Staging from San Jose to Astoria, by Auto
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Our departure date, Saturday dawned, sunny and warm. It was a typical San Jose summer morning. We would not be that warm, again, for two weeks. Our destination was Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the mighty Columbia River. Rather than go straight to our starting point, we decided to over-night in Corvalis. We wanted to visit with Susan, and her husband, Charlie, in Corvalis.
David was driving up with us. He would take the car back to California. We would have time to spend with him. We hoped to camp with him at Fort Stevens, and spend quality time before he disappeared to Wyoming, to continue his schooling.
We packed our panniers, marveling at the amount of gear they hold. Our panniers were heavier than on the Washington State tour. I carried a spare tire. I had replaced my down sleeping bag with a synthetic one, to combat wetness. We managed to fill our generous sized panniers to the brim. In the days to come, if something was missing – the panniers would seem too empty, or too light. We added a sleeping bag and tent for David. Our Sentra was brimming.
We also took David’s Mountain Bike, with some vague plan that we would park the car in a long-term lot.With his own panniers, he could bike with us to Fort Stevens. We could all stay at the Hiker / Biker site. Thule claims our bike carries four bikes. Loading David’s bike was a challenge. Surly’s take up more than their share of room With their wide racks and drop handlebars, they are wider than other bikes. We finally lashed David’s bike to the rack.
The hitch and rack stuck out a long way from the car bumper. And it hung down. We “bottomed out” several times on dips. The rack, hitch, and bikes seem undamaged. If there were another mounting hole for the bike rack, we could move it closer to the car. Unfortunately, there wasn’t.
On To Corvallis
The trip to the starting point of our second adventure was more ordinary than our first adventure. We had ridden up on a train, leaving in the mysterious evening and awaking to Mount Shasta. This time we drove, wanting to save money, visit with Susan and Charlie, and spend time with our son, David. The first day was the longest, from San Jose to Corvalis. The second day was shorter, using some back roads to Astoria.
The trip up I-5 was familiar. In less than 8 hours, we drove over the same ground that the train takes 20 hours to cover. We stopped where we pleased. We interacted with fewer people in the car than we did on the train. On the other hand, we were warm, and had our own pillows.
The first time we had gone north, I spent a great deal of time wondering about what would happen. This time, I did not. I was far more conscious of our remaining time with David. Marian and I wanted to squeeze as much quality into it as we could. While we were proud that he was going on to a University, we were sad that it would never be the same with him again. The child that we nurtured, loved, and watched grow, had turned into a man, with his own dream, and his own life.
We slid easily into the family tradition for trips, audio books. This time it was one of the “Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” books. It was as wacky as ever, worthy of the Monty Python crew. Finishing the last of it off, we switched to ABRAHAM LINCOLN VAMPIRE KILLER. On the one hand, this strange tale was well told. On the other hand, with Abe being one of my heroes, I always thought his tale was compelling in its own right. Somehow, I think this story trivialized his accomplishments. At any rate, we did not finish it before we arrived in Astoria.
We reached Corvalis later than we hoped. Susan and Charlie warmly welcomed us. The round of hugs were nice. The family gossip was entertaining, as always. Susan and Charlie had, earlier, considered camping with us in Astoria. That turned became impossible. We also learned there was a major biking event on-going in Oregon, although it would probably have little to do with the coast. Finally, we retired to bed, trying to adjust our body clocks more toward an 8:30 bed time (it gets very dark and chilly in the campground after the sun goes down).
We unloaded the bikes. I discovered the front fender (Planet Bike) of my bike was almost torn off. Marian’s fender was fine. Or some earlier handling by us or a train crew might have started it. I wondered about buying a new fender, but did not want to wait until 10 AM the next morning to go to a shop. Nor had I ever seen fenders sold as singles. Charlie had one of the wonders of the age, Duct Tape. I slathered it on, hoping it would hold together up to Astoria. I knew there were bike shops in Astoria.
The next morning, we were all up early. Susan and Charlie treated us to a lavish breakfast of waffles, fresh fruit and bacon. It was, without doubt, the best breakfast we would have for the next several weeks. We would usually eat cold breakfasts on tour.
Astoria – Change in Plans
As we finished our breakfast, we adjusted our plans. First, Susan needed another round of chemo-therapy. One of our hopes was that Susan and Charlie might come up with us to Fort Stevens, and spend the night. But, she wasn’t feeling strong enough to do that. Nor would she be able to visit us, as we biked down the Oregon Coast. We joked that, since we biked so slowly, she would be able to come visit us several times, without having to drive very far.
Second, Marian and Charlie had checked the weather for Astoria. The forecast was for rain throughout much of the day on Sunday, with possible clearing by evening. I tried to keep from flinching. Rain forecasts had caused me to end the Washington tour prematurely. We decided to hold off on whether to camp in Astoria until we got there. We were fairly sure our tent was up to the task, but we were less sure of David’s tent.
