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Willie Weir : April 6th, 2011

Waiting for the #7

There is a moment after a long, grey winter, when, late in the afternoon, the sun breaks through the curtain of clouds, and the colors explode off the pavement. It’s brief. It’s magic. It’s spring.

Willie Weir : April 4th, 2011

Folsom, California shopping center stands as monument to car culture

I gasped in horror. No. That’s not true. I just hung my head in disappointment. Really? This is progress?

I was standing in an enormous parking lot in Folsom, California. I had a speaking engagement at the REI located at the Folsom Gateway shopping center.

A real estate website states, “Folsom Gateway II is one of Northern California’s premiere regional shopping centers.” And later offers this highlight, “Highly visible, prime retail location on the Highway 50 Freeway, viewed by 200,000 vehicles daily.”

Notice how the above description gives vehicles the gift of sight.

And that is appropriate. Because cars, not people, appear to have been the focus of this development.

Cars get the prime real estate. The entire middle of the complex–big box stores on one end of the parking lot–fast food and chain restaurants on the other. The distance between the retail and food is so great, that people get in their cars and drive across the parking lot from one to the other.

The shopping complex has followed building code, I’m sure. There are sidewalks and bike lanes and even a few little benches for people to sit. But they were all empty. The scale is so huge, so spread out, that humans find it daunting.

Does anyone really want to walk the mile and a half along the edge of the big box buildings to the Starbucks? (It’s much closer in your car).

If someone was to consider walking, the intersections are so wide that I imagined rest stations halfway across with water and snacks to prepare pedestrians for the second half of their journey.

The parking lots are clean, with lovely new banners that one would find at the entrance of a Renaissance or County Fair. But no jugglers, musicians or food booths await your arrival. In reality, the banners just dress up a an ugly, ocean of asphalt.

Premiere? Is this the best we can do?

If our goal is to increase the rates of obesity and diabetes. If we want to encourage people to stay in their cars. To walk less. To spend as little time outdoors as possible. Then this truly is a premiere example of how we should move forward.

Kat Marriner : September 1st, 2010

Driving Day

Less than a week before lift-off and the list of errands to run and things to do grows each day. Waking to cold rain, I thought today was the day to play the “get out of jail free” card and borrow my neighbor’s car. I’ve had her keys for a week while she is out of town and not even tempted to drive when I could instead get in a 25 mile ride while picking up necessary odds and ends all over town. Today was the day though, that I had much to do, little time and car keys in my pocket.

You’d think I’d be happy.

I was happy (perhaps even a sense of guilty-pleasure not wanting to tell Willie that I was, um, cheating), then I merged onto I-5. Bumper to bumper and lane-crossing crazies. Off the ramp on the north side of town and I find myself heading east when I needed to go west, and turning around meant going blocks out of my way thanks to multiple one-way streets. Finally heading in the right direction meant once again sitting in traffic–thinking all the while that something a cyclist never does is sit in traffic!

Errands uptown finished, I headed downtown and found the parking lot to my bank closed and searching for street parking for a momentary trip to test my ATM card ready for travel. On my bike I would have pulled right up to the ATM, put in my card and been on my way. Instead, found a 3 minute loading zone and ran. But dang! My card no longer worked and I needed to go inside and get it straightened out…. which meant moving the car and paying for parking. Paying for parking might be one of those costs of life that is built into the driver psyche, but to me it was as foreign as a VAT tax. I’ll think of that next time lock my bike to a pole or rack  and be thankful I don’t have to pay for the privilege.

Back in the Subaru, it was fast approaching rush hour and I found myself seeking alternate routes back home that would take me on back roads also known as “cut-throughs” by people who don’t appreciate motorists passing through their quiet neighborhood street. I realized I was driving like a cyclist seeking the roads less trafficked.

By the time I got home, I was relieved to hang up those keys. Rather than enjoying the drive as a treat, it was all work and no play.

