onroadby Tim Leary

Yeah, I know I should be working. But the snow outside my office window has drifted into the shape of a motorcycle. It doesn’t take much to get me thinking about motorcycling, so my brain floats off to last summer’s trip to the Pacific Northwest.

My wife, Kristin, and I began our 6500 mile journey on a Friday at 5:00pm Sneaking in five hours on our GL1500 Friday evening kept our ambitious mileage goals feasible. We had friends to visit in Buffalo, WY, Olympia, WA and Billings, MT and a three-day wedding celebration to attend in Kalispell, MT. To add to the scheduling insanity, we had campground reservations in Yellowstone and the San Juan Islands, WA. All of this crammed into 15 days?

We rolled right through several quaint Minnesota towns. St. James, MountainLake and Windom are in line for short day trips next summer.

Our first night was unusually cold for mid-July. We stopped in HeronLake’s city campground. For no additional charge we were lovingly serenaded to sleep by the squealing tires of the Drunken Teenager Racing Club. Regardless of their attempts, the club did not ruin the overall serenity of the lakeside campground.

We woke Saturday morning with a mild case of New Bike Paranoia. We were relieved to find the bike still there and still standing with all of its parts still attached. By 7:30 we were on the road enjoying our Twizzlers breakfast and actually looking forward to getting onto the freeway so we could make some serious time.

Sparking us out of our South Dakota comas were occasional blips of beauty: the MissouriRiver basin with its lumpy bald banks, the pristine Buffalo Gap National Grassland’s unmolested vistas and the Black Hills’ rugged terrain. In between those spots we concentrated on getting good tans.

Though the Sturgis Rally was still three weeks away, we spoke with several H.D. enthusiasts who were getting a jump on the celebration. When we neared the Sturgis exit, the frenzy of bikes nearly sucked us in for a brief visit. The allure of greater sights yet to come kept our Honda-bago steered toward the west.

The sky looked spooky as we entered Wyoming, but it dropped no more than a few sprinkles…until we got to Gillette. Then the clouds burst open with a vengeance. It was a good time to stop for dinner. Fortunately, the nastiness was brief and headed east. To the west, the early evening sky was bright, so off we went.

Arriving in Buffalo, we set out to find our friends’ restaurant before dark. The brief reunion with our friends included an overnight at their ranch in the hills overlooking Buffalo. Although tempted to quit our jobs and stay there, we continued west.

onroad6_aCompared to Saturday’s 13 hour ride, Sunday’s short hop to Yellowstone was easy beautiful.

Outside Buffalo Hwy 16 started to climb into the Bighorn Mountains. The BighornNational Forest had gorgeous wooded mountain scenery and plenty of twisty roads. What’s more, the forest’s campgrounds were clean and empty because most travelers headed to Yellowstone&emdash;just 250 miles farther.

As we left the forest we entered the flat high plains and rode to Worland. There we turned north on highway 16-20, then west on 14-60 and rolled into Cody.

Kristin and I followed tradition and enjoyed a relaxing lunch in the blistering hot parking lot of the local mega food mart. I think the bike gets hotter while sitting there turned off. Don’t ask me why we don’t ride to a shady park nearby.

“Refreshed” we charged to our Yellowstone reservations. Oddly, there was a boat dealership of considerable size among the sand and tumbleweeds on the edge of Cody. Who would try to sell boats in the middle of a pile of dusty rocks? We rode into a narrow canyon that opened abruptly, revealing the answer to the boat dealership question. Before us was the huge Shoshone Buffalo Bill Reservoir.

We arrived in Yellowstone at mid-afternoon and had time to tour about a third of the park by sunset. We crammed the remaining two thirds of the park into the following day.

Tuesday morning we packed our gear just before the gray skies began to rain. We headed south on highway 191 to see the Grand Tetons. The rain was not only cold at those higher elevations but allowed us to see only about three percent of the mountains&emdash;the bottom three percent. Just as we were leaving Grand TetonNational Park, the clouds began to break. I was unable to take my eyes off of those majestic peaks, until we were nearly creamed by a UPS truck.

At the Idaho border we turned onto highway 26, which twisted past the enormous Palisades Dam and Reservoir. From there Idaho became one miserably dull experience. The highlights were our parking lot lunches. Honestly.

To add to our misery, powerful wind gusts nearly knocked us off the road. The pounding gusts came like sledgehammer blows. We had to lean hard to our right. Then the wind would abruptly stop, causing us to swerve sharply. Just as we would regain our balance, another gust would hit and push us to the left. There was nowhere to go. For more than three hours, I could drive only 40 mph.

The skies began to turn black. Many miles in the distance I could see a curtain of rain crossing the freeway. Up to this point, the rain had been intermittent and fairly light, but that humongous storm cloud didn’t look as rider-friendly. Our only chance to escape unscathed was a narrow gap in the curtain of storm. If we timed it just right, we could zoom through that hole just as it passed over the freeway.

