Just Mighty & me IV: Lost in Washington

Daring where Google Maps can't reach
Published April 21, 2011
I: O, Fortuna II: 25k to Shasta III: Oregon, best of IV: Lost in Washington V: 500 mile days

Riding a motorcycle through Washington state is a bit like Russian Roulette, but with worse odds. Death is unlikely, sure. But life-nullifying, sopping wet is a statistical certainty. That much I learned last year.

July 20, 2010

Cold seized the river canyon like an enemy invasion but my sleeping bag beat back the advance and held out for sunrise. I wiped a dense dew from each of my belongings while packing camp back onto the bike and whispering prayers to Nature and the Universe for rain-free passage through Washington. A ceiling of clouds low overhead threatened to coalesce into drops. They either got bored or Nature appeased me; after a breakfast stop in Estacada, the sky dropped its mean mug.

Over coffee I planned the day’s route. Google Maps shows Highways 30 and 84 sharing asphalt so I turned east at the first sign of 30. A quaint highway, but not the views I expected. Some miles down and I realized I’d been duped and dumped onto a tourist trap facade. It’s rare I long for interstate, but a sign for 84 happily steered me back on course.

It may be the most beautiful interstate in America. Highway 84 follows the Columbia River Gorge laterally along the border between Oregon and Washington. On my left, the massively broad Columbia River reflected rippled hues of an ominous sky and the evergreen army amassed on the other side. To my right, a sheer cliff towered over the freeway whilst streams lept off its ledge in dutiful pursuit of the river.

Multnomah Falls is the greatest such march of water cascading into the Columbia. I parked up and crossed under freeway and rail tracks to view Multnomah from the bottom, but like peering up the skirt of Helen Mirren it felt like the wrong way to behold her highness. So I climbed. A paved path to the top counts down the mileage in one-quarter increments, but each successive quarter mile felt longer than the one before it. The pounds of leather that rest my worries on the bike suffocated on the hike, my clumsy boots added unwanted effort to every step. I was a sweating mess by the top but rewarded with a mile-and-a-half-high view of the gorge. And my brightly blue bike below, like a sad dog tied to a post awaiting his master’s return.

Back on the road, eyes peeled for signs pointing me to the Bridge of the Gods. The bridge was more intriguing as a natural mass of mud than is the modern metal manufacture, but at just $.75 a crossing–seriously, call that a bridge toll?–there’s an upside still. Over the Columbia and into Washington, still eyeing the sky, anticipating a soggy ambush that never materialized.

I love maps. In another life without Google, I could be a cartographer, gleefully organizing the world, condensing and connecting familiar reality into two-dimensional wads of knowledge and perspective. Maybe Google could use some help. Far as I could discern from my laptop back home, Wind River Road runs north into Highway 25 somewhere south of Mount Rainier, but I suspected otherwise when the going got dirty. I followed Wind River until the asphalt stopped, abruptly breaking in two unpaved directions. After consulting the limited resources at my disposal–a wrinkled print of online maps zoomed out too far to help and the guesses of an old California couple that got lost the same way I did–I decided to brave the gravel in hopes it’d soon bring me to Highway 25 and pavement.

The California couple, in the padded cockpit of a new generation Camry, asked if I wanted to take point on account of my motorcyclist urges to go fast. No thanks, two sport touring tires and street suspension aren’t made for gravel. I hung back, rolling cautiously over the dusty, jagged rocks, through a slowly-settling yellow plume. I winced at each mile that rolled under my wobbly wheels, uncertain if it was a mile of progress or a mile of making matters worse.

A stroke of luck: a local fisherman intercepted the California couple and knew where we turned wrong. “You’d’ve run outta gas following these dirt roads,” he suggested lightly but the thought chilled me. If I hadn’t stalled with a pointless study of my inadequate map, if I hadn’t by chance met the California couple, I’d’ve been further down the dirt road and missed the fisherman. Out of gas in Washington wilderness.

Utterly, breathlessly, liberatingly alone

I grew up in the boonies, so while the kindness of mountain folk doesn’t surprise me in contrast to the cold indifference of San Francisco strangers, it is nonetheless refreshing and doubly so in a time of desperation. The fisherman went out of his way to guide us to Highway 25 where the California couple and I resumed our similar routes north. Feeling back on track and in charge of my fate, I confidently ripped forward, forgetting the Camry in my mirrors and reveling in empty, twisty highway miles.

Highway 25 skirts Mount St. Helens on the eastern, lonely side. I played with thoughts of alternate translations for road signs; “Road closed in winter” means “Zero traffic in summer and ice-damaged tarmac.” I felt utterly, breathlessly, liberatingly alone. Mighty and I charged corners hot, braking hard, rear tire chattering over tree-root-rippled asphalt. Uphill, downhill, always a mind-arresting twist to the road, and across the valleys refreshing glimpses of St. Helens. Felt like it’d never end and I almost hoped it wouldn’t.

But it does. 25 dumped me in Randle for gas and a three-halves sandwich-powered break. I rested on an outdoor bench and watched the terminus of 25 for the California couple, and they rolled by effortlessly while I finished my snack still huffing. I saddled up and continued north, past the Camry again and for the last time.

The highway climbed toward the top of Mount Rainier but reached nowhere near the peak, running me ’round the base before a mountain pass highway junction shrouded in clouds so heavy I could barely see the massive mount beside me. Steep cliff walls on my right and a sucking cold felt every time I brushed shoulders with a crashing fall of freshly liquid snow.

A few toothless drops of rain marked a transition. The road carved back down to terrestrial normalcy, through flat land and eventually through ordinary Washington towns north of Rainier. The enemy army in the sky retreated, I advanced to I-5 and skated into downtown Seattle a hero. Dropped off my burdens in a U-District hotel and rendezvoused with an old friend at the homey (and college-dorm-homely) Beth’s Diner for eclectic conversation and more food than any man ought consume in a sitting. Not that it stopped me, mind.