However, men propose and the gods dispose. Gabriel hurt his back right before the organized event, and the day he took off of work for the ride was spent in bed instead of a-wheel. I stayed home to nursemaid and massage him.
I couldn't just skip the Skagit trip entirely, though: I had written in my book proposal that I would visit the fields at bloom time, and the flowers wouldn't wait. I don't drive, and the distance from my home to the Skagit Valley and back is one hundred miles. Luckily this is not a problem because I have a bicycle! Sure it weighs fifty pounds, but that's because it's built like a tank: Slow perhaps, but very sturdy and reliable.
When Gabriel went back to work on Sunday I brought out my Gazelle and turned my wheels northwards.
It was 51 degrees by the bank thermometer when I passed it en route to the ferry at 6:15 in the morning. It was still dark, but warm and windy as I began my two-wheeled, hundred mile quest to the flower fields of the Skagit Valley.
Puget Sound lies between Port Townsend and the mainland of Washington state; as early as the 1870s I would have had two choices of route to reach my destination. I could have gone to Seattle first and taken a semi-weekly steamer from Seattle to La Conner, or I could have taken the regular daily ferry from Port Townsend to Ebey's Landing on Whidbey Island, ridden up Whidbey and then passed to the mainland.
The direct steamer from Seattle to La Conner disappeared long ago, but ferry service remains between Port Townsend and Ebey's Landing. The boat on the modern route is the Kennewick, launched in 2011. It was a smaller vessel than the ones I had been accustomed to riding on the Bainbridge-Seattle route when I was first married, but bigger than the old Mosquito Fleet of steamers which plied Puget Sound's waters between 1878 and 1933.
I had timed things well and didn't have to wait long before loading. At such an early hour on a Sunday there were only eight cars waiting; as a cyclist I was allowed to get on the boat before any of them. To avoid standing in the wind I went up to the passenger cabin. I passed the time regarding the framed black and white photos on the wall. There was one taken in the early nineteenth-century—steamboats landing in Kennewick. Another photo, showing the town itself in 1909 reminded me of Port Townsend's Water Street, with its frontier Victorian buildings. Other photos showed members of the Yakama tribe, the men with horses and the women with beaded purses. The women with chatelaine purses particularly charmed me, since they reminded me so much of the purse I was wearing at my own waist.
By the time I went back down to the car deck and waited with my bike to offload, there were white caps on the waves of Puget Sound. The heavy winds were starting to worry me, and not just because the turbulence of the water was making me slightly seasick. The forecast had been for clear weather, but strong winds would make for hard riding on a bike. It almost made me wish for my high wheel tricycle, since so much of the struggle of riding a bike on a windy day comes from fighting to keep one's balance. It would have been fun to ride my high wheel, but on a fixed gear cycle weighing over sixty pounds I never would have made it the fifty miles to the Skagit Valley in one day, never mind repeating the whole process on the morrow to make it home. My fifty pound Gazelle is heavy enough, and its ability to freewheel helps. I ran my leather-gloved hands over my grips, looked out into a cloudy sky and hoped for the best.
I was the only bike on the ferry—not surprising on this run, especially on a Sunday. I unloaded ahead of the cars and stretched my legs into a swift spin, breathing fully of the morning air. Birds of many species were filling the air with song, and less than a mile from the ferry dock I already heard a hummingbird. I sped past pioneer apple trees gone wild and craggy, horsetails popping up in their cone phase, and fresh, spring nettles. The sunrise was understated, with marbled clouds quilting the sky. I passed an osprey hovering many yards above the earth, riding the wind so skillfully it stayed perfectly still in the air.
When I passed the 1855 Crockett blockhouse on Whidbey I thought of the troubles here in the nineteenth-century, and my reason for travelling to the Skagit Valley.
When I had visited the Skagit Valley as a teenager and the first time I rode my bicycle past that fertile valley in 2014, the fields seemed timeless, as though the farms had been there since the earliest days of settlement and the only change (besides equipment) was the shift from food crops to flowers. As usual though, the true story is far more complicated.
