Cycle Touring Puget Sound: A Bike Break From Reality

We woke early, grabbed our loaded bikes and rolled along our street, downhill toward Lake Union. Our uniform would be familiar to long-term readers of this blog — old shirts, padded pants, sunglasses, sandals and daggy helmets. We left the trail along Lake Union’s western shore and retook the streets, pedalling past H’s shuttered downtown office block on a new bike path that materialised at some point in the last few months. 

We were riding a familiar route through a city that is rapidly becoming unfamiliar, both through the pace of change — continuing corporate construction, small storefronts blinking out one-by-one — and the tightened radius of our own wandering within the city. Aside from the protesters massing against racial injustice and this country’s general lurch toward authoritarianism (or the occasional counter-protesters mobilizing against these movements — what do you call an anti-antifascist?), very few people go downtown any more. 

We took the arterial bike boulevard that shuttles pedal-powered traffic through the CBD along 2nd Avenue, then turned down toward the ferry terminal. 

There are many things I love about Seattle, the city I have called home these last two-and-a-bit years: packed lakeside parks on a summer’s day; Ballard’s nautical machinery; live music; pockets of Amharic, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Black Vernacular English and chingada-heavy Mexican Spanish; the lordly presence of Mount Rainier — Talol, Tacoma or Tahoma to native tribes — on clear days; and the way the moist earth heaves and sprouts around brutalist slabs of disintegrating concrete. 

A glimpse of Tahoma herself from the Vashon Island ferry.

I also love Seattle’s proximity to mountains, forests, islands and the ocean. A growing city, it sprawls far away to the north and south. But to the east and especially the west, it ends abruptly against the slopes of the Cascade Mountains and the shores of Puget Sound respectively. It doesn’t take long to leave. 

So we pulled into the ferry terminal beneath downtown’s slate-blue wall of skyscrapers, waiting beside a row of masked motorists for the ferry. H rode her blue steed, named Lady for a ladybird bell that usually adorns the handlebars (the addition of bar-ends forced us to ditch the bell for now). Scarred by the theft of a beloved bike during her university days, H appreciates how Lady’s previous owner scratched the “Surly” stickers off her frame, helping to hide its value from potential thieves. A bike chain wrapped in an old tube secures Lady’s supple leather saddle to her frame. 

Ferry #1.

I rode a grey steel Raleigh road bike that’s at least 15 years older than me. When we first moved here, living in H’s parents’ basement, I spent a summer riding the old thing all over Kirkland, delivering sandwiches to office workers. For this little outing, I gave it a new rear wheel and front rack. 

This was H’s second bike tour. Our first was a short jaunt around Lopez Island, the quietest of the San Juan chain up by Vancouver Island, and this trip would be a step up — longer, hillier and more heavily trafficked than our first. A fading line of churned seawater linked the ferry back to the city as we steamed out of Elliot Bay. Ahead, the mountains were hidden behind low clouds. 

Puget Sound is a maze of islands, sandbars, straits and peninsulas. Multiple ferry routes link various parts of the city with communities across the water, and our plan was to use them to create a two-day loop through the southern part of the sound. This southern section sits between the city and the mountainous Olympic Peninsula, a mossy and mysterious place that, on a map, looks like a snaggle tooth hanging off the upper-left corner of the United States. The sound itself is pierced by the Kitsap Peninsula, which is shaped like an arrowhead. Except this ferry docked on Bainbridge Island, a sort of shard broken off the arrowhead. Later, after some dispiriting cycling on a busy main road, we crossed a high bridge onto the Kitsap, which technically counts as the mainland. 

Did you follow all that? Me neither. The geography out here defies description, so I won’t trouble you with it any further. 

This is a kind of HQ bingo: bikes, Chaco sandals, wildflowers, water and mountains.

Once over the bridge, we found a side road winding along a sweep of coast and flanked by sprawling summer houses, shingled and tradesman specimens fringed with bristling gardens in lawn oceans. At the margins, tall cedars and Douglas firs loomed tall, dark and mossy. 

The town of Poulsbo was our first stop, a place that still trades on the Scandinavian provenance of its founders. The place is filled with murals of buxom blonde women, statues of sword-bearing vikings, greetings of “Velkommen til Poulsbo” and, most relevant to us, bakeries. We scoffed down a giant glazed doughnut, a pretzel soaked in “beer cheese” (an American touch on a Euro favourite) and stuffed a cream cheese-filled cinnamon roll away for later. It felt good to be back on the road. 

The height of fashion, obviously.

I missed the momentum of cycle touring — once you get a loaded bicycle moving, it doesn’t want to stop. The sun was out, the tides were moving and the lichen was catching the light. Roosters called from farmhouses. Wildflowers jostled at the roadside.

