The day I was to leave Vancouver for America dawned grim and rainy and I took rather longer dragging myself out of the front door of my friend’s than I perhaps should have. My plan was to ride as close to the Canada/US border as I could and camp on the Canadian side allowing me to cross over as early as possible. As the border was only 30 miles I didn’t think it would take me too long and I would have plenty of time to do it.
As is often the case I was wrong. What I expected to be a jaunt through town, on nice cycle paths, turned into an intermittently wind and rain swept odyssey on a variety of terrain. It started off OK, just slightly miserable, then I rode into the Delta Nature Reserve and off sealed roads and onto a muddy track. At times it was some of the worst riding I’ve done on the trip with the road becoming a pond, at one point with water several inches high. I almost got a small log stuck in my spokes as well as it sprung up out of a puddle.
It was also getting darker a lot earlier than I had expected cutting my riding time right down. In the park I rode onto a side path made of decking to see if there was a spot I could pitch my tent up at. There was not and I managed to slide the bike out from under me on the slick wood.
I was not having a good time. I was wet, cold, having trouble to find a camping spot and to cap it all I knew I was not that far from the warmth and dry of my friend’s apartment. The Nature Reserve seemed to be going on for a long way as well and my bike was getting very muddy. This always annoys me but it was even worse as this was the first time I had ridden it since I got it serviced.
I was tempted to just turn around and head back to central Vancouver but felt the effort to do that would now make me even more unhappy.
Then I saw a potential piece of grass to camp on, that was on the right side of a no trespassing fence. So I decided to pitch up there before it got too dark to see.
Once I was warm and dry in my tent things started to look up, even though I was about 14 miles behind where I had wanted to be!
The next morning it was a bit more pleasant but still very wet. My tent as usual was soaking and I knew I’d have to make an attempt at drying it later. As I rode for the border it was occasional sunshine mixed with sharp rainy squalls, which was better than permanent rain. I managed to ride on a highway which I’m not sure was open to cyclists or not, it made the journey a bit quicker anyway.
I was quite nervous about the US border as they have something of a reputation for not always being the most welcoming. I was also crossing by land by bicycle which is a little unusual and I wasn’t sure if not having a return ticket would be an issue.
I had, in part, had my hair cut and beard shaved off in order to look less like a hobo when making the crossing.
In the end I needn’t have worried, the border official who processed me had a beard himself and didn’t seem too bothered that I was on a bicycle, he was somewhat incredulous of my plans though but not enough to stop me entering. I was shocked that no one even checked my bicycle over and in the end it was one of the easiest non EU border crossings I have made, if not the easiest.
I was now in the USA and I had 90 days to get across it under the Visa Waiver Programme. I could feel these 90 days like a weight as I had about 5000 miles to do in this time, following the route I wanted. I was thus on a schedule and I was hoping I would be able to keep it. It didn’t help that I was already behind as I had arrived at the border about three hours later than I wanted.
Riding into the US things got worse as I hit a strong headwind that felt like it was trying to push me back into Canada.
I had to get my head down and work on trying to put some miles in.
Riding in the States felt very different from Japan, like when I passed into Turkey from Europe, there was a sense of size and distance stretching off. This must partly be as the roads were a lot bigger, in fact everything was bigger: roads, houses, cars and people.
At a bike shop I stopped at to borrow a tool, the mechanic informed me there was a wind advisory that would be in place for three days and that going south was not going to be fun. This drained a bit more energy out of me as it meant my first days in America would be hard going.
It also sounded like camping would be pretty unpleasant in the wind. So when I next found WiFi I decided to try and find a warmshowers host to take me that night. It was a long shot but it seemed worth a try. In the end I got lucky, I was able to get hold of Gene by phone and he was kind enough to agree to take me. Things in America were looking up!
I was still quite a way away from Gene’s place down the coast and so I set out to make it. The ride was very lovely in parts taking me round the coast on the beautiful Chuckanut Drive. Unfortunately as I rode night closed in and before I arrived I was cycling in full dark. I was, as I have been a few times on this trip, very thankful for the strength of my front light.
The night was getting thoroughly unpleasant with strong gusty winds and sharp cold rain, the only thing keeping me going was the hope of somewhere dry at the end of it.
I finally managed to reach Gene and his wife Lida’s place, late enough that they weren’t sure if I was coming or not. Gene was even thoughtful enough to have driven out to look for me, sadly I was on a different road.
