Monday, December 9, 2013

Thanksgiving Pilgrimage to Bicycle Mecca

The bicycle Meccas of the upper Northwest - Portland and Seattle - were part of my extended Thanksgiving holiday. And lo, the weather gods smiled upon me with cold but rainless days.

But first, Thanksgiving started with coastal walks along Pebble Beach - daytime temperatures in the mid-60s, and clear, with the rare treat of a night sky filled with stars. 

Pebble Beach
The Cycling Yogi and I made a day trip for hiking at Pinnacles National Monument. Leaving the California coastline, the day was close to 80 degrees and the steep uphill climb rewarded us with spectacular views of the unique rock formations. But the highlight for me was clambering through the cool, dark caves at the end of the descent. There is a primal mystery to being in a dark stone cave, conjuring ancient memories of our primitive forebears.


On the way back up the coast to San Francisco, where we would return our rental car, we stopped for a short hike at Henry Cowell state park - a serene grove of redwoods. These enormous old trees never fail to inspire a reverence for the mysteries of nature. Among the strangest observations was the gigantic pine cones that dropped from rather spindly trees at Pinnacles compared to the pine cones of the enormous redwoods, which resembled a mulberry in size and shape.

After a quick dinner with cousins in San Francisco, we flew to Portland, where I had booked us at one of the downtown Kimpton hotels because of their policy of providing free bikes to guests. I had intended to explore some of the city by bike and it seemed like a good deal to pay a little more for a nice hotel and not have to search and pay for a rental bike. I rode a sturdy Public bike in a lovely shade of red. The 3 gears were plenty for Portland's mild hills. The Cycling Yogi and I rode to an Indian restaurant for lunch and then he headed off to his appointments at Portland State University and I went to NE Portland, riding across the Broadway bridge and returning by the Burnside bridge. I ducked under an awning to let a brief rain shower pass and made the requisite visit to Powell's book store, finding a belated Hanukkah gift for my child. Dinner at Thai Peacock provided a chance to catch up with my oldest friend, Amy, who took a selfie of us and posted it on Facebook.

My hotel bike parked at the Alberta Street Co-op
I had come prepared with a pocket map of Portland's bike routes, but ended up mostly winging it. Natives probably know which roads have lanes and sharrows: many do. But I frequently chose the wrong streets, quickly realizing that those with streetcar tracks are not ideal for bikes. My second day was devoted to exploring the Alberta Street area of NE, where I found a nice food co-op. In it I saw a couple that looked like they had stepped out of a Portlandia episode - covered from head to toe in what looked like hand knit garments: hats, sweaters, scarves, leggings, name it. They looked like they might have raised and shorn the sheep, spun and vegetable-dyed the wool, and designed and knit the clothes. That aside, the local hazelnuts were a delicious treat - without a hint of the rancid taste that often taints those found on the East coast.

Despite temperatures in the 40s, there were plenty of folks on bikes, as I expected, given the city's reputation. My next stop was the Mississippi Avenue neighborhood, filled with hip boutiques and artsy shops. I found some fleece-lined leggings, which came in handy during the rest of my trip, when I went further north to Washington. After grabbing lunch from a food cart, we walked to Union Station to catch the train to Seattle.

Decorative railing on Mississippi

West coast Amtrak is slower but more elegant than the Eastern seaboard routes I ride so frequently. First, it's cheap. Our rides cost about $25 each - far less than a ride from DC to Philly, even at the cheapest fares. We were assigned seats and the cars were clean and nearly empty. A train ride from DC to Philly takes 2 hours, whereas driving takes 3-3.5 hours. Going from Portland to Seattle by car takes about 3 hours, but the trip is closer to 4 hours on the train. Nevertheless, the ride was pleasant, with beautiful scenery until the skies darkened around 5 p.m.

We stayed with friends in Seattle, going each morning for a different park walk and returning on our friends' bikes. It was cold - but we dressed for it and the joy of discovering the Interurban bike path, which took us to within blocks of home, surpassed any worries about the temperature. We were told Seattle has had an unusually dry and sunny winter - but much colder than usual. While the temperatures were fine on a dry day, they would have been miserable in the rain.

I was particularly impressed by the bicycle infrastructure in the areas we explored. Lots of protected bike lanes: a two-way bike lane adjacent to the curb, separated from vehicular traffic by a curb or lane markings on the street. They felt very safe, and every driveway that intersected the bike lane was painted green.

Great bicycle infrastructure

My only mishap came from my unfamiliarity with the road bike I'd borrowed. I'm not used to the forward position and the shifters on the brakes took getting used to. Our second morning out, no sooner had I mounted the bike than I got disoriented while moving my hands to a more comfortable position. I was moving slowly, but rode right into a telephone pole, toppling over, bruising my hip, and straining a muscle in - no, no, no - my right shoulder...the one on which I had surgery a year ago. It’s already feeling better, and I hope that in a few days the pain will be gone completely. My bruise is about the size and color of a lovely plum.

From Seattle we drove to Olympia for our last 3 days. It was even colder there, temperatures dipping into the teens at night, but the clear skies allowed magnificent views of Mt. Rainer, usually obscured by overcast sky. Leaving early this morning from Seattle, the plane climbed above the cloud cover. For a few minutes, the tip of Ranier was visible, poking above the clouds, which spread like a soft white sea in the sky, sun shining down upon it.