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Mount Baker Street

September 26, 2011
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Mt. Baker marker

The GTS at the Mount Baker historical marker (Orin O’Neill photos)

There was one last gasp of summer last week. Wednesday was supposed to be sunny. But it wasn’t. It was warm, however.

I had resolved to ride up to Artist Point, which is the end of WA 542, aka Mt. Baker Highway. I’d attempted to go once before as part of a group, but a vertigo attack cut that attempt short.

I’d hoped better weather would be more conducive. That, and riding alone.

Though occasional raindrops made their presence known on the GTS’ windscreen (and my face), the sky to the east was light, and there were no gray smudges—the trip would be dry.

The big-box retail landscape quickly turned rural. Abandonment became more common: for every five or so houses surrounded by dead cars and trucks, there was an abandoned house, many being consumed by moss and vines. Or graffiti.

Dead buses

This collection of dead buses was unique, and not just because it’s the only collection of dead buses on Mt. Baker Highway; except for one that’s out of the picture, all wear the former livery of Snohomish County’s Community Transit. I used to ride on the GM buses on the left and far right, which were used on CT’s commuter runs to Seattle.

Many of the abandoned real properties were far enough out of town to give the impression their owners didn’t look in on them very often. I couldn’t help thinking they might make good squats. If things come to that.

Fortunes changed once past the junction with WA 9. Well-tended houses anchored fields full of well-tended horses. Probably not race horses, but certainly beloved pets.

The last town before the end of the road is Glacier. It is literally a wide spot in the road, but it pinches down considerably in order to cross a bridge. I decided to stop for a snack.

Inside the store

There’s a combination grocery store and restaurant on the mountain-bound side of the road. Glacier is one of the many former logging towns in the Cascade foothills, and as you can see, it caters as much to the folks who live on the side roads as those just passing thru. Many of the locals, it seems, still watch movies on VHS.

Wanna bagel?

This being Western Washington, of course there were espresso drinks on offer. And a bagel bar.

Once past Glacier, traffic tailed off to almost nothing (well, except for the squid on the sportbike who blew past about halfway to the summit), and the road started to climb.

Mount Baker, known to the indigenous folks as Kulshan (“steep” in the native language, which the road quickly became), is the northernmost of the Cascade volcanic peaks. In fact, it was the one everyone thought would blow until Mount Saint Helens erupted in 1980. Mount Baker’s summit peeks over the smaller mountains and forests, and this characteristic is reproduced in logos of all types in this part of the world.

Great view, huh?

You get the picture. There’s all manner of spectacular scenery, but the road is narrow and lacks shoulders, so photographing what you see can be difficult.

As the road approaches Artist Point, it gets narrower, steeper and twistier. And there are no guard rails to prevent little scooters and their riders from plunging down steep mountainsides. This would be where the vertigo comes from.

I’m not sure how far I was from the summit, but the wind picked up considerably. Having nearly been blown back to Portland trying to visit Multnomah Falls, I had no desire to find out just how bad it was. A wide spot presented itself, so I turned downhill and headed back.

The GTS has really effective compression braking, so there was no worry about using up the brakes. In fact, I had to give it gas to descend at the posted 35-mph speed limit.

Downtown Maple Falls

The GTS had no difficulties ascending the mountainside, but of course it consumes a lot more fuel doing so. The gauge showed about half full approaching Maple Falls, so I pulled into the Shell station to fill up (20 cents less per gallon than in town). Like Glacier, Maple Falls is a wide spot in the road, though there seem to be many more tract housing developments close by. You’ll notice the liquor store also offers other products and services. What’s on your list today?

Before long, we were back among the big-box retail and beige apartment complexes. I stopped at the gas station/convenience store/Domino’s/Subway for something like lunch, and these coffee urns caught my eye.

Corrosive coffee

Hazardous-materials spills are also graded by level. Just sayin’.

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2 Comments
  1. September 26, 2011 8:33 am

    Interesting journey! No doubt about it, I’d head straight to the Level 5 urn!

  2. Jack Riepe permalink
    September 27, 2011 8:51 pm

    Dear Orin:

    What a neat ride report! I would not push my luck on narrow, twisty roads, without guardrails if I had a choice either. And up in the mountains, wind gusts can really get pushy. No one argues that riding a motorcycle puts you in the videogame… But that doesn’t mean you get to enjoy the view though.

    Neat story… Great ride… Soothing pictures… What I have come to expect from this blog.

    Fondest regards,
    Jack/reep
    Twisted Roads

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