Tuesday, March 31, 2009

lesson four part two: sylvania

a map
The Snoqualmie Valley trail is an old railroad right-of-way: a raised bed, sometimes with gravel, plotting a wandering line above the marshlands. Ride past the moldering remnants of old industries that litter the landscape alongside: the last rotting bits of the signal system, a massive frame built of old growth tree-trunks turning green in the river. Even the farms, growing bright green in damp, are silent and muddy. Their few gateways are guarded carefully -- tangles of barbed wire and fierce words printed on a collage of fun colors. Mud-fields ferociously defended from a presently deserted road. Stop to urinate next to one of these gate-ways and find artifacts from a previous time: railroad ties corroded bright orange scattered around the tree, as if from some arcane, forgotten ritual.

After passing through Carnation, the right-of-way begins to gain altitude, following the contours of the foothills that form the eastern wall of the valley. Leave settlements behind you and intsead ride along a deseted path in the woods. Except for a handful of dirt roads, the trail follows the hillside in utter solitude.

Ride across a small trestle over a narrow, vigorous river and then the trail begins to climb even higher into the little hills. A gravel track lined with brown leaves and leafless trees that glow bright green in the even overcast light. Get a flat tire and spend a leisurely twenty minutes patching the tube and hear or see no-one else. No sign of humanity or civilization save for the lonely gravel track arcing along the green hillfingers reaching out into the valley floor. Sit on the wet gravel and listen to a hawk call from tree to tree, slowing making its way down the valley.

The trail soon finds its chosen altitude -- no longer climbing, it is content to wind its way easily through the trees. Heading from the left are countless nameless tracks, leading uphill and out of sight into the trees. Keep the bike in a lower gear and spin in through the rough gravel. Worry about that flat tire you got before -- the tire itself salvaged from a dumpster how many hundreds of miles ago? You should not be riding dozens of gravel miles on that tire. The fear is unfounded and you pedal on unimpeded for the rest of the day. Through the trees to your right is an occasional glimpse of the valley now surprisingly far below.

As you ride the only sounds are your breath, the gravel crunching underneath your tires, and birds singing in the still bare trees. Suddenly a gunshot. Then another. And another, this one a shotgun or some other large-bore firearm. Their report echoes down the valley and through the trees. Several more report from far below, out of sight. A gun range in the woods below. The trail crosses a small parking lot and a road, where a cadre of mountain bikers are pulling their bikes off of their sport utility vehicles. The trail has found its way back into settled country again: small and large houses line the trail on both sides now, dogs barking and toys in the open yards. Still the trail continues and eventually crosses a massive railroad trestle, a massive parabola of huge wooden beams turning green with age reaching across a yawning gap. Far below the Tolt River thunders under a blanket of moss-wrapped trees. Cross the bridge and climb down below it briefly. The smell of wet earth, rotting leaves, and creosote. The bridge curves off out of sight. An unexpected treasure, to be sure. A hidden jewel hidden in the damp evergreen woods.

Less than a mile from the trestle the trail comes to an ignoble end: a simple tunnel beneath a rural highway. Ride through it and the corrugated steel walls echo in a strange, almost terrifying way, the sounds of each displaced pebble reproduced a thousand slightly different ways all at once. Beyond the tunnel the official trail ends, but a narrow track continues in the woods, headed for parts unknown.

Now drag your bike up slippery wooden stairs onto the highway and, for the first time in hours, ride your bike on glass-like pavement. Get in the drops and drop it into a low, low gear and really push it downhill for a while without a care in the world: no flats, no slips, no surprises on this relatively well cared for two lane. Look to the right and, for a tantalizing split second, see the Cascades through a break in both the trees and the clouds. They are huge and shockingly close, a seemingly impenetrable wall of rock and snow, a vertical stone wall thrusting out of the verdant dales of Western Washington. Impassable, tantalizingly so. Then they're gone.

A few seconds later the small highway, an insignificant tributary, joins a larger stream of automobiles. Cross the street and find Snoqualmie Falls, a massive cataract of water with a large pool of stunningly blue water, even on a cloudy day.

Dozens of tourists mill about as you gulp down a quart of water in a few seconds. Visit the gift shop where a woman uses a large machine to generate two shots of espresso. Drink those, too, and refill your bottles in the sink of the bathroom. Then saddle the bicycle once again and begin the trip home. First rocket down the switchback highway back to the floor of the valley. Sharp turns and traffic hugging the fogline. Ride the drops and feel no fear, but keep the fingers on the brake levers anyway. At the bottom, you cross the Tolt river once again, but the highway's bridge is a much less remarkable feat. A squat assemblage of poured concrete and asphalt.

The road home is familiar -- two lane rural roads through the countryside of King County. They pass through a small town, Fall City, and then past rural homesteads. The older farmhouses are easy to discern: they're simple, beautiful, and have massive porches rather than massive garages. The road passes by these houses, and their grotesque modern subsequent forms, and up and out of the Snoqualmie Valley.

Soon the rural road is subsumed by a larger exburban highway. The individual rural estates are replaced by subdivisions of houses surrounded by high walls. The road soon becomes massive, four lanes of busy traffic. A bike lane appears suddenly and travels along this not-a-highway-highway for a few blocks before suddenly disappearing before a steep hill drops you off in the outskirts of Issaquah. Now fully in the sphere of Seattle's influence, the road is hugely wide and choked with automobiles. Pull into the left turn lane and be surrounded by two dozen idling automobiles. Smell their poison and listen to the deep rumble of their collective engines. Concrete, exhaust, rubber, steel.

Join the I-90 trail and follow the interstate corridor. In Bellevue ride past dozens of corporate offices. The trail here is a concrete channel tunneling under a freeway overpass alongside an offramp.

Ride to Mercer Island, past the mansions of Seattle's elite, and begin the trip across the I-90 bridge. The wind here is sharp and cold, and all of the rugged commuters have pained, struggling looks on their faces as the ride up the incline onto Mercer Island. Cruise alongside the traffic on the freeway, which you quickly begin to overtake.

Cross Seattle on the bike trail and head downtown, where the traffic is heinous. Split 3rd Avenue all the way to Westlake Center, where you meet several dozen strangers and ride around downtown in circles. A cop walks out in front of everyone, shrieking at the group, totally unable to effect any sort of change. Authority ignored. A big party slowly making its way across Seattle.

The big ride eventually starts to make its way north. Eventually you cross the locks at dusk and start heading home on the Burke-Gilman. The big ride pares down to fifteen, then seven, then four, and then just two. You pick up the pace, bid the fellow rider a good night, and push the last few miles home. Ride with an unexpected pep up the very last hill of the day, gliding past a dozen cheap restaurants and a couple cheap bars, ignoring the hundreds out to enjoy the first night of the weekend. Instead, you go home and take a shower.

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