Sauvie Island: A Tale of Stupidity and Kindness

On a recent trip to Portland, Oregon, I rented a bike and spent the weekend exploring. Here is the true story of what happened on Sunday.

This is my first time on a proper road bike, and everywhere I go feels like downhill. I got a patch kit the other day, just in case. But I didn't get a pump, because I thought there would be enough bikers around me to lend me one if I needed it. You already know where this is going, right?

Today's destination: Sauvie Island. The weather is warm but not sunny; pretty much perfect by my definition. My first stop is a pick-your-own-berries farm. You just pick whatever you want, and then pay for it by weight. I take a box and walk into the well-tended rows of blue/black/raspberries. For every berry I place in the box, I put three in my mouth. This reminds me of rummaging through my grandma's raspberry bushes when I was a kid, and I am happy. When my stomach says it's had enough, I placate it with water, and go pay for my box. It's only a couple of dollars, and I think the entertainment itself was worth more than that. I get back to my bike, and decide to do a 12-mile loop around the island before heading back to my hotel.

Midway through the loop, I get a flat tire. At this point, the uselessness of my patch kit becomes apparent. Without a pump I can neither find the hole, nor inflate the tube after I patch it. And of course, I'm in the middle of a sparsely populated island, and I haven't seen any bikers in a while. Now: when I'm in perfectly safe situations, I find 1,001 things to worry about. But when I'm stranded in the middle of nowhere with a flat tire, I just laugh at the craziness of it all. And I keep waiting to see what happens next, as if this were not my life but some story I was reading. Maybe it's because I so rarely find myself in genuinely threatening situations, that my mind only gets so far as "Is this really happening to me?"

I start walking along the road, thinking that I'll see a farmhouse eventually, and maybe they'll give me a ride. After a few minutes, I see a pickup truck coming along the road behind me. I raise my thumb and it stops. Three guys inside. I explain my predicament, put on the most sheepish smile I can muster, and ask if they'll give me a ride to the bridge off the island. "Sure, hop on." And so I get to see the rest of Sauvie Island riding in the back of a pickup truck, with my sunglasses on and the wind sweeping past. Which is so much fun, I can barely wipe the grin off my face.

The full saltiness of my pickle doesn't become apparent until the guys drop me off and I cross the bridge to NW St Helens Road, along which I came. A few hours ago there were lots of cyclists on this highway, doing the Seattle-to-Portland bike ride, but now I can't see a single one. I raise my thumb again, but of course nobody takes hitchhikers on the highway. Bus 16, the only bus along this road, doesn't run on Sundays. I could call a cab, but I doubt they'll take me and my bike. My other option is to walk 4 miles south to St John's bridge, cross into North Portland, and catch a bus from there. I do a quick calculation of the remaining daylight, and decide that I can make it to the bridge before dark, if I hurry.

Jogging along the highway and rolling my bike along, with 60MPH traffic by my side, it finally occurs to me that this might not end well. I have a vision of being stuck on this road, in the dark, exhausted and cold, with no water left and a dead battery on my phone. Still, there's only one thing to do. So I keep on jogging. After about 1.5 miles, I see a pair of cyclists going the other way, and I shout to get their attention. (It's amazing how shyness evaporates when I'm in real need.) They stop. I wait for a lull in the traffic, and cross. Yes, they will lend me their pump and wait while I patch my tube.

Except I can't find the fucking hole. I remove the tube and pump some air into it, but the highway is too loud to hear where the air escapes from. And I can't feel it on my skin, either. I'm also in a hurry because these guys are waiting for me. If only I had a bowl of water to submerge the tube in, then finding the hole would be easy. At this point, a big dude on a motorcycle stops by, and asks us what sort of trouble we're in. I explain the situation, he takes out his knife, and proceeds to calmly cut his plastic water bottle in two. With that, I quickly find the hole, patch the tube, and put everything back together. I proffer abundant thanks to all of them (and also to whichever genius came up with instant vulcanization) and I'm on my way. I get to my hotel without further incidents.

The lesson, kids, is that you should always have a patch kit AND a pump, whenever you're biking out of the city. But there was another lesson in this for me. I've spent most of my adult life aiming to be completely self-sufficient, perhaps because trusting people isn't exactly my strong suit. And on this day I got myself in such a mess that I had to rely completely on the kindness of strangers (six of them, no less) to get me out. Maybe there is hope in the world, after all.


(image by delovelyArts on etsy)