Latest Update (as at 30/1/11):

Location: London. Back.

Total Distance Cycled: 10,325km
Days Biking: 140
Longest Day: 174km (2/12/10)

Sunday 26 September 2010


It is 6.15pm.

We are cycling towards a campsite in a Washington State Park.

We had hoped to be there by now.

We still have 15 miles to go.

We are slightly wearily realising that we are probably going to have to bike the last part of the day in the dark, pitch our tent in the dark and make our dinner in the dark.

We are girding our loins to be stoic and hardy.

A lady flags us down.
Now. From afar I had the impression that maybe this lady's car had broken down. As I sped towards the scene I was wondering how on earth we could help her. Perhaps she wanted us to bike on to the next town and alert someone to her plight? As I approached however I realised that she was chatting avidly to Phil about cycling and then within thirty seconds of my pulling up she was offering us a room in her home for the night and hurriedly giving us directions to it.

She had pulled us over to invite us to stay. It was a miracle. She had appeared by the side of the road like an angel of loveliness just at the very moment that we needed her. She was smiley and charming and enthusiastic and she was willing to let two rather grubby strangers into her home.

And her surname was Blessing!

And what a blessing she proved to be. And what a star. Nancy lives in a glorious house overlooking Puget Sound. The room she prepared for us was one of the nicest we have stayed in on the whole trip. The bedding was soft, the rugs sponged joyfully under our feet, there were scatter cushions, lovely magazines and glorious books about tree houses and just the most incredible view. In the en-suite (EN SUITE) bathroom hung posters for the 'Tour de Lopez', the uber-relaxed cycling event round the nearby island of Lopez that we had just visited.

And therein lay a clue as to why Nancy was being so lovely to us. She is a bonefide hard-core cyclist herself. Ten years ago, for her sixtieth birthday (please note - sixtieth) Nancy decided to celebrate by cycling from one side of the U.S. to the other! Coast to coast, over 3400 miles, in 50 days. A truly incredible achievement. She knows what it is to be out there on the road, fancying a comfy bed and a shower and a jolly good meal.

And she gave us all of these. And more. We had the most fantastic evening. We chatted about adventures, we looked at her photos and memories of her trip, we compared notes on life the universe and it and we went to bed inspired and revived and full of delight at the spirit of human kindness. What a great lady. What a lesson in how to live. We felt very lucky.

We had been having a discussion earlier in the week about the differences between American English and English English. We had commented on how whilst the English might use the word 'Lucky', the Americans would probably choose the word 'Blessed'. It was a little premonition.

It is also a suitably religious connotationy sounding word suiting the tone of our first North American stint of cycling. Because we have found ourselves, since recommencing on our bikes and travelling 260 miles from Vancouver back to Seattle, in Bike Heaven.

Bike Heaven, where the blessings don't stop with Nancy.

Let me describe Bike Heaven to you.

In Bike Heaven there are bike lanes. Everywhere. In Bike Heaven some higher power has decreed that cyclists are good and must be looked after and loved, and feted and adored and so they must (wherever possible) be given their own little lane, or designated street or special separate autonomous path. And in order that this delicious information be shared amongst those already good, or aspiring to be good, there must be specially designed bike maps, clear, beautiful and easy to follow, widely distributed and easy to lay your hands on.

And the delight must not stop there. For once the good are on the road there must be bike signs for them to follow. Beautiful green and white signs that show these routes of righteousness in simple, idiot proof glory. So detailed are some of these signs that they will even warn the unwary of thinning lanes, or disappearing paths or (my all time favourite) of places where nasty sea shells might pierce their wheels and render them punctured, alone and sad.

Oh yes, the Canadians and the residents of Washington state are truly switched on to cycling. There are unbelievably civilised ways of orientating oneself by bike around huge metropolises like Vancouver and Seattle. It is possible to cycle right through the heart of these places and be allowed to do so without fear of overt hooting or general driver abuse.

And the drivers are ludicrously respectful. One gets used on a bike to being considered by those behind the wheel of a car as no more significant than a slug or a worm (please forgive me, small creepy things) and therefore ripe for all sorts of abuse, hounding and attack. Here, people kept stopping. I would look confused, hesitate and wonder if there were traffic lights I'd missed and then realise that they were stopping for US! For us, little old us, on our bikes.

Significantly we were not alone on our bikes. Lordy no. We were surrounded by others, who bike everywhere and had the holy 'bike zeal' in their eyes.

We have had so many conversations with cycling enthusiasts. They sidle up beside you as you are chugging along (usually on sleek, speedy, sexy road bikes) and they ask you where you're from and what on earth you are doing on your clunky great touring bike, covered in bags. And they are friendly and interested and incredibly helpful - "You don't want to take that road. You want to take the next left, follow the road by the shore (no shoulder, but hey there aren't many cars) and you'll be there in no time at all".

It is (to use another American English word), Awesome!

This brotherhood reached a pinnacle in the Washington town of Bellingham. We stopped by the road to see if there was a map of the town in the petrol station and a guy on a bike rode up. "Where you guys headed?" "Chuckanut Drive." "Well, I'm going that way. Follow me and I'll point you on the right path."

