This guest article was written by Portland writer and Stealing Time magazine founder/editor Sarah Gilbert.
“The Portland’s been strained outta him.”
This was a regular at a coffee shop in Vernonia. The coffee shop in Vernonia, maybe. “Him,” the guy behind the coffee bar, had welcomed us in right at opening time with an admiring look and, “YOU are the ladies with the bikes!”
He’d followed, “They said you were loaded, but I thought they meant the other way.”
We were Portland, unfiltered, and they acknowledged this without meaning anything bad by it. Loaded like this: Emily with 220 pounds: speakers, bike and a five-gallon water container. Me with all our “soft stuff,” sleeping bags, pillows, extra dresses and sweaters, bread, peanut butter, a little backup boombox, that sort of thing. Music is so important to motivate us up the hills, it’s worth the extra pounds. We went through a weigh station on the way out of Portland, on Highway 30, and I registered 250, Emily 350. We each weigh 130. I kept asking Emily to let me take something else so I wouldn’t feel like a wuss; she kept saying “no.”
“I bring it, I haul it,” she told me, flashing me her smile.
“The lesson was maybe, that an ordinary mom can ride kids on her bike and slowly become a person who could do something extraordinary.”
This was Labor Day, the second day of the trip we had been planning for roughly twice as long as we’d been riding. We thought we might make it from Portland to Astoria by 4 p.m. … the first day… because we figured we could ride 10 miles an hour. This was clearly magical thinking. We started at 6:30 a.m., and rode 10 miles an hour not counting the weigh station break all the way into St. Helens. Then we stopped at Burgerville and ate enough food for four or five of our oldest kids.
I thought we would follow the Hood-to-Coast route, more or less, because I’ve run it eight years in a row and know it well. Plus it was a good way to avoid going over the West Hills on the way out of town. Our bikes — Emily’s eight-speed Bakfiets, the Dutch box bike, to which she has attached a rear wooden seat and a Follow-me tandem; my “mamabikeorama”, an eight-speed Townie plus Xtracycle, decked out with baskets to make up for seriously torn pockets, frame recently replaced when the old one cracked — well, they’re way too big to get on the MAX. We didn’t want to add hills, we told ourselves, looking at that terrifying 20-mile climb in the route to Tillamook.
Astoria it would be, up Highway 30, heading west in St. Helens on Sykes Road, then on to Cater Road and the Scappoose-Vernonia highway. Because the Hood-to-Coast route leads up gravel backroads that are hard to run on, let alone assault with a heavily-loaded bike, while we were putting our kids to sleep late Saturday night I Google mapped an alternate route through to 47. I scribbled notes on the Hood-to-Coast handbook.
“Crown-Zellerbach Logging Road. 5.3 miles.” This would prove to be fateful.
It was around noon on Sunday and we gamely headed up a long, long hill. Emily — who told me once that she never pushes her bike, she prefers to rest a bit and pedal all the way — hopped off after 30 or 40 yards of super steep farmland, giving in to pushing. I joined her gladly (I live near 39th and Gladstone and have come to terms with pushing up a hill) and we began what would be a regular thing for us for a long time to come: pushing, then pedaling, then resting, then pushing some more.
On that very first hard hill I was ahead (my bike’s 100 pounds less, remember) when a woman in a pickup came up behind us, slowing down behind Emily and then roaring past us both, shouting, “You can’t see over the hill!”, little fiery angry darts shooting at us from her eyes. We finally realized what she meant: she couldn’t pass Emily for fear someone would be zooming down the other lane.
This, our first shouting, might have not been so bad if it hadn’t been followed by our progress up, up, and up winding country roads with the beautiful country beside us and the birds flying around the sweet, ripe blackberries and loaded-down apple trees, with a seemingly unending line of pickup trucks and SUVs zooming past us, shouting if we slowed their progress by so much as a few seconds, endangering their passengers as they swerved into the oncoming lane. I wasn’t so much worried for our safety as theirs, biting my lip as another car or truck would shoot out of a curve or up a hill, acting for all the world as if there was a trophy at the end of the journey.
Here I should tell you what we were doing here in the first place.
We just like to ride together — we like the same music, go the same speed, our kids have a great time playing together (mostly), we have the same attitude toward life, the universe, and bike rides. Like, “Let’s go to IKEA,” and somehow we (Emily) carry home 150 pounds of speakers and shelving. Like, “Let’s go on a picnic” somehow becomes, “Why don’t we ride to the coast?” Both of us had always yearned to get there via bike someday and, we discovered when we started talking, we’d both tried it once. Emily got over the top of Forest Park and to Beaverton when her aching joints stopped her. I got to Highway 26, milepost 45 (having snuck my bike on the MAX) with my then-six-year-old when it got dark and I had to call my dad to take us the rest of the way.
Together — with a whopping 48 hours of planning and a beautifully warm holiday weekend — we could do it! “Ok,” I said. Well, I’d already said that the first time she asked but I said “ok!” with more and more enthusiasm. We bought backup battery packs and a bunch of granola bars and lots of apples and extra heavy duty bungies. I bought a beautiful roll of 250-pound cord, just in case. We told her husband how grateful we were that he was willing to watch 11 kids (ours plus sleepover friends) for one day. Maybe two.
And now we were on Cater Road going up a five-mile hill. Pushing, riding, resting, pushing some more. We flagged some and kept being sure THIS was the top or THAT was the top but we finally made it, ate, rode down the hill with our skirts and hair flapping. In no time we found the turnoff for the CZT, which wasn’t a logging road any more but a bike trail.
