Mount Rainier and east to Spokane

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The freeway out of Seattle to Tacoma catches me by surprise. Mid afternoon traffic on a Monday flows rather smoothly — in a mass and closeness I despise — but smoothly and without the kind of stress I experienced on my way into Seattle ten days ago. Following the signs to Puyallup and Highway 161, I keep to a rough route that delivers me to Eatonville and then east into Mount Rainier National Park.

With each turn of the land, the road narrows, the distance between driveways increases, the number of vehicles I pass dwindles, and the air becomes crisp. Life springs out of everything. I pass wonderful fields and snake through clusters of trees. At the very edge of sunset, I stop next to Alder Lake and admire a beautiful landscape of cut trees and wetlands. The scene is still. And at first glance it looks devoid of life. A few birds fly by, though the only other movement comes from a light breeze tossing the grass. I’m pleased by how an area so mutilated can look so beautiful. Before pulling away, the sun dips a bit lower, and the sky glows a deeper orange.

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I buy a National Parks season pass at the Rainier entrance. An automated teller takes my credit card and trades me $80 for a receipt. I’ll exchange the receipt on my exit for a permanent card. The road into the park narrows still and twists tightly around old growth trees. The last bit of light from the day barely penetrates the thick canopy. Rich smells fill the air. I can taste the mulching earth as a heavy aroma of dirt, pine, and water combine.

The road switches back and forth through the trees, steadily climbing in elevation. I see three thousand feet, thirty-five hundred, four thousand, and forty-five hundred. And then what was an impenetrable forest of trees ebbs into an unobstructed view of the snow capped Mount Rainier. It’s lit softly from behind by the faint light that remains of the day. With the sun in retreat, the blue spectrum of night and a chill of cold settles upon the valley. It’s past time to find camp.

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Hoping to go unnoticed and unbothered, I take a detour near the top of the canyon road to Dead Horse Creek and Paradise campground. Signs at the park entrance say the campground is closed. When the road crests into the deserted parking lot of a deserted lodge, I keep moving and spot a potential camp across the valley. At five thousand feet, I make camp above Paradise River and in wonderful view of the night’s main attraction. For a first day back on the road, I’m enamored with the serenity and privacy of tonight’s camp. I’m out of the way from regular traffic, camped on the shoulder, and primed for a beautiful sunrise against the glorious Mount Rainier.

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Morning brings with it a marked chill in the air! The tiny bit of moisture from night has frozen in the ditch and on grass alongside Paradise River. Rising slowly in the east into a cloudless blue sky is the heat of the day, but my camp lies hidden behind several hundred feet of earth and won’t see direct sunlight for hours.

While cooking some breakfast, a lone fox walks down the road. It points its nose into the air for a few moments when the distance between us becomes mere yards but otherwise keeps moving. In terms of potential visitors, a dog-sized fox rates low on the threat level. A bear sized bear on the other hand would send me packing quicker than ever. A crew of workers drives by an hour later. If they intend to shoo me away, their timing is perfect. But like the fox, they too pass, looking only slightly curious in my direction.

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I meet the guys in the truck again at a lookout. They’re grazing on breakfast out of an Igloo six pack cooler and looking out upon the grandeur of the park. We acknowledge each other with head nods and maintain a polite distance to respect each other’s privacy. Slowly, a swath of sunlight burns the valley in yellow. Water that was ice over night trickles out of rocks. I pull away on my bike and nod again to the workers. The road descends slowly into another valley alongside the shaded side of a ridge. Ice crystals cover the road in white. I hold my breath around a couple of turns, legs paddling either side of the bike and plowing ice into piles in front of my toes. Managing to keep everything upright, I exhale and inhale deeply.

Sun remains elusive around these tight bends in the road. Winter is near enough to say that motorcycle season has come and gone. At Louise Lake, I turn out of the cold and into the sun for the first time. Warmth fills me with life and the glow of the day stretches as far as I can see. The road looks and feels dry. Ice no longer fills the ditch. I think I’m back onto safe ground. And then, as I get too carried away looking at mountains, and trees, and lakes, the road dips quickly back into the shade. My speed is safe for anything but ice. On the inside of a left turn, the back wheel breaks. It spins without traction, slides without grip. And then, the front wheel does the same. Seconds feel like minutes as my bike dances about the road looking for a solid footing. Both tires finally catch up with each other on a dry spot. I steady the last bit of wiggle from the wheels and slow to a stop on the other side of the turn. My heart pumps harder than ever as I catch my breath and steady my trembling hands.

Did I miss something that should have warned me of the danger? I was careful early in today’s ride when ice crystals painted the road white, but the road here is black as night and looks dry as a desert. I look back to the turn in search of answers. The only clue to explain the ice is a lack of sunlight on the road. Incredibly relieved and thankful for good luck, I press on with trepidation at every corner and dread in the shadows. Until heat radiates from pavement, I’m wary of ice.

