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North Cascades Highway
WORDS: Daniel Wakefield Pasley | PHOTOS: Daniel Wakefield Pasley
North America doesn’t have a Col d’Izoard or a Mortirolo. Our mountain passes aren’t inhabited by ghosts of riders past, at least not French or Italian ones. No echo of “piano piano piano” can be heard between our rocky canyon walls. The trees, and they’ve been here since the beginning, don’t recall seeing a red polka-dot or solid yellow jersey going by. Our roads aren’t soaked in the blood, sweat and tears of cycling greats.
Europe, center of the known cycling world has its legends, its traditions, heroes and myths. So much drama. Cols and cobbles, tours and one-day Classics. But if many of us in the New World, myself included, are jealous, it is only for a moment.
Because, while the mountains of the Old World are unarguably magnificent, a network of roads and villages clinging to their sides, edges and tops, it is a land that has also borne witness to centuries of human struggle. Here, the weight of history is truly palpable. The 40 Years War, the 100 Years War, World Wars One and Two. At their root, ever shifting and disputed borders, ideologies and religious strife. Death and struggle lie heavy and thick, tradition tight and claustrophobic. The past is a burden under which the sky hangs and fades and the ground buckles and wears thin. Even when it comes to cycling, racing and its heroes can seem, in some ways unobtainable, as daunting as they are inspiring.
The North Cascades Highway, on the other hand, born September 2nd 1972, is 36 years old and practically brand new. Still blinking and fresh, North Cascades transverses a north-south mountain spine of epic proportions. Crossing over and through a part of the New World so natural, so virginal and whole, it took 160 years and more than four starts (Skagit River Road, Methow-Barren Road, Roosevelt Highway, North Cross State Highway) to convince a primitive footpath into the paved concourse it is today. And still, near four decades later, it’s the only road crossing the North Cascades, nothing leads south or north, no junction or turn-off for almost 100 miles.
North Cascades the ride, is a 78-mile out-and-back (156 miles total) starting in the west and ending in the east, it’s that simple - head over the mountain, spend the night and ride back. That said, it rides like an odyssey with lakes, rivers and glaciers, and all the flora and fauna in-between, opening up around every corner and over every rise. Pristine whites, blues and yellows pop and sooth. Mountain-tops, palisades and peaks eclipse and reveal and unfold in a steady succession of grandeur.
From it’s side, the ride is shaped like a scalene triangle. The longer more rolling flank on the western side of the Cascades. The ride starts where a small market meets a hydro-electric museum, and where a large, black locomotive engine sleeps parked for posterity and photo ops in the grass off to the side of the road. Leave your car, safe for the night, in the parking lot across the street from the market and state park bathroom. From the beginning it rushes, dense and wet, into spiky-green evergreens and mist. Past Diablo lake, charging and arcing and climbing for Rainy Pass.
The steeper and shorter flank, the eastern side, is covered in open stands of pine, cirques, tarns and snowfields, and wind, wild temperature swings and rattlesnakes. The eastern tip is Winthrop, a street-defined town dressed in a cowboy facade, tourists and primitive wall-sized maps of the region. The tourist come-in on ‘Made in the U-S-of-A’ motorbikes that rumble and slouch. They come-in on rental cars and trucks with maps, fishing rods, digital cameras and camping props. The Shafer Museum is a window into the past. Campsites and RV parking are a five-minute walk away. The Methow runs through it.
But it’s the tip-top of the triangle, Washington Pass, at 5,477ft (1,699m if you prefer). Just one of several dozen massive rocky points that make-up a spine spanning two million acres of stunning relief. Two million acres of dramatic and raw topography; Liberty Bell, Thunderarm, Diablo and Panther Creek. Two million acres of wild. Where the ride and the landscape suspend disbelief, gravity and time. Where rider, bike and road, and landscape, roll along together without history and the past. Without even the future really, just the now.