Day 05 – Portland (Tuesday 30 September)
Rest day – no cycling
Posted by Mike
We arrived at Roberto’s and Larry’s at around 6.30pm. They live in a gorgeous house in the Irvington district of NE Portland, (Downtown is about a 20 minute walk).
Matthew was enraptured by the garden, it has lush planting with huge bamboos, (which he was quite envious of, as ours are minnows in comparison). There are enchanting lights all around and a garden cabin that we could have slept in, (Mike wasn’t keen – although Matthew thought it would be quite romantic). We could see that many of the houses in the area have really beautiful gardens, too.
In front of the house opposite there’s a Gaudíesque statue of a lizard decorated with fragments of different coloured ceramic tiles. Roberto said that it was made by an artist who used to live in that house and that it has a bigger brother in the park around the corner.
Matthew was enraptured by the garden, it has lush planting with huge bamboos, (which he was quite envious of, as ours are minnows in comparison). There are enchanting lights all around and a garden cabin that we could have slept in, (Mike wasn’t keen – although Matthew thought it would be quite romantic). We could see that many of the houses in the area have really beautiful gardens, too. In front of the house opposite there’s a Gaudíesque statue of a lizard decorated with fragments of different coloured ceramic tiles. Roberto said that it was made by an artist who used to live in that house and that it has a bigger brother in the park around the corner.
Roberto works as a psychotherapist and Larry has a mail order business selling Chinese material through eBay.
They prepared a delicious dinner for us: fresh bean stew with courgettes, beet stew and brown rice with fresh melon salad. Lovely! It was so good to be in such a comfortable house with lovely company.
We’ve left Washington State now and it has been a joy to cycle through. The countryside is very green – lots of farms and woods with gently rolling hills. Along the coast there were dramatic Sounds – wide inlets with islands dotted about. In the distance to the east and on our left we often saw volcanic mountain ranges – high peaks with snow on the uplands: Mount Baker, Mount Rainier and Mount Saint Helens. When we were on the ferry from Vashon to Ruston a couple of other cyclists that we were chatting to told us that they’d just returned from a camping trip in the mountains – it sounded like it’d be really good to do that sometime.
The roads so far have mostly been superb – smooth and well-maintained. Signage is excellent and city street layouts, with their very clearly numbered roads, make it very easy to find our way. One thing that has taken a little bit of getting used to is the siting of traffic lights. It’s necessary to stop much further back from them than we would in Europe because they’re usually suspended on a cable over on the far side of the road that’s to be crossed. If we stopped just in front of a red light in the USA, as we would in Europe, another vehicle would come into us from the side! There are no advanced stop boxes for cyclists either. Many of the out of town roads have a wide hard shoulder, where we’re expected to cycle. In the towns and cities there are usually bike lanes, which as Europeans coming to the USA was slightly unexpected, to be honest. The hard shoulders sometimes have a bit of road debris: gravel, small stones and sometimes quite big stones or bark, that can make cycling a bit uncertain at times, but mostly they’re good quality. The junctions are worst for debris and they are also the places where we worry a bit about vehicles coming from behind and turning right into us. It’d be wonderful if the hard-shoulders were swept clear from time to time! I’ve not seen any road-sweeping vehicles on the roads.
Another surprise is that the speed limits seem to be universally lower than in the UK (20, 30 and 50 mph zones are common). Drivers are reasonably good at keeping to the limits and have been really courteous to us while we cycle – often slowing down and pulling out very wide as they overtake. The vehicles on the road are more or less what we expected: massive lorries with high cabs and curved bonnets, (sometimes sporting bright chrome or elaborate paintwork); there are lots of pick-up trucks, too. Some look very extravagant – highly polished with wheel arches that seem improbably high from the top of the wheel, so the whole vehicle is raised in the air. Many pick-up trucks look like the only things they’ve ever picked up are the kids from school or the grocery shopping! Big cars are still very common on the roads, although they tend to be older. We’ve seen several smart restored classic models from the 50s and 60s. There are plenty of more modern, modest cars too: Toyota Prius, Audi and VW Beetles seem popular. Then there are the recreational vehicles RVs – some of them are bigger than 70 seater coaches, many of them are towing smaller cars as well.
