2009-04-16 48 -122
Today's Bellingham, Washington graticule geohash was on the Birch Point peninsula in Semiahmoo Bay, very close to the Canadian border. It appeared to be just off the end of a side road from Semiahmoo Drive, but trees in the satellite view blocked knowledge of exactly what was there.
Planning consisted of thepiguy telling Robyn she should come with him for the border hash, because he'd never done one before, Rhonda saying she'd come too, and everyone trying to explain where to meet in a riot of edit conflicts. See the talk page for more details. Everything else we made up on the fly.
In order of being recruited for the mission:
I knew I had to catch the 10:30AM Seabus if I wanted to join the others at the Peace Arch at 1PM, so I scrambled to get my stuff together (chores? bah!), pumped up the tires on my bike since it hadn't been ridden for a few months, and ran out the door.
A block from home, I found out that my bike's brakes desperately need to be replaced. As I careened toward 1st St., I gave thanks that I was on a quiet road and made a hard left so my brakes were only working against my forward momentum and not gravity as well. (For those who don't know, the altitude change from 1st St. to 2nd St. in North Vancouver is equivalent to two stories in a building.) With a mental note to replace the brakes tomorrow and also to start braking well in advance, I continued toward the Seabus.
Because buses can only carry two bikes, I opted to catch the 351 at its terminus station instead of the station closest to the Seabus - only a couple of blocks farther.
My GPS, which had faithfully recorded my route from inside the Seabus, complained about a weak signal inside the bus, so I sat with my arm against the window. Also that way I could keep an eye on my bike, on its rack on the front of the bus.
The bus headed through downtown, keeping its schedule faithfully, as recorded by the Translink auditor sitting across from me with his clipboard, chatting with the driver about the absurd prices demanded by scalpers for hockey tickets.
At one of the stops, I recognized Robyn out front with her bike just as the bus opened its doors, and collected my stuff off the seat beside me so she and T-Rex could sit there.
thepiguy set out at 11:00 on the dot, and then again at 11:15 once he turned around went back to his house to pick up a few items he forgot.
He took all his usual bike routes and uttered a small curse at translink for forcing him to take a bus through the tunnel. Once in Ladner he began following the cycling directions he had figured out in the morning. Being an
extremely intelligent adventurer idiot he didn't actually bring them with him and had to figured out where to go by memory. He kept trying to take the most obvious and direct route to the border (i.e. the highway) but kept getting turned back by every cyclists favorite road sign.
By the time he was speeding down the gigantic hill on the highway, everything was going great, but by the time he was trundling up the giant hill in White Rock he was very behind schedule. He kept passing bus stops and thinking of Robyn and Rhonda hoping that since he had been nice and said he'd wait for them, they'd do the same and wouldn't leave without him.
Once he finally made it to the designated meeting spot he decided to promptly collapse.
I put off packing for my mission that might start tomorrow, hastily cleaned my kitchen, grabbed my passport and headed for the border. Vancouver is bisected by the mighty Fraser River, which can be crossed by numerous bridges, a ferry or a tunnel, but the last, while the most convenient way across for my route, is off limits to bicycles. I didn't want to take the time to go around the long way, where I always get stuck in the mud on an unpaved bike route in Surrey, so I rode out to Granville Street to wait for the 351 bus, which would take me to within 30 blocks of the border.
It's always a little suspenseful waiting for a bus with a bicycle. The buses have bike racks, but each bus can take only two bikes, so if two other people have decided to take bikes on the bus that day, you're out of luck. The 601 came with an empty bike rack and I wondered if I should get on it instead, and go to the Ladner Exchange. Fortunately the 351 arrived with only one bike on it, so I didn't have to figure that out. And the one bike was Rhonda's, so all was well.
After photographing the Peace Arch and wandering around and reading all the commemorative monuments (commemorating the border being unfortified, the surveyors doing a good job figuring out where the border was (although it wasn't quite at 49N by our GPSes), Canada and the US not having had a war since 1814, and more stuff like that) Rhonda and Robyn noticed another cyclist approaching. He rode down the southbound road, veered across the traffic lanes onto the grass of the park and then dropped the bike and collapsed supine in front of the Peace Arch, gasping, "White Rock ... is .. uphill."
