Bicycling back to the Great Lakes from Washington State

My sister cringed when she got some of my e-mails, but she documented a great story here.

Summer of 1998

Photos on Flickr

Google map of this trip

Grand Forks 1997 flood

Trip from a gay perspective.


The basic story

I have a Sister named Judith, who lives in Pullman, Washington.  She follows my bike trips with interest. Her co-workers used to gather around her desk to find out how I was progressing.  On my 1998 trip, she was able to use the power of the Internet to send out weekly updates to friends and co-workers.  These updates were so well written, I decided to use them as the trip story.

Starting Out: The Bank Suggests Prayer (08/10/98)

This is the first of the On-The-Road trip updates from my brother Robert, the cross-country bicyclist. 

Anyway, he called last Thursday evening (08/06) from Easton, WA, a small town just a few miles east of the summit of Snoqualmie Pass.  Since turning east from Seattle he'd spent most of his time on The Iron Horse Trail, which is an old railroad track transformed into a recreational trail.  (Sounds rather familiar to Pullmanites, I imagine).  So far the most enjoyable adventure he had to relate, from his 3 days on the road, was peddling through an old railroad tunnel on the Trail.  This wasn't in-and-out sort of tunnel.  It ambled along for about 2 miles.  I believe that this tunnel cuts through a rather mountainous part of the Cascades, so he would have emerged from the tunnel's relative (or real) silence and darkness into some *spectacular* scenery. 

He also related a mis-adventure, which may effect the length of the trip.  He'd packed a small box containing his personal checks and somewhere along the way he noticed it was missing.  He actually uses a bank card and traveler's checks for the most part, but it's an uncomfortable feeling not knowing who's going to find those checks.  It could be a nice, trustworthy person, or a not-so-nice- unscrupulous person, or even, given the country he's riding through, a curious bear (who knows, maybe curious, unscrupulous bear).  He did stop at a branch of his bank, explain the situation, and ask if he could stop payment on those checks.  For some reason, that idea proved impractical so he asked what else he could do, to which the bank rep. replied: "well, you could pray". 

So, Robert is left with the rather unsettling task of calling in to his bank every day or so to see if he still has a positive balance in his checking account.  This setback had caused him to think briefly of abandoning the trip, but after some careful consideration he decided to go ahead, while keeping enough cash in traveler's checks to ensure that he could buy a ticket home from anywhere if, in fact, the unscrupulous person (or bear) does find the box. 

The morning after his phone call to me Lillian (his other sister) had a brief e-mail note indicating that he was in Ellensburg and heading east.  He does, in fact, have access to e-mail here and there along the road, but doesn't expect it to be too reliable.  As he put it in a message just before he left: 

I hope to get to a few Internet sites along the way, but realize many spots will probably say, "hell we don't even have a water facet here."

Robert will be calling again sometime along about Wednesday or Thursday, so...... 

More later..-JAsh 

Bank Cards and Hot Tubs (8/16/98)

As he had intended, Robert has made his way slowly (sort of pedal-stroke by pedal-stroke) through the Northwest and into Montana.  In fact, he's probably beyond Montana as I write this.  My most recent message from him was a brief e-mail posted from Missoula on Friday.  (Just now, after writing that statement, I glanced at the map and noticed how long a distance Montana is, west-to-east, so I expect that today, Sunday, he's actually still pedeling along, only mid-way through Montana). 

He called last Wednesday (the agreed-upon day for phone calls) from Mullan, ID., which is very close to the Montana border.  He reported that it had been hot, very hot (as in the upper 90s), but that riding on the bike kept a cool flow of air rushing by him, so, as long as he kept moving, it wasn't that bad.  He also frequently stops and drenches his T-shirt with water, which keeps him comfortably "hydro-cooled" for a little while anyway. 