It’s a little disappointing to report that we’ve not really seen many other touring cyclists out on the roads so far. Most of the bikes that we see are strapped to the back or on the roofs of other vehicles. It rather reminds me of a funny storyline in Rick Smith’s Yehuda Moon comic strip (www.yehudamoon.com). A fat man goes to the Kickstand Cyclery to buy a bicycle that he wants to attach to his car. When Yehuda asks him what sort of bicycle he’s looking for, the fat man explains that he doesn’t care, because he’s not planning on riding it; he wants it as a car accessory. The punchline comes when Yehuda persuades him to buy a helmet that he isn’t going to wear for the bike that he isn’t going to ride!
As we were making our way out of Ruston on Sunday, a young man on a nice shiny black urban hybrid bicycle and who was pulling a little covered trailer with a small child inside hailed us at a set of traffic lights. He asked where we were heading and was very impressed with our plans. As our ways crossed he shouted after us: “Keep the rubber down!” We’d never heard this phrase before, but it’s become a bit of a mantra for us – if I’m flagging a bit and slowing down, Matthew will say: “Keep the rubber down, Michael!” (and vice versa, of course). Well, so far – so good and we’ve managed to keep the rubber well-down!
When we met Bud in Kelso, he told us that almost 95% of Washington’s residents live in a narrow corridor alongside the interstate main road, I-5, that runs north-south through the state. This makes the population mostly urban, (and the state Democrat). Then there are the vast sparsely populated areas. Once out in the countryside the traffic levels dwindle to almost nothing … we have ridden for half an hour before anything has passed us. It’s wonderfully quiet and peaceful. There’s a beautiful rhythm to cycling and we can just talk, enjoy the scenery – it’s actually been really relaxing so far and we’re not in the least tired. I’d better give an update on that in a week or so! Overall, Washington State was really good and I definitely want to come back.
Back to Tuesday in Portland … and the Dilemma of the Day: to go for a run or not? Actually, this is not really much of a dilemma, I’d brought some running gear with me, so it was kind of inevitable that I would go running. You may have noticed that I tend to look out for and comment approvingly when I see runners and bicyclists when I’m out and about. It makes me really happy to see them, I suppose because they’re part of My Story. That’s the bit of my life where I started to cycle more seriously and go out running to help me lose weight – I lost almost 60lbs (4 st) a few years ago, (hence the “chunky monkey” remark at passport control in Heathrow airport – I don’t look like I used to). I’ve found that there’s a wonderful camaraderie about cycling and running, they’re both amazing ways to get about and see places and I can still eat lots without worrying too much!
Cycling and running are not really compatible though – they use muscles differently and one doesn’t particularly help the other, which is why I think that people who do triathlons are amazing sportspeople! I sometimes worry that running might hurt my cycling – I can be a bit stiff and sore after running in a way that I never am after cycling. But running in a new place is thrilling and I couldn’t resist, so my day in Portland began with a short 5 mile run down to the Steel Bridge, along the east side of the Willamette River – partly along some incredible floating cycleways, then over the Hawthorne Bridge and along the west side and back over the Steel Bridge to Ne Multnomah St, NE 9th Ave and to Roberto’s.
After my run Matthew and I headed out on foot to see some of Portland. We went to a coffee shop ‘The Morning Star’, which also happens to be the name of Britain’s Communist party daily newspaper, (a dreary, hectoring and badly-written read I’m afraid).
A little sightseeing in Portland – we came across two of the ten ‘animals in pools’ fountains – there’s a whole series of them with bronze life size animal sculptures made by Georgia Gerber in 1986 – we found bears and ducks. – they’re clearly very popular as they had shiny patches where they’d been petted.
We happened upon Director Park (officially Simon and Helen Director Park) on our way to the tourist information office.
