The Rose Festival is Portland, Oregon’s biggest event of the year. There’s a waterfront carnival, a flower show, car races, and footraces. The marquee event is the Grand Floral Parade, a mile-long flower flotilla that stretches from one end of downtown to the other. And yet somehow—I blame Covid—I’d completely forgotten about it while racing across the city. I come to a dead stop on my electric cargo bike and shout “Oh my God!” in front of a large float with dancers in big flowered dresses blasting Latin music. People carrying lawn chairs and coolers stream around me. A cop looks on sympathetically.

I’m dirty, tired, and frazzled. Mud crusts my shins, my wet hiking boots, and my stretchy cycling outfit. Lashed on to my bike’s rear rack is an orange 5-gallon bucket along with a pannier containing rocks, a compass, a whistle, a grease pencil, and my rain jacket—which I don’t need, because I’m already drenched from exertion and anxiety. I’m in the final stretch of the Disaster Relief Trials, a 30-mile bike race wrapped in an apocalyptic post-earthquake scenario, and after hours of riding I’m stuck at a standstill. Everything’s OK, though—or at least, that’s what I’m telling myself. In a race like this, having things not go to plan is just part of the exercise.

The race is designed to simulate the conditions after a major disaster, and because this is Portland, that disaster will probably be the Big One: the magnitude 9.0-or-so earthquake that has a one-in-three chance of leveling the Pacific Northwest in the next half-century. I’ve lived in Portland for 15 years, long enough to know that most people prep for the quake to some degree. There are only around 12,000 first responders in the entire state of Oregon, but Portland alone is home to 650,000 residents. In other words, the first person to realize you’re trapped in the upper story of your rickety wood-framed house probably won’t be the professionally trained EMT who answers a 911 call. It will be your neighbor poking her head out of the window and grabbing a ladder out of the garage.

I never doubted my own ability to be that neighborhood hero. I did things like run 20 miles and scale rock cliffs for fun. For years, my own garage has been lined with milk crates full of backpacking and camping equipment, the same portable stoves and water bottles that the Oregon Office of Emergency Management recommends having on hand if you want to survive for two weeks off the grid. My husband lived through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina sitting on the beach for weeks, eating FEMA-distributed MREs. I figured that the weeks post-Big One would look similar, assuming we wouldn’t get crushed by the many teetering book piles around our house.

Bike prepper and Disaster Relief Trials participant Adrienne So.Photograph: Gritchelle Fallesgon

But then we had a kid, and after her first birthday we enrolled her in daycare. As I flipped through the parent handbook, skimming the guidelines on nut-free snacks and religious holidays, my eye stopped on page 19: emergency supplies. The instructions told me to pack boxed drinks, diapers, an emergency blanket, a jar of high-protein food, and a plastic poncho, all of which the school would store in a watertight container. The final item was a photograph of our family. “Add an encouraging note!” the handbook suggested.

I gamely found a blank card in my filing cabinet, printed out a picture, and started writing. “Hi baby!” I began, then stopped. What do you say to your toddler in the aftermath of a catastrophe? My daughter’s teachers were going to hand her a photo and a juice box, in the middle of a city in ruins, and tell her everything was going to be OK? Yeah, no. I would inflate a dinghy with my own lungs, I would paddle through flames, I would cross miles of smoking rubble to get to her.

Slowly, I started to make a plan. First, my husband and I had another baby, a son. We moved to a new house within walking distance of our kids’ school. I bought a 50-gallon water barrel. I pinged our neighborhood group chat to keep tabs on who had an emergency generator and vegetable garden. Then my husband—himself a bit of a catastrophist—started to fret that I wasn’t fast enough on my human-powered bike and trailer to pull our two toddlers out of harm’s way. So I bought an electric cargo bike, a cheery yellow Tern GSD S00 that my daughter, then 5, named Popsicle.

I learned about the Disaster Relief Trials from a friend earlier this year. The race is designed to mimic four days of chaos after catastrophe hits. It has the format of an alleycat, a type of unsanctioned street race that bike messengers ride in, with checkpoints all over the city and a laminated map on which race volunteers mark off tasks after they are completed. In the DRT, each of the tasks takes the form of obstacles that people volunteering relief in a disaster might encounter: rough terrain to traverse, rubble to clear, messages to deliver, water to carry. As in a real disaster, we won’t know what the route is or what we need to do until we’re handed our maps an hour before the start.