Willie Weir : August 27th, 2010

Lift Off

As Kat and I rush around trying to get ready for a bicycle trip in Spain and Portugal, I’m reminded of a column I wrote for Adventure Cyclist magazine as we were rushing around trying to get ready for a bicycle trip in Colombia. Time has passed, but not much has changed.

The following is an excerpt from my book Travels with Willie: Adventure Cyclist.

I vividly remember watching the launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery. The camera zoomed in as the rockets ignited. The billowing fireballs, its shear power and energy, were awesome. But the shuttle just sat there. Was something wrong? Then there was movement, almost undetectable movement, as the shuttle struggled. It was hard to believe that this lumbering, struggling vehicle would soon be up in space and free from the force of the earth’s gravity.

I love travel—the open road, the undiscovered nooks and crannies off of the tourist track. There are moments on a bicycle journey when I believe I’ve discovered true bliss. Yet, in order for me to take that bike trip, I first must break free from the gravitational pull of home.

Actually, Kat and I both struggle with it.

The list of things to do before we go has increased with time—getting a house sitter (and one who likes cats), finishing up work projects, getting rid of enough stuff that the house sitter has enough room to live in our house, finishing house projects so a house sitter would actually like to live in our house, paying bills, paying other bills in advance, finding people willing to fill in with several nonprofit projects we work on, shoveling a layer of compost on the garden, filing for an extension for our taxes, going to the dentist.

It wasn’t always this complicated, was it?

Escaping the gravity of home

Twenty years ago, I lived in a dumpy basement apartment. My bedroom had no windows. My roommates and I couldn’t afford to turn on the heat, so you could see your breath inside the apartment from November through February. I had no furniture to speak of, unless you count a cardboard apple box used as a bed-side table.

I didn’t have a cat, but my roommate did. The cat had fleas. The fleas liked me … a lot.

When I embarked on a bicycle journey, instead of pulling free of gravity like Discovery, leaving was more akin to being a hummingbird sitting on a branch and then instantly and effortlessly zooming into the sky.

I didn’t leave … I escaped.

Over ninety percent of the weight of the Space Shuttle at liftoff is fuel that will be burned in the first eight and a half minutes of flight. Almost all of its resources are used solely to break free from the pull of the earth’s gravity. Leaving the earth is hard—outer space is a breeze by comparison.

It is the same for many a journey; leaving home is the hard part—the actual trip is easy in comparison.

I’ve known people who have been planning trips for years (decades even), and still haven’t made the move.

They keep asking the same questions and search for the perfect bike. They go on countless training rides and take a language course. They buy maps and tour guides, but never take the trip.

For some the emotional pull of home is too great. Traveling means leaving friends, family and pets. And for most of us, there truly is “no place like home.”

Then there is the money issue.

The financial pull of home can be even stronger than the emotional one. Finances can be the black hole of travel dreams. …

When I speak at high schools and universities, I want to shake the students and say:

“Travel now. Get on your dumpy, used bike and go somewhere, anywhere. Those people who tell you that it doesn’t get easier? They’re right.”

“Go before you have debts and mortgages and kids and a career. Go. The gravitational pull of home will never be lighter.”

A few of them get it. But most get a car and a wallet full of credit cards.

You would think that the best way to be a world traveler would be to have no home, no base, no ties of any kind. However, I believe home grounds us as travelers. I’ve met too many people who severed all ties with home, only to become aimless wanderers. Traveling without a purpose or goal can become just as mind numbing as the world’s worst desk job.

A man in a small village in South Africa once told me, “Travel is worth nothing unless you return home a better person for it.”

I think he is right. Each trip shapes me as a person. So much of what I believe and who I am comes from the combined experiences of my journeys.

Do I long to return to the days of basement apartment living with no heat? Not a chance. I love my city, my neighborhood, my garden and my cat. But I also love to get on my bicycle and go.

That’s why we’re packing and storing and running a thousand errands in preparation for another trip.

I can’t change gravity. The physical, financial and emotional pull of home is there and I am a fool to try and ignore it. It’s better to acknowledge it, celebrate it. I consider myself fortunate to love home as much as the open road.

