Archive for August, 2010

Mexico-Alaska Part I Summary (Cancun to Seattle)

Monday, August 9th, 2010

After a day of errands in Seattle, I flew back home on June 4th and set out to finish writing up the stories in my blog.

This trip was longer and bigger than our 2007 NYC-SF tour and more varied in terms of terrain, weather, and culture.  I beat my previous records in distance per day (148 miles), speed (49.3 mi/hr), overall distance (4,819 miles / 7,754 km), and duration (76 days).  Biggest uphill:  Panamint Range in Death Valley National Park.

MM cycled 19 days and 1,107 miles, of which 8 days and 423 miles were in Mexico.

Here are some additional stats for those who asked:

  • Avg. daily distance (excl. rest days)*: 72 mi (116 km)
  • Avg. daily distance (incl. rest days)*: 65 mi (105 km)
  • Avg. riding days between rest days: 8.5
Longest days:
  • 148 miles! – day 46, Flagstaff, AZ
  • 113 mi – day 35, Midland, TX
  • 105 mi – day 33, Menard, TX
  • …in addition, there were many days over 90 miles.
Shortest days:
  • 29 mi – day 41, Magdalena, NM — due to strong headwind and a FedEx screw-up
  • 30 mi – day 58, Panamint Springs, Death Valley, CA — rode over the enormous Panamint Range
  • 36 mi – day 45, St. Johns, AZ — due to fear of frostbite because of below-freezing night after 3 snow storms and inability to dry clothes

Free vs. paid accommodations:

  • In Mexico:
    • 1 free hotel night
    • 24 nights in hotels or guest rooms (paid but pretty cheap)
  • In the U.S.:
    • 26 nights camping or staying with friends
    • 24 nights in hotels/motels
Seven rest days (not cycling):
  • Day 4, Merida, Yyucatan
  • Day 11, Ciudad del Carmen, Campeche
  • Day 22, Tampico, Tamaulipas
  • Day 31, San Antonio, TX
  • Day 42, Magdalena, NM
  • Day 55, Las Vegas, NV
  • Day 65, Black Rock Desert, NV
* A couple of days do not count due to non-ride-related delays: one day in Merida spent waiting for Masha’s plane stuck in NYC; the day we rode to Seybaplaya was spent mostly dealing with family issues in NYC.

Day 76 (6/2): I’m in Seattle. Going home.

Saturday, August 7th, 2010

Seattle is ~75 miles away and I should be there tonight. As the day rolls on, I know I’m getting close to Puget Sound by the sheer number of towns and the steadily thickening traffic.

I’ve decided to pause the trip and return to New York.  The decision has been brewing for a while as I’ve been increasintly needed back home.  The second leg, Seattle-Prudhoe Bay, will be a piece of unfinished business for later. No regrets about not reaching Alaska in one shot.  Seattle is a respectable 2/3 of the way there and getting here has been an unforgettable adventure.

To make this last day more memorable, I opt to avoid the urban jungle between Olympia and Seattle and instead will ride to the western shore of the Sound and take a ferry directly to the city.

Normally each day there’s somewhat of a need to rush to keep the trip on pace.  Today is different.  I want to stretch this last day as much as possible, so I take my time enjoying the scenery.  The road gives me a parting gift:  I come to a dip in the hills and am presented with a fantastic view of Mount Olympus. On the other hand, now that the decision to go home has been made, I’m eagerly anticipating seeing my family and friends.

The weather has cleared but yesterday’s rain has left Blue Pony covered in mud and it drives me nuts.  Got to find a place to wash him before Seattle.  First, my friends from business school, Jay and Tonia, have graciously agreed to host me at their place downtown and I don’t want to get it dirty.  Also important:  I’ll be getting a bike shop to ship the bike to New York and I’ve learned that if you give them a dirty bike, they may treat it with less care than it deserves.

Day 75 (6/1): Montesano, WA

Friday, August 6th, 2010

When I cross the Columbia via the giant, 4-mile-long Astoria-Megler bridge, Washington welcomes me with the rainiest day of the  trip.  Not a dry minute today!  Luckily Highway 101 is flatter in Washington than back in Oregon.  Less hill climbing means a more comfortable (cooler) ride when all zipped up against the elements.

This weather finds a flaw in my clothing system.  After 3-4 hours, water has gradually seeped through my shoes and soaked my feet.  Now they slosh unpleasantly.  I’m amazed, however, at how good I’ve become at disregarding physical discomfort.  I’m enjoying the ride and paying no attention to my feet.

The light is flat and gray, making it hard to tell time.  Normally I like to have a rough idea of time to set my pace, but today I don’t care.  I’m still on Highway 101, but it’s empty and remote here in southwest Washington, so natually I enjoy it very much despite the complete lack of grand ocean views like Oregon’s.  I’m floating through a sea of green.

