We woke to the sight of trees overhead- lush, a ceiling of bright green. Neither Alison or I were were wearing our glasses, so all we could see was green- that fuzzy, bright, verdant color of early morning light that makes chlorophyll dance. The sun came up hesitatingly behind the trees that surround us, wrapping up in a comfort we crave from long walks in the woods. We had slept beneath the stars the night before. They winked goodnight at us, bright and warm, pinpricks of light, separated from our tent by tree canopy and a small veil of mesh.
We woke in the morning to a campsite filled with 3 tents, 9 bikes, and 3 people sleeping on the bare ground, softened by sleeping pads. We had laid our heads 46 miles from my doorstep, but the best part was we’d all made the journey on bike from Portland to Stub Stewart State Park to celebrate in solidarity the departure of Paul and Sean on their Summer 2013 journey from Portland, OR to Portland, ME. It still amazes me that they showed up at my doorstep late morning on a Tuesday, hauling everything they would need for 3.5 months (barring food)- from coast to coast across mountains, deserts, rivers, streams, plains, small towns and big ones, highways and bike trails. On Day One of their journey, another hot one in a string of hot days, Paul and Sean had Alison and I to accompany them on the first 46 miles. We planned on climbing a small mountain, riding alongside strip malls, through farmland and meadows, to end the day’s journey at Stub Stewart, the halfway mark on the 20-mile Banks-Vernonia Trail between Banks, OR and Vernonia, OR. My friend Elvira biked to this destination a year ago and ever since, I’ve been looking for my opportunity to go there as well.
We coasted on mile 1, downhill to the river, our bikes weighed down with food, clothes, and camping amenities. Winding through the streets of downtown Portland, I felt out of place, as our entourage of bike campers rolled on by business people and mid-morning shoppers, those on early lunch breaks and speedy fixed-gear commuters. Soon enough, though, we left the hot city behind as we encountered our first obstacle- the Tualatin Mountains. The “Zoo Hill,” as it is known among Portland cyclists, is one of the hottest commodities in Rose City bike culture, as it offers the perfect duet of forested road and hills that will make your legs scream. I had ridden up this hill just a couple weeks before, unencumbered by sleeping bag and food, and came away triumphant. As bike tourers, we still wiled our way along switchbacks and beneath lush Hemlock and Douglas Fir forests, be it quite a bit slower. When we reached the summit at the zoo, we let our wheels and weight carry us down into the Tualatin Valley and Beaverton.
Mile after mile, we propelled ourselves alongside strip malls and car dealerships, along a busy highway, finally arriving at mile 20 in downtown Hillsboro, OR. After a few turns through neighborhood streets, we turned a corner and BAM! there we were in farmland. An immediate stark line where the urban growth boundary holds its line. It was amazing to enter what appears to be a portal into pastoral loveliness- Houses to Wheat Fields, a landscape transformed. Out amongst wheat fields and blueberry farms, we seemed to breathe easier, though cars passed by faster and the heat of July beat down on our poor, winter skin.
Up and down hills, through sprinklers that wet the road like a rain storm, past homes proudly waving American flags, past dairy farms and small churches, past dilapidated and abandoned barns, we traversed the asphalt of Hillsboro, finally arriving at our intended goal at mile 32- Banks, OR and the Banks-Vernonia State Trail just beyond.
The Banks-Vernonia Trail was created in the 1990s, but the path through the forest dates back to the 1920s, when it was a busy railroad thoroughfare for lumber being transported on the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway and Burlington Northern Railway. The Banks-Vernonia Trail website quipps that on this trail, “the railroad [was] once king, and the woods now reign again.” What a wonderful sentiment! The BVT is Oregon’s first rail-to-trail area, proof that innovation and cooperation can exist between humans and Nature. Just as they say on their website, we were able to “catch a whiff of Oregon history” as we biked along. Though my muscles were tired when we reached the trail and the forest, I felt immediately immersed in old Oregon as we saw the same sights familiar to loggers and train engineers as they traversed the Coast Range. A flat stretch of Alder forest over hanging the trail to sooth our hot and tired backs, a large open meadow, a long trestle, and a quaint whimsical railroad crossing sign. It may or may not be a remnant of history, but it was certainly a reminder of what had come before our bikes in this forest.
As we steadily ascended 1,000 feet, the trees turned into Douglas Firs and Maples (familiar friends,) and the sky began to disappear beneath tree canopy. 10 glorious but sore miles from the trailhead, we reached our camping destination. Here, we set up camp and devoured homemade tacos, triumphant on our first night. For Sean and Paul, our day had been just a warm-up, but for Alison and I, we felt as though we had conquered the world. Our first bike camping excursion was half way over and 100% successful! We set up our tent that we’d carried from my house in Portland and watched the sun go down beneath the trees that would be our walls that night.
The next morning, our group number had more than doubled to 9 because of late arrivals, and I laughed to wake up to a campsite packed to the gills with eager bike campers, bikes stacked 3 deep against trees and a rainbow of panniers leaning against the picnic table. Some of the group headed further into the pass, their final destination the Pacific Ocean on the next leg of Paul and Sean’s trip, but after a 20 mile morning excursion (!) to Vernonia, Alison and I made our way back to Hillsboro (and then Portland) on the same route, logging close to 50 miles that day. Surrounded by trees, feeling our legs moving in time to songs we sang as we rode, hauling our houses and beds and clothing and food on our bikes, we were tired and sore but inconsolably exhilarated. All we could think was, “When’s the next trip?” As Alison and I negotiated our re-entry with the fireworks of the Fourth of July serenading our return, we compromised with just walking for now, but Sean and Paul still ride on…