It takes a lot more time and energy than it did twenty years ago, but the ride is still worth it.

I don’t escape anymore. I lift off.

Lift Off was originally published in Adventure Cyclist magazine.

Kat Marriner : August 17th, 2010

Heels on Wheels

Lauren and Leigh bicycle from their Beacon Hill neighborhood to join H-o-W downtown for dinner.

I love to ride my bike whether it’s running the regular errands of life or putting in miles getting ready for a trip. For years every time I road my bicycle, short distance or long, I switched my shoes, put on my black Lycra shorts, and donned my day-glo jacket before taking off. Last year after I was sold bike shoes that looked and felt like aliens that ultimately I could not abide, I switched to regular ol’ platform pedals while I looked for bike shoes that I could wear.

That was the beginning of the end. I stopped “clicking in” to ride the mile to the produce stand. I started wearing a merino wool skirt and Mary-janes on rides across town to a regular meeting. I looked for fun clothes to ride and wear to dinner parties.  The less I used special clothes to ride my bike, the more I felt the bike was just an extension of my life. The joy of riding my bike around town hit a new high as we entered our 5th year of living car-free.

Then I read a little blurb in a newsletter from Atlanta, Georgia and discovered they were doing something to bring women together and show how fun, stylish, easy it can be to ride a bike:

Mark your calendars for a girls night out with a twist! We’ll glide down Atlanta’s signature street, Peachtree, for a night on the town without the hassle of figuring out who will drive, where to park, and how to avoid the traffic. Wear your finest so we can demonstrate just how easy it can be (should be!) to ride a bike in Atlanta. Our goal is to turn a few heads and shift people’s thinking about a) WHO rides bikes (it’s not just men) and b) WHERE people ride bikes (biking intown can be a safe and practical way of getting around).

Juliette, Rebecca, Kat and Barbara enjoy dinner fresh off their bicycles.

That little tidbit was the spark that lead me to call together 3 friends, invited them to meet me for “Lycra-free” dinner we arrive at by bicycle. We met for dinner at Cafe Presse – natural meeting place with a car-size bike rack outside the door – and we too called it a  “Heels on Wheels” night out. If gals from Atlanta could do it, certainly there is room in a bicycle-city like Seattle to expand the definition and expectations of riding a bike.

Short on bike parking, street sign poles will have to do.

Since then, the guest list has expanded to 40+ women friends who have shown an interest in shedding that “I am a cyclist” look and just ride a bike like you were going out for dinner. Each month women bike to different locations, daisy-chain our bikes together outside, and enjoy a dinner sharing food and swapping stories. Women who have never pedaled beyond their neighborhood are making their way downtown or even across town, and women who have logged thousands of miles and worn out many pairs of Lycra shorts are showing up in dinner-party style.

Over the summer of Heels on Wheels meet-ups, Wheelies, as we fondly call ourselves, have purchased new bicycles, new gear and new clothes. We’ve found restaurants that welcome a dozen bicycle parked outside. We discuss the dearth of stylish, let alone serviceable rain gear, as well as tips for how best to keep our skirts down in a breeze.

Juliette sports a great bag from Hub and Bespoke.

The bicycle industry should know that women talk about sales people not really listening or respecting how we like to use our bikes, nor do they often address and how poorly many bikes fit our bodes and our lives. We are looking for better ways to carry our bags, books and groceries. We want cool clothes that ride well and look “normal” when we step off the bike. Women who ride bikes are clearly untapped marketing potential.

The entry ramp to Verve in Columbia City makes a great parking lane.

Women who ride bikes are also untapped advocacy potential. I’ve introduced friends to bike paths and lanes and hopefully unleashed their desire for more safe amenities for cyclists. If you’ve been riding a bike and feel fine “taking your lane” in traffic, take a novice rider for a spin and you’ll see the world from the perspective of the masses of potential bike riders. The number of sport-cyclists who enjoy the workout of a hard ride, or even the commute cyclist who rides to work every day is a drop in the bucket compared to the potential ocean of women and men who could just ride their bike to get around town. Tap into that ocean and there is the potential to change the image of bicycles as a  specialized vehicle for athletes into bikes – and bicycle resources – for everyone.

