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

Location: London. Back.

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

Thursday 7 October 2010

We're in Quite a State.

[I do hereby declare that I am in no way receiving financial or other remuneration from the Oregon Tourist Board for the words laid out below - honest!]

I am sitting in a duplex apartment in Port Orford, 70 miles North of the Californian border.  Through the windows, I am watching small fishing boats bobbing as they await winching by crane into their 'dry' harbour.  Behind them, the Pacific: fringed by rugs of pine forests, it is studded with giant lava stacks surging out of the water and speckled with frisky white horses.  Late afternoon sunshine is bathing the whole scene in gentle light.  And in amongst the whole scene jets of water are spurting periodically from the backs of giant grey whales, surfacing during their 12,000 mile migration South from the Arctic to Mexico.  They are just a few hundred yards away.  We keep seeing them.  It's a tough gig, this long distance cycling game.
We loved Washington State.  We took it to our hearts and revelled in its beauty and home comforts after the challenges, starkness and aridness of Bolivia and Peru.  In fact, by the time we crossed the imposing Astoria Megler bridge into Oregon a little over a week ago, we were quietly determined that Washington should be unbeatable on our journey with those whales down to the Mexican border.  So many people had raved about Oregon's coastline, that it was - surely - impossible that it could live up to its billing.  Wasn't it?

The truth is that we have seen so many mind-bendingly, eye-crossingly, heart-stoppingly beautiful coastal scenes since that bridge that Oregon has been at least the match of Washington.  And who's getting competitive anyway?  Given that we've been blessed with almost unrelenting blue skies and barely a drop of the North West's notorious rainfall, it's been almost impossible to take it all in visually.  And it's even more difficult to put into words.  So I'm not going to tell you what we've seen.  I couldn't do it justice.  I'm going to tell you what it all smelt like instead.

On a trip like this, basically straight South down the coast, you can follow your nose.  Granted, we no longer spend weeks at a time on one single road, as was often the case earlier in the year - there are too many interesting detours for that - but our noses are essentially our GPS.  But we've been following our noses in more ways than just directional ones.  The smells have been intoxicating.  Early in our trip, in Argentine Patagonia, we met a man who languidly assured us that the best thing about being on a bike rather than a car is that 'you can smell the wild flowers by the road'.  How right he was.

I spend half my time on the bike these days just sniffing the air like some rabid blood hound.

The smells of the sea are inevitable.  Our route has rarely branched far from the Pacific coast since we entered Oregon, and the salty air is just delicious.  Oregon claims to be one of the world's biggest oyster producers, exporting around the world.  Those smells of the sea have been exacerbated by fleets of venerable oyster trawlers that chug out to sea under bridges we have crossed, and by massive heaps of oyster shells by the roadside.  At one point we passed piles so large that a couple of bulldozers were working to keep it under control.  That's a lot of oysters.  And quite a smell, even for an oyster lover!

But if you think oysters are strong, try sealion breath.  We spent time in Newport watching male sealions one morning.  Like some maritime soap opera, they jostled and wobbled for position on their precarious stretches of boardwalk below us, barking rancid fish breath into the air at deafening levels.  Hilarious to watch, provided you breathe through your mouth.

The smell of fish can be excellent, though - we learnt back in Seattle that this year has been the North West's best for salmon since 1913, and we have done our best to take advantage of this.  Salmon from around here is invariably succulent, free range, deep pink and irresistible.  And what to go with it?  Well, Oregon produces far more wine than the outside world would know, what with California's domination of the US market.  The pinot noirs have been outstanding, our in-camp sommelier Robert Hurran choosing one good bottle after another for our dinners.  To say nothing of 'Oregon's finest martinis' at the excellent Pacific City Inn, which fully lived up to their reputation...

