My first trip wasn’t nearly as awful as I thought it would be.
My neighbor, Charlie, is a bike rider and had no more interest in climbing St. Helen’s than I, a hiker and street-skater, had in bicycling to Eugene. I was good with this state of affairs, glad that my excursions to the great outdoors were in the wilderness and not on the highway. Why would anyone want to ride a bike all the way to Eugene? Who wants to spend time dodging traffic and ending the day covered in road grime? Spare me, please.
One day Charlie upset our friendly stand-off by climbing St. Helens with me. If Charlie did that just so I would have to go bike touring with him, his arduous gambit was a big success. because now I was honor-bound to do the damn bike trip.
The trade was completely one-sided. Making summit didn’t seem to make the grade for Charlie, who announced his retirement from mountaineering even while standing on top of his first peak, effective the moment we got back to the car. My On the way home from biking to Eugene I was planning my next bike trip.
The Willamette Valley
The valley lies between the Coast Range and the Cascades, extending from Portland to South of Eugene. It is a fertile valley covered with silt deposits from the great Missoula floods and watered by snowmelt from the mountains. The route was the well-marked scenic bikeway that winds through the fields and low hills from Champoeg State Park to Eugene.
Day 1: We started at Champoeg State Park, gateway to the Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway and about 70 miles from Albany, where we planned to spend the night. As a long-time hiker I was not accustomed to thinking in terms of a seventy-mile day but it took only a few hours of biking and a glance or two at my $20 bike computer to realize that seventy miles on a bike is very doable, especially on the relatively flat terrain in the valley. Ten or twelve miles per hour is all it takes. Eight hours of easy pedaling in good conditions would give you a day-radius of 90 miles with time left over to sit and gawk at things.
During my first day I learned that a bicycle is fast enough to get you from one place to another and slow enough for you to have learned a lot about what’s in between. In a car, the landscape rushes by without pausing to say hello but to a biker it reveals itself in a leisurely manner, inviting the pedalist to linger for a moment. On a bike you can hear and smell and touch the world you are traveling through: you are an integral part of the scene and not just a spectator. You might exchange a ‘good morning’ with someone who happens to be at their mailbox as you ride by. You might tag along with a jogger for a few moments, exchanging pleasantries or information on road ahead. Dogs run to the curb to bark at you, defending their turf. A truck approaches from behind and you hold tight to edge of the road. The air whips and buffets as the truck passes by. Watch out for potholes. Put some rhythm in your legs and set a pace for the long haul. Control your respiration as you look around and breathe it all in. Compared to biking, riding in a car is more like an exercise in sensory deprivation.
In a car, you’re in a car. On a bike, you’re somewhere else.
The Willamette Scenic Bikeway is well-marked and runs mainly on back roads past pastures, fields and hops farms , through residential neighborhoods, along main streets and sometimes past places best described as nowhere at all. After lunch in Salem we had a long ride through woodland and fields and late in the afternoon found ourselves in Jefferson, home of The Best Root Beer Float In The World (as judged after biking all day in the sun). The proprietors of Cafe 99 are very friendly and they gave us a short cut into town which saved us several miles of pedaling.
Day 2: The road south of Albany runs through an area of industrial-scale farming: huge fields lush with green crops and gaping expanses of bare, tortured earth awaiting replanting. Long arrays of spray irrigation shoot jets of water into the air, in an exuberant, almost indulgent celebration of water that was in sharp contrast to the severe drought and failed crops throughout the midwest at the time.
The Bikeway passes through Brownsville, an historic little town that has retained a lot of it’s Victorian and Gothic architecture. We had lunch at Kirk’s Ferry Trading Post which is worth a visit, even if you had ate somewhere else. The building has a large, open interior that houses the original log-cabin trading post in Brownsville, circa 1840. The place has live music and dancing in the evenings and the owner told me they wanted to have a wild west show but were having trouble getting the health department to approve horses inside a restaurant. Go figure.
Heading South from Brownsville the bikeway makes a 700-foot gain on Gap road and from that point you can almost see Eugene, an easy 30 miles away.
If Portland is the heart of my own private Oregon, Eugene is the soul. It’s a peaceful mixture of liberals, progressives, rainbow families and big-time college sports in a verdant oasis, set deep in the heart of red-state territory. Eugene is well above the head of navigation on the Willamette river and the bucolic riverfront is surprisingly undeveloped. In some parts you’d think you were far out in the country rather than in the center of a city. The smooth riverfront bike paths and the bike-friendly streets make this town a sort of bicycle Valhalla. We stayed a day to take in the Eugene’s 150th anniversary parade and next day we took Amtrak back to Portland, reversing our route in under three hours.
The trip had been an eye-opening experience in for me. Hiking and climbing was all about mobility in wilderness terrain. Street skating is ideal for moving quickly and deftly through a complicated urban environment that includes streets, paths, plazas and sometimes lobbies and elevators. Biking presented me with a huge extension of my horizon for personal transport and I was eager to head back out as soon as possible.