Blown away by Washington State
(James) We rode out through the centre of town so we could make a quick petrol stop before leaving Anacortes. Whilst filling the bikes up, we heard a pop and then the horrible (for ‘horrible’ read expensive) sound of my tankbag landing on the station forecourt. Some of the teeth on the zip that holds the bag onto the bike had exploded, ejecting the tank bag on to the ground. Not ideal, especially as my camera and lenses were in it. Fortunately nothing inside was damaged, which was more than could be said for the zip which was beyond our ability to repair. Had this happened just a few hundred kilometres sooner (in Asia), we would have been able to replace the zip for pennies but, typically, it had managed to hold on until we had arrived in the ‘West’ where the combination of higher costs, limited time and our rapidly shrinking budget meant repair was out of the question. However, ignoring my curses as I worriedly inspected the contents for damage, Em rigged an ingenious quick release system for the tankbag with straps and a bungee and we headed off.
Having crossed Interstate 5 (I-5), we continued east along Highway 20 towards the snow capped peaks that make up the Cascade Mountains. We’d originally planned to head due south towards Seattle but so many people, including Yves and Mike on our boat tour in Vancouver, had recommended the Cascade Highway, and with the weather clearing for us we realised it was too good an opportunity to waste. We were sad to be missing Seattle as we’d heard great things about the city and we’d already received several friendly offers of places to stay from locals. Next time!
We were soon starting to gain altitude, and the combination of twisty roads, perfect weather, crystal clear air and increasingly spectacular scenery made for fantastic riding; all too often we were pulling over to admire the views of mountains and alpine lakes. The roads themselves seemed really empty, but we weren’t the only ones taking advantage of such ideal conditions, and at every viewpoint there were dozens of other bikers parked up – it was, it turned out, the first really decent weekend of the summer. However, as we headed further into the cascades and towards the higher passes, things started to become more quiet and the lush greenery was joined by patches of snow at the side of the road. These patches quickly turned into piles, which were in turn replaced by banks that continued to grow in size until they were several feet high at the summit. We stopped for a few photos but didn’t hang about as it was pretty chilly – and as I may have already mentioned, we were now pathetically sensitive to the cold.
Our spectacular route continued, down the warmer eastern slopes towards the small town of Winthrop. What we found as we rode in on the main high street was worth the ride alone. Winthrop really does have the feel of a frontier town and with good reason: conscious effort has been made to recreate the look of every building to attract tourists. Although this might seem odd to some, the reason is simple enough – survival. Winthrop owed its existence to gold but like so many towns it fell on hard times, until the Cascade Highway was built. Needing a way to make passing traffic stop, the town decided to emphasise its old world charms. The shops that make up the small main street are all one and two storey wooden clapboard buildings that house coffee shops, bars, ice cream parlours and shops selling curiosities. The sidewalks are all raised wooden walkways, and the local gas station and auto repair shop look like something straight out of a western – in fact, so much so that you wouldn’t surprised if the pony express or a couple of cowboys were to pull up outside. On a bench in the street, a couple of old boys were sat just watching the world go by, and were no doubt putting the world to rights. It really is a picture perfect little town and one we weren’t going to pass through without stopping.
The town is obviously popular as part of a route for local bikers as dozens of leather-clad riders were constantly rumbling through on their Harleys. We sat and had an ice cream and chatted with a few friendly bikers who had noticed our XTs (not hard as they’re fairly distinctive and packed in such a ramshackle way when compared to the locals’ bikes). They were pretty impressed that Em had ridden so far and thought we were completely nuts to have gone through Pakistan (it’s a common enough reaction). They swore to us that they wouldn’t cross the border without their ‘glocks’ (that’s a type of handgun by the way!) which made us laugh – firstly, because it reminded us that we were in a country where so many people have guns, and secondly, because, as we were quick to point out, they’d still have been seriously outgunned! We said our goodbyes, but not before they proudly recommended some must-see places along our route.
We continued on along Highway 20, turning south towards the small town of Twisp, and soon found ourselves riding though the rolling scrubland of inner Washington’s high desert . Our target for the evening had been the town of Leavenworth. Several bikers had recommended it to us but in all honesty, we didn’t think we’d make it that far. However, after leaving the twisty roads of the mountains, our progress was now much quicker and with evening approaching, we arrived on the outskirts of the town to be greeted by a sign for a campsite. Perfect! We checked in and found our designated pitch up amongst some tall trees. It was absolutely enormous and was clearly meant for some sort of RV, of which there were many… in fact, looking around us, it was clear that we were the only tent.
While Em got on with setting up camp, I popped back down to the office to ask them if they could charge our intercom and phone (the site’s pitches came complete with electricity, gas, water and even cable tv… but you needed an RV to hook everything up to). Upon my return, I found Em standing by our tent, looking very pleased with herself and holding a couple of beers: we must have looked a pretty pathetic sight in the eyes of our neighbours across from us (our tent did look ridiculously small, dwarfed as it was by our pitch) as they had come straight across to Em and just handed the bottles over! We walked over to the vast RV to say hello and thank them for their generosity and within seconds were being shown a seat. Our new friends were actually two couples, Rick and Pam and Julie and Joel who, it turned out, were vacationing in not one, but two enormous RVs!
New acquaintances we may have been but we were instantly made to feel like old friends. We ended up spending the whole evening chatting with them; talking about our trip, our plans in the US, their own lives, America and generally putting the world to rights. It was a real eye opener to chat with Americans about social issues, both domestic and international. The last time I’d spent any time in the USA had been more than 10 years before, and much of my opinion about Americans’ views (or non-views) on issues had been based on these experiences. Maybe I’m just older (well I know I am, but you know what I mean) or maybe there’s been a change, but these guys just seemed more, well, worldly. We were able to talk about all sorts of issues from the frivolous to the more serious – issues that I might have expected to have been taboo. But nothing was off limits, and it was fascinating to talk with them as we each gave our thoughts on subjects that varied from gun control and foreign policy to universal healthcare and education.
