From Trains to Tourism: A Progress Report
One of the things that you tend to learn again and again when you’re traveling is that plans don’t always hold up. Things change constantly, and it’s only negative if you make it that way. For us, this trip has been a long series of things not going the way we thought they would – in ways that we have enjoyed immensely, as well as ways that have been endlessly frustrating. As the summer prepares to draw to a close, we wanted to take a moment to take stock of our trip, and see how the reality has been measuring up with the lofty goals we set back in February.
For starters, our goals for this trip have ended up flip-flopping. We had wanted to hop on and off of the train to explore various parts of the US and Canada, as a way to invigorate multi-modal travel and make bike touring more accessible. And, as a sort of secondary goal, we wanted to look at the economics of bike touring, and explore our hypothesis that cycling could be a part of the answer to the economic revitalization of small towns. It has turned out that the economics of bike touring has been the more dominant issue.
1. After my ankle sprain, we used the recovery time to make some connections with folks in Oregon, and begin looking into the bike economics idea. We interviewed Rob Sadowsky of the BTA, Kristin Dahl of Travel Oregon, Tara Corbin and Jerry Norquist of Cycle Oregon, and Alex Phillips of Oregon State Parks. Each of these conversations demonstrated an actual impact, within the state of Oregon, from cycling – and it proved that we were on to something with our bike economics hypothesis.
2. Leads that we garnered from these conversations, and the Missouri River flood that closed an enormous stretch of Amtrak’s Empire Builder train, caused us to change our initial route idea – and we headed out of Portland via Eastern Oregon, to sniff out some towns and businesses that have made changes because of cycling’s impact. This new route, and the fact that the Empire Builder is the only train in the wider NW, meant that we never actually had the opportunity to take the Bromptons aboard Amtrak (even though it was so integral to our initial vision). Instead, we had to content ourselves with buses being the transit component (from Portland to Tillamook and back, from Portland to Bend, from Joseph to Wallowa Lake, from Bozeman to Great Falls).
3. As bike economics continued to be the dominant theme, we had the chance to meet some wonderful people who are working hard to entice cyclists into their communities. Maureen and Jeff of Sea Haven Motel, Beverly Calder in Baker City, Oregon, and Bill White of Twin Bridges’ Bike Camp, to name a few. They’ve all been working independently, with an understanding that bikes can play into their local economies, and we were able to connect their stories into a larger string of anecdotal evidence of the impact of cyclists on small economies.
4. Making the move into video (while time-consuming and sometimes difficult to process on the road) has enabled us to document important insights into bike economics, bike tourism, multi-modal travel, and more. When we visited Adventure Cycling, for example, we were able to sit down and interview several staff members about ACA’s work and impacts (videos forthcoming).
5. We still believe that this country needs a great rail system, and that it would be a perfect compliment to cycling. We’ve traveled through so many places that would benefit tremendously from rail – either by bringing in tourists or by providing another option for residents without cars. And we’ve passed dozens of train lines that are obviously no longer used for freight traffic, which has made us wonder why those should just fall into disrepair instead of being revitalized and made useful again. It’s a radically progressive idea, we know, but we’re pretty sure that a larger and improved rail system would connect cyclists to these small towns who are eager to have such cyclists visit, thus invigorating the economy in a completely new (and more sustainable) way.
Looking back, we have discovered that, sometimes, it’s best to define goals in loose terms, instead of getting too fixated on the finer points. The details of our trip so far have looked very different from what we first imagined, but we have somehow been able to explore the issues and questions that intrigued us and led us to plan this particular trip. Each change has led to a new opportunity, and we are excited about a number of possibilities in the future. Plus, it turned out that we weren’t the only ones delayed this year – because of the heavy snow year, Montana’s legendary rivers were basically un-fishable until right when we got to them (meaning that if we’d been “on schedule,” Russ wouldn’t have been able to fish!).
Today, we finally get to board Amtrak – although, we won’t yet be continuing our eastward trek. We are headed back to Oregon for a short interlude, because my brother is getting married! It feels too early in our journey for such a long break, but sometimes that’s just how things work out.
As we look out onto the horizon, we can honestly say that we have no idea what comes after we head back to Oregon, and we’re kind of excited about the varied possible directions we could take. We’re planning to go to InterBike in September, hopefully with our Brompton touring guide in tow. We’ve committed to a panel presentation in October. We still want to get to the Midwest and Canada, but winter comes early out there, so maybe this fall isn’t the best time to head in those directions. We want to continue advocating for cycle touring resources in the US. And, oh yeah, we want to get on a plane and travel overseas. But first, we want to take all of that video footage that we shot and put it together into a presentation that illustrates the positive impacts of cycling on small economies – and, hopefully, we can take that presentation on the road!