Water is abundant all around — as soft pillows of fog on the hills; as streams and rivulets flowing, seeping, oozing everywhere; as crystal droplets suspended on leaves and grass blades; and of course, as rain.  It nurtures a dense, overgrown jungle of grasses, wild berries, birch, maple, and tall stands of magestic spruce, hemlock and fir.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that not far from here, on Olympic Peninsula, lies the largest temperate rain forest in the U.S. (Hoh Rain Forest).  I consider doing a loop around the Olympics, but deside against it because it’s a big detour (two-three days) and because I’ve already been there a couple of times.

When I pass some pastures I notice with surprise that cows pay no attention to me, though earlier in the trip my bike would often scare cows away or at least give them a start.  Then it hits me: the 101 is a big cycling destination, so the cows simply have become used to bikes!

Signs of logging activity (mostly by the paper giant Weyerhauser) become more frequent.  Whole hillsides have been stripped of forest.  The scarred hills show various stages of regrowth:  from swaths of ugly stumps to young, 10-20-year-old stands of fir that have by now fully concealed the former devastation.  When I pass the stumpy hills I feel acutely alone, as if I’ve entered a room supposedly full of friends and have found it empty.

The road crosses a few sloughs and smal rivers.  They snake motionlessly in their wide floodplains as evening begins to descend on the Evergreen State.  I’m staying in Montesano, one day’s ride from Seattle.

Day 74 (5/31): Last day in Oregon

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

Rain drums on my tent through the night.  It’s warm, dry, and incredibly cozy inside — I’ve taken care to pitch the tent perfectly — and I wake up fully refreshed.  The rain has stopped but the breeze from the ocean still shakes drops off branches, making it sound like it’s still raining lightly.

It’s a monochrome morning.  The Pacific is the color of steel.  White fog has settled on Cape Lookout.  Black bastions of hemlock create a very stark, Nordic look.  This reminds me of the first battle scene from “Gladiator”, where the Romans battle the Germanic barbarians.

My injured snail, fighting for his life throughout the night, has crawled down the tree and reached the ground.  He has left a slimy trail.  I’m glad he survived and yet I manage to inadvertently run him over with my bike, this time for good.  Talk about wrong time and place!

As I ride the ten miles to Tillamook for breakfast, the color palette deepens in the newly beginning drizzle.  In addition to the earlier grays, there are now all shades of green; they are succulent, bright, fresh.  I’m wearing my fancy new waterproof clothing, but even so it’s hard to find a comfortable temperature balance.  I’m dry but unpleasantly hot.

I win a free cup of cappuccino in Tillamook by unscrambling the word “ubiquitous”.  The cafe owner thought it was a hard word, but the ‘q’ gave out the ‘qui’; the ‘o’, ‘u’, and ’s’ gave out the ending; the rest was easy.  The morning gets even more pleasant when a couple pays for my breakfast.  They pay without even telling me and I barely have time to run out and shout my thanks as they’re about to round the corner.

My attitude toward the Pacific Coast Highway is readjusting.  I had set my expectations too high but now understand the highway for what it is:  a long, congested, beautifully forested mountain road with long stretches of boring flat fishing/tourist countryside and a few really nice ocean views.  The variety is what makes it overall an enjoyable place to bike.  Still, I probably wouldn’t do its whole length.

An older German couple in a colorful Cruise America RV pull up to me at a Cannon Beach overlook.  We strike up a conversation and I give them some pointers for what to check out down south (among them the North Umpqua Gorge, of course!).  As they’re about to pull out, they suddenly stop, the man runs up and gives me a muffin.  They pull out and stop again.  Now the woman comes out with two big strawberries, ”Here, take this for your legs.  One for your right leg, one for your left!”

Riding through a couple of tunnels.  The second one has a safety mechanism for cyclists.  You hit a button on the approach and a big flashing “Bicycle in Tunnel” sign come on.  But I don’t feel like interrupting my nice downhill roll so I fly through the tunnel without engaging the sign.  In any case the tunnel is safe — short (~300 m) and brightly lit.  It’s cool and damp inside; water drips from the ceiling.

Overcast sky.  Heavy clouds threaten to unleash a storm all day, but never do until right after I reach Astoria and settle in at the attractively named “Lamplighters” motel.  My window looks out onto the impressive Astoria-Megler Bridge.  I can see the dark headlands of Washington across the mouth of the huge, 4-mile-wide Columbia River.

Today I crossed the 45th parallel, the midpoint betwen the equator and north pole.

