I traveled to Seattle last weekend for Dan’s memorial. For our visits to Dan as he was dying, my wife, son and I took a Flexcar up and back in the same day, which was quite a lot of driving for me, and in the rain, and dark, and I hated it. This time I went alone and planned to stay the night, so I took the train and my trusty Brompton instead. In spite of the emotional heaviness of my errand, I had a good time. Bikes usually work that way for me, but the Brompton does so especially, as it goes so triumphantly where other bikes don’t. I don’t carry a lock when I travel with the Brompton, because it goes wherever I go, without exception.

My train, the Amtrak Cascades line, left Portland station at 8:45 AM. So I left the house at 8:15, whirring rapidly down Ankeny to the Burnside bridge, generator lights ablaze in the early light. All my luggage plus laptop, with plenty of space to spare, fit in the Brompton’s marvelous touring pannier. I rode right onto the platform and got my ticket inside. The clerk informed me that I needed to check the bicycle, and what the charge was. I asserted otherwise and folded the bike up then and there, demonstrating “fits in an overhead bin!” Watching the fold is so mesmerizing for most people, it’s like a Jedi mind trick: “This is not the bicycle you are seeking to exclude.” She let me go.

The ride was great, quiet and smooth, and followed the water’s edge a good part of the way. I plugged in my laptop and typed out what I hadn’t been able to earlier: what I would say at Dan’s memorial that afternoon. It came out easily enough, though I cried quietly through much of it. The trip seemed short.

I got out in downtown Seattle at 12:30. I had never been there. Dan’s service began at 2:00 up past Ballard on the water’s edge, a bit under 10 miles. I had never been there, either. Having neglected to eat anything earlier, I was also starving, so would need to grab a bite. Not much time for wrong turns. I grabbed some transit maps at the station, stuffed them into the external pouches of the pannier, and set off with eyes peeled for a bike shop that might have a bike map or some route advice. I never found one. Traveling in roughly a straight line to my destination, I soon found myself climbing hills reminiscent of San Francisco. I knew how to avoid the worst hills in San Francisco, but not here. My Brompton isn’t geared for steeps, so after burning myself up standing on the pedals, I pushed up to the top of one and surveyed, studying the map. I decided to follow the water’s edge to start, more or less: a sure way to avoid hills. (Hey Google maps people, how about you use topographic information to compute routes requiring the least caloric expenditure for a given speed? Good for bikers and even a way to improve gas mileage!)

There was a multi-use path paralleling the high-speed shoulderless road along the water. Unsure of the road conditions (matters more with 16″ wheels) and the kind of driver conditioning I could expect, and needing to stop frequently to consult the map, I took the path. A cyclist traveling in the opposite direction shouted something to me as he passed. Not understanding, I looked backwards quizzically following his gaze. Looking back at me, he shouted “wear a helmet!” as he plowed into a car stopped in the roadway crossing the path. He wasn’t moving fast, so braced himself on the hood without even putting the bike down. I continued on, chuckling. It turns out that Seattle’s King county does indeed have a bicycle helmet law, adults and children. I had always heard that Seattle was pretty bike friendly, so I was dismayed to learn that drivers, pedestrians, and bathers weren’t required to wear helmets, though it would save more lives if they were. Now, I usually wear a helmet, just not when I’m traveling light, and sometimes, well, whose business is it anyway? Is it yours? Look out! [clunk!]

I stopped and ate an ice cream cone, double scoop, with coffee because it was fast and sugary. Soon my route shunted onto a high-speed arterial as I approached a bridge. There were some sketchy/thrilling moments there as I honked up to maybe 25 MPH merging left, and dodged potholes larger than my tiny wheels! I found myself on the bridge approaching a long stretch of metal grate, which isn’t at all friendly to most sorts of bike wheels, so I stopped and lifted the bike over the concrete barrier onto a narrow sidewalk, and continued gingerly on into Ballard.

