Home at last! I haven’t blogged about my arrival back home in Columbus until now, despite walking in my front door four days ago, on Veterans’ Day, November 11; my top priority was having a weened with my wife whom I had missed so much the past eleven weeks. Now, however, it’s a dark, cloudy Tuesday afternoon in Columbus: the low clouds still lingering last night’s soaking rain are scudding across the sullen sky, and although the pavement has dried, the damp wind implies that its promise of another rainy day will soon be kept. I’m sitting in a coffeehouse one block north of the Ohio Statehouse in downtown Columbus, finishing off a steaming cup of Cubano and a slice of pecan pie, and realizing that I really had missed this place–Cafe Brioso here downtown; my own neighborhood of Clintonville five miles up High Street from here…for the first time in six years, I truly feel like I’m home, and proud to say Columbus, Ohio is my home. (You see, I left Madison, Wisconsin on “Becky”, my trusty ’78 Schwinn, and rode into San Francisco two months and one week later, but–and this is the crux of the matter–I arrived in Columbus by airplane, not bicycle, and have felt not quite of this place ever since. To really understand what I mean, you would have had to travel a great distance slowly, experiencing the subtle changes of landscape and season as the days and weeks passed–and then be suddenly displaced several thousand miles in one afternoon. Even though years have passed, the spatial and psychological discontinuity between California and here never resolved. This time is different: I rode home from Washington, and arrived by bicycle.)
There is a great satisfaction in returning home by bicycle.
I rode down High Street today, and saw with a new affection all the landmarks of home.
The Ohio Statehouse isn’t imbued with the same grandeur as the Capitol I saw ten days ago, but it’s more approachable, more human-scale, more the type of capitol building that a city I would like to live in would have. Plus, it isn’t guarded by scores of heavily armed police posted on every corner within three blocks.
As I wrote in my previous post, I left Seattle, Washington on a train two months and a day after beginning my journey. After spending a few days in Milwaukee, I got back on the train, first to Chicago, then to Washington, DC. This train trip from west to east is the mirror image of my bicycle journey, except it only took the train about 70 hours what is taking me 70 days to ride. The train tracks through Montana and parts of Wisconsin paralleled the way I had ridden, and similarly the railroad from Pittsburgh to DC parallels my route home–poetic, it seems, to be passing by the same places twice, once by train, once by bicycle.
When I arrived in Washington, DC, I felt so provincial.
Washington’s Union Station is even more magnificent than Chicago’s, and it does not have the feeling of a lost railroad empire vanquished by the conqueror, the Interstate highways. If anything, Union Station in Washington is a fitting entrance to the capital city. I had never been to Washington before, and I just kept thinking that my experiences must have been similar to a Dacian peasant entering Rome for the first time.
I was very moved by the Lincoln Memorial, which is tantamount to a memorial for the Union veterans of the Civil War. I just kept thinking about all the soldiers who died in the battlefields of Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania–along my route home to Ohio.
The Wall. So many names, so many killed for a war they may or may not have believed in. This memorial puts the human cost of war into perspective…I wish that every congressman and Bush Administration official had paid a visit here in 2003 before choosing to begin the Iraq war.
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After a solemn visit to the Vietnam Memorial, I went back to sight-seeing, though the ghosts of the tens of thousands of war dead stayed with me in my mind.
Across from the White House is the Zero Milestone: the benchmark for all highway distances to Washington.
Thus begins my journey home, from the Zero Milestone in Washington, DC. I have made a map here of my route, both the Trek to the North Country and my ride home up and over the Appalachians. As I write, I am sitting in the basement of the old high school in a little town not far north of the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, but I’ll save the stories of the past few days for the next post, and go to sleep.
