THE MOONLIT MOUNTAIN RIDE

By Jay D. Johnson

Was this our MOST memorable ride? ~ Maybe! ~ Bridget and I have had several, but this is certainly one we will never forget. It started out to be just a regular day-trip on a route I’d taken dozens times. But, events were to turn things so that I’ll never look at this route the same way again.

To understand how all this happened, you have to know some things about the motorcycle we rode at that time. The year was about 1980. I owned a 1976 Suzuki GT750, a bike that has become known as the “Water Buffalo.” This is because one thing that made it unique for the time was that it had a water-cooled engine. This was before the days of the Gold Wing. All other motorcycle engines were air-cooled. At that time 750cc was considered a large touring bike. The Buffalo had a 2-stroke engine with three cylinders.

If you have ever had a 2-stroke engine, you know that you have to mix oil in the fuel. But rather than make you do that every time you filled the tank, Suzuki designed a device that added the oil from a reserve tank as the fuel was fed to the carburetors. The oil reserve tank had to be filled with 2-cycle oil every fourth or fifth time you’d gas up. My habit was to fill the oil reserve whenever it got down to half full. Plus, I always carried one or two quarts of 2-cycle oil in the faring just in case of emergency. This is because if you ran the oil reserve dry, you’d burn up the engine in just a few miles.

My big mistake (and I made it more than once on this trip) was under estimating how much distance I was traveling that day. We began at our regular meeting place early one September Sunday morning. For a sunny Fall ride it was not a huge group. My recollection is that there were less than a dozen bikes when we left the Seattle area. The plan was to ride the “ North Cascades Highway ” through the Cascade Mountain Range to the little tourist town of Winthrop and then return. Normally, I take Highway #9 north to Arlington and then take the backcountry roads to Darrington and connect with the North Cascade Highway (SR #20) at Rockport. From Rockport to our destination of Winthrop was another 95 miles east up over 5,477 foot high Washington Pass and down toward the valleys of the Columbia River basin.

This stretch of highway is one of the most scenic mountain roads in the Northwest. It is a continuing procession of mountain crags, lakes and meadows. There are several spectacular lookouts, each with breath-taking views. This highway was not built to accommodate commercial traffic. And, because it is mostly national forest land there is little development and no services. Not everyone was able to make the complete ride. At each stop one or two bikes would head back west and by the time we got all the way to Winthrop we were down to about four motorcycles.

We arrived at Winthrop at about 3:30 that afternoon. Normally we spend about an hour exploring the town, get something to eat and then ride back to Seattle the same way we came. It is a faster trip going home because we don’t stop at the lookouts and we skip the little backcountry roads. We continue past Rockport (where we re-fuel) for another 35 miles to the I-5 freeway and then head south to Seattle . It’s about a four-hour ride not counting our gas stops. If we’d left Winthrop at 5:00 pm we would be home at 9:30 or 10:00 . This is what the others did, but Bridget and I had a different plan.

For the sake of variety, I decided to take a different route home. My plan was to ride south to Wenatchee and then take the Steven’s Pass Highway back across the Cascade Mountains to Seattle . This would make our route that day one great circle. It was longer this way and I knew it would be late when we got home, but it was a warm day and the ride over Steven’s pass shouldn’t be too cold. We had an early dinner and filled Suzi’s gas tank at about 6:00 p.m. I happened to notice that the station closed at 7:00 p.m on Sundays. We rode south toward Wenatchee alone.

About a half hour after we left Winthrop the sun was setting behind the Cascade Range . Evening twilight was turning toward the dark of night when a light came on just above my tach and speedometer. It was the warning light telling me that the oil reserve needed filling. I was mildly surprised and mentally kicked myself for not checking the oil reserve when I’d gassed up back at Winthrop . It was not easy to fill the oil reserve in the dark. But, there was still some twilight and up ahead I could see a single light by the highway. There was no traffic, so I pulled to a stop directly under its bluish glow. It was a single street light that lit an intersection with an unnamed dirt road. We were somewhere in the Okanogan National Forest . I reached into the faring for one of my spare quarts of 2-cycle oil. None was there. I couldn’t believe it! “I ALWAYS CARRIED SPARES!” There we were on a wilderness road, still 75 or 80 miles from Wenatchee on Sunday evening with no oil.

