Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Vintage Post: Bike Camping July 2011

I'm calling this one a "Vintage Post" because it was originally published on our family blog in July 2011.
As you may have noticed from my previous post, Andy, Alton and I went on our first bike tour this past weekend. "Touring," as it's known in the cycling community, simply refers to anytime you are getting around for a trip (usually overnight) by bike. It's a goal that we've been aspiring to for some time, and decided to carve out a weekend for such an endeavor this summer. Now that I have my longtail (extended frame + cargo bags) bike, we thought that made a perfect springboard for our first touring experience. We selected a campground that was within a reasonable distance for biking to (allegedly 25.1 miles), then found some enthusiastic friends who were interested in accompanying us camping via car and therefore providing us with both Minerva transport AND a potential "sag wagon."
Andy and I made lists and checklists and filled in a few holes in our gear load (were there any left to fill? apparently....), then pored over our map with my cousin Matt, an experienced local cyclist, who was integral in helping us select the most low-traffic back country roads for our journey. We did most of our packing the night before, with the most heavy and bulky items being packed into a small children's trailer that Andy was set to tow behind his bike, which he attached that night and rode to work with him on Friday morning.

My bike was still set up in the garage on Friday afternoon, with much of the last-minute stuff (like food in the small cooler) being packed into my bags since I was departing from our house. I put Alton down for an early nap and buzzed around, bungeeing down sleeping pads, ensuring that water bottles and extra water bottles and extra ice were ready to go, filled snack containers, and gave everything one last shake on my loaded-down bike to make sure I wouldn't lose anything on the road. I changed into my oh-so-attractive bike knickers with the padded seat area (they might look a little poofy, but hopefully they'd keep me comfy along our journey!) and got Alton's cycling clothes ready to go, too: lightweight pants to keep off sunburn and wind chill, since he wouldn't be physically active, plus lots of sunscreen for us both. I got the sleepy little dude up from his nap and we locked up the house, ready to depart before I realized that I really should have stopped to have more food post-lunch, since our road snacks would be required to be doled out bit by bit along the route. I hurriedly rushed over to the fridge, Alton on my heels, and scanned its contents before seizing a Pyrex with a leftover chicken leg inside, grasping the bone and ripping thigh meat off with my teeth. I was quickly chewing when Alton said, "Mommy, you need to stop eating chicken; we have to GO!"
We hopped on our loaded, bungeed bike, bursting at its seams with food and camping gear, and started pedaling through town. Out on country roads, it's a much more common occurrence to see cyclists with touring panniers (saddlebags), sometimes astride both the front and rear tires of their bikes. Clad in lycra with only the bare minimum amount of gear, they clip their shoes into the pedals, tuck their arms close to their bodies and their heads down low, and spin off into the distance at speeds nearly as fast as cars. But around suburban subdivisions and our quaint downtown streets, my loaded bike and I were an oddity that many motorists craned their necks to turn and look at. I felt as conspicuous as an elephant and twice as heavy.

My cousin Matt lives fairly close to the westernmost edge of town, a few blocks from where we'd exit the city and head northwest on country roads to our campground, so Andy and I had selected his driveway for a rendezvous point. Andy would haul his trailer from work at the end of his day, Alton and I would depart from home, then we'd all meet up and be ready to REALLY begin our journey. I alerted Matt to our plan, and he kindly offered that although they would not be at home, we were free to use their spare key and go inside for more water, bathroom breaks, etc., so I made a mental note of this.
Boy, was I glad that we'd structured our trip this way! As I set off from home, I wobbled up the road, reassuring myself that I was simply not used to the extra weight, and would feel things even out soon. I pedaled slowly up the hill, realizing with a sinking feeling that with this huge load dragging me down, I would be traveling much more slowly than I thought and probably be late meeting Andy; what did this mean for our trip's total travel time? Even slower, I had decided to cross intersections at pedestrian crosswalks rather than following stoplights. As I rode at my snail's pace and still felt shaky and unstable, I decided that I needed to offload some weight. Immediately. I pulled up to the sidewalk near the library and opened my adorable flowery handlebar basket, which I had thought would be a perfect spot to stow an easily-accessed lunch box full of snacks, maps, extra water, and some fragile items like my cell phone. Not anymore! Knowing that I had Matt's kitchen available to me in another couple of miles (our sag wagon team, the Zawalski family, had unfortunately needed to stay at home due to illness at the last minute), I dumped all our extra water out into the bushes, leaving the lightweight stainless steel bottles rattling together in the basket. I pulled out a small tote bag with backpack straps to don and use to carry my fragiles and maps, then slipped the lunch box of food under a rear bungee cord. There, that's better! Without the basket contents weighing down my handlebars, my steering smoothed out and I felt comfortable riding the few more miles to Matt's house, although my bulging rear bags still made me feel about as nimble as a big rig.

