cloudy for the first couple of weeks. When it did rain I discovered that my expensive rain jacket purchased here in the spring was useless after having been machine-washed during the summer.

Raccoons are supposed to be a pest. The size of small dogs, they can sneak up and steal your food, gnaw through bags left outside, and cause general mayhem. They have not bothered me apart from one night when I was blitzed. One dived into my almost-closed trailer to snatch half a dozen muesli-bars, my waist-bag & camera were knocked off the table, and I could hear the scuttling of feet in the darkness all around. Tiny pairs of eyes were reflected in my torchlight as they backed away. Once I had got into my tent to sleep with my bags they gave me no more trouble.

The coastal highway through Washington gives you relatively few ocean views, and many camping spots are inland unless you are prepared to make detours which to a tired cyclist towards the end of the day are just a bit too far. It didn’t matter; I knew that Oregon was going to be different. First I had to cross the 3 &1/2 mile long Astoria Bridge spanning the Colombia River. It’s not only long – it’s high to allow big ships to pass underneath, has no shoulder, is narrow, busy, and pretty exposed and windy. I gritted my teeth, pedalled like hell and tried to ignore the traffic squeezing past.

I zoomed down the other side, off the slip road, and straight into a dedicated bicycle lane. Welcome to Oregon – the most bike-friendly state of the fifty. There is an official Oregon Coast Bike Route for which the state government prints detailed maps showing suggested detours, almost every State Park, National Forest, and local county campground – and there are many of them, shoulder width, and other useful information. However, my main source of information comes from the superb “Adventure Cycling Association” maps – the full set of 5 covering from Vancouver to the Mexican border (I have the middle three). These show also grocery shops, restaurants, motels, additional quiet/scenic alternate routes, distances, etc. I used these in Utah/Colorado during the spring and was very impressed.

Since reaching Oregon the scenery has been often stunning, with the Pacific to my left, and some beautiful forests to my right. Some of the park campgrounds are huge – up to 500 sites – but now autumn is here many are almost empty except for weekends. Of course, on a bike the Oregon government looks after you. There are special “hiker-biker” sections in the State Park campgrounds with no vehicle access, and your meagre $4 includes a timeless hot shower. (Hiker-bikers in Washington pay $14+ extra for a metered 3-minute shower that often doesn’t work, in my limited experience.)

In contrast to the scenery, I’ve found the coastal settlements to be generally bland uninspiring places, commercially geared towards the summer holiday surge. Resorts are sprawling along sections of the coast, as are retirement homes and weekenders for the wealthy Seattle & Portland middle classes. However with the overheated US property market continuing to implode, the level of development will surely slow for a few years.

I’ve met quite a number of other cyclists doing trips of varying distances – most impressive being Damian from Argentina (Alaska to Tierra del Fuego – a 2-year marathon). It isn’t unexpected as this is supposed to be the best time to ride the coast – the window of opportunity between the busy summer traffic and the miserable winter storms. The weather this year has been somewhat unusual along the coast (where hasn’t it been?) and my week of sunny weather was broken a few days ago not only by two days of consecutive rain – but serious rain. On Sunday 2 ½ inches fell – most of it while I was riding – until the road became so awash that I had to stop. As I had packed a wet tent from the night before nothing looked as inviting as the motel signs as I entered Florence. Intermittent rain looks likely to continue for at least another week, though generally showers, and not the heavy storm I had to contend with. The further south I go generally the lower the rainfall.

Some people ride the route staying only in motels along the way I wouldn’t want to, even if my budget was big enough. Though you can travel light, some of the best times of the trip are spent in the campgrounds (assuming that you enjoy and are used to camping), meeting other travellers, seeing wildlife (even raccoons!) , watching the sun set over the Pacific while you are eating or cooking dinner, or just watching the flickering flames of a campfire. However on Sunday all that was forgotten, and I was more than happy to have the heater going full-bore drying out my tent, watching movies on cable TV, making freshly brewed coffee and eating muffins!

I’ll be off tomorrow – back to the coast to continue south. Unfortunately I arrived a week too early. Blues mega-legend B.B. King is doing a concert here in a week’s time, and British veterans Jethro Tull play the night after.

Next news should be from somewhere in California.

Cheers Jeff Holmes

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