The next town was Chelan, at least 30 miles away. I wasn’t sure my oil reserve would last that far. And, Chelan was a small town. I couldn’t be certain they would have 2-cycle oil even if they had an open gas station. The small town of Twisp was only 10 miles back. It was a long shot, but they might have a general store or gas station still open. But, if I couldn’t find 2-cycle oil there, I knew that if I rode quickly I could be back at Winthrop by about 7:00 o’clock . I decided my best choice would be to return. I told Bridget we were headed back toward Winthrop .

As I suspected, Twisp had no store or service station. I didn’t even slow down as we sailed past the tiny town. It was a couple of minutes after 7:00 p.m. when we pulled in to the only gas station in Winthrop . The lights were off and the “CLOSED” sign was hanging on the door. I could see a light in the back and the front door was not locked. A gruff guy in a dirty shirt was counting the day’s receipts. He glared at me and declared that the station was “Closed!” “I only need a quart of 2-cycle oil.” I pleaded. He shrugged and said that as long as he didn’t have to turn the gas pumps on it would be OK. I bought the oil and he locked the door behind me. As I emptied the container into the bike’s oil reservoir I heard his car leave from behind the station. The town, which is always lively in the daytime, was now absolutely empty and deserted. It was completely dark except for a couple of streetlights. I looked at Bridget and told her we needed to decide what to do next.

My first thought was that we should probably forget about riding back by way of Wenatchee to the south. We had lost over an hour and a half and Wenatchee was well over a hundred miles away. If we went that way, it would be very late by the time we got home. And, I didn’t know if Wenatchee would have gas stations open late on Sunday night. We could get stuck there and have to spend the night.

Returning to Rockport was a 95-mile ride. From there we could be home in a couple of hours. There was nothing at Rockport but a gas station and it might not even be open. But the towns of Concrete and Sedro Wolley were also on the route and would probably have gas. Even if they were not open, we could probably get all the way to Interstate 5 on a tank of gas and....  “Oh My Gosh!” I suddenly realized I was in trouble.

It suddenly dawned on me that although I had filled my tank there at Winthrop , I had since ridden over 60 miles. A third of my gas was now gone. The nearest gas was at the station at Rockport. If it was not open, the next town was Concrete and I might not make it that far. We would run out of gas and have to spend the night by the highway. Our choice was to spend the night in Winthrop or risk finding gas somewhere along Highway 20. There weren’t any hotel or motel rooms available at Winthrop , so we made the decision to risk getting gas at Rockport. We got on the bike and headed west on Highway 20.

In the summer time the North Cascades Highway is active with tourists. There is no commercial traffic to speak of, but the road is alive with everything from Winnebagos to bicycles. But this was now toward the end of the season. Soon the winter snows would close Highway 20 for the next five months. 

There had been cars and a few motor homes on the road that day. But now it was night and there was literally nobody on the road. For the first few miles we only passed a couple of cars headed the other direction. We began climbing up into the mountains. As the elevation became higher, the temperature dropped lower. I noticed that we no longer saw any vehicles. Riding into the darkness, I could see the full moon rising in my rear view mirrors. The skies were totally cloudless. As we ascended that lonely highway, the light from the moon illuminated the rocky slopes that rose on both sides of us. We continued to climb into the night on the lonely, deserted mountain road. I tried to think of alternatives to increase our fuel supply. I remembered that there was road construction going on near the summit of Washington Pass. Perhaps I could buy a gallon of gas from one of the road construction crew. It was worth a try.

As we neared the summit of the pass, 5500 feet above sea level, I could see the lights from the road construction. The crew was gone, but one young man was still there to direct traffic past the ripped-up portion of the road. There was still no other traffic, just one lonely motorcycle. I asked to buy a gallon of gas, but he couldn’t help me. All the fuel there was diesel; even his pickup truck was a diesel. What’s worse, he didn’t think the gas station at Rockport was open late on Sunday and he didn’t think Concrete had a gas station. He suggested I look for a ranch house when we got out of the national forest and ask for help. I said I might do that. Then we rode away to the west. By now the moon was high and it’s light lit the towering mountain peaks on all sides of us with an eerie glow.

I knew I did not have enough gas to get much farther than Concrete. But if I could conserve gas, perhaps I could at least get close to the town of Sedro Woolley . There, I believed, I could find a sheriff or police station open late. But, I would have to squeeze every ounce of fuel to make it. Fortunately, we were now on the downhill side of the mountain pass. We had over 5,000 feet of elevation to go down. Although the road didn’t go downhill all the time, it did quite a bit. With the 2-cycle engine there was no compression when you released the throttle. I decided to coast the bike down every hill and only use gas when I absolutely had to. So, at the crest of every hill I would turn the key off enough to kill the engine, but still leave on the headlight. We would roll silently downhill using gravity for fuel.

