This past Saturday morning at the Santa Cruz taqueria Mike and I ordered two burritos each. We ate one and packed the other, and headed out to ride the Crown Zellerbach trail. There’s nothing wrong with having a burrito for breakfast. It’s bike fuel of the best sort. And what’s even better than having a burrito for breakfast is following it with another burrito at lunch. The Santa Cruz Taqueria in St. Johns has some of the best in town, and they’ve got an avocado sauce that makes you want to hug whoever’s working at the counter.
The CZ trail starts in Scappoose, which is about 20 miles north of Portland on the west side of the river. Mike offered to drive to the trail head because he had to get back to town that evening. My plan was do go on my first overnight trip.
The CZ runs along side the Scappoose/Vernonia highway for a ways out of town, then turns and heads off into the trees. It’s gravel, converted from an old rail bed, which in my opinion ought to be done all over the state. Why not make a whole network of trails that run out to the coast, inland, up and down the state? Imagine cycling for days and days from the forest around Mt. Hood to the desert to the ocean and never having to stress about traffic. There are plenty of old unused rail beds and logging roads. But, we all know why they don’t do it. It costs money. Never mind that you or I might be certain it’s a good investment for all sorts of reasons.
This was going to be my first bike trip for the year. I don’t know how other people do it, but for me when packing for the first trip I feel a little muddy and kind of dim, like I’m not sure who I am or what I’m doing. I can never remember what all I’m supposed to bring. I tried to fix that problem a few years back by buying a big Rubbermaid tub and keeping all my touring gear together in one place. But each trip requires its own sorts of gear based on how long, where to, how cold or wet, etc. It can be hard to predict what sort of stuff you might need while out on your bike. There’s the fundamentals: You need to eat and to sleep. You’ll probably want to heat your food. You might want to brush your teeth and have coffee or tea in the morning. Maybe you like a little sugar in your coffee.
I start with the stuff I need, and then for the rest I’m packing for contingencies. I like to talk to myself, ask myself questions: What if it rains. What if I get a flat. What if my zipper blows out. What if my camera battery dies. How many books will I really read. What if they seem to be cutting all the trees down in Oregon. Who’s going to know. Or care? And what am I going to do about it?
Packing for a bike trip is a balance between economy and comfort. You want to take the lightest and most compact gear you can afford, but at some point light and compact becomes detrimental to your own private views on creature comforts. Like for example a few years back I bought a tent, the Fly Creek made by Big Agnes. At the time it was the lightest tent on the market — it may still be — and if I’d had an extra couple of hundred dollars I could have gotten it with the carbon fiber poles and it would have weighed nothing at all. And talk about packing small — I could practically have put this thing in my pocket. Cool design, too, because of how simple it is. Really it’s not much more than a bivy sack.
But for me there was one problem. It’s the kind of tent that opens at the end, the “head” end, and tapers down toward the feet. When I was inside, it felt claustrophobic and too much like a nylon coffin. If I thought too much about the walls of the tent I’d start feeling constricted and paranoid. Even exhausted after a full day of cycling I’d have trouble sleeping. If I did sleep I’d have terrible dreams, low budget terror flicks. It was like someone was slowly, very quietly wrapping my body up in plastic wrap, pinning my arms at my sides, making me into a mummy. I’d sweat cold. My breathing became restricted and short, panicked. I’d lie there and try talking myself down, but it never worked. The pressure would build and build and then I’d snap and yell and come tearing ass out of the tent gulping air, really kind of bothering the other people camping around me.
I sold that tent to Mitch and bought myself a new tent, the MSR Hubba, which has a big wide door on the side, lots of breathing room. It’s still light and compact, but it won’t come close to fitting in my pocket. That’s fine, though, I’m willing to carry a little more weight for the added peace of mind. No dreams of being slowly digested by a snake. It takes time and experience to discover the gear that works best for you.
If you’re considering riding the CZ trail all the way to Vernonia, be sure you know where you’re going. The actual CZ is only a few miles long, and at some unknown point it ends and becomes an old logging road. The network of roads back there is immense in their mileage. I, of course, didn’t do my research before leaving Portland, and even though I borrowed Mike’s GPS when we parted ways, I missed the turn. Dirt and grass covered roads regularly split off the main gravel road to the left and the right, and if you don’t know what you’re doing you could get lost for a very long time. The last time I rode this trail was last year, and I went with some people who had the maps, so I hadn’t been paying too much attention to where we were going. This time, by myself, all the side roads looked the same. At some point, though, I suspected that I’d gone past my turn. There were views over the valleys that I didn’t remember from last time. The GPS was giving me trouble because I wasn’t sure how to access some of the functions. It told me that I was on some anonymous double-dotted line on the digital cartoon map, but I couldn’t locate that in the bigger picture. Worse, I’d hit a wrong button and it kept beeping at me, insisting I turn around, which didn’t help my growing unease and the sense of feeling lost. At some point I wanted to throw the GPS in the trees. But then the trees ended. What finally convinced me to turn around was when I arrived to a massive clear cut, nothing left but stumps and dirt. It looked like a gigantic garden tiller had come and upturned the earth, destroying everything. The gravel road wound through this wasteland for a couple of miles until at a fork I had a choice of going very steeply up or very steeply down. Both options seemed bad so I gave in to the annoying beeping and turned around.
A few miles back the way I’d come and some twist of luck allowed me to find the turn on the GPS. I was convinced I was going to have to head many more miles back to the road and take that over the hills. This one bit of navigational help made having the GPS worthwhile. A mile or two down the turnoff and the road seems to end. Btu keep going. Over a mound of dirt and there’s a steep and rutted trail that takes you down to a dead end country road, paved. And in a couple more miles you’re in Vernonia.
I picked up supplies at the market (cider, food for the next day) and pedaled on to Big Eddy campground. Big Eddy is pretty much exactly the halfway point between Portland and Astoria if you’re cycling the old highways. The next day I was blessed again with perfect weather, and made good time riding on the rest of the way to Astoria. Such a gorgeous ride. I only saw one other cyclist the whole way.
That night I stayed at the hostel and took the Point bus back to Portland the next morning.
Some folks choose to get up early and ride all the way out to Astoria in one day. If you’re in shape for it, this allows you to pack light. There are enough places to pick up food and water along the way. I like to do this trip in two days. I’m not a hero, and besides, I wanted to camp overnight, kind of as a test run for future trips. The only way I can figure out what I’m doing wrong, and what I’m forgetting, is to get out there and do it. Kind of a reconnoissance mission for gear. And a trip like this has a low commitment. If I really botch it and forget to bring shoes or my sleeping bag or something, it’s not like I’m off on a multi-day adventure, or some big remote trip where my failures in packing gear will cause me great suffering or even death. It’s good to start small as a sort of practice for more intense bike trips. It boosts confidence, and reminds you who you are and how you can be. And it’s fun.
Things to remember next time: head lamp, ibuprofen, a lemon (so refreshing in water bottles), flip flops, mosquito repellent, fewer books