my bike trip

July 15-20, 2004

[Update June 2008. If you do something like this, please don't take my gear list as advice. Take it as information, do your own thinking, and you can do much better. Also I recommend sprouted crackers instead of nut bars.]

Why is it that when I housesit in Spokane, spending week after week eating homemade pies, writing, and playing computer games, people say, "It must be awful being stuck in Spokane," and when I go on a wilderness bike trip, pushing the same pedals down 100,000 times, climbing 2000 foot hills (600m), getting buzzed by trucks on narrow roads while my butt gets sore in every sitting position, sleeping on bare ground under a tarp, getting bitten dozens of times by mosquitos and blood-sucking flies, being scratched by blackberry thorns, eating small quantities of the same food day after day, getting hot, cold, wet, tired, itchy, sore, hungry... people assume that I must, or should, be having "fun"?

I don't do this shit for fun. I do it for the same reasons people run marathons, or climb mountains, or join the military when they're not financially desperate, or have kids when they know what they're doing and aren't motivated by social convention. I do it to learn, to test my abilities, to stretch my limits, to explore the depths of pain and see what I can find there. I do it so I will ever after have the confidence of knowing that if necessary I can get out of this city and over the mountains in three days under my own power and carrying all my own food and gear.

I am a terrible athlete. Even at full strength I'm usually the slowest bicyclist on the trail. One summer I played softball and I was the worst male player in the whole league. For me to go on a bike trip is like for an amputee to swim in the ocean or a dyslexic to read aloud from Shakespeare. I do it because I am stubborn and insane.

Here's what I brought and used: A 36-pound (16kg) singlespeed bike, weight including two front buckets, a back rack, and two back panniers, plus a helmet; a good down sleeping bag, a tarp (space blanket tarp, about 5'x6', silver on one side), a rain jacket, a pair of jeans and a pair of shorts, two short-sleeved cotton shirts and one long-sleeved, a fleece, a pair of sandals, a small towel, about 35 homemade nut bars, a pound of dried lentil soup, a half pound of dried tabouli, a pound and a half of coarse rice flour (hot cereal), a homemade alcohol stove and a pint of fuel, a titanium pot with lid, plus wire stand and foil windbreak, a lighter, several homemade mini-bungee cords, a good metal spoon, a toothbrush and floss, fingernail clippers, a tiny LED flashlight, a tiny compass, two plastic 2-liter water bottles, several maps, and two luxuries: a plant identification book (Trees, Shrubs, and Flowers to know in Washington by C P Lyons), and a pair of binoculars.

Here's what I brought and did not use: a bike multi-tool (Ritchey CPR 14), tire removers, patch kit, pump and spare tube, a polypropylene undershirt, a tiny saw, a knife (Opinel #8), my wallet, toenail scissors, a pocket survival pack, matches, a pair of socks.

Here's what I did not bring: any soap, a fork, sunglasses, sunscreen (good skin), insect repellent, bandages, water purifier (strong immune system), a tent, a mattress pad, a shovel, boots, toilet paper, a cell phone, a watch.

I started out around 10 am Thursday (no need to rush with 16 hours of daylight), rode down the hill and up the Burke-Gilman trail to Bothell, then over the Woodinville Duvall road (an 8-mile nightmare of narrow shoulders and speeding cars), up the Tualco Road, briefly up 203 to the Ben Howard road, which parallels Highway 2. By then it was after 5 and I found a place to sleep for the night, a little dead-end turnoff where I made a bed of grass. I discovered that I was overprepared for the cold, and the only way I could keep mosquitos off was to cover myself with my sleeping bag which was way too hot.

Friday I took Ben Howard to 311th to pick up Highway 2 at Sultan. Along the way I stopped to eat roadside thimbleberries, and later some under-ripe super-sour oregon grape berries. After a long day I found a great turnoff, but there was already a tent. I checked it out and apparently someone had been squatting there. The tent was big and rickety with a makeshift wood stove and lots of junk lying around. The perishables seemed at least two weeks old, so I figured the occupants wouldn't be coming back, but just in case, I slept on the ground under a tarp, not inside the tent. Before that I had time to bathe in the stream and do some laundry, which I hung up to dry in the sun.