Parked in my cousin's driveway, we let ourselves into his backyard and piled our three (surprisingly heavy) camping chairs on his porch to leave behind, refilled our water bottles, rearranged some more bags and baggage with Andy taking the lion's share of the load as always (he offered to heft one of our backpacks of clothing on his back, which I knew would make him extra-sweaty during the ride), and FINALLY set off on our trip, more than an hour later than we thought we would be, but feeling confident about the way our bikes were riding.

Luckily, since up here in the Pacific Northwest we have daylight until well into the evening, we didn't feel too much pressure to ride fast (which is good, since our bikes were outfitted for comfort, not speed!) and were glad to stop anytime one of us wanted a break, which is as it should be.

Matt's recommendations about roads and routes were spot-on, and I was surprised and excited by how little traffic we encountered, with most roads so devoid of cars that Andy and I could still hold a conversation while riding single-file. We did see some other touring cyclists: a father-son team in matching red jerseys with only those bare essentials I mentioned on the back racks of their bikes. We first spotted them one time when, up ahead in the distance, we caught a glimpse of some red by the side of the road; they had momentarily stopped their bikes in a dirt ditch while the son was pilfering blueberries from a farm's bushes! We were apparently following a similar route, since we kept passing and catching up with one another each time our respective groups took a rest break. They seemed to be keeping a relaxed, easy pace, although at one point I looked up ahead at a turn in the road and wondered why the (Red) Jersey Boys seemed to be riding so slowly. I soon found out why when we hit that curve ourselves: we were now riding full into the wind, which was sweeping gustily along the dusty, treeless country roads and practically stopping us in our tracks as we pushed against the pedals.

When we wanted a break to stretch, have a snack, or drink water, we'd find a nice shoulder or driveway to temporarily park our caravan, then break into the goodies (no blueberry snitching for us!).

One of my bike comfort inventions just recently actualized in time for this trip was bike BOOKS for Alton. I'd been wanting to figure out a way to let him read while sitting on his bike seat, since I knew that on our hours-long trip there'd only be so much scenery he could watch. I came up with a book system as follows: purchase paperback picture books at our local Goodwill (this way they are used, cheaper, AND new to Alton), then use a hole-punch to break through their timeworn covers and pages to make a hole near one corner of the spine. I bought a set of hinged binder rings in assorted sizes, then looped them through our five "new-to-you" books. Add a short length of nylon webbing to use as a book leash, and we now have a drop-proof way to tether books to the body of Alton's bike seat, with each book easily changed out to the next one in line. Score!

After winding through the windy country roads, we arrived in the town of Banks, OR, a tiny population supported by a little main street and lots of farmland all around. It's also the starting point of the Banks-Vernonia State Trail, an Oregon State Parks project that turned an abandoned railroad into a paved trail for hikers, horseriders, walkers, and cyclists. With no motorists on the trail, it gave us a route for our bike touring trip that was both extremely safe AND convenient, because the trail goes right through the state park at which we were camping. The Banks Trailhead area was one of the last sections of the trail to be created and paved, which you can tell by the way our bike tires slid over the asphalt like it was glass. A great way to begin the final 10 miles of our trip!

We could see the old railroad tracks through some breaks in the trees...

...but much of the paved trail looked like this: a tree tunnel with no other pedestrians in sight.

Periodically, there was the occasional wooden bench or picnic table affixed along the side of the trail; we used just such a bench (out of sight in the picture below) for one of our stops when Alton requested a snack and book changeout.

The stop also gave us a chance to peruse the wild blackberry vines growing along the side of the road for a few sweet treats to pop into our mouths. Since the tree cover is heavy on the trail, most of the blackberries were still waiting for more of the season's sunshine and not yet ripe (see below), but we found a few tiny purple-black specimens to sample for quality control purposes.

In a few places, the trail actually skims along or even bisects a family farm property, as you see in the picture below. This section of the ride was another important milestone, though we didn't know it at the time, because it was here that the trail exited most of the populated farmland and started heading upward into the hillside, meaning that from this point forward, we were riding uphill.

Now, when I say uphill, I don't mean a steep, freeway overpass-like grade that would make even Lance Armstrong take a breath and gear down. But for the following seven miles to the campground, we found ourselves climbing a steady, soul-sucking 3.5% grade upward at only five miles per hour. We were both dropped down into our easiest gears, but with our loaded bikes, Andy's trailer, and my passenger, we were huffing and puffing even as we tacked slowly back and forth on the pavement to avoid tipping over at our extremely low speed.

