Grand Coulee Dam Ride, August 2000

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Portland had seen a great previous weekend and a sunny week, so there were high hopes that our forthcoming ride to Grand Coulee Dam would be in bright sunshine. In fact, it hardly started that way. On the Friday night, there were frantic calls from back and forth wondering if there was a groundswell of opinion that it should be called off. Personally, I had looked forward to it for so long, I was going come hell or high water. The weather forecast was calling at least for the latter..

Grand Coulee is about 250 miles inland from Seattle out in the Eastern Washington high desert. When I left on Saturday morning with fresh oil and filter and a brand new back tire to speed me on my way, it was spitting the odd threatening drop of rain. It was much the same when I joined up with the others at Elmer's diner on Interstate 205 to the east of Portland. Five bikes and five riders took part on this ride: Mike Coffman, Kevin Clark, Deirdre Clark, Dan Kaiser and myself.

Well on our way to Grand Coulee Dam. Some of us availed ourselves of Jack's Fine Gas, but not, on this occasion, his Fine Food. That would wait until Kennewick. Left to right: Mike, Deirdre, Kevin, Colin. Photomeister: Dan Kaiser

As we set out into the Gorge, it started to drizzle and a leaden sky hung heavy over the freeway with about 370 miles ahead of us. In The Dalles, the sun came out and we crossed over the Columbia to a stretch of Highway 14 famous for its lack of gas. Suddenly it was in the 80's and our spirits rose. We lunched in Kennewick, about 200 miles out of Portland and then headed north, climbing steadily throughout the rest of the day, making our way between two clearly defined weather fronts to the east and west of us, where we could see it was raining hard onto the open plains

About 45 miles from Grand Coulee, giant cliffs rose either side of the road and we snaked through rocky defiles, past islanded lakes and the Columbia itself. This is the area where the Missoula flood occurred, an inland sea which burst its western banks and spilled hundreds of miles across eastern Washington and down into Oregon, filling the Willamette valley with all the nutrients which make it so amenable to farm.

In the area we were passing through now, some of the larger pieces of debris, huge boulders called 'erratics' or 'orphans', littered the canyon as the initial floods subsided. Rather like the expansive valleys of northern Arizona and southern Utah, 'Valley of the Giants' might have been an appropriate name. My imagination ran back to Jason and the Argonauts when the crew tries to rob treasure from the pedestal supporting the giant statue of a gladiator. The statue comes to life, striding through the landscape and destroying all in its path. An angry Cyclops sorting through the boneyard of his human and animal victims would not have gone amiss in this place.

A secondary effect of these thoughts was my realization of the way the enormous formations had marginalized my presence. Although the roar of my pipes was close at hand and I fancied I heard their music reverberating from the rock walls, I mentally put myself atop the cliffs where only the whisper of the wind was to be heard and perhaps the faint buzzing of a metal insect flying through the valley many feet below

In the late afternoon, we arrived at the dam. I had imagined it to be a V-shaped structure, built between two narrow cliffs. In fact it was longer than it was high, though it was high enough. We drove out onto the parapet, parked the bikes and peered over the edge of a substantial aluminum rail overlooking the spillway. Below, the town of Grand Coulee nestled in the shadows of the surrounding hills.

Threatening skies over Coulee. A short stop before pulling into town gave us the opportunity to collect our thoughts, survey the terrain, and hassle a passer-by to take our photo. Left to right: Colin, Kevin, Mike, Dan, Deirdre

The sun was now low in the sky and on top of the western escarpment glinted twelve giant pipes used to carry water away from the catchment area to the croplands and orchards more than 150 miles to the south. After taking some photographs, we filed into town and settled in at the motel where the reception staff trotted out their routine welcome to tourists. Without looking up from her paperwork, a very businesslike and neatly coiffed lady in her early sixties announced: "Here are your room keys. The laser light show starts at 10pm. You may use the seating area across the street where you will be able to hear the commentary from loudspeakers mounted on the light-poles'.

The reception area carried a suitable array of local postcards and an extensive collection of volumes on the native tribal history of the area. Many of the books' covers featured photographs of American Indians standing in full traditional dress, their arms at their sides, looking at once stern and vulnerable. Others showed pictures of their artifacts and customs. All this in stark juxtaposition to an enormous bubble gum dispenser next to the bookstand. It was a masterpiece of vacuum molded plastic, consisting of a transparent column illuminated from within by neon and flashing lights. On the column sat a large sphere containing enough product to patch holes in the dam, visible in its sedentary majesty through the window by which the device stood. It struck me that, at some point in recent history, there had been a sudden and violent departure in totem pole design. Indeed, this outrageous vending machine clearly enjoyed pride of place within the establishment's hallowed walls, as if to say to visitors: 'This may be a small town, but we got the latest in confectionery dispensation equipment...'. The novelty of this gaudy device soon wore off, however, when a cursory trip around other merchants' premises revealed that the bubble gum sales-man had truly hit pay dirt when he stumbled on the township.

