For all the time my daughter attended The Evergreen State College in Olympia, I talked about riding my bike up from Portland to visit her. I have the dream of one day riding across the United States over the course of a summer, and a ride to Olympia, which I initially estimated at a little over 100 miles, seemed a low-stakes training run, a kind of exploratory sally for this larger dream. Google Maps quickly disabused me of the 100-mile estimate–the distance on a bike is closer to 130 miles–but I toyed with the idea during all of Gloria’s student years.
Now, in late spring of 2016, my daughter is nearly a year out of college and planning to move away from Olympia for good. And so I recognized a few weeks back the familiar sight of my dithering, the ease with which I spin up romantic, poetic dreams and the difficulty I have seeing them through. I realized that if I was going to pay my inner guide any mind, the time to ride out to my daughter was now.
I bought a few supplies–bottle cages, bottles, new cycling gloves–and asked the mechanic at Community Cycling Center to true up my rear wheel, in hopes that the long-suffering rims would roll another 150 miles. “This wheel won’t go another 150 miles,” the mechanic said. “In fact, I advise you to stop riding on it today.” So that weekend, after buying a new hand-built 36-spoke rear wheel, I set off at 6:51 am on May 29 to make a 137-mile ride, ideally in a single day.
Such a ride is about twice as far as I’d ever ridden in a single day. I knew that many people ride the 205-mile Seattle-to-Portland in a single day every year, but generally on unloaded road bikes rather than on cyclocross commuter setups with fenders and racks and stuffed panniers. However, I started with the best attachment to non-attachment that I could muster: either I would finish in a single day or I wouldn’t; I could stop when I got tired and stay in a motel somewhere along the way. The stakes, therefore, were pretty low.
The day was gorgeous, mild and mostly cloudy, with a decent tailwind, and dry for the first 4/5 of the ride. I was anxious because the ride was a journey into the unknown for me: I worried about being run off the road, about being run over by a back-roads pot smoker, about hitting a physiological wall and bonking.
And, as is so often the case in my life, none of what I feared came to pass. I stopped every twenty miles or so to stretch and have a Lara Bar. I was surprised at how well, and how easily, I rode. With very few exceptions, I had generously wide shoulders to ride on, though for many hours I was surprised at how often I had the road to myself for as far as I could see and hear.
In both physical and mental ways, it was easier to ride between the towns than through them: the only wrong turns I took, and the only times I tired of riding–because of the constant starting and stopping–came as I went through Longview and Kelso, Chehalis and Centralia, and very late in the ride going through Tumwater.
I have driven along I-5 from Portland to Olympia dozens of times. And riding along the back-roads–the Westside Highway along the Cowlitz River, Military Road, The Newaukum Valley Road, Old Highway 99–I was rarely more than three or four miles from that motor-clogged artery that is the Interstate. And yet, close as I was to the freeway, I was in a different world: quiet and peaceable, breezy and bird-filled.
The motorist’s view from the Interstate
Some of the places where I-5 had taught me to expect ugliness, like the approach to Chehalis, were beautiful and tranquil and friendly. And, while I rode through some of the most conservative country in the state of Washington, I saw only a single Trump sign along the whole 137 miles.
The view from the bike: at the top of Military Road, between Vader and Napavine
I remember standing in the pedals to get up a short hill at the end of the day and feeling the wonderful deep soreness that comes from a long contest, and I felt a euphoric gratitude that my body had done everything I had asked it to do that day, hour upon hour, for more than 130 miles. I was too tired and out of it to hold the camera steady when I arrived at Capitol Lake, but I managed to snap one blurry shot of the capitol on my arrival, like a personal grainy Loch Ness Monster photo, to show my wife and daughters that I had arrived.
Capitol Lake, after 137 miles in 11.5 hours