By Mary Logan
I am writing this while sitting on a very comfortable stack of hay in the small animal barn at the county fairgrounds in Republic, Washington. We have converged on this camping spot along with a very large motorcycle rally that takes place this weekend—it should be an interesting night. We are traveling by bike through small, rural, northwest towns along the Northern Tier route mapped by Adventure Cycling. We left Anchorage almost two weeks ago via the Alaska Marine Highway cross-gulf ferry, the MV Kennicott. We got the boot from Alaska, with 30 mph headwinds, pouring rain, and bugs in Girdwood and Whittier. We landed in Bellingham’s welcoming arms with hot sunny weather and began riding. In the past week, we have had glorious weather, with big tailwinds pushing us over four successive mountain passes.
There are three of us again this summer, my husband Todd, our friend Kathleen Pelkan, and me. Pelk is from Bethel, Alaska, and we’re from Anchorage. My husband dreamed up this trip as a training ride for a big event ride in Yellowstone in August, Cycle Greater Yellowstone. So far the training curve has been fairly steep, with Washington Pass on day number three demanding 5000 feet of climb and a 66-mile day with full panniers. Fortunately there was mixed berry pie and cold beer on the other side of the pass in Mazama to reload calories and cool our cores. One of the advantages of bike touring is that you can eat anything you want, and still lose weight. The motto for this trip? We will stop for pie and beer!
The scale of travel on a bike is very different from a trip by car, allowing us to view the countryside in a different fashion. We are much more likely to stop to look at a view, or at a road sign, or to ask questions of fellow travelers. At this scale of travel, people feel free to engage with us, and we are more likely to ask about upcoming conditions from the locals. Like last year’s ride, people want to talk to us, and conversations come easily in both directions.
The DOT workers chat us up over dinner, and tell us their sorry tale about hitting the deer with their truck earlier that day. We notice the ground squirrel and swallow colonies in cut banks, and the young golden eagle on the prowl. At this scale of travel, we are somewhere between the small, slow scale of the wagons and horses that shaped westward expansion in America by white settlers, and the much faster scale of automobiles and interstates that reshaped the old west into the modern-day, with rural small towns away from main drags struggling to stay relevant.
Our traverses of mountain passes have brought us through many ecosystems, and also through a gradient of zones of urbanization. The trip from Bellingham through the Cascades wound through wealthy west coast suburbs and farms, and gateway communities to the national park and forest of the Northern Cascades. After the Cascades came the Methow valley, mined, logged, and farmed, now a very scenic weekend getaway for sun-starved Seattle-ites. The rather kitschy main street was geared towards tourists and people with second homes. The town looked prosperous, but some farms were for sale. Some land was protected within the Methow land trust. The lifeblood of the Methow valley is the Methow river, with water being pumped for farming, ranching, and uses in an expanding population and for tourism.
As I rode down valley by the river, I wondered what the true value of this river to the economy of the state of Washington? An economist would value the river from a receiver system of value, in dollars, as perceived by potential buyers and sellers of the water for farming, industrial and domestic use. But that valuation assumes that there will always be more clean water available to buy and sell. What would happen to the Methow valley and its residents if the river disappeared? Standard economic valuations only work as long as resources appear infinite, and resources only appear infinite as long as the available energy to extract and transport them continues to grow. If the Methow’s lifeblood dried up, what would happen to the tourist town, the farms and ranches, and the ecosystem that they are based on? At that point, what is the supply-side or donor value of the river to the ecosystem and the economy?
After the Methow valley, we crossed Loup Loup Pass into the Okanagan valley, which was hot and dry, with chaparral juxtaposed with apple orchards and semi-desert. The town of Okanagan appeared to be economically depressed, with many empty storefronts and hopeful looks on peoples’ faces as we rode by. The largest industry in the town appeared to be the nursing home. The towns of Okanagan and Omak appeared to have turned their backs on the polluted, oily-looking river, which flows down the Okanagan valley from Canada, passing through many farming towns and agricultural areas with runoff of fertilizer and pesticides. A local pointedly suggested that the river was not for swimming, and the land looked used and tired, needing a rest.