After the Big One, bridges will collapse. Debris, damaged roads, and a lack of fuel will make it impossible for emergency vehicles to pass. A bike, though, can go almost anywhere. In the decade since it was founded, the DRT has evolved from an event run mostly by pedal punks to a training exercise for the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management. Neighborhood emergency response teams work the race to serve their volunteer hours. As I read the website, I realized that I’d been preparing for this for years. I had a bike; I was ready. I signed up. It was only after a half-dozen people pointed out that I’d be carrying my own body weight in gear that I started to wonder whether I really could be the hero I thought I was.

Photographs: GRITCHELLE FALLESGON

Mike Cobb, the founder of the Disaster Relief Trials, is a former bike mechanic. He got the idea for the race after watching footage of the devastating 2010 Haiti earthquake. Bikes, he thought, could help solve a major transportation problem. After I signed up, I emailed Cobb with the frank admission that I had no idea how to load clunky gear onto my bike. He told me to meet him the following Tuesday in Cully Park, where the race starts and ends, at what he calls his weekly coffee klatch.

When I showed up on Popsicle, Cobb and some former participants were standing around the picnic tables. He offered me a hot coffee and an assortment of about 12 alternative milks. Cobb has unruly dark hair, a grizzled beard, and is lean in a sinewy, rubber-bandy biker way. His sense of humor, I soon learn, is bone-dry. He refers to me, his face completely deadpan, as “the embedded reporter.” 

Founder of the Disaster Relief Trials Mike Cobb.Photograph: Gritchelle Fallesgon

A bike is a highly personal piece of equipment, and Popsicle is the perfect commuter ebike for a mom with two kids. Other than my husband, I can’t imagine a better companion for the apocalypse. It’s a pedal-assist bike, sans throttle. Its wheels are small and its center of gravity is low, which means I can carry a lot of weight without tipping over. Its also compact—the same length as a road bike—so I can lift it over and around barriers. I’m not worried about it falling on me while we struggle through rough terrain, or about it failing to climb big hills, especially after I add a second battery.

I love Popsicle, but as I was seeing it through Cobb’s eyes I suddenly became aware of its shortcomings. It’s low to the ground, so it doesn’t get much clearance, and it’s heavy. Under Cobb’s tutelage, I gingerly wrapped cam buckle straps around a bucket and cinched it to Popsicle’s rack. Cobb lent me a kitchen mat as a secure cushion for a splintery shipping pallet that I balanced on the bike’s deck. Finally, I fixed everything in place with small, stretchy straps. As I pulled the straps tight, Popsicle almost fell over. I felt a little overwhelmed. I am just over five feet tall, and the bike and gear together amounted to more than 100 pounds. It occurred to me that I was more accustomed to hauling kid backpacks and groceries.

I wondered aloud whether I should switch to a pedal bike and trailer. Cobb did not disagree; clearly, my wobbly performance did not inspire confidence. When I finally worked up the courage to swing my leg over the bike for a test ride, Cobb retreated to a safe distance and shouted, “It will feel weird until you hit 8 miles per hour!”

I’d been wrong to doubt Popsicle, though. When I downshifted and put my foot on the pedal, power surged through the bike. Within a few pedal strokes, I was going fast enough to feel stable.

Every rider who completes the DRT’s full circuit gets a fun sticker that tells their neighborhood emergency team that they’ve gotten some emergency training. My next step was to see whether my own NET would find my skills useful. I looked this up the same way I do everything else—by posting to the local moms’ Facebook group and saying “Hello! Is anyone here in the NET!”

I love my neighborhood. Enthusiasm for my neighborhood makes up about 80 percent of my personality. It’s a quiet collection of wood-framed buildings originally built by workers at the nearby docks and manufacturing plants. The writers, musicians, pensioners, stay-at-home moms, bartenders, and pizza chefs who live here now haven’t yet been priced out. Our lawns may be a little rocky and weedy, but they’re lived-in—full of wild roses, clotheslines, toys, and strange statues. My grocery store, dive bar, coffee shop, post office, and pet store are all within a mile of my house.

My neighborhood is also uniquely vulnerable to earthquakes. We’re tucked into a narrow peninsula between two rivers, surrounded by trees, shipping yards, and an Amazon fulfillment center. A deep gully known as The Cut chops us off from the rest of the city. There are several bridges that span it, but in an earthquake those bridges will either fall down or become impassable, and we’ll be isolated. When a major earthquake hits, the park next to our community center will serve as our official gathering spot; you’re supposed to come there to ask the NET for help, or offer it. We’ll have to coordinate with each other to figure out how to get people and supplies back and forth around The Cut.

