Stop and Smell the Wildflowers: An 800-mile Bikepacking Journey of Self-Discovery Across the Pacific Northwest

For almost an entire calendar year, I watched as the business I worked for tracked record profits, month after month, while I toiled away at the kitchen table of my studio apartment amidst the onset of a global pandemic.

Outlook pings governed my daily life; recurring meetings and phone calls structured my weekdays ‘to-the-hour.’ Most interactions were conducted in real-time Brady Bunch video cubes. With a cell phone and 13-inch computer screen acting as bridges to all of humanity, I was overwhelmingly connected, yet incredibly distant at the same time.

I questioned my own existence and sense of purpose. I felt both disposable and in-demand; exhausted, but left with a permeating fear of upsetting an operational chain. My manager had quit without replacement and I floated along an aimless trajectory, making up additional job responsibilities as I went. With so much unpredictability, I struggled to do real, meaningful “work.” Feeling a constant pressure to compose emails and tap away at computer keys, home life seamlessly meshed into work life. I grew tired and weary and craving fulfillment. So I quit.

“5/6/22 We’re on a bus to Port Angeles. Our bikes are strapped to the front rack, bags piled around us in the adjacent seats.

…after getting dropped off in La Push… We spun through town to Third Beach… and hiked down to the shore where we realized that we could not camp. The tide was coming in and there was just no dry space to set up shop. So we hiked back up (bike, gear and all) and ended up camping close to the Third Beach parking lot off the trailhead in the woods. It was pleasant.”

In an upside-down reality, I wanted to champion myself and do ‘something.’ And so, with a certain amount of gumption, I undertook the responsibility of searching for purpose, not waiting for it to fall into my lap.

I relocated to Seattle and moved into an overpriced, cramped, postage stamp-sized apartment. I began freelancing again, resolved to master balancing the ever-teetering scale of fervent, metamorphic optimism and paralyzing, existential self-doubt.

I wanted to explore the intersections of film and photography, sport, and the natural world. An odd assignment here and there, sparse shoots for outdoor brands, and reconnections with old industry friends would help ‘scratch the itch’ of work for some time.

“5/7/22 [Today] was gnarly. Rain on and off. Hailing lightly at the top [of a 3k foot mountain climb]. The chill at elevation… my torso and core [were] dry and warm. Cannot say the same for my hands (and by the end, my feet)…

All that being said, Fisher and I kept… in high spirits though we were both silently miserable at points. There were always patches of sun to give us hope.”

“5/8/22 We continued riding east on 101 until diverting to a country road on our way to Port Angeles. At the top of the route… we hear from behind us on [a] farm, ‘come to give me a hand?’ So we were chatting with this man (who likely was lonely up on his farm)… He seemed frustrated with the changes in the world and the chokehold that Big Agriculture puts on small farmers like himself… [Later,] we picked up the Olympic Discovery Trail from Port Angeles toward Sequim, all the way to Discovery Bay.

We finished the night, setting up camp at Salsbury Point County Park (not far from Port Gamble). Though we were paranoid the whole night of a ranger asking us to pack it up and leave. Though after the sunset and [a] flashlight from whoever emptied the trash bins at night [briefly] lit up our tent… we were in the clear…”

Then, out of the blue on a winter evening, I received a phone call from Anthony: my college bike racing teammate and lifelong friend. He and I hadn’t spoken at length for quite some time since we lived together in Boston. We caught up on things: the pandemic, work woes, his relocation to Washington D.C.; mine to Washington State, and most interestingly… bikes. With our crit racing days largely behind us, there was no mention of power meters and fitness metrics, or training and summer racing schedules. Instead we spoke about pedaling. Plain and simple.

“5/9/22 Today was a quick one. 20 miles from our camp to the Bainbridge Ferry. I tried to take in the coastal views as much as possible as we booked it to make the 11:30a.m. ferry to Seattle.”

