Cruising the Cascades on a Motorcycle

Washington State surprises. From the June 2000 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser magazine. Story & photos by Jamie Elvidge.

Washington State is one of the world's wallflowers -- a hushed beauty held fast in a remote corner. The state's engaging charms, its voluptuous mountains and provocative coastline are regularly cloaked in thick, unflattering gray, inviting further ignorance. Washington State is a princess wearing wool.

Until recently I'd mostly explored Washington in fifth gear. It was one of those short, green states between California and British Columbia. I slowed down for compulsory things such as lumber trucks and smoked salmon, but I'd never really paused long enough to consider the state in any longitudinal way. But then I'd never before ridden a Harley that far north...

During a date with diagnostics at Downtown Harley-Davidson of Seattle, we got a chance to meet and discuss diversions with Service Manager and Seattle Cossack's Drill Team member Brock Wheaton. The Cossacks are a more viral version of Victor McLaughlin's group who perform stunts on Harleys dating from the 1930s and 1940s. Wheaton suggested we make a trek into the Cascade Mountains for a little Washington-style enlightenment. Extending from Northern California to Canada, the Cascade Range is the continent's sleeping dragon. It has a belly full of fire, but hasn't taken a breath since Mount Saint Helens singed our slippers in 1980. The Cascades are a fragment of the infamous Ring of Fire, which also torments Japan and the Hawaiian Islands.

We headed east on U.S. Highway 2 from Everett, a contemporary and colorful fishing village scattered about the shore of the beautiful Puget Sound. In the western shadow of the looming Cascades, we discovered Snohomish and Monroe, towns born to lumber and farming in the 18th century, and later adopted by America's premier foster parents -- nostalgia and tourism. You can follow the trail of antique shops until you're ascending skyward and all that's left to connect are those glorious green dots on a map.

We crested Steven's Pass mid-morning and took a deep breath of cold, cedar-scented air. The world we left at the coast seemed denser, more lush and humid. We swirled down the eastern slope on U.S. Highway 2 in locked step with the swift Wenatchee River.

Leavenworth was a bit of a surprise. I mean, you just don't expect a blaring Bavarian village to suddenly materialize out of the North American wilderness. But strudel is strudel, and certainly the apples are handy. The German fantasy works great as a buoy for towns such as Leavenworth that were sunk by the Great Depression. Ironically, this is the fourth American schnitzel haven I've stumbled into this year, but Leavenworth was by far the best. After all, those 8000-foot, snow-capped props do go with the getup.

A few tarts later we jumped back on U.S. Highway 2 and completed our first descent of the day. The landscape tumbled, and then began to roll in gentle arcs, seemingly in deference to the thousands of apple trees feeding from its rich soil. By the time we reached the Wenatchee Confluence and turned north on Alternate U.S. 97, we felt a little parched by this new, more arid atmosphere. And flanking the wide, ponderous Columbia River felt distinctly dull after such an invigorating morning. The combination of tarts and tedium made us drowsy in the afternoon heat.

Midway up this straight, flat section of the loop is the Rocky Reach dam. This is a nice, shady place to take a nap, or -- if you're not sleeping off a sugar high -- you can be wowed by the visitor's center and its underwater viewing windows that offer a fish-eye view of the salmon swimming upstream. Outside, the fish ladders are also a fascinating way to watch the spawning madness. After another 17 miles north on Alternate U.S. 97 you can cut back up over the mountains on State Highway 153. As this narrow road begins to twist and pulse, you realize the bleak valley below was simply a necessary evil on the way to elation.

Once again on high ground, you'll ride through the vintage western town of Winthrop. This authentic, albeit exaggerated, cattle town is a favorite stop of bikers, and the climax of many organized rides in the area. We stopped in Sheri's Sweet Shoppe to watch owner Doug Mohre cultivate a batch of Sea Foam. You'll find treats of every description in this fabulous bakery and candy shop that features its own window-box beehive. We opted for caffeine over caramel clusters, and a walk down the city's original plank board sidewalk to browse at western art. Winthrop cowboys still herd their cattle right down the main street on a biannual migration to greener pastures.

By the time we headed out, the sun was making a hasty retreat toward the Pacific, and we needed to follow suit. (You'll want to fill up your gas tank here since it's 90 miles to the next fueling station.) Squinting, we jumped on State Highway 20 heading west and were quickly swept up by the granite channels leading to Washington Pass. The golden sunset warmed the world below, lending rich color to all that was neutral, and deepening all that had depth. Snow along the roadside reflected the shades of orange and pink caught in the clouds. It seemed we stopped every few minutes to turn our backs on the sun and marvel at the drama below.

The tourism board recommends this counterclockwise execution of the state's Cascade Loop Scenic Highway, so the most impressive scenery will face you -- but I beg to differ. The counterclockwise route puts the sun in your eyes both morning and evening, which pretty much kills your chance of seeing anything. It's more ideal to ride west in the morning and east at dusk when the sun works in your favor by boosting the coloration on the road.

Once again on the western slant of the Cascades we slowed our pace to draw out the end of a great ride. In the ebbing light we could still see the teal gleam of Lake Diablo. Both Lake Diablo and Ross Lake (another close body of water) radiate luminescent greens -- a result of the glacial silt that line each water's depths. The Skagit River was a ghost-like fury that raced us through the darkness and back onto the coastal plain. The intended route would have taken us out across the channel on State Highway 20 and onto Whidbey Island, but we'd run out of daylight. The artists and orcas that flourish among the islands of Puget Sound would have to wait.

We'd underestimated the intrigue of this outwardly innocuous state. In a single day we'd risen from the mossy shoreline, soared over granite peaks and dragged our heels through a desert. From Bavaria to Boomtown, apple orchard to glacier, Washington had many tricks up her woolen sleeve. Sometimes treasure is not marked with an X...sometimes it's simply swept into a corner.

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