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Oregon’s Bicycling Culture

Once upon a time in 1971, a Republican state representative and avid bicyclist from Southern Oregon named Don Stathos was riding tandem with his daughter on a highway to Medford with no shoulder. As vehicles zoomed by, forcing Stathos dangerously off the road, he thought to himself: "Here we are the richest nation in the world and we have constructed our environment so we can't keep in physical condition.""Here we are the richest nation in the world and we have constructed our environment so we can't keep in physical condition."

Stathos then asked, his daughter Jenny Hill of Wilsonville remembers, the simple and eternal question in a democracy: "Why can't there be a better way?" He answered his own question by introducing House Bill 1700, which required the state to set aside at least 1 percent of the highway fund to build bicycle and pedestrian facilities.

In the beginning, there wasn't much support from either party for a bill that was, and still is, a radical piece of legislation, the first of its kind in the nation, and quite possibly the world.

Somehow, Stathos prevailed, barely. It might have helped that he was seen riding his bicycle around Salem. Or that he had a mini bicycle in his briefcase that he would take out and assemble when he lobbied other lawmakers. At each step of the legislative process, the bill passed by one vote. Initially, Governor Tom McCall didn't favor it, but he changed his mind because he came to believe it was good for Oregon and all Oregonians, now and in the future. And he came to believe this because he listened to Don Stathos.

On the steps of the Capitol, McCall signed the Bicycle Bill on the seat of bicycle. Soon thereafter, taxpayer funds for bicycle and pedestrian paths began trickling in. Construction began. Less than a generation later, the bill had put a permanent dent in the automobile's hegemony, transformed transportation planning, helped citizens stay fit, became a national legislative model, and made Oregon the most bike friendly place in the country. Furthermore, it created unique, multiple and safe recreational and commuting opportunities that led many of Oregon's citizens, including this writer, to practice a healthy cultural life.

Well, sort of healthy.

It was 1991 and the night before we were to ride the Bicycle Bill-created Oregon Coast Bike Route from Astoria to Brookings, I drank whiskey and lechered until 4:00 a.m.

But I was young, pretentiously rugged, and gorged with ideals from reading memoirs by alcoholic writers/adventurers who responded to crushing hangovers with grace under pressure — and more booze.

We were all 26 or 27 back then on the week after Labor Day: Steve, Gary, Chris, Jay, and I, nearly broke, ready to default on student loans, losering, and not knowing how or if we should become adults. That winter the military had routed Iraq, the flags waved, the media ejaculated, and we were part of a pathetic cadre of traitors who opposed the war. A recession was looming but a second term for President Bush seemed assured. His approval rating hovered at 90 percent. This made us drink more — a lot more. We needed jobs, direction, and a revolution — not necessarily in that order.We needed jobs, direction, and a revolution — not necessarily in that order. What else could poor boys do (who didn't play in a band) but follow the advice of Otter in Animal House and take a road trip — biking 350 miles down the scenic Oregon Coast — one of the premier road rides in the world — while everyone else cursed the end of summer. We would camp, drink, raise hell, meet the proles, postpone maturity, and hopefully get our heads and bodies back in shape.

Earlier that summer I had quit yet another teaching job. I was living in a dump studio in downtown Portland across the street from a liquor store when my ride picked me up at dawn to drive us to the beach. As I took the elevator down, the dry heaves rocked me like a windmilled Pete Townsend power cord through a Marshall stack cranked to 11, and I had serious doubts about going. There are times in life when you simply can't quit and I guess all the yelling from sadistic high school coaches about "sucking it up" and not being a "pussy" did amount to something. So I stuck my finger down my throat and got on with the trip.

Before hitting the road, we ate breakfast in Astoria and I nearly puked across the counter. 'Get it fucking together!' I screamed to my inner child. As I climbed on the bike, I had the shakes worse than Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend and Albert Finney in Under the Volcano. Could I even ride? I was in tatters, on the brink of being totally shattered in every conceivable way a human can be. My legs barely pumped, the nausea ransacked me, but I caught some salt air and actually started moving. Three flat tires dimmed our enthusiasm, but by the time we made it to Seaside and pulled up to the Beach Club Tavern, I was ready for a draft, my hangover vanquished, morale restored, and the thought of five days with the guys down Highway 101 seemed beautiful. We each drank two beers, snacked on pickled eggs and peanuts, it was 10 a.m., and we were off.

We camped the first night near Netarts Bay and established a routine that lasted the trip: ride a leisure 50-60 miles, stop at several taverns to eat, work up a buzz, shop for a weird pint from a liquor store, and buy a case of beer (always Hamm's) at the last market before the campground, cook up dinner, drink all the alcohol, talk, scream, pass out in our tents (if we pitched them) and get up in the morning, find a greasy breakfast joint, load up on biscuits and gravy and black coffee, maybe a bloody Mary — and do it all over again.

The second morning we biked a grueling ascent up Cape Lookout. Chris, the only smoker of the group, struggled to keep up. At the top, we waited, thinking he might be dead. Finally he showed up, looking worse than Keith Richards at 40. He took out his Marlboros, threw them away, and swore off smoking. After a long descent, he pulled over at the first market, bought a new pack, and fired one up. After a few drags, he looked like a man relaxing after the best sex of his life.

The next evening, after another beer-soaked day riding through the horror that is Highway 101 in Lincoln City, we met the Europeans at South Beach State Park. It was fear at first sight.

