Thoughts and Adventures From Greenlite Heavy Industries

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Over The Top - Highway 20

Many years ago a friend of mine wrote a story with the theme of transforming a dream into memory. It’s a theme I’m not afraid to steal. For two decades now I’ve been driving over the North Cascades Highway in a car loaded down with either mountaineering or skiing gear, and often I’ve said aloud “man I sure would like to ride this.” Summers are too short and time slips away, but after several false starts I managed to get a group together; August 14 was the date.

The alarm on my James Bond wristwatch never fails me and I was pulling on my new cycling shorts at four AM. Bradley, my partner in this particular crime, is, like me, an early riser and he was standing patiently beneath a dusky sky when I pulled my trusty Subaru into the Mercer Island Park and Ride. Twenty minutes later we met up with Kris and Wendy beneath Interstate 5 near Greenlake. Bradley and I were planning on riding one hundred miles round trip from the Colonial Creek campground to the Mazama General Store while Kris and Wendy planned to turn around thirty two miles down the uphill road at Washington Pass.

The temperature at Colonial Creek was cool, but the clear windless skies foretold heat so I put on sunscreen and left the arm warmers in the car. Normally I’m not much of a sunscreen kind of fellow, as it hints of forethought, but it was going to be a long day in the sun so what the hell.

Colonial Creek to Mazama is nearly to the foot fifty miles, and since I believe in the keep it simple stupid mantra I elected to start our day where Colonial Creek flows into the unnaturally green waters of Diablo Lake. Ten miles east of the Seattle City Light company town of Newhalem and sandwiched between the Diablo and Ross Dams, Diablo Lake is clear and toe numbing cold, but from the road it reflects a deep emerald green due to sunlight passing through microscopic particles of the mineral gneiss which has been ground off the surrounding mountains and held in suspension in the glacial waters.

Highway 20 eastbound from Colonial Creek rises steeply towards the Ross Lake Resort parking lot and provides no opportunity for the legs to adjust to a long day of pushing and pulling pedals. With only a pair of short respites the trip up to Rainy Pass is entirely uphill. We were in cycle tourist mode and consequently kept the speed slow and steady, the grade was gentle enough to allow each of us to find an all day rhythm and gradually we knocked off the miles. The road was smooth, the shoulder wide and the sun warm and I greatly enjoyed the soft pace and the rare opportunity to converse with my riding partners. I made good use of the opportunity to tell stories of the mountains I’ve climbed or attempted to climb. At one point I think Wendy became fairly exhausted with yet another story that began with “I remember one time…”

The drop from Rainy Pass was much too short and after only a minute of speedy descent we were back again to climbing – this time up to Washington Pass. Once again the grade was gradual and I feel into a smooth easy cadence and sooner than expected the fanglike Liberty Bell Tower began appearing over the treetops. At Washington Pass we joined the Harley Riders at the precipitous overlook where Bradley and I caught our first glimpse of the daredevil descent into the furnace of Eastern Washington.

The water fountains at the elaborate structure in the center of the Washington Pass Overlook parking lot were turned off, quite a disappointment, but it was downhill for all of us so our survival wasn’t in question. Bradley bid goodbye to Kris and Wendy as we headed east down the seventeen mile descent into Mazama.
Despite a recent remodel the Mazama General store was still funky and eclectic. The little store in the middle of nowhere is one of my favorite places, it was refreshing to see that even though things change they also stay the same. Bradley and I rehydrated and ate sandwiches in the shade, oblivious to the fact that the thermometer was now reading triple digits. “How hot do you think it is?” Bradley asked.

“Must be at least ninety,” I replied. I was shallow by twelve degrees.

Seventeen miles of continual uphill in one hundred and two degree heat is a bit daunting and luckily I now have the maturity to know how to pace myself. At times like these you need to count your blessings and I was grateful for the small tailwind and the stunning scenery. This little pocket of Northeastern Washington is my kind of place.

I drank nearly the full measure of my two oversize water bottles and wondering why I hadn’t packed a third when I hit Washington Pass. I was thinking of flagging down a passing car to inquire as to whether or not they might sell me a can of Coke. As it turned out I scarcely took a drink for the next thirty miles as it was nearly all screaming downhill.

Bradley and I arrived at the car a full nine hours after starting out, our odometers agreed at one hundred and one miles. Our riding time was almost an even eight hours. We soaked our legs in the ice bath known as Diablo Lake and then got on the road, stopping at the Buffalo Run restaurant in Marblemount for elk burgers and cold Stella beer.

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