Patrick Aist, my neighborhood’s NET cochair, joined in 2017. He cites “the instability of the world in general” as a major reason. You could probably find a picture of him under a Wikipedia entry titled “Portland Dad.” He is soft-spoken, with gentle, rounded features. When I talked to him, he estimated that around 50 people in our neighborhood are active in the NET, meaning they’ve completed the city’s online and in-person emergency preparedness courses—a total of about 28 hours—and have volunteered at least 12 hours in the past year.

Even though I’m preparing for the DRT in just a few weeks, it’s hard to imagine myself as a useful volunteer. I’m not a doctor or a nurse or ex-Special Forces. I’m just a mom on a bike. “Is this just all just disaster Larping?” I asked Aist. “Do you really think that being able to cargo-bike will be useful at all?” Aist laughed and said it sounded like fun.

I carried on. I acquired a nylon pocket bag for Popsicle’s handlebars, added wide decks to the rack for heavy buckets, and put on kickstand extensions. I bought solar panels and a power station so I could keep it charged off-grid. I’m a professional gear head, so I love plugging things in, putting stuff on, and taking it off. But as I prepped for the prepper race, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was still happily Larping while the world burned.

Race day arrives on Saturday, June 11. When Popsicle and I get to Cully Park, it’s raining and muddy. Once I sign my waiver and a mechanic does a pre-ride safety check—brakes work, cables are housed correctly, no glass in the tires—there’s no going back. As I look around, though, I start to relax. My fellow participants all look confident on bikes, but no one is wearing flashy cycling gear or detailing their training regimens. There are a lot of tattoos and jorts. I’d spent so much time trying to get it right that it hadn’t occurred to me that no one else was. Everyone’s just here to have a good time. One participant shows up with what looks like a gurney hitched to the back of his longboard. Another racer in stylish cuffed pants is hauling a big bamboo trailer.

An hour before the race starts, Cobb hands me my manifest, which contains a map of the course and descriptions of the obstacles in tiny print alongside. I see there are seven checkpoints in total. The first four look doable: They’re all close to Cully Park and mostly involve running errands and collecting messages. The logistics of hitting the last few checkpoints, though, give me pause, particularly a 12-mile stretch that spans the entire length of the city. The final checkpoint is about as far away as you can get from Cully Park without leaving Portland. You’re not allowed to use your phone for navigation, so a few people start writing out elaborate turn-by-turn directions. I shrug, and decide to trust my own orientation. I’ve been biking around this city for more than a decade, I figure.

At 10 am, we wheel our bikes into a sectioned-off corral that serves as a starting line. There’s a giddy excitement in the air. A race official pulls out a bugle to sound us off—“I think this might actually be a curtain rod,” he says—and at the call I run with everyone else to a pile of orange buckets. I carefully tie one on Popsicle, but when I finish and look up, I see that I’m dead last. Everyone else just threw a bucket into their basket and raced off. My children, on the playground nearby, are thrilled that I’m so easy to see and wave wildly.

Photographs: Gritchelle Fallesgon

It’s a rough start, but after a half-hour, I get the hang of it. It’s fun to ride in a pack, careening through the streets, pouring through green lights and accidentally blocking traffic. The first checkpoint is an apartment building, and I spot the volunteer in a bright orange emergency vest. The obstacle simulates meeting a neighborhood resident who is trying to communicate in Spanish that someone in the building is hurt. I see a few participants consulting the manifest, but I dust off my college Spanish, quickly converse with the volunteer, and write down the injuries.

Next I follow the pack to Cully Neighborhood Farm, a one-acre plot that has been temporarily transformed into an obstacle course. I pull on my work gloves and move head-sized chunks of rock from one area to another to simulate clearing rubble. Then I ride an agility course in the mud. Popsicle does fine, but I end up dismounting to help other participants around the cones so the rest of us can get through.

For the first hour or so, I barely glance at my laminated map, since I can follow the line of cargo bikers through the streets. But our fifth checkpoint is at Broughton Beach, in the far north of the city. The road stretches before us, long and unbroken. I rev up Popsicle’s motor and speed toward the wide, slate-gray expanse of the Columbia River. When we get to the beach, I run down the sand, hop into the water, and swoop my bucket to fill it. I pop the lid on, haul it back up—now full, it weighs more than 40 pounds—and lash it to my bike rack.

