Bike Nielsen 2016

There was a bunny in our yard who had bad teeth and three modes: Chew, Jump, and Run. Chew Mode is available all of the time, Jump Mode includes a Spin Feature, and Run Mode has only one speed: Superfast. He would sit in the yard, munching whatever, then would levitate, spin and Pewwww! Out of sight. We called him Crack Bunny.
Yesterday we discovered Crack Bunny’s hominid form, Crack Man. He was at the train station. Too bad he wasn’t wearing a FitBit to document his reaching his 10,000 step goal in the time it took for us to package our bikes and find a seat in the train station. He had a set route, but his timing was inconsistent. Our datapoints for the seated portion of his routine are: 23 seconds, 57 seconds, and 3 minutes 3 seconds. After sitting for ¼ to 3 minutes, he headed for the space between the soda machine and the mens room, where he genuflected. Then out the door for some compulsory elements before returning to the bench for sitting. We didn’t see if Crack Man got onto the train, where we were sure we would not see him in the Sleeping Car.
We have taken the train often enough that there are few surprises. Boxing up the bikes takes about 30 minutes total (it really helps to leave for the train station with your items separated into the bag you will need on the train and the ones you won’t). The route north of Santa Barbara passes some beautiful sparsely populated Hollister Ranch beaches, rugged and busy Jalama, and the sand dunes of Point Sal. Inland through Casmalia (mmmm, Hitching Post steaks), through Guadalupe (mmmm, Far Western steaks), and onto the Central Coast. We made the usual longer stop at San Luis Obispo and headed up and over the Cuesta Grade.
In case you forgot what an Emergency Stop on a train feels like, let us describe to you an Emergency Stop. It is actually pretty smooth, but like a corner in the road that gets tighter and tighter, there is a building urgency to the maneuver. At first, you just feel it in your seat, a sheering force that wasn’t there before. Then, your upper body gets involved, with your head (average weight of a human head: 16 pounds) accelerating faster than your shoulders, which are accelerating faster than your abdomen, with your waist trying to control it all. Just when you think you might rest your chest on your knees and go to sleep, the real stopping starts and everything whips back to the upright and locked position.
John responded, “Uh oh.” We checked for tracks on either side of the train to indicate we were on a siding. Not on a siding. We heard a click and the hiss of the public address. “Okay, folks,” the voice says. Most Amtrak personnel think of other people as “folks”, at least when they are breaking bad news. “There is a car in front of the train.” We cursed the person who must have negligently driven around some train crossing guards. Or was it the person who wanted to end it all, only to have the train come to a stop just yards from his desperate soul on the tracks? We walked over to the train door, ignored the “STOP! Do not open door or window” sign, and opened the window. Looking towards the engines at the front of the train, we could see the underside of a sedan lying on its roof near the tracks. Thirty feet up and fifty feet over, on the shoulder of the freeway, were people and Highway Patrol cars. We could see that the car was between the road and the rails, so unless it really had a lot of English coming off the roadway, we didn’t see how it could have hit the tracks. So when the conductor announced that we would be waiting for a track inspector, we groaned. Berta thought we should just inch forward and see how it goes. What, would we really derail at 1 MPH? And we only would need to clear the engines, baggage, the sleepers, and two more cars to include the diner. If the coaches didn’t make it, no skin off our teeth.
In the end, we spent only an hour waiting at the upended car. It was still near the tracks when we passed. There was an upset couple talking on a cell phone standing over a pile of belongings that had been retrieved from the car. We felt just a touch embarrassed that we only cared how this would impact our schedule compared to the day they were having. We were back on schedule by the next morning, just in time to wait for two hours at the station at Klamath Falls, Oregon for construction on the track ahead to be completed. It’s Amtrak Time.