He detailed this fantastical bikepacking trip from La Push WA, on the Olympic Peninsula all the way to Whitefish, MT. Entirely self-supported with nothing more that our bikes; frame packs; a seldom number of wardrobe changes; a small butane burner and smattering of dehydrated food packages, lentils, and rice; and all the junk food money could buy. The proposed route was a few miles shy of 800 and featured nearly 32,300 feet of elevation gain.

“5/10/22 Woke up at 7 a.m.—as we try to do every day—packed all our s**t, made a bunch of breakfast burritos (eggs, peppers, onions and smoky chipotle sauce). I packed my jersey pockets with Chocolate Poptarts and ¾ of a baguette—we headed East. Today was practically all steady climbing… Stopped off at the “Great Northern Lodge” [to see a] truly breathtaking waterfall and even had a meal at the “Double R Diner” (as they’re both named in the show ‘Twin Peaks’)…

As we climbed along the [Iron Horse Trail] mountain pass… we found a campsite for backpackers near Angel Creek, but I remembered another campsite 3 more miles down the trail. We [found] a patch of grass, dry and flat enough for our tent.

It’s pretty damn cold [near Snoqualmie], like we expected, but I think we’ll make it through the night.”

We had never done a trip of this scale before, but always dreamed of the opportunity. Our whimsy, however, quickly converted into “follow-through.” We dedicated ourselves to the months-long manifestation of those ‘what if…’ adventure ramblings we’ve all shared with our best friends late at night over a few beers. “How incredible would it be if we did…”, ”wouldn’t it be amazing if…?” Both avid campers, backpackers and one-time bike racers with years of experience, we figured “what the hell…” and felt like we had an adequate smorgasbord of talent to pull it off.

“5/11/22 A very trying day.

Waking up in the cold, no problem. As the sun rose, we defrosted our bikes and tent, had some packet granola, instant coffee, and headed out… for a supposedly easy day.

Things went awry quickly. We made it to the Snoqualmie Tunnel—CLOSED. The rangers… were of course no help. So we broke through the gate…! Disassembled the bikes halfway to fit through the hole in the fence. It was pretty chilling (and chilly!) biking through the 1.5 miles into the dark, dark tunnel.

So we made it through to the other side, but the whole f***ing [Iron Horse] trail was snowed over. After a brief deliberation to take the I-90 shoulder, we decided to hike in the snow. Well over 3(?) hours later [and 6.5miles+], we made it to what we hoped was an open road at the end of Keechelus Lake. More snow! So we rode / walked our bikes along I-90 (safely on the other side of the barrier), crossed two streams to an off-ramp, which we followed up North toward Kachess Lake. We were cruising on pavement for a few miles, feeling good, but not too cocky yet. Not until we made it to a town. We hit gravel, a bit more snow, but it was a much preferable situation to earlier, though still not ideal… The new plan was [to continue biking] 12 miles to Cle Elum on the (not snowy) Iron Horse rail trial to a 2-star hotel for the night.”

We began our journey on May 6th. For the next two weeks, we persevered on a modest budget and committed to camping and living lean. Our daily routine, which involved intentioned task delineation, quickly became instinctual. By day four, our bodies naturally woke at 7:00am sharp. We wordlessly began cooking and camp breakdown, as if on autopilot. During the daytime hours, with a watchful eye on the changing skies and a readiness for apparel changes, our legs turned small circles, propelling us closer to the next resting spot. There, we’d repeat in reverse order: unpack and set up camp, wash ourselves and our cycling kit (if lucky), replenish our energy and sleep. Often far from cellular networks, in our limited free time, Anthony journaled habitually; I meandered around taking photographs.

