“Welcome to Port Angeles” says the customs officer as he waves us through, having decided 2 grubby cycle tourists would be better out of his field of smell. As we push our bikes off of the ferry and prepare to ride, a woman waiting in arrivals comes over to chat.
“Where are you headed to?” comes the usual question.
“L.A.” I respond, busy strapping on panniers.
“You don’t want to go there” she says aghast, you’ll get murdered, it’s just not safe.”
She has my attention now. “I’ve cycled the coast route there before” I say nervously, “it was OK a few years back”.
“Not anymore” my advisor replies. “Don’t ever go there”.
A bit nonplussed I start to explain we’re actually headed to Seattle first but this apparently is worse.
“You take your life into your hands there” she responds “Don’t ever go there”.We ride away from the encounter entirely perturbed. I attempt to file away those thoughts though as I’m looking forward to cycling to Seattle around the Olympic Penninsula, especially the ODT (Olympic Discovery Trail), 135 miles of dedicated and mostly traffic-free path running from the Pacific west coast to Port Townsend, which will see us 2/3 of the way.
As we head off on the path it’s gloriously sunny but with an autumnal coolness which makes cycling perfect. The light is reflecting off the bay, the trees are amazing golds and reds and the traffic free cycle route is a dream….for approximately half a mile that is until a large Route Closed sign bars our way.
We debate for a minute or 2 if we can ignore it but with no other people around except a group of guys huddled around a tent with cans of beer, we head off the path and into town, our cheery greeters words ringing in our ears.
There follows next a long detour on Route 101 and some of the busiest multi-lane highway. We have no idea how much of the path is closed and it seems impossible to rejoin anyway. After a series of dead ends and a couple of mad dashes across 4 lanes of traffic, similar to the 80s video game Frogger, we finally manage to pick up the trail, shaken and exhausted but still with a number of miles left to ride.
It does get better though, quiet tree shrouded bike paths with portaloos and hitching rails for horses, beautiful beach-side campsites and some sunsets to die for. We even unwittingly attend a wedding when, on hearing cello music whilst lying in the tent, I wander throught the trees in Kitsap State Park and stumble upon a clearing fillled with benches, a make shift arbour and a couple getting married.
Apparently it’s a well known spot to get hitched and, in the late autumn sunshine, what could be more perfect.
After a (finally ) delightful ride around the peninsula and some stellar mapping by Gonzo Girl we arrive in style at the Kingston ferry, cycling with a coffee in one hand and heading up a bunch of sportive cyclists on their way home from an event. On the short 30 minute crossing to Edmonds we receive 2 generous offers of places to stay however, another we already have this covered. We’ve been looking forward to this part of the route, visiting friend’s of Mike who have amazingly and generously agreed to offer us a place to stay despite not having seen him for nearly 30 years.
And it’s wonderful, to meet them, to laugh, to eat good food prepared in more than one pot and to shower without waiting for the token to run out half way through a shampoo.
Hospitality has been one of the constant threads through this part of the trip. On Vancouver Island (where we continued from down from Courtenay to Victoria via Nanaimo and Saltspring Island) we were very lucky to stay with 2 Warm Showers hosts, both very different but also very similar in being welcomed into strangers’ homes with a bed, a shower, food and the opportunity to talk about everything under the sun.
It’s made me think about the idea of home too. On a recent visa application, after much confusion, I ended up listing my occupation as that of ‘Homemaker’. Despite amusing Mike no end this was actually the best fitting category right now and literally true as, at the end of each ride, we have to create our little home. My favourite thing to do after the tent is erected and beds blown up is to find the perfect sunny spot for the washing line between the trees. Simple pleasures.
The other thing making me consider the nature of home are the large number of ‘home-less’ people we’ve been encountering everywhere, in Canada and the US. It certainly seemed like far greater numbers than when I last rode through British Columbia less than a decade ago, a fact confirmed by our various hosts and in many conversations. Alongside the growing number of dispossessed has been a corresponding rise in drug and alcohol dependency issues in communities and in violent crime. It’s both shocking and disconcerting to see people so deep in a drug fix that they are sprawled like broken marionettes in their last conscious position. A state dubbed ‘zombie yoga’ by someone who described how individuals are rooted to the spot for hours, bent double or in odd poses, like weird human statues.
What’s also evident too is that a lot of people living in communities we pass through now feel very unsafe and that their lives have been curtailed by that, especially women I talk to. Whether the level of direct threat has increased exponentially or not, the feeling of security has definitely disappeared. As for the people living in these ghetto tent towns themselves, what of them? Combine the effects of the recent pandemic with the soaringly high cost of living, something we’ve noticed everywhere, and you have a growing problem. With limited employment and affordable housing people from the cities are drifting to the milder climates of the west but with no more chance of changing their situation, they turn up in increasing numbers to become, essentially refugees, dispossessed, living in broken down RVs or tents on any spare scrap or grass or paving. There are heartbreaking little touches of home outside some shelters too, pot plants, laundry, children’s toys. There’s also no doubt that both communities are struggling, those living in the tents and those who live alongside them. What the solution is and how long it will take to implement is far less clear.
After 4 weeks on the road our soothsayer’s voice from Port Angeles annoyingly remains, ringing in my ears and I feel less easy, more on edge because of it.
Maybe a little caution is a good thing? Or, more positively, an aim to achieve a healthy balance between prudence, whilst still being able to appreciate and be open to the unknown. Afterall, without interactions with strangers we wouldn’t have met so many of the superb people that have made the trip as good as it has been so far.
The biggest ever thank yous to our amazing hosts, Aileen, Chris, Bailey, Ronan, Randy, Andy, Todd, Kelly, Alan and Marie. To Liz, sorry not to be able to meet in person but your advice and messages were brilliant and much appreciated.
If you enjoy reading about adventure, travel, cycling or all 3 why not check out my book: How To Cycle Canada the Wrong Way.
It’s the story of a forty-something woman with no clue in life and no cycle touring experience. What she does have is a sense of adventure, a second hand bicycle and a skirt and the idea of riding across Canada….the wrong way.
Available on Amazon in e-reader and paperback formats.