In early 2020, I tacked a road map of Washington state on my home-office bulletin board. I pushed pins into points indicating the bicycle rides I’ve enjoyed over 25 years in the Northwest (part memory aide, part bragging prop, part topography of possibilities). I plundered a road atlas to plot upcoming adventures, but the ongoing coronavirus pandemic put the kibosh on almost everything, including rides over curved horizons. 

Admittedly, dwelling leads to wallowing, but I felt sorry for everybody — including myself. Thwarted plans fell by the wayside. I wanted (needed) to lift drooping spirits. 

Cycling one morning on Vashon Island, where I live, Mount Rainier reared up into view. Seeing the face of the gargantuan volcano dusted with pink and blue light, I remembered that living in the Northwest, I don’t have to go anywhere for beauty to conk me in the heart.

So I planned a “holistay” — cycling to explore my island home. Getting outside, taking action, even modest action, I thought, would tip the scales toward normalcy, and give me a sense of control over something. And, I surmised, as the seasons wore on, I’d get stronger, smarter and better-looking – or at least two out of three. 

Marie Koltchak gets ready to ride on Vashon Island. (Marie Koltchak / Special to The Seattle Times)
Marie Koltchak gets ready to ride on Vashon Island. (Marie Koltchak / Special to The Seattle Times)

Vashon Island sits in the deep, cold, dark-blue waters of Puget Sound, between West Seattle to the east and the Kitsap Peninsula to the west. The island has 45 miles of shoreline, is approximately 14 miles long and 8 miles wide, and has an estimated year-round population of 10,000. 

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The absence of bridges has kept automobile traffic and subsequent development at bay and allowed the island to maintain its rural character. With fresh air and access to quiet roads (mostly), Vashon has the distinction of being about 20 minutes from a major metropolitan area (as the ferries sail) while seeming a world away. 

The “holistay” idea encouraged me to rediscover the treasures of this small glacial remnant. There’s a lot here to be grateful for. 

The rides led to windy bluffs with expansive views of the Sound that plunged to beaches below. I went along quiet roads flanking forests. I eschewed a network of dirt-bike trails, but cycled to ravines and watersheds. I saw saltwater marshes and upland woods and low tides lit by dramatic dawns.

I rolled by small farms and big orchards with dramatic, regimented fences. I made my way to shoreline conservancies like Lisabeula Park — and the fragile estuary on Colvos Passage. 

Sometimes I felt the sensation of moving backward — as in eons. I glided under ferns looming overhead, swaying like giant grass skirts. I read they have survived several mass extinctions, which accounts for feeling like I revolved into the Jurassic period.   

Cycling offered time to think pithy thoughts — hills, for example, provide good metaphors for problems, usually looking worse from far away than when taken on.

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On one ride, I hit a patch of gravel in a sharp curve. My tires, making a dry kissy sound, as if saying goodbye, briefly separated from the road. Startled from daydreaming by a prickly bloom of adrenaline in my chest, I jerked myself upright to correct course. Pithy Thought Number Two: Pay attention.

The rides gave me time to practice mindfulness — with deep breathing built right in; bonus! On burning climbs, I focused on where my front tire was in the moment (or aiming a few inches ahead) and NOT on eyeing the top of a hill and the miserable distance that seemed to lengthen as I got closer to it — pain will do that to you. In not looking to a future that didn’t yet exist, I functioned in the moments I actually did inhabit, easing the grudge match with gravity.

The hustle and bustle of planning trips, even local ones, diverted thoughts of existential dread. I got busy calculating routes using paper maps, and applications like MapMyRide and Google Maps, to pre- and post-visualize rides. I noted ride stats with which to impress myself; the rides varied in length and difficulty, and a few racked up impressive distances and elevation. 

Bicycle riding goes mostly easy on the wallet, especially close to home: Self-propulsion costs less than gas and is faster than walking (usually).

I haven’t banished worry altogether; I’m waiting for the all-clear. But the rides helped me access the kind of natural beauty that calms the worried mind. Having always made a lot of room for the bogeyman, I find physically demanding activity helps me shrink and shorten depressive moods. 

Even though they were local, the spring, summer and autumn rides guided me to the rich world just outside my doorstep. A friend, commenting on posted photos, said, “You seem to travel a lot” … and I thought — I do!

Sometimes I chickened out of additional mileage but still referred to myself as “A Beast.” I have a motto: “I’m not fast, but I’m slow.” Besides, why rush into the future? It will find me soon enough. 

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