Cycle Touring the Pacific-Northwestern USA. Coffee, beer, and lots of trees!

Having left Calgary three weeks previously, it was time to head into the USA and finally dip our feet in the Pacific Ocean!

For those that want to follow our trip from start to finish, make sure to read Parts One, Two, and Three of the ride first if you haven’t already.

After a very exciting border crossing into the United States, we made our way south through flat farmland along arrow-straight roads. The sun and the clouds took it in turns to take over the sky, and the day’s ride was split between gorgeous sunshine and blue skies, interspersed with heavy downpours. Each time the ominous dark clouds rolled in, we took cover under anything available. We sat leaning against walls, benches, trees, huts, and anything else we could find while watching the droplets smash against the ground as we slowly sipped from our water bottles.

We had no plan in mind for where we would stay that night. Crossing borders by bicycle can be a notoriously difficult and a lengthy process considering the average cycle tourist does not fit into the normal ‘boxes’ that border officials use to categorise travellers; potential threats to security, illegal workers, smugglers, bail-jumpers, etc. As a result, we are often subjected to extra questioning and inspections. However, despite our crossing that day taking longer than expected, we were still rolling by mid-morning.

We decided to aim for the town of Bellingham for no other reason than it was the first decent-sized town this side of the border, and we needed to pick up supplies to cook over our stoves that evening. Plus, we knew that Washington state is famous for it’s beer, and it would have been churlish to not celebrate our second country of the journey in local style!

Although Bellingham was supposed to be nothing more than a place to use an ATM and grab some groceries – it turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip!

Having secured some US cash, we proceeded into town. Bellingham itself is a decent-sized city, but as we cycled along the downtown strip, we were impressed by the vibe of the place; wide tree-lined streets, light traffic, cycle lanes, attractive brick buildings, plenty of cafes, bars, restaurants, art galleries, museums, and parks. Our plan was to find a nice looking bar with outside seating where we could grab a drink and clink glasses to the next section of our journey.

Just to the south of Bellingham, along a few miles of attractive ocean-side road lined with beautiful homes over-looking the water, sits another small town called Fairhaven. We happened across a little corner bar with tables and chairs outside. With the sun shining brightly overhead, we locked the bikes to a railing and grabbed ourselves a seat. As soon as the server, Nate, came bounding over to us, we knew that we were now in the USA. Having gotten used to the quiet, calm politeness of Canadian hospitality, we were now confronted by the infectious energy and beaming smiles of the American service industry.

Having ordered a couple of drinks, we then picked Nate’s brain for it’s wealth of local knowledge. Only a young guy, Nate was indispensable in helping us to allay our fears of wild-camping in a land where personal property was now protected by firearms and a in-built suspicion of anything unfamiliar. He helped us pick out on our map good beaches and forests for camping, and told us where we could find decent grocery stores for buying supplies. He also told us about a friend of his who worked for an oyster farm some miles to the south – “if you guys are heading down that way, hit him up for some oysters, they’re a local delicacy!”

A short while later, I was sitting on the bicycle racks outside the local grocery store, guarding the bikes while Candace shopped inside. I sat with my eyes closed, letting the warm sun wash over me – I think the memories of the incredibly rainy and wet day before were still haunting me! I was soon brought out of my reverie by a voice calling over to me – “Oh hey! Bicycle touring! Where are you headed?”

I opened my eyes and a friendly-faced lady came walking over to me. She was middle-aged, but fit and outdoorsy – the epitome of the Pacific-Northwestern culture. As Candace came out of the store with her arms laden with goods, the three of us all got talking and it transpired that Laurel had done some bicycle touring herself many years previously, along with her husband and now-grown children. We explained that we would be soon heading off to try and find a campsite for the evening, but Laurel wasted no time in offering us a place to stay at her home – but she needed to get some groceries first, – “perhaps you could give me a hand?” – she offered.