As we pedalled west and then south out of Poulsbo, we crossed the invisible cultural line that weaves its way around most American cities and towns. The Toyota Priuses and Subaru Foresters were replaced with gigantic GMC, Ford and Chevrolet trucks. We passed a church — one of many that had suddenly appeared — whose gates bore a mural of a crowd gazing raptly at Jesus. The son of god stood on a cloud, a tender look on his face and his arms outstretched toward his flock. Everyone in the mural (including Jesus) had white European features except for one Black man, who stood at the back of the crowd… in a basketball uniform.

RV’s and barns appeared in the fields. In tiny Scandia, a group of Stepford Wives waved and called to us from their farmhouse lawn. Hidden away in the woods, a large red home built to mimic the style of Coast Salish longhouses sat silently. Nearby, a clutch of dilapidated homes displayed a small flag with a defiant slogan: “Native Lives Matter.” 

Outside Port Orchard, H donned a mask and entered a grocery store while I waited outside with the bikes. I watched a portly white couple pull up in some kind of roofless, batmobile-style three-wheeled vehicle. As they ambled toward the door, they put on matching protective facemasks endorsing the reelection of President Trump. 

I know you signed up to read about a nice little bike tour, but it’s important to note that this sort of thing pervades daily life in the United States right now. There’s a sort of ominous feeling in the air, what with almost 200,000 people dead from a virus that the federal government wants us to forget; steadily escalating violence on city streets; a Black-led movement for racial justice and police reform; a white-led backlash and fixation on so-called “antifa domestic terrorists” (would someone please tell me what the word for an anti-antifascist is?); the hurricanes and firestorms exacerbated by a heating climate; the government opening Alaskan wilderness for oil drilling despite concrete climate science, declining oil prices and institutional divestment. With all this going on, every serious conversation with family or friends either gets sucked into this pit of despair, or studiously tiptoes around and away from the edges.

On a recent camping trip up onto the shoulder of Rainier, one of H’s friends said, “I feel terrible that I’m having fun while so many people are suffering.” 

“You need to stay sane, though,” H said reasonably. She pointed out that we were donating to activist groups. We were adding our bodies to marches, if somewhat sporadically. We nodded in silence for a moment, then changed the subject. Tiptoed away. 

So at the sight of these Trump-themed COVID-19 masks — which, as far as I could tell, were worn without a shred of irony — a dull mass of fear and sadness stirred at the back of my mind. It had last roared when, at a rally listening to a speech asking for an end to so-called “predatory development” in Black neighborhoods, the removal of armed police from schools, a reassessment of the Seattle Police Department’s overinflated budget and other eminently smart and reasonable ideas, I saw armed men — vigilantes, not cops or soldiers — standing guard at the fringes. Why were they there? I didn’t want to know.

But then H returned from the grocery store with chocolate milk and food for dinner, and it was time to load up and start rolling again. 

Not too shabby.
Horses in the stables for the evening.

Our secret weapon for this particular bike tour was a large, insulated bottle. We take it to breweries and bars, where bartenders fill it with 64 ounces of beer that stays icy cold all day long. We call it the Magic Growler. We filled it outside Port Orchard and pedalled into Manchester State Park, across yet another straight from the southern tip of Bainbridge Island. We dipped in the still-freezing saltwater and dried in the evening sunshine, drinking beer and eavesdropping on our neighbors’ conversations about dogs, kids and the virus. 

We found more beer the next morning, a ferry ride away on Vashon Island, and drank it on a beach looking at the cargo planes coming and going from the airport across the water. We rode the hilly length of Vashon, a quiet and comfortable hideaway, then hopped on our fourth and final ferry. We stopped for a rest at Alki Beach. There, we watched women in colourful hijabs laughing and yelling after children in Amharic and young men blasting reggaeton from their convertible jeeps as they cruised up and down the esplanade. It was hot out, the mountains cast a majestic silhouette on the horizon and, as we pedalled back around toward the city, the skyscrapers gleamed golden in the late sunlight.

As we rolled through an industrial no-man’s-land, a scribble of graffiti caught my eye. It was written in black spray paint on a concrete barrier. Amid a flurry of anti-Black Lives Matter slogans, it said, “Go ahead get rid of the police so there will be no-one left to protect you. We have all the guns and lots and lots and lots and lots of ammo…” — we passed on before I could read any more.

The dull mass stirred again, and H noticed my mood change. “You okay?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said, summoning a smile, and in my head I was Dory in Finding Nemo: “Just keep pedalling, just keep pedalling, just keep pedalling, pedalling, pedalling…”

Cycle touring: come for the accessible adventure, stay for the fashionable glamour shots.

Our comfortable apartment, cozy bed and day jobs waited back at home. (Never have I felt so lucky to sit in front of a computer all day.) It took just two days for a shower and a kitchen to transform into rare treats. But it had been damn good to be back on the road. 

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