I’m doing exactly what my husband said we would do if our water main broke. Yes, this can actually work! My head swells and I suddenly decide not to wait for the rest of the pack to finish lashing their buckets. I can win this thing. I hop back on Popsicle, determined to pull ahead of the others. After all, some of the people racing today are from Japan and Seattle. They’re not from here. This is my city.

It is at this moment that my hubris catches up with me, and I run straight into the Rose Festival parade. I’m not supposed to use my phone, but I check my texts and discover that my husband has taken our hungry son and daughter home for lunch, rather than wait for me to finish. Disconsolate, I follow a trash truck around the parade, only to discover that a stopped train has blocked the route farther down. I’m just three blocks away from the sixth checkpoint, at Splendid Cycles, but it might as well be miles.

I turn around yet again. I want to stab something. Just then, another rider struggles out of the bushes ahead of me. It’s Elizabeth Davis, from Seattle. “The map said there was a pedestrian trail here!” she says by way of explanation. “Did you have any ideas on how to get around the train?”

The presence of another human immediately forces me to get my head together. Alone, I might’ve started throwing a tantrum, or even given up. But with Davis watching, I calm down and try to think straight. “Do you mind if we ride together?” I ask. “Please!” Davis says. I take a minute to think. “We can head west and hit the Esplanade. It pops us right out at Splendid Cycles.” We bike up north and west a few more blocks, then hop onto a trail that runs along the Willamette River—and end up running into the same bikers I had left behind.

At Splendid, Cobb’s training pays off. I quickly lash an enormous shipping pallet to the back of my bike, and the volunteer inspects my work approvingly. “Yeah, I’d ride with that,” he says. The next checkpoint is across the Tilikum Crossing Bridge, a wide, graceful expanse that is one of the more earthquake-safe bridges in the city. For me, this is the easiest part of Portland to bike around in, with well-maintained, protected lanes and lights, probably because the state’s best hospital, Oregon Health and Science University, is here.

At the hospital, the last checkpoint, I pull a hummus and cheese sandwich out of my backpack and cram fragments into my mouth as the volunteers mark down my time on the manifest. They hand me three eggs, to stand in for fragile medical supplies, and I carefully tuck them into my handlebar bag. The sky gets darker as I begin the 9-mile ride back up to Cully Park.

The final obstacle is, of course, the hardest. In full view of the spectators, I have to carry my bike and all my gear over a bench. So far, I have managed to keep up with the other cyclists because I’ve been riding a battery-powered bike. Now I pay the price. After four hours of riding through the city, I have to lift 65 pounds of Popsicle, shipping pallet, rocks, and bags over the bench. Oh, and it has started lashing rain.

I decide to unlash my load and the shipping pallet and pass these over first. Fortunately, when I throw the shipping pallet over the bench it falls on my water bucket, making a neat ramp. I ease Popsicle up and over and wheel it down, then drag everything to the finish line. A little dazed, I stagger over to the food tent, help myself to some pretzel buns, and look at the list of participants. Despite getting lost, I am not dead last—I place second in the electric bike category!

There are a few riders still out there in the rain. “The longer you’re out there, the harder it gets,” someone notes ruefully, so we circle around each other, munch on our pretzel buns, and wait to cheer them on as one by one they struggle over the bench. There’s a general air of euphoria, and the conversation seems to be going at a million miles an hour. What if we did a DRT where we had to lash a toilet to the back of the bike? Could we do a DRT with pallet shippers? Could there be a skateboard category? A tiny-wheel category? I recount the tale of my heroic quest around the Grand Floral Parade. Somebody asks deviously: “What if Mike arranged for the train to cut you off?” Everybody laughs. In my anxiety about finishing the race, I’d been missing the point—that one of the best ways to get us out of our houses, talking to each other, is to have fun.

A disaster, I used to believe, calls for a hero. A Navy SEAL, an EMT, or a firefighter with a neck as thick as a tree trunk. Maybe that hero could even be me, a bike-addicted mom of two. It’s taken me this long to say: I can’t do it alone. I can’t save anyone singlehanded, not even my own kids. And you probably can’t either—not with the right flag and an 8x8 truck and a 12-gauge shotgun, not with a multitool or pocket stove or 10 emergency water filters. But we can, with each other. I can pull your bike trailer around a cone, and you can help me find the way home just by being there. In a disaster, the most important part is just showing up. You either start running for that bucket or you don’t. No one is coming to save us. We have to start saving each other.


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