After shopping, we walked away from the main strip up into the residential area built into the low surrounding hills away from the town’s main strip. I think this was an important moment for Candace, especially after three weeks toiling across the epic-ness of western Canada with only me for company. She now reveled in telling all of the stories to our new friend, who politely nodded, smiled, and made the right ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ at the appropriate times in the stories.

Laurel and her husband, Tom, lived in a beautiful wooden house in some of the most peaceful and pretty scenery one could imagine. Tom didn’t seem at all perturbed by his wife bringing home two foreign cyclists, and we were made to feel most welcome, sitting at their kitchen counter with cold beers in our hands. When asked if there was anything that we would like to do that evening, Candace and I both knew the answer without thinking – dipping our feet in the Pacific Ocean. For both of us, but Candace in particular, this would be a pivotal and symbolic moment, not to mention also a huge milestone – crossing from the Canadian prairies to the Pacific Ocean by bicycle. After her crippling defeat two years previously while cycling through France – this was to prove to be an important boost of confidence and well-being.

Laurel and Tom were only too happy to help, and via a detour to run an errand at a neighbour’s house, (where Candace held her first chicken!) we were on our way to the ocean!

We walked down to the sea using a network of heavily-wooded walking trails, and everyone we passed offered a cheery ‘hello’ and a smile. I felt very relaxed and at peace. This was clearly a very wholesome place, full of good energy, and exactly what we needed after a long ride.

We took the obligatory photos of the two of us standing ankle-deep in the ocean – looking a little bit crazy to all of the dog-walkers, the couples watching the sunset, the joggers, the cyclists, and the myriad other folks on the beach that evening!

In a manner unique to the trust and community spirit typical of small, outdoorsy towns with very little crime; the next morning we awoke to find Laurel and Tom had left for work, leaving us alone in their house under a promise to turn out the lights and lock the door before we left.

Laurel and Tom, (or anyone who knows them and can pass on the message…) thanks very much for taking us in and looking after us! Sorry we lost your contact details and we don’t even know your last name – if you are reading this please get in touch, we appreciate everything you did!

Unfortunately, the mild and dry weather of the previous day had turned back into the heavy rainfall typical of this part of the world. We wheeled our bicycles out from the warmth of Laurel and Tom’s home and into the sopping wet streets. Visibility was incredibly poor as a result of the low cloud, dim light, and the air being so thick with rain and spray; so we decided to wait out the bad weather in a cosy-looking cafe on the town’s main strip. As it would turn out, this little haven from the rain, and the people we met there would become another very fond memory for us to add to an already very positive experience in this little town.

Over the course of the following few hours, we must have gone through six (or more) rounds of coffee, two breakfasts each, and many conversations with a whole host of different townsfolk that passed by the little cafe for their morning cup of Joe and a chat with their fellow denizens. It was with a distinct feeling of regret and sadness that eventually we had to face our future and we zipped-up our waterproof jackets, turned on our bicycle lights, and clipped-on our helmets before heading out into the deluge outside.

It was on this day that we realised that we were unknowingly facing the beginning of the end for our journey through the Pacific-Northwest, but we were turning a blind eye to the writing on the wall as we began pedalling out of Fairhaven.

After Candace had taken a nasty spill on the highway back in Canada two days previously, her left knee (which she hit against the pavement upon falling from the bike) was now beginning to give her problems as the weather had taken another turn to being cold and wet. This knee had been giving her problems on and off for many years, and it was the very same issue that had cut short our cycle ride through France back in early 2018. So you can imagine our apprehension as those familiar sharp pains began to rear their ugly heads once more.

We must have been less than five kilometres out of town when she started to fall behind despite my relatively slow pace of riding, so I stopped under a tree to shelter while I waited for her to catch up; the look of grimace and tears in her eyes when she rolled up alongside me told me everything I needed to know.