Amtrak time is like the stock market. We have been on time, way behind time, and back on time on this trip. You would think the flipping car deal would have delayed us enough for the construction, but it didn’t. We sped up and made up the time, only to lose it again. By the time we passed Eugene, Oregon, we were late enough to consider a change in plans. The delays were pointing to arrival in Seattle after 11 pm. We didn’t make reservations in Seattle because we knew this was a possibility. So we decided to cut our losses and detrain in Portland. We identified a commuter train in the morning that could get us to Seattle around noon. We headed to the dining car with a plan 35% complete.
The steward paired us with a guy sitting by himself. Our first exchange with him was tentative. How are you enjoying the train and is it going to rain kind of stuff. By the end of the meal and after establishing that we could civilly discuss the current political environment, we accepted his invitation to stay overnight at his house. We arranged to have the bikes removed at Portland and grabbed our bags.
Our new friend’s name is John and he is a retired accountant who lives in Milwaukie, Oregon. John waited while we purchased tickets for the morning train. We learned that the bikes would be held in baggage overnight for us. He really enjoys taking the train—he was returning from a weekend trip to Berkeley to see his cousin’s bluegrass band in concert (his cousin has been performing for thirty years, all the while keeping a day job). We followed John to the commuter rail stop outside the train station and he helped us country folk use an automated kiosk to get tickets for the trip. He called the friend who was collecting him at his stop to give her an arrival estimate and to announce that he would have some strays with him. One of Gloria’s first comments when she saw us was “Gawd, John, what if they’re axe murderers?” Well, then, we would be some axe murderers with goofy rain jackets, bike shoes, and that kind of clingy clothing that wicks away “moisture” really well. We all chuckled, maybe a little louder than we needed to.
John has a stand of bamboo at his house that is the tall kind that they use to build things. He must work hard at maintaining it because it is well contained despite the multitude of shots sprouting up all over. He has jasmine, a dwarf maple tree, and a grape vine that hasn’t produced well. There are several big redwood trees around his nice house. We talked with John for a bit; however, it had been a long day and we were tired. We decided on a time to depart in the morning.
John drove us to the Portland train station and waited to make sure everything was in order before he drove away. It took three hours to go from Portland to Seattle on the Cascades train, during which time we contemplated the big pink box of Voodoo doughnuts in the luggage rack above the young European couple who spoke excellent English in an accent that we are too unsophisticated to identify. Someone behind us was snoring with vigor. The lady with pulmonary insufficiency in the seat across from us used the voice recognition feature on her cell phone to text her grandson at ten minute intervals. “we… are… going… to be… twenty… minutes… late… period.” No, she didn’t dictate the punctuation. That made it even more irritating.
It is difficult to let go of the few things you can control on vacation. We threw caution to the wind and didn’t wait at the station for the baggage. We walked a few blocks from the station towards an Italian deli that sounded good. There were at least twenty people in line out the door, so we continued to the next block to our new favorite Seattle lunch spot. We had delicious gyros on pita bread. It looked like they sliced up a whole mess of gyro meat and kept it warm in a big pan in some sauce to keep it moist. The end result was messy with tsaziki sauce and (probably) olive oil tinged orange with (guessing again) paprika. Perfect!
The ferry to Bainbridge departs from a terminal that is about five blocks from the train station. We reassembled the bikes and zipped down the hill. The construction never ends in Seattle. We made a few minor wrong turns trying to follow the bike route detour signs before arriving at the ticket area for the ferry. We have little experience with ferries, so we needed to have every terse instruction repeated and explained. We take too long and get in the way. And our goofy clothes stand out amongst the tourists on the daytime ferry. But taking a ferry is fun and so different from our hometown setting. Berta went out to the front of the boat to take a photo and managed to get it done without losing her cap in the cold wind. We sat inside, watching other neophytes go out on the deck. First, they grab their hats. Then they pull their jackets tighter. They struggle to take a selfie squinting into the bright sun while their hair flies in every direction. The selfies, they are terrible. We especially appreciate when some stylish young man goes outside, reluctantly agrees to get in a photo, and then the wind at his back balloons his baggy shorts into a big old man belly. That’s the best.
