I always used to find it amusing that American films had to put Paris, France or London, England when captioning a location. To us it seems obvious where these places are but of course in the USA London could be any one of 5 different places in any one of 5 different states before even considering the original one across the pond. In our first 2 weeks in the States we’ll be passing familiar sounding towns like Olympia, Aberdeen, Melbourne, Dundee and Monmouth. The early settlers clearly weren’t the most imaginative people when it came to naming their towns.
4th August – 20th August 2016
At 5:45am we arrive at the ferry port in Victoria and after a bit of chit chat we’re stamped, cleared through customs and a man checks our tickets before allowing us on board. The ticket bar code reader makes a gunshot sound as if to say ‘welcome to the home of the free and the land of the armed’.
A hearty breakfast awaits us in Port Angeles on the other side with pancakes, eggs and unlimited coffee being served up in a nearby cafe. This is a nation that knows how to kickstart a day. We then ride out alongside the sea on the Olympic Discovery trail, a dedicated traffic free path that we share with other cyclists and a few horses. The Olympic Peninsula is a particularly fitting place to be on the day that the greatest show on earth kicks off in Rio. Unfortunately we’re not going to have much time to sit in front of a TV to watch much of the action from the games given the length of the road ahead and the limited time we’ve got to ride it.
After a night in the Olympic Forest we continue down route 101 with the Puget Sound on our left shoulder and hills and trees to our right. A sign for a distillery catches my eye and calls for a stop to investigate. Americans are very good at ruining whisky so it’s with some trepidation that I accept a sample that the distiller proudly offers to us. Luckily he’s been taught by a master distiller from Scotland and been given strict instructions to keep it simple and ‘not add any extra rubbish’. The result is a fine tipple and we work our way through several other botanicals and aquavits just to make sure we’ve sampled the whole range. We leave with a bag of miniatures and decide it’s probably time for some lunch rather than get back on the bike straight away.
Once our heads have cleared we work our way south again and then turn onto the 108 away from the Puget but toward the Pacific. The roads are wide and busy but there’s a good size shoulder for us to use so the traffic doesn’t feel too intimidating. Being mid-summer and a weekend there seems to be plenty going on. There are yard sales on every block, marshals are out for a running race but we seem to miss the race itself. In Elma we find ourselves in the middle of a classic car show and while inspecting the immaculate vehicles someone asks us if we’re part of the show too. The bike isn’t quite up to concourse condition so we decide against setting up our own exhibit and continue on.
This region is noticeably more rundown than the smart towns we’d left behind in BC. There are trailer parks and beaten up pickups amongst small single storey wooden houses. Patriotism is high though and the stars and bars fly from every other garden. We’ve seen the first signs of the upcoming presidential election too, mostly in support of Trump. We’ll be leaving the States just before the election itself which could be a good thing if this is any indication of the way the result may go.
In Raymond we get to enjoy a small festival where a local band is playing while kids are being towed in oil barrels on wheels behind an ATV. A good time is being had by all and the temptation is to spend longer in these places but with plenty of daylight left we prise ourselves away and wring out a few more miles. Despite there being plenty of open countryside around us, very little of it is suitable for camping being either too boggy, or fenced off. We resort to stopping at a campground but when we discover that the cost for 2 people and a tent is the same as that for an RV with 5 people we dispute their pricing policy. “We can soon fix that” the attendant tells us before snatching back the registration form and telling us in no uncertain terms to find somewhere else to stay. A little taken aback we follow his advice and find a nice patch of ground a bit further on that is occupied by a large RV. A quick chat to the occupants, Cindy and Randy and we’re given the all clear to make use of a quiet corner of their plot. It may lack the facilities of the campground but the much warmer welcome makes up for it.
As we approach the coast we enter the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge, a large area of wetland where we spot otters scampering across the huge mud flats. Then we arrive at the edge of the Pacific with 50km of sandy beach stretching off into the hazy distance, the adjacent town imaginatively being named Long Beach. We’re now at the southern edge of Washington State and just need to cross the Columbia River to get into Oregon. It’s a big river at this point as it’s widening out into an estuary but the 6.5km long Megler bridge spans the crossing to the town of Astoria on the other side. There’s no cycle lane and there’s a vicious cross wind which calls for slow progress but we manage to stay upright and out of the water to roll down into our 2nd state.
Astoria has many claims to fame including being the setting for such classic films as The Goonies, Free Willy 2 , Short Circuit. Kindergarten Cop and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze. For us though its importance lies in the fact that it’s the official start (or finish) for the TransAmerica Cycle route. The Adventure Cycling Association’s original coast to coast epic route has seen cyclists leaving this point in increasing numbers over the last 40 years. It consists of 4300 miles of back roads, small towns, hills, mountains, parks, plains and prairies that take intrepid riders on a journey from one side of the country to the other. We expect a grand starting line commemorating this auspicious place and a crowd of people eagerly waiting to cheer off the next adventurous couple to take on the challenge. What we find instead is a large anchor on a quiet jetty with some ominous grey clouds gathering in the sky. There’s no mention of the TransAm or even any clues as to which direction we should be starting in. But perhaps this is more appropriate for something that is really just a personal adventure, a self-supported challenge that only those who have ridden it or have dreamed about riding it can fully understand. We snap a photo, swing our legs over the bike, clip in and begin pedalling.