Robyn stood back to watch another line on the Meetup Graph form, waiting for one to ask the other if they were from the Internet, but Rhonda just watched to make sure thepiguy didn't need immediate medical attention and no one remembered to take a picture. Everyone got back on the bikes and followed Robyn past the lines of cars waiting to cross the border, between the spaces in a barricade marked Road Closed - No Entry, around the corner of a building through a collection of disused, rusting border gates and what may have been old Christmas decorations. Just when they were starting to believe that Robyn's 'experience' at crossing the the border was really experience at sneaking past the border without clearing customs, she stopped at a door labelled "Pedestrian Entrance."
Unfortunately the effect was kind of ruined by the fact that the door was locked. They'd changed the usable entrance door to another one, behind the building. Inside, there was a velvet roped area for queuing with a sign saying "enter here" but no one in the queue. Robyn entered where the sign said, but instead of going all the way through the velvet ropes and back, just went around the other side of the sign to the front of the line. The others were just starting to tell her that she was doing it wrong, when an agent at the other side of the room said we could come to her. This necessitated everyone climbing over, under or around the velvet ropes, so no one knew who was doing it wrong any more, and we just handed over our passports.
Robyn was still playing the role of "person in this expedition who knows what is going on" so she answered the questions.
"Where are you going?"
"Just out for a bike ride?"
"We're members of an adventure club, and today the meeting location is out there."
"Adventure Club, hmm, what are you going to do?"
"Play games, meet whoever else is there ... last week we went kayaking."
"I brought a board game!" added thepiguy.
The trick is, you don't have to persuade the people at the border that you are sane, just that you aren't going to try and blow anything up. She gave us our passports back and we looked at the pictures to figure out who was who. She also gave us an orange post-it with the letter A written on the back. Robyn knew what this was for, so took it and all went back out to the bikes.
Behind the building, on the south, i.e. American, side, there are a number of parking spots where the people who are 'randomly' selected for car searches park. And there are officers out there. Robyn gave one of the officers the orange post-it, saying, "Presumably "A" means, 'Please let these three people pass'." The officer didn't let on that Robyn had cracked the secret code, merely took the post-it and allowed the trio to pass.
I wonder what letter we'd have got if there were four of us.
 Riding to the hash point
By this point we had determined that no one had brought written directions to the geohash, but everyone remembered a little bit of how to get there, and honestly, how hard is to find a point on the west coast of the mainland. You just go south and keep taking the road by the sea. That's what we did.
We rode south on Peace Portal Way, a quiet road beside the sea. It was a little disquieting that signs kept giving a mileage countdown to when the road was going to turn into an I-5 on-ramp, but before we found out whether we were going to be forced onto the interstate, we found a right turn signed for Birch Point and took it. From then on we luxuriated in the fact that there were no ferries to catch, no hundred kilometres to bike before dark, no rain, just a really pleasant bike ride by the sea. Every time the road bifurcated we took the fork closest to the sea. As we headed out on to the peninsula we were riding right next to the beach, looking out across the water to Canada.
We found and followed Something Harbor Road, which Rhonda remembered from the directions. We went up a hill. ("Hey, Robyn, you said there were no hills!") It was more exciting than going up one of the many hills of the Sunshine Coast because it was not one of dozens of hills in a hundred kilometre stretch, and because we were now entering the last few kilometres before the geohash. The stage where you start looking at the sides of the road to see what you are going to have to contend with in the last few metres, after you leave the road. Omens were mixed. In some places there was a wide verge beside the road, even a multi-use path. We passed a golf course (but we knew the geohash wasn't on it). We also passed gated communities with huge foreboding walls and locked gates. It would be quite the ambassador achievement to get past such a barricade.
Within a kilometre of the geohash, Robyn crossed from the road to the multi-use path, but the GPS direction needle swung around to indicate we were abeam the geohash yet over a kilometre away. What? Was it through this hedge.
Now it was Rhonda's turn to remember some of the directions. "The road will come around and come back," she promised. We rode on, staying a kilometre away for some time, as the road curved around the peninsula and started back the other way. And finally the GPS counted down. Nine hundred, eight hundred, seven hundred fifty. Robyn loves this part. It's so suspenseful. Rhonda calls out that the geohash will be up ahead, at the end of a little road that will help us get closer. We take the turn 130 metres from the point. The road looks just about that long. Thepiguy goes ahead, Robyn still calling off distances, "eighty ... sixty ... thirty." The road is ending less than thirty metres ahead, but the GPS needle no longer points straight ahead. "Turn left!" says Robyn.
Left is a driveway, gravel and lined with trees and flowers. And there we dismounted to perform the traditional GPS dance to the hash point.