Following Bo included being given a bike-by of the towns highlights, info on where to get wi-fi and our clothes washed, shown a great spot for lunch and shown the road we needed to follow. All, just because. Every town should have a Bo.

And there have been some great towns. Leaving our waterfront haven in Vancouver we headed back to the U.S border and in rain-drenched glory passed the Peace Arch and squelched into the harbour town of Blaine. As close to Canada as one can get ("We just tell people to drive north until the Canadians ask for your passport and then turn left") it is not a big or seemingly exciting spot. But we loved it. We began in the petrol station by asking for directions to a motel and were immediately charmed by the warmth and humour of those we met. Hugely amused by how wet we were and full of great jokes about how tricky it must have been to 'cross the pond' on our bikes, they graded the motels for us in order of loveliness and gave us a quick run down on the three places to eat.

A great night's rest, and some good grub later we wandered onto the one main street, past the numerous fluttering stars and stripes, and had a fantastic cup of coffee and breakfast in the 'Little Red Caboose' cafe. This mini waterfront establishment was run by a charming couple inside an old railway carrriage. We were joined in there by the guy from the petrol station the night before and as the coffee (free refills....Huzzah!!) flowed, so did the chat. There had been a long discussion that morning about the end of the world. The locals had heard of a man who was selling all his possessions and giving up his job in preparation for the apocalypse which he had calculated as due in May 2011. The general consensus was that this was a rather specific date to be focussing on and that perhaps he should give himself a wee bit of latitude since calculating the end of the world, considering all the changes in calenders that there have been and other such complications, was a tricky thing to do. We heartily agreed as the conversation flowed on to big trips, the state of Washinton state, politics and sandwich fillings.

This set the tone for our journey back to Seattle. We found some fabulous small towns, with fabulous coffee and eating spots and fabulous local chat. In the bar we ate in, in Blaine, replete with endless glowing tube beer adverts and fifteen television screens, we were charmed when our request for wine was met with a peppy, "Sure thing. I got three kinds. Red, White and Pink". In the 'Skinny Latte' cafe in Friday Habour, a doorway width long shop wedged between two buildings, we were regaled with tales of recent clients who had included Chevy Chase and Tom Hanks. In the 'Rhododendron Cafe' just outside Burlington, the owner gave us fabulous local info whilst we tucked into the home brewed coffee and tried to answer questions between mouthfuls of ice cream covered brownie. In the 'Poulsbohemian' cafe in oddly Nordic Poulsbo, the owner had instigated the knitting of a 22 mile scarf and whilst we contemplated this oddity we ate her Snickerdoodle cookie and nursed cups of strong coffee overlooking the smooth waters of Puget Sound. And in the Anacortes Inn, ("Not to be confused with the Anacortes Bay Inn on the other side of town") Bill had us giggling off our stools with his tales of silly guests and local goings on ("This property was paid down free and clear a long time ago, and so we don't need to bone guests to make a buck").

We loved the road names, the house names, the cars that passed us and the fabulous Motel culture of huge rooms with at least two beds and a microwave and a fridge and a coffee making machine as standard.
And then there were our new favourite places of all: drive through espresso joints. That is correct. Places where you can drive on either side of a little hut and buy a coffee of just about any permutation (flavoured with mint, flavoured with peanut butter, frothy, wet, dry, non-fat, soy milk, sprinkled with chocolate, sprinkled with moon dust) and then drive on. We learnt to bike through and boy what a joy that was.

As was the chow we were washing it down with. In our South American biking days, with sizable gaps between places and long hot days, you have read of the perils of endless sardine sarnies spiced up with only the occassional foray into canned pate or cooked ham. Now, we found endless joys at our disposal. Aisle upon aisle, cart upon cart of Paradisical offerings. So much choice our minds were slightly blown. Salad bars where we could fill boxes with every colour of fruit and veg, huge varieties of every grain bread and smoothies made with one hundred percent health juice. Washington State, lush and green and rich, is a haven for the lover of grub and populated by the discerning consumer who wants organic this and free range that and even stuff from abroad!

Equally alluring were the evil delights of every form of cheesecake known to man, cookies of such soft sugary chocolate chippiness that they just leapt off the shelves into our hands and buns and donuts and yoghurts and cheeses and things that we had forgotten existed.

And the food blessings went on. We discovered to our amazement was that we could eat in the supermarkets too. Often by an alluring mock log fire. This made the biking life so ludicrously civilised as to be slightly laughable. We bought our things and hunkered down and gobbled to our wide eyed delight.
It was a wonder however, that our eyes could drink anything in since the perhaps the greatest blessing of this whole stretch was the scenery. We passed through some serious loveliness. We sought out coastal stretches and scenic routes in the hope of great views but what we were met with far surpassed our imaginings.

