The first thing you’re going to need is a fat tire bike. You can spend thousands of dollars on a fancy one, rent one somewhere, or do like I did and buy a cheap department store bike and mod it. Besides fat tires, you want light weight and low gearing (my Land Shark is a 50 pound tank, and I’m kind of a tank too, but I geared it nice and low).
Ride like the wind. We get a lot of wind at the Oregon coast, and you want to ride with it at your back as much as possible. Think about it like canoeing. Either ride into the wind (upstream) for the first half of your distance, or ride on paved streets into the wind and then on sand with the tail wind. Or, use two cars. Park one down wind at your finish point. If you’re riding both ways on sand, you really, really want to ride into the wind first. The wind can come from any direction at any time of the year, but it generally blows from the north in the summer and the south in the winter.
Know your tides. You want to ride while the tide is going out, on the wet sand that’s been packed down by the surf. Depending on how long I’m planning to ride, I like to leave about two hours before low tide. You can ride when the tide is coming in, but…
Be aware of sneaker waves. Know your surf conditions, and always be watching the surf. A sneaker wave can occur any time during the tidal cycle, without warning, and could easily knock you off your bike. At the very best, you’d soak your precious metal in salt water (bad; see below), but even worse, you would die and somebody else would get to ride your bike. Wouldn’t that suck? On high surf days, especially ones with wind, you’ll have more fun if you just stay home, anyway.
Keep your bike out of the surf. It’s actually really, really fun to ride in the surf, but it’s really, really bad for your bike. Salt water eats metal and can wear away grease. It also makes sand stick to your drive train. Hose your bike off when you’re finished.
Know your sand. Oregon’s sandy beaches range from fine sand to coarse gravel, and everything in between. Finer sand, finer ride. Coarser sand, harder slog. If you’ve got gears, you can handle the loose stuff. But you’ll have an easier cruise on the light tan sand between the surf and the tide line. The coarser sand/gravel is darker brown.
Take water. You may not know this, but salt water is not good to drink.
Take a bag or something to collect treasures. The biggest agates I find are on beaches not easy walking distance from places you can park a car. I always have a plastic bag strapped to my bike rack, and you can almost always find pretty rocks in my pockets.
Take a camera to collect visual treasures. The same beach never looks the same. It changes every day.
Be prepared to talk to people, because fat bikes draw a lot of attention. They are less of a novelty than a year ago, but there are still plenty of people who want to stop you and ask questions. If you’re feeling sociable, you will enjoy the opportunity to tell people that yes, those tires really are big and yes, they work pretty good in the sand. If you’re not sociable, get used to smiling and saying the same anyway. We try to uphold that polite Oregonian vibe for our inlander tourists.
The sand isn’t always good. Beaches change every day, especially in the winter and spring. Our beach has some steep parts, and the flat parts tend to have a lot of gravel. Gravel on steep is the worst. With that in mind…
Don’t worry if you have to get off and walk part of the way. Especially if you’ve got a one-speed like me. It’s all about being on the beach and getting a workout, and there is nothing wrong with a walk on the beach.
Riding at sundown is sublime. Golden light on the waves, a little spray on your face, maybe a seal swimming along in the surf… There is nothing else like it in the world.
Stay the hell away from seals and sea lions, especially pups (above video shot with telephoto). They may look abandoned, but mama seals often leave their pups unattended on the beach while they fetch fish. Adult seals will probably just jump in the water, but they could mess you up if they wanted to. A sea lion won’t hesitate to mess you up. (We’ve got a big harbor seal colony at the spit end of our beach.) Besides being rude, it is a federal crime to disturb marine mammals. So if they notice you and start to move toward the water, just move slowly away. I like to stay at least 100 yards away, and even that can bee too close sometimes.
“Have a good time, all the time. That’s my philosophy, Marty.”
An Ode to the Bicycle, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the WalGoose
The bicycle is a really remarkable invention. Next to the piano, it may be the pinnacle of human ingenuity. I’ve had a lot of bikes over the years; I’ve probably taken them for granted.
The first bike I remember was hand-me-down Schwinn Pixie in 1972. It had hard plastic tires. No pumping! No flats!
I probably got Butch’s Schwinn after I outgrew the Pixie. Then I got my first 10-speed in 1974, a shiny new Raleigh Record, serial #7 (my sister still has hers, lovingly restored by our dad). I was the first one in my class to have a ten speed. I wasn’t allowed to ride it to school, so a lot of kids didn’t believe me. That was third grade. Getting used to hand brakes was tricky at first. I crashed into a guy wire at the end of our cu-de-sac on Kirkwood Court, back-pedaling madly. But I got the hang of it.