As we approached the curtain, it looked as if the timing would work. Then I realized that the hole was a quarter mile long tunnel. With the wind still pounding I yelled to Kristin to lean forward with me. We entered the tunnel and a torrent of rain.

As we exited the tunnel, the wind slammed us from the other direction and the temperature dropped ten degrees. I saw on my right a whispy, 20 foot mini-tornado about fifty yards off the road!

Onward we rode, battling the gusty winds now coming from the left. We found a developed exit and raced to the nearest campground to avoid the next wave of storms. They never came. That evening at Lake Walcott was quiet and clear. After spending an afternoon riding through Satan’s dishwasher, I slept very soundly.

Wednesday morning the skies were clear, and we couldn’t get out of Idaho fast enough. By noon, we were off I84 and crossing the onroad6_bborder into Oregon.

On Hwy 26, the high road across Oregon, we began climbing small foothills. At Prineville, we took Hwy 126 to Sisters.

We headed up the side of a rainy Mount Washington on Hwy 22. When we came down the other side, we were in a dense rain forest. The trees were gigantic and the forests lush. The mountains at Detroit Lake jutted right out of the water.

Thursday morning brought more damp skies, as we continued west on Hwy 22 to the coast. 101 North took us down to sea level. An hour later we were crossing the Columbia River at Astoria and heading into Washington state. Being ahead of schedule and getting a rare visit from the sun motivated us to stop and see some sights. My brother waited in Olympia, WA, so we got back on the horse and headed north.

After two nights in the home of Olympia beer, we left for campground reservations on Orcas Island in the San Juans.

We rode up I5 through Tacoma and Seattle to Anacortes and the ferry to the islands. The ferry made stops at several of the closely grouped San Juan Islands, giving us a great tour of the area.

We rode the Wing all around Orcas. The large horseshoe-shaped island housed small farms and ranches tucked into the rolling hills. Immaculate grounds surrounded every colorful building. Tiny fishing villages hid at the ends of narrow roads, their fishing boats resting on the sand where low tide abandoned them.

Moran State Park occupied one end of the island. A mountain peak in the park had a very old, stone observation tower, which provided breathtaking views of the other islands, the mainland and Canada’s Vancouver Island.

While waiting for the ferry on Sunday, someone spotted a small group of Orcas whales in the bay about 200 yards off shore. One of the locals said that they had never before seen them that close to shore.

Upon reaching the mainland at Anacortes, we decided to backtrack a bit. We went south on Hwy 20 and took the ferry over to Port Townsend. Then we rolled west on Hwy 101 to Port Angeles and into Olympic National Park for the night.

Monday morning served us glorious weather for the third day in a row. We took advantage of it by riding the twisties up to the top of the park’s Hurricane Ridge. The view from up there included glaciers and mountain peaks.

On the ferry back to Anacortes we got our first real views of Mount Baker (60 miles away) and Mount Rainier (100 miles away). The mountains dominated the horizon even from those distances.

At Anacortes we pointed our Honda-minium east on Hwy 20 and began our journey home. We still had a week to go before arriving at home, but there was something depressing about making that big turn and “heading back.”

Early Tuesday morning we entered the North Cascades National Park. This park’s beauty came from its steep, snow-covered mountains and deep valleys.

We rolled right through Libby, MT without gassing up. After riding for an hour into the scraggly nothingness, the town Kalispell still hadn’t appeared, so we put our tails between our legs and rode all the way back to Libby. Ouch. We decided to stay for the night.

We left before dawn and made it to Kalispell before 9:00am Wednesday&emdash;just in time to join our friends in the wedding party on a white water rafting trip.

Saturday, the morning after the wedding, we hit the road early. We had to be in Billings that night to meet up with some of Kristin’s old college friends. Hwy 2 east to 89 south to 15 south to Helena took us from jagged and snow-topped to flat and grassy. The calm admiration of those sparsely populated lands was interrupted repeatedly by gas station panic. My advice for biking through Montana is to gas up at every available opportunity, because you’ll need it.

From Helena we rode 15 south, took the shortcut on 69 south and then burnt up I90 east into Billings. Yes, it was nice to drive 90 mph legally in Montana, but man, the gas went fast. You’d swear there’s a hole in your tank

The speed shaved a few hours off our drive time, and we reached Billings by mid-afternoon. Although a one night visit between long-separated friends is not enough, we left by 7:00am Sunday morning.

Our heads hit the pillows on our bed back home sixteen hours later. The next day was a workday, and we would have to rejoin the civilized world by taking showers and shaving. At least we didn’t have to work on re-establishing our time management skills.



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