The true stars of the Seattle to Portland bike ride


I took part in the Seattle to Portland bike ride this past weekend.

The temptation right now is to talk about how you can accomplish anything you set your mind to. That no matter the obstacles, you can do great things with small steps. One foot in front of the other and all that.

But you know all that. So instead, I want to talk about small towns. Yes, this is relevant.

Not just exits off the highway

While the event is known as the “Seattle to Portland” (technically it’s the unwieldy Group Health Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic, though everyone omits the fluff), those cities are merely on the periphery, the bookends to the real ride.

The route took us on state highways, mostly two-laners, ones that connected the towns along the way. We were in effect riding along the route that people used to take from Seattle to Portland back in the days of the railroad, or at least prior the construction of I-5. (The vast majority of the ride was either in visual distance of a rail line or, in one case, on a rail trail.)

Towns with names like Yelm, Napavine, Winlock, Vader (luckily I was breathing heavily while passing through). These are names that you’ve likely not heard of, except on signs for exits off the interstate. You don’t go to these places, because you don’t have any reason to. Most people don’t.

But on a bicycle, traveling at a quarter of highway speeds, these towns went from being places you passed by to oases that you relished and savored.

And this feeling felt mutual. It seemed like that this event might have been the highlight of the year for some of these little towns. Some people even told me as much.

The general stores probably remain quiet for most of the year. But for one two day period, 10,000 people wander by, and many of them stop there. So coffees, bananas, and other supplies are all purchased from these places at a rapid clip. While I detected a hint of exasperation in some of the people working in these establishments, I could hardly blame them. Many of us came in half-mad with exhaustion, asking for oddly specific things. (I once was met with a confused stare when I asked for a cup of hot water.)

But the riders were very grateful. Especially after they had that cup of coffee.

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Saved by banana bread

I hit a wall about an hour into the second day. While the day was beautiful, the sun rising over farms, I started to get light-headed, and began to worry about my health. Add to this an out-of-the-blue hellish incline and near-freezing weather, and it was not a very happy time for me.

When I crested the hill (I walked it), I saw a sign saying “Fresh baked banana bread up ahead.” As bananas and bread were pretty much all I craved by this point, I made a direct line for this. It turned out to be a small card table set up by a single solitary man. The table was overflowing with slices of homemade banana bread, each one wrapped in a little sandwich wrapper.

“Come on and take some of this bread. You have to, otherwise it’ll all go to waste. Take some for the road too!”

To say that this was best banana bread ever is probably not fair (I might have enjoyed the plastic bag by this point). But I was moved not just by the bread, but by the guy itself, sitting out there in the freezing morning with a smile on his face. He was clearly enjoying himself.

My wife made them all, and I sliced them. Took me sixteen hours to get it all done.” How many loaves did he have? “One hundred fifteen. One year we made one hundred thirty, and we were giving them away for weeks afterward.

He was accepting donations, but wasn’t charging per slice. I don’t know what this guy did the rest of the year, but for one brief period, he was the reason why I was able to continue. The bread was amazing, and moreover, after a quick rest and a chat, the fog lifted and I felt like I could continue on. Which I did. All the way to Portland.

Small but mighty

So while I thank the Cascade Bicycle Club, and all the volunteers who made this well-supported ride a reality, my gratitude goes to the small towns who became our lifelines, and the people in them. For a brief moment, these places seemed proud and important, in their spotlight once more. And I was able to appreciate them for not only what they used to be, but for what they still are.

But unfortunately they’ve ruined banana bread for me forever. It will never be that good again.

But enough about me: Do you ever stop to wander through small towns when you travel?

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