Book Review: Two Wheels North by Evelyn McDaniel Gibb

This was a bit of a unique book for me.  First off, it was a book, NOT an eBook.  I have a very few authors that I still read in paper, since nowadays I prefer the ease and convenience of a Kindle.  However, this one didn’t come as an eBook.  I was intrigued enough by the subject to buy it though, as it was about 2 kids, fresh out of high school, who rode bikes from Santa Rosa California to Seattle WA.

Yes, I know people ride between CA and WA everyday.  My friend Sarah did it in stellar form this summer.  Oh, did I forget to mention this was in 1909….

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Yep, these two high school friends wanted to attend the Alaskan-Yukon Pacific Exposition going on in Seattle that year.  This was during the Alaskan Gold rush and all routes to Alaska went through Seattle.  It’s what caused Seattle to boom and never stop growing.

These two couldn’t afford to take a train or boat, (or even a stage-coach) so they had to get there via their own power. Bikes!

Now these are not the modern-day versions of our two-wheel steeds.  No gears, light weight  frames, puncture resistant tires or gel seats.  These were iron behemoths, single speed, hard seats and, now that I think of it, I never did figure out if they had brakes.  More than once going down hill, they tied a small log to the bike to slow it down.  They also had GAS light.  Add water to pellets, let it fizz and light the gas?  Seriously???

These were enterprising kids though.  They took off with less than $10 between them, but made a deal with the local newspaper (and the Seattle Post Intelligencer) to send updates as they went along.  Then, if they made it by October 1st (2 months after they left) they would receive $25. It would pay for the train home and leave some extra for the expo.

Nowadays, any decent cyclist could do this distance in less than a month if he or she put their mind to it.  I biked north to south in Oregon in 5 days.  That is now though.  Things were a bit different then.

First off the roads.  Sometimes their flat weren’t any.  They were reduced to traveling on train tracks to get where they were going.  This is ok (though I highly do NOT recommend it!) when you can just get off the tracks if you see a train.  However, when you are using trestles to cross rivers, and tunnels to get through mountains there is no where to go the train appears.

There were some roads, but we wouldn’t call them that.  Dirt, mud, sharp rocks, roots, and giant hidden holes plagued them the whole way. Some roads were made from half buried logs, many of which had rotted (they referred to these as washboard roads.)  Some of these would be fun with a mountain bike with front and back shocks, but NOT on the ones they were riding.  They pushed the bikes almost as many, if not more, miles as they pedaled.

Then there is food.  I can stop anywhere and grab anything I want to eat.  These two sometimes had to hunt or catch fish, then build a fire, then cook over the fire…

Speaking of hunting and animals, they had to be wary of bears, cougars, rattlesnakes and any number of other creatures that could ruin the day, or night of a cyclist.  Not to mention the occasional forest fire they had to dodge (though that happens all to often today as well).

I was very much intrigued when they hit Washington State, as they were traveling and a distance I’ve covered in single day (200 miles from Portland to Seattle).  They took over a week.  It’s funny how simple things like bridges over rivers are taken for granted.  They didn’t exist back then…

The story is from the perspective of one of the riders, who was the Grandfather of the author.  She had discovered the clippings and got him to telling the story.  Given this, I very much think parts may have been embellished a bit.  However, there is no way I, or anyone else could ever duplicate this feat.  Over a thousand miles, no support, few roads, flat tires, busted frames, bad weather, and strange people.

I learned a lot about the history of the northwest, and the early days of riding.  I highly recommend this book to history nerds and cycling geeks as well.  And the next time I ride south from Seattle, or anywhere in Oregon, I will tip my helmet and raise a glass that night to two better riders than I will ever be!

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4 Responses to Book Review: Two Wheels North by Evelyn McDaniel Gibb

  1. sarburch says:

    Another book added to my to-read list, thanks to you!

    P.S. Thanks for the shout-out. 🙂

  2. I cannot add this book to my list of to read. My list is too long now as it is. I cannot do ebooks. I love the feel of a book in my hands and the dog hearing of pages.

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