I arrived well in time. Needed to stand outside to cool off even though people waved me inside and insisted that I must be freezing. The service was somewhat overwhelming. There were two panels of photos of Dan, one from most of his life, and the other from after his diagnosis. I could barely stand to glance at the latter. Dan’s poor dear wife read i carry your heart to utterly devastating effect, and I read my piece along with others. I didn’t know Dan’s friends or family — not even his wife much. It felt awful raw to get up and choke through a tribute in front of maybe fifty strangers. Very draining. It was supposed to be a “celebration of his life,” but that was a bit much to ask: this was a kind, smart, funny, gentle man, beloved husband and new father, who died a slow difficult death at the age of 35. I am angry for him, because he never seemed to be — he died like a saint, though not in any frame of faith unless stoicism is faith. Lots of people came up afterwards and said they liked what I read. When it came time to go, it was dark and colder, and my destination was almost 25 miles away in southwest Seattle over two bridges, so I accepted a ride. Brommie packs nicely in the smallest of cars.

I stayed with Aaron and Gypsie and their son Braxton. Aaron runs a great bike shop with conspicuous Xtracyclical leanings. I was out quickly after a vegan meal and two beers. I slept poorly anyway — not a bed-related problem. We were to get up early to meet with co-conspirators on a cargo-bike project we’ve been scheming about, a Yankee reply to Mike Burrows’ terrific 8-freight, picking up in cargo capacity where Xtracycles leave off. Will it be Stokemonkey-compatible? Do bicyclists need to move refrigerators outside of flat Iowa?

I guess our meeting was too early on a Monday morning, or too short notice, or their cargo bikes broke down. Only one guy showed, but he has enough personality for at least a few normal people, so it was OK, especially in addition to Aaron; we three had our own little bike freak circus, discussing totally un-rad practical applications of componentry designed for bikes meant to be hauled by SUV or similar to ski lifts, and ridden only downhill, dude! Here’s Aaron and Val Kleitz on the right: freak show

After our meeting, Aaron showed me around West Seattle’s warehouse district, which is like many other warehouse districts to have become fashionable over the last ten years — lots of coffee outlets amid the dot-com holdouts, artists and artisans of various stripes, including several bike makers. Here’s a video clip (6.2MB .avi) of Aaron doing the insta-bent thing, no hands. See, if he had French tandem steering geometry on that thing, relying on pneumatic trail for stability, he’d be able to steer more effectively at low speeds with just body english. We ended the morning ride at his shop. Outside of the shop is a vending machine with spare tubes, patch kits, and other urgent necessaries for after-hours service. His wife Gypsie’s idea — cool. Inside, I loved and got loved by his slutty cats, checked email, and got bus info for my next leg, back up near Ballard.

Of course, Brommie goes on the bus just fine. Sat next to a fellow who reminisced about his old Raleigh folder, 40-something pounds of Cro-magnon steel folding technology. He was a knife sharpener by trade, and a bicycle tourist with many plans for trans-continental trike trips. The dream was to run a second chain up to a grindstone flywheel, so he could park his rig on a double-legged stand, and pedal away to sharpen the knives of whatever establishment he hoped to eat or sleep in that evening, in trade. He told me where I needed to get off.

Next I visited Electric Bikes Northwest, which also carries folding bikes, including Bromptons. In fact, it’s my nearest Brompton dealer. I am contemplating becoming Portland’s Brompton dealer, so wanted to compare notes, and see if they had some small replacement parts I sought. Eric Sundin spoke long and generously with me, letting me test one of the new titanium Bromptons, as well as one of the mass-market electric bikes I had been curious about. I liked the former a whole lot!

I pedaled off just in time to arrive at the station for my return gushing in sweat. I love shuttling through heavy urban traffic — it’s safer than on arterials because slower and more sociable, lots of eye contact with peds and at lights. I asked fellow bikers how to get to the station as I passed them, knowing only the general direction. The return train trip was as pleasant as the first leg. I slept.

PS: Things might be getting real ugly in Washington state for biking families. In addition to the mandatory helmet law, now there’s this: no babies on bikes, except on the sidewalk. I wonder if the “bicycle advocates” who supported the helmet law realize what kind of thinking they’ve validated, where it leads, whose interests it serves.

3 thoughts on “Seattle”

  • john

    I enjoyed this post very much. Sounds like you managed to attach a lot of positive experiences to an otherwise somber trip.

  • Tom Whitney

    Did you decide to be Portland’s Brompton dealer. I live in Eugene, and, although I recently bought a Dahon MU XL, I wish I’d held out for a Brompton. I’m not a die hard roadie, but I do enjoy and need the exercise cycling can provide. Up till now I’ve been hesitant about buying a bicycle with 16″ wheels ( I listened to too many nay sayers). A train ride to Portland from Eugene doesn’t sound too bad.

  • Todd

    No, Tom, not yet anyway.

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