Skagit County is now America's largest producer of daffodil, tulip and iris bulbs, but a large portion of the valley used to be tidal flats. The land was reclaimed from the sea by dikes, as in much of Holland. In 1890 The Northwest Illustrated Monthly Magazine ran a piece describing how successful the process had been:
"The great shortage of this season's oat crop throughout the agricultural sections of the Union will give increased notoriety to the famous oat producing district of Puget Sound—the fertile reclaimed tide lands of Skagit County, the granaries of which are now filled with a bountiful crop. The redeemed lands of Skagit County, comprised by the Samish and Swinomish flats, the delta of the Skagit, and the Beaver marsh and the recently opened Olympic marsh, are among the most productive in the world. This land produces from eighteen to 100 bushels per acres [sic]. The Swinomish and Samish flats present the results of one of the most successful experiments in reclaiming and cultivating land from the sea ever made outside of Holland. The Swinomish flat is the oldest and the best improved. It comprises between 20,000 and 25,000 acres of land, reclaimed by dykes, and divided into well-improved farms. It extends from the north fork of the Skagit northward along the Swinomish slough of Bayview. It has all been reclaimed and improved within the last twenty years. Its soil is of great depth and fertility, formed by the Skagit. For centuries this rushing river, evading the Cascades, deposited its silt into the broad bay, at one time covering the entire flat of which the narrow Swinomish Slough is all that remains. This silt, washed up by the waves and distributed along the shore northward and southward from the river's mouth by the tides, formed the Skagit delta and the Swinomish flat. When the first settlers of Swinomish flat, along in the '70s, began dyking it in, it had risen from the sea and was covered by the extreme tides of June and December... Earthen dykes, eight or ten feet in height, are... required to keep back the tides... After the land is dyked and thoroughly dried out it sinks one foot or more below its original level, rendering much of it below the level of the daily tides."
Much of the area now covered by flower blooms was once a major salmon estuary. The resources of that ecosystem (especially the salmon) were the basis of the culture of the Swinomish people.
[N.B. Many members of native tribes now prefer the term Indian over Native American. I use the term Indian out of respect for their wishes. For more on this, please see Zotigh, Dennis W. <http://blog.nmai.si.edu/main/2011/01/introduction-1st-question-american-indian-or-native-american.html> and Walbert, Kathryn. "American Indian vs. Native American: A note on terminology." <http://www.learnnc.org/lp/editions/nc-american-indians/5526>]
Prior to the Point No Point Treaty of 1855, the Swinomish tribe lived in small, nomadic bands. They wintered in cedar-planked longhouses in established villages on Fidalgo, Whidbey and Guemes islands as well as on the Skagit and Samish watersheds. Their community life centered on gathering and preserving food and building materials. They harvested fish and shellfish and hunted whales and seals—and dug camas bulbs. Camas (Camassia Quamash) was an important crop to many of the Northwest tribes; the Swinomish tribe remember it as second only to salmon in its significance as a native food. As I cycled along thinking of the Swinomish, part of me kept involuntarily looking for camas lilies, though I knew I wouldn't find any.
I grew up on a street named Camas Avenue, but I never saw an actual camas lily until I was twenty-three years old and working in a high-end plant nursery. Camas lilies are indigenous to the Pacific Northwest, yet it's hard to call them wild. They were very much a cultivated crop for centuries.
Long before white settlers entered the region, Indians already considered camas fields a commodity which could be owned and inherited. (Archaelogists have found camas ovens dating as far back as 6,000 B.C..) After harvest in the summer Indians burned their camas fields to clear them of weeds and brush. When the Corps of Discovery explored the west in the early nineteenth century, Captains Lewis and Clark saw huge fields of camas under cultivation. On June 12, 1806, both the group's leaders wrote of "quawmash" flowers in their diaries. Meriwether Lewis reported:
"the quawmash is now in bloom and from the colour of its bloom at a short distance it resembles lakes of fine clear water, so complete is this deseption [sic] that at first sight I could have swoarn [sic] it was water."
On this day Captain Clark's spelling was slightly better than Lewis' (although his punctuation was worse); otherwise their entries regarding the camas flowers are virtually identical.
After harvesting their camas bulbs, Indians steamed them in large pits, cooking as much as fifty kilograms (over a hundred pounds) at one time. After cooking, the bulbs were eaten at potlatch feasts or dried for storage or trade.
