The Cascade Mountains of Washington State are subjected to the regular four seasons of the northern calendar: Nearly Winter, Winter, Still Winter, and Construction. So, it's no surprise to find those familiar orange diamonds indicating road repairs on Highway 2. But this summer, a new, more ominous sign appears: "Motorcycles Use Extreme Caution."
It turns out this is the punctuation-challenged Washington State Department of Transportation (WS-DOT) at work, the same people who brought us "Litter and it will hurt". The missing comma (the sign should read "Litter, and...") renders the sentence incomprehensible. So does the new marker mean motorcyclists should use extreme caution? Or is it a warning to other road users? "Motorcycles: Use Extreme Caution..."
I ponder this while waiting for a flagman in Monroe, Washington, to wave us through a construction zone. I'm riding Suzuki's multi-talented DL650 V-Strom, while my pal Michael straddles his Trophy 1200. Warm spring sunshine on the west coast presages a pleasant three-day ride over five of Washington's prettiest mountain passes.
Named for railroad pioneer John F "Big Smoke" Stevens, who steered the construction of the Northern Pacific to the west, the 4,943-ft pass was first opened to rail traffic in 1893 - though the road would have to wait until 1938. (Stevens also pushed the Northern Pacific over Marias Pass in the Rockies and went on to become the Chief Engineer of the Panama Canal construction project).
Even on a clear day, it's normal for clouds to pile up on the west side of the Cascades, and we approach Stevens Pass under a mix of sun and cloud. Highway 2 runs east into the Cascades from Interstate 5 in Everett and follows a mostly straight run until the climb to the pass starts in earnest. As we swing through sweeping hairpins on broad pavement, the clouds relentlessly coalesce into a leaden canopy. While I'm taking snaps at the summit, the clouds begin to spit and a heavy shower is soon pounding us. Usually, the east (leeward) side of the Cascade passes remains clear, so I press on, expecting the clouds to soon part. By the time I admit that this is a downpour with no end in sight and stop to put on raingear, I'm soaked. Michael is more comfortable behind the Trophy's big fairing.
We continue east under gloomy skies to Leavenworth, a bizarre parody of an alpine village, where streets are lined with gaily painted mock-Bavarian hotels and stores, and the depressingly inevitable "Heidelburger" restaurant. Leavenworth is our overnight stop, and we check into Der Ritterhof, which thankfully parks its pastiche at the front door. The rooms are larger than usual, comfortably furnished and reasonably priced: an excellent find.
Though we've crossed the Cascade Range, we're still in the mountains, and there's another pass to surmount before we run down into the Columbia Basin and Washington's eastern plains. Next morning, the clouds have evaporated although I'm still wearing my rainsuit against the mountain chill. Blewett Pass, south from Leavenworth, rises from the Wenatchee River and runs to the head of the Yakima Canyon at Ellensburg. As part of the north-south Highway 97, it's maintained in good repair, though it still closes in winter. We spin along broad, fresh tarmac with fast, sweeping bends and wide passing lanes as the dense fir trees give way to spare clusters of ponderosa pines.