We considered all of our options – unfortunately there were not too many. We didn’t want to impose again on Laurel and Tom who had already done so much for us the previous night, a hotel would have cost over a 100 dollars a night, and despite a kind offer of pitching our tent in the front yard of one of the folks we met in the cafe, we eventually decided to head to the very next public campsite just 16 kilometres further on. Carrying on was going to be slow and painful for Candace, but I pointed out that even if we had to walk the bikes (walking didn’t cause her anywhere near as much pain as pedalling) – it would still be a fathomable distance to cover in an afternoon.

Fortunately, the horrendous weather started to break as we headed south into the beautiful Chuckanuts – an area of low hills covered in gorgeous, dense, temperate forest. Despite effectively pedalling her bicycle one-legged, Candace’s mood began to improve as her knee began to loosen up and the ibuprofen kicked in, and coupled with the broken sunshine, the day eventually started to improve again massively.

I loved following the gentle bends and contours on Chuckanut Drive – the road through the forest we were following south. The road itself is built on the edge of the precipice that drops down to the ocean, and through the breaks and gaps in the dense trees that lined the pavement we could see out across Bellingham Bay to the numerous islands that were dotted around the coastline.

One thing I really wanted to try after reading the book ‘The Hungry Cyclist’ was to try real Olympia oysters – a local delicacy, and a rare type of Oyster endemic to the Olympic Peninsular of Washington State and found nowhere else. The author of this book, Tom Kevil-Davies, had passed by this area on his epic bicycle ride a good few years previously, and had extolled the virtues of this delicate local mollusk. I have read this book several times – and it very much formed part of my inspiration for the value of bicycle travel.

Thanks to Nate’s suggestions the previous day at the bar, we knew that somewhere along our route that day would be the oyster farm where we were hoping we could try our first oysters. (Neither Candace or I typically eat seafood, but we always believe in trying local food wherever we are – regardless of our own personal dietary choices; food is so integral to culture that neither of us wish to miss out on genuine experiences as a result of being too restrictive.)

Sure enough, a short while later as we rounded a hairpin bend in the road, a little side street appeared with a sign for Taylor Shellfish Farms. We turned and left the hillside highway behind us and dropped down the steep, one-lane track down to sea level. After crossing a Texas gate, the road became unsealed and loose, and we followed the brine smell along the edge of the cliffs; the roadside next to us littered with rusty anchors, ragged and discarded crab-pots, rotten wooden dories, disintegrated old ropes, and other long-forgotten nautical paraphernalia.

We parked our bikes against the wooden columns of the main building, and then while bracing ourselves against the frigid wind coming off of the Pacific Ocean, we bundled inside into the warmth of the restaurant area. They had on display a veritable plethora of oysters of all shapes, sizes, and colours; and having no idea what we were doing, we simply ordered a ‘Shuckers Dozen’. Basically the chef’s choice, expertly shucked and served on a bed of ice to our table. The only request we had was that two of the oysters had to be Olympias! We ordered two craft beers in plastic cups to accompany our upcoming feast.

Oysters are one of those foods that tend to polarise opinions – personally however, I was a big fan! Notwithstanding the high-price to quantity ratio, I would certainly consider eating them more often. I loved the delicate, slightly salty flavour that was ever-so-slightly fishy without being overwhelming, and with just a little dab of hot sauce and a quick squeeze of lemon elevating the experience to a level greater than the sum of it’s parts. But the cost is a little out of my price range for regular consumption, but for a rare experience in a beautiful part of the world, eating a product that is ‘grown’ right there, cannot be beaten. It was a real highlight to experience this meal in this little ocean-side shack, far away from the trendy oyster bars of London or New York – and a memory I will always cherish.

The staff at the oyster farm were extremely friendly, asking us questions about the ride so far and offering us tips and advice for when we headed further south. They even broke out a map and showed us good places to camp, as well as beauty spots not to be missed.

The next morning, we broke down the tent and headed off towards an area called ‘Deception Pass.‘ Connecting Fidalgo Island in the north, to Whidbey Island in the south, Deception Pass is formed of two high bridges linked by a huge column of rock in the middle. It is hard to appreciate just how stunning the area is from my photos taken at ground level, so I will provide a picture courtesy of Google Maps 3D mapping software below to give you an idea of how pretty the bridges and landscape are.

