A Tale of Two Trips to Duthie Hill Park

29 07 2015

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Saturday, Patrick had a playdate with a friend he made at summer camp. I decided to use that time and bring Alex to Duthie Hill mountain bike park. It was my first time there. Neither of us have mountain bikes, but we both have cyclocross bikes, and I heard that was enough for some of the trails through the park. Taking that on faith, we made the 40 minute drive from our house. 

It didn’t look good at first. You start from the parking lot on a short trail, maybe an eighth of a mile, that’s mostly gravel and big rocks. Compared to mountain bikes, our cyclocross tires are skinny and we don’t have any suspension. This part was pretty uncomfortable, and as we rode it I wondered if the idea was a huge mistake. Luckily, the big rocks gave way to a smooth gravel road, which in turn lead us to the forested trail I’d been looking for: “Bootcamp.” This is one of the beginner trails through the park, and it was perfect for our bikes and our skill level. Every time Alex navigated a particularly twisty turn through the trees, he’d exclaim, “Woo hoo!” After watching Inside Out, Alex is also a child psychoanalyst, and he said at one point during the ride, “I think I’m making a core memory!”

“That was fun,” Alex said in the car on the way home. “It would be better if Patrick was here.” (Aww, I thought when I heard this. He really does like his brother.)

So, we returned on Sunday, this time with Patrick on his small-but-heavy Trek mountain bike. This didn’t work as well. Patrick’s not as skilled a rider, and the twists that made Alex say “Woo hoo!” got labeled “Crazy turns!” by Patrick. As in, “I’m not going to try that crazy turn!” He wound up walking his bike most of the way through Bootcamp.

The trails at Duthie Hill meet at a central clearing. Patrick and I toodled around there while Alex rode on his own through the woods. Yes, I kept imagining Alex falling and breaking his arm, but that didn’t happen. What did happen? A thunderstorm. If you don’t live in Seattle you don’t appreciate how rare this, which is why I was so unprepared. The storm came with very little warning. The skies had been the stereotypical Seattle heavy gray all day, so there was no buildup of cloud cover to give hint of what was coming. Nope, just a few rumbles of distant thunder while Alex was biking on his own. Then, more or less exactly when Alex returned to the clearing, the storm began in earnest. Heavy rain, flashes of lightning followed closely by loud thunderclaps. We were soaked through in minutes.

We headed back to the car right away, of course. However, we had about a half mile of gravel-then-rock trails to cover, with one biker who wasn’t particularly strong or confident. Flash, boom. I envisioned lightning hitting a nearby tree and taking out the male line of the Dewey family. Flash, boom. The gravel road started going uphill, and Patrick got off to walk his bike. He was crying uncontrollably, scared. Flash, boom. I give Alex the keys and tell him to ride back to the parking lot and get in the car. At least one of us will live!

Patrick cried and walked his bike the rest of the way back to the parking lot. Even when the gravel road leveled off, I couldn’t convince him to get back on and pedal. He was too scared. When we made it to the edge of the parking lot, and the car was in sight, I told him to just leave his bike, run to the car, and get in; I’d come back for the bike. Gratefully, he did that.

Patrick calmed down quickly in the car, and a warm bath at home seemed to make everything all right. We talked a bit more about the trip at bedtime. “I thought it was the end of our lives,” Patrick said.

I think we made more than one core memory this weekend.

STP 2015

22 07 2015

The bike ride to Portland could have been a disaster. It started well enough; in spite of being awoken at 4:30 A.M., Alex was in good spirits. He was full of nervous energy. On the short ride from our house to the start line, he kept chanting, “We’re doing the STP!”

Start Line

Full of energy at the STP start line.

About 15 minutes after we start riding, he quiets down. About 10 minutes after that, he tells me, “Dad, I’m cold.”

This is a problem. “Cold” is never something I worry about while biking. I have the opposite concern: Can I avoid overheating? Consequently, I have nothing with me on the bike to provide warmth. The weather forecast is for cloudy skies and temperatures in the 70s, but I know it will be many hours before it really warms up. If Alex stays cold, it’s going to be a long, miserable day.

I tell him the only thing I can think of: Pedal harder. He doesn’t like that.

Appalachian Trail hikers talk of “trail magic,” an unexpected act of kindness on the trip. There must be a similar thing for STP. The kindness of a stranger saved our trip. As we made it to the south end of Lake Washington, another rider in a Blue Rooster Cycle Team jersey caught up to us. His name was Dave, and when he found out that Alex was cold, he said, “I have arm warmers!”

It was the biking equivalent of a mid-air refueling. I kept pedaling our tandem bike. Dave rode alongside no-handed and pulled a set of arm warmers out from his pocket and handed them to Alex, who put them on while I kept pedaling. The arm warmers were way too big, of course, but the magic of elastic kept them on.

Dave rode with us the entire first day, and he saved the trip a couple more times. In the afternoon, Alex mentioned being cold again, and Dave gave him his jacket. When my legs started fading, Dave got in front and let me ride in his draft. And perhaps most importantly, he talked to Alex and kept him entertained. With Dave’s help, we made it to the tiny town of Winlock, WA — our day 1 stopping point, over 120 miles from Seattle — in time for dinner. We returned his jacket and wished him luck as he continued on to the town of Castle Rock.


Alex wears Dave’s jacket.

We camped overnight at Winlock Elementary School. (The STP organizers use a fleet of Ryder moving vans to support the ride, and they drive the overnight bags for thousands of riders to different overnight stopping points. We didn’t have to bike with our tent and sleeping bag strapped to the tandem.) Camping was blissfully uneventful. We ate our spaghetti dinner, Alex played for a bit, and we went to bed early.

Day 2 felt better. Saturday’s clouds had burned away and we rode under clear blue skies. Alex had a sweatshirt from our overnight bag to keep him warm in the morning. Temperatures climbed to the mid-80s by the afternoon, which is when Alex was finally able to ditch long sleeves. 

Alex was the center of attention wherever he went. There were a handful of other kids on the ride, but not many. We met no other 9-year-olds, so Alex stood out even more. People cheered Alex on as we rode and loved talking to him at rest stops. Alex was even a little famous among the other riders. Once, early in the second day, a paceline of three young men zoomed by us. As they did, the first called out, “Way to go Alex!” and gave a thumbs up. The second asked his friends as they passed, “Is that Alex?” The third answered, “Yes, that’s Alex! Way to go!” I don’t know how these riders knew his name, but I know it made Alex feel special.

Molly and Patrick met us at the finish line in Portland on Sunday afternoon. The ride was fun, but being done with the ride was even better. I ate everything in sight and fell asleep at 8:00. While Alex enjoyed the ride, I don’t know if he’ll do anything like it again. Although only 9, he seems to treat this as something on his bucket list. He wanted to do it, now he’s done it, time to move on. But whether or not he does a big ride like this again, I’m sure this will be a weekend he remembers the rest of his life.

The Tandem