After a short rest from the day's excitement, our group convened once again at the bubble gum shrine and a taxi was ordered to convey us to a Mexican restaurant up the hill above the town. It was recommended by a rather more congenial lady at the motel as having the greatest Mexican food for many miles around (and believe me, there were many, many miles around), While we waited for our taxi, we traded opinions on the various different categories of motorcycle rider and enjoyed a few laughs at the expense of each. Shortly, our transport arrived, piloted by a man whose proportions staked a sizeable claim to the real estate of his vehicle's front seat. Bearded and genial, he asked us the usual questions such as "You guys from outta town ?". It would have been tempting to assert that no, in fact, we were local, but having grown weary of our quiet little home in the leafy streets of the Grand Coulee 'burbs, we had decided to buy expensive touring motorcycles and make an excursion to the local motel to slake our thirst for adventure. In the spirit of good nature and our interest in taking the shortest route to the restaurant, we fell in with his well-meaning banter and discovered that he had moved in from out of state a while ago.

During the course of this condensed autobiography, we chanced to pass a police car containing a sharply dressed younger officer who was keeping an eye on any potential Indy 500 activity taking place in the neighborhood. "Hell, yep, they're always settin' there." announced our driver. "Used to work in the gas station makin' sandwiches and they'd come in there an' order 'em up. Hah ! Coulda put anything I wanted in those sandwiches now I think about it !". There was a mixed reaction to this observation as one of our number was an active member of the law enforcement community. Learning this, our chauffeur cleared his throat and made an assertion to the effect that he was 'just kidding about the botulism' and no one had come to harm

The restaurant, whose name now escapes me, but may have had the word 'loco' in it somewhere, was every bit as promising as described. One of the main attractions was a variety of glass sizes for the consumption of Margueritas. I recall it went to about six: mini, small, medium, large, extra large and 'Extravaganza' or some other Spanish superlative. Kevin and Deirdre opted for an extra large each and moments later the waiter, grinning widely, emerged, carrying a small portable swimming pool in each hand. Over the course of the evening, these were gradually, if not completely, consumed. It was generally agreed that, while infused with some tequila, there was likely more mix than the active ingredient present. Nevertheless, a relaxed atmosphere ensued and a hearty meal was enjoyed by all at reasonable cost. Upon our return to the motel, darkness had all but fallen and we crossed the road to take up our positions looking across to the dam. The area had recently been laid to lawn and presumably tidied up for the beginning tourist season. A feature of this miniature park was a cast aluminum statue of a Country singer whose head was raised to the sky in full song. Unwilling to see this troubadour go unrewarded for his performance, and with an ample supply never far away, local children had deposited a sizeable wad of bubble gum in his lockjawed mouth. Now the extent of this sinister cult was beginning to make itself clear. A joint chorus of the theme tune to the Twilight Zone might have been appropriate, but we pressed on to the light show.

At length, a few experimental flashes of green light played across the angled spillway of the dam. If enough surplus is available, the dam operators will release water over the spillway to provide a white background for the laser display. Tonight we were denied that enhancement, but the graphics were imaginative and reminiscent of Jean Michel Jarre concerts seen many years before in unusual settings. As the lasers depicted scenes of the mighty river, soaring eagles, native American fishermen and later, wagon trains, a somewhat pedestrian commentary crackled over the loudspeakers. The recording had seen better days and was a candidate for transfer to digital media. There were interesting facts to learn, such as the number of years and workers it had taken to build the dam, not to mention the 24 million tons of concrete that were poured in its construction. Crews of the previously unemployed had been set to work scrubbing the rocks of the canyon to increase adhesion of the concrete to its foundations, which made one feel grateful for the relative comfort of one's own weekday occupation. The commentary meandered through a historical description, on to its patriotic content and lastly to whimsical and poetic utterances in the person of the hero of the piece, the Columbia River. After tributes to the Salish, Sahaptan, Kootenai and Chinook tribes that peopled its banks, one would have expected a chorus of 'Old Man River'. None was forthcoming, however, and the drawling voice of our electronic host was still once more, as the last images of the show faded from the face of the dam.

DAY 2   Top

Just right of center, the Country singer cheers up his buddies after a hard day pouring 24 million tons of concrete. High on the hills at top right, twelve mighty pipes take irrigation water south to the orchards of the Yakima Valley

The next day dawned bright and sunny, making for a promising ride back to Portland. On the ride in to Grand Coulee, there had been a particularly striking approach to one of the valleys where, instead of a tunnel, a corridor through solid rock had been dynamited to accommodate the road, which disappeared over the rolling valley floor to a point in the distance. Setting out on the way back, I left a little ahead of the main party to see if I could take a few shots of the gang coming up the hill to the cut. Although there was only one road out in that direction, the morning, as opposed to evening light transformed the landscape into a totally new ride. So much so, that I drove through the cut, actually stopping in it, to look back and see if I recognized the view back to town. I did not, and concluded that there must be another cut further along the road, but it was not to be found.

Just a few miles later, the giant cliffs petered out and I was back on open ground. I stopped anyway, but my dawdling had cost me the difference in time between when I and the others had left Grand Coulee. The short time that elapsed, at least it seemed that way, meant that they had not spared the horses in catching up. I got a couple of shots of them coming out of the valley, then tagged on to the convoy as it sped through. The weather was fine for the first 150 miles, then began to turn steadily more indifferent as we headed south, this time splitting off from Highway 17 to the south west on 28, then 283 via Ephrata and George. Highways 24 and 241 then took us further to Sunnyside and Mabton. From there we backtracked a little to Toppenish where we took Highway 97 south, skirting Goldendale and on to Maryhill, Highway 14 and more familiar territory. The weather in the Gorge was overcast with the occasional spot of rain.

When we stopped for a snack we had taken bets on when the real rain would start. Most thought Hood River would be the dividing line and so it was. Our end of ride stopping point was to be Cascade Locks, where the main