By Becky Chan
Northwest Asian Weekly
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”
– Henry Miller
I put the shirt back in the closet after weighing it with my hand. Too heavy. Traveling frees me from my materialistic world, to do with less. Traveling by bike even less. The more you bring, the heavier a burden you carry.
Couple weeks ago, my friend Pat and I embarked on a bus-bike three-day adventure close to home in Bellingham. We had no fixed itinerary, other than catching the bus to go 90 miles north. We loaded our bikes with panniers to carry our stuff. While it’s not exactly biking across the United States, I sensed freedom and adventure.
Peddling a bike always brings back childhood memories of riding my father’s black two-wheel “truck.” The seat so high that I peddled askew, with legs straddling the crank set, through the bike frame’s triangle. Oh, the places I could go.
I’ve been to Bellingham several times over the years, mainly with Cascade Bicycle Club’s two-day, 200-mile RSVP event, Ride from Seattle to Vancouver and Party. The mid-ride layover day is always in Bellingham. So yes, I can say that I have been to Bellingham. Pat’s never been. My days of riding those distances are over so busing it is a good compromise.
We took the BoltBus versus Amtrak because it fit our schedule. Our two roundtrip tickets from Seattle to Bellingham were only $58. Cheaper seats are available depending on booking times, but tickets are purchased online only.
Bus drivers accept cash if there is space. The BoltBus stop for Seattle is on 5th Avenue near Uwajimaya in Chinatown-International District (C-ID).
Our bus departed at 11:30 a.m. on a Thursday. Leaving my house about an hour before allowed plenty of time to bike to the C-ID on our preferred route, the Westlake bike path. The 1.2-mile bike lane from Fremont Bridge to Lake Union Park was finished in 2016 and named America’s Best New Bike Lane that year.
Lake Union sparkled like cut glass under the mid-morning sun as we pedaled along the waterfront. Yachts as big as mansions sat motionless in the water, while white sailboats bobbed rhythmically, as if to pay homage. Red and yellow kayaks decorated the dark water like baubles here and there. A seaplane swooped down near Kenmore Air, perhaps to pick up passengers for a quick getaway to the San Juan Islands.
From Lake Union Park, we continued on through downtown, passing a sign advertising “Dog Gelato.” As we connected with the Second Avenue protected bike lane in Belltown, Pat shouted, “There are some great looking dive bars here!” He was thirsty already.
The end of Second Avenue brought us near the Union Gospel Mission Men’s Shelter, where a line was forming. Gelato for dogs. Bars to go diving. Shelter for men. I fell into silent cadence behind Pat. We turned left onto Jackson into C-ID, passed King Street station on Fifth, then to the bus stop.
We waited for the bus by our loaded bikes—his pannier was bright orange and mine lime-green. An elderly woman walked by and uttered Mandarin to us, “Wah, awesome!” I responded to her in Mandarin and a conversation ensued.
Huang, Ling Hsiang was visiting from Taiwan. Her brother, Chi Lin, lives in Bellevue and encouraged her to visit him after Huang’s husband passed away last year. Huang didn’t speak any English. She said Chi Lin taught her how to use the bus and told her to make mental notes of her surroundings. “He told me not to be afraid.”
Huang’s doctor told her bicycling was good exercise to stay young. “You two are doing the right thing to stay young and fit,” she said. She looked fit to me, too. And fearless.
“Actually, the best gift you could have given her was a lifetime of adventures.”
– Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Our bus was 15 minutes late. Mr. Bus Driver, as he wanted to be called, made a beeping noise as he “scanned” our tickets with his hands. After everyone boarded, Mr. Bus Driver said, “Okay folks, I suggest you lean back, close your eyes, and hope for the best…because that’s what I’m going to do.” Still, it’s nice to leave the driving to others.
The bus let us off at Cordata Station in Bellingham, a few miles northwest of our Airbnb near Lake Whatcom, our home for two nights. Google map’s bicycling route took us to our destination on less busy streets, the last mile on the Railroad Trail.