The next pass was Wauconda pass, at the top of a long valley. It was hot, and we were hoping to cool off in a stream, but the stream coming up the valley was brown and foamy–nothing we would want to put our heads into. As we rode up the valley, we found irrigated, heavily fertilized green fields and cattle ranches set in the middle of arid chaparral. The water never cleared until the top of the pass. We were delighted to reach a campsite close to Wauconda pass, at Wauconda ranch, where we were fed dinner by the delightful proprietor of the Wauconda café. What is the cost of the cheeseburger I ate? The fertilizers, pesticides used on these ranches, along with the cattle that muddy the creeks flowing through their pastures are some of the hidden unseen costs of our farming and ranching methods. As a kiosk in the Colville Forest today said; discover that we are all downstream. There was also a quote from John Muir. When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand cords that cannot be broken, to everything else in the universe.
How can we make these unseen contributions to the valuation of things in terms of energy, water, and other resources more visible? As I’m eating a snack bar while taking a break, I consider the wrapper of the bar. One of HT Odum’s more contrarian suggestions was that perhaps society would do a better job of limiting the production of waste if the waste was made more visible. He suggested that instead of putting the trash in concentrated landfills, that we should allow it to be spread across the landscape, where it could act as a visible negative feedback reminder that we create way too much trash. He had been struck by Lady Bird Johnson’s wildflower beautification project of Texas roads in the 1950s in response to a big problem of roadway littering. I propose tossing the wrapper to the four winds to my traveling partners, who react with raised eyebrows and tightened lips. Such judgment about a simple candy wrapper, when there are much worse unseen pollutants inherent in all of our daily tasks, from the electricity we use, to the meat we eat, and the high-tech computer I am typing on. What’s that all about?
The land became dryer and dryer as we moved eastward, as the winds squeezed out the water through lift over successive mountain ranges. Equally, the relative urbanization and wealth dissipated as we moved eastward, as we moved away from the wealth concentration of the areas around Seattle. In-migration and out-migration are occurring in both directions. Many young people are still moving to cities, attracted by the high-tech jobs there, while the elderly remain or are dispersing to rural areas where it is cheaper to live. Many vacation RV parks in the small towns appeared to be occupied by long-term renters living on the cheap.
We finally crossed our last pass for a while yesterday, Sherman Pass. Its ecosystem was the most complete, with second-growth forests yielding healthy looking creeks, even after a recent large forest fire at the top of the pass. There are very few old growth forests left in this area; most were logged beginning in the 1850s during westward expansion. We met many timber trucks headed for the west coast ports; most of the trees were less than 12 inches in diameter. A plywood/pulp plant along the Columbia River was doing a booming business in creosoted telephone poles–how many of those were going to replace stock used after Hurricane Sandy? The natural resources are logged on private and public lands, and are shipped overseas in exchange for payment to private logging companies. Where does the wealth flow to in exchange for the timber, and is the exchange fair for nature? How long does it take to restore an old growth forest?
We haven’t seen a lot of bike tourers; most bike tourers along this route are traveling across the entire northern tier of the US, and the bikers traveling east left much earlier in the summer, and bikers traveling west mostly haven’t gotten to Washington state yet. We did meet Axel from Austria, who started in NYC and was headed for Seattle. His favorite states were western, and after 55 days of biking, he was looking forward to hitching down the Oregon coast after he hit Seattle—without the bike.
Details on our biking
Props go to our Surly Long Haul Truckers, which roll easily while fully loaded in a 35-mph exhilarating downhill after a 3-hour grind at 5 mph to the top of a pass. Flying downhill with a big grin on your face is great, but remember to keep your teeth mostly closed against the bugs. Backcountry roasters and northwestern brewers (Northern Ales and Republic Brewing) also kept us rolling. Ortlieb panniers are very waterproof and simple and easy to use. Less is more when it comes to clothes—pack a pannier and then ditch half of them. It is easy to wash clothes by hand as you go. Camping makes us ultimately flexible in where we stop for the night, and it is fun not to plan too far in advance in case something interesting comes up. Some things are just too good to pass up.