“5/12/22 Had an apple, buttered toast and Keurig coffee for breakfast. Then we headed back down the Iron Horse Trail. The gravel was pretty loose to begin with so it was a slow start. Plus, Fisher had to adjust my shifting, which was still wonky from yesterday’s hike [through the snow.] It’s perfect now…

We finally get to Ellensburg, had some lunch at the Red Pickle—myself salmon fish and chips; Fisher a veggie burger. The fries were wasabi; had a nice fire in the nostrils. Then we rode out of town and were gently climbing for 10 miles… We had a long descent for another 10 miles [afterwards]. Covered so much ground in like a half hour.

Now we’re camping along the Columbia River…”

During quiet evenings around a campfire, Anthony and I often spoke about the state of the world, our careers and passions, newfound communities and friendships since college. After all, we were coastal mirrors of each other in many forms. Both of us had recently quit our jobs, carried out moves to unfamiliar places, and wiped the slate clean. It was cathartic to share my own thoughts about existence with an empathetic friend who, in turn, enlightened me simply from his willingness to reciprocate. We would wonder about how this trip may affect us long-term; how would it feel to look back on this experience in a decade. What did it all mean to us?

“5/13/22 Boy, it was windy this morning. Woke up to the tent leaning sideways, but it’s died out by now and the sun is shining—looking to be a good day.”

It was a beautiful ride the first half of the day on the side of the Columbia that we woke up on, crossing the river by train bridge and riding through the desert. We were along these sand dunes for miles on the gravel trail. Even after ignoring a sign that clearly said “bridge out in 4 miles” and having to double back, all was swell.

Sand dunes and salt flats.

There’s nothing out here. We had some Chinese food [in Othello] at 5… and stopped at a Walmart for groceries and another gas canister.

We were gassed from the heat, lack of hydration and food and the aches of our bodies from the hill slogs out of the dunes. So getting to the town of Othello didn’t seem like much of a reward.”

Taking a forced break from the overwhelming absurdity of the past several years offered me something invaluable: time. With it, I looked inward to reflect on myself. For hours during the day, during lulls in chats with Anthony, I reconciled the challenges of relocation to a new city and seeking out connections within impactful creative communities. I silently addressed my relationship with cycling and athletics and what those meant to me. I analyzed my investments in photography and creativity. I gave myself the go-ahead to simply “be” and not concern myself as much with the long-term externalities of my decisions. “How will this impact my financial situation? My career? Is this a smart move? What if…?”

“5/14/22 Day 8… We packed up all our s**t as usual, plus the additional stockpile of treats we (overzealously) bought—48 Chewy bars, more oatmeal packets, 16 Poptarts, and a new pack of tortillas… Today was a pretty pleasant and easy (relatively) day of riding. 60 miles on the rolling hills and farmland. We were in the rain between Othello and Warden for the most part… and some bits on the trail… Perhaps we are more hardened to the outdoor weather now? The trail had burn marks from (assumedly) farming technique, which smelled awful and made me imagine WWI trenches.

We stopped in Lind to rest, stretch, and east some tortillas with peanut butter. Another town with seemingly not much going on, though there were surprisingly 2 or 3 folks on the street we sat on… I’d like to imagine there are some dedicated people in the area looking to fix up their community. The roads from Lind… were so flowy and nice. It seemed like we ended up at our destination of Ritzville in no time… We’re camping at the town’s [Wheatland Community] fairgrounds tonight—totally sanctioned and legitimate. Seemed like there was some animal show wrapping up as we rolled in…

I’ve been writing this up on the bleachers by the (rodeo pen?). The sign reads “Rodeo Stocks” in Memory of John J. Hennings. Fisher had been riding around taking pictures and hanging with the dogs and horses on the lot.”

It was a privilege to distill daily responsibilities down to “ride bikes; take photos; see things; meet people.” With that mindset came achievement, confidence, accomplishment and inspiration. We shared conversations and a good dose of humanity with everyday folk: public bus drivers, niche restaurateurs, passerby world-travelers, generational ranch-hands, and national train attendants. We captured and archived and savored these experiences.