Ever since I learned that much of the Skagit Valley was once a major salmon estuary, I had been struggling with a moral question about it. In the long run, was the trade-off of fish for flowers really worth it? When I learned that the people affected by the conversion of the estuary to farmland had cultivated camas lilies, the moral quandary became even more convoluted. The diking of marshes to increase Skagit farmland wasn't a matter of trading fish for flowers; it was an issue of trading fish and one kind of cultivated bulb for more land and larger yields of other types of cultivated bulbs. Another part of the story to take into account was a stretch of many decades after reclamation but before ornamental agriculture, when the land was mostly used to grow edible crops. (There still are fields of wheat, potatoes, and other food crops in Skagit—besides the flowers.) But even all this this was a gross simplification.
The Indians themselves were already altering the landscape in this region long before the tidal flats were diked. Besides cultivating camas, the Swinomish burned grassland to lure in deer and elk for easy hunting. The fires also optimized conditions for berries, bracken fern roots, and other edibles.
When I researched Skagit's history, layer upon layer the story just became more complicated. Riding up there, the whole convoluted situation whirled in my mind as my legs spun my wheels. First (to my understanding) the valley was just a pretty place which grows flowers. Then it was a formerly unspoiled primeval wetland and spawning ground for salmon; when it was converted to farmland the local Swinomish tribe lost their main food source and their way of life. Then it was a space that hadn't been natural within the recollection of anyone's history—white or native. If that weren't complicated enough, the settlers creating farmland bought their diking materials from the Swinomish themselves, and the 200 Swinomish living on the reservation near La Conner in 1890 diked and cultivated 2,000 acres of former tideland. Admittedly, the Swinomish were prompted to take up farming by the U.S. government.
I decided the only thing about the whole messy situation I was sure about was that I had no right to judge the morality or motivations of anyone involved with it. The money which modern farmers in the Skagit Valley earn from their harvest of blooms can be used year round to buy all of life's essentials and luxuries, food and other things. I determined to remember the history, but still enjoy the flowers.
A few miles outside of Coupeville I saw a yellow house with a wooden sign out front (painted to match the house) reading, "Farm Fresh Produce-Eggs-Flowers." Once again I remembered Mary Sam's daffodils on Bainbridge Island, the flowers which local legend said Chief Seattle's granddaughter traded native medicines to obtain. [For more on this, see "Chilly Hilly—March 26, 2015.] Near the yellow house grew Oregon grapes, their flowers tightly budded and standing out against their holly-like leaves. Local tribes used the bark and sour berries of these little plants to treat problems of the liver and gall bladder, eye troubles, and venereal disease; the Saanich considered the berries an antidote for shellfish poisoning. I wondered, as I had done many times before, if there was any truth to the oral histories about Mary Sam. If she really had traded medicines for daffodils, I wondered which ones would have been in highest demand when she lived on Bainbrige.
The botany of the region was very much on my mind as I rode along, and down the road I saw the remains of an ancient Douglas fir tree. It was four feet in diameter, and it was acting as a nurse stump: Two young trees sprouted from it, one of them as tall as my house. I thought of how life replenishes and history repeats itself, always in forms subtly altered but essentially similar.
Eventually the mechanics of cycling drew my attention away from poetic flora. A few weeks earlier Gabriel had finally convinced me to let him raise the seat on my bike—something he had wanted to do for years. In fact, he had wanted to raise my seat higher ever since he taught me to ride back when I was nineteen years old. However, I'm a stubborn and eminently cautious person. I always insisted that I be able to put my feet flat on the ground when I sat on my saddle. My sweetheart, who became my husband, lowered the seat all the way down to where I indicated and kept it there at my command. Every once in a while he would gently suggest that I might have more leverage if my saddle were in a higher position, but I held firm and the seat stayed low.
When I worked up to an average of fifty miles a week on my fifty pound bike, I started complaining to Gabriel that my knees hurt. For my birthday (a few weeks before my Skagit trip) he gave me a beautiful new saddle, a leather Brooks which copies a 1905 design and is embossed with flower patterns. Again, he gently submitted the idea that putting it a little higher might be a good idea. After resisting for fifteen and a half years I finally let him do it. As I zoomed towards the Skagit Valley with happy knees and infinitely more power, I and wondered why on earth I hadn't let Gabriel put my seat at a proper height years earlier. The new leather was stiff against my sit bones I wished it were a little more broken in, but I reflected that a hundred mile ride was the best way to accomplish that desire.