It’s a beautiful late fall day in Wisconsin. The sun is shining through a clear blue sky, and the last of the fall color is glowing radiantly on the willows and silver maples along the railroad tracks. Across auburn fields of stubble-corn, bur oaks spread their nearly-bare limbs like dancing Shiva statues. The train I am riding, the Hiawatha line, is just five light single-level coaches, and the locomotive is whipping us down the track toward Chicago, passing cars on the highway parallel to the tracks as though they were bicycles. As the golden late-afternoon sunlight shines in on my face as I look westward out the window, I hum to myself lines from an old Joan Baez song that I haven’t heard for years:
Blessed are the one-way ticket / holders on a one-way train. Blessed are the huddled hikers / staring out at falling rain…
I should stop to explain. I took the train from Seattle to Milwaukee, leaving on October 27th, two months and one day since leaving Columbus on that warm late-summer afternoon. I am not taking a train to Columbus, though: for one, no trains go to Columbus—and anyway, I’m so close to the East Coast that I might as well finish a true cross-country, coast-to-coast ride. So, I’m now on my way to Washington, DC. It’s only 525 miles to Columbus from DC, much of it on a bike trail–it’s so close, closer than Madison is to Columbus, and that took 8 days.
I’m in Union Station now, waiting for the train that will take me to Washington.
Walking through Union Station made me think about the faded grandeur of the railroad empire that built this country, and has been decaying since my parents were born. I really liked riding the “Empire Builder” train from Seattle to Milwaukee…the name of that train made me think about all the towns in Montana that were built because of the railroad. As I was riding west through Montana, I was paralleling the railroad for almost five hundred miles, from Glasgow to Whitefish, and thinking about people a century ago, traveling through those towns on the train, heading west to seek their fortune and follow their dreams for a better life. Then the interstate came fifty years ago, 9 AM on the heyday of the automobile, and all the railroad towns were bypassed…Now those once-bustling railroad towns doze along like old men in the afternoon, and I am left to wonder when the sun will set on the age of cars and those towns will awaken again.
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I’m now on the train somewhere in Indiana, as we roll eastward through the darkness. I’m thinking about how different this feels from the first night I was on the train from Seattle, as it climbed up into the Cascades.
On my last bike ride, in California, when people would ask me where I was from, and I would answer “Wisconsin”, I found that I frequently had to explain where that was. One time I tried explaining that it was north of Chicago, on the theory that everyone knows where Chicago is. “Oh, East Coast!” was the reply. “No, Chicago is almost a thousand miles inland” was my reply. But I think I understand what this Californian meant now, six years later: Chicago feels like the East Coast. And this train certainly feels East Coast. I’m sitting in the lounge car playing cards. Riding trains is a cultural experience, and it’s certainly been an interesting ride so far, and very different than the train from Seattle.
It has been two months to the day since I left Columbus on a sunny warm late-summer afternoon, and for the first time since leaving, I can feel in my heart that my journey is done. This blog isn’t, though! Other than three quick posts about pancakes, reaching the ocean and riding through logging country, this blog is stuck back in Montana, and I have been riding around Washington for nearly two weeks. I’m in Seattle, drinking a cup of Russian Caravan tea on a cold grey morning, with time to write, at long last.
There are stories from the mountains of western Montana which may never be written; it was long enough ago that the passage of miles and days has blunted the sharpness of experience that makes a story compelling. So, I’ll begin with more recent experiences, and perhaps go back and post a retrospective at some point.
So, where to begin? Perhaps the crossing of Washington Pass, the highest point of my journey, is the boundary, the watershed between the stories that may be lost and the stories that will be told.
The highest pass of my journey was the last. I had been stubbornly refusing to use my lower (40-tooth) front chainring “until I really needed it”–I had been saving it for this highest climb of the ride. Turned out I didn’t really need it, so now I can boast that I reached the far northwest cape on the ocean having never used my lower gear, despite 2900 miles and four mountain passes. (Riding on muddy logging roads south toward Forks certainly did require my hitherto-unused low gear, as have some of the San Francisco – class hills in Seattle.
On the overlook next to the pass, here I am, still warm from the 3500 foot ascent from Masama. Even though it was beginning to snow, I hadn’t yet put on warmer clothes.
About two minutes after this photo was snapped, I began to shiver as the cold wind drove snowflakes against my bare legs. I quickly bundled up, and rode down to Rainy Pass (4855 feet, where the highway goes over a saddle between one valley leading to Washington Pass, and a different valley leading westward down to the sea.)
Rainy Pass is well named–unlike the snowflakes of the high pass five miles eastward and 650 feet above me–here a steady, hand-numbing-cold rain was falling, as the moist air from the not-so-distant ocean was thrust up a narrow glacial valley gouged between serrated snowcapped peaks.