I was really glad I had taken the chance to call Gene; his home was lovely and homely and it felt good to be back in a house like that after so long on the road. I felt very welcome there and it was very interesting talking with him and Lida. It had been a long time since I had been able to have a proper flowing conversation with a host in their native country. I also picked up some interesting reminders that while the UK and the US have a lot of cultural common ground there are some very pronounced differences. Attitudes to guns are of course one of the main places where the UK and US are very different. I knew gun ownership was prevalent in the States but speaking to Gene it became clear that I hadn’t realised just how prevalent. Gene himself was a multiple gun owner and it was as natural to him as owning a kettle or a television.
What shocked me the most was that he would carry a gun when he went cycle touring and that this was perfectly legal. Coming from the UK where even the police don’t carry guns as a matter of course this seemed incredible. In the end I guess it is similar to my carrying Mace for use on dogs when I was in Turkey and Central Asia. I didn’t want to have to use it and indeed didn’t but if it was me or the dog it was getting a face full of spray.
The main thing I took away from staying with Gene and Lida was the confidence that people in the US were going to be as kind and generous as in almost every other country I had visited.
The next morning the weather had broken and it was beautiful sunshine and not windy at all. It appeared that the weather in Washington was as changeable as in the UK.
I rode off from Gene and Lida’s towards Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands so I could take a ferry a short hop to Port Townsend in order to skip the busy area around Seattle. I briefly passed through a Reservation, easily identifiable by the large casino operating there. Many native American tribal groups run casinos as the complicated US gambling laws make it easier to do so there.
The road through the islands was very beautiful and peaceful apart from the occasional jet passing overhead on manoeuvres.
They really are incredibly noisy.
I eventually reached the ferry and boarded this to cross over to Port Townsend and the Olympic National Park Area. The ferry was only about $3 and was a very nice trip across what I think was the start of Puget Sound.
By the time the ship docked in Port Townsend it was already fairly late in the evening and already the sun was thinking about setting. To be fair the sun starts to think about setting at 15:00 this time of year.
So as I set out I knew that I would have to start thinking about camping soon. Unfortunately I had gotten used to camping in Japan. There you can pitch up pretty much anywhere if you are able to find a flat unused bit of land. In America it is almost the opposite there are flat unused bits of land everywhere – beautiful bits of grass all over the place. Unfortunately most of them have signs up on the variation of No Trespassing or are fenced in. This makes camping a bit harder and I discovered very frustrating.
I was also perhaps being a bit picky wanting to grind out a few extra miles and in the end this led to me riding until it was full dark. This makes finding a camp spot even harder. I almost pitched up in a spinney but decided I’d never get to sleep on the bumpy ground. I also got the courage up to knock on a door and ask if they knew if I could camp in the big empty field across the way: apparently not.
In the end I found a bit of sort of flat land in the middle of the space created by the slip road where two highways met. It was certainly one of the most exposed spots I have camped in and I felt a bit nervous to start with.
It wasn’t quite as uncomfortable as I had expected when I pitched up and spent quite a restful albeit chilly night. The night was clear as a bell and I could see thousands of stars.
Sadly the clear night meant a cold morning. A really cold morning in fact, shown when I got up by there being a reasonably thick layer of ice on my tent. The temperature had dropped l like a rock in the night creating condensation which then froze. My bike was also frozen up and I was a bit nervous about riding with ice on my rims!
This was only the second time I had woken to a frozen tent – when I had camped in the freezing temperatures of the desert it had been a lot drier.
My hands were thus like ice as I started off and it took me quite a while to get some feeling into them as I rode and the sun rose.
It wasn’t too long and I was riding along and down the Hood Canal, a natural fjord, with many picturesque villages lining it.
At one of the first villages I came to I stopped at the community centre where everyone was very kind. They had free Wifi and they let me fill my water bottles. A couple approached me to ask where I was riding and kindly gave me their card in case I had any emergencies.
When I stopped for lunch I saw salmon starting to swim upstream to spawn. It was really strange to be just sitting there and to see the start of one of the natural world’s incredible journeys.
Carrying on, at another town I saw a bunch of people doing their best to stop the fish getting back to their spawning grounds. They were standing in the water to fish for their supper.
As the day wore on I came to the end of the fjord and rode into some dense forest land.
This felt very much like the wilderness to me. There was a rugged, pioneer quality to it. This was probably in my head as it’s likely that the woods had been harvested and replanted many times since the area had been settled.
