Warm Showers

Before I left Seattle for my trip across the Northern Tier I knew vaguely about Warm Showers. I knew it served the same purpose as Couch Surfing, but for touring cyclists. Hosts offer showers, kitchens, laundry, and/or space for sleeping, and they provide their contact information for cyclists passing through town. Unlike a paid service like Airbnb or Lyft, hosts have complete discretion over who they accept, and they can unlist themselves from the website at any time.

I expected we’d find a small number of homes through Warm Showers, maybe three or four per state. Rory and I planned to try it out a few times throughout our tour, but I honestly thought we’d have more luck knocking on doors and asking to crash in backyards.

As it turns out, everyone on tour uses Warm Showers. After only eleven days on the road, Rory, Lauren, and I have stayed with six Warm Showers hosts (though the two more established locations, the Bike Barn and the Bacon Bike Hostel, were cross listed with the ACA map).

We stayed with Parker in Omak, WA, the day I hitchhiked with Biscuit to the ER. Parker was away climbing in the Enchantments for the weekend, he but offered his house anyway–along with the fresh raspberries and peaches in his refrigerator. Rory and I spent the morning playing with his cats and washing our laundry. When Parker returned around 8pm we shared a few beers and talked about living in Omak, climbing, and backcountry skiing before falling asleep. The next morning we drank coffee together before he left for work, cleaned up the kitchen, and rode off towards Republic.

In Republic Rory, Biscuit, and I stayed with Dianne and Boyd. We found homemade Thai curry waiting for us when we arrived around sunset, and we all talked until midnight about Boyd’s work as a manager at a local mine. The following day Dianne and Boyd both left for work long before we were prepared to pack up, and we spent the morning enjoying the sun on their deck, writing in journals, reading, and drinking coffee.

Our first night in Sandpoint, Rory and I climbed to the base of Schweitzer (a completely unnecessary 2600 ft hill over 9 miles) to stay in Dawn’s ski condo. She was away but offered her home anyway, and we happily spent the night with a kitchen, a shower, and real beds. We also ate her pickles–with permission–but left her a beer.

Last night, Steve, Meg, and their two daughters hosted the three of us. We all cooked pasta together, and over dinner Steve and Meg told us stories about their honeymoon (a trans-Am bike trip), NASA (Steve worked for Space Ops), and off-roading (Steve and his daughter just drove the Lolo Trail in central Idaho).

Each of these stories speaks to the generosity and friendliness that we’ve experienced along the road. Complete strangers open their homes to us when they’re away, and they share dinner with us when they’re home. To be clear, Warm Showers is not a uniformly comfortable experience. We show up late, tired, hungry, and dirty, with nothing more to offer than company and stories. Sharing strangers’ space is not something I did in my day to day life in Maine, Seattle, or Chicago, and I reflexively feel burdensome or in the way.

Still, I set out on this trip hoping to meet different people and to stretch my bubble. And while Warm Showers hosts are undeniably a specific subset of the larger population (so far they’ve been relatively affluent with histories of traveling), sharing their space provides a brief window into lives, stories, and perspectives I would not otherwise have encountered.

Off the Ground

Today is our sixth day out on the Northern Tier ACA route, which runs from Anacortes, WA to Bar Harbor, ME.  At the moment I’m writing and eating peanut butter straight from the jar.

Rory and I started in Seattle on 18th, only a day later than planned and left the city for Deception Pass after a customary stop at Mighty-O donuts. At Deception Pass we met Lauren (aka Biscuit), my friend and Bonkers teammate from Chicago, who will be joining us until we reach West Glacier, MT. We then rode to Rockport (day 2), into North Cascade National Park (day 3), over Rainy and Washington Passes to Mazama (day 4), and finally over Loup Loup Pass and into the Okanogan Valley where we stayed last night (day 5).

As with previous bike tours, each day brings a lot to see but little to actually do, which I suspect makes for boring reading. Relatively mundane events become exciting (e.g. drinking coffee with milk or finding a power outlet), and I spend most of my waking and sleeping hours thinking about food. The parts of each day that are notable are difficult to capture in photos or words, so I’ll try to avoid creating a laundry list of small towns visited, mileages travelled, and passes climbed. Those details are better captured by Instagram and Strava, anyway.

For me, the transition from “life as a grad student” to “life on a bike tour” as I’ve experienced it is worth sharing, if only because of the near immediate change in perspective. In the weeks preceding the tour I worried about missing work, missing paper deadlines–generally “falling behind.” At one point during the spring I said that I felt like I was making a poor decision by choosing this bike tour over an internship. Two days before we left for Deception Pass I considered hauling my MacBook across the entire country. In retrospect, all of these thoughts seem ridiculous and absurd. To my knowledge, nothing about my grad student life has broken. I’ll spend the next few months thinking about what I’m going to eat and where I’m going to sleep (in that order), and everything will be fine.

The Bike Barn–our campsite in Mazama–stands out from the past week of riding, though I hope we find similar experiences over the following three months. Jim and Jan (the owners) leave their yard open to touring cyclists who are passing through, and they provide drinking water, an outdoor shower, a toilet, power outlets, and a small refrigerator, all on a pay-what-you-can model. We shared the space with 6 others–two couples and two solo cyclists–all of whom were in various stages of different tours, and we spent most of the evening swapping stories, trading route information, and drinking beers. That night at the Bike Barn contrasted with the following night in Omak, where we camped at the edge of a noisy park adjacent to the highway, surrounded by massive RVs whose owners glanced at us skeptically or remained inside.

Tomorrow we head north towards Republic and the Canadian border for more passes and (hopefully) sub 90 degree weather. https://www.instagram.com/sweet.potato.hash/ for pictures and updates.