Bikes are the first to board ferries and the first to leave. Over the speakers, we are instructed to return to our bicycles. Our metal cleats click and catch on the metal stairs down to the car deck. The doors on ferries are surprisingly heavy even when the wind is not involved. John leans into the door to allow Berta to pass. We don our jackets to protect us against the strong cold wind at the open front of the boat. With all of the other bicyclists, we get all of our gear together and squeeze past the motorcycles and cars, twisting to avoid the mirrors. The ferry workers peel back the netting and metal posts that protected the ferry from sailfish entering the car deck or loose soccer balls from bouncing into the water. They move pylons out of the way. As the dockside workers push buttons to lower the ramp onto the car deck, two people take two huge ropes from the dock and loosely tie them to the bollards on the ferry. These ropes are not taut, so something else must be keeping the ferry against the dock. On a big ferry like the Bainbridge ferry, workers connect industrial size hoses to bring on fresh water and to dispose of waste. We hear the familiar sound of cyclists clicking their cleats into their pedals. Finally, somebody unhooks the embarrassingly wimpy rope that has been holding us back. No, not yet. The motorcyclists start their engines. The rope is tossed to the side and collected. No, not yet. Out of the wind now and in the bright sunshine, our jackets are foolish. One worker pretends to be listening to a radio, but he is just toying with us. Somebody in a really quiet voice says, “bicyclists”, and then all hell breaks loose. There can be a hundred bicycles climbing the steep ramp. On the ramp, there are two big metal srticulations and you think, “Please God, do not let me wipe out in this stampede.” The sprint into Bainbridge is easily 1000 meters uphill while we hear the approaching roar of the vehicle traffic off the ferry. There is no safe place to pull off to remove the jacket that seemed like such a good idea just fifteen minutes ago. Unzip, hurry! The legs are really burning now. The effluent of cars slows down and many of the bikes are either far ahead or turned off into town. We stop to remove our jackets, and stand, panting and thinking “What just happened?”
And with that, the bike trip began.
Bike routes on islands are up and down affairs. A road seldom stays at the level of the beach. It goes up and down over the bluffs. So we did that too, for a couple of hours. The bridge we rode over was no problem because Berta had almost no time to worry in anticipation and it really wasn’t bad. The cars gave us a minute to cross and we made a sharp right turn at the opposite shore. Our destination was Port Gamble, a perfectly manicured little town where the speed limit is 25 miles per hour and in the afternoon on a weekday we rolled along the curb over the many open parking spaces. Our friends, having just arrived, met us at the ice cream shop they have mentioned so many times. Berta had to have the black licorice flavored ice cream because there are two types of people in the world and she is one of them.
After a short visit with these friends, we set out on the bike path from Blyn to Port Angeles. The last time we rode this way, it rained most of the day. This time, the air was a little cool but the sun was bright and the sky was completely clear. As a matter of fact, because we carried with us brand new awesome rain pants, we would not have occasion to even consider taking them out of the packs on this entire trip. In the portion of the path that transects a national park, a deer stood within our arms reach. The path also took us through the town of Sequim (forget the “e”) where we had lunch and saw a bald eagle in the nesting area. There are a number of ravines to cross on this path. At two of them, the path follows converted train trellises. At all of the others, the path dives at an alarming decline for about fifty yards, often with a sharp curve in the path, only to climb again at the same rate and duration on the other side. It’s clamp on the brakes and sit back over the seat, try to get in the right tiny gear to prepare for the climb, start pedaling a little early so you look like a clown in a parade, and then chug chug chug over the top.
For the last few miles on the path into Port Angeles, the path is right at the level of the ocean and pancake flat. The land rises up in tall cliffs opposite the rocky water’s edge. We know that all the people sitting on benches looking out to see have walked a ways to get there. We see ahead a local who has a bike mechanical he is trying to repair with repeated blows with a large rock. Maybe it was just an “adjustment” because he is up and rolling before we get there. As we approach the port town, there are big dugout canoes racing towards the shore. The paddlers strain to pick up speed and they all jump out to carry the canoe well up onto the beach. The crowd on the shore applauds and the music resumes in the festival atmosphere.