As I rode I again became aware that I would have to start thinking of camping soon. That said I was more prepared now and had a better idea how long I could leave it – while the sun would set fairly early there was still a fairly long period when the sun’s light still hung in the sky.
I rode on and saw a few possible places I could pitch up but nothing that really said to me “I am your campsite for the night”
Then I came upon a few houses and saw a man on a sit on mower, as I passed he waved and smiled. I was just going to carry on but then I thought that I needed a bit of water and I could ask about camping. So I pulled up and turned round and ended up meeting Rich. Rich was up in the area to check over his in law’s house and mow the lawn and when I asked for water he was happy to oblige. Then when I asked if there was somewhere to camp he offered me a place indoors to sleep, clothes washing, a hot shower and dinner. I’d gone from camping in a bush to pure cycle touring luxury all because of one man’s kindness. I was a bit taken aback at first and must have appeared a touch slow as I tried to process this reversal of fortune.
Rich wasn’t staying in the house that night and told me to come over to the trailer next door. When he said trailer I was expecting a small caravan type thing and that I’d just be camping outside. I was totally wrong, the ‘trailer’ was in fact a mobile home and was definitely more home than mobile by that point. It was bigger than a lot of the places I have lived in and I would bet had better plumbing! After he made sure I was all comfortable Rich took me for dinner at the Mexican in the nearby town.
I ended up having a great evening as we hung out and even watched a bit of Red Dwarf a British sitcom I used to watch when I was young.
The next day Rich got up early and made pancakes before seeing me off fully restored for my journey.
Riding out out the day was a bit overcast and showers were threatening but never really materialised. I cycled through the town where I’d had dinner the night before and then I was back in the forests.
Thankfully no storm materialised that day or indeed any tsunamis.
So I kept on riding, sometimes running right on the coast and sometimes set back a little way. At one point a man came after me in his car to advise me not to take the short cut that googlemaps was recommending to me as the road was awful. So I headed back and took the slightly longer route round trough South Bend, self proclaimed Oyster Capital of the World.
That night I was planning on camping again and rode through some areas with no houses clearly visible from the road. I went past a couple of good spots, not feeling quite ready to stop yet. Until I came to a house on its own. It didn’t have No Trespassing signs all over the place and it had some flat bits of land obvious from the road so I thought I’d take a chance and ask to camp there.
The owner, Cody, looked in his early twenties and seemed young to be out on his own living in that place. He was initially slightly wary of me as you would expect but was happy for me to camp on his land after a few moments thought.
So I pitched up, having a chat with him before he headed out for the night.
I started off early the next morning and rode down towards the Columbia River and partly onto the route followed by Lewis and Clark when they were searching for the Northwest Passage.
It was easy to see how tough this must have been without the luxury of a road to ride along.
I had to cross the Columbia river on the 4 mile long Astoria Bridge, which seemed to go on for ever.
The bridge was so long that I rode clear into another state while I was on it. I rode from Washington to Oregon and thus had ridden all the way across my first state.
The rest of the days riding along the Oregon Pacific Coast was a real treat. I saw some pretty towns like Cannon Beach and some really phenomenal views from the top of bluffs as I rode on down Oregon’s section of Highway 101.
Earlier in the day I had got in touch with a Warmshowers host who had agreed to host me that night so I had a target to reach and one that was quite a way away. So I was trying to ride as hard as possible which was tough with so many beautiful views to see.
Then the sun set, as beautifully as I’d seen anywhere else. This was one advantage of riding into the night!
Carrying on I eventually reached Bruce, my host’s place. Luckily it wasn’t too hard to find even in the dark.
Bruce was really welcoming from the start. He had dinner and a cold beer waiting when I arrived and some more great conversation. Bruce had recently returned from riding all 48 US states in just over five months – about 10,000 miles and quite an achievement.
Again Bruce surprised me, as Gene had, by saying that he cycle toured with a gun on him. I was starting to wonder if I needed one!
The next morning I headed off after a good breakfast for the town of Newport where I was planning on spending my first rest day in the States. With the past couple of day’s hard riding I was back on target for distance and felt a bit more at ease.
It was a lovely day’s ride with mixed terrain. Part of the day was spent passing through some beautiful forests before I was once again riding along the coast.
I even got to see a whale, which was pretty exciting even though it was fairly indistinct.
The wind really came up as I reached my destination and I was glad to check into the cheapest motel I could find. Which still felt ridiculously expensive to me.