The Oregon coast is a beautiful place. Enormous beaches are only broken up by the occasional rocky outcrop and the road we’re on stays within view of the water for most of the next 2 days while it rises up and down each headland. There are a couple of longer climbs, one with a tunnel part way up that includes a handy safety feature for cyclists. On the approach there’s a button to press that activates some warning lights so that motorists know there’s a bike up ahead. Given the number of huge RV’s, trucks and careless holiday drivers anything like this to make the road a bit safer is very welcome. At the highest point the best view on the entire coast is hidden from us by some thick sea mist giving us a good reason to come back here one day and ride the full length of the Pacific coast (another popular ACA route).
Although the TransAm continues further down the coast we choose to turn inland at Tillamook and head towards Portland. But not before stopping at the famous Tillamook Cheese Factory. Something we really missed during our time in Asia was good cheese so to be in a part of the world that appreciates tasty dairy products again is a real treat.
There’s a climb up to 1550 feet through the Tillamook Forest Park and we seem to have left the holiday traffic behind so can enjoy the easy gradient in a bit more peace. Our destination for the day is Hillsboro just outside Portland, where we’re greeted by Hal and Kat, our WarmShowers hosts and told to pitch the tent next to ‘the ladies’. In the back garden we find that ‘the ladies’ are a small forest of marijuana plants standing seven feet tall and occupying a good portion of the available space. Oregon is one of the states that has legalised the drug so, within certain limits, smokers can happily cultivate plants for their own purposes and Hal has become something of an expert. He’s also an expert witness for litigation cases involving cyclists which keeps him busy when he’s not occupied by his horticultural activities. Accidents are almost always followed up by some form of court case to apportion the blame and Hal’s expert judgement can help to decide who foots the bill. It’s not always the driver at fault either.
Passing through Hillsboro the next day we stop off at the office of my former employer Hydro Intentional to say hello, much to their surprise, before we make our way into the center of Portland. This is a city that has a reputation for being a hive of cycling activity and we’re soon in amongst bike lanes filled with mothers on cargo bikes, hipsters on fixies and day to day commuters. Like Vancouver, the level of activity and general atmosphere makes it an attractive city and again it’s one of the more sought after destinations in this part of the world.
There are loads of bike shops so our mission to find some new tyres ought to be simple but the fickle nature of the bike industry has thrown a spanner in the works. Once again our ‘industry standard’ 26″ wheels are now not as standard as we thought. Over the course of the last few years 29″ and 27.5″ wheels have become more popular to the extent that even here in Portland few shops stock the 26″ tyres we need. Eventually a small shop in the suburbs comes to our rescue and the friendly mechanic in Joe Bike wrestles a brand new Schwalbe Marathon onto our rear wheel for us. Wheels and tyres have been our biggest headache during the trip so far and it seems even here our worries are far from over.
The extended tyre search means it’s too late to get clear of the city limits so we find a riverside park to hide in for the night. However we’re discovered not by the police but by Hein, a keen cyclist who spots the loaded tandem and comes over for a chat. He’s apologetic that he can’t offer us a bed for the night which is fine as we’re happy to make use of the park. But to make up for it he returns a bit later armed with wine and snacks which we gratefully accept in return for an evening chatting about our travels. After the ‘American war’, he and his family escaped from their home in Vietnam and landed here in America where he’s lived ever since. We encourage him to take his bike back to south east Asia as we’re pretty sure he’ll be amazed by how much has changed since he left.
Americans are certainly the most forward nation of people we’ve met. After climbing out of Portland we stop for a picnic and Jackie approaches us, curious about our bike. Before long she’s pouring out her heart while we nod and smile with typical British awkwardness. Two cultures divided by a common language as the saying goes. She seems to draw some inspiration when we tell her about our trip and we wish her luck in finding her own adventure.
The day heats up and we discover that it costs 99¢ for an iced soda regardless of the size of the cup in most gas stations so of course we go for the largest. A 60oz hit of freezing cold, sugar-loaded fizzy drink really hits the spot though the size of the cup is really quite ridiculous.
The farmers are making good use of the sunshine with 7 combine harvesters working an enormous field. We pass hazelnut orchards and stop for fresh peaches. The air is full of sweet smells when the road takes us past a peppermint distillery. Then as the day begins to draw to a close we spot a big sign for the Polk County Fair and Rodeo. We shrug and decide it’s probably worth a look. The wholesome evening’s entertainment includes tough guys hanging onto violent bulls, tough cowgirls racing round barrels and tough kids clinging onto charging sheep. The latter, known as mutton bustin’ provides the best spectacle by far. We decide to pass on the offer of paying a dollar for a photo with a cardboard cutout of Trump and ride into the dark to find a quiet park to camp in nearby Monmouth.