To avoid traffic on the highway I followed a small road that hugs the coast of Whidbey. When I passed a little cove tiled with platforms where mussels are cultivated, the wind started to die down a bit but I felt some raindrops against my nose and cheeks. I was glad that I had brought my waxed canvas cape, a green one which I sewed by hand, replicating an antique in our collection. However, I hoped the rain wouldn't get bad enough to require it.
When I passed the next cove (one where, last year, I had seen people wearing traditional native cedarbark hats digging for shellfish on the tidal flats), the rain was no worse, but the wind had returned. There were no human fishermen on the cove this year, but a lovely heron waded through the shallow edge of the water. Its feathers seemed a pale reflection of the dark gray-blue sky overhead.
By the time I reached Oak Harbor (which is more or less the halfway point between the Ebey's Landing ferry dock and Deception Pass) I was legitimately worried about crossing the Deception Pass bridge. The winds are high there at the best of times. Writing in 1891, traveler-historian Frances Fuller Victor reported, "The pass is only about six miles long... [t]hrough this rocky funnel the wind carouses, and the tide runs with a swiftness that sometimes holds a steamer stationary." If Boreas wanted to make trouble, riding a bike over the 180-foot bridge would be... interesting. However my spirits stayed high, for it was all part of my big adventure.
As I was leaving Oak Harbor I passed a large, barn-shaped building advertising itself as a roller rink. It reminded me of the old velocipede rinks which were popular for one short season in 1867. In those days before the Ordinary inspired Wheelmen to work for better roads, there was a brief fad for riding iron-tired boneshakers around wooden rinks. Histories of cycling often dismiss this as an odd idea and an eccentricity, but as I passed the roller rink and considered that the idea had worked for roller skates, it really didn't seem outlandish. Riding cooped up indoors still isn't the way I would like to do things, though. I prefer to go places.
On any road trip there are beautiful sights along with less pleasing ones. Across the bike lanes there were myriads of brown slugs (many of them engaging in cannibalism), and I saw a dead coyote in an advanced state of decay. Even less pleasant than the sight of the coyote was its sickly putrid smell as I rode past. I like going places, but I never said that everything on the road is romantic.
I reached Deception Pass with a feeling of triumph at 10:55 a.m. The wind wasn't bad until I got halfway across the 1,487-foot length of the bridge, at which point it became troublesome but not unmanageable. On the north end of the bridge I sat down on a bench with an amazing view and brought my lunch and diary out of my panniers. I jotted down a note to the effect that there weren't many people at the bridge—at which point a crowd naturally arrived. One of the influx was a reporter from a local newspaper who asked if he could take pictures of me. (The story made it into Anacortes Today on the morrow.) After he left I settled down to my grapes, cheese, bread and Lancaster caramels, enjoying the view as I munched.
The local Samish tribe have a Persephone-like legend of The Maiden of Deception Pass, a beautiful woman who went under the undulating waves here and became a sea goddess. Once a year she returned to land and her coming was preceded by great bounty, and even when she stopped coming home she still looked after her people. The waters are bounded by jagged gray rocks rising straight up from the waves and mounted by fir trees. From the bridge these trees look like the plushest green velvet, yet I know that close up they are covered with needles.
When had I arrived at my picnic spot, I was so warm from climbing the hill to the bridge without dismount that I was sweating and almost took off my jacket. However the sharp wind chilled me quickly when I sat to rest. I thought of the Victorian advice about only using wool for cycling clothes. All the old cycling magazines and books instructed riders to avoid cotton at all costs (even such a little bit as the interfacing in a collar), lest a cyclist catch a chill after overheating. The skirt and Eaton jacket of my cycling outfit are silk suiting but my shirtwaist is cotton. I imagined the Victorian Wheelmen clucking their tongues at me in disapproval, and wondered how long it would take tropical-weight wool shirting fabric to work its way to the top of my long list of wants.
