Vintage is relative. So is big. Or so I found out in the final days of my couch-surfing trek.
For those just joining us, up until this point I'd been meandering my way north from California for a week (as cheaply as possible) on my way to the big Chinook Pass opening ride by Seattle's Vintage Motorcycle Enthusiasts (VME) club. The VME host a number of vintage-themed events around the Puget Sound. Having been to one of its bike nights and been blown away by the quantity, number, and variety of super-cool old (and old-looking) bikes, I couldn't wait for my next VME event, and with a little coaxing from event-organizer Jeff Earle (i.e., a couch to crash on and a couple of home-cooked meals), I made the trek up.
A week of crashing at friends' houses, one night camping paid for by a riding buddy (thanks Bill!), and only one mooching failure (a rainy night at a Motel 6) culminated with a couple of nights on Jeff's couch just southeast of Seattle in Auburn, Washington. Jeff's bachelor pad featured quite plush couch-crashing. I took over the living room, commandeering several outlets, the coffee table, and making full use of his WiFi. Technically, this was only the second couch of the trip, the rest being guest beds, but one of the prime rules of couch surfing is to always, always accept the upgrade.
Early Saturday morning, Jeff pulled his '68 BSA B44 out of the garage, filled it with pricey racing fuel (because ethanol blends found at gas stations delaminate vintage fiberglass fuel tanks), and kicked it to life. He even had an old-school bedroll strapped to the back seat. I felt a little weird on a fully modern Triumph Rocket III Touring bike. I packed my kit into a pair of plastic saddlebags and a Saddlemen nylon rollybag, and was ready to go. My shame in my non-vintage-ness was over by the time we got to the gas station in Enumclaw.
For one thing, I'm guessing the kickstarting thing gets old pretty quickly. And following along behind the little single, which tops out at around 55 mph, made my old four-speed Sportster seem like a rocket ship. The roads between Auburn and Enumclaw were pretty scenic and hilly, with frequent glimpses of Mt. Rainier's snowy peak poking out of the low peaks around it, so the low speeds were perfectly fine. Green Valley Road, followed by WA-169, took us through forests and farm fields, and in and out of little valleys.
When I got to the meeting place, I finally got over my vintage envy. Our riding crew mostly consisted of '70s and '80s Japanese bikes, with a '90s Hayabusa thrown in for good measure. Granted, the Rocket was the only 21st century machine here, but it looked the part of a classic more than everything this side of the BSA.
Jeff (in his new role as the VME's PR officer) informed me that the VME does huge rides and bike nights throughout the year, but this was not one of them. For one thing, this was the club's first overnighter, and going a fairly good distance over a mountain pass, which might have intimidated some of the owners of more delicate machinery...or those who don't know how to roll a bedroll like Jeff does.
The ride itself was simple enough: WA-410 up and over Chinook Pass, which is one of the closer approaches to Mt. Rainier. It had only been opened a couple weeks before our June ride, so that meant lots of snow. To the jaded Southern Californian (me), the 5,400-foot pass doesn't seem all that high, but this far north, a mile high means frigid temps for much of the year.
The beginning of the ride was a little grim for me. WA-410 slowly climbs through timber farms for the first few miles before getting into the Rainier National Park and Wanatchee National Forest. Though I'm definitely no tree-hugger, the scars the clear-cutting left on the land stood out in stark contrast to the beauty of everything else around.
Climbing up through the park, and later the forest, improved things immeasurably. The road started hugging the mountainsides, with occasional glimpses of the mighty volcano in the distance, while snow accumulated more and more on the roadsides, until the road was flanked by twin walls of the white stuff on either side. Cross-country skiers poled alongside of our group, as well as many other groups of riders out to experience the odd feeling of riding in a snow tunnel. We stopped several times at some fantastic vistas to take in the view. Temperatures were pretty warm considering the snowpack; probably in the high 50s up near the top.
Once through the pass and on the east side, it actually just got better, as the road followed the north side of a long canyon out of the snow. Little waterfalls from the snowmelt covered the canyon walls, passing under the road on their way to the valley below. Eventually the road (still the 410) reaches the level of the American River and runs alongside for miles. The Little Naches and American rivers came together spectacularly right near the road, which is right where our camp for the night was. Little Naches Campground sits right on the Little Naches, which (like all the other rivers around here) was full and churning with freshly melted snow. Thankfully, temperatures were a bit higher than they were at the peak, but still brisk. Though solidly in the middle of the wilderness, we found the comforts of civilization right nearby with Whistl'n Jack's Saloon just a few miles east on 410, complete with gas station and mini mart.