I turned around and climbed back up to Washington Pass; I would much rather camp in the snow than the cold rain. As I pitched my tent in the gathering darkness, I reflected on how similar this was to my previous trip, when I had camped in the forest just above the 9100-foot Palo Flechado Pass on US 64 over the Sangre de Cristo range of the Rockies. That night my water bottles has frozen while I spent hours awake shivering beneath cold stars. Well, this time I had a tent, thankfully, so I fell asleep to the sound of wind-driven flakes pattering against my tent. And the next morning, just as before, the cold had brought the fractal order of ice to the chaos of formerly liquid water.
The day dawned clear and cold, with the sky a deeper blue than anywhere since the dry plains of eastern Montana. It was too beautiful to just ride away…I went climbing up the mountain into a beauty that transcends the poverty of human speech to describe.
After several hours, I hiked back down from paradise, my feet numb and my spirit ablaze.
This is a clearcut.
This is a clearcut. But this is not clear-cut: it is complex. This is not just a photograph of stumps and slash on a muddy hillside in Washington. This is a photograph of a new 4000-sq.ft. house with cathedral ceilings. This is a photograph of the triple-ply toilet paper in your bathroom.
This is the world’s largest red cedar. But this is not just a photograph of one tree, it is a photograph of the forest missing around it. This forest was clearcut in 1981, and the hillsides are clothed in giant stumps and little saplings. After the forest was cut, the big tree quickly began dying. The great cedar itself is almost completely dead now, except for one living limb on the smaller trunk; the small patch of foliage in the larger trunk is actually a spruce sapling that has taken root in the rotting snag.
This is also a photograph of ignorance; a photograph of the people who literally could not see the forest for the trees. Why destroy an entire mountainside of ancient forest, and proudly leave one tree remaining–“oh look; here’s the biggest one! We kindly saved it!” And so the windblasted gray snag of a towering cedar stands on this hillside of saplings as a monument to the greed of our age; as it rots away over the centuries, and the forest regrows, what took a few months to destroy will heal over a thousand years.
I have pedaled as far northwest as is possible within the contiguous United States: Cape Flattery on the Olympic Peninsula.
A seagull swoops below me while the ocean inexorably gnaws away at the base of the cliff beneath me.
…There is nowhere left to ride except south and east from here. The stories from the mountains of Washington and Idaho will get written on a rainy day; I have been putting my energy into riding, not writing, during this past week of unexpectedly good weather. The forecast for the remainder of the week is rain, though, so perhaps I will have time to write about the last two weeks while drying off, quaffing hot coffee in a roadside diner that I really hope will exist when I need a place to warm up.
Cars run on gasoline; trains run on Diesel, and planes run on jet fuel. Here is what bicycles run on:
There is a bike shop in Spokane that has a comparison between cars and bicycles. Cars: Run on gasoline, make you fat, cost you $. Bicycles: Run on fat, make you stronger, save you $. No brainer!
I have also seen a mileage decal for bicycles, like the ones put on new cars that shows their city and highway fuel economy. For bicycles it is infinity miles per gallon, city and highway.
As for me, I seem to get about 25 miles per pancake on flat land, and 15 miles per pancake on the mountains.
Another consideration is versatility. There are “flex-fuel” vehicles that run on either gasoline or ethanol. My bicycle certainly qualifies as a flex-fuel vehicle; here are some of the different fuels my bicycle has been powered by on this trip:
That’s an immense cinnamon roll from the Highway 2 Cafe in Cut Bank, Montana. I was starving after fighting a 30 mph headwind for 68 miles of a 95 mile ride. The next morning I filled up with four “hubcap-sized” pancakes at the same cafe.
It is true that cars have more powerful engines than bicycles. My bicycle is powered by a 2.0 L 2-cylinder engine, only about 3/4 HP, but 80 ft-lbs of torque at 60 rpm! (I weigh 160 lbs, and my bike’s cranks are about 6 inches long. When I’m really cranking, my full weight goes on each pedal, and my cadence is about 60 rpm when climbing hills. 160 lbs * 0.5 ft = 80 ft-lbs of torque.)