“5/15/22 It was a long day of nearly all gravel… Our bodies ache. 50+ miles in and we’re pretty much out of water (I’m talking drops). Rolling up and down the gravel hills, feeling like we’re so close to town, but we eventually cross a river. Fisher… hopped down from the bridge to refill our bottles with the water purifier. We still needed to find a place to stay for the night and were starting to get hungry. We pushed on. It started to rain… We landed in the town of Rosalia. Two [townspeople] approached us, suggesting we take refuge under the shelter of the community [park] pavilion. So we grabbed snacks at the market and made our way to the park to set up camp. We were even able to shower.”

Even with extraordinary late-season snowfall and unforeseen road closures, things carried on as usual. Our daily “job” was simply to pedal and make progress. What else was there to do? We were rife with aches and pains; our equipment was weathered and dirtied by mud, snow and dust, but the only option was to move forward.

“5/16/22 Sitting on a rock by the fire we made. We’re camping in the [Couer d’Alene National Forest tonight—Rainy Hill campground, literally set up on the top of a hill.

That’s right though, we finally crossed the border into Idaho. Biked across the entire state of Washington in 10 days… [Earlier this morning,] we sat down at ‘Red Brick Café’ [in Rosalia] where Kris helped us to a righteous meal. French toast, two eggs and potatoes for me and mushroom spinach omelette for Fisher—both with a glass of OJ. She took her time and so did we. “If you can wait a few more minutes, I have some cookies coming out.” Fat chocolate chip pecan cookies. For FREE… The town of Rosalia love us and we love it back.

We made it to the border in no time, a quick 20 miles by road through Tekoa, WA entering Willard, ID. A faux sprint finish to the state line for old times. Laughs. Celebrations. Photos.”

Crossing the Washington-Idaho border felt surreal. A giddy moment of rejoicing, reaching some imaginary checkpoint we had set for ourselves. To the passerby cars, it probably looked strange: two people riding in circles near the state-line signpost, howling and cheering, but we didn’t care. In a week-and-a-half, we had ridden across an entire state. Just a month prior, I was laboring daily at my desk, still conceptualizing the brunt of this journey and everything we would need to complete it.

From that border crossing, I felt an overwhelming sense of optimism. We still had to pedal across the Idaho Panhandle and into Montana: around a 200-mile journey. But then and there, I felt like we had “made it.”

“5/17/22 Easy 42 miles today on the Couer d’Alene Trail. Stopped in Kellogg after 30 miles for [lunch;] 10 miles later ended in Wallace. We spun loops around the town for a bit, wishing for a downtown crit here. It’s perfect for a classic four corner [racecourse]. It has the old town vibes for it. Some charm here!”

Despite the frustrating damper of hiking several miles and a few thousand feet over a closed Idaho mountain pass, in a snowstorm, with COVID (unbeknownst to me at the time), not once did we discuss abandoning. In the strange, disease-induced fog that followed, I rode steadily forward. The remainder of Montana felt like a blur. I barely reached for my camera. Dodging brake bumps and loose rock on an overly encumbered bike, mostly staring down at the screen of my old cycling computer, I watched the ‘distance remaining’ tick slowly closer to zero.

“5/18/22 Against the hearsay of our RV park attendant that “the pass” to Thompson Falls had some snow… we continued on our Garmin routes up a long climb past old [abandoned] mining towns like Burke. Shortly after… the road conditions were a little less maintained. It wasn’t looking good. We began to see snow on the sides of the road too. Just a bit. But then we hit an electrical maintenance facility and the road seemingly ended, COVERED IN SNOW. We would be hike-a-bike’ing again through snow… this time up [and over] a mountain.

We were… able to roll our bikes in tracks of ATVs and snowmobiles that packed the snow going up. It still sucked though because our bikes were heavy… Going down, we didn’t have the tracks and were sinking in the snow every couple feet, but we had
downward momentum. Eventually, the snow started to become more and more sparse… We hit gravel and FLEW down the rest of the mountain and excitedly booked it to Thompson Falls, MT.

