This will not be about my own personal narrative of mountain biking, racing, and Riverview, but that’s where I’ll start because my life in Portland began on the cemetery trails.

I flew to Portland 22 years ago this month, just my second time on a plane and my first time west of Minnesota. I was a freshman in college back home, and I’d saved up my work study money for a round-trip flight to Portland. I was looking to transfer to Lewis & Clark College–all my eggs were in one basket, so I thought I’d better check it out. I landed at PDX and promptly got on a bus headed for downtown. I got off at the first stop and found a phone booth and phone book. The very few listings for bike shops quickly led me to the Bike Gallery. I walked over and rented a Bridgestone MB-3. I put on my big backpack and pedaled south toward Terwilliger and the college, where I was scheduled to attend prospective student weekend. Eventually I crossed Taylors Ferry and, just after and to the left, saw my first Portland gravel road. I had no choice but to follow it, losing my way to school on the side streets of Burlingame. I somehow got to Brugger and turned left, heading back toward Palatine Hill–and that’s where I saw an opening in the woods, over a bald mound and through an ivy-choaked but gorgeous green curtain of trees. I was in Oregon now. That poor MB-3 got quite a workout before I even made it to campus, and I spent most of my time that weekend on the trails, on the bike.

The cemetery trails offer me sense of place. I’ve lived and worked near to them ever since–without interruption, and by intention. The place made me the athlete I am–or, perhaps, was! In fact, today marks the 19th year of my–and now Team S&M’s–Wednesday Night Mountain Bike School. The list of Oregon-based riders and racers who’ve done their tour-of-duty with me on the trails is legend. (I am proud of that but without arrogance–it’s just hallowed ground for us now; that’s how it is.)

I don’t just go there to train and ride. While the bike is my preferred mode, I do walk there. I saw my first Portland coyote there. (This was many years before the Sleater-Kinney track, an ode to the old-new of our town.) I discovered the waterfall hidden deep within. I encountered college kids and homeless folk doing but what they should and shouldn’t have been– and all that’s in between. It’s a wood in the city, so let the canonical literary imagination run wild.

The place is not mine. It is not owned by Portland Parks and Recreation (PP&R) and the Bureau of Environmental Services BES). They have some agency over it, but so do I. We all own it and have agency over it. Most important, we all steward it. For my part, I do not plan to stop going there. (I don’t think I can at this point.) I will be on foot, but I’ll mostly be on my bike. I could be called a scofflaw. And yet I could also be called a Transcendentalist of the 19th century variety. (The wikipedia notes, “Among their core beliefs was the inherent goodness of both people and nature. They believe that society and its institutions ultimately corrupt the purity of the individual. They have faith that people are at their best when truly “self-reliant” and independent. It is only from such real individuals that true community could be formed.”) I first read Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” back in the 7th grade. I then read his pal’s “Civil Disobedience”, of course. We don’t forget what we learn at a formative age, and I’m lucky that I learned some really, really good shit back then, back there. The lessons served me well. Years ago I “won” a public battle with the city about the way in which used bikes are sold, but, in fact, we all won because we left the process with better policy, improved working relationships, and–I might add–true friendships. The risks taken–the civil disobedience transparently and consistently employed–proved worth it.

I said this isn’t going to be about my personal narrative, and it isn’t. Yes, the city graciously named me a “stakeholder” of the Riverview property. Yes, it’s personal for me. But what it’s really about–now–is this: we are all stakeholders in Riverview because as citizens of this fine city and state we value open process and honest politics. So far, what’s resulted here is bad policy from poor politics in a closed process. I don’t much like it. I never like failure of leadership.

Here’s some of what I know from my sources.

First, the staff of PP&R did not make this decision. They worked in good faith toward the goal of active bicycling in Riverview.

Second, the “2011 lawsuit alleging the city improperly used rate payer money” is not the reason for the joint-statement issued by Commissioners Fritz and Fish that prohibits bikes from Riverview starting March 16.

Third, vocal staff of BES lobbied their commissioner, Mr. Fish, for the reversal–without an actual threat from the lawsuit.

Fourth, BES lobbied the commissioner of PP&R, Ms. Fritz, to fall in line.

I could add conjecture and draw conclusions, editorializing until the end. But we all can. What matters is that it happened. This is not just about whether or not we can ride bikes off-road in Riverview. This is about faith and trust in our elected public officials. We should demand better. I certainly hold myself to a higher standard as a private business owner.

-Erik Tonkin

9 Responses to “Erik Tonkin on the River View Trails”

  1. Pete on

    Well said (and great writing), Erik! I remember when I used to see you as a young man, coming back over the Sellwood Bridge covered in mud. 2001. The city should bequeath you those hills.

  2. Kathleen Walker on

    Very well written Erik – your critical thinking and civil discourse make L&C proud! I just found out last month about these trails when I asked your employee how my daughter could get from L&C to Sellwood off the busy roads. We are going to check them out. I enjoyed reading the BES’s public involvement policy found at
    Although they did not appear to follow this policy in this case, I am hopeful they rethink things and walk the talk. If trail drainage needs to be improved, or riparian areas need restoration and replanting, I am sure trail users would be out there to lead the stewardship of this area to protect stream water quality and habitat!

  3. Emily Van Meter on

    Erik…since I moved to Portland almost 8 years ago you have been an exemplary role model of not only bike racing but also bike riding! And now political thought. Well said.

  4. Michael Romasco on

    Hummm, any chance of getting IMBA involved? Makes me think that my little corner of the woods here in McMinnville isn’t as safe as I thought.

  5. Jeff Struck on

    Commissioners Fritz and Fish should at least take a dive in Jeffrey’s Sinkhole before they pretend to be authorities on that plot of sacred land…