Magic Mountains: In Search of the Olympics on a 1970 Bonneville

Motojournalist Robert Smith goes in search of the Olympic Mountains aboard his 1970 Bonneville.

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by Robert Smith

How can an entire mountain range disappear?

Though they’re clearly visible from Seattle and southern Vancouver Island, the closer you get to the Olympic Mountains of Washington State, the harder they are to see. The reason? They’re in the middle of the world’s largest temperate rainforest! I decide to go find them — on my 1970 Triumph Bonneville.

The Bonneville harkens back to a different era, when most vehicles lumbered around lethargically, and a 650cc motorcycle would leave everything but a muscle car in its dust. Now in an age of 350 horsepower SUVs, the Bonnie is more likely to become a speed bump. And while careful, regular maintenance keeps old bikes going, modern motorcycles are just so much faster and more reliable. A new 250 would probably clean the Bonnie’s clock.

On the road

Touring on old iron can be interesting. While some newer bikes would barely get to operating temperature on my 700-mile trek, the Bonnie will be due for a valve adjustment and halfway to its scheduled oil change. Most of the parts on my Bonneville are original fitment, too, and therefore 50 years old — including the Canadian-market stainless fenders. Fortunately, many of the roads around the Olympic Peninsula are also of an age: rambling and meandering; and mostly well maintained thanks to WSDOT. They’re suited for more leisurely travel — log trucks notwithstanding!

Separating Puget Sound from the Pacific Ocean, the Olympic Peninsula covers around 3,600 square miles — roughly the area of Puerto Rico, and twice the size of Delaware. The Olympics are part of the Pacific Coast Range, a line of mountains stretching from Alaska to Mexico that includes Mount Logan in the Yukon at more than 17,000 feet. On the Olympic peninsula, the highest peak is 8,000-foot Mount Olympus.

I’m starting my tour in picturesque Port Townsend at the entrance to Puget Sound. Named by Captain George Vancouver for his friend, the Marquis of Townsend, this colorful town was built on logging and mining revenues, its one-time affluence evident in rows of elegant Victorian-era waterfront houses. But in the 1890’s, a proposed link to join the Northern Pacific Railroad in Tacoma was abandoned, isolating the town, stopping the flow of lumber, and precipitating an economic decline. Now it subsists on tourism: especially popular is its annual wooden boat festival.

Around the Sound

It’s early April when I set out from Port Townsend; and the weather guessers have predicted a cool but unusually dry and sunny three days. Going south, state highway 20 rises from Puget Sound through stands of firs toward the Hood Canal. The Bonneville pulls strongly uphill in the cool, fresh air, its steady exhaust beat echoing off the trees. I’m soon rolling alongside a broad, sweeping valley, emerald green with early-planted grain under blue spring skies. Most of the traffic has turned east for Hood Canal Bridge and the Seattle “Pugetropolis.” Just tens of miles east, the Olympics’ snowy peaks peer over the trees across the valley — but blink and they’re gone. I’m now on U.S. 101 which tracks Hood Canal: I follow its rambling shoreline around bays and coves, through cheerful beach resorts. Many hotels and stores are still closed but painted and spruced up for the summer.

Left onto state highway 106, I’m following the canal to its source near Belfair. Suddenly busy, the two-lane highway swings along the water, tracking numerous inlets. As I ride further east toward the Bremerton-Seattle ferry, the waterfront vacation homes become smarter and more closely crowded, until the canal is completely obscured. At Belfair, a basic mill town sprawled along Highway 3, I turn towards Belfair State Park. This is vacationland, and State Highway 300, lined with unpretentious holiday cottages, meanders west toward Tahuya.

Following the sign to Dewatto, I’m rolling through a green tunnel of dense forest over fresh tarmac roads, empty of traffic. I suddenly realize I’m quite a way from civilization; and though the Bonnie is running fine, I wouldn’t want to be stranded here by a breakdown. This is bear and cougar country! I eventually arrive at Seabeck, a tidy resort town, but the waterfront view is lost again behind retirement condos and holiday homes with “private” and “no trespassing” signs. Great for the residents, but less appealing to a tourist.

The Bonneville’s speedometer has expired. The needle finally snapped off completely after gyrating wildly for a few miles. But the odometer keeps working. I hit Washington 3 in Silverdale and spin south along the Kitsap peninsula through Bremerton’s military-industrial harbor complex. I think about photographing the silent gray hulks of destroyers washed pink by the setting sun, but given the sensitivity of military bases around cameras, I think better of it…

Next morning, I’m rudely awoken in my bone-bare motel room at 5 a.m. There’s one question on my mind: How come my fellow guests can afford the gas to fast-idle their trucks for a half-hour — yet their combined finances can’t swing to a single muffler!

Tarmac magnet

South again on Highway 3 in morning sunshine to Shelton, another busy mill town on a long finger of Puget Sound’s ragged coastline. An interminable wait for a train to cross the highway: I leave the line-up to explore the cheery main street, broad and lined with sturdy timber buildings. From Shelton, I rejoin U.S. 101 and roll south as far as Washington 121 in Tumwater. I’m now south of Puget Sound, and heading west for the Pacific Coast. My route goes cross-country through Littlerock and Rochester to Adna on Highway 6. But every turn seems to feed me back toward Interstate 5, as if it were a giant tarmac magnet. After an unscheduled swing through Centralia, I find the right route, mostly by trying and eliminating the wrong ones. It’s not a total loss: these are the sweetest roads of the trip so far, sweeping over and around a jumble of hills and bluffs.