At the tourist information office in Pioneer Courthouse Square there was a man working on the desk who was from Ayreshire, Scotland. He said that he came to America in 1950 after he had left the army. He’d worked as a draughtsman for most of his life, but he said: “I’ve waited 50 years to get this job. I’m paid to tell people where to go!” He gave us a really useful (and free) cycling map of Oregon that might well help us as we travel down the Oregon coast. (And I can always threaten Garmin with the map, when it starts playing up). He also said “I hope that you don’t think I’m being presumptuous”, as he proffered us an ‘Out in Portland’ booklet. “Not at all.” I replied, “You’re being perceptive!” (Perceptive? Who do I think I’m kidding?!) He told us that his son is gay, which was very sweet of him.
We made our way up to Washington Park, where there was a vast rose garden and a lovely Japanese garden – which is beautifully done and both much bigger than we expected. Roberto told us Portland’s climate is ideal for rose growing, so it’s famous for them. In the Japanese Garden the acers are looking wonderful and the colours must be really spectacular in the autumn. We bought a solar-powered Chinese lantern, that we thought might look good in Roberto’s garden. The park is high up and there lots of cyclists about, including Judy, who kindly offered to take our picture. She had a very nice-looking Trek road bicycle – we took her picture, too, and gave her our blog address so that she can prove to her friends that she was out riding uphill.
On the Warm Showers site, one of the questions to answer for people who might want to stay is the distance of one’s house to the nearest bicycle shop – this is in case a cyclist passing through needs spares or repairs. On one of the Portland listings, someone has written that you can’t swing a cat in Portland without hitting at least three bicycle shops! So it was very challenging not to visit as many as possible! We visited a few Portland bicycle shops and realised that we could easily have spent the whole day admiring ‘bike porn’ and talking bikes, (well Mike could). There’s a law of bicycle ownership which suggests that the ideal number of bicycle to own is n+1, where n = the number of bicycles already owned. In other words, Mike is always looking out for a new bike … His current four being at least one fewer than the optimum. Matthew has rather unilaterally introduced a ‘first amendment’ to the law: one in – one out. This is deeply unfair of course, and never seems to apply to any of his stuff.
The nicest bicycle shops in Portland included the Recyclery Bicycle Shop – with lots of renovated old steel frames from the 1970s and earlier, (I spotted a lovely old Holdsworth), fancy chrome and intricate lug work. They sell for about $800-900 – our friend Andy H could make a fortune here. They also had a yellow jersey signed by Greg Lemond hanging on the wall. Very impressive! Next, the Bike Gallery, with some funny bicycle-related t-shirts, socks and local club jerseys the Oregon Ducks and Portland CC.
River City Bicycles was the best bicycle store we visited and also the only shop in the US that sells the lovely Rapha cycling gear from London that is our cycle clothing of choice. If anyone likes the look of our cycling kit: visit http://www.rapha.cc – be warned, the prices are eye-wateringly high. Rapha is even more expensive in the US than in the UK, but one of the assistants assured us that it sold very well.
Finally, we saw that there a shop called Coventry Cycle Works. We couldn’t resist visiting as (a) Matthew is from Coventry and (b) Coventry Cycles are a famous old brand in the UK – sadly no longer being made. The shop had just closed when we arrived, but we took some pictures and could see through the windows that they specialised in recumbents.
All these bicycle shops, plus the fact that Portland is the home to Nike sportswear and we saw a HUGE Nike outlet store, made it quite difficult to resist the temptation to consume. I just had to keep reminding myself that I’d struggle to carry anything else in my one pannier bag, so managed to resist the urge to buy.
We headed back to Roberto’s and his friend Dave had arrived from Vancouver, while Larry had gone up to Seattle. The four of us went out for a Chinese meal – it was a good place to be vegan, (although Dave didn’t seem to be so sure that he’d enjoy it and was wondering about a beef fix). The food was fine and the bill was amazing: $39 for four! I thought there’d been an error – that’s £6 each – that meal would have cost about £20 each in the UK.
So back home to bed, after a very nice rest day in Portland.