Jeff had been up there a couple days prior to stake out a campsite and found a pleasant retired gentleman who helped hold our spot, and even let us throw tents on his patch of riverside heaven. Little Naches Road follows the river and leads to a number of other campsites. Since it was paved, we decided to see how far we could follow it. It turned out it went for a good 20 miles before going gravel on us, twisting alongside the river, with lots of spots to either take a chilly swim or climb on the rocks. It was a good ride with great views, and unlike 410, there was no traffic either.
After a pair of meals at Jack's, many beers around a blazing campfire, and a chilly night in a compact sleeping bag designed for warmer weather, I bid farewell to the great bunch of guys I'd spent the last day with, and Jeff, who'd inspired my trip. Luckily, I wasn't quite done yet.
Since I was knee-deep in the Cascades and on my way home, I did what I could to prolong my time off of the Interstate. The next day I broke east on the 410 to where it meets up with US-12 just outside of the town of Naches. The 12 then took me south and west, with some of the best views of Rainier anywhere, which was bliss to a volcano chaser like me.
I tried to keep up my volcano-chasing ways, stalking the dangerous prey of Mt. St. Helens next, but it was not to be. WA-131 cuts south off of the 12 and heads very close to the active peak. Signs said from the start that it was closed 13 miles south of the junction, but thinking I might be able to scoot past the closure on two wheels, I took the bait and cut south. The area around St. Helens is very different than the area around Rainier-much more lush and wet. After those 13 miles, I learned that Washington State does not screw around with road closures, as a gate and barricade thoroughly closed the pass to one and all.
Once I'd blown a bunch of extra time on that detour, I had to haul ass. Motorcycle Cruiser editor Andrew Cherney was having a barbecue at his house in Portland that night that I had to boogie to get to. This was the end of the back roads portion of my trip, and it didn't disappoint, as the 12 wound past a series of gorgeous lakes before depositing me on I-5.
Just as the progression from walking to covered wagon to train to plane greatly reduced travel times at every step, going from scenic back roads to interstate can be a jarring time warp as well. After spending most of the day going 150 miles, I covered the last 80 to Portland in just over an hour. The BBQ wasn't even started when I got there, thinking I was going to be late. It's like jet lag, but different.
Despite a full belly and the hour approaching 8, I wasn't done for the day. Unlike the trip up, I didn't want to camp anymore and I was running short on time. I had to be back in LA by Tuesday afternoon to pick up the kids from school, and my stop for Monday night was in Santa Cruz, California. So, to spend a little time with a(nother) friend, and get myself 100-plus miles closer to home, I took off to Eugene, Oregon. The nice thing about June in the northern latitudes is that I wasn't even riding in the dark when I showed up well past 9 p.m. I was still able to sit up 'til the wee hours drinking wine and sleeping in yet another plush guest bed for the incredible low price of free.
It's amazing to me how much freeway can be eaten up in a single day. Though the 685 miles covered that fine Monday morning was not my single-day record, I probably hung out in Eugene until 11 before even leaving. And the climates you can blow through when you're traveling at those speeds goes from frosty mountain passes to hot farm country, or the chill of the Central Coast. My layers and good riding gear helped keep me somewhat comfortable the whole time with just a quick switch when stopping for gas.
I crashed with a different friend than the first time through, again scoring a bed, and indeed a whole guest room-my high school chum, Aaron. Due to the influence of multiple energy drinks on the road, it was another late night testing to see if beer would counteract the effects of street-legal meth.
As the trip wound down, I was relieved, but also sad that this madcap life, living from one friend's spare space to the next, was coming to an end. It was easily my most satisfying road trip, as I got to spend time with so many good friends, but never for so long that they began to get on my nerves like on a long trip with friends. The freedom that so many seek on the open road was mine in a true sense, while I had only myself to rely on much of the time, there were also no limitations or negotiations, just ride.
I almost picked up the kids on time too.