The hardest part about this steady incline, besides the fact that we'd already ridden about 19 miles to get to this point (plus another 6 for Andy just to get to work that morning), was that we had no idea ahead of time that it was there, and no idea how long it would last. The trail gently curved and wound its way upward, and with each bend in the road we hoped to see our pathway level out, or even start sloping downward, but it never did. Up, and up, and up. In preparing for our trip, I'd read a few blog accounts online from other Portland-area cyclists who'd taken the MAX light rail train out to Hillsboro, then cruised through the country roads and the state trail to the campground, just as we had. But the blog writers had rented cabins at the park, meaning that their gear load was reduced since they didn't need to bring a shelter or bed pads, and they did not all have children along for the trips, either. Alton needs just as much "stuff" as an adult (sleeping bag, sleeping pad, tableware, food), but he can't help carry the load and is actually part of the load, himself! We panted and sweated up mile after mile after mile of this incline, wondering how these other blog writers could have possibly left this long hill climb out of their posts. We eventually surmised that their reduced gear load (due to cabin stays), fewer passengers, and the sweet, sweet coast downhill on the ride home must have made it not nearly as bad as it felt to us.
We occasionally checked our odometers to estimate how many miles we had left to go before the campground, and would get falsely excited each time we saw something new along the route, thinking that this must mean we were close to the campground. A cool bridge (picture below), signs for a horse trail detour, a small placard letting us know we'd entered the state park...all were diversions, but not anywhere close to our final destination, so we continued upward until I was convinced we were in Seattle. Or the Rockies. Or Heaven.

Finally, we heard some voices in the distance and ran into two (possibly chemically altered) skateboarders kicking back on a fallen log. We breathlessly asked if the campground was up ahead (in our 1st gear delirium, could we have passed it already?), and they tooaddally assured us that it was up ahead about a mile. Or a half mile. Or something. We pedaled onward and about 50 yards ahead encountered our first distance-marking sign: Campground 1 1/4 miles ahead. Unnnggghhh. We stopped for a few more breaks, shook out our numb & tingling legs, kept grinding up and up, finally arrived at the campground and DID nearly miss the entrance because the arrow at the crossroads was pointing so lackadaisically "this-a-way," put a sweatshirt on Alton's goosebumpy arms even though Andy and I were glistening with sweat, and then finally had to dismount to walk our bikes up the entrance hill that WAS the size of a freeway overpass. Dammit, we're finally here!

It was nearly 8:30pm, but still light outside, when we rolled into the Dairy Creek campground at Stub Stewart State Park. It was more than 5 hours since I'd left home, nearly 4 hours of that being active cycling time according to my bike computer. A total of 27.9 miles and (Andy later looked up at home online) an elevation change of nearly 1,000 feet from our house in Hillsboro. We were ecstatic and relieved, but first things first: the park host would stop selling firewood at 9pm and we'd only snacked our way through the evening, so we needed dinner as well. Andy detached the trailer and zoomed away (on what energy?!) on his unloaded bike to get the firewood while I staggered around on jellylegs and sipped water to quell the nausea I felt from so much physical exertion. Happily, we'd had the foresight to pack really simple food for our Friday night arrival dinner: dense homemade bread, fully-cooked chicken sausages that just needed to be tossed on the campfire grill and heated up, and berries. We blindly threw our meat at the fire and I got Alton all settled in the tent while I went to go take a shower. Aaaaahhhh.

The next morning, Saturday, here we are: amazing how much stuff fit on these two bikes! We got a lot of admiring and incredulous glances from our fellow campers. One mom gawked at me, asked where we'd come from, then exclaimed, "You're crazy! But wow, congratulations!!" Our next-door neighbors invited us over for a beer after our arrival on Friday night (which we were too tired to accept) and promised that their four-year-old daughter, asleep in the tent, would be eager to play with Alton the next day.

Our pack list and gear were minimal, although they didn't look it (or feel it on that big hill), so Alton's limited supply of toys included several fat pieces of sidewalk chalk to decorate the pavement with. Rather than waste his precious pastels on a campsite driveway that was too gravelly to easily color on, he elected to prettify other components of our surroundings with smoother surfaces. He hopped up onto the fire ring grate, unused since the night before, to pinkwash the rusty metal...

...then added some blue to the exterior as well as one of the unburnt campfire logs sitting on the ground.

Rocks were another favorite thing to scribble upon, although he seemed to decide that this tree was attractive enough without colorful dust.

When Alton went down for his nap/quiet time in the tent (it was actually too hot for him to sleep in there, in the end), Andy and I popped open our celebratory champagne split that we'd been too worn out and thirsty to drink the night before.