Day 73: Cape Lookout

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

It’s a brand new day and my sadness about the RVs is gradually dulling, but the 101 continues to disappoint.  Now I see the ocean just 5% of the time.  Businesses, malls everywhere. It’s like being on Route 1 in the urban south Connecticut.  The traffic is heavy, especially between Newport and Lincoln City, but surprisingly, cycling feels safe.  The highway is popular among bike tourists, so drivers have become aware of us and are patient.  Plus there are ample signs (“Share the road” and so on).

I’m trying hard to raise my mood and what eventually helps is concenrating on the physical process of pedaling.  The sustained exertion feels good, even refreshing and stimulating.  The weather is great and the few ocean views are indeed gorgeous, especially when going over a “head” (or cape).

Several southbound cyclists (or groups of cyclists) come my way.  At first they are a novelty and we stop and chat.  But eventually stopping gets tedious and instead I just wave hello and pedal on.  Most cyclists are doing the 101 by itself, not as part of a longer tour.  Some groups are all-girls.  They are sweaty, red-cheeked, bright-eyed.  It’s sexy.

Late afternoon.  It begins to rain.  Three Capes Scenic Loop veers off from the 101 and hugs the ocean shore.  It’s a remote detour, but tired of all the traffic I take it and it does not disappoint.  The steep and winding forest road climbs over big capes and brings back echoes of the North Umpqua Gorge scenery.

I’ll be spending the night camping in tall conifers at Cape Lookout State Park.  The dark forest — hemlocks? — is inhospitable and even scary in the rainy night, but there are a few other cyclists camping nearby and I feel safe.

While locking my bike to a tree I notice that the cable has squished a big snail.  I quickly move the cable aside.  The poor thing is moving, but a deep crease runs across his back and there’s a big hole in his head.  Unfortunately it does not look like an eye or any other natural orifice.  Really sorry, little guy! I hope you survive and recover.

Day 72 (5/29): Pacific Coast Highway — so far a disappointment…

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

Finally I’m on the world-famous Pacific Coast Highway (the 101)! Many tout it as America’s most beautiful drive.  I’ve dreamed of cycling it for years; even hung a magazine photo of one scenic stretch on the wall above my desk.

When I get out of my tent this morning, the people who shared their campsite with me tell me that the campground host wanted to see me.  I presume it’s about payment.  But I didn’t occupy a separate site, so I leave without paying.

Heavy traffic.  A large proportipon of it motor homes of all shapes, sizes, and configurations. A few are the colorfully decorated Cruise America rentals, but most seem privately owned. I am amazed at their numbers; it’s as if everybody on the West Coast owned one and suddenly got out on the road.  Owning an RV is a pretty foreign concept to me.  You don’t see many of them back East.

If you look at a map of Oregon, you’ll see that the coast is peppered with campgrounds.  By Saturday night they are all full for the Memorial Weekend.  However, I’m on a bicycle and that puts me in a privileged class: state campgrounds have “hiker/biker” areas for non-motorized travelers.  These spots are never full.  No reservation needed.

I find the famous highway disappointing.  Expected to be riding days on end through death-defying hairpin turns hundreds of feet above a roaring ocean.  Though a few stretches do cling to massive cliffs and “heads”, a good 60-70% of today’s ride is through boring, flat, densely populated tourist towns.  For all the hype about the PCH, there are much more scenic coasts out there, for instance the Amalfi coast in Italy.  Today’s ride can barely be considered scenic compared to many other places I’ve seen on this trip, like Arizona, Utah, and the Cascades.

I stop for the night at the hiker/biker area of the South Beach state campground.  Predictably, all 270 sites of the huge campground are occupied by 270 RVs.  It feels really nice to bike in right past the “campground full” sign!

The place is lively, with voices and campfires everywhere, but a strange thing:  when I come out of the shower I’m struck by total silence.  It’s a little past 11 p. m. but all fires are out, music off, nobody in sight.  I close my eyes and feel like I’m alone in the middle of a forest.  How painful!  A Russian campground would have been alive 24 hours a day.  I feel pity for these people who are just brave enough to enjoy nature from the window of an RV on a paved campground and even turn in all at once at 11 p.m.  I pass no judgment; it’s their lives.

But I do take issue with two things in this picture:  (1) the fact that these people bring their children with them and teach them this perverted view of the outdoors; and (2) their environmental impact: just imagine a Greyhound-bus-sized motor home that is carrying a family of 2-4 people and even dragging an SUV (or sometimes the other way around).

Our ability to enjoy nature up-close is one of the greatest God-given gifts.  Disregarding this gift and fouling it up like this is sinful.

I go to my tent in the foulest of moods.  Beginning to hate this place…

Day 71: The Pacific!

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

I’m back to civilization, with all its traffic and non-scenic scenery, but it feels nice:  I don’t have to worry about water and food for a change.  I’m down to 400 feet above sea level, so it’s warm.  For the first time since Death Valley I’m wearing only shorts.   It even smells like summer.  The grass is long, leaves green, sun bright.  A light breeze is pushing me gently forward.