Our journey down through the rolling hills and thick forests of Whidbey Island was to the soundtrack of military jets roaring overhead at low altitude thanks to the proximity of a Naval Air Station on the island. Our plan for the day was to make a quick stop in a town called Coupeville, (I had seen a craft beer tap-house on the map!) followed by a quick-ride to Fort Casey where we could camp; before jumping on the early morning ferry over to Port Townsend back on the mainland to following morning.

A few hours later, as I was draining the dregs of my second beer, I stood up to pay the bill and felt incredibly light-headed. Now two beers is never usually a problem for me, even the high-strength American style IPAs of which I had been drinking, so I blamed my ill-feeling on de-hydration and not really eating enough through-out a long and hot day of riding. Next to the tap-house was a gas-station, and so while Candace grabbed a couple of drinks, I found myself some trail mix. The trail mix seemed to have an unusual taste and was very oily, but in my famished state I ate the whole bag of it regardless. Through a combination of factors – I was going to be in for a rough night!

As the golden, late-afternoon sun began to bathe the landscape, us two little cycle-tourists, mere dots on the landscape, were headed south towards Fort Casey. My slight dizziness and nausea was getting worse and without warning, no build-up whatsoever, I got a cramp in my lower intestine that felt like someone driving a knife into me. I signalled to Candace to stop and with sweat dripping off my brow, I begged her to pass me the roll of toilet paper and the pack of wet wipes she kept handily accessible in her pannier. The tone of my voice, and the look of sheer pain on my face told her all she needed to know and she passed them to me with a promise to wait and watch the bikes by the roadside. I needed to find somewhere private and fast.

Unfortunately, time was not on my side and as we were in area with various little settlements dotted about, privacy was going to have to be sacrificed. I vaulted a low fence into what I assumed was an area of parkland or a golf course – it certainly had well worn walking paths everywhere, and in the distance I could see the occasional person and small group, walking dogs, cycling or playing some form of ball-game. The time for deliberation had passed, and while crouching behind the only available bush that did very little in terms of camouflage, my shorts had barely reached my ankles before my digestive system gave up any possibility of politeness. To this day I am genuinely very sorry to anyone that walked past that area – I tried to hide I promise!

We rolled into Fort Casey, and after my little episode on the golf course, I was feeling much better. We took a walk around the fort itself and naturally I bored Candace half to death by reading all the information boards dotted around the site.*

*Reading every single information board is a habit I picked up from my Dad, although he is even worse than me. I remember going to the British Museum with him once; normally I would glance over the less interesting sections (such as the vast array of broken pottery that the British Museum has in it’s collection) in favour of the more interesting stuff. (Egyptian mummies, the Rosetta Stone, skeletons etc.) With my Dad however, it was a different story. Progress was slowed considerably as he steadily inched his way from display card, to information board, to ancient scroll; each room in the vast labyrinthine building seemed to take ages!

My inner nerd was super impressed by the guns at the fort, which could be raised and lowered between shots. Known as ‘Disappearing Guns’ – their ability to protect themselves from attack when being reloaded or not in use was exciting technology in 1901 when they were installed. However, as the next few years progressed they became somewhat obsolete after the invention of the airplane which made the fort vulnerable to attack from the air and the guns were taken out of service.

Fort Casey is one of three forts (the others being Fort Walden and Fort Flagler) that together form the ‘Triangle of Fire’ – guarding the narrow bottleneck that separates the Pacific Ocean on the outside from the Puget Sound on the inside. Those with an eye for geography, (or a quick click through to google maps) will see that this narrow inlet is the only way that ships can access Puget Sound from the outside. During the various wars over the last century – protecting the big city of Seattle and all it’s various manufacturing plants was naturally very important. These manufacturing plants including, but not limited to of course, Boeing – a huge supplier of military aircraft as well as other ordnance such a bombs and missiles etc.