We skirt round Eugene to rejoin the official TransAm route and begin heading up the McKenzie Valley following the beautiful crystal clear river with the occasional covered bridge crossing over it. This is the start of our first proper climb and the road picks up a few notches on the gradient scale as the view ahead becomes filled with the Cascade mountain range. We winch up through the forest then the trees suddenly give way to a mass of jagged black pumice. We’re passing through an enormous lava field laid down 1500 years ago when the nearby Belknap Crater blew its top. Around us are the peaks of Mount Washington, Mount Jefferson and, peeping out from 86 miles away, Mount Hood. We crest the summit of the McKenzie Pass at 5335 feet then dive down to the quaint little town of Sisters.
The difference from one side of the mountains to the other is huge. The lush greens of douglas firs have been replaced by arid browns and sparse lodgepile pines. The fertile arable fields are now dry prairie with cows nibbling at the tough desert foliage. Huge irrigation rigs are trying their best to make the ground more usable. In a riverside park we set up camp on some suspiciously healthy grass only to find out why it’s so green when the automatic sprinklers hose down the tent at 2 in the morning.
It’s a landscape that holds its own kind of beauty though. A hot sweaty climb takes us through more woods that have recently been ravaged by wild fires over to Mitchell where we glimpse the edges of the painted hills with their bands of orange, yellow and green etched into the rocks. An art project that has taken millennia to form. Mitchell is a tiny town that would be easy to pass by, but a big barrel of water by the roadside accompanied by a sign welcoming cyclists makes sure that we stop. The barrel sits outside a white weatherboard church that has been turned into a hostel for cyclists and inside we find rows of comfy looking bunk beds and Elainie wearing a big smile. She offers us a shower and dinner which seals the deal that we’ll be staying the night. Jalet bought the church last year and after a winter of renovation began taking in passing travellers. They hope that money raised from donations will help to pay for a full time pastor for the town. A neat solution to help both the town and those passing through.
The TransAm is full of nice surprises like that. We sleep in another church the following night in Dayville that has been hosting cyclists since the 70’s. Hundreds of people have made use of its floor space and tonight there are 3 more to add to the list of guests. We’re joined by Chris whose story would make for a good episode of Jerry Springer. After a complicated relationship with his wife, children and the father of his wife’s other children came to an end he took off on a Walmart bike from new Jersey and pointed his front wheel in the direction of Seattle. Along the way he’s acquired a trailer and tent, given by sympathetic folk he’d met. It’s not been an easy journey but he’s into the final stretch now so it looks like he’ll soon be making his fresh start in a brand new town and can pursue his goal of finding his ‘true love’ (although he seems to have eyes for Kirsty and then for her stoker’s seat after I let him have a ride on the back of the tandem).
The mercury is over 40°C during the day now so any rare chance to find shade is taken. This is rugged, wild west countryside and the map is full of evocative names like Rattlesnake Creek, Smoky Boulder Road, Big Lookout Mountain and Hell’s Canyon. The people we meet ‘sure do like our accent’ with the way we say the word water (wor-ter instead of wah-da) being a particular favourite. “It sounds way cooler the way y’all say it! Which part of Australia are you from?”. In the distance massive plumes of smoke are pouring up into the air. We later learn that close to 30,000 acres of wilderness are currently on fire, started from a lightning strike and an annual occurrence in this area. It’s been burning for a week and has been growing by the day.
Outside the grocery sure In Prairie City we bump into a chap called Chuck who turns out to be a bit of a local character. His life story includes fighting in the Korean war, learning to diffuse bombs in the Philippines, being a property mogul and his current occupation is as the owner of several gold mines. Unprompted he tells us how he believes Trump should build the wall across the Mexican border and that he believes only Fox news is telling the truth. It’s a story that we couldn’t have made up, but we suspect Chuck might have exaggerate some of the finer points. I guess our story is no less bizarre as we set up the tent in a quiet corner of a cemetery for the night.
While we ride up and down several hills on our way to Baker City we pass clumps of deserted houses, ghost towns that haven’t survived after the local gold mines ran out of the shiny stuff. Baker City offers a nugget for us as we pick up two new tyres from Falstaff Cycles and a bucket of fried chicken.
These hills must have been full of promise in those early days but couldn’t support the huge increase in population for long. Our route follows several historically significant trails including the path led by Lewis and Clarke when they set out to explore the unclaimed lands in the West. The famous Oregon Trail that carried thousands of hopeful prospectors and settlers into these new lands in the mid 1800’s runs over the hills near Baker City and we stop to take a look at the still visible waggon tracks.
The amount of open and apparently unused space gives the impression that most of this land is still unclaimed but a closer look reveals that it is fenced and the No Trespassing signs warn off even the stealthiest of campers. We’re now nearing the edge of Oregon and spend our last night in Halfway. A town whose name has no bearing on how much more of the TransAm we still have to ride, which is plenty more than half. Oregon has been a state with plenty of contrast. To think that only a few days ago we were wrapping up against the cold sea mist, then up through rain forests and over snow topped mountains to arrive in a baking dessert with parched and burning wilderness. Already the TransAm has been full of surprises. Next we’ve got the hot rocks of Hells Canyon to negotiate before we cross into Idaho whose first town will be Cambridge. Now there’s another name that sounds familiar…
There are plenty more photos in the USA Gallery.