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Portland to Olympia – 135 Miles

icecreamRunning from your problems is generally considered a bad thing I think, but after getting pretty much fucked in the face by school this term I decided I seriously needed a mini vacation. The problem is that I recently joined the one-less-car club (not by choice). I have also been a long-term member of the much-less-money club. This makes travel difficult. Somehow these factors led me to decide that I should ride my bike to Olympia, spend the night, and then take the train back the next day. I hastily bought a return ticket on Amtrak so I couldn’t chicken out and started trying to find bike routes to my destination.

An amazing thing about the internet it that you assume you can find anything on it, so when you can’t find something specific, you feel betrayed and confused. Commercials for Frankenstuffs (hotdogs filled with cheese) for example, are nowhere to be found on the (so-called) world wide web. Another glaring dearth is googleable bike routes. They just aren’t there. I suspect an ACA (Adventure Cycling Association) conspiracy. Even with Caitlin working on the inside of this organization we still haven’t cracked their codes or infiltrated their routing databases.

I decided to get all old fashioned and just went out and bought the most detailed-looking Washington map I could find at Powells. “I will develop the greatest route from here to Olympia that has ever been ridden,” I thought, “I will put this route on the internet and cyclists of the Pacific Northwest, nay, the world, will ride the shit out of it. I will be both Lewis and Clark and cyclists will make lovely historical markers on the side of my route in my honor!”

J loaned me his Garmin GPS (Great Pedaling Systemizer) device so that after the ride I could shoot the route info straight into the computer (with a laser beam). In actuality, I just found some solid examples of how not to ride to Olympia. But for the sake of technological high speed information sharing, I will add these facts to the internet.

For some inexplicable reason, I had been thinking about riding to Olympia for a long time. Two of my friends, Emily and Nate, had each done the ride (Nate twice) and both suggested that once I was well into Washington I could just take I-5. Now, that sounded fucking insane to me, but Nate and Emily are both smart, safety-conscious people, so I decided I wouldn’t absolutely rule it out.

My hypothesized route was this:

Ride up highway 30 to Rainier. Cross that bridge that takes you to Longview/Kelso, WA. Get on a small highway (411) that parallels I-5. Ride on I-5 for 10 miles to cross the Skookumchuck River. Find back roads from Chehalis to Centralia. Ride up Old Highway 99. Go to my friends’ house. Eat unthinkable amounts of pizza and ice cream cones. Flawless plan, right?

Well, initially it was…

I had never ridden on 30 past Scappoose. As it turns out, that’s when that road becomes just lovely. The cars mellow out, the scenery gets blindingly green, and there’s all these roadside marshy areas well stocked with herons and other big, exciting birds. Just before Saint Helens, traffic going both directions slowed to a complete standstill. I thought there must have been a bad accident and was bracing myself to see some fucked up cars. As it turned out though, a horse had jumped out of its trailer and was running back and forth across the road, totally freaked out and crazy. Everyone was trying to coax the horse back towards its owner. I quickly snapped a photo of the horse and then rode on past the lines of stopped cars.

I got into Rainier in good time and stoked on life. Sadly my elation was short lived. The bridge I had planned to cross was a total cycling nightmare. The narrow shoulder was set up with some sort of huge-bark-chunk and large rock type of slalom. I inched across, terrified that my wheel would hit one of these hazards and I’d go flying into one of the many logging trucks flying by me. I breathed a big sign of relief upon touching down on Washington soil, I assure you.

From there I tried to find a road heading east that could take me to highway 411 that wasn’t a “truck route”. As it turns out, they are ALL truck routes. I decided to just get on with my trip and rode with the trucks. Miraculously, they all just took the left lane and gave me the right lane to myself! Not a single one honked or anything. Thanks guys!

411 is a pretty highway, but the shoulder is unreliable and small at best. Still, the traffic isn’t bad and there are many farms along it with admirable horses and cows. Near Vader, WA 411 starts to turn away from I-5. This is where I planned to turn off and brave the mega-interstate.

Nervous of harassment and (obviously) death, I got on 5 north waiting to think, “hey Nate and Emily are right, this isn’t so bad.” In reality, the only thought that I had the entire 8 miles I spent on I-5 was, “this is definitely going to be where I die. Right now. On this dumb trip. Helmets don’t matter. Nothing matters. I am going to die.” I quickly exited near Chehalis and bought I more detailed map of the Olympia area.

The new map led me into Centralia quite safely. By this point the mile counter on the Garmin had crossed 100 and I felt confident that I would actually make it to my destination. From Centralia I continued on Highway 507 through Bucoda and Tenino (AND PAST AN EMU FARM!). Just after Tenino I got onto Old Highway 99 and rode (averaging about 13 mph, mumbling and singing to myself) into Olympia. The whole trip took 10 hours. 7 hours and 48 minutes of actual riding.

I went to my friends’ house, showered, ate pizza and ice cream cones, and laid in their back yard half asleep while they worked on their garden. Afterwards my friend Peter said, “guess what we’re doing later tonight?” I prayed for anything but a bike ride.

“We’re going to see a highschool production of Little Women!”

Had I indeed died on I-5, and then rode my ghostly bike up to heaven?! Needless to say, the play was great.

The next day marked an annual Washington event: Prairie Appreciation Day. For those of you who don’t know, there are many epic prairies south of Tumwater. During the year nature-loving retirees tend to them, reintroducing native plants and removing invasive species. Then once a year they invite fellow Washingtonians to come out, walk around, and learn about their state’s plants. Our guide was a gentle man named Dan who found us some Chocolate Lilies, a lot of Camas, and a garter snake to check out. I truly appreciated these prairies on this day.

At 3:00 I headed to Amtrak to go home. Compared to the Portland train station, the Olympia/Lacey Amtrak station is a shack. It’s near nothing and basically just a small box next to some train tracks. But when I walked into said box, the place was packed! A hippy-lady blues band was jamming, kids were running around, and there was a table laden with cookies. It turned out that in addition to being Prairie Appreciation Day, it was also National Train Day. A friendly grandma gave me a “Happy National Train Day” sticker to put on my shirt and plied me with baked goods. Truly there were some fine holidays afoot.

I got home at 6:00 pm, less than 36 hours after I’d left. While the ride wasn’t 100% “fun” or “safe”, I was not only happy I’d done it, but determined to do it again. I also felt like I’d packed a week’s worth of vacationing into 2 days. I went back to school feeling renewed and revived. I decided that instead of taking summer classes I would use the money I’ve saved up to pay for it to pay my rent. I will use my extra hours to instead discover the greatest bicycle route (to Olympia) that the world (wide web) has ever known. Get ready, internet!

Elevation Profile
Download the Portland to Olympia map here.