It wasn’t all serious though, in fact we had a great laugh and the joviality was only heightened by the free-flowing ‘Moose Drool’ (Em: or ‘Mule Drool’ as I kept calling it) and Fire Whiskey (Em: mmmm, cinnamony!). And of course, we also got to have a tour of one of the RVs. They really are huge and come with every luxury you could ever ask for (and quite possibly a few it would never even cross your mind to request…) Toilets and showers? They’ll be in the bathroom. Sleeping arrangements? Two luxury cabins. TV? Yes, four of them actually. It even had a garage at the rear that was big enough to store a sizeable tool set and work bench… plus two Harley-Davidsons!
In the morning, we slowly started packing up our gear (for some unknown reason we were both a little groggy) but before long were greeted by a grinning Joel who handed over a strong coffee – complete with some sort of equally strong liquor! Not long afterwards we were called back over to the RV for an American breakfast of chorizo-scrambled eggs and biscuits and gravy (Em: sounds gross but seriously moreish) which we devoured in seconds – it was delicious! Over breakfast, we talked about our plans to explore in the coming days and as others had done already, we were told that whilst the Pacific North West is known for its quietly cool cities like Seattle, and for its rain, it is actually one of America’s best kept secrets – a secret those who live there are keen to keep quiet. It was an argument we were finding increasingly hard to find fault with.
All too soon it was time to hit the road so we said our goodbyes and headed down to have a look around the small quirky town of Leavenworth. I say quirky because the town is known for being a ‘German’ town. We’d assumed that this was because it had been settled by German migrants but that’s not the case. In reality it’s German character is, just as in Winthrop, the result of a deliberate plan to ‘remarket’ itself following the death of its timber industry. Today every home, business, building, and even every signpost is, well, Bavarian; even McDonalds has had a Teutonic wand waved at it. The town’s population have leant to produce and sell traditional goods so kaffee und kuchen (that’s coffee and cake) or a bratwurst are available should you fancy it. Of course, the town wasn’t going to miss out on that most potentially lucrative of German events, so the highlight of every year is Oktoberfest. The change has certainly turned round the town’s fortunes – not quite to the point that the locals now drive round in BMW’s and Porsches but certainly better than it would have been. As quirky as it was, we were both quietly impressed by that altogether American sense of doing whatever it took, no matter how radical or bizarre, to keep these towns alive.
With a fair distance still to cover we set off and were quickly riding, once more, through beautiful and deserted countryside. Initially we rode along the bottom of lush green canyons but soon we were climbing once again, passing high above a beautiful alpine lake on a road littered with waterfalls. Once again the temperature dropped as our altitude increased and by early afternoon we were forced to stop at the top of a pass that was home to a small ski resort. The season had obviously just finished (certainly not due to a lack of snow as far we could tell) but fortunately the café was still open and so we took advantage of a hot chocolate and something from our still untouched packed lunch (Em: Michelle, you made the mother of all tuck boxes there!). The ride down the other side of the range that afternoon was no less spectacular, passing between Mount Rainier and Mount St Helens, but we were soon out of the high hills.
Our target for the evening was still a long way off but now that we were out of the mountains, the roads were less twisty and our average speed could increase. We were heading for the small town of Canby, across the border in Oregon, where we would be staying with a stranger who had generously offered us a warm bed for the night. (Em: Not quite as dodgy as it sounds!) Whilst in Vancouver, we had taken advantage of a great US-based website called advrider.com (adventure rider) which has a fantastic section called ‘tent-space’. A quick click onto any of the US states and Canadian provinces listed reveals the names and locations of bikers (former and current) who are happy to offer a bed or garden to other wandering bikers. It’s a system that replies purely on the generosity and good will of the website’s members. We’d tentatively got in touch with a few of those people along a very rough route down the western coast and mentioned the fact that we might be passing through. Given that we were completely random strangers and that we couldn’t say for definite when or if we’d be passing by, we didn’t have particularly high hopes, reckoning on a one in ten hit rate. So as you can imagine, we were shocked to find that almost every single person got back to us, offering us not just a bed but a very warm welcome to boot, and many promised mechanical facilities, barbecues, beers and even asked us to stay longer than we intended so they could get more friends together for a ride out! (Em: This prompted yet another ‘America is awesome!’ comment – these were spouting forth on a regular basis).
To say we’d been stunned by the response would be an understatement; we were completely humbled by it. Reading the countless emails from friendly fellow bikers, we chastised ourselves for once again having preconceptions about people (when will we ever learn?!) Our trip had taught us over and over again not to judge people by what we ‘thought’ we knew to be true but to wait and see, but I guess we’re all conditioned to do it to some level. We had been sad to leave the incredible warmth of Asia, and although we had been looking forward to the USA and the diversity of its landscape, we had both felt that we knew what to expect. After all, we’d both spent time in the country before at various points. We had assumed that it would be a sort of ‘soft landing’ for a Europe that would lack the open friendliness of Asia. The US, so our reasoning had gone, would be a bit more friendly than home, but it was after all ‘the West’ so ultimately, the people, the towns and the culture would be high familiar to us. How wrong we’d been. Already we’d been utterly blown away by the unexpected beauty of the Pacific North West, and the quaintness of the pretty, small towns we’d passed through, but it was the people, both in Washington and Vancouver, that had shocked us most of all. With our time in the state quickly drawing to an end, we had the overwhelming feeling that we could have happily spent our entire remaining two months in this area alone. Surely America couldn’t keep surprising us like this?…
Click for photos.