Heels are not required, but bikeable skirts are favored in warm weather.

Woman needing some encouragement should know too that skirts turn heads! I’ve received more waves, acts of kindnesses, thumbs up, and positive encouragement riding around the streets of Seattle in my pink skirt than I ever felt in my black shorts. The world is a friendlier place when drivers take notice and give a little extra room.

Perhaps the whole experience can be summed up in a note I received from a friend after our last get-together. “Thanks for inspiring me to ride my bike, Kat! You rode with me, you allowed me to go slow, and you pointed out the benefits of wearing a skirt. …I’m ready to be a Bike Rider in Seattle.”

Kat leaves home for a night out with the Wheelies.

Start your own Heels on Wheels group and invite your friends to join you pedaling to a night out on the town.

Willie Weir : July 14th, 2010

26 Seconds


Twenty-six seconds.

That was the elapsed time between the delivery of our “Dex” phone books and their arrival in our recycle bin.

It has been a couple of years since any phone book has made it into our house from the front porch. Pounds of paper wrapped in a plastic bag. I used to bring them in out of some bizarre sense of guilt. Trees had been sacrificed. Gas used to delivery them. All sorts of compounds went into the ink for the bright “the phone book’s here” colors. But there they would sit in my office, gathering dust for several months before they ended up in the recycle bin.

The time has come. The time for citizens to be given the option to “opt out” of receiving physical phone books. Or even better, an “opt in” policy.

Fortunately, that time maybe coming sooner than later. Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien has been pondering the value of physical phone books and their impact on our city.

Mike says in his post:
“So what do we do next? I’ve decided to take up a collection. If you receive unwanted phone books, I encourage you to bring them down to city hall and drop them off for my office, and I will store them here as we ponder what to do next. It would be even better if you attached a brief story about your unwanted phone books: Do you not use Yellow Pages at all? Do you use Yellow Pages, but feel you can go without multiple copies? Do you have a favorite brand? What steps have you taken previously to stop receiving phonebooks and did it work? Or maybe you feel the existing phonebook system works well for you? If you don’t want to lug your unwanted yellow pages into city hall but have a story to share, please post it here.

As we continue to formulate our policies on reducing waste, I look forward to hearing from you.”

Read Mike O’Brien’s whole post here.

So here is your chance to help stop the delivery truck-to-porch-to-recycle bin tango. Go to Mike’s office with your unwanted phone book or go to his page above and leave your comments.

Maybe if we can’t convince the industry to give us an “opt in” policy … maybe each residence can at least opt to have their phone books delivered directly into their recycle bins.

Kat Marriner : June 28th, 2010

Ride with Pride

That tandem-thing we tried for a few years wasn’t quite our bag, but when you put 7 people on a bike, suddenly it’s a party.

Pure fun to pedal the Seattle Pride parade route and support two causes near and dear to my heart. It gave new meaning to the phrase “On your left!” and the idea of “Share the Road”.

Thanks to the Bicycle Alliance for inviting us to the party!

Willie Weir : June 25th, 2010

Midsummer Night’s Dream (most romantic bike travel memory … to date)

The Kiss--Budapest
Romance is in the air. Three times this spring, at public speaking engagements, I’ve had an audience member ask, “What is your most romantic travel memory?”

It’s hard to come up with just the right answer to many travel questions, but I never hesitate with this one. It was in Hungary.

Below is the transcript from the commentary that aired on public radio station KUOW in Seattle. It was later published in different forms and an expanded version can be found in the 2nd edition of Spokesongs: Bicycle Adventures on Three Continents.

Their voices filled the still night with such sweet harmony it sent chills up and down my spine. I squeezed Kat’s hand and we exchanged glances and smiles. Was this real? It had all of the elements of a dream.