We said our good-byes and headed for Astoria. The day was overcast. We kept our fingers crossed. We drove up US-99 until we got to Mannville. Then we turned onto Highway 47 until we got to Banks, and then US-26. We were curious about US-26. While at Vancouver a few weeks before, we had searched out ways to the coast. US-26 had been one of the options. It did not seem terribly steep, but it went on without end. The climb would have been on the order of 1500 feet. Turning onto a narrow back road, Highway 103, we then switched to Highway 202. We drove in and out of rain squalls, washing away our thoughts of camping. We regretted losing that experience with our son. We saw a number of touring cyclists, braving the weather.
When we arrived in Astoria, it was grey, windswept, and raining. We drove to Warrenton, near Fort Stevens, our intended camp ground. Rain continued to comb down. Our only real choice was a motel, especially since we were uncertain David’s tent would stand up to heavy rain. We picked a motel near the Megler Bridge..
We had a car. We could go places that might be too strenuous, or take too long, on a bike. We wanted to drive over the fabled Megler Bridge. The Astoria Column stood out, at the top of a very steep hill. We also wanted to visit the waterfront.
Astoria – The Megler Bridge
The Megler Bridge, spanning the Columbia River, dominates Astoria. This bridge is legendary. Some cyclists feel they tempt fate by crossing the bridge. The cyclists must contend with no shoulder, impatient drivers, and heavy gusts. If the ride were a video game, a successful crossing would raise the rider’s level several times. The ACA Route crosses the Columbia River, using the ferry at Cathlamet. ACA does not use this bridge.
The bridge towers over the west end of Astoria, with four and five-story buildings nested under it. One of the buildings it towered over was our hotel, only a short distance from the first span. The channel is deepest near the Oregon shore, and the bridge rises to impressive heights to allow ships to come up the river. This means, of course, that the approaches to the bridge also reach impressive heights.
The impulse to cross the bridge was so obvious, that we gave in to it, instantly. First, we drove, south to north, from Oregon to Washington State. We looked at it with a biker’s eye, wondering what it might be like to actually ride it. We discovered that the bridge has a superstructure on each end, and a causeway linking the two sections. Both superstructures had covers over them. The decking and canvas protected the cars, below, from falling material. We looked at the pull-out lanes. They were narrow, but relatively free of debris. We wondered if a bike could stay on the white line, or if they would have to take part of the larger lane.
Out on the bridge, we drove at a pace most other cars were driving at. From time to time, wind gusts would sweep across the roadway, nudging our car toward the railings. Passing was forbidden in the construction area under the superstructure. After that, passing in the on-coming lane was allowed. A Toyota Land Cruiser startled us by immediately swinging around us. We watched as they continued to pass cars, sometimes two or three at a time. No doubt, the driver knew the road. The wind, mist, and rain did not faze them.
As we neared the Washington State shoreline, we saw two intrepid cyclists attempting the bridge crossing. They were just clearing the northern superstructure, heading onto the causeway. Ahead of them, the wind gusts would be stronger. We saw that they were on, or over the white stripe. We drove as far to the right in our lane as we could, trying to give on-coming cars a little room.
We crossed the Megler Bridge in about ten minutes. We went up river a short distance to a scenic area, and stopped to take in the bridge. Through the fog and rain, we were able to gain some appreciation of the size of the river, and the scope of the bridge. There, at the mouth of the Columbia, it was far wider than we had seen, up river, east of Cathlamet.
We stayed on the Washington State side for a little while. But, it was dreary and chilly. There was nothing to keep us there, so we turned around, and headed back to the Oregon side. Had we ridden from Cathlamet, to the mouth of the Columbia River, our ride would have been 42 miles, with a strenuous 3200 feet of climbing. The Washington State approach to the bridge was less dramatic than the Oregon approach. This was due, in part, to the relatively low height of the spans.
The next part of the bridge was little more than a causeway. The builders had driven pilings into the river bed, with many spans, one connecting to the next. These connections went on for several miles. Much of the drive was in the mist and the rain. The wind blew strongly. Out of the mist, eventually, we were able to make out details of the Oregon side. The headlands rose up. The eye catcher was the span for the shipping channel.
Bloggers who have biked the Megler Bridge write about the ramp to the superstructure on the Oregon side. Riding across, at some point, that ramp would become obvious. A biker would have time to brood on it. In a quick look at the net, I was unable to find elevation drawings of the bridge. According to Google maps, the climb is about 60 feet. From our point of view in the car, it seemed like a greater climb. The grade also seemed challenging. A biker, riding this, would have no opportunity to walk up the ramp. They would need to ride it to the crest. Faced with this, I would probably be riding at four miles an hour, or less. At low speeds, my bike is least stable, and I would need to concentrate on riding a straight line. That would be the most dangerous time.