It didn’t look that bad, at first. It was quiet and such a lovely respite from those yelling, roaring trucks. Here the only creatures speeding past us were birds and dragonflies. Here we met only a few mountain bikers, who waved, bemused, at two women in cargo bikes, and sped past, plastic water bottles and helmets strapped on. “This isn’t so bad, right?” I kept asking, not wanting to go back onto that winding, terrifying road. “It’s ok,” said Emily.
Then it started, ever so gradually, to go up. We really had no idea what the hills here would be; it was one of the only segments of the trip for which I didn’t have a detailed, turn-by-turn elevation map. I’d hoped it wouldn’t be too bad. Maybe a little up, little down.
Then it started to go up more steeply. We were about 40 miles into the journey at this point and with at least 65 or 70 to go (see our route map here). We still thought maybe we could get pretty far tonight, like 2/3 of the way, before dark. We could sleep anywhere, we told each other. This would be fine.
But soon the exhaustion and the difficult terrain got to us. I remember one hill, a short but very steep hill that was several inches deep with gravel; it must have been recently washed out. We walked our bikes into the gully and then tried to pull them back out and I almost fell down. It was all I could do to get my bike to the end of the gravel patch, and I had to push Emily’s bike because with the weight in front and the difficult purchase there was no way she could have done it on her own.
We kept stopping, wishing we had cell service or any idea how far we had gone or where the top of the hill was. I had to stop saying, “This looks like the top!” because it seemed hopeless. We passed a lone mountain biker with a feather in his handlebars who said something about a bridge and a “nice downhill” somewhere far away and we started seeing mirages of bridges. We were saying things like, “We’re never going to do this again,” and, “At least Emily had a chance to see a little more of Oregon,” and “This is STILL pretty great!”
“We are no way no how riding back up the other sides of these hills to Portland.”
We were so close to giving up. When we finally saw what looked like posts ahead we pushed-pedaled-stopped-pushed a little faster, almost panting with want, and we climbed the steep hill up to the road at a run. Never before had we been so happy to see cars. We whooped and hollered down that hill with the music blaring but both of us were wondering: how could we do another 60-something plus that epic mountain 25 miles from the end of the journey?
When we got to the intersection of 47 and the Scappoose-Vernonia Highway, we just laid down in the grasses and closed our eyes for a minute. (Until an aged hippie couple pulled up and asked, in slow giggles, if I knew where to find some good crawfish spots. “It’s a great source of calories!” the man said, thrilled with his own genius. They roared off, not before asking, could they fish in the dark?) We couldn’t decide: go on or go five miles out of our way to Vernonia? Doing that seemed like giving up, because that would make today 11 hours and 55 miles, not even half our trip.
In the end we did it. Talked ourselves into trying. Got on our bikes and rode into Vernonia and got encouragement via Mexican restaurant wifi from Emily’s husband and Todd Fahrner, whose fault it is we have these bikes in the first place. Ate and drank and giggled. Slept on sleeping bags in Anderson Park (no room at the inn here). Woke up rested and giddy for a new of day riding.
At the coffee shop, after being ogled by the early morning crowd, a white-haired man sat down next to us. We were busy ordering everything on the menu and he started in with questions about our bikes (how could we resist) and soon he was telling us the story of his life. How he lived in a log cabin his grandfather had built — he didn’t live on the other side of the Nehalem river, everyone ELSE lived on the other side. How he and his wife had four kids, one died a newborn, another in a car accident “of his own doing.” How the depression had broke her. How he had become locally famous for being an actual, genuine member of the Ax Men TV show (read more about it in The Oregonian).
But what had us falling in love was when he leaned over and said, “Let me tell you a way out of here.” A way out of town that would avoid a short but terrifying hill just past our campground. Around the old mill pond. “I mean Lake Vernonia,” he said, rolling his eyes.
And we just rode. We rode out of town Bill Sword’s way feeling great. We felt great for miles and miles and miles, they just melted away; we counted them down in chunks of ten, the fifties, the forties, the thirties. We got rained on outside of Mist. (It’s always misty in Mist!) We got a bit of cell service at 29.8 and Facebooked our location — we’d kept it secret up until now because we didn’t want to let anyone down. We didn’t want to let ourselves down. But now we knew we could do it.
We got to the legendary mountain, the highest peak we’d cross and the steepest at the top, and we just started ticking the miles off, six more miles, five and a half, five, soon we were at one-and-a-half and we had barely walked at all and we looked at each other in amazement. It was going to happen! And we climbed up the rest of that hill marveling that it wasn’t that bad. I said it was all in our heads. There is an argument to be made that pavement is just that much more easy than dirt and gravel, but really? We were almost there and we weren’t going to stop. We got to the peak and took silly photos and then pointed our bikes down. To the coast!
It had taken us a couple more hours to get down that crazy hill and into Vernonia, cracking wise and singing as loud as we could and smiling fit to beat the band. We’d done it. We’d come up with a crazy idea and three days later hit the road with water and granola bars and lots of bungies. We’d broken through every boundary we’d ever had with our bikes — can’t take them up hills, can’t push with a load, can’t ride more than 30 miles, can’t reach the coast all on our own — and with ourselves. We’d broken through this incredible barrier in ourselves that says, no. You can’t really. It’s too much. No.
It wasn’t too much. We could. We can. Yes!
In the end we decided the lesson was maybe, that an ordinary mom can ride kids on her bike and slowly become a person who could do something extraordinary. Or maybe, you don’t need a bunch of bikes, you just need one that you love enough to push up a mountain. Or maybe, come the zombie apocalypse you want to be on our bike train outta town.
We got picked up in a ZipTruck and rode back woozy with happiness. And tired. Oh so tired. We rode home to Portland dreaming of the next thing we could do. Ride to the coast again. Go bike camping with our kids. (All of them!) Ride up any hill Portland can throw at us. Do anything, anything, anything on our beloved heavy mama bikes.