As we sat outside our tent watching the evening ferries shuttling back and forth, my stomach was not at all happy again, and as the sun faded and we retired to our sleeping bags, the knife-edge stabbing pain had returned; and continued – all night. Every twenty minutes (literally – no exaggeration!) I unzipped my way out of the tent and stumbled, hand on my stomach to the campsite bathrooms. This happened over and over again for hours, all through the night. At one point the only consolation I had was that I hadn’t started vomiting, however this feeling was short-lived as by the early hours of the morning, all hell was breaking loose and at times I wasn’t sure which end to point at the toilet. I did however realise the awfulness of the situation and decided to take a selfie (I rarely take selfies) as a long-lasting reminder that sometimes travel can be a real pig!

A few hours before sunrise, my body had finally settled down. However, there was no chance in hell I was going to be fit enough to jump on the first ferry of the day. Instead I lay in the tent in a semi-daze, in a sweaty, lucid state while Candace busied herself making coffee and watching the sunrise. It was comfortably past nine o’clock in the morning when I finally dragged myself out of my cocoon and slowly broke down the tent, stopping to rest every few minutes with exhaustion.

Stepping off the ferry in Port Townsend was enough for me … there was no chance my body was ready to continue any further and so after a quick coffee (and a bit of reading) on the waterfront, and with the shortest cycling day finished at a total of 4 kilometres (not including ferry journey) we set up camp in Fort Walden state park, just to the north of the town. Port Townsend itself really impressed me, it had that real ‘Pacific Northwest’ feel to it. Wide streets lined with wooden colonial buildings, lots of trendy bars and cafes, and even more rugged and outdoorsy townsfolk. If I were feeling any better, perhaps we would have taken more time to look around, but as it was, we really needed to do laundry; so, I sat and read the ample supply of magazines in the laundromat’s waiting area as we took it in turns to wash our road-grimy clothing.

The following day, the next stage of our journey took us south – towards the beginning of the Hood Canal; a long stretch of water separating the Olympic Peninsular from the rest of the State. We made good progress and stayed a night camping just outside a small town named Brinnon. My stomach was feeling much better – to the extent that I felt I could tackle a beer after the day’s ride, and so we popped into the town to visit the liquor store and pick up some local goodies!

Following the edge of the Hood Canal was very beautiful, although the road was somewhat narrow and with very little shoulder to speak of. Luckily, the vehicle drivers were on the whole courteous and considerate – and we rarely felt uncomfortable. The body of water itself was inky and dark, with a surface that was absolutely mirror-calm; I kept my eyes open for any potential wildlife sightings as we had been told seeing dolphins and whales was not unheard of. Unfortunately, today was not our day.

However, It was still incredible cycling through the old-growth forest; the damp climate made everything so green and it seemed that thick, fluffy moss grew on every single inanimate object – the whole world around us was alive, and the air felt fresh, cool, and full of oxygen!

The little settlements we passed through had a certain ‘frontier’ look about them; clapperboard buildings, perhaps a little rough around the edges and with old rotting boats sitting in their front yards.

As well as the beer, the Pacific Northwest is famous for its coffee. (Starbucks did originate from Seattle after all – not that one should draw any conclusions about PNW coffee based on the quality of Starbucks!) All over Washington State, we came across tiny ‘espresso huts’ – privately owned independent cafes every few miles along the roadside. For just a dollar or two, we sat and drank amazingly strong and hot coffee while giving our bodies a break from the saddle.

One evening we were passing through a small town called Hoodsport. We had stopped into the visitors’ centre to get the low-down on local camping options and while in there we created one of those random, but cherished memories that no photographs or Instagram posts can possibly hope to convey. As well as the local park ranger who was guzzling a Slurpee from a bucket-sized plastic cup, we were greeted by what Candace affectionately referred to as ‘The Golden Girls’.

