The Cascade Mountains by 1974 Norton Commando

Motorcyle touring Washington's famous volcanoes

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Robert Smith

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The Blue Ridge Parkway. Skyline Boulevard. Deal’s Gap. America’s best motorcycle rides take you through mountains, so it follows there must be some great riding in the “American Alps” — the Cascade Mountains of Washington state. I found wonderful winding roads, snowy peaks, beautiful vistas and great pavement. What’s not to like? Not much, as long as the volcanoes I’ve come to visit stay dormant for the length of my tour.

I swing my trusty 1974 Norton Commando into the parking lot of a gas station-cum-country store in Maple Falls, Wash., looking for my first caffeine fix of the day. I’ve just crossed the border from Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada, and as ever, I’m bemused by how rural northwest Washington is compared with the industrial suburbs I’ve left behind. Behind me lies metro Vancouver, a sprawling city of two million people; to the east, less than 50 miles away, is Mount Baker, an 11,000ft snow clad “dormant” volcano.

A tired and crusty minivan pulls alongside, trailing blue smoke and tottering on its mix of three regular tires and one worn out undersize spare. A trio of mongrels in the back bark cheekily at me, feeling secure behind the glass. Morning sun is streaking through the dense evergreens as I sip my coffee. Baker is the first of three mountains the Commando and I will scale this weekend, and I have at least 800 miles to cover. Time to get moving!

Mount Baker
The northernmost U.S. volcano in the “chain of fire” that runs from Mount Lassen in California to Mount Garibaldi in British Columbia, Baker is a relative “shorty” at just over 10,700ft. But rising from close to sea level, it presents an imposing bulk on the skyline.

Washington’s state Route 542 meanders through the forest alongside the churning Nooksack River, swollen with snow melt, before starting a twisting ascent. The road switchbacks along the mountain face in a hectic series of hairpin bends, many of which turn close to 270 degrees as they wind in and out of the canyons. It’s a technical ride: Though the surface is generally good, some corners are coated with treacherous gravel dust, and rivulets cross the road around blind bends. Discretion demands I take a leisurely ride, letting the Commando’s low-down torque pull me through the bends.

I’m soon at the snow line, and though there’s no snow on the pavement, the white stuff is piled high along the roadside, even though it’s late July. Last winter presented a bonus snow pack, and a cool spring has delayed the melt. I stop to gaze down at the twisting tarmac below doubling back along the mountainside. It is chilly at the crest, and a roadside lake still has ice at its edges, but the air is tingly fresh and the sky indigo blue.

Rolling back down the hill proves … interesting. I’m used to allowing the Commando’s considerable engine-braking to slow me down, but the thin air near the crest reduces this effect noticeably and I’m forced to use the brakes more. No problem, though, as Norton fitted the excellent Lockheed front disc to all post-1971 Commandos: It’s effective and fade free.
Back at forest level, the road swings lazily along, and I’m able to give the Commando her head. I’ve completely refurbished the swingarm bushings and Isolastic mounts (both sources of Commando steering problems), and with the relatively lazy steering geometry this makes for rock-steady handling.

I turn south on state Route 9, running parallel to Interstate 5 south toward Seattle. Rambling through farmland, winding and twisting as I go, it is the antithesis of interstate riding. I need to buy some oil, so I turn east on Lake Whatcom Road to a little country motorcycle store I know called Scooter Stuff. The shop seems to survive by selling coffee and “loud pipes save lives” type decals, but they also carry Amsoil 20-50 synthetic, which is my Norton’s lifeblood.

Back on Route 9, I’m rolling south toward Sedro-Woolley, an old fashioned Washington lumber town, its broad streets of rustic houses gathered around the mill. With the decline of the lumber industry, the town is reinventing itself as a provisioning stop at the start of the North Cascades Highway, one of five major pass roads through the Washington Cascades. Continuing south, Route 9 weaves and bucks its way around lakes and creeks brimming with the Cascades’ snow melt. It’s a rollicking ride, and I’ll confess to a few illegal-passing maneuvers in the heat of the fun. The Commando really settles in at this faster pace: The Isolastic system smooths out engine vibration above 2,800rpm, and the slick-shifting four-speed tranny (one up, three down — on the right!) makes great use of the torque.

South of Arlington, Route 9 becomes just another commuter road in the “Pugetropolis,” as locals call Seattle and its satellites. I’m looking for a road that will take me through the Cascade foothills, avoiding the urban grind, and these are at a premium. Jordan Road spins south to Granite Falls, joining the resort communities along the Snohomish River. It’s another high-spirited romp, the Commando’s exhaust reverberating off the towering evergreens.

In Granite, a helpful Honda rider spots me poring over my map and leads me to Menzel Lake Road, another winding, undulating gem that leads to Lake Roesiger Road. A left turn puts me on Woods Creek Road for the run down into Monroe, the last major espresso stop on U.S. 2 before Stevens Pass to the east.

Now, the suburbs are unavoidable, but I stay in the foothills as much as possible, rolling south on Route 203 through open fields of swaying golden grain toward Duvall, Carnation and Fall City. At Snoqualmie, I join the weekend recreation traffic through Maple Valley and Black Diamond to Enumclaw, a town that sounds as if it ought to be an anagram.

Mount Rainier
If I’m traveling through Washington in late Spring or early Fall, I always check the WSDOT website for road closures, but as it’s July I’ve foregone this precaution. That was a mistake. As I ride out of Enumclaw toward Mount Rainier, the next volcano on the list, a sign tells me Cayuse Pass is closed. As I’d planned my route via Route 410 through Chinook Pass to Cayuse and then south, it was time for a rethink. A visit to the Ranger Station confirms the sign’s message: Two of the three Rainier passes have been closed by mudslides, so I’ll head south for the west entrance to Rainier National Park instead. No problem — the mountain looks just as good from the south as it does from the east.

