Saturday, October 1, 2011

Bike Tour

This summer Sara and I decided to get out on a bike tour. We took the train with our bikes from Portland to Tacoma, rode to my hometown, Port Townsend, where we stayed for a week with my cousins, then rode back to Portland, about 310 miles all told.

We had been talking about such a trip for a while, but needed to find a way to make it work out with our respective work schedules. Not taking any summer classes, I'd picked up some more hours at Clean Edge, and Sara was doing some program development for UC Riverside. Since both of our jobs allowed us to telecommute, we decided to take our laptops and take a working holiday.

Our Trek 520s fully loaded (food, camping gear, clothes, laptops), we set off for the Portland Amtrak station on September 4th for the start of our adventure. After only a little bit of confusion and getting yelled at by some Amtrak folks for riding on the platform, we were on our way. At Tacoma, we were excited to start riding, and immediately faced one of the steepest and longest hills I have ever ridden in my life. Not  the most auspicious start, but after getting to the top of it I took back everything bad I've ever said about the granny gear on a bike.

From there on we rode towards the beginning of the Scott Pierson Trail as suggested by Google Maps bike directions. Now I don't dislike hills - in fact I prefer going up them to down them, and have always thought of myself as a bit of a climber. These hills though, were so pointlessly miserable that getting out of Tacoma was the singular worst experience I've ever had on a bicycle. Up, down, up, down, up, down; you get the picture.

Once we got to the trail, the terrain became more reasonable, and we stopped for lunch at the War Memorial Park just before the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Originally, our plan was to ride the 84 miles to Port Townsend, but the combination of not taking into account how long it'd take to get to Tacoma on the train, and how long it would take to get out of Tacoma, we were hopelessly behind schedule. We decided to just plow ahead and see where we were at when the sun started going down, roughly aiming for the Hood Canal Bridge.

Going over the Tacoma Narrows was a pleasure - there is a huge pedestrian / bike area that is behind a very substantial barrier. There were enough pedestrians and other cyclists out that I didn't get to look around as much as I wanted to, but it was a lovely day, and being anywhere in the Puget Sound puts my heart at ease. On the other side of the bridge we found the Cushman Trail with only a little difficulty (having a spacephone with GPS makes finding trailheads a lot easier, as I was to find out again and again).

The Cushman trail, like the vast majority of trails we took, is paved and took us for a decent distance up the peninsula. Google Bike Directions are pretty good, but they are not the most direct or efficient way to go. We stopped in the early afternoon a little south of Port Orchard and got some food to cook for the evening at a grocery store and decided that there was no chance we were going to make it to the Hood Canal during daylight hours. Neither of us were excited by the prospect of night riding on the small back roads, so I started calling around to campgrounds to see if there was anywhere we could bike in to. There weren't any that were convenient or on our way, so we decided to detour to one NE of Port Orchard.

A few wrong turns later, we were getting punished by some miserable hills, and stopped by a "Welcome to Port Orchard" sign, encouraging visitors to eat at their restaurants and stay in their hotels. By this point, neither Sara nor I needed much convincing, so we decided to sleep indoors that night. It was amazing how much of a second wind that decision gave us; the remainder of the hills just flew by to the door of the hotel.

Now I don't know how much of an economic powerhouse Port Orchard has ever been, but the downtown is largely abandoned, save for a number of pawn shops and bail bond stores. The Comfort Inn was nice enough, and the view was great. A hot shower and a meal of bread, cheese, and rotisserie chicken later, we were quite content.

We got an early start the next day, determined to make it the remaining miles to Port Townsend. It was another beautiful day, and the riding by the Sinclair Inlet was delightful. We made it to Silverdale with little event and had lunch at the Old Mill Park, which was uninspiring, but had bathrooms and water fountains, making it a superb one in my book.

The rest of the peninsula went by smoothly, going down a lot of roads I've never been on. The gates of the Bangor Sub Base were imposing and looked totally deserted, but you know that there had to be eyes somewhere. We joined up with State Route 104 heading towards the Hood Canal Bridge and I was back in my element, having driven that road dozens of times. The bridge itself was very windy and the view didn't fail to deliver, though with the wind and all the crap on the shoulder, I didn't take my eyes off the road much.