Astoria – The Column
Our next destination was the Astoria Column. The Column mimics Roman Column built for Trajan. The Column sits on top of a hill. We still had the luxury of our car. Otherwise, we might have decided it was too far away, and too high up. Marian used her iPhone to plot a course to the top. We trusted it, setting off. We wound up driving up one of the steepest slopes I have ever climbed in a car. I, honestly, think that, had we tried to turn around, we would have rolled the car. All drama aside, we made it safely to the top.
The Column celebrated the American claim to Oregon, Washington, and parts of other Western States, probably dating from the Louisiana Purchase. There was a time when American’s were an adventurous people, yearning to see what was over the next hill. They sought a new start, a new life. With broad vistas in front of them, everything seemed possible.
Entering from the base, we discovered the Column was hollow. Inside is a stairwell that climbs to the top, all 125 feet of it. There are 164 iron steps. They wind up in a tight spiral, counter-clockwise. Because the stairs spiral, the right side, normally used by those ascending has reasonable tread widths. The inner treads are very narrow, placing those descending at a disadvantage. As a result, everyone uses the outer side. When those coming down meet those going up, everyone shuffles.
Of course, David proved he was in better shape than his parents.I followed him. He climbed, filled with the energy of the young. There were parties ahead of us, and behind us. We worked our way past others, resting, gathering their energy to resume the climb. I was proud of my fitness, stopping to rest once, near the top. For a time, he had the observation deck to himself. He waited for his slower parents. Marian, far faster than most on the stairwell, soon joined us. She had paused to take pictures of the interior, something I had, once again, forgotten to do. But, she did confess that, for several days, she felt the strain of that climb on her legs. David and Marian were both happy to have jackets. While, they had gotten quite warm on the way up, they needed them once they went outside. Marian wore her orange pull-over, a biking staple for years. Our trousers had zip outs to transform them into shorts. This was not shorts weather.
When I followed David up the stairs, I was not worried about the climb. If I were fit enough to tour the Oregon Coast, what problem could a few steps present? The steps went on, endlessly. We continued to turn counter-clockwise. Above us, we could hear other groups, echoing shouts and conversations jumbled together. Eventually, we passed them all. The one time I did stop, I told myself I was waiting for Marian. But, that wasn’t entirely true.
The climb had erased the weather from my mind. When I opened the door, it all came back. The wind was very brisk. The rain came down, intermittently, whipped by the wind. On that little deck, I, too, was happy to have a pull over. I was also happy I wore clothes that wicked away the moisture. Otherwise, the rest of our time outside would have been miserable.
On this day, the adventurer who opened the door walked into wind-driven rain. Like so many others, we quickly moved to the leeward side of the Column, we looked around, and took photos. The ground was far below. When learned the visitor center sells balsa wood gliders to sail from the top. The wind, would have blown them half way to Portland in the blink of an eye.
The same rain and mist which had forced us to cancel camping at Fort Stevens also limited visibility from the observation deck. On many other days, the view would have been spectacular. The weather changed so quickly, I thought of something said of Wyoming weather. If you don’t like it, wait a few minutes. We look shots to the south, catching part of the road up. Visibility remained poor, to the north. Ships in the River could only be dimly seen.
Astoria – The Waterfront
Marian had driven up the hill, but didn’t want to drive back down. We picked a different way down, and found it surprisingly gentle. Once we were down near the River, we could see the Astoria Column looming, far above us.
Astoria sets on the Oregon shore, at the mouth of the Columbia River. All ships bound for the ports of Portland, Vancouver or Longview pass Astoria. Portland is the 28th largest port in the United States. Four ships were out in the Columbia River. We wondered what had become of the BCC Vermont, the ship we had spotted coming down the Columbia near Cathlamet Ferry.
Our next stop was in the parking lots next to the Maritime Museum. This town of 10,000, at the river mouth has little invested in fishing, farming, and forestry, only about 4% of the population rely on those vocations for pay checks. Over half of the town works in offices or provides services. One of the services is tourism. We had meant to go to the Maritime Museum, but the $9.00 price tag, for each of us, was too high. For that price, I would expect Monterey Aquarium quality displays, something I suspect they lacked.
Instead, we walked around, looking at artifacts of an earlier Astoria, an Astoria that harvested the riches of the rivers and sea for a living. The brass propeller, was from some long forgotten ship. We had no idea which one, and whether this one was large or small. I quickly thought of the movie, Titanic, and the enormous propellers that came out of the water. This one was far smaller. No doubt, they were the subject of endless photos. Marian and David joined the parade.
There was also a light-house boat at anchor. This, too, was a pay-to-view item. We decided to pass. We had come a long way this day. We had done our duty as tourists. Tomorrow we would continue our adventure. We wanted to get up before 7 AM, and be on the road before 8 AM. David would head back to the warmth of San Jose. Marian and I would follow him, traveling in a day what he would take an hour to drive.
|Read about our first ride on the Oregon Coast, from Astoria to Manzanita|