These three women (and one of their husbands) were clearly the life and soul of this town, and the visitor centre was obviously the social focal-point of Hoodsport life. We are still not entirely sure whom, if any of them actually worked there, and the frail one sitting in the chair in front of the computer was happily asleep for much of the hour we spent in there. Apparently, she was 103 years old we were reliable informed by one of the others. At one point, she was nudged awake by one of the younger ones; (younger being a loose term!) we had asked for a map of local campsites and she was awoken to look for the appropriate map on the visitor centre’s computer. However, after the third attempt of “Hazel, the map is ON the computer!” – she started running her hand along the top of the monitor looking for a physical map! With a sigh from the others, she was booted out of the chair by a more technologically competent one, and she returned to staring vacantly into space.

****

Candace’s knee had been acting up on and off throughout the previous few days, and it was as we cycled along a very autumnal road, with fallen leaves, grey skies, and heavy rain that it finally gave in – and we limped into a town called Elma with forlorn faces and low spirits. We knew we had to come up with a ‘Plan B’ – but first we needed a mental health break. So after checking into a hotel, showering and getting dried-off, we headed to a local bar. Little did we know, that the bad online reviews for this bar were actually warranted and we have sneaking suspicions that our drinks got drugged!

For those that know us, you will no doubt be aware that we are big fans of good beer, (and rum and whisky!) and can no-doubt hold our liquor. However, by the time we were part-way through only our second drink – the room started to spin and both of us simultaneously began to feel unwell. I stumbled up the bar to pay our tab as we needed to get back to the hotel, but it took a seeming eternity for them to return my card back to me having weirdly taken it out to the back. At the time it seemed unusual that the bartender took my card away when I could clearly see the card-reader on the counter behind the bar, and I stood their feeling sorry for myself for a solid fifteen minutes waiting for him to return.

Eventually we stumbled into the fresh air of the street, and made our way back to the hotel. Fortunately, we had realised what was happening in the bar quickly enough to stop drinking the beers, and the next morning we awoke with nothing more than huge headaches and feeling nauseous – but thankfully still with our health and wallets!*

(*A couple of weeks later had almost $2000 taken from the card in a fraudulent transaction which I can only assume must have been related to what had happened in this bar. But I’ll never know. Luckily my bank reversed the charges!)

The next morning, the hotel concierge kindly allowed us to use the computer, and in a flurry of activity we booked flights to Mexico a few days later. Our theory was the flat terrain of the Yucatan Peninsular, coupled with a tropical climate would be good for Candace’s knee. Plus the low cost of living compared to Canada and the USA meant we would be able to take breaks if we had to in order to give her a chance to rest. Also – we were excited for the chance to practice our Spanish! We needed to get ourselves and our bicycles to Portland, Oregon to catch the flight, but the only place near Elma to rent cars was in Olympia – the capital of Washington State, and a good 40km ride away.

Candace was not in a fit state to ride another 40km, so I left her in a coffee shop with her bicycle and both of our sets of panniers, tents etc. while I headed east on my now un-laden bicycle to go pick up the car.

This ride would turn out to be highlight for me, and a much-needed mental and physical outlet. I put my headphones in blaring some loud punk-rock, and I cycled the entire distance in just an hour and a half. Averaging over thirty kilometres per hour the whole way – most of it slightly uphill! I really felt at one with the bike, and she seemed to respond to every input now that she had been released from her heavy cargo – it was almost as if she seemed to relish in the ride too! My muscles burned with fire as I pedalled, the rain streamed down my face, and my lungs felt ready to burst with the effort – but my body and the bicycle performed flawlessly. I was soon rolling into the parking lot of the rental place, and tried to wipe the mud and leaves from me and my bicycle before presenting myself at the counter to collect the car.

Less than two and a half hours after leaving Candace in a coffeeshop, I was pulling up outside in our rental SUV. We loaded the bicycles into the back and headed down to Portland airport – ready to start the next part of the adventure. Mexico!

Thanks for reading!

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