The remainder of my ride through the park is without incident. I eventually ride into complete southern exposure, and the road reflects enough heat to warm the soles of my boots. I descend from the alpine ridge and snake through the same lush undergrowth that captivated me on the other side of the park. As promised, I find a ranger at the exit who exchanges my receipt for a plastic National Parks pass and a sticker for the bike. Highway 123 delivers me to 410 east, and I emerge from the lush forests of the west and into the desert of central Washington.

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Matty gave me directions to a must-do canyon road detour. Instead of following Interstate 82 to Ellensburg, I exit onto Highway 821 and follow a scenic route alongside the Yakima River. Fishermen in boats drift south, casting their rods into the deeps of the river. Others without boats wade the inside shallows of a turn and flick their flies upstream. South to north, I ride another twenty-five miles to Ellensburg and then begrudgingly get back onto the interstate in the direction of the Columbia River.

At this point in my day, I’m just wandering about, enjoying the adventure of the road, and feeling somewhat apprehensive about Spokane. A friend from Alaska lives in Spokane, and he’s invited me to stay a couple weeks through Halloween. His house of roommates throws a huge party every Halloween, and it would be a shame to miss their favorite day of the year. None of this worries me. I’m mostly concerned about leaving the open road and climbing back into a bed and shower so soon.

The Columbia River comes to view after a modest ride east through hundreds of acres of windmills. I stop for lunch in empty parking lot at the river’s edge. A welcome change from the crisp air at Mount Rainer, the sun is warm enough that I unzip my jacket. It’s warm, but it’s not so blistering to send me for a swim. From here I look out upon the slow moving Columbia. It’s wide and shallow this far north, much different from the rapids found along the border with Oregon. And everything is brown. Even the Vantage Bridge is brown.

Sounds of gravel crunching divert my attention from the river, and I watch as a van pulls into the empty lot. Two women exit the van and walk my direction. They look like sisters but could be partners. We talk about the beautiful day, and I learn that they drive this stretch of road as many times a year as they can. The beauty of it all captivates them in a new way every time, and… One of the ladies loses her train of thought, suddenly amazed with my motorcycle. I shy away from talking too much about the bike given how embarrassed I am with its laden weight. It could use a diet of sorts with as much gear as I carry on the thing. I’m even more abashed when they don’t disagree.

Before continuing their walk along the river, they wish me luck and insist I visit the Petrified Forest. We’re practically standing in the state park, and not seeing it would be a shame. I thank them for the recommendation and watch as they walk side by side the rest of the way to the river. Yes, I think they must be partners out to share a wonderful day together in a part of the world they both appreciate. The thought puts a smile on my face as I ride the short detour and follow the signs to Ginkgo Petrified Forest.

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What is a petrified forest? The ladies wouldn’t say — only that I must see it to believe it. Quite literally, a petrified forest could be a forest of trees turn to stone by some force of theology, nature, or both. I’ve heard of rock gardens and wonder if I’m about to see a forest of rocks. But then I wonder why such a thing wouldn’t just be called a rock garden if that is all it is. Maybe it’s a forest of trees that look scared to death — petrified. My imagination gets the better of me, and I quickly put a halt to even crazier thoughts. It’s a good thing, too, because all I find in the park are a bunch of rocks that look like trees.

Like at Mount Rainier, the parking lot sits empty. A closed sign on the museum door says I’m either too late or too early to come in but recommends I walk around the park and read the placards if I want to know more about the rocks that look like trees. I learn that the rocks do look like trees, though they are more accurately trees that look like rocks. Too long ago for the placard to mention exactly, a healthy forest of ginkgo, maple, fir, spruce, walnut, and elm covered the Columbia Basin. An equally pre-historic basalt lava flow captured the forest in its last breath of life and covered the area in as much as five thousand feet of basalt. Protected from usual elements of decay, the trees fossilized over millions of years and have since become unearthed by a combination of ice age floods, erosion, and human activity. Some of the fossils look markedly like tree trunks or root systems; others look markedly like rocks. Each one, though, is etched with a serial number, and a sign very prominently warns of the penalties awaiting anyone caught removing the goods.

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The short detour is a win, and I silently thank the two ladies for their insight. Across the Columbia, I run across an odd display of steel horses that crowns the top of a bluff. A look in the other direction captures sleepy windmills at rest in the slack wind. I leave Interstate 90 again on a wild goose chase for an open air theater, get lost among fields of straw, and inevitably digress to the GPS and make my way east to Spokane. Ahead of the city, a smell of exhaust fills the air and the number of vehicles around me increases. The Interstate turns into a game of chutes and ladders with on ramps and off ramps and frontage roads. A dozen signs point in a dozen different directions. If not for the GPS, I’d surely be lost in the throng of traffic and drifting through Coeur d’Alene without an end in sight.

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I drive directly to my destination without error only to find that my friend Brian no longer lives in that part of the city. He gives me an address for the house and asks if I need an escort. Confident I can find my way, I decline, punch in the waypoint, and route my way through downtown, across the creek, and into the driveway of one very, very, very decorated house. It’s great to see a familiar face and hug a missed friend.

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Brian

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