For many long stretches we coasted in silence down the mountain highway. Without the sound of the engine, it was an eerie silence during those long downhill runs. There was only the sound of the wind through the spokes of our wheels and past our helmets plus the sound of tires touching pavement. In those days there were no radios on motorcycles. So, Bridget and I were left with our thoughts and the vivid moonlit mountain scenery sliding past us.

At the end of each silent run I would key the ignition again and touch the starter button. The engine would sing to life and the rpm would leap up, catch the gear and purr us forward. I held the throttle open gently until we reached another hill’s crest where I would again kill the gas-sipping power and glide down the highway like a sail boat silently riding a wave to the bottom of its arch. I don’t know how many miles we coasted, but I believed that each drop of fuel we saved would get us that much closer to safety.

The chill of the nighttime mountain air was quite brisk. I knew it would get colder as the hours grew later. Bridget leaned against me from behind with her arms around my waist and held her head to my shoulder. This cut the wind a bit for her and gave us both a bit of assurance. I asked her several times if she was cold and each time she said that she was fine. Still I worried. I had gotten her much too cold once in the past. I could not allow that to happen again.

We had met in 1976. A few weeks after we started dating I had to leave town on business. I rode my motorcycle from Seattle to Oklahoma City . It turned out I was to be gone more than three months. We continued to telephone each other and exchange letters. After about six weeks Bridget flew down from Seattle to visit me for a few days. One sunny October day we decided to take a motorcycle ride.

It was a beautiful warm day in the 80s when we rode out of Oklahoma City and we dressed light. Later that afternoon we found ourselves in Dallas . There we had an early dinner there and began the ride back to Oklahoma City . As the sun set the temperature dropped. In a matter of minutes the air temperature dropped 40 degrees. Soon it was near freezing and we did not have near enough clothing to protect us. We were both cold, but Bridget was in worse shape. Even wearing my jacket she was in trouble. I was protected from the icy wind by the windshield and faring. But, she was exposed to the wind coming at her from both sides. Also, she was half my weight. At 210 pounds, I could hold my body core temperature. But at 105 pounds, she would soon be going into hypothermia.

By the time I got us to her motel room Bridget was semi-conscience and unresponsive. I carried her into the room and immediately got her into a tub of the hottest water I could. I continued to rub her hands, arms, feet and legs until she revived and the color began returning to her skin. It seemed like hours before she was normal. It was a frightening experience that I never wanted to repeat.

And yet here we were. Again on the motorcycle, attempting to get home on a chilly night with too many miles between us and safety. At least this time we were better dressed for the chilly nighttime mountain air.  The rugged peaks, the alpine valleys, the lakes and all the scenery we had enjoyed that afternoon were much different in the moonlight. It was still beautiful, but in an ominous way projecting on me a deep sense that I was somewhere I did not belong. Even though the little Suzuki bravely sailed on through the night, I knew it was not a matter of whether I would run the fuel dry. It was a matter of when AND WHERE!

The tiny community of Rockport was dark when we rode out of the heavy woods surrounding Highway 20. I didn’t even slow our speed as we passed the dark and silent Texaco station. This is the place we would always stop to stretch, refuel and grab a snack. But now this friendly oasis was lifeless. Only our headlight penetrated the darkness at that late hour. Although the full moon, which was now high overhead, would occasionally appear in the space between the trees as they flicked by to our left. A short time later, the engine began to sputter and gasp for fuel. I reached my left hand down below the fuel tank and opened the fuel reserve. I knew we had a fraction of a gallon in the reserve. It was 10 mile to Concrete, 30 miles to Sedro Woolley. The question now was “How far could we go?”

We were still in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains . But, there were no more downhill stretches to coast so I kept a steady hand on the throttle and tried to maximize each drop of fuel. I felt confident we could make it to the town of Concrete . Perhaps there would be a station or convenience store open there.

The streetlights of Concrete were glowing. It was a hopeful sign. I turned off the highway and slowly rolled down the solitary street through town. But there was no gas station and nothing was open. It was now after 11:00 o’clock . The town was dark. I resisted the temptation to knock on doors and ask for help. If it came to that, there were communities ahead that might provide haven. I turned the Suzuki back toward the highway and headed west again. A few ounces of fuel were wasted, but it had been worth a chance.

