On Writing & Riding: Urban Adventure League

Today’s On Writing & Riding finds us spending some time with Shawn Granton, the man behind Urban Adventure League.

Many readers may be familiar with Urban Adventure League, either through Shawn’s drawings, recaps of rides around Portland, or perhaps through his passion for three-speeds and letter writing (yes, real letters!).

1. What is one sentence or phrase that summarizes your blog?

I’ll go with the tagline found in the header of the blog:

“Exploring the urban environment through fun human-powered adventures, riding bicycles, and gawking at bicycles in and around Portland, Oregon, Cascadia.”

It’s been refined a little over the years (the gawking at bicycles is a more recent addition) but the main gist stays the same.

Crescent Lake
Crescent Lake

2. What prompted you to start your blog and why did you choose to write about bicycling?

A pretty boring answer: I “founded” the Urban Adventure League in 2004 (more about that next) and a year later I still didn’t have a web presence. Blogging seemed to be the cheapest (read: free) and easiest way to have a website, so I went that route.

Urban Adventure League is about a bunch of stuff, really, but bicycling is the thing I do the most, and the thing that I like the most. So 95% of the blog is about that.

3. How did you come up with your blog’s name, Urban Adventure League?

I moved to Portland in 2001 and over the first few years of living here I did a lot of exploring and a lot of wondering (yes, wondering, not wandering, but I did that too.) I was fascinated by my new home so I tried to learn as much as I could about the unique features of this place.

After three years of that, I decided I wanted to do something bigger than my solitary rambles, so in 2004 I founded the Urban Adventure League as a way to mesh my interests in bicycling, alternative transportation, geography, and history. The “league” was always intended to be a not-for-profit pseudo-organization that would have “members,” and was also open to other folks leading stuff under that name.

Over the years I dropped a lot of that extraneous stuff, but still kept the cryptic name (I love those). To some, “urban adventuring” means explorations of abandoned buildings and the like. I never got into that, mostly because of the dearth of that stuff in Portland.

While the blog has definitely taken on a more personal bike adventure/philosophication streak in the past several years, I still lead bicycle rides and walks, though not with the frequency and fervor that I did in the early days.

4. Who are you writing for? Do you have a particular audience in mind?

I write mostly for myself, and hope that my stuff clicks with others. Seems like a lot of other folks like the same things that I do, so that’s good.

5. What aspects of bicycling do you enjoy writing about?

It depends. I really enjoy writing both about geeky aspects of bikes, the esoteric details and all that. But I also love writing about my own bicycle adventures, whether it be around-town rambles or camping/touring excursions.

The geeky stuff takes a bit longer to write so those posts usually stew for awhile. (For example, there’s several posts that I want to write about bike modifications that I have not yet gotten to.)

Writing reports on things I’ve done is much more immediate, so I get to those first, before I forget all the important and not-so-important details.

6. I knew you first as an illustrator and purchased some of your bike touring zines and buttons about bikes before I became a regular reader of Urban Adventure League. What role do your illustrations play in your blogging and your bicycling?

For me, it’s actually the other way around: What role does bicycling and blogging play in my illustrations?

I started drawing bikes around 2002, when I started to do some work for a local non-profit bike shop. It was a great deal: I’d draw some posters and stuff, they paid me in bike parts and labor.

I had never really drawn a bike before then, so it was a big learning experience for me! (Drawing bicycles, especially people on bicycles, isn’t as easy as you may think.)

Learning how to draw bikes/people on bikes in a semi-passable/semi-convincing manner led to doing more work for other people, and eventually creating bicycle comics, whether for magazines like Momentum and Bicycle Times, or for myself, like the New Old Stock comics series.

Posting my comics and illustrations on my blog makes Urban Adventure League distinct from most of the other bike blogs out there. I should do more, but I don’t always have the time.

Tweed ride every ride
Tweed ride every ride

7. What are your favorite parts of being a blogger?

I think it’s the unique outlet for self-expression. I’ve expressed myself through drawings, comics, and zines for years and years. But print is a different beast: a lot of work over months or so for a finished product.

With a blog I can write daily if I wanted to (though I usually don’t), and the episodical nature of publishing on blogs means I can write quick, small things on the fly, things I may not get around to if I was working on the next zine. It’s a better log of my day-to-day existence than my zines and (most of) my comics.