They had $1,500 road bikes, tights, stainless steel mess kits, Gore-Tex tents, meusilix, bottled water, and the Olympic spirit (Soviet kind). We rolled in screaming, with half cases of Hamm's bungeed to our racks and a plastic fifth of Old Crow held up like a standard hoisted aloft for battle. Within minutes we had a fire raging, hot dogs roasting, chili bubbling, whiskey passed around, empty cans flying, and a party going on that could be heard for a quarter mile. Every crude American stereotype was confirmed and the sun hadn't even set.Every crude American stereotype was confirmed and the sun hadn't even set. We offered the Europeans a beer. They refused and moved their tents far away as we watched.

The next morning, we had breakfast in a Waldport diner that was packed with locals fueling up to clear cut the forests or render the salmon extinct. My hair was long and I pulled it back as I edged into the counter next to a guy with the Marine Corps emblem tattooed on an arm the size of a stump. CNN was on with the sound off. A news segment showed a punk that resembled me burning an American flag on the steps of a white marbled courthouse. The joint erupted, the air got thick and patriotic fast, and all eyes looked our way. The large man turned and asked, "Now, you wouldn't do that to your flag, would you?"

"No," I said, in the only one-word answer I have ever given to a political question.

We kept moving south and things happened: met two sisters and Steve skinny-dipped with one of them; briefly rode with a gorgeous woman who had started at the Brooks Range and would finish at Tierra Del Fuego — she covered 120 miles a day and left us all in love on a hill; met a Jesus freak riding with his mail order Asian wife and new kid; talked with a derelict biking north on a three-speed, rusted Schwinn who sold pinwheels made from Bud cans — he warned us about Druids around Port Orford; saw a teenage surfer girl in a wetsuit zipped low, sand crusted in her cleavage, an image that still comes in handy every now and then.

I had a phobia crossing the big McCullough bridges, and at the Yaquina and Coos Bay spans, both shrouded in fog, arcing, winds up, and rattled by RVs and trucks, I was faced with the choice of riding on a narrow, elevated sidewalk which meant being blown into the sea, or joining the traffic in the one-lane roadway and getting run over.I was faced with the choice of riding on a narrow, elevated sidewalk which meant being blown into the sea, or joining the traffic in the one-lane roadway and getting run over. I did the latter and summoned the most intense bursts of energy and concentration of my entire life to make it safely over.

The ride wasn't always that intense or full of freaks. Sometimes, when the traffic subsided and no one was around, we rode with no hands, abreast and carried on a continuing 350-mile debate about the worst song in rock and roll history. Second place: anything by Toto. The winner: Styx's "Mr. Roboto."

North of Bandon one morning, Steve drifted shirtless downhill a few feet behind a loaded log truck. Bark and gravel flew as he yelled like a lunatic. We all knew he would die. He lived and we chose a better restaurant in Bandon to celebrate. We stowed our bikes, brushed the dust off, and Steve put his shirt back on. It read: "Make Love, Fuck War." We sat down and a crimson waitress came over. "A lot of people in here don't like that T-shirt," she said. She was about ready to tell us to leave when Steve stood up, pulled off his shirt, put it on backwards, and explained he was sorry and that this would solve the problem. She nervously relented. We ate fast, voices down, tipped big, and took the back way out of town. Some of us envisioned the last scene in Easy Rider.

In Port Orford we stopped at Pitch's Tavern, waited for it to open, drank beer for three hours by ourselves as we played pool and darts, and then saddled up definitely past the legal limit. We saw a flashing sign that warned of high winds but it didn't faze us because we knew the prevailing wind on the Oregon Coast blows north to south about 95 percent of the time this time of year.

Not this time. As we approached Pistol River, we got smashed in the face by 40 mph gusts that stood us still like the hand of GodAs we approached Pistol River, we got smashed in the face by 40 mph gusts that stood us still like the hand of God, who we blasphemed as a prig and teetotaler. It was utter drunken anguish for 25 miles and I cried at the end.

But we couldn't quit, pushed hard to Brookings that day, got roaring drunk again in a tavern while watching Jimmy Connors make a last, wild, crotch-grabbing run for the US Open tennis title. To us, everyone else in the world was at work. We had conquered the Oregon Coast and never trained a minute.

Our driver from Portland came the next morning and I was in the exact shape as when I started the ride.

We never rode together again.

÷ ÷ ÷

Matt Love is the author/editor of 10 books about Oregon. He lives in South Beach and teaches creative writing and journalism at Newport High School. His latest book is Of Walking in Rain.

Books mentioned in this post

Matt Love is the author of Of Walking in Rain

4 Responses to "Oregon’s Bicycling Culture"

    Steve Huston February 3rd, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    This story is awesome! Makes me want to get on a bike and ride down 101 now. Are you selling that t-shirt, Matt?

    The Magnificent Eighth February 3rd, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    matt there's a flaw in your story--you say only hamms but the picture shows 3 cases of oly! get the facts straight man!

    John Mark February 3rd, 2009 at 2:38 pm

    Do you have a higher resolution photo of the bill-signing? What kind of whip does the good governor ride?

    LA Chickie February 3rd, 2009 at 10:40 pm

    You are amazing. I loved this story. I visualized each and every word. I can't believe all the experiences you have had. You were born to write.

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