Apparently, so says the test, Fisher has COVID, though he says he only feels a cold. I tested negative.”

“5/19/22 There’s never really an easy day… ‘Prepare for the worst; hope for the best’ in my mind. [Today, the] road continued for roughly 40 miles. All gravel. Kind of rolling, trending somewhat upward in elevation. It was just a lot of gravel.”

What I can vividly remember, during those final few days, is arriving at the KOA outside of Whitefish, pulling into a reserved camp spot to relax for a few days prior to our Amtrak home. I remember unpacking my bike that last time, stripping off the frame bags completely, knowing there was nowhere else to go tomorrow. That next day, I rode a featherweight bike, free of bags and gear, into Whitefish and ordered a breakfast bagel sandwich and a coffee with cream. I sat at a café for almost an hour alone, people-watching. It was the first day in over two weeks I hadn’t been on some sort of self-imposed, regimented time schedule; there was no destination to reach. It was a strange, bittersweet sensation of finality mixed with a yearning to be back on an incomplete journey.

“5/20/22 We finally made it to Whitefish!

Our morning was very slow (purposefully). We were in no rush. Only 40 miles to go! Since we went to bed in the rain, we woke up to a wet [tent] fly; surrounding… We got the fire going first thing… while the fly draped over the clothesline to dry in the peeking sun. We used up the rest of the oatmeal and the propane. Everything seemed to have been rationed perfectly.

A ranger came by while I was cooking… He noticed our bikes and chatted us up about how he used to ride all over—a trip of his up to Alaska until it got too f***ing cold for his liking and he came down to Montana. [His bike,] an old Peugeot. Told him I have and old Peugeot from his time too, though I left out that it’s been torn apart and made into a fixed gear death trap.

On the final day of our trip, we stood outside the Whitefish train station underneath a red-hot summer sky. Handing our bikes to an attendant, we boarded and made our way to a modular sleeper room. There, we ordered and sipped on some beers while watching the moon overtake the sun. We promptly fell asleep, lulled by the rocking of the barreling train. While we snoozed, the Amtrak Superliner would condense 14 days of pedaling into a brisk 14-hour ride. And that was it.

“5/26/22 Woke up this morning to the sunrise rolling through the hills around Ephrata, WA. We slept on the Amtrak last night… It’s pretty watching the sun on the Columbia River as I munch on Amtrak’s ‘signature’ French toast with whipped cream and berries.”

Sitting here writing this, I reminisce: of the phone conversations and months of planning; about the way we adapted and created this makeshift operational lifestyle on the fly. I laugh now at the sheer misery we shared at our lowest points, frigid, damp, and exhausted; and I juxtapose those emotions to the freedom and happiness we felt flying effortlessly downhill in the warm sunshine across the Idaho-Washington state line; and also into Whitefish at the finish. I wonder about the eccentric people we sporadically encountered and where they all are now? What are they up to?

I compare my isolated reality in 2020, ambiguously stuck in existential and professional ruts, to that of the trip: finding purpose and virtue through pedaling and achieving self-imposed goals; reclaiming human connection and finding inspiration through everyday people; having ample time to take a breath, reset, and pursue passions. I pick up my camera now and remember how it felt to look through the viewfinder at fleeting moments of our trip in the middle of nowhere, feeling excited to share the backstory of those instances in time.

Only hindsight will reaffirm the metamorphic importance of this trip. It will take time to understand the effects, both personally and professionally. However, what I presently know with absolute certainty is that a simple idea can turn into a phone call; and perhaps with commitment that call will turn into one of life’s many memorable adventures. If there is one thing I can encourage you to do, it’s this: when the phone rings, no matter the proposition, just say “yes,” and go out there and pedal bikes with your friends. It may turn into something so much more than a ride.

Journal Entries by Anthony DePinto
Words and Photos by Fisher Curran