I left Deception Pass at 11:35. As I smelled skunk cabbage time and time again throughout my ride, I thought of the old native stories about it. Skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanum) was a famine food for native peoples of the Pacific Northwest, eaten steamed or roasted when there was no other choice of sustenance. The Kathlamet tell a story of a time when their people were starving. When the salmon finally came, Skunk Cabbage stood on the banks of the river and chided the rich salmon for their neglect of the people. If not for Skunk Cabbage, they would have starved. In gratitude Salmon gave Skunk Cabbage an elk-skin blanket and a war club; he settled in a place of honor on the riverbank.
Wrinkling my nose at the pungent scent put off by skunk cabbage along my route, I didn't blame the Kathlamet for being upset at having to eat it. The story of the disappearance of Salmon reminded me again of Skagit's history, and I pressed onwards.
As soon as I got onto Fidalgo Island I was hit by a massive wall of wind. I'd been stopping to take notes throughout the trip, but when I got off my bike this time and drew out my diary, the wind was flapping the pages around so hard that I could barely write on them. Things got better as soon as some trees came between me and the water, but the situation was touch and go as trees came and went. As I came out from the shelter of the trees I started having to dismount on even moderate uphill slopes just from the force of the wind.
I had been smelling skunk cabbage sporadically all day, but I actually saw its bright yellow blooms for the first time this trip when I entered the Swinomish Indian reservation. Soon the valley came in sight.
A few miles outside of La Conner a broad swath of color appeared in the distance, and the view flooded me with a wave of fresh energy. The bright yellow daffodils stood out like a lake of yellow. I pushed hard against my pedals, stretching my legs to their limit. The sight of my goal gave me as much energy as a full meal would have done.
At first the fields were just colors, rectangles on a palate. Then I neared and the art man has worked upon the landscape drew into focus. It was like drawing near to scrutinize a painting by a master; what seems at first to be one color reveals inself, upon inspection, to be swirls of different shades, masterfully blended.
Marshes of daffodils, seas of tulips, thousands upon thousands of them—or was it millions? A human mind could not take in their numbers. Closer still, and each bloom revealed its unique perfection.
I liked the out of place tulips the best—a single snowy bloom standing against a sea of lavender, or yellow amongst red. They draw the eye and invite reflection. They looked lonely within the crowd, yet I loved their courage to stand out. They reminded me of myself.
I lingered amongst the flowers, taking notes and admiring their beauty. After I finally left I backtracked my own route a few miles and checked into Katy's Inn in La Conner. The residence is on the national historic registry as the Captain John Peck house, and was built in the early 1880s. It's a lovely place, and hanging on the wall above the staircase visitors can see a black and white photo of the captain himself with his wife and four daughters.
I woke up the next morning at 4:30 a.m. I always wake up early when I am away from home and from my own bed, although I certainly couldn't fault my surroundings. The room where I was staying (called the Captain's Suite) was narrower than my bedroom at home, but longer. It had a white Vermont Castings gas stove all to itself, and I had a funny time in trying to turn down the heat. I fussed and fussed with a dial on the wall which I took to be the thermostat. Getting very frustrated, I turned on a few more lights and finally realized that I had been twisting and poking at the diagnostic buttons on the carbon monoxide detector!
After I had washed and dressed, I debated putting on my spats. The strap on my left spat (which should have gone under the arch of my foot) had broken sometime during my fifty mile ride the previous day. There was no danger of it falling off (its buttons on the lateral side of my foot would ensure that), but it didn't look quite as neat as I would like. Besides, I worried about damaging it further. I put both spats away in my panier, resolving to mend the broken strap when I got home.
I had ordered coffee in my room for seven a.m., but it would be somewhat lacking in humanity to expect any innkeeper to rise as early as my own away-from-home internal alarm clock woke me. My room abutted the dining room, and I found some cold coffee from the previous night in a pot on the sideboard. By this time another lark of a guest had joined me in her bathrobe and slippers; we split the coffee and helped ourselves to half-and-half from the refrigerator in the kitchen.
I left a note for the innkeeper not to worry about the wake-up coffee I had ordered, then hopped on my bike so that I could get back to the flower fields in time to watch the sunrise.
