7am Aug. 13: Kenny Cuthbert
Day 2 began at Clark’s Family Cabins on Washington State Route 20, just west of Marblemount. Until 1972 the highway ended here and this stretch of the Cascades was fairly roadless; in 1972, the North Cascades Scenic Highway was completed amid much fanfare. Concrete still celebrates “Cascade Days,” a festival thought up to promote the road, even thought the road skipped the downtown. I woke up at first light. I wandered over to Tootsie’s, the restaurant attached to the cabins, and found it booming. Sitting alone at a two-seater was an old man with Native American eyes and a U.S. Navy baseball cap. We got into an easy conversation while I waited for a take-out order of sticky buns, the local specialty.
Kenny Cuthbert had an oversized coffee mug that was obviously all his. He had the look of someone who comes into Tootsie’s every morning and orders the same thing. His grandfather came into this country from Scotland, he says. I’m guessing his grandmother was the Indian. Before the highway went through, there was a dirt road up to the power plant that turned into goop whenever it rained; there was also a rail line to the plant, which is how everybody got there. Above the plant there were trails blazed by Indians and trappers and not much else. “There were people in this valley who never learned to drive,” he said. “I knew a fellow who lived in a cabin up the hill, and he’d walk into Marblemount every so often with a sack lashed to his back to get supplies, and that was it. He didn’t see the point of a car.” Another guy Kenny remembers got so mad at his old Model A when it wouldn’t start that he beat it to pieces with a big stick, right in his front yard.
Kenny smiles when he hears that we’re planning to ride over Washington Pass tomorrow. “Careful on the way down,” he says. “Guys on bikes used to wear parachutes on the downgrade. If their brakes failed, they’d pop the chute and coast to a stop. It’s a big down.”
We could have talked all day, and eaten a lot of delicious food too, but the buns came and I had to get back to the crew. I said goodbye with regret to this ambassador from the days before low-fat yogurt sprinkled with high-fiber cereal. As I stood up, the waitress brought Kenny two biscuits covered with sausage gravy and a melon slice garnish. She refilled his coffee. “Bye now,” he said. “Hope you get there.”
7/13, 2pm: The Skagit Drowned
Day 2 was a short day – only 30 miles or so, and pretty flat. Our stops are limited to where the campgrounds are. We rode through Marblemount, which has been catering to tourists since 1885, and before long we got to the power plant. The Skagit is a big river. It rises in British Columbia and drains a huge watershed of wet country, so by the time it’s done it contributes 20 percent of all the fresh water entering Puget Sound. In 1918, the City of Seattle damned it for hydroelectricity. It provided more than 100 percent of the city’s electrical needs for many years; these days, it accounts for about 25 percent. That’s a lot of carbon credits. Unfortunately, it also makes two huge dead lakes in the middle of some of the most unbelievable mountain scenery in the lower 48, and it has walloped the native salmon population.. This “green living” stuff is awfully complicated.
There are many wild stories about the things people went through to dam the river, string the lines, and flip the switch. I bought a book, “North Cascades Highway” by Joann Roe, that promises lots of entertaining reading. We arrived at the Colonial Creek Campground, which was big and packed and not very nice, and had a swell meal cooked by Sara and her sister Catherine (Jim and Bill did the dishes). We were kind of anxious because the weather was getting hot, and we had to climb 4,500 feet over 33 miles in the morning and then do the big down and another 20 miles after that in the afternoon. We resolved to go to bed early, which we did, and then some jerk in the space next to us got out his guitar and started singing Eagles tunes. Wilderness it weren’t.
Day 3: Up and Down
We were rolling at 6:35 am. Progress was steady, traffic was light, and the Cascades were sublime. After we got above the drowned river, we got to ride next to a delightful wild stream, Granite Creek, as the road rose steadily before us. Those Western highway engineers were artists with dynamite. The pitch never got too steep, and we only stopped briefly every hour for more water and food. At 10 am, Catherine drove up with more water – I went through nine bottles by the end of the day. By noon we were at the top (Jim at Washington Pass, middle), and we made a short video in which Jim screams, “We feel GREAT!”
Then we started a seven-mile long 7% downgrade that was like a ski run from the top of Vail. It was just as thrilling and just as dangerous – you wanted to let it rip, but above 30 miles per hour you realize just how easy it would be to go over the side or how far you’d skid if you went down, so you hit the brakes.
We descended from 5400 feet at the top of the pass to an elevation of about 1,000 feet when the road finally leveled out. It got hotter as we continued down, until at the end it was truly furnace-like. I do mean exactly that. It felt as though you had your face next to the vent of a forced hot air furnace, and all that dry, hot air was blowing on you constantly. There were zero clouds. The hills were burnt brown, like Eastern California. We rode past large irrigated alfalfa fields, stopped at a charming grocery store for rich hippies in Mazama, and then panted our way down a beautiful stretch of asphalt called Goat Creek Road (below).
After 90 beautiful but extremely hot minutes, we pulled into our destination for the night, the town of Winthrop. It is both the regional center and a major sink for tourist dollars, and everyone on main street seems happy and well-fed. Earlier that day we had seen cops in soldier uniforms massing at the side of the road in a couple of places. Perhaps the military dump truck loaded with marijuana plants that we saw at the gas station that evening was their day’s work (below). Although the cop guarding the haul was very nice, he wouldn’t say.