Returning to other sea life for a moment...  The other afternoon, we spent an hour or so watching whales.  I had never seen whales.  I never expected to see whales.  Ever.  In Defoe Bay, as we stood admiring the thunderous surf crashing into the rocks below the roadway, someone saw a plume of spray a kilometre or so off the coast.  And then another.  And then we saw the backs of the grey whales and they surfaced to breathe, blow out 400 litres of water, repeat the performance several times in quick succession, before finally diving deeper to feed, with a magnificent 'fluking' of their tail.  As we continued down the coast, racing against yet another impossibly perfect Pacific sunset, we found whales ever closer to us.  Eventually we were watching one barely the length of a cricket pitch down the cliff from us, feeding peacefully amongst the inshore algae.  We found ourselves quite literally pinching ourselves.  It was one of the loveliest things I've ever seen.

Back to practicalities.  The finest roadside smell a cyclist can detect in these parts is coffee.  We have continued to patronise drive-thru coffee shacks with reckless abandon.  With names like 'Higher Grounds', 'Jazzy Bean Cafe' and 'The Human Bean', you just can't not stop.  Especially reassuring is that we have barely seen a Starbucks in several hundred miles.  It's all about independent little places around these parts.  Many times, we have been greeted by 'I've just brewed a fresh pot'.  It's paradise to the coffee drinker and/or all-day cyclist.  We still haven't risked riding and drinking hot coffee all at once, but our mid morning coffee stops, often in stunning locations, are heavensent.  Along with drive-thru espresso places, incidentally, we have now identified drive-thru post offices, ATMs, chinese restaurants, and pharmacies.  The old adage is true - Americans really don't have to get out of their cars for much.

Evidently practice makes perfect, though.  With the exception of the odd frothing-at-the-mouth lunatic passing us, the road users of the USA have been impressively well behaved towards us so far.  We were alarmed to discover the other day that you only need a car licence to drive a 36ft 'RV' motorhome towing a massive 4x4 behind it, but we are now well past back-to-school time this year.  Most of those driving big outfits are well into retirement, including the delightful retired Wisconsinites we met recently for whom Oregon was the 50th and last state they have visited in their RV - and 'right up among the best'.

The other big occupants of the road are logging trucks.  These impressive beasts thunder along the local highways and byways with around a dozen massive pine trunks jammed between front and back jaws of their trailers.  We've been untroubled by them, but have loved being engulfed in the sweet scent of pine sap emanating from their loads.  It's the kind of smell all loo cleaner and air 'freshener' producers are trying, and failing miserably, to replicate, and just makes you want to fill your lungs.  Perhaps even better than the raw pine smell is the big box trailers that haul tonnes of wood chippings from the logging plants - even sweeter and vaguely reminiscent of carpentry lessons as a 10 year old...!

Of course, it doesn't need trucks to remind you that we are in logging country.  This corner of the US is dominated by massive forests.  Whenever we are inland from the coast, we wend our way through forest roads, breathing deep of those moist, verdant, rich forest smells.  Often, it is pine - seemingly the dominant type of tree grown by the major forestry players.  But there are plenty of wonderfully natural and long established forests too, full of a melee of trees, shrubs and undergrowth coexisting.  Often, the branches of the bigger deciduous trees are draped in moss, lending them a certain Lord of the Rings ethereality.

This beauty is enhanced even more when shafts of afternoon sunlight cut through the branches and illuminate the steam or thin mist lurking within the roadside glades.  But we have seen the beast too: the damage that hurricanes can do to forests like these, leaving them scattered like twigs and only the a handful of rather smug looking big boys still standing.

Dotted along the stunning coastline and tucked into the forests, there are the towns.  Northern Oregon is blessed with one picturesque little spot after another, starting in Astoria where the earliest pioneers had such trouble navigating the perilous mouth of the the Columbia River.  Today, it still full of 'historic' 19th century weatherboarded houses and recently reconverted riverside wharves, all dominated by the 4 mile stretch of the bridge to Washington.  We learnt that the bridge has the longest 'truss' in the world, but have yet to learn what a 'truss' actually is.

