Ellee on tour. Photo via author’s website.
Portland, OR’s Ellee Thalheimer is an author, freelance travel writer, and avid bike tourist. Her newest book, Cycling Sojourner, is a guide to multi-day, self-supported touring in Oregon, the only one of its kind for the state. I reviewed the book last month then finally got a chance to talk to Ellee as she wrapped up her book tour and some exploratory bike touring for another potential touring guide. We spoke about her past experiences touring nationally and abroad, her background in writing, her process for Cycling Sojourner, and more.
When and how did you first get into bike touring?
My first bike tour was with my father when I graduated college. He and I toured down the west coast from Astoria, OR to San Francisco. Before that I’d slowly gotten more and more into riding bikes. I was originally a mountain biker, then started commuting, then started going longer and longer. But, I fell in love with bike touring on that particular trip down the coast and it launched my passion. Since then I’ve taken a couple of professional detours that have allow me to go bicycle touring.
What was it about that first tour that really captured your heart?
It was with my dad, which was really cool. Whoever you go with on tour, you’re going to get to know better on various levels. I’d just graduated college and hadn’t gotten to spend time with my dad like that since I was younger. I reacquainted myself with my father as an adult as opposed to a child so it shifted our relationship. Tours can do that with a lot of different types of relationships in different ways, so it can be a great way to get to know people. Also, I love the way that we just met people and they really opened up to us as bicycle tourists. People open up to bicycle tourists a lot more than they’ll open up to car tourists; people getting in and out of the box. For some reason they want to know where you’re going, how far you’ve come, where you’re from. You get this really cool experience from that angle. And, I just love going somewhere each day and going on a whole trip just on my bicycle. It makes you feel really proud to go that long of a distance. Not to mention, it fills you with happy exercise endorphins, so you feel really great physically.
I gather you’ve toured pretty far and wide at this point. Do you have a favorite adventure or two of all the ones you’ve taken?
I have so many, but Italy definitely stands out. When I was researching Cycling Italy I was alone. People tended to take me under their wings more as a solo tourist, especially one with a passable set of social skills. That was really cool and provided a lot of special windows into the culture. Touring through the wine country of Italy, I got to know the land and smell it and see it and observe the people in it and taste it through the wine at the end of each day. That was pretty amazing. People were really excited to show me their wine and the food their area had to offer.
Your background is in travel writing. Is that something you set out to do early on or did that evolve parallel to the bicycle touring you were doing?
I had always loved English and writing. In school I majored in English and those were always the classes I was drawn to. And I always had a pension for the outdoors. I spent two years after college working as a wilderness instructor for troubled kids. I was spending three weeks at a time in the backcountry, learning a lot about psychology and becoming a lead instructor, which was great. But my intellectual side was not being as stimulated as I wanted it to be in that career path. So I bought a book at the Writer’s Market and started researching how to become a freelance writer. Then I just started pitching. I started small and worked my way up to bigger publications and had my eye on the prize, which was Lonely Planet, a guidebook I had always used and loved. So I focused on becoming an author for them and eventually it happened.
Is there a particular piece of travel writing, or author, or book that you feel is particularly influential on your own travel writing?
Gosh, that’s a good question. I would have to think about that. Travel guidebook writing is a different kind of writing than lots of travel writing. It’s a different skill set. You’ve got to master the economy of words while still trying to be really muscular in your writing and trying also at the same time to get across really relevant, practical information in a condensed form.
So there are travel writers and there are guidebook writers. For travel writers, Annie Dillard has always been a big influence on me. She’s more of a nature writer than a travel writer, but she’s always been important to me, so if I had to point to someone I’d point to her.
Sometimes touring in Oregon means shooting lessons on the side of the road. Photo via Oregon Live
What was the impetus for Cycling Sojourner?
