Seattle & back, ACT III: Washington’s wet

200 miles of I-5 sucks, worse in pouring rain
Published July 14, 2009
ACT I: California-1 ACT II: Oregon coast ACT III: Washington's wet ACT IV: The birthday ACT V: 101 home

Cool was the morning air, a relief from the previous day’s stifling, off-coast heat. The wet remains of overnight rain showers, scattered over the street and seat of my bike, were less welcome, more ominous. The third day’s ride would be my shortest of the trip, a 300-mile endurance run up the sleep-inducing I-5. Please don’t rain.

June 19, 2009

Interstate 5 really is that bad, especially between towns where stretches of emptiness offer no distraction from the dull, drone-like march of traffic. But the intense boredom allowed me time to focus on some of the finer details of distance riding. I developed the endurance pose, which gives me the laziest sitting position possible on the Ninja: toes on both pegs, left hand on left thigh, right hand on the throttle with elbow resting on the right knee which is propped up by the right heel on the bike’s heel guard. I usually stick to the leftmost third of a lane when riding, but I discovered that the center track is significantly less worn and less bumpy, especially in the right lane where armies of 25,000 pound-plus trucks tirelessly tread. The center of a lane is typically the most oil- and dirt-soiled, but on dry roads it’s not an issue.

A few drops of rain filtered down to the road as I passed through Salem, but the drizzle didn’t last long enough to annoy me. Through Portland and I remembered that I need to spend real time there someday–just rolling through on I-5, the structure of the city grabs my interest, like an impeccably crafted Ridge Racer stage. Grabbed lunch at a local joint (confession: it was Taco Bell) on the north end of town and then charged into Washington state.

A gorgeous state. Near-constant rains sustain the greatest conglomeration of green things in all the West Coast. I lived in Bellevue, Washington for a couple of years after high school and I’d been back as recently as a few months ago, so the landscape was no surprise, still no less impressive. I wanted sincerely to live another Seattle summer, which the rosy bits of my memory paint warm and sunny, daylight stretching into nighttime hours behind great scattered white puffs that, for just two months of the year, smile down on instead of grin at inhabitants below. I came at the right time.

Clouds conspired to deal me a Seattle fall

But clouds conspired to deal me a Seattle fall.

Before I’d covered much ground, the sky dumped its wares. At first, a mildly oppressive drizzle with frequent breaks giving me false hope. When the road spray relented enough to allow a view of the distant road ahead, rain storm miseries five miles into my future were thick enough to spot through a soggy visor.

An hour into the state, scattered showers turned to scattered baths, erupting into a terrifying deluge. Absolute discomfort was eclipsed by fears that I might actually fall at 70 mph into the wet mess below that’d surely obscure my corpse from oncoming traffic. A layer of water deep enough to completely mask the asphalt of I-5 inspired a disturbing musing: “Do motorcycles hydroplane?” (A later YouTube search confirmed that yes, they do.)

Do motorcycles hydroplane?

After one hundred miles of the slog, I rolled into a rest stop off the freeway and took respite with another biker. The stop was packed with car and truck drivers seeking calm between the storms, sharing wide-eyed exchanges which suggested to me that even to Washington locals, these conditions were remarkably bad. I sipped down a paper cup of lip-puckeringly bitter coffee provided by a volunteer barber shop quartet (no lie, maybe it makes sense in Washington) and continued north into Olympia.

The worst of it was over, and I soon found myself in Redmond, Washington, a city on the eastern side of Lake Washington, opposite Seattle. I’d survived three hours of the sort of just-end-me-now misery that comes with the time-lapse failure to summon sick over a toilet bowl. In a parking lot waiting to meet a friend, I stripped off my waterlogged gear and discovered that my leather gloves had bled and dyed my hands black. Sitting defeated on a curb, I looked at my bike and for a moment, it looked like an angel. For all my utter distress, the bike never flinched. It pulled me through and kept me safe.

I met my friend with the grateful relief I imagine a disaster victim feels for his rescuers. Until he plainly stated that the day’s storm was the first rain in thirty days, as if it wasn’t a bitter irony I might resent.