Seattle's bicycle freeway

“Psssst, Julie, you awake?”
It’s 8 AM, and an indistinct mumbling comes from under the guest bed pillow.
“You’re sleeping in the garage, and I need to get the car out!”

Normally, I wouldn’t make a guest sleep in the garage. But in this case, my sister had come for the week, and she was sleeping in the guest room where all the bicycles are stored.

Our current house-sitting gig is in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, and we’re walking distance from restaurants, grocery stores, and the library. We parked the Squid Wagon, our 3/4 ton Ford van, when we arrived weeks ago, and we walk or ride bikes everywhere.

Luckily for us, only two blocks away from us is the bicyclist’s version of the interstate: The Burke-Gilman trail.

The Burke-Gilman is about 18 miles long, and it runs along the Ship Canal from Ballard to the University District, then it loosely follows the shore of Lake Washington to Bothell. From there, you can connect to another 10-mile trail, so an out-and-back bike ride is well over 50 miles.

Admittedly, the trail can get overused, especially on the weekends. But it’s still more relaxing than dealing with traffic, potholes, and stoplights.

The trail is named after two men, Thomas Burke and Daniel Gilman, who were responsible for the Seattle, Lake Shore, and Eastern Railway. They were forward thinkers with big dreams for their railway, considering that in 1885, there were only a few families living along the route. It ended up being a heavily used spur route, but by 1971, it was abandoned.

The unused tracks, though, were just right for a bicycle route. Some forward-thinking Seattle and King county voters approved the bond issues to pay for the various portions of the trail, so that by 1978, you could ride from Gasworks Park to Kenmore.

The day after waking Julie to get the “car” out, Barry and I borrowed a friend’s bicycle so she could ride the Burke-Gilman with us. We moseyed along, dodging college students with iPods and backpacks in the University District. There were many people walking and bikes, bikes, bikes.

On the way out, I looked at the scenery. Everything was a riot of spring, and some portions of the trail felt like peaceful green tunnels. Plum and cherry trees had exploded in pink and white blossoms, and daffodils and hyacinths provided yellow and purple accents. We rested halfway in a park under blue skies with fluffy clouds, watching a floatplane lazily follow the surface of Lake Washington.

On the way back, I paid more attention to my fellow trail-users. There were a few roller blades and lots of strollers, some accompanied by young parents and some by grandpas. I was surprised that there were no children on bicycles, only adults. But such variety of bicycles! It ranged from recumbents to old-fashioned bikes with baskets and wide handlebars. There were some slow cyclists, like us, but more fast riders. The really, really fast riders were dressed as “space aliens” and had strange bulges in their clothing that I suspected might have been bananas, also known as bicycle fuel.

I’m sure Burke and Gilman would be amazed to see their railroad line converted to a bicycle highway. They probably wouldn’t even recognize the things we call bicycles, given what bicycles looked like back in 1885. Cyclists didn’t dare ride fast, because they hadn’t yet invented brakes!

Thank goodness Burke and Gilman put in their railroad, so we can have our “bike freeway.” It’s thanks to forward-thinkers like them that we have an extensive rail network across the U.S. — the same network that brings bananas to bicyclists.