I was eight. My family took a two week bike trip from Iowa City to Galena, Illinois and back, by way of Dubuque. We got our picture on the front page of the Preston Times. The reporter chased us down on the highway to get the interview and some photos. I remember being in some Mississippi River town with a levy and somebody singing American Pie. I had an idea what whisky was, but I wasn’t sure about rye. There was some kind of junk shop that had hermit crabs at the checkout. They weren’t for sale. And I didn’t have any way to get them home if they were. One of our stops was Maquoketa Caves, I think. Sue probably remembers. There was talk of impeaching Nixon. I remember seeing an editorial cartoon about it.
I also remember stopping at a small town general store with a house attached. You could see into the shopkeepers’ dining room. There was a big zucchini on the table. We also went to a parade where they threw candy. They didn’t do that at the only other parade I ever went to, the University of Iowa homecoming parade. And we met a dirt track motorcycle racer named Charlie Brown. He showed us the metal plate he wore on the bottom of his left boot. We went to see him race at the fair ground.
I got another 10-speed around high school time. A chocolate brown Raleigh something or other. It was a Christmas present too big to fit under the tree, so my old man put it in the shower to surprise me. My buddy Mark and I took a bike ride up to Wisconsin one summer, probably 1981 or 1982. Or maybe 1983. We didn’t make it to Baraboo or Wisconsin Dells, but we had a good time. One night we had to camp out in the yard of the Sheriff’s office in Dodgeville because the campground was full at Governor Dodge State Park. I think that’s as far as we got. We had old county maps that we photocopied at the library. We were lost more often than we knew where we were, probably. Mark bought a sausage in Wisconsin as a gift for somebody. When we rode across the Mississippi, I think it was the Bellvue Bridge, it fell off his bike rack and skipped overboard. “There’s nothing funny about sausage” became our catch phrase for senior year of high school. One of our last stops was Maquoketa Caves, I think. Mark might remember. Actually, I think we were going to stop there, but decided to keep riding, all the way home. I think we rode 150 miles that last day.
After high school, it seemed like there were always beat up 3-speeds around. I dragged one out to Oregon with me in the fall of ’89, tied to the top of the ’63 Step Van with some old rope. I rode it around some in Portland that winter, completely taken by the fact that I could ride my bike in the winter. With a sweatshirt on. And only get wet (not frostbitten). I bought my first cruiser in 1990 or so, at a yard sale down the street from my house on SE 26th and Sherman. It was a black cantilever frame, with 2-inch wide tires and decals and stickers all over it. I rode it until I had replaced almost every part on it. When I finally gave it away to somebody I worked with at the food co-op, the only original part was the front wheel. I’d changed everything else, including the frame, part-by-part as they wore out or broke. I used to ride it three miles to work from SE Taylor, across the Hawthorne Bridge, to John’s Landing, then home, then, if I was feeling good, up Mt. Tabor and back. One speed. I was in pretty good shape.
At some point, I’m thinking 1992 or ’93, I decided to make the move back into a geared bike. In the intervening years, they had gone from 10-speeds to 21. Some even had 24, I heard. Mountain bikes were starting to get popular, and my boss claimed to have been one of the originators of the sport (doubtful). He talked me into investing in one. I think I dropped $470 on mine, which I eventually converted into a cross bike with 1.5 inch slicks. I did a fair amount of bike-packing on it. When TriMet first introduced their bikes-on-buses program, I hurried to to Pioneer Courthouse Square to get one of the first permits. I would put my bike on the Estacada bus, take it to the end of the line, then ride up the Clackamas River and camp at Fish Creek or at Indian Henry or somewhere else around there. I also took that bike on the Pacific Coast Highway, from Cape Lookout to South Beach, then across the coast range to Corvallis and back up the valley to Portland.
I still have it, and it’s still my main city ride. It’s my sleek black beauty. I used to take it up to the Bicycle Repair Collective on SE Belmont to clean it and overhaul it when necessary. (I was really sad to hear the Bicycle Repair Collective closed down, when the owners decided it was time to retire.) It still has the original shifters, dérailleurs, brakes, stem, handlebars and front wheel. Probably the best $470 I ever spent on a vehicle.
Now, we recently started spending a lot of time at the beach, and I remember quite fondly taking my original Portland cruiser to Cannon Beach one summer weekend and riding it in the surf. That was fun. Really fun. So I thought I better pick up another cruiser. First I got a white one with pink wheels for Nancy (and Emmy!).
Then I got blue one for me. Craig’s list specials.
I rode them both on the beach, but our sand is pretty coarse at spots, and it was pretty hard going. Not at all like I remembered. Much of our beach was basically not ridable.