When we spoke his thoughts were on Cataldo, Idaho as in the Mission which he had just visited, and cougars, as in the animals which he was afraid might decide to visit him as he camped.  He had spent a few hours at the Cataldo Mission and was impressed by the close-up connection with history and the fact that it had been "hand-built sometime in the 1850's."  But, he had also been listening to the radio while he was on the road and had been hearing the reports of increased cougar sightings out of Spokane.  Since he was heading up into the mountains, he was a little edgy.  However, it appears that, so far, no cougars have been curious enough to check him out. 

As for practical matters, he still hasn't been able to straighten out his banking situation, despite many attempts.  However, he's making good use of Internet way-stations along the route.  Here's one of his most recent e-mail messages: 

Now in Pinehurst Idaho. Hope to call tonight if I get to a phone.  Things are okay so far.  My latest bank problem was getting into a hot tub at the KOA campground and forgetting to take my wallet out of my pocket.  Things are now having to dry out.  Some of my money was sort of laundered.

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The Mosquito Capital of Montana (8/23/98)

The most recent word from Robert was his phone call last Wednesday, so I don't have a completely up-to-date update, however, that evening he had reached Glasgow, MT, which is about 100 miles from the North Dakota border.  He was following a leisurely route along Highway 2, so I expect he's currently somewhere near Minot, ND, or perhaps even past it by now.  Of his trip, he reported that Highway 2 is not highly populated: "not many people....mostly mosquitoes."  In fact, he claimed that someone had told him that Saco (which he had passed through some 50 miles west of Glasgow) is known as "the mosquito capital of Montana."  I'm not altogether sure I'd care for that distinction myself. 

With or without mosquitoes, he said he is mostly camping at private "resorts," which I immediately associated with champagne by the pool-side and pony-rides-along-the-shifting-sands.  *Rather* an incongruous image, if you ask me; one that he quickly corrected by explaining that these were actually KOA campgrounds and other similar, more rustic locations.

He also said that he had spent the previous night in a city park ("they only charged $3.00!") and had spent one or two nights along the way in motels. 

The following day (last Thursday), or soon thereafter, he expected to pass into the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.  This would bring him to within a few miles of Fort Peck Dam.  He then said something very surprising for anyone who has known him over the years.  He said: "I think I'll skip it."  This statement came from a man who used to go miles and miles out of his way (on a bicycle, no less) to see any and all dams that were even remotely along his route.  This one (that he was planning to pass up) is apparently the largest earthen-fill dam in the world, but, he sighed, "I guess now I sort of feel like, you've seen one dam, you've seen them all."  And, believe me, he's seen lots of dams. To my mind, here is genuine proof that people do change over time. 

One thing that hasn't changed about Robert is his interest in people, and on this trip, somehow or another, he's just not meeting as many other cyclists as on past trips.  He mused that this was probably because he's traveling so late in the season.  More people, it seems, choose June-July for bicycle trips than August-September.  In fact, by the end of his trip he'll probably be experiencing some pretty chilly nights, so this preference for mid-summer isn't really a surprise. But I got the impression that the lack of other cyclists was a little disappointing. 

However, that isn't keeping him from enjoying the trip. He described the next section of his route as "flat all the way to Minnesota.  And the wind should be at my back. It'll be *easy*."  I had an impression of him coasting all the way, but I guess that's not quite it. 

In any case, I expect to hear from him again soon, so, until then.. 

More later..-JAsh 

After the Flood (8/31/98)

Well, here I am, a little behind the times again.  Which is to say: the last word I had from Robert was a phone call last Wednesday. So, this is another not-so-up-to-date-Update. 

Looking at the map, I expect that he's very close to Minnesota by now. When we spoke he had taken a motel room for the night in a little town named Devil's Lake.  Outside his window there was an impressive band of thunderclouds, which was why he'd taken refuge in the motel.  That evening he was looking forward to three things:  1. cozying up to watch the storm from a waterproof vantage point,  2. his first shave in quite awhile ("scraggly beard", he said), and  3. his destination, a day or so in the future, of Grand Forks, ND. 