I cross a bridge over my old friend the North Umpqua. The river is still lively here, but wider and calmer than yesterday.  Soon it flows into the mighty Umpqua and the big sister subdues it altogether.  The Umpqua will take me west the remaining 25 miles to the Pacific.  The road hugs one of the big river’s heavily forested tall banks.  But yesterday’s dramatic scenery is gone.  The banks are not as steep and craggy.  The river is wide and calm, with an occasional stretch of lazily gurgling shallows. The Umpqua is up to 400-500 meters wide at its mouth in the town of Reedsport.

The west-bound lane is swollen with a million RVs and pickups pulling trailers loaded with ATVs.  It’s Friday, the start of the Memorial Day weekend and the Oregon Coast tourist season.  Throngs of offroaders are converging on the Winchester Bay sand dunes.   (I learn about the dunes later, but now I’m annoyed with the herds and intrigued by their ATVs.)

When I arrive in Reedsport I decide to turn south to Winchester Bay, counter to my northbound plan.  The ocean is just a couple of miles from here as a crow flies, but people tell me that if I continue north, the nearest beach access is 20 miles away, near Florence.

But getting to the ocean proves difficult.  It’s as if an invisible wall has risen between me and the shore.  People give me conflicting directions.  I sense unfriendly vibes from the locals, at times in the form of feigned ignorance, at times as misinformation, and at times as attempts to discourage me from going to the beach.  The tourists — the campgrounds are filled with the drunk ATVers — are friendly but genuinely ignorant.

The directions I get range from, “You can’t camp on the beach and all campgrounds are full for Memorial Day” to “There’s no beach access down this road,” to “The ocean comes inland half a mile up this road” (Wrong:  it’s the bay, not the ocean).

The night complicates my search and I almost concede that I should try again in the morning.  But heck no!  I didn’t bike 4,450 miles to reach the Pacific and just go to sleep without seeing it.  I can actually hear the waves crashing so painfully close.

My travels have taught me to double check directions by asking other people — unless my gut tells me that the person truly knows what he’s talking about.  Most often wrong directions come from well-wishing folks who are convinced that they are right, but are clueless.  For instance, two days ago a store keeper just east of Cascade Pass insisted that the pass was after Diamond Lake and even tried to prove it to me on a map, though the map was actually showing the pass as located before the lake.  And the places in question are just 15 miles from where the guy lives!  I’ve learned to nod, say thanks, and follow my own judgment.

Anyway, after two hours of circling around in the dark I finally find the beach.

Surprise:  instead of mighty cliffs like those I’d seen on Olympic Peninsula up in Washington and was expecting to see here, the beach is more like the flat, sandy Atlantic shore of Fire Island, New York.  The only difference is that things are a little bigger here:  the dunes and waves are taller, the beach wider, and there are more rows of surf breaks.  And the sky is a little darker and starrier.

But something else makes this place truly surreal in the night.  The Umpqua Lighthouse, on the side of a low hill behind me, casts an unusual triple signal.  One red and two white lights, unevenly spaced, illuminate the hill like the slow moving rays of a giant disco ball.  The engines and headlights of the ATVs zooming all over the dunes make things even stranger.

I easily find a campground with plenty of unoccupied spots, but the keeper is not there, so I find some people sitting around a fire and piggyback on their campsite.  After all, all I have is a small tent and I don’t need hookups.

I’ve left Roseburg and am riding north on highway 99, part of the densely populated I-5 corridor.  There are towns, cars, people everywhere but it feels nice:  I don’t have to worry about water and food for a change.  It’s warm; I’m just 400 feet above sea level.  For the first time since Death Valley I’m wearing only shorts.   It even smells like summer.  The grass is long, leaves green, sun bright.  A light wind pushes me gently forward.

I cross a bridge over my old friend the North Umpqua.  It’s still lively here, but wider and calmer than yesterday.  Soon it flows into the mighty Umpqua and the big sister subdues it altogether.  I turn off onto Hwy. 138 again, but not for long.  It joins with Hwy. 38 and is similarly extinquished.  The Umpqua will take me the remaining 25 miles west to the Pacific.  The road hugs the side of the big river’s heavily forested gorge.  But yesterday’s dramatic scenery is gone.  The banks are not as steep and craggy.  The river is wide and calm, with an occasional stretch of lazily gurgling shallows. The river is up to 400-500 meters wide at its mouth in the town of Reedsport.

The west-bound lane is filled with a million campers pulling trailers loaded with ATVs.  It’s Friday, the start of the Memorial Day weekend and the Oregon Coast summer tourist season.  Throngs of offroaders are converging on the famous Winchester Bay sand dunes.   (I learn about the dunes later, but now I’m intrigued and a little annoyed at the excessive traffic.)