In the first cloudy glimmerings of pre-dawn light, the flower fields of the Skagit Valley could be anything. They could be a dream. Surely, the mind reasons, they must be a dream, a mere fragment of illusion. How else to explain those broad swathes of yellow across the landscape, the stretching seas of pink so intense they mock the sunrise? As Sol's rays draw higher and light fills the land, a compunction to test the truth of this dream pulls the viewer closer. As a prism shows white light as bands of rainbow, a closer view of that impossible pink divides it into strata of purple, crimson, tart red-orange, and a pink so vibrant it mocks even that first, far off glimpse of color that laughed at the sunrise.
After regarding them a few minutes I found that I was sinking in the mud and must move on. There was, however, a slight problem with this. My Gazelle was mired several centimeters deep and a huge puddle—virtually a pond—yawned before me. There wasn't enough room to turn without either treading the tulips or sinking to my knees in mud. It was a situation where it was impossible to go forward, difficult to go back. I walked uneasily backwards in my own footsteps, pulling my bike behind myself. I drank in the colors, colors, colors, then reluctantly pulled myself away so that I wouldn't be late for breakfast at the inn.
After consuming blueberry pancakes, scrambled eggs, and conversation with my fellow guests, I made one more pilgrimage out to the fields. As I was going amongst the blossoms again I overheard a woman talking to her companions.
"This just makes me so happy! I'm so happy...so happy!" She kept repeating it over and over again, a dreamy smile on her face. "They should just bring all the depressed people here, and they would get better."
Something about the way she talked of depression made me think she'd had experience with it. She spoke of happiness the way that a man who has almost died of thirst speaks of water, and these fields of blissful blooms had practically brought tears of joy to her eyes. Her words and her enraptured expression stayed with me as I turned my wheels towards home.
 Immigration Aid Society of Northwestern Washington. Northwestern Washington: Its Soil, Climate, Productions and General Resources. Port Townsend: Puget Sound Argus, 1877, p. 39.
 "Valley of the Skagit, Washington." The Northwest Magazine. November, 1890. p. 26.
 Source: Interpretive sign "We Lived Here" outside the Cultural Resource Center on the Swinomish reservation.
 Source: Interpretive sign "Camas" outside the Cultural Resource Center on the Swinomish reservation.
 "Camas Oven Sites." U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management. <http://www.blm.gov/or/resources/heritage/culcamasoven.php>
 Mackinnon, Andy and Jim Pojar. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast: Washington, Oregon, British Columbia & Alaska. Redmond, WA: Lone Pine Publishing, 1994. pp. 108-109.
 Lewis, Meriwether and William Clark. Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804-1806. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1905. pp. 131-132.
 Mackinnon, Andy and Jim Pojar. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast: Washington, Oregon, British Columbia & Alaska. Redmond, WA: Lone Pine Publishing, 1994. p. 108.
 Raibmon, Paige. Authentic Indians: Episodes of Encounters From the Late-Nineteenth-Century Northwest Coast. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005. p. 127.
 Mills, Edward. "Report of Agent for Tulalip Agency." Annual Reports of the Department of the Interior For the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1899. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1899. p. 361. And "Valley of the Skagit, Washington." ibid.
 Mackinnon, Andy and Jim Pojar. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast: Washington, Oregon, British Columbia & Alaska. Redmond, WA: Lone Pine Publishing, 1994. p. 95. and Eells, Myron. The Indians of Puget Sound: The Notebooks of Myron Eells. Ed. George Pierre Castile with William W. Elmendorf. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1985. p. 62.
 Victor, Mrs. Frances Fuller. Atlantis Arisen: Or, Tales of A Tourist About Oregon and Washington. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1891. p. 328.
 "The Maiden of Deception Pass." Reprinted from Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest page 199 by Ella E. Clark, 1953 on the website of the Pacific Science Center: <http://exhibits.pacsci.org/puget_sound/Maiden.html>
 Mackinnon, Andy and Jim Pojar. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast: Washington, Oregon, British Columbia & Alaska. Redmond, WA: Lone Pine Publishing, 1994. p. 334.
Nesbit, D.M. "VIII.—Tide Lands of Washington Territory." Tide Marshes of the United States. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1885.