We were being serenaded with a French love song by an all-men’s Italian chorus on a midsummer night’s eve, near a Greek Catholic church on a street corner of a village in Hungary.

It all began as we attempted to look through the large keyhole of an ornate church. The groundskeeper spied us and unlocked the sanctuary. As we gazed up at the Byzantine-styled frescos painted on the walls and ceiling he went on and on about a concert. The only thing that we understood for sure (our Hungarian limited to two-word phrases almost entirely related to food) was the event was that very evening.

Was it to be a local children’s choir? The history of Hungary as interpreted by a mime troop? Traveling Scottish bagpipers? We had no idea, but we took a chance and waited for evening while drinking abysmally bitter cups of coffee in the local sweet shop.

We changed into our formal attire in the city park. “Formal attire” while on a multi-month bicycle journey often consists of a clean, wrinkled T-shirt, shorts and sandals with socks.

Our under-dressed anxiety was relieved by Father Ernst, who greeted us wearing a long black robe descending to bright white sneakers.

The group of men who filed into the now crowded church were members of Coro Monte Pasubio, an award-winning choral group visiting from Italy. We were treated to an hour of the finest singing I have ever heard. The audience applauded enthusiastically for encore after encore.

Having secured our bicycles in the church’s schoolhouse, we wandered into a restaurant after the concert. In a back room seated at an enormously long table were the members of the chorus and their local supporters. Several people waved us in and we entered to smiles and applause. News of our bicycle journey had spread.

We sat down to glasses of red wine and seltzer. Franco, one of the choir members who spoke English, acted as our interpreter as we answered questions about our trip. At one point we let slip that we were engaged. A week prior I had asked Kat to marry me as we gazed across the Danube at the grand parliament building in Budapest. We hadn’t even told our parents yet. But somehow it seemed appropriate to divulge our secret to this man with the voice of an angel.

We drank more wine and listened to more songs, wishing the evening would never end.

Two of the last to leave, we exited the restaurant only to find the entire chorus gathered in a semicircle facing us. Franco smiled and said, “It’s your fault. You told me you were engaged. Now we Italians, being romantics, must sing for you.”

The basses, baritones, and tenors all found their notes, then broke out in laughter after a phrase, discovering they had begun in the wrong key. The second attempt was flawless. As they serenaded us with the French ballad Les Plaisirs (The Pleasures), some smiled warmly at us, others simply closed their eyes.

We were touched, awed and somewhat embarrassed all at the same time. Each of the members came up to us afterward and wished us a safe journey and much happiness. The leader presented us with one of the group’s cassette tapes and his comments brought a chorus of laughter. Franco translated, “He says you must listen to this tape before or after les plaisirs…it is a collection of our church songs after all.”

Then they were on their way to Debrecen and their next engagement, leaving us to bask in the glow of our own personal midsummer night’s dream.

We may never top the event above. But it sure will be fun trying.

The audio below is from the church concert earlier that evening. I didn’t record the song outside the restaurant. Both Kat in I were in romantic shock.

Coro Monte Pasubio–public concert

Originally posted on the Adventure Cycling Association’s blog.

Willie Weir : June 10th, 2010

Cycle Tracks!!!!

On the Right Track from Mayor Sam Adams on Vimeo.

The above video (thanks Portland!) is a great introduction to Cycle Tracks and what we can look forward to on Dexter Avenue here in Seattle.

Willie Weir : June 4th, 2010

An Unfortunate Flavor

What were they thinking?

What were they thinking?

Now here is a ice cream flavor for our times. Ben & Jerry’s Fossil Fuel. “Sweet Cream Ice Cream with Chocolate Cookie Pieces, Fudge Dinosaurs & a Fudge Swirl”. It could only be a worse marketing nightmare if it contained fudge pelicans instead of dinosaurs.

I believe this flavor was on it’s way out before the BP disaster. If we could only ween ourselves off of fossil fuel as fast as Ben & Jerry’s will ditch this flavor from its line up.

I have a few new flavor suggestions for the company … how about “Solar Panel” and “Pedal Power”?