Further down the coast, other highlights have included peaceful Seaside (the clue is in the name) with its Le Touquet style expanse of pristine sand and miles of coastal boardwalk, and the mellow little towns of Manzanita and Cannon Beach, full of attractive shops, ramshackle antiques shops, architect designed glass-fronted seashore holiday homes, sweet smelling coffee and chocolate shops, and - in true Monty Python style - wild white bunny rabbits.  All of these places must be infinitely more chaotic during the holiday season, but in the autumn they are paradise.

Newport felt like a 'proper' fishing town, with whale and fishing related murals on the warehouse walls and a chunky fleet of fishing boats in the harbour, to say nothing of that whiff of sealions.  Florence, too, was a joy - we stayed in a motel overlooking the river and classically designed bridge, and could sit on our balcony as the sun set watching salmon jumping clean out of the river, cormorants spreading their wings wide to dry them, and a couple of seals bobbing around.  A true highlight, even before Terry and Kim (coming up shortly!).  And Wheeler and Garibaldi felt as authentically 'American' as you can get - full of effortless Americana, all trimmed with hanging baskets and vintage cars.  If they have changed in the last 60 years I couldn't say how.

It has not all been vintage highlights.  Places like Reedsport and South Bend have showed us a distinctly mundane side to Oregon and the US.  They are essentially the archetypical sprawling concrete splodges of JC Penneys, Safeways, and other warehouse brands.  The Comfort Inns are comfortable and the coffee shops sell coffee (after a fashion), but they are hardly destinations in their own right.  The advertising hoardings outside supermarkets are priceless: 'Will clean anything; $8 an hour; especially enjoy fishing'.  You what?!  And 'Ed's Towing Services has now been taken over by Bob's Towing Services.  Will tow anything...'.  You get the idea.  But you know that just beyond them is coastline to dream of or forests to bring alive the deadest of nostrils.

Whilst most people head back to work or school from these places come Labour Day, those who are left have the chance to produce more smells for us to enjoy on our bikes.  Each neat little home has its classic American mail box at the end of its drive, RV and pick up truck parked in the front yard, and the owner mowing the lawn on their ride-on.  Either that, or bonfiring those autumn leaves.  Either way, our noses are twitching in pleasure.

Talking of local inhabitants, in Florence we spent a hilarious evening in a bar.  The aforementioned Terry, whom we met outside as we wandered by, lured us in with the promise of music from some of the world's musical greats.  To our surprise, they did indeed seem to have some considerable pedigree, and won us over by playing the blues version of Rule Britannia in our honour.  Thereafter, Mustang Sally took over.  From our table we could see the stetsons bobbing up and down on the dance floor like the fishing boats outside.  Terry retired early 25 years ago and was excellent company, as was his lovely wife Kim who clearly had his high energy approach to life and martinis ('Swedish water') under control: 'he amuses himself'.  Between assuring us that he had saved us Brits ('well, my dad flew fighters') in World War II and apologising for not being able to join us the following day on our bikes ('between you and me, I've got a colonoscopy in Eugene tomorra' mornin'), we also learnt of the Oregon/California rivalry.  Evidently, Californians think rather highly of themselves when they head North across the border for their holidays and don't always make friends.  He and Kim had met in the bike shop where he was working a couple of years ago, when she came in to buy guitar strings.  It's that kind of place, Florence.

Another character we came across was Carl.  Carl is a chainsaw wood carver.  I'll repeat that.  A chainsaw wood carver.  Was there ever a cooler job?  In a cloud of chainsaw fumes and wood chippings, he produces brilliant life size cartoon style replicas of local cowboys and bears.  They take two days to make and he sells them for $1200.  He is onto something here.  Plus, he still has all ten fingers and all four limbs.  I counted them.  And he's been doing it since 'my daddy taught me when I was this tall...'.  The ultimate manly pursuit.