 Celebrating success
Two GPSes zeroed in on a spot in the middle of the driveway, with three metre accuracy. The third GPS receiver, coy about its accuracy and declaring the geohash to be some 30m away through dense brush, was ignored. We'll remember to consult it if we ever have a No Trespassing geohash close to a fence. It might just decide we've arrived.
In this case there was little doubt we'd arrived fairly, the access road and trees matching the Google view nicely. It was also not a bad spot to stop and celebrate. T-Rex clapped his stubby little arms and was introduced to thepiguy's new hashscot, Murray the Motionless Meeple. A Meeple is a playing piece from a game thepiguy had brought for us to play, but it needed a tabletop so wasn't suitable for the driveway. Robyn's game also needs a dry flat tabletop (she didn't bring Twister), so the games section of the expedition was deferred.
We photographed everything. We ate Nibs (the red ones: thepiguy doesn't like black ones). We marked the location with pinecones, pleased with the medium because we were taking nothing, leaving nothing, merely rearranging the forest litter in a temporary way. Rhonda did the arrangement while the others collected pinecones. She has excellent pineconemanship and all were quite pleased with the result, xkcd in a most suitable pinecone font.
We ran through the list of things one does at geohashes, checking to see if we'd accomplished all we needed to. Robyn wants to achieve the Circus Skills ribbon by walking on her hands at the geohash, but as she needed a spotter here just to manage a handstand, declared that she would require more practice before being able to claim the ribbon. Rhonda can climb the silks, but foolishly didn't bring them to the geohash, so she too went without that ribbon, having to be satisfied with the Bicycle Border geohash, a third graticule (in as many outings) for her Minesweeper and the Meetup ribbon for having met thepiguy.
Some vehicles came by from time to time, as there was an Open House across the street, but no one needed to use the driveway we were occupying or wanted to shoo us off. There was one false alarm as a minvan turned towards us, but went down the immediately adjacent driveway. Then the minivan came back and we wondered what was going on. They waved, but we didn't allow ourselves to believe that someone else had come to the geohash. "They're lost too," speculated someone. Then just as we were preparing to leave, the minivan backed up, parked near us, and Kristy got out.
"Do you live here?" she asked.
We explained that we didn't, but wondered why someone who didn't know who lived here would be coming to visit. She must be selling something. And then in a flash we realized who comes to visit people she doesn't know, carrying something distinctive: a geohasher! Except the distinctive object she was carrying was not a GPS or a Google Maps printout. It was a Bible and a handful of leaflets.
"Are you," asked Robyn, "a Jehovah's Witness?"
She was. We explained that we had met here at a random point and she understood and appreciated our amusement and amazement that she should arrive here too, at this moment. "We're everywhere," she agreed cheerfully. She didn't try to convert us, and agreed to pose for a photo at the coordinates. We'll know that geohashing has really taken off when non-geohashers regularly check coordinates for people to advertise to.
After that happened, we got back on the bikes and cycled back towards the border, taking a slightly different route back to see more of the countryside.
 Blaine, WA
We took an alternate route through Blaine, to see what else there was off the main road we had ridden down on our way to the hash point. We found the post office.
Back on the main road, we found the Blaine Visitor Center, which was open. Robyn and Rhonda ventured inside to find out what the locals considered a decent place to eat, while thepiguy and T-rex guarded the bikes. After some discussion with the Visitor Center lady, we decided that Mexican sounded good, especially since she recommended it. Robyn searched the postcard rack for something showing Semiahmoo bay for a hashcard, but was unsuccessful. She bought a Peace Arch postcard instead.
The Mexican place was just a few doors down, so we walked our bikes there and locked them in the unmarked customer bicycle parking spots, leaving T-rex to guard them from all comers while we ate.
Just inside the door at 3:30, we thought it was closed for a few seconds because a sign said 11AM-3PM and 5-8PM, but a more careful investigation showed that was the delivery hours, not the restaurant hours. At the front desk, we saw no customers and no staff. We stood there for a few seconds, looking around and at each other, then Robyn called out, "¡Hola!"
A waitress appeared from around the corner and led us to a booth where we could see our bicycles, and left us with menus.
Robyn wrote a non-qualifying hashcard just for the fun of it while the others surveyed the menu. The waitress brought water, and Robyn and Rhonda grabbed their glasses and drained them, and asked for more water when the waitress took the drink orders. A whole pitcher of water appeared on the table shortly afterward.
The tortilla chips were still warm, the salsa was tasty, and we discussed how much postage from the US to Germany would be. The waitress didn't know either, so Robyn put lots of stamps on the card, wherever they would fit.