Grand Forks and East Grand Forks were the little towns that were hit hard during the Midwestern floods a winter or so ago.  First the area was inundated with terrifying amounts of water (courtesy of the Red River), then whole city blocks caught fire and burned to the ground because none of the firefighters could reach them.  Now Robert, always looking for the positive sides of a story, wants to see how the town rebuilt.  In fact, I got the impression that he expected this to be one of the highlights of his trip. 

North Dakota, on the other hand, has apparently not offered him very many highlights.  Here's an except from one of his e-mail notes sent early last week:  "It is a bit bleak, but interesting just because it is so different from Bellingham.  Big thunder storms, which I have been lucky enough to watch from inside restaurants, miles and miles of prairie.  Very few young or middle aged people, very few people period". 

None-the-less he's managed to find a few things of interest.  In another e-mail message from last week he noted: "I am now at the geographic center of North America, Rugby, ND." 

But the lack of other cyclists seems to be taking a bit of a toll.  As our phone conversation was coming to a close, he wistfully mentioned that he'd met a nice cyclist, who'd been going the other way ("all the people I meet are going the other way").  And, as if loneliness weren't enough, there's been the Battle With The Head winds.  Apparently the head winds on this trip have been stronger than he expected (unsettled weather, I guess). There were stretches in Montana where they were so strong he nearly ended up taking a train for awhile just to get around them.  In any case, he's looking forward now to reaching the Great Lakes region.  He wants to take it easy for awhile.  In fact, he may not try to get any further than the Great Lakes this time.  As he explained: "I've already done the full cross-country trip twice now.  I don't have to prove I can do it any more. Maybe this time I'll just slow down and enjoy it a little more." 

So, that's it for now. 

More later..-JAsh 

Didn't Get Written (9/8/98)

This trip update is...well....uhm...a little sparse, but not because there's nothing to report. No, rather it's because *one* of us got a little muddled up by the long weekend, not to mention the slight, but discernible, change in weather (which brought on a bout of sleepiness worthy of any feline, not to mention this human who feels to be about 1/3 to 1/2 feline herself).  All of which is to say, I didn't do it. The writing, that is.  This note is coming straight off the top of my head (and that's probably very apparent). As for the actual update, I'll probably combine two weeks worth toward the end of the week. (If magazines can arbitrarily offer a double issue one month in exchange for a missed issue the previous month, well, maybe so can I.  At least it works in theory.) 

The most recent communication from Robert was an e-mail sent from Ashland. Wisconsin, that is.  I don't think he's going to get past The Great Lakes.  He's having too good of a time there. 

More soon....promise....-JAsh 

Put Another Pin On the Map (9/8/98)

I just received a *brief* e-mail note from Robert, the complete text of which is reproduced below: 

I am now just west of Marquette, Michigan.

So, I....uhm....stand corrected. 

More (and more details) soon..-JAsh 

Radio So Bad It Was Picketed (9/13/98)

A long, long time ago now (like about 2 and 1/2 weeks ago), Robert called in from Duluth MN, just on the tip of Lake Superior.  He's lived in Bellingham for so long that being, once again, alongside a vast body of water had him positively delighted.  He described it as "beautiful, a lot like Seattle, but with less hustle"...."I could live here", he said.  After all the flat and sparsely populated country he'd been experiencing during the previous several weeks, he seemed overjoyed to be among trees and people again. 

In fact, one of the first things he'd found in Duluth was a bunch of people staging a protest.  The protest was taking place outside of a radio station, and on further inquiry he found that, while Duluth is politically apparently a fairly liberal community, they have only conservative local talk shows.  The liberal community wasn't pleased with that at all and Robert had stumbled onto a protest calling on the station management to hire a liberal talk show host.  (As an aside: I think they're harder to find).  But anyway, this protest coincidentally brought together two of Robert's favorite things: his love of connecting with people and his love of radio talk shows.  (Again an aside: Robert, like myself and most in my family, leans more to the political Left, than the Right, but he *loves* to listen to talk shows, conservative or otherwise.  In fact, he used to drift off to sleep to the sounds of some talk show or another. Maybe he still does.) 