Saturday, my fatal mistake, I decided to go all the way over Stevens pass. It was only 15 miles, but a 2500 foot climb (which I incorrectly remembered as 1500). I rode up to Deception Falls and rested a bit, and then pushed hard up the pass for hours, trying to summit before the afternoon heat. I made it to the top at about local noon (maybe 1:15 pacific daylight savings time), and changed into some warmer clothes, expecting a cold ride down the other side. But it was hot! That was definitely the funnest part of the whole trip, coasting down a mountain pass on a warm sunny day. Then the steep part ended and I was coasting slowly, and finally I had to go uphill again. Uh-oh... My energy was gone! I couldn't do it. Luckily, I was right at a spot where I could wheel my bike into the woods, and walk down to a creek. I diagnosed myself with heat stroke, and stood barefoot in the cold stream and bathed with my towel. Then I went up and found a spot to take a nap.

It was still hot, but getting cloudy. I decided I'd better take the next day off and rest up, and since it might rain, I wanted to build a real shelter. I jammed a roof beam up against a giant boulder, planted the other side in the ground, and leaned sticks against it to build a debris hut. I wove little twigs into the sticks and then covered the whole thing with bark. Alone and exhausted, this took hours, and it wasn't especially waterproof, so I put my tarp inside the hut as a backup, and when it got dark, I went to sleep on a bed of fir needles that was not that soft.

As planned, I took all of Sunday off. Now I felt that soreness at the back of my throat that meant I was getting a virus. My overexertion had weakened my immune system. Would the water now make me sick? I was drinking water that I judged safe, from a little waterfall high up the pass, but it wouldn't last. I'd have to risk drinking from the nearby stream, which was still clear, cold, and high in the mountains, but too wide to jump across and thus, by my standards, slightly risky. Also -- another sign I was sick -- I couldn't stand to drink cold water. I used my alcohol stove a lot and made hot broths of the rice and lentils and tabouli. But now my food was running out! Leavenworth was a day's ride down the pass to the east, and I could restock food there, but not as high quality as the food I'd brought, and if I was still exhausted, or sick, I'd have a lot farther to go to get back to Seattle. I decided to turn around and go back from here, and cancel the main part of the trip.

Late Sunday, the highlight of my trip, I found a lovely white mushroom. I identified it as an edible agaricus, boiled it up with some tabouli, and ate it! Now, back in Seattle with Mushrooms Demystified, I can identify it with more precision as a member of the Agaricus silvicola group.

Monday morning I felt a little stronger. I went for a walk down the hill, under the power lines where I found some pithy wild blueberries. Back at the camp, I looked at my dwindling food and realized: time is my enemy; I've got to go now. So I packed up and rode back up the pass. The east side of Stevens pass is much friendlier than the west side! The steep part is more pleasant and not nearly as long. Near the top I ate some tiny wild strawberries and swatted about 40 blood-sucking flies that landed on me. At the summit I used a pay phone to call Seattle and say I was coming back early. Then I started down.

Going down the west side of the pass, I was aghast that I had climbed up it in a single morning without dying. It went on and on, down and down, a shocking height and distance. Far away at the bottom of the mountain I saw a tiny bridge where the highway crossed a stream. A few minutes later I got there. Because of the bumpy shoulder and the headwind, the ride wasn't even fun. I passed Deception Falls, then passed the tent squat, then I got overconfident again, and started thinking, hey, I could keep going and make it all the way back to Seattle tonight. Then I thought, better stop, and I can easily make it back tomorrow. So I found a little free camping area, and made a tent by leaning a thick branch on a stump and putting my tarp over it. The spot was right by the train tracks, and trains went by all evening and night, but didn't really disturb my sleep. A couple times I woke up just before I could (consciously) hear the train coming. It occurred to me, if I were some medieval person who didn't know what a train was, hearing it coming would be the scariest thing in the world. A distant eerie hooting, and a thunderous noise that shakes the earth and grows louder and louder...

It's a good thing I stopped. I was totally underestimating the distance back, remembering long stretches as short ones. Tuesday I started around 8 am, and rode and rode, checking the map against the position of the sun. Damn! I would just barely make it before dark. But I didn't want to spend another night out, so I rode hour after hour, stopping occasionally to fire up a quick meal with the stove. I ended up going over the horrible Woodinville Duvall road right at rush hour, then back along the Burke-Gilman, where, as usual, every other bike was passing me, but I knew I'd just hauled all my own gear over a mountain pass and back, which these wimps would never do. Finally I got to the last little mountain pass, the climb back up Capitol Hill to my summer housesit. I got in about 8:20, made a sourdough waffle with stewed tomatoes and mayonnaise (sounds gross but it was what I was craving), took a hot bath, and went to bed.

I thought I'd lie in bed sick for a week, but I feel fine, except (as of Friday) I still don't have all my strength back, and get a little tired just going upstairs. By next summer, I'll probably forget all the bad stuff and be ready to do it again.