On the North side of the bridge I decided to stop paying as much attention to Google Maps; I knew the roads well enough, and I could now see firsthand that it was doing its best to wear us out, send us down unpaved logging roads, and to generally make us vulnerable to cross-traffic. So, onward we plowed on SR104, pounding the hills and our water. We stopped for water when we turned off onto Beaver Valley Road, and later in Chimacum at some farmer's market.

Having driven this route so many times before, I knew all the hills we were coming up to, and was a little scared of the ones my Mazda 323 hatchback struggled to get up. My legs and my 520 turned out to be a better combination, and the hills went by smoothly, thanks in part to some good marching music by Madeon. As a side-note, I wonder if there has been a study on the effectiveness of music on endurance; my guess would be that there is a strong correlation.

We finally got to the outskirts of Port Townsend and turned off on the Larry Scott Memorial Trial, avoiding a dangerous choke point, and took it all the way down to the harbor, including some hard-packed dirt riding. When we first came around the bluff to see the identical blues of the Port Townsend Bay and the sky, I realized why it is my favorite color. We finished off the ride showing up at my cousin's house around dinner time.

We stayed for about a week with the Hanifords, camping in their backyard and working downtown at the Undertown Cafe. My main task was to move Clean Edge's website from a 12 year old php-based CMS to Drupal. Having about 12,000 pages, it was no small task, and I was kept very busy. The week went by, going to work in the morning, walking around and enjoying the sun at lunch, and hanging out in the evenings with Sara and my cousins the Hanifords and Spesers. I began to think of Undertown as "the office", which in a way was too bad, since it is a great cafe, if not a little heavy on the Portland coffee and culture.

The Wooden Boat Festival was in full swing while we were there, and there were hundreds of amazingly made and cared-for boats, as well as a festival atmosphere. The woodworking and craftsmanship that went into the boats was humbling; there were a few 1920 racing sloops that had the most amazing parquet decking. I have never before or since seen such fine woodworking, let alone on a boat!

At the end of the week we took leave of our gracious hosts and started heading south. Wanting to do away with the backroad nonsense of our trip up, Sara and I decided to head down 101 to Olympia, then to follow I-5 to the Colombia River Highway in Longview. The first leg was an easy one, and we camped at Dosewallips State Park. The next day we headed to Olympia.

A bit north of Olympia, 101 turned into a major freeway with cloverleafs and all, not very bike friendly. Google Maps told us to take a road that went just alongside it, West Golden Pheasant Road. As we were going down it, the houses became more and more decrepit, and at one point we passed a vacant lot that had been turned into community a garbage dump. We keep on heading down the road and we pass by a house with a shirtless man out front whose primary occupation seemed to be burning piles of clothing in his front yard. He was chasing some dogs around with a garden rake and I tried not to stare. Then, about 200 feet ahead of us was a dead end and a no trespassing sign.

We turned around, not looking forward to retracing our steps, and headed past the clothes-burning house. The man was staring at us, and then freaked out and started yelling and running towards us with his rake. It turns out that his dogs were bolting towards us at full steam and he was trying to get them back, but we were quickly overtaken. Sara, ever resourceful, pulled out her water bottle and squirted them in the face, giving us the pause we needed to escape. Not seeing any other way around it, we jumped a fence towards 101 South, as many people seem to have done before us, judging by the well-traveled path, and made the best time of the whole trip, practically flying down the freeway.

When we got to Olympia we rode to the house of some friends of my cousins, who we had met in Port Townsend where they had come up for the Wooden Boat Festival. We spent a full day there, as I had some work that had to get done, and headed out the next day towards the Toutle River RV Resort. Not being able to ride on I-5 itself, we criss-crossed it on old roads, going through towns that I've only seen exits for. It was a great ride, with great weather and beautiful countryside.

I had never been in a RV Resort before, but it didn't seem like a bad idea to camp there, as it was a good distance away from Olympia. The Toutle River RV Resort was a bizarre place - they could accommodate hundreds of RVs there, and fortunately for us, the season was over, so we had it mostly to ourselves. The place is basically a triangle, with the train lines on one side, and I-5 on the other, and it was ungodly noisy with freight trains sounding their horns every time they go by. That said, we were happy to be off our bikes, the resort had a little store where we got some wine, and Sara cooked up a delicious dinner, so no major complaints.