Other items of note in Duluth included the campground where he planned to spend the night.  When I expressed surprise at a campground within city limits he casually informed me that they also had a fully functional ski resort, also within city limits.  Well, that's one difference, at least, from Seattle, and most other cities I imagine. 

Duluth is built on high bluffs overlooking Lake Superior; high enough for a moderately good downhill ski bowl.

He also mentioned that he'd finally gotten his wheel fixed.  I already knew about the problem with the wheel from having received this, a little bit humorous, a little bit alarming, e-mail that had come in a day or two before: 

My back wheel is starting to fall apart, so I also plan to visit a bike shop.  Nice to be back in a city.  I had to make do by trying to unbend the rim by hitting it a few times on a rock at a campground.  My hitting it worked sort of.  I am able to ride, but it is sort of a wobbly ride.  A bike shop will be coming up shortly.

From Duluth he was planning to head out to Ashland, WS over the Bong Bridge. Yes, really, the Bong Bridge. I asked twice to be sure. 

As we know from e-mails received last week, he made it to, and past Ashland, but I don't know too much of the details since I missed his call last week. He was heading into some forests and left me a voice message at around 4:00PM on the agreed day saying he was fine, not to worry about him, but he couldn't call that evening.  He did call Lillian though, and reported that he was on the Upper Michigan Peninsula, north of Green Bay, WS, and contemplating coming home a little earlier than originally scheduled.  He thought he might try to catch a train out of Milwaukee in a week or so (a week from today, that is) and use his remaining vacation time to relax at Doe Bay Resort on Orcas Island, very close to home.

In the interim, I also received an e-mail from him that included this observation: 

Hello everyone. Last week's visit to the Porcupine Mountains was interesting.  They aren't big compared to Washington mountains, but I wanted to see what mountains in the midwest would be like. Can there be mountains in the midwest?  The Porcupines are nice gentle mountains on the shores of Lake superior.  One hotel, near the mountains was located near a cliff that looked like a glorified road cut.  The hotel advertised that it had a "cliff view."  Washingtonians would laugh, but hey, this it the midwest.  It is more alpine than a corn field at least.

So, as usual, more later.....his next phone call *may* be from Bellingham..-JAsh

Home By Train From Milwaukee (9/20/98)

Yesterday evening (Saturday) Robert boarded a train at Milwaukee for the cross-country trip back to Seattle. He's returning a little earlier than he'd originally planned so that he can do some local cycling before he has to get back to work.  Just before he left he sat down and wrote out a longer-than-usual e-mail note summing up the trip, so I think I'll just let him speak for himself this time. Here's his note exactly as I received it: 

Hello loyal followers.  My trip is starting to wind down now.  I made it 2/3rds of the way across America; good enough because I went all the way across several years ago.  Now getting ready to take train back from Milwaukee, but plan to visit Orcas Island for a while before I actually get back to Bellingham.  That will be the best time to work in a visit to Doe Bay's hot tubs before I go back to my work schedule which makes Orcas visits very difficult, with timing and ferry logistics and so forth; even though I can see Orcas out my apartment window. 

Hope to be back in Bellingham by Sept. 26 with a large bag filled with rolls of film.  The developers will cower behind the counter when they see me coming. "You mean 17 rolls?"  "I'll have to set aside some time just to fill-in all the places where you put your name and phone number on the developing pack." 

Some of the trip has been difficult with wheel problems and so forth, but most was fun.  Inspite of all the dirt politicians are digging up and spewing at one another, back in Washington DC, I am still convinced this is a beautiful country, at least when seen from a bicycle. 

To avoid the nasty and back biting political news, I just have to turn off the radio for a while.  People have been real good to me all the places I have gone. 

So most of the biking is done, now it is just a train ride and a little more biking on Orcas Island before I get back to Bellingham.

More later..-JAsh 

PS. My lost checks never caused any problem. By now, the winter rains have probably turned them all to pulp.

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Robert Ashworth