8. You blog, but you also love old school pen and paper. What’s that about?

It comes from being involved in zines and independent publishing since the mid-90s. (For those who don’t know, “zine” rhymes with Roger Dean, and they were the blogs of the pre-internet era, for want of a better term.)

Way before there was the Urban Adventure League there was my mini-comic Ten Foot Rule. (Well, Ten Foot Rule still exists, whenever I get around to making another one!) (And see what I said about cryptic titles?)

When I got into zines around 1996, the internet was still fairly exclusive (I didn’t get on until 2000) and was going through growing pains. Back then the way that people communicated in the zine community could be called a “papernet”: an exchange of letters and zines via post.

I would find out about zines through zine review zines like Factsheet 5 and Zine World, zine reviews and listings in punk zines like MRR, zine reviews/listings in other zines I read, or recommendations from friends and pen pals.

While this system would seem clumsy to a 20-year-old weaned on the internet and Giga Pets, it worked remarkably well. And this system still exists to some extent. It was always a great day when I would get zine mail, whether a zine from someone else who wanted to trade for mine, or a letter from another zinester.

There’s such a personal touch around physical mail that one doesn’t get from email or other electronic communication: a handwritten note, a decorated envelope, other cool and/or random crap stuffed in the envelope, and sometimes even money! (You don’t get that with email, well, there was that one time a guy in Nigeria promised me a bunch of money if I facilitated a transaction for him…)

I appreciate all the correspondence and communication I get, but there’s something more special about postal mail, and I still want to keep that feeling alive. So I encourage folks to write me and I still write folks. Maybe not as much as I would like to, but I do try.

9. Was there anything about maintaining a blog that surprised you?

The work! One would think it’s pretty simple, and at the heart of things it is: write something and hit “publish”. But even seemingly simple posts it can take time, and if it’s anything more involved, whether it be a deeper, more personal post, or something involving a bunch of links or factual information from elsewhere, then it can take a lot more time. Then there’s photos (thankfully for me it’s usually reposting from flickr), and maps via RideWithGPS if it’s about a particular ride or route, etc.

A post that may take someone 5 minutes to read could have taken me several hours to make. Such is the nature of art. Also, there’s a lot of “back end” stuff like comment moderation, maintaining other pages on the site, etc. There’s plenty I still need to do with the “new” blog (Editor’s note: Shawn recently converted Urban Adventure League to WordPress from Blogger), and eventually I’ll get around to a lot of it, at least when I finish watching old Husker Du live performances on Youtube.

Under the St. Johns Bridge
Under the St. Johns Bridge

10. Do you have any favorite posts? What are they (send links, too!)?

I don’t have any specific posts in mind (my mind is bad at playing favorites) but I do tend to like the more personal posts. I also like the posts about bikes, touring related stuff, and curiosities.

But posts about “things” tend to get the most “hits”. I just checked the old blog stats and the post that got the most hits was a review I did about a water bottle, closely followed by a review of a coffee maker, and posts about bikes that I bought.

I’m sure a lot of this has to do with people doing Google searches about specific things, but I still find it weird that a rather ho-hum post about a frigging water bottle has the most play. I’d rather the post about the source of Crystal Springs Creek got more exposure.

11. What did I forget to ask you that you want to answer?

What’s in store for the Urban Adventure League and Shawn Granton in 2014?

Lots more bike riding! I plan on doing as many rides, bike overnights, and tours as I can squeeze into my schedule. I don’t know for sure what my summer touring plans will involve, but in May I’ll be heading out to near Minneapolis for the Lake Pepin Three Speed Tour.

As the founder/president (for want of a better term) of Society of Three Speeds, I’ll also be leading a bunch of three speed typed events locally.

And there will be more Urban Adventure League rides, too. On the creative end of things, I’ve got a few publishing projects in the works, and plenty more comics and illustrations to come.

6 thoughts on “On Writing & Riding: Urban Adventure League

  1. I feel so lucky to have been visiting Portland during Shawn’s recent Palm Tree Ride. Such a great concept and an amazing turnout. Would love to participate on a future Urban Adventure League ride without the kids along so I can pay attention to all the details 🙂 But I’m glad they were with me for the Palm Trees because we all point out each palm we see now and the kids talk about creating a local Palm Tree Ride (I just discovered a fossil palm frond outside the Burke Museum today, in fact!)

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