When we'd been packing at home, ignorant of our huge hill climb, one of the luxury items that we'd stowed in the trailer was a shade shelter, since we were unfamiliar with how much tree cover this campground would have. Buried under sleeping bags, we'd forgotten about the heavy canopy when we were dumping nonessentials at my cousin's back porch (although I'm sure Andy's knee joints had not forgotten), but upon our arrival we mandated that the next morning we had to set it up, since we (he) had lugged it all this way. Well, when the sun came up in the a.m. we were so very glad to have the shelter, since our site turned out to have no natural tree shade at all. The wind was blowing, but our "shade" in the tent stayed really hot with not enough of the breeze blowing through the screened doorways. Our alcove went up in a jiffy and gave us a comfortable, shady place to hang out at the picnic table, eat lunch, etc.

Speaking of luxury items, we cracked open a bottle of red wine to sip from our Klean Kanteens with snacks in the afternoon, using our rough 'n tough Swiss Army knife wine corkscrew. "Many of you have never opened Chardonnay under fire before!" In a hilarious comedy routine, Robin Williams pokes fun at an "army" that requires a means of opening wine bottles on their multitools. If you watch that video on the link above, you can skip ahead to 2:50 to hear what I'm talking about; beware of falling F-bombs.

With our low cell signal, we got the great news from our friends, the Zawalski family, that even though they were unable to come camping for the weekend with us, they wanted come from home to the campground to hang out for the afternoon with us. They had also kindly offered to watch Minerva for the weekend while we were cycling, so she got to come along for the state park day trip and sniff bushes to her heart's content. The four-year-old girl from the camping family at the next site over did want to play, as advertised, and generously shared all the fun toys that her parents had packed to bring along in their car. Alton, the Z kids, and our new redheaded playmate all had tons of fun digging in the gravel and dirt; the new little girl even lives nearby, so maybe a future camping buddy??

The Family Z also insisted that they could take any extra gear of ours away in their car after our early dinner and campfire on Saturday evening, so we tore down the shade shelter and stowed it in their trunk, knowing that Sunday morning our plan was to get up, make breakfast, and beat feet out of the campground as soon as we could get all our belongings packed up again. Thank you, Zawalskis!
We got up and I manned (womanned?) the pot of oatmeal and scrambled eggs while Andy rolled up bags, pads, and tent and we got ready to carbo-protein load in preparation for our ride home. With breakfast eaten and all of our gear loaded back into place, we hopped back on the saddle, glad we'd had a day in between rides to rest and recuperate around our sunny campground, but just plain giddy to coast down the initial part of our journey.

Yep, those seven miles of steady climbing on the way into camp became an easy, pedaling-free coast downhill on the return trip. What had taken us hours to accomplish uphill (with stopping breaks) took less than 20 minutes to zoom down once we left camp. I had to use my brakes to keep myself from zipping down too quickly! After that, a few more relatively flat miles on the Banks-Vernonia trail had us back at the trailhead in the town of Banks for a quick restroom stop, then into open farm country.

With no nap the day before and not as restful of sleep at night in the tent, Alton was one tired puppydog on the ride home, and fell asleep while we were still on that state trail. We stopped several times to try to adjust him into an optimal, no head-bobble sleeping position, which is difficult with a seat that doesn't recline and a helmet weighing down his little noggin. We even considered reorganizing all our belongings to put Alton in the kiddie trailer, but the chin-to-chest issue due to helmet weight is still a problem in the trailer, and it's harder to make quick adjustments to his position when he's encased inside of rip-and-stick doors that have to be loudly opened each time. I had also made a small foam pillow for him for bike seat sleeping purposes, envisioned to be sort of a backwards version of one of those airplane neck pillows to keep his head from flopping forward without obscuring his nose and mouth, but since this was the inaugural snooze trip with the foam pillow, we found that it needed extra sweatshirt propping and securing to the seatback to be truly effective. Finally, after much experimentation, we found an upright, easy-breathing position that supported his head without shifting his helmet around and had nice soft cushioning all around him. He was out cold for almost three hours.

We admired the scenery of the overcast day, completely forgetting the fact that even on cloudy days, you can still get sunburned. We all arrived home with uber-pink cheeks.

After a quick stop at Matt & Di's to pick up our camping chairs and squeeze them on the top of Andy's trailer for the last few miles, we arrived at home (Alton was still sleeping). Andy zipped down the main road by our house a little ways ahead of us to unlock the door and garage, and to get in place to snap a picture of me pulling up into our driveway.

We propped up the camera for a self-portrait of the happy cyclers and their sleepy kiddo. Our return trip had been much shorter (around three to three-and-a-half hours), but we were still ready to shower and eat, eat, eat. All in all, we learned a lot about touring, planning, packing, and how much fun it all is! (See, we already have amnesia about that big hill.) Happy Biking!

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