I’m looking for Route 162, Oroville Road East, a delightful recreational road that gallops through the Carbon and Puyallup River watersheds to Eatonville. South of Eatonville is Elbe, one of Washington’s prettiest “Alpine” towns. I ride into the park in the dappled light of afternoon sun filtering through the cedars. Mount Rainier, hidden until now by the trees, leaps into view, and it seems impossible that anything so vast could have been obscured. As I get closer its snowy bulk, rising to 14,411ft, fills the sky, looming over the road and dwarfing even the tallest trees. The thought of climbing such a peak is totally daunting, yet friend and former business colleague Jim Whittaker, the first American to scale Everest, has made the ascent many times. Rainier is Jim’s “home” mountain. Amazing.

I ride through the park as far as the Cayuse Pass road closure before turning southwest again on Route 12. I’m booked into a motel in Morton, some 40 miles away. Tomorrow: America’s most famous volcano — especially since its 1980 eruption.

Mount St. Helens
As the Pacific tectonic plate moves east, sliding under the North American plate, pressure in the earth’s crust increases along the Cascades. Every so often, the pressure becomes too much for the crust. On May 18, 1980, a magnitude 5.1 earthquake triggered an eruption in Mount St. Helens that was equivalent to a 24 megaton explosion, blowing away one side of the mountain.

When — actually some time before — the dust settled, the mountain had lost 1,314ft of its former height of 9,677ft, now rising just 8,363ft to its new “peak.” The blast devastated an area of 230 square miles, snapping the surrounding evergreens like matchsticks. It also created the largest mudslide in recorded history, covering some terrain to a depth of 600ft, while the ash, blown as much as 10 miles into the air, spoiled that summer’s weather around the world. Of the 57 people who died in the blast, only 36 bodies were ever recovered. The term “dormant volcano” takes on a whole new meaning.

Outside my motel the next morning, a blanket of marine clouds has blocked out the sun, and mist hangs in the evergreens. I’m expecting to have to clean up oil from beneath the Commando — British bikes are supposed to mark their territory, aren’t they? — but there’s not a drop on the concrete. I guess my backyard wrenching is better than I thought. I check the oil level — good there, too — and take a close look at tires, spokes, cables and chain.

The roads around Mount St. Helens are some of the most fun in the Pacific Northwest. The deeply rippled terrain and rolling hills mean that National Forest Service Road 25 south from Randle has more curves than straights. I hit NF25 early to avoid the traffic, after stopping to fill the Roadster’s gas tank. A mere 3.2gal will fill it to the brim, and my next gas is in Yale, 70 miles distant — not counting the 17 mile ­(each way) detour to Mount St. Helens’ Windy Ridge overlook. That’s 104 miles, and I’m good for around 120 — not much of a safety margin.

Early morning also means keeping an extra eye on the roadside for wildlife. I once had a too-close encounter on this road with the rear end of a mule deer as it flashed across my path in low evening light: The experience has left me extra wary. NF25’s surface has deteriorated a little in the last few years, too, and the Commando’s primitive suspension transmits the bumps and ripples to my butt very effectively. For sheer fun, though, this road is hard to beat, twisting and swinging through the dense forest, yet with enough room to pass the few dawdling minivans and campers. I’ve fitted Avon Super Venoms on the Commando, and their stickiness means I’m grinding metal — the center stand — in both right and left turns. When I stop at the Windy Ridge turnoff, the adrenalin and sheer exhilaration of the ride have planted a wide grin on my face. Too much fun!

NF99 to Windy Ridge is another dream road, ricocheting through the forest before springing out into an eerie landscape of flattened, stripped tree trunks. Saplings and scrub now cover the ground that the blast cleared, but the bleached hulks of former giant evergreens are scattered around like kindling. Mount St Helens’ bulk is still impressive even without the extra 1,300-odd feet, though its corrugated crest is obscured in the clouds. On a clear day, wisps of smoke can be seen rising from the crater: the slumbering giant may wake again …

Back on NF25, the frolic continues as I push the Commando farther into the turns, using its big, lazy torque and considerable engine drag to control my speed. Brakes are for wusses! The road swings around canyons and cliff sides offering tantalizing glimpses of Mount St. Helens through the trees as it winds down toward the Swift River. The bends become lazier as the road turns west, and I follow the river down toward rustic Cougar and then Yale for some very necessary gasoline. I leave the National Forest behind, now on Route 503, yet the fun continues: a riotous romp along the densely treed banks of the Lewis River toward Interstate 5. The road is wider and the bends faster with more traffic, yet with plenty of passing opportunities. The Commando responds with gusto, and my grin gets even bigger.

Sadly, the super slab at Woodland marks the end of my fun. I have to get back to Vancouver, and the most efficient way to do that is on Interstate 5. In any case, a thin drizzle is now slicking the pavement. Fin de sport, as the French say. I point the Commando north and join the rolling throng of home-bound weekenders.

Washington, the “Evergreen State” has a multitude of faces, the volcanoes of the Cascades being just one. There’s the bucolic Yakima Valley, the sun-toasted Horse Heaven Hills, the fertile Palouse farmlands, the dramatic Columbia Basin, and the central desert. All have great riding roads, and no more than a day away from Vancouver. Next weekend, maybe … MC