It is important to mention, at this point, the Oregon attitude to moustaches, as exemplified by Terry.  It may impede their sense of smell, but Oregonians really go for it.  Mostly the men.  They wear them as a badge of proper, manly, chainsawing, pine logging pride.  I thought mine earlier in the trip was pretty cool for a couple of days.  Now I realise I was a long way short of the real thing.  Freddie Mercury, Saddam Hussain and Burt Reynolds, eat your hearts out.  Oregon is surely the (ex-Middle East) World Capital of the Moustache.

It hasn't only been the locals that we've enjoyed meeting.  We are now part of a something approximating to a southbound convoy making its way down the coast.  This is a popular route, with good reason. Glen and Roger are a great Cornish couple who have left their 17 and 19 year old daughters back in the UK to cycle the same route as us through North America.  Whether teenagers can keep up with such bouncy and fun parents is a moot point.  They must surely envy their mum's fabulous bright red hair.  Neither Roger nor Glen had ever done anything like this before and they are an irrepressible force whom we keep enjoying running into.

Garth and Dee, by contrast, are a wonderful pair from Vancouver via Bermuda who have taken on every athletic endeavour in the book - including representing Bermuda at road racing and cruising through Ironman Canada just a few weeks ago.  We are reassured that they are taking this venture at exactly the same pace as us, and with the same attitude to - among other things - a decent glass of wine in the evenings.  We expect to see plenty more of them as we head further South.

Then there is Paul the imposing Californian, ably supported by his wife Liz from behind the wheel of her Toyota, trundling along in a position almost exactly identical to that he'd adopt on one of the many Harley Davidsons that thrumble past us each day.  But bemusingly going at the same speed as us.

And the mysterious Germans (at least we believe they are German) whom we keep seeing and keep admiring on account of their lugging more paniers than us PLUS a small child, but with whom we have yet to communicate.

Not quite local, but now well established as part of our team, are Robert and Sue Hurran, for whom special mention must be made.  Liz's mum and dad have been truly heroic for nearly two weeks now.  With them as moral, nutritional and general support, our days now go something like this:

- wake up in comfortable motel bed;
- wander to breakfast room to eat self-made waffles, peculiar coloured sugary cereal, watery coffee, squelchy muffins and bagels solid enough to throw at the enemy - all from cardboard or polystyrene plates;
- plonk clothes bags in oversized and gratuitously comfortable hired people carrier;
- take delivery of Sue Hurran's legendary packed lunch;
- stretch briefly in the sunshine and apply sun cream;
- bike all morning, breathing in autumnal smells of sea and forest;
- eat lunch at judiciously selected sunny and/or scenic spot;
- bike all afternoon, pausing frequently to marvel at post card coastal views or large marine mammals;
- arrive at carefully chosen and pre-checked in motel (or better) and wheel bikes straight in through the door;
- eat copious home cooked food miraculously created with the use of an intermittently working microwave and a plastic spoon;
- examine maps for next day;
- fall into heavy sleep in comfortable motel bed.

We are feeling downright guilty when we discuss our cushy existence with our fellow cyclists as they puff and pant along with their own body weight in paniers.  OK, not that guilty, perhaps.  We'll be right back with them, sharing camping space, early next week.  But for now we are revelling in the spoiling - thank you, Team H!!

One more day of Oregon biking until we hit California.  If only it could go on forever.  We are wanting to tease these days out so that they never end.  When you find yourself delaying getting to California, you know things are good.  Life has rarely smelt so sweet.


  1. Damn - I am full of the cold so cannot enjoy the smells! Glad it's all still going well.

  2. Phil,

    Does your wearing of a luminous tabard give us a clue to your next career move?

    Great adventures guys. How will you ever be able to sit still when you get back to Blighty?

    Enjoy. Everyone in the ratrace is very very envious.


  3. Hate it when it all goes quiet - hope all OK Liz? x

  4. Hoping you are in the Bay area enjoying its lustre. Reading your blog is better than writing a book! Although you may make more money.

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