"We should have ordered the small plates," Rhonda said when three absolutely enormous plates piled high with Mexican food appeared at the table.
It was about mid-meal that thepiguy had a very geohashingesk realization: "I'm in another country, at a Mexican restaurant eating lunch with two strangers I met on the internet." Nothing else was said, but the usual "Geohashing is the greatest sport ever!" was generally implied.
We completely forgot to pull out thepiguy's board game and play it, in favour of refuelling our bike ride. By the end of the meal, thepiguy was the first to note the usual aftereffects of a large meal following exercise: he wanted to have a nap.
While we were unlocking the bikes a man in a car expressed astonishment that we could possibly have biked here from Vancouver. We tried to convince him that a) this was a very short bike trip and b) if you bike a little at first and then more and more, you will build up an ability to bike all day. But he wasn't buying it.
Robyn dashed on ahead to find the post office we had passed earlier to mail her hashcard, while thepiguy and Rhonda got their bikes and gear sorted then waited for Robyn on the corner in front of the Visitor Center.
 Border, take 2
The restaurant at Blaine being in sight of the US-Canada border, there wasn't much of a trek remaining for our burrito-bloated bodies. We'd left the border via a one-way road, so we needed to find another route for the northbound crossing. The route recommended (via thepiguy's favourite sign ever) for automobile traffic involved getting on the I-5 for a couple of hundred metres. The top of the entrance ramp was likely to display thepiguy's least favourite sign, so we sought another way.
Robyn led (even though she confessed to not knowing the way northbound from here, the others made her go first, probably because that made it easier to run away if she got arrested) the way down a side street. We passed the abandoned building that was the former home of the restaurant we had just eaten in, a lot of construction equipment and roadworks (eventually that will be the non-detoured way back to Canada) and reached Peace Portal Park. It was the same park where we started, just a different level. It had grass and picnic tables, ornamental shrubs and rocks, and a drinking fountain. It would be a nice, but quite unremarkable park if the street on the other side of the park were not in another country. Ours. We went west to where we could overlook the border crossing and could see that we were pretty much on the border right where we stood with the bikes. A few chest-high pillars marking the international boundary were dotted down the slope and the Peace Arch where we first met was on the flat land below, between the northbound and southbound border crossing lanes.
We weren't the only cyclists there. A couple of kids were doing what kids have done since the invention of bicycles, riding up to the top of the hill then riding back down as fast as they could. But they were doing it right ON the border. We went down the hill to the Peace Arch for some more photos, and again followed Robyn to the customs station, a few hundred metres north of the border, on the Canadian side. The signs moved cyclists to the left, and directed us to dismount and take the sidewalk, but when the sidewalk reached the booths where cars cross, the sidewalk was blocked by the door to a building. We walked our bikes in through the door to the foyer, but the access to the building itself was marked Restricted Access, so we didn't try the door, just exited on the other side of the customs booth. Robyn appeared once again to be sneaking the group through the border.
Mindful of maintaining clean criminal records, thepiguy and Rhonda asked the agent in the booth if we were going the right way. We were supposed to continue in the direction we were going, around the corner to the bike racks and then go inside the building. But the crossing was very quiet -- there were no cars in his line -- so the young man examined our passports and after we had declared what we were bringing home (photos in our cameras and a really large Mexican meal in our bellies) he released us into Canada. We again forgot to ask permission to take his picture. He was cute, too.
All that was left was to ride to our respective tunnel buses.
 Heading home
As his fellow geohashers waited for their bus, thepiguy sped down the hill out of White Rock, enjoying himself while he could, since he knew there was an even bigger and steeper hill waiting for him up ahead. He made it back to the bus stop to catch a bus through the tunnel and managed to pick the only bus that didn't actually go through the tunnel. Getting off at the first stop he crossed the road and managed to catch the same bus in the opposite direction back to the original bus stop and catch the proper bus back into Richmond.
The rest of the ride was uneventful, except for the Raptor that jumped out of the bushes as he was turning a corner on a gravel road. It managed to get a hold of his hand and force him into a spectacular dirt-in-mouth landing. There were a few small Raptor wounds, but mostly just a lot of dirt.
Other than a far-too-long wait for the 351 bus (it would have been quicker had I gone with thepiguy, and I might have been able to help him choose a bus) and a bus driver who warned that pets weren't allowed on the bus, my trip home was uneventful. It took until about 2 am to digest that Mexican meal, though.