I love being outdoors.
There’s nothing better than enjoying an Oregon summer by hiking up to a waterfall in the gorge with my doggy. Watching scenic farm views biking through rural Washington County just before harvest. Sledding on Mt. Hood in the winter. Paddling the Tualatin River in spring.
And then going home to sleep in my own bed.
But there are many people on this earth that would take issue with me regarding that last sentence. There’s this thing called “camping” where you go enjoy nature and then sleep out there–either in a tent, or for some, in a behemoth motor vehicle that costs as much and acts as a second home.
There are people who not only look forward to this “camping,” but actively try to camp as much as possible. They buy titanium cookware and don’t even use a sleeping bag, they’re so hardcore. They bring a shovel to dig their own toilets. They wear pelts and howl at the moon. They get people to come camping with them year-round by forming teeny non-profits dedicated to get people to sleep in the wilderness.
Then there’s me. Although I’m very familiar with this “camping,” and have done it a fair amount since I was a wee lass, it’s something I generally don’t seek out or look forward to. Perhaps I’m just spoiled by living in a city where a natural area is within walking distance of almost anywhere, but camping isn’t very appealing to me. What’s the big deal, you ask?
• Doing Without: I can live on simple food for days, but not without access to running water, including the opportunity to shower daily. (If I can’t wash up, nasty things start to happen…) Also, not a huge fan of being in places for extended periods without access to the intertubes–because you never know when you’re going to need access to that YouTube video of the Mojito Dance!
• Effort: Why on earth would you choose to buy a bunch of expensive gear, which just takes up space in your house most of the time, take hours to pack, schlep your junk all the way out to some distant location, then go through the rigmarole of setting it up for use, only to break it down first thing the next morning, then lather, rinse, repeat depending on the length of your trip?
• No Escape: Camping is most often a social activity. This is a problem if you require a lot of alone time each day. Thin tent walls won’t usually keep out the noise of the chatterboxes. And if you lose your patience with someone, too bad! You’re stuck there.
After months of gentle nudges from many cohorts, and hearing that there was to be a trip to Stub Stewart State Park, I decided to get it together and try out this bike camping thing. Stub Stewart is Oregon’s newest state park, located about halfway between Banks and Vernonia on the Banks-Vernonia non-motorized transportation corridor. State parks have showers, spigots aplenty, and this state park is within cell phone range, meaning I could turn my precious iPhone on periodically (conserving the battery!) if I needed to chat with God in a pinch. I’ve heard good things about it from many who have been there since it opened two summers ago.
Saturday morning I set out at 8am, and took TriMet’s 71 bus, then the MAX Blue Line from E 60th aaaallllll the way to Hillsboro on the other side of the metro area, where I arrived about 9:45am. I hadn’t been waiting long when the rest of the group showed up within a few minutes of each other. There were six of us all together, with another person who had gone up to the campsite a day early.
The first part of the journey took us from Hillsboro to Banks along flat, open rural roads with scenic farm views. Dense fields of wheat, U-Pick blueberry farms, nurseries, clover fields. My co-riders chose to ride on the very edge of the roads, and I rode significantly to the left of the edge, as these rural roads were usually skirted by steep descents into rocky irrigation ravines–meaning if I didn’t give myself enough room and lost control just a little bit (not uncommon for me!), I could find myself falling in a ditch. No thank you!
But of course, even though our route included very low-traffic rural roads, which now have huge signs on them showing a bicycle and saying “SHARE THE ROAD” since Tim O’Donnell’s death in 2007, our group experienced a big-ass pickup truck driver slowing down and suggesting to the people in the back of our group that “you people” should ride further to the side of the road. A road where their tires (but not mine, admittedly) were less than a foot from the end of the asphalt! Oy.
After a stop at a grocery store in Banks and a quick tour of a new subdivision, we began the part of the ride I was most looking forward to–exploring the Banks-Vernonia non-motorized transportation corridor. A converted rail line very similar to the Springwater Corridor that skirts my neighborhood, the trail began with a very gentle uphill grade as we biked through more wheat fields, now surrounded by wooded hills. Eventually the trail became completely shaded by trees, and the grade increased, but was still a very gentle and manageable climb. (Part of the reason old rail beds make such great bike/ped corridors is because of the gentle curves and hill climbs that were required for trains.) We rode over a gorgeous improved railroad bridge, and then as the afternoon temperature was starting to climb, we made our final hilly push up to the park in the shade.