We spot a lodging option and thread our bright Lycra selves through a crowd of old car guys. The cars are old, the guys are old. When John appears with our room keys, one of the guys says “How do you rate?” like it maybe was taking a while to get forty people registered at the counter. As we walked through the parking lot, an employee lumbered after us, offering that the bike path was over near the boardwalk. We assured him we only needed to find room 123. After a quick load of laundry and showers for us both, we were off to feed ourselves.
In case you are ever on foot in Port Angeles and are tempted to pass up the touristy downtown for maybe some small hole-in-the-wall gem, don’t do it. The next options for any food at all are about eighty-five miles uphill from all of the overpriced options you passed up. Actually, the Thai salad was quite good and it wasn’t so far to walk on the way back. By the time we returned and enjoyed some libation, the old cars took up about a third of the parking lot. We walked around and appreciated the cars that were mostly 1930s Fords.
In the morning, the Fords were lined up early to board the ferry to Victoria, British Columbia. We could wait a lot longer until we packed up and rolled over for the same trip. We completed some paperwork for Canadian customs while en route. We watched a young man bend in half sideways at the ribs to sleep soundly on his armrest for most of the 90 minutes. Meanwhile, we sailed further and further away from the America’s cell phone plan that Berta never realized didn’t include Canada. When we were back on land, Berta stared at the X on her phone and then stared at John who knew that was going to happen. Panic! What if I want to upload a photograph? It also turns out that taking a panorama photograph requires some sort of reception. Berta accepted her fate in Cold Turkeysville, but not without a touch of pouting.
It’s really disturbing to make a Canadian mad, because they seem to be such kind and friendly people. We immediately caused a Canadian to honk and zoom around us because we didn’t know where we are going. We head for the Tourist Information Center to discover that it is there only for fleecing. We ask a person about the bike path and she gets us oriented. Within minutes, we are away from the horse-drawn carriages and double-decker busses of the busy downtown. We stop and have Chinese fast food where one of the workers comes over to our table and wants to know about our trip. She realizes that the eyeglass mirror she found a few minutes ago is John’s. She had thought the mirror was a toy left by some girls who were there earlier, so she had tossed it. She retrieved the mirror from the trash and spent a long time cleaning it before she gave it back to John.
Berta had in mind that it was about 12 miles to Butchart Gardens. It is almost impossible to talk about Victoria without somebody telling you that you HAVE to go to Butchart Gardens. Maybe it was the conversion to kilometres, but it ended up being more than 12 miles. And uphill! Whew! By the time we approached the gardens, we both were ready to stop and not sure where we would stay for the night. And so, even though we are not Bed and Breakfast people, we did not hesitate when we saw the sign for Benvenuto B&B a half-mile from the gates.
It’s really Berta with the aversion to B&Bs. John is much more willing to walk up and ring a doorbell and talk to whomever emerges. What is your expectation of a person who runs a B&B? Out walked Pete, a person in that age somewhere after 25 and before 45 where it is hard to guess. He wore a baseball cap, T-Shirt, shorts, and flip-flops and had more than a few tattoos. He threw out a hand like Berta’s brother Brian would and welcomed us to his place. To be honest, in our frame of mind, we would have paid more for a lot less, but this was an excellent B&B. The furnishings were stylish and new and the room was very comfortable. We had a nice view of the garden with pastures all around.
Butchart Gardens is about twenty thousand people away from being the most beautiful place on earth. Just give us exclusive access to the grounds, and it would be perfect. We pushed our way past people taking selfies and group shots across the walkways and found a lovely bench in the shade facing a big pond with a water feature in the middle. Nozzles shot water out of the pond in 100 foot sprays and thick mists. The pattern changed constantly to create a dance of water. For people who live in drought, it was lovely to be watching all that water while being surrounded by a testament to the power of seeds, water, and nutrients.
Two Canadians asked if they could sit on the bench next to us. Of course they asked, they are such nice people. We started to chat, and by that we mean that John started to chat and Berta hoped it would go alright.