I didn’t know if we could make it as far as Sedro Woolley. But, I hoped we could get close. I knew there would be a police or sheriff station there which might be open. At least we might have a place to wait indoors until morning, but first we had to get there or at least to within walking distance. Leaving Concrete the highway sign said “Sedro Woolley 24 miles.” It had already been 15 minutes since I’d gone on reserve. In my mind it seemed that 30 minutes was all I could ride on reserve. I held down my speed to maximize my fuel economy. My goal now was to get within walking distance.

The forest became less dense as we continued west and soon we were passing open farmland. The moon was now clear and bright again. Occasionally another vehicle would approach and move past us, their taillights briefly glowing in my mirrors then fading into the night. The pale glow of the moon continued to bathe the scenery. Only the purr of the three cylinders beneath my knees broke the silence of the night. I had a dim hope that there might be a gas station open till midnight somewhere along Highway 20. The minutes ticked as we continued moving west. No gas station appeared.

Finally in the distance I saw the lights of Sedro Woolley. I took a deep breath. I knew now that if the engine would cough and die I could now walk into town and find help. The lights moved closer. The Suzuki continued to purr. At the edge of town a sign with and arrow pointed to the left: “Sheriff’s Dept. 5 blocks.” My heart leaped. I couldn’t believe we’d made it. I felt very proud of my big blue motorcycle. Surely we could find gasoline here, even though it was now midnight on Sunday.

I parked in front of the Sheriff’s office and walked in. The deputy was sympathetic, but did not have good news. There was no gas station in town open at that hour on Sunday night. “Interstate 5 is about 10 miles from here.” he said, “There’s an Arco station that might be open ‘past midnight .” And “no” there wasn’t any gas at the sheriff’s we could have.

I explained our situation to Bridget. Then straddling the bike, I opened the gas tank and peered into its dry space. I tilted the bike back and forth, listening for a splash inside the tank.  Nothing!

I sat there for a while debating my next move. Then I turned the key and hit the starter. “Let’s see how close we can get to I-5.” “If the station is open and has a gas can, we’ll be OK.”

Seven blocks back through town we rode to Highway 20 and turned west once again. The bike went for a mile. I kept one eye on the odometer as it continued to roll. Every tenth of a mile seemed like a victory. Soon we had gone 5 miles. “Half way there.” I thought. Then soon in the distance I could see the overpass of Interstate 5. The deputy sheriff had been wrong. It wasn’t 10 miles to the freeway. It was seven miles!

As the little blue motorcycle neared the place where Highway 20 goes beneath Interstate 5, the engine began to sputter. I didn’t care. I could now carry the gas in my cupped hands if I had to. Then the sputtering briefly stopped and the engine purred a few seconds more. It sputtered again as we passed under the freeway. From under the overpass I could see the bright lights of the open gas station. A few yards more and the engine sputtered briefly and died. Fortunately there was no on-coming traffic. I pulled in the clutch and leaned us in a left turn into the entrance of the station. We coasted to a stop next to a big blue gas pump. We had consumed every last drop in the tank, the reserve, the fuel line, the fuel pump and the carbs. There was nothing left, but we had made it.

I took a deep breath before I got off the bike and began pumping fresh fuel back into our thirsty motorcycle. It took another an hour for us to ride home. It was past one in the morning when we got back. But, it passed quickly because that hour’s ride was full of relief and confidence. It was as if our motorcycle had decided it would carry us every inch we needed to go. It had extended its range beyond itself. It had given its all. Yes, I do know better than to love something that can’t love back, but I confess that I had a special bond to that machine from that day on. I couldn’t help but believe that my faithful blue bike had made an extra effort to get us to a safe place to re-fuel, refresh and then carried us safely home.

Bridget and I still remember that night. It was a frightening and beautiful ride. I had ridden us into a very sticky situation, but the three of us had overcome it all and created a memory that still gives me chills. If you ever get the chance to ride the North Cascades Highway , I hope you will think about that moonlit night many years ago when two anxious people and one sweet motorcycle sailed that asphalt ribbon through the rugged mountain wilderness. And created a memory that is still one of my favorite adventures on a motorcycle.

Last updated:   Wednesday, February 06, 2013

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