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Willie Weir : November 29th, 2011

My Kind of Cathedral

The cold November rains have come and my mind drifts off to warmer places on the planet. While we are slamming into winter here in the U.S., New Zealand is sliding into summer.

If you have the pleasure of taking a bike trip in New Zealand, don’t miss the cathedral. While I know there are beautiful churches in Christchurch and Auckland, I’m referring to one made by Mother Nature.

Cathedral Cove is on the Coromandel Peninsula, east of Auckland. As I recall, you’ll have to park your bike and hike out to this cove with its grand arch. It is a protected marine reserve popular with divers and snorkelers.

After a visit, you can get on your bike and pedal out to Hot Water Beach, where thermal activity under the sand provides a great opportunity to dig your own hot tub. Borrow a shovel (unless you are already carrying one on your bike. Really? You are?) and dig a hole in the sand when the tide is low. The water will be too hot to sit in, so you’ll mix it with seawater.

The trick is you’ll have to also build your own little sand wall to keep too much of the cold ocean water from spilling into your hot sand hot tub. It’s hard work. But you won’t mind because you’ll remember that back at home it’s snowing or raining or clear and thirty below.

I was there nineteen years ago. Normally I wouldn’t lend out specific travel advice that is nearly two decades old. But unlike restaurants or lodging options, which can drastically change from year to year, Mother Nature is pretty consistently awesome!

Originally posted on the Adventure Cycling Association’s blog.

Willie Weir : November 16th, 2011

Spain/Portugal Commentaries Win Silver Lowell Thomas Award

I received word from the Society of American Travel Writers that I’ve won a silver Lowell Thomas Award for my audio commentaries from Spain and Portugal that ran on KUOW’s Weekday. My bicycle commentaries and interviews have been aired on Steve Scher’s show since 1994. Without a strong and vibrant public radio station in Seattle, my travel musings would never have reached an audience.

The gold award went to Rick Steves for his radio broadcasts. I’m in good company in more ways than one, since Rick has begun to use some of my audio pieces in his show Travel with Rick Steves which is heard on radio stations across the country.

Links to the commentaries that were submitted for the award are below.

You may notice that the sound is not always “studio” quality. The commentaries were written, recorded and edited on the road. It is a challenge to find places to record when you are on a bike trip. Wind, rain and noises. Lot’s of noises. When you are trying to record a piece about an experience in downtown Salamanca, Spain, the sounds of sheep and cowbells don’t cut it. And, of course, when you are trying to voice a commentary about an experience in the country, that’s when the traffic sounds are always the loudest.

My thanks to the Society of American Travel Writers for the award, to KUOW for the opportunity, and one more thank you. The most important one. To my life and travel partner, Kat — a yellow tent and an adventure are always better shared.

Wine of the People

Campsite Horror

Lost Dreams

Dancing in the Dark


Willie Weir : November 8th, 2011

Redefining “Crowded”

When you read the word “crowded” what images come to mind? How about “crowded room” or “crowded bar” or “crowded bus”?

A couple of definitions I ran across were, “close to capacity” and “uncomfortably close together.”

But what is “capacity” and what is “uncomfortable”?

Let’s take the situation of putting your bike on the bus. Where I live in Seattle, the bike racks on the buses hold three bikes. A bus driver is not allowed to let you bring your bike on board. So the capacity is three. End of story.

In many countries around the world, the capacity of public transportation is whatever will fit inside, on top of, strapped onto, hanging off of the vehicle. The bus is at capacity only when the driver screams and waves his arms “Enough!” or when the bus literally topples over. You think I’m kidding? It happens.

If you say “crowded train” to someone who lives in India or Japan, their mental image will be far different than that of someone who lives in the United States or Canada.

One of the many things I love about travel is that it constantly tweaks our own language. Each one of my bicycle journeys has redefined certain words: beautiful, ugly, loud, serene, rich, poor, fair, unfair, tragedy, happiness.

I remember getting onto a bus in Guatemala. The driver wouldn’t leave until all the seats were filled. Then he kept picking up people along the route. His helper, who collected the fares, walked on top of the backs of the seats to get around (being small was a requirement for this position). Before each stop I thought, “This bus is full.” And then two or three more people would get on. I began to wonder if there was actually enough oxygen for us all to breathe.

When is a bus crowded? When is a highway busy? When is a road steep? When is a pannier full?

The answers to those questions (and so many others) are defined and influenced by our wanderings on this incredible planet.

Originally posted on the Adventure Cycling Association’s blog.

Willie Weir : November 4th, 2011

Mountains-to-Sound Trail: It Doesn’t End Well

The Mt-to-Sound Trail sports spectacular views

Last week ribbons were cut and speeches were made at the opening of the new segment of the Mountains-to-Sound Trail. Any additional trail miles that provide needed access for bikes and pedestrians is cause for celebration. Except that the Mountains-to-Sound Trail now officially ends at a blind corner of a very steep hill.

