By Ryan Hobbs, 1st Year MES Student.
As I watched the sun’s light begin to peak above the trees surrounding Chambers Lake, my mind was riddled with anxiety. On my lap sat the checklist for the two-day bike journey down to Portland. I had triple-checked my bags the night before and as dawn began to break, I was doing it again to alleviate my anxiousness. Another fear of mine: being at the wrong spot. Surely I was at the right location, we agreed to meet at 7:00 a.m. at the Chambers Lake trail head yet I was the only one there. Perhaps I was at the wrong site? Nope. Soon enough the bodies began to trickle in, all nine of them – some by bike, some in vehicles. The ten of us were variously assembling our gear and making last-minute adjustments before heading out on the first leg of our ride to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) Conference. After some quick gear checks and lots of pictures eight of us mounted our trusty two-wheeled steeds and began down the trail. Two more in a support vehicle headed out down the road.
The fog was ever present and the leaves carpeted the pavement. I figured a fall was inevitable on the slippery trail but I decided to save the wipe out for much later. Fast forward 69-miles down trails, city streets, two-lane highways through the back country, a few challenging hills, with the same song on repeat in my mind (King Crimson’s Starless), we arrived at the Toutle River Resort in Castle Rock, Washington. The weather had cooperated nearly the entire day and the rain didn’t join us until that night. Damage report for the group: a bent fender and several flats, nothing too bad. We celebrated with pizza and sleep, though three of us couldn’t resist soaking our bones in the hot tub. Rain that had visited us towards the end of the ride continued on through the night and we planned on a wet second day.
A most pleasant scent was creeping up the stairs the following morning and I woke up to find a delicious homemade quiche waiting for me. A member of our support team was up early that morning making sure we had a hearty meal to provide us the energy we would need on the final 65-miles of our trip. We set off with the clouds breaking way to make room for the sun. This day would find us alongside busy highways and crossing the Lewis and Clark bridge into Oregon. After about 10-minutes of riding in Oregon the rain started. It did not prove to be a deterrent and after about 30-miles of riding we found ourselves eating lunch in the living room of the MES Assistant Director’s parent’s house (she was riding down with us). As I was finishing up lunch and almost passing out on the floor, I realized the weather was starting to rear an ugly face. Wind gusts and sideways rain started to pummel the pavement. Perfect time to head back out.
The next stop was about 12 miles down the road, a Fred Meyer where we could reconvene before the final 18 miles to Portland. What should have taken about an hour at most took almost two. The wind gusts were reportedly hitting 45 miles per hour and based on the amount of leaves hitting my face, the work it took to ride downhill, and the amount of downed branches, I’d say the reports were accurate. After some discussion and repairs, three staff decided to continue on while the students and a staff member taxied the remaining riders into Portland. What happened to two of the remaining three riders on the way to Portland was something out of a bike horror movie. One rider’s derailleur exploded on the side of the rode and he hitchhiked into town. Another rider blew an inner tube five miles out of Portland and was also able to snag a ride in. Finally, one staff member from Evergreen was able to succeed in completing the ride to Portland. Damage report from the second day was a gruesome amount of flats, broken accessories and gears, and a wicked storm that ended our ride 18-miles early.
Finally in Portland, we explored the town before heading to hear the keynote speaker, Annie Leonard, Sunday evening. I was familiar enough with Portland to not feel the need to explore too much. Besides, there was a midterm looming over our heads when we returned to school later in the week so much studying was required. Monday morning came and we headed out to the conference. The AASHE phone app was a life saver as the presentation offerings were baffling in quantity. I sat in on a diverse range of topics. It was interesting to see how other schools were utilizing learning outcomes and cross disciplinary approaches to teach sustainability concepts, how others were banning water bottles (presented by one of the riders), and ways in which GIS could be used to manage sustainability in higher education, though this actually turned out to be more of a recruiting seminar for a Master’s in GIS. The last presentation of the day stood out to me to be the most interesting. It was an avant-garde music & video performance called The Lyrebird, which sought to challenge listeners to think about the confrontations of humans and the natural world. I was reminded of other avant-garde, politically driven music by bands like Henry Cow and Art Bears. Tuesday I caught several more sessions including a documentary and discussion on urban farming, indigenous practices for sustainability, and a case I hope to tackle at Evergreen, mitigating bird strikes on campus.
Wednesday morning had arrived which meant an early morning bike ride to the train station, which was about six miles away. It was the last I’d be riding in Portland and this is when I finally got up close and personal with the road as I was cut off about half a mile from the station and ended up biting it (not literally though close). Luckily it was a controlled fall and my bike only suffered minor scratches, far from the dilemmas faced by other riders (loads of flats, broken bikes, bent fenders, and the target of bird droppings). The entire train ride home I reflected on the challenges we faced on our ride, how we worked together for a common goal, and pushed each other to succeed. I barely knew any of these people before going on the ride but I have now forged some strong connections and what I witnessed at AASHE was quite similar. Here were thousands of people with an array of disciplines working together and connecting for a common goal. To see this event taking place and knowing that so much energy and passion is being put in to help guide the futures is very promising. I was reminded of a closing message from an episode of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos in which he states how we are at a critical branching point in human history. Sagan states that we hold the power to create an abundant and meaningful life for every inhabitant of the planet if only we can use “…our compassion and our intelligence, our technology and our wealth…” We are still hanging from this branching point and AASHE is a hopeful sign that we are using our compassion, intelligence, technology, and wealth to create the path of meaningfulness and abundance for us all to follow.