The Railroad Trail is 3.5 miles of packed gravel path that runs between East Bellingham’s Bloedel Donovan Park at Lake Whatcom and Memorial Park. It was part of the old Burlington Northern and Milwaukee Railroad track. Native sword ferns and ocean sprays grew along the path; vine maples and red alders formed a tunnel and shielded us from the midday sun. Our Airbnb was steps off the trail and a mile from the lake.
Over the years, I’ve used Airbnb both domestically and internationally with good results. Sometimes it’s the price, sometimes it’s the location, but it’s always to feel less of a tourist. If the rate is reasonable, having the entire place is unbeatable. Booking a room in a house, my must-have is a private bathroom.
Kitchen access is not as important to me if it’s a short stay. Reading and culling through the reviews require time, but it’s worth it. You don’t want to end up in Bates Motel.
We settled into our room and soaked in the surroundings. The two-story house was the last one on a dead-end street, with a lily pond in full bloom and a view toward Bellingham Bay. From the deck, outside our room near the gurgling hot tub, our host pointed out Lummi Island, the San Juans, and, in the distance, British Columbia, Canada. We were a world away from Seattle.
To capitalize on the remains of the day, we biked a few miles into town.
Just south of the city center near the waterfront, we came upon a massive mural, alive with hues of blues, reds, and purples. The lines flowed and formed Mount Baker, the Cascade Range, and the Skagit Valley on the side of the Encogen Northwest power station. Artist Gretchen Leggitt, an avid outdoorsman, created the state’s largest mural on 21,800 feet of corrugated metal siding—the size of two football fields. It took Leggitt and a part-time assistant a month with no days off to finish the painting. Leggitt recently completed a 130’x18’mural on Lake City Way and 88th in Seattle. Go see it.
We cycled through town and were drawn to the Whatcom Museum, reigning above the Maritime Heritage Park. The regal Victorian, built in 1892 with red bricks and Chuckanut sandstones, was the New Whatcom city hall when New Whatcom was a thriving town. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The museum was closed, but we paid our respects by riding slowly past it.
Time to refuel. The Rock and Rye Oyster House caught our eyes when we first biked by its brick façade. It didn’t disappoint. Local craft beer helped.
The restaurant is housed in the Herald Building that was built in 1926 for the Bellingham Publishing Company. For years, the lighted “HERALD” sign atop the roof helped sailors navigate the sea. The Bellingham Herald still occupies the second floor with other tenants in the rest of the eight-story building. The oyster house on the ground floor was the latest addition.
The next day, we rode up the South Bay trail in Bellingham that took us along to Boulevard Park, a picturesque waterfront park with a playground and amenities, beloved by locals and tourists. Fairhaven, the end point of the 2.5-mile trail, was our stop before we took on Chuckanut Drive.
Fairhaven was a settlement founded in the late 1800s and incorporated into Bellingham in 1903. In the 1940s, Fairhaven had housed the world’s largest salmon cannery in the world. Pacific American Fisheries employed nearly 5,000 workers with over 1,000 Chinese laborers. Fairhaven Shipyard now operates from the space near Marine Park.
Years ago, I visited Avenue Bread & Deli in Fairhaven and never forgot its home-made English muffins. We sat outside the deli, near a rain-gutter that played a percussive piece with water from the previous night’s rain. On beat, I devoured a juicy Reuben sandwich on house-made bread. Pat didn’t look up from his egg sandwich, stacked with bacon, gorgonzola, spinach, and tomatoes. Next to us, four Labradors contemplated the day on the café’s sidewalk, perhaps on the art of racing in the rain, should it rain again.
It was cloudy, but no rain. We left our bikes locked and walked through the historic district with its quaint shops and restaurants. A book lover, Pat resisted the temptation to go into the Village Bookstore, an iconic fixture in Fairhaven and a rare breed as an independent bookstore with three floors of used and new books. Pat peered into the window and sighed, “Miles to go before I sleep.”
To fully experience Chuckanut Drive is to bike it. A scenic coastal road snaking between the mountains and the shoreline, with peek-a-boo views of the bay and hairpin turns, it’s an exhilarating ride. There are pullouts along the way.