I’d been touring nationally and internationally. I had written Cycling Italy for the Lonely Planet. I’d been through the trenches of writing a multi-day cycling guidebook. I had decided that because my husband, who’s really into long-distance endurance gravel road races, had tried yoga, which is totally my thing, I would try a gravel grinder because it’s his thing. So I was training for a 200-mile gravel road race in Kansas and as a part of that training regiment you have to put in really long mileage for some of the rides. I thought, let’s go on a bicycle tour locally. Instead of just doing long, grueling training rides, let’s have fun.
When I went to find information online about touring in Oregon, it just wasn’t there. There were no books, no condensed sites with super good information. There was Ride Oregon Ride, but they didn’t have all the information you’d need. They just had a small fraction. So I ended up using my professional skills to gather up the lodging, the route, the different places to stop, the mileage, the elevations. I realized it was ridiculous that I’m doing all this just for myself. Oregon is an amazing place to cycle tour.
I started thinking about publishing a book and approaching publishers, but for them the margins for these kinds of books aren’t very sexy. For example, the Lonely Planet just canceled their cycling guidebook line because the margins aren’t big enough for them as a big publisher. And even with the small and medium sized publishers, the authors are usually lay-people because nobody gets paid very well out of it. So I decided to look into different ways to do this.
I really love Oregon and wanted to make the book happen. I approached Cycle Oregon and Travel Oregon to see about funding sources to make the book feasible for a professional to do. They got on board and I went through the two and a half year process of bringing the book into the world.
That leads right into my next question. How did you do your research, pick the tours you chose, how long did you spend riding your routes, etc?
I wanted to include rides from each different region of Oregon because there’s so much good stuff all over. And I wanted to touch on the highlights. Bend and Sisters are amazing towns in the Cascades, so I tried to make a tour that visited them. The only national park in Oregon is Crater Lake, so I definitely wanted to have that in there. Basically, it was through my own experience, talking to other cycle tourists, and making sure to touch on Oregon’s highlights. It was hard. I had to take out some good routes that I wanted to put in, but maybe they’ll be in another edition.
The research on the routes I chose took three seasons of spring, summer, and fall. It was basically a mad dash through Oregon. I had done some of the routes before, so that was helpful. In my blog, which I started to allow people to follow the progress of the research tours, I talk about the different trips. I finagled getting various cycling friends to join me on the trips, including some first time cycle tourists, which was really cool.
Of the tours you included in the book, do you have a favorite?
That’s probably the question I get asked the most and it is a hard one. If I had just a couple of days and for some reason I had a giant purse of money, then I would go to the Oregon wine country. If I wanted to get away from it all and didn’t mind having a super hard trek without any luxuries, I’d go to the gravel-grinding Steens Mountain tour.
I’d say I don’t have any favorites, but I love eastern Oregon. Four of the routes are in eastern Oregon because I’m crazy about it. The southern Crater Lake and Beyond tour is world class riding.
What’s next for you, now that the book is published?
I’m working on a new title called Hop in the Saddle: A guide to Portland’s beer scene by bike. It should be great. I’m co-authoring it with Lucy Burningham, a local beer author who writes for Sunset magazine and the New York Times and is an expert on the Portland beer scene. She is writing all the beer content and I’m writing the bike. Laura Cary of Cary Design Works in Portland is designing the book. It’s three ladies getting together and pooling our professional skills and making this book that just seems like it needs to be out there. That title should be out in November or December.
I’m also thinking of a couple other titles after that including potentially a Washington or B.C. title. It’s been interesting talking to the Washington folks. Cycle Oregon and Travel Oregon were looking at the numbers in 2009 and found that $223 million came into the state from people with bicycles who visited to ride bikes. And it has grown since then. They’re paying attention to those numbers and want to support the effort to make Oregon a bicycle touring destination. Washington’s equivalent to Travel Oregon, has basically been defunded and there is no organization. My publishing company Into Action Publications works on publishing titles that otherwise wouldn’t be able to get published by thinking creatively, thinking outside the box of the publishing behemoths. We’re still thinking strategically about how to publish a Washington guide because books like this can’t happen without a little help in the publishing world at this point.