Once at the park (and figuring out that we were at the park…if you’re approaching along the trail, it’s unclear whether the road you cross is the park road or not), we slowly pushed up a steep shorter hill to the visitor center, where we stopped to drink water in the afternoon sun before heading off to our campsite. I believed–falsely–that the most arduous part of the journey was over.
We were to be staying at the camp’s hike-in campsite, which included a journey along a thickly-graveled road, a quarter-mile long, that first went straight down where it crossed Brooke Creek, and then straight back up. Not willing to bike on such thick gravel at such a steep grade on my loaded road bike, I walked most of the way, grumbling, as my heavy bike still had difficulty remaining upright. It wasn’t long after we finally came to our campsite that I discovered the nearby toilets were vault toilets (at least they had hand sanitizer!), and the “real” toilets and showers were a mile away, which required traversing that gravel road again, thus making a walk more practical, albeit slower, than a bike ride.
The hike-in campsite was beautiful though, especially compared to the regular campsite. Our area had plenty of tree shading, whereas the recent construction of the other areas meant the tallest trees were only about ten feet tall. This area was part of the Tillamook Burn, so although the trees in the photo look skinny and young, it’s because they are from post-fire replanting efforts that happened in the 1950s.
Our group mostly hung out around the fire ring chatting. I was only finding irony in their proclamations of wanting to be in the hike-in area so they could enjoy nature and not have to listen to people’s cars and televisions…and the reality that everyone was just talking, and talking about television shows, processed foods, and Facebook. I recognized my crankypantsness, and retired to my tent very early, soothed by the warmth of my sleeping bag until I was able to go to sleep.
Sunday morning I woke up at 6am, bleary-eyed, and trudged the mile to the other camping area to take a shower, arriving back at 7:30(!). As soon as I stepped out of the shower the world instantly transformed to a wonderful place, and I even sang “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” while walking the gravel road back to the hike-in campsite. (No, I’m not kidding.) At that point I had a glorious half hour to myself to enjoy the light of the sunrise playing against the Douglas firs and listen to the gentle rustle of wind swaying their branches before my fellow campers began to rise, harshing my happy.
I remembered that my most enjoyable camping trips were the ones I have taken without other people. Thinking back though, I realized that the reality of biking on rural roads is that there is safety in numbers, meaning it’s very unlikely I would ever go bike camping by myself.
One thing I did enjoy about my fellow campers was gleaning food from them. I was happy to live mostly on peanut butter sandwiches, supplemented by a couple of Luna bars and a can of green beans for the trip, but others packed a veritable pantry of food that they were happy to share so they wouldn’t have to lug back. I had instant pudding (chocolate!), polenta with pasta sauce and melted cheese, cherries, grapes, and Pop Tarts, which I associate strongly with camping and road trips but decided not to bring after a staredown at the grocery store.
Finally, at noon on Sunday, we left the hike-in camp and made a brief stop to check out the visitor center before cruising back down the hill we had climbed the day before. Pedaling was unnecessary for about the first 30 minutes of our return trip, where we covered the ground it took us about 60 minutes to cover the day before, going uphill. We crossed the wheat fields ensconced by forested hills of the day before, returned for a brief stop at the grocery store in Banks, and then started riding the rural roads back to Hillsboro.
At this point I was excited to get home, and I rode ahead of most of the group because I wanted to power up the small hills to get them done, plus being ahead of the pack I got to enjoy the quiet, or hear birds I wouldn’t have otherwise, like a group of guinea hens that were making their way around the perimeter of an orchard.
Although I was hungry to join two co-riders for some Burgerville when we got back into Hillsboro, my desire to press forward toward home was stronger, so I took the next MAX and snuggled in for another long ride back to the east side of Portland. While on the train, I was very excited about how perfectly my bags fit into the bike area–so excited I took a photo of it.
Nobody ever asked me how I liked the trip, but I guess because I wasn’t openly complaining (I was purposely trying to keep it in my head) I think they assumed that I was enjoying myself. The thing about camping is, I can do it, but generally choose not to for the aforementioned reasons, so this trip didn’t change my opinion. I will continue to enjoy Oregon’s wilderness my way–culminating with my very tired head resting peacefully on my giant Ikea pillows, cuddled up on my soft mattress, cocooned in layers of warm blankets.
But at least I’ve tried it now, so next time one of the bike camping regulars ask “when are you going to come bike camping with us?” I can tell them to stuff it in their stuff sack.