Stopping to admire or rest is encouraged. We stopped at Larrabee State Park, Washington’s first state park, and hiked down toward the beach. Two young fishermen perched precariously on the high cliff above Samish Bay, while families picnicked below. The sun came out.
Our route continued south into the farmlands of Bow and looped back north again. We encountered numerous Ragnar Relay runners at various points. The two-day, 200-mile relay race started in Blaine and finished in Langley on Whidbey Island. As we were cycling along, cheering the runners, I heard, “Becky! Becky!” To my surprise, it was my neighbor running the relay.
“Megan!” I screamed and gave her a high five. Small world.
We biked around Lake Samish where jet-skis were the toys of choice. The sun scorched us. We hunkered down and looked forward to jumping into Lake Whatcom back “home.”
After a quick dip in the lake and cleaning up, it was late, we decided it was prudent to Uber into town to Boundary Bay Brewery, namesake of the water that is partly in Canada, partly in the United States. Some say alcohol was smuggled into the United States through Boundary Bay during prohibition. It flows freely now with 14 breweries in Bellingham. We stayed for a tasty flight of IPAs; the food was so-so.
Returning, we commented to the Uber driver that the town was hopping.
“This ain’t nothing…wait till the students are back,” he said. Western Washington University, on summer break, is located in Bellingham.
Our last morning, we rode to Bloedel Donovan Park to see the Lake Whatcom Triathlon. Along the Railroad Trail, runners of all ages and sizes, in various degrees of agony, completing the last leg of the triathlon. One person had “76” marked on his calf. That’s his age.
We got to the park late as a lone cyclist was finishing the bike portion. Near the beginning of the running course, an elderly woman asked frantically if the volunteer had seen an older gentleman come in on bike. She was looking for her husband John.
He said, “Yup, an older guy just came in.”
A runner shuffled onto the course to begin his 6.2-mile run, having just completed a 25-mile bike ride and almost a mile swim before that. The woman ran breathless alongside him and shouted, “JOHN! JOHN! We have the room until 2 o’clock.”
Bellingham’s farmers market was our next stop. First, we wanted to try our luck getting brunch at the Homeskillet. The quirky eatery, guarded by the giant patched-work hen Miss Velveeta Jones, stopped us in our tracks the previous day. Locals we encountered warned us that since Evening Magazine on KING 5 featured the tiny restaurant, it’s been impossible to get in. We had good karma and got in.
The place was busy—busy with the colorful knickknacks adorning the restaurant. Busy with conversations, and busy with the waitstaff weaving between tables. The signature dish, the Homeskillet, piled high with seasoned potatoes, topped with salty ham, and smothered with curds of scrambled eggs, was worthy of Instagram. It tasted as good as it looked.
Satiated, we continued our journey to the Saturday farmers market on Railroad Avenue. We were greeted with friendly vendors who didn’t try to push their goods, but instead were willing to share a conversation or their expertise.
There are over 100 vendors selling local produce and crafts every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., April through December. There is cooked food, too.
I gained a new appreciation for small farmers having seen the documentary, The Biggest Little Farm, about living and farming in harmony with nature.
Brianne, the garlic farmer, could be a character from that movie. I told Brianne that I wanted to plant the bulbs in my garden. She wrinkled her nose and told me her bulbs were for eating only.
“It’s best to buy seed bulbs from a trusted company. I can’t guarantee these garlic don’t have white rot,” she said.
Brianne proceeded to educate me about the types of garlic and associated diseases that could remain in the soil for years. Only when I assured her that I would plant the garlic in containers did she sell me the bulbs.
“But don’t be pouring that soil in your garden after you harvest,” she said as she wrote down Inchelium, softneck and German Hardy, hardneck on the paper bag. A lesson for $5.
We needed to catch the 4:30 p.m. bus back to Seattle, so no lingering at the market. Being on bikes limited our purchase. Cookies and scones were allowed for the trip home.
The ride to Cordata Station was uneventful. The bus was late, again. It came from Vancouver and was delayed at the border. We loaded the bikes in the belly of the bus and took our seats. Pat dozed off, and I began to dream of another adventure close to home.
“Fill your life with experiences, not things. Have stories to tell, not stuff to show.”
Becky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.