Our last day was to head to Longview, over the Lewis and Clark Bridge, and back to Portland on the Colombia River Highway. The ride was fine and we got to Longview and headed towards the border. All the while there was a strange building in the distance - some sort of out-of-place skyscraper in a medium-sized logging town. We got closer and closer and it became apparent that it was the bridge, an absolute mammoth of a thing, spanning the relatively narrow Colombia River with enough height to allow freighters to go underneath. The bridge is very unfriendly to bikes, having a fast speed limit, an endless number of logging trucks, an incredibly steep grade, and a narrow shoulder littered with bark. If that wasn't enough, they were also painting the bridge, so there were tarps boxing most of the superstructure in, adding paint fumes and diesel exhaust to the mix.

On the descent, suddenly a piece of tarp broke free and whipped into the road, hitting Sara, and I thought for sure that she'd fall, but she stayed up like a champ, swerving around some paint buckets that were left in the shoulder. Besides the bridge, the rest of the ride went by very smoothly, and we rounded out the day at just over 90 miles traveled, and could have gone for quite a few more.

The tour was a great experience - it was the longest tour I've done, and my equipment did me proud. Neither of us got a single flat the whole trip! I had even chosen to break in a new Brooks saddle on the ride, (and I don't know why everyone warns against it) and I did just fine. All in all, I can't wait to go on another tour!

For more and larger photos, see here.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Year in Review

This past year has gone by at a snail's pace, having Sara away, but it has also been very full with school, work, and organizing for polo.

School is going well - I am in to my second term (out of a total 12 for the Bachelors of Mechanical Engineering) and I can't express enough the advantages of going back to school as an adult. Everything, from study habits, to critical thinking, to seeing the overall worth of the education I'm getting, is so much fuller as an adult. Looking back on when I got my first degree, I was just some dumb kid trying to do as little as possible to get the best grade possible; it is true that you get out of your education what you put in.

The biggest challenge that I've had in school is accepting that some instructors have a teaching style that doesn't mesh with mine, or more to the point, are just terrible at what they do. Fortunately, by now, I've gotten over myself, and decided that it is up to me to learn the material; if I have a good instructor, it is an unexpected bonus.

As far as classes go, I'm in the calculus series, which is fairly straightforward. Chemistry is absolutely fascinating; it is one of those classes that I never took in high school or college, but as a "science fan", I'm familiar with many of the concepts. Familiar doesn't cut it though, and actually going through the atom one piece at a time is creating a much fuller understanding of how the world works. For the ME degree, I don't have to take more than two terms of chemistry, but I have a feeling that I will take the third in the series out of interest. If it continues to give me an understanding of what is going on in the background for things like electricity, the properties of metals, etc., my time will be well spent.

The other classes I've been taking are in the engineering department. I don't have much to say about them, as they are very lower-level (Wood is a material. It can be used for building structures.). The best part has been doing drafting by hand, which we spent about two weeks on. I've always wanted to be able to draw better without a computer, and short of a drawing class, drafting is a good first step.

I've been working part time with Clean Edge, a clean-tech market research firm, which is turning out to be perfect for this transition phase of mine. Clean Edge is very flexible as far as when I do my work, being a telecommuting-friendly company, so I get a lot of my work done at school between classes, at night, or on the weekends. I consider myself very lucky to be able to continue my career (marketing / communications in the clean-tech sector) while working towards a new career (mechanical engineering in the clean-tech sector).

Polo is the only part of my life that I haven't been able to make enough time for. Fortunately I've still been able to be involved, even if it is on the administrative side, rather than on the playing side. Most of my efforts have been in organizing and normalizing Portland Bike Polo's relationship with the parks department. This has been going quite well, and I hope to continue to grow that relationship. We are also looking into non-profit status, recently won a bid to host a major tournament, formed an alliance with other hockey-type sports, and have received city approval for the ongoing improvement and maintenance of our main polo court.

Finally, Sara got back last week (for good!), and I couldn't be happier.


Sunday, February 6, 2011

I have a bike polo cameo in the Portlandia intro!