A mountain appears on the horizon in Adna, but it’s in the wrong direction. Fifty miles east in the Cascades, Mount Rainier’s snowy 14,000-foot hulk hovers over the skyline. The Olympics, to the north and west of me, are still being shy.

External lubrication

Highway 6 climbs gently over the Olympic Peninsula and down to the Pacific Coast. In the oddly named town of Pe Ell, I realize the Bonnie’s engine is slick with oil. The exhaust pushrod tube seal has ruptured. I fashion a tourniquet out of a rag, top off the oil tank and press on. I soon notice the odometer is also heading for oblivion, its line of numbers spinning like a demonic Vegas slot machine. I disconnect the drive cable.

I join Washington 105 in Raymond, cruising around picturesque Wilapa Bay and along the coast to the resort of Westport. Here, land doesn’t so much end as simply run out to sea. Rolling dunes and broad sandy beaches line the road as the sun burns off wisps of sea mist. Atop Westport’s oceanside viewing tower, the Olympics are finally in sight, a white smudge on the northern horizon.

From the port of Aberdeen, the highway is snarled through to Hoquiam, from where I’m grateful to be heading west back to the ocean beaches. I follow Highway 109 through Ocean City and Copalis Beach, where sprawling waterfront developments hide the sea; but in Pacific Beach, a surfer-dude hippie village, finally there’s public beach access.

Winston Churchill once said something about taking every opportunity to use the bathroom, because you never know when you’ll see another. If he’d been a biker, he’d probably have filled up at every gas station, too. Spurning this philosophy, I pass by the Texaco in Copalis Crossing expecting to find gas in the quaintly named village of Humptulips. I figured U.S. 101, the main highway on the west coast, would be well provided. Wrong. The Bonnie has no gas gauge, of course, so I’ve little choice but to keep rolling to Amanda Park, where, thankfully, the familiar lines of pumps appear. I’m soon settled in for the night at the cheerful and cozy Lake Quinault Inn.

Olympics appear!

Next morning is fair and warm, though the Bonneville looks wretched, road grime coating the oil-slick engine cases. I’m soon riding under a towering evergreen canopy as 101 winds back to the coast where it spins along the gently rolling ocean, hazy and sparkling in the morning sun. Here at the edge of the forest, there’s a veneer of trees intended to screen the clear-cuts beyond, but the devastation is easy to see through the patchy cover. Whatever the merits of industrial forestry, it doesn’t improve the view!

Forks is a one-street town with a single industry: logging. Bumper stickers here are less than friendly to tree huggers, and suggest several creative uses for spotted owls. North on Highway 113 from Sappho, another logging community, I ponder whether residents know their community is named for the lesbian Greek poet? The forest fades out and the road meanders downhill to Clallum Bay on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. I can see mountains here, but they’re the Coast Mountains of British Columbia on Vancouver Island. The Olympics are still veiled by forest.

Highway 112 west takes me all the way to Neah Bay in the Makah Reservation. The Makah Nation has revived its traditional whale hunt here, infuriating ecologists; but to this visitor, the town feels just like any sleepy out-of-season coastal resort. I’m close to Cape Flattery, the northwesternmost point in the contiguous 48, and one of the windiest spots on the continent. Fortunately, the day is clear and calm.

I retrace my route back eastward on 112. For 15 miles the road tracks the swinging coastline, hugging every cove and promontory like a Midway ride. This would encourage spirited riding (unless, of course, your back tire is being sprayed with oil). The thiry-some miles from Clallum Bay to Joyce are a rider’s dream, undulating and winding round a succession of canyons and creek beds. Some sport bikes whizz past me, but when I round the next bend, two police cruisers have pulled them over, as well as a group of about 30 bikes. Of little interest to the cops at our modest pace, the Bonnie and I rumble by on our oily way.

Hurricane Ridge is my last chance to unveil the Olympics. From highway 101 in Port Angeles, it’s an 18-mile climb to the Ridge. Under load, the Bonnie’s engine is noticeably more incontinent, and I wonder how much oil it will spew on the way to the summit. Olympic National Park has just opened for the season, and the roads have yet to be swept of winter gravel. Dust swirls, coating the Bonneville (and my oil-soaked left leg) with another layer of grit and grime. But now I’m closer to the tree line, and the Olympics finally appear as I near the Park’s Visitor Center. A craggy line of snow-covered peaks, ridges and glaciers stretches away to the horizon.

Gratefully, I ease the Bonneville into gear, and roll back downhill toward 101. Port Townsend and the ferry to the “mainland” are just 50 miles away. And though the bike is still running well, the oil discharge is unabated. My expedition has cost me a cylinder head overhaul and a speedometer rebuild. But I finally found the Olympics.

If you go…

Much of the Olympic Peninsula is rainforest, so expect precipitation any time of the year and monitor weather reports carefully for Pacific storms. July to September offers the best weather.

The Forks Timber Museum contains logging tools and period exhibits dating back to the 1870’s. Visit forkstimbermuseum.org for information. The Olympic Peninsula has its own tourism organization, olympicpeninsula.org. Washington’s roads are ranked for motorcycling in Destination Highways: Washington, $59.95, from Twisted Edge Publishing, MC

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