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Sunday, August 08, 2004

Road Trip


There is a wonderful sense of freedom when you have a few days off, a tank of gas, a debit card, and a bicycle on the back of your car. Living in Washington State is as good a place as anywhere I have ever lived when it comes to short road trips. I had extremely vague plans made on extremely short notice. I was only planning on going out for the day. Ten minutes before I was to leave, the person I was supposed to ride with canceled. I decided to at least stay over night somewhere. I grabbed a tooth brush. I’m a terrifically light traveler.

This was the third consecutive week that I have left town to do some serious mountain road riding. I’m still in my Tour de France frenzy so the more hills that I can ride the better. Last week we rode up the 18 miles to the highest point you can reach on Mount Rainier on a bicycle. For this trip I had seen a road the map a little north of Seattle that I wanted to check out. A little black line on a map was about all of the planning I had put into this trip.

I got a cup of coffee and headed north on I-5. The radio in my car is on the fritz so it was just the road, coffee, and me. I used the blank space of driving to work on my funny foreign accents. If someone had a recording of me singing songs in a heavy Arabic accent I would pay a lot of money to buy it back and destroy it. An idle mind can be pretty frightening at times.

I turned off I-5 at Marysville and headed east towards the Cascade Mountains. I liked what I saw on the map. Small towns with names like Granite Falls and Verlot were surrounded by five, six, and seven thousand feet peaks. This part of the State is dominated by the mountains and small communities that make their living from logging and playing host to travelers. I drive pretty slowly through beautiful country like this so try not to get stuck behind me.

State road #92 goes to Granite Falls, after that the road doesn’t have a number. They call it the Mountain Loop Highway. There were signs saying that the Mountain Loop was out up ahead. I thought it was worth it to check it out anyway, for future reference if nothing else. I pulled in at a ranger station.

The Mountain Loop was washed-out in three places before it got to Darrington from this side. They had pictures of the wash-outs; there was no way to make it through in a vehicle—even if I had a Hummer. I did think that I could ford the wash-out on foot carrying my bike. The park ranger told me that the Mountain Loop Highway included 14 miles of gravel. I had my racing bike with me so that was pretty much out of the question. This route had too much road for it to be much fun on my mountain bike. I had flirted with the idea of buying a Bianchi cycle-cross bike that would have filled this void in my bicycle collection nicely.

I abandoned this idea and drove around the other way, taking highway 530 to Darrington. As I drove into Darrington the clouds were lifting to expose Whitehorse Mountain that dominates that town. It was already about 1:30 in the afternoon. If I couldn’t ride here my other option was to cross over the mountains through North Cascades National Park, find a place to stay in Winthrop, and then do some riding. The motel in Darrington looked decent. Staying there would certainly be the easiest option so I ditched what little I brought in the room and started riding.

Because the road is closed there was almost no traffic on this end of the loop. The highway follows the Sauk River and rises slowly enough that I didn’t know I was even ascending. I soon got over my disappointment that I wasn’t getting my ass kicked humping up some cruelly steep mountain pass. Fooled by the false flat, I couldn’t understand how I was having such a hard time keeping my speed up to an acceptable level. What would Lance think if he saw me plugging along like grandma?

I can’t tell you what a luxury it is not to have to dodge cars on a ride like this. I didn’t have a single person pass me until two sheriff vehicles came along side of me. One stopped immediately in front of me while the other boxed me in on my left. I rode right around the stopped car and rode on. Who knows what they were up to? I had expected them to question me on matters relating to Homeland Security or something. I guess they had bigger fish to fry. I hope to fuck they have bigger fish to fry than a recreational cyclist.

It was getting pretty warm as the clouds evaporated and the sun came out in force. I was standing up on the pedals hammering for all I was worth for a lot of the ride—both up and back. I checked out a nice pool in the river on the way up so on the way down I dismounted and disrobed and plunged into the icy stream. It was a beautiful calm pool about chest deep and clear as glass. If you have never spent a day riding hard up a road and then taken a swim in a mountain river, then you are letting one of the best things in life pass you right by.

On the flip side of this, let me tell you about one experience you should definitely pass you by. The next day I drove up to North Cascades National Park to ride. I only got about an hour and a half into it when it started to rain. I could tell it was going to get a lot worse so I turned around and headed back. By the time I got to the steepest descent it was raining pretty good which means that I had to grind up a tough mountain pass without getting the satisfaction of ripping down the descent. On top of this I got stuck at a construction spot on the road that held up traffic for 20 minutes. It was pretty cold and all I was wearing was a lycra jersey. This whole thing wasn’t really my fault because the weather report called for rain.

I stayed in a hotel in Darrington. Darrington has two bars on the same street. I had a beer in the Red Top Tavern on one night and the following night I had a beer across the street at the Triple B’s Elk Horn Restaurant and Saloon. There was a Mariners’ game on both nights. The only clothes I brought were a pair of shorts and a Mariners’ T-shirt so I had street cred in any bar in Washington and Oregon. I have a Mariners sticker on my laptop so when I pulled it out to do some work, instead of stares I got compliments.

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