Holgate, which rises to and descends from Beacon Hill, is legendary on this side of the city. It is the type of road that even some seasoned cyclists choose to avoid. If you are descending it from the top of Beacon Hill, you can easily hit 40mph without a single pedal stroke. You just take the lane and fly. The road crosses I-5, and at this point as a cyclist, you need to be hyper-aware as you dump out onto the left lane of traffic. Cars turning from Airport Way S are speeding to make the light at 6th Ave S. Many motorists like to make a left hand turn across your path as they exit the Office Depot. And the road surface is a photo op for the “repave our streets” campaign.

On the way up Holgate you are in a narrow lane with a high curb on your right as you climb over I-5. The thought that a car clipping you could send you catapulting onto the freeway is enough to have many cyclists choose to ride on the left hand sidewalk and then cross over at the blind corner as the sidewalk ends. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?

Can you imagine parents riding their bikes along with their two young kids tackling any or all of this? It sounds rather nightmarish.

And yet it is a possibility. The Mountains-to-Sound Trail is a separated recreational path. The type of trail that is desirable for riders and walkers who aren’t comfortable in traffic. The recently opened extension expands the trail from 12th Ave S to Holgate. The path is a delight and offers beautiful vistas of downtown Seattle. I had a hard time wiping the grin off my face the first time I rode it.

My grin faded at Holgate. The sign simply reads, “End. Mt. to Sound Trail” That’s it. No more information.

The trail ends at the blind corner of Holgate and Beacon Ave S

What is the family with their two kids going to do? They’ll look at the option of crossing the road at the blind intersection and climbing the steep hill to their left. But what’s up there? They don’t know, because they are visiting from Spokane or Missoula and they don’t know that at the top is the business district of Beacon Hill with a light rail station, bus connections, stores, restaurants, a library, and a huge park. No, to them it’s just a big scary hill to destinations unknown.

Then they’ll look down the hill and think, “The Sound is that way.” They’ll opt to walk their bikes down the sidewalk because the hill is steep and their kids are scared. This is good. Because that sidewalk ends in a flight of stairs. To their credit, SDOT has posted a sign regarding this about 200 feet before impact.

Don't speed down the sidewalk!

Now our visiting family is stuck. Because to continue forward means having to lift their bikes onto a narrow road with speeding traffic and “take the lane, kids.” Beyond this dangerous move there is no signage letting them know that they are three blocks away from the bike path that runs parallel to light rail.

But I’m guessing at this point our family will opt to turn around and push their bikes back up the sidewalk. The kids will be crying and Mom and Dad will think, “This is unsafe and crazy.” They will finally reach the trail and backtrack from whence they came.

What the family doesn’t know is that the Mountains-to-Sound Trail will eventually be completed. There will be a switchback trail that crosses under the freeway and connects to the bike trail and light rail station at Royal Brougham. But construction of that section isn’t even scheduled yet … so it’s years away.

In the meantime, information needs to be posted that gives everyone an option. Experienced city traffic cyclists can take a right at Holgate and shoot into the Sodo District or take a cautious left and climb to the Beacon Hill business district. Others can backtrack and follow the bike route signs to downtown, or be routed that way to begin with.

The dangerous conditions at the blind curve where Holgate becomes Beacon Ave S need to be addressed. This is now more important than ever! This is one of the few accessible routes up to Beacon Hill and it should be made safe for everyone.

The Mountain-to-Sound Trail extension is great! It will be better when it is finished (South Seattle’s missing link?). But until then, we need signage that explains the current conditions, and improvements that give everyone safe options. Without them, the ride doesn’t end well.

Willie Weir : November 1st, 2011

A Double Dare

In a little town in Northern Romania, two boys laughed as they wheeled up and down the street. I’m sure they would have been pedaling bikes if they’d had them. They didn’t. But they had a wheelbarrow. It had a metal wheel that squeaked so loud you’d swear a 700-pound hamster was exercising in its cage. They took turns pushing each other around. The smaller boy had quite a difficult time pushing his larger friend up the hill, which only made them laugh harder.

No doubt the ride would have been smoother if their wheelbarrow was equipped with a shock and a top-of-the-line long distance touring tire. No blisters on their hands if they had custom gel gloves. And they could have mapped their progress up and down the street if they had a GPS-enhanced wheelbarrow-ometer. They didn’t.

Their smiles challenge me. Okay Mr. Traveler, can you have as much fun as we do?

We are assaulted with so many choices and upgrade options. How can you proceed until you get the ultimate touring bike? The best digital camera? The lightest tent? The perfect panniers or tricked-out trailer?

Sometimes it’s good to be reminded that you are way ahead if you simply have a bike.

Go out and pedal with as much joy as two boys sharing a wheelbarrow. I double dare you.

Originally posted on the Adventure Cycling Association’s blog.