First we enjoyed the cliff hugging and board walk brilliance of Chuckanut Drive, an early highway carved audaciously out of the cliffs, that one moment had us perched high above the water and next had us curling through dripping fir forest. We biked through in the cool afternoon light of a brilliantly sunny day, and as we swirled and dodged round the hairpin bends light would fall slanting in our way and vistas of glorious water shimmeriness would surprise us corner after corner.

Then we branched off the mainland and went round three of the San Juan islands. If Chuckanut Drive was heaven then these were truly paradise. These deliriously magical places, little worlds of their own, sit between Vancouver Island and mainland USA. There are 170 islands or so in the archipeligo, only some of which are inhabited. This is desirable land to own. We knew we'd arrived somewhere reasonably coveted when just about the first place we saw as we stepped off the boat was the Sotherby's estate agency!

These islands are quiet and calm and perfect for cycling. We enjoyed endless views of the water, of little harbour areas filled with gently bobbing boats, more dramatic cliff side locations where we could enjoy birds and jumping fish and seals, and Phil even saw an Orca Whale loping smoothly out of the water, blowing from its spout lacadasically. When we went inland we were treated to long farmland roads with berry-full hedgerows and vineyards and animals nibbling contentedly and lovely large farms where the sounds of tractors buzzed reassuringly and the air smelt of freshly mown grass. We started a list of new favourite USA things, upon which went old farm barns, those end of the drive post boxes with the flapping lids and the titles of fantastic local papers like the 'Skagit County Herald' and the 'Kitsap Times'.

Also on the list were the services of the impressively organised State and National Park system. We kept stopping at well signposted sights, from nature reserves to places of historical importance, all supplied with great facilities and often with camping sites (with, of course, specially dedicated hiker/biker sites - this is Bike Heaven after all!) and lovingly preserved plaques and information centres.

One of our favourites was English Camp on San Juan island. We felt duty bound by our nationhood to visit (!) since it marked the spot of an army encampment kept by our motherland during the mid nineteenth century to protect their interests in a long running dispute with the USA over territory. The Americans had their camp too (on the other side of the island) and the whole lot nearly came to blows in the fortunately resolved Pig War (don't ask) before finally allowing the Kaiser of Germany to mediate and send them all merrily on their way. Whilst the history was edifying, more wonderful for us was the glorious vista and the great wildlife. Our eyes have been opened on this trip to all sorts of birds and beasts and we were indulged at English Camp by a fine display from an imperious looking owl and a bit of chicanery from a very impish fox.

And we employed a bit of chicany of our own. Because all this island hopping allowed us to use our new favourite form of transport. The Ferry.

We chose a route that allowed us to weave our way back to Seattle,whizzing backwards and forwards across little nooks of water and taking full advantage of the Washington State Ferry Service.

What a brilliant way to travel if you are on a bike. We would pitch up at the ferry terminal (usually flying down a long queue of cars sitting patiently on a long downhill slope) with less than quarter of an hour to go, buy our ticket, join the waiting pedestrians and then be the first on. Since we are in Bike Heaven they make plenty off arrangements for bikes. Once you are on, you tether your darlings to the front of the boat with pieces of yellow rope and then of course you are first off and speeding away to another glorious location long before the cars have even turned their engines over. During the journey you can then desport yourself in the capacious lounge areas of enjoy the incredible views from the decks, leaning Titanic stylee over the front of the boat.

And again, what views. Most wonderful was our early morning ferry from one San Juan island to another where the mist and low cloud moved elusively around us, now revealing this island, then revealing that and encasing us in an ethereal, mystical wonderland where it really felt as if we were travelling at the very edges of the world. I had the impression at some moments, when the light was cast in such a way as to seem to suggest coming to a precipice, that we were simply going to sail off the side and fall into oblivion.

Every sense was tingling. You can feel the mist, or the sun, or the wind on your skin, you can taste the salty air, you can hear the splash of seagulls or cormorants landing in the water and you jump out of your skin when the ferry blasts its horn, your eyes are feasting on the bobbing heads of seals or the plastic bag imitating monster jelly fish and you can smell the powerful aroma of the sea and the sweet softer scents of verdant damp woodland and early autumn fires coming from the shore.

Adjectives defy it. It was spellbinding.

We enjoyed some of the most memorable biking days of the trip so far during this route. The loveliness carried on as we ferried and bridged our way from Whidby Island to the Olympic peninsula and to Bainbridge Island before finally was Seattle hoved back into view across the sound in all its 'Frasier' skyline glory. We had been blessed with mostly sunshine and just so much wonderfulness that it had caused me to declare, "I rather like this bicycling lark"!

And after days of luxuriating in this blissful wonderland we headed to Sea-Tac airport for perhaps the greatest potential blessing of all.

The arrival of my parents.

My parents who had promised to hire a car, and carry our bags and make our lunch and do all sorts of other angelic behaviours.

Bike Heaven and the Blessings. Long may it last!

1 comment:

  1. Your trip, is one of a lifetime! Keep up the spirit, daily resilience and the joy of being together. Liz and Phil, you have taken amazing photos which gives the viewer the esence of your travels.
    Your written logs put the readers right where you are... and the many ways you are viewing the world.