Then I saw something at Fred Meyer that stuck in my head. A bike with massive 4-inch wide tires. It was branded as a Mongoose Brutus, and despite some dorky paint and graphics, it just looked cool. And knowing what little I know about physics, I deduced that those tires would be just the ticket for our soft sand. But the price… $279 on sale. So I just filed that away in my mind, and probably started googling fat bikes while waiting for builds to finish at work.
What I discovered was that this same bike, with different paint and graphics, was being sold as a Mongoose Beast at Walmart for $200 (delivered), and there’s a whole subculture of people buying these things and modifying them in some pretty cool ways. (They’re also sold at Target as the Dozer, with probably the worst color scheme of all.) It turns out they’re all basically the same cheap Chinese-made bike, and most bike geeks agree, a couple Franklins is a pretty cheap entrée into the fat bike world (light-weight geared fatties start around ten times that).
Opinions on the Walmart Fattie (a.k.a. the WalGoose) vary widely from utter disdain to sheer glee. In fact, there is apparently some serious disdain for fat bikes in general in the mountain bike community. My sister, the mountain bike racer and coach, calls them “fad” bikes, and says there’s always some fat guy showing up with a fat bike for races, ready to start drinking beer. “What’s the point?” she asks, and rightly so. For the races, it’s hard to see any point carrying that much extra weight. (And talk about weight; the Beast weighs in at just under 50 pounds.)
But for sand or snow, there is definitely a point. We don’t get much snow, but I’ve got miles of sand to ride on, and I won’t be deterred by the righteous, multi-thousand dollar indignation of the serious gear heads. I decided to make one of these beasts mine. I picked red (they also come in green and blue), and this is how it looked out of the box.
The first thing I should have done was pack the bearings. They come with very little grease, and they are clamped down tight. (I did loosen the headset a little when I put it together.)
But the first thing I actually did was strip off the department store decals — they peel right off — and apply a little of my own branding. I toyed with names a bit before coming up with Land Shark, a ’70s Saturday Night Live reference. I also considered “Beach Whale.” If I get another one, I’ll go with blue and call it that.
(This was before I knew there was a high-end bike manufacturer in Oregon called Land Shark, but I don’t think anybody’s going to mistake this tank for a carbon fiber road bike.)
The other first thing I did was take it for a ride on the beach (because of course I did) where I confirmed the still other first thing everybody says: You need to change the gearing. These things are geared way too high considering their weight alone, not to mention the extra rolling resistance of sand. The stock gearing of a 32-tooth crank and an 18-tooth cog was actually okay for dry pavement. (It turns out they had been shipping them with a 36-tooth crank, which would make it basically impossible to ride on any kind of incline.) So, anyway, the third first thing I did was put a 22-tooth cog on the back. It’s really easy to do, and only required crescent wrenches to remove the rear wheel, and a little screw driver to remove the springy thing that holds the cog in place. The stock chain is too short with these four extra teeth, so I picked up a chain at Fred Meyer and added two or three links from that. I already had a chain tool; you’ll need one if you don’t have one.
This made riding much easier. Or at least possible. It’s still a lot of work, especially on the coarser sand.
I eventually got around to pulling the bottom bracket apart and cleaning the bearings out and re-packing them. These are not sealed bearings, so the only tools you need to get the bottom bracket open are a big crescent wrench and a crank puller. I really should have done this first, at least before getting hit by a few waves. Yeah, the bearings were pretty trashed, but I cleaned them up and packed the hell out of them.
By now, I was able to actually ride this thing for a while, and the stock seat was making my ass pretty sore. So I picked up a cruiser seat at Freddies. Not the kind with springs; these jumbo tires running on five pounds of pressure (yes, five pounds) are all the suspension I need. It was worth it. I also wanted to ditch the narrow BMX handle bars (funny, the bike looks like a giant BMX bike out of the box, but that’s not the look or feel I wanted.) I got some cruiser bars, which give me a more upright, laid-back posture for cruising. (If you’re following along at home, keep in mind that the little BMX stem has a 22.2 mm handlebar clamp, and you’ll have to get some kind of whack stem adapter to go with standard MTB bars. I went with cruiser bars, and you can find them with 22.2 mm mounts pretty easily.) I took off the flimsy chain guard, and this is what I get: my Land Shark.
That’s the ticket!
Some guys are going all crazy trying to shed pounds off these beasts, drilling out the rims, changing seat post, saddle, stem, all that. But honestly, I can probably lose ten pounds off my arse more easily than all that, and for a lot less moolah. As it is, I’m into this thing for under three bills, and having a blast. It might just be my favorite bike yet.
Another thing everybody will tell you about these things is that you cannot go for a ride in public without getting comments from just about everybody. Kids are the funniest. I’ve had kids spluttering, trying to get the attention of their siblings. “Alex, look at the size of that guy the tires he has! ALEX! LOOK!” I wish I had videos of this. It would make a funny mash-up.
Here’s a small taste of what it’s like to ride on the beach, at a time when the only gawkers were sea birds. (I’m riding one-handed and filming with my phone, which is why it looks a little wobbly at first).
We started our day at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, where we visited the resident Pacific giant octopus and explored the interactive displays. (This is not to be confused with the nearby Oregon Coast Aquarium, whose octopus is not as easy to see.) Then we headed to Newport’s historic bayfront, where California sea lions are known to congregate. There was just one on the sea lion dock.
But we spotted a few on a buoy near the NOAA dock.
And ten more on a jetty.
Later in the day, we headed to a nearby area known for its tide pools (it is a very delicate location which I don’t want to publicize; locals may recognize it from the photos). Here we encountered sea anemones and countless hermit crabs (the highlight for Z).
Sea star wasting syndrome is devastating populations in Washington and California, but is only just starting to show up in Oregon. Ours appear to be healthy.
The highlight of the day for me started with a sighting of a blue heron.
We soon realized it was fishing near a pod of harbor seals.
We spotted three on the rocks and several more in the surf.
This area is my current favorite on the Oregon coast, a beautiful example of mountains meeting the sea.
As our light faded into the evening we carefully picked our way across the rocks and headed home, stopping for a bird’s eye look back.
Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament) from the London Eye
Emmy and I first started planing a London trip almost two years ago. We can thank Harry Styles, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne and the rest of One Direction for the inspiration of the destination. They were a gateway for Emmy getting into other British acts and British fashion. Emmy says, “I was thinking of London as this perfect place. And it was.”
Other than Canada, I hadn’t traveled internationally since 1997, when Nancy and I got engaged in Lisbon and Wesley and I traveled to Prague.
To be honest, the UK was not the top of my travel bucket list for travel. But it should have been. We had an all around great trip. I was very pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to travel in London, and how much I enjoyed the green spaces alongside the cosmopolitan urban culture and amenities. Public transit is extremely convenient; we took the tube everywhere except a cab to our flat on arrival and when we took the train to Windsor and to the Harry Potter studio tour.
Greek lunch in Windsor
We were both especially pleased at the ease (and quality) of vegetarian dining in London, something that is always stressful while traveling, particularly in continental Europe (maybe it’s better there now) and Latin America. It seems like almost every restaurant in London has a selection vegetarian items, all nicely marked with a “V” or in their own category on menu. (Even in supposedly prog Portland, we often don’t get this courtesy.) I assumed we’d be eating a lot of Indian food (no complaints there, mate!), but we never did, and we didn’t find the need to look for vegetarian restaurants, either (of which there are plenty). Somebody even rated London the number one vegan city in the world. I would have scoffed at that notion prior to this trip.
For a while we considered splitting the trip between London and Paris, even entertaining the crazy notion of a day or overnight trip to Paris. We decided this would be too much hassle and not enough time in either city, and decided to focus a full 10 days on London. We rented a flat instead of a hotel so we could just unpack and move in and have a full home base. This turned out to be a really good decision. It was less expensive than a hotel, still very conveniently located, and extremely comfortable and convenient (separate bedrooms, kitchen, laundry, and a huge terrace overlooking the neighborhood).
If you’re not me or Emmy or directly related to us, the rest of this may be boring. I’m just recording it from my hand-written journal for posterity. If you just want to see photos, you can see them all on Flickr (pictures of me and Emmy are protected; if you’re family drop me a line and I’ll send you a special link so you can see us).
The Literary Cart. As a young man Martin sold sodas and water in the streets of Cartagena. He was a voracious reader though and began to carry books as well for exchange and to encourage other readers. Now he has a full time mobile bookstore with sponsorships.
One of the great stories about Martin is that he does readings for young children from an elaborately bound book – filled with blank pages. He makes the stories up as he goes along.
In rainy December, it’s always nice to get the heck out of Puddle Town. Los Angeles is usually quite nice this time of year, but this year they got more rain than they know what to do with (as illustrated by this giant mud puddle on Mulholland Drive).
We did Disney (in a fever, on one of the busiest days ever)…
But also the way cool (and way less insane) Page Museum at La Brea Tar Pits.
We enjoyed the local fauna, too, and also a nice, intimate New Year’s Eve party, thanks to our extremely gracious hosts.
And of course, the drive is part of the vacation. We have a special place we like to stop at for dinner in Sacramento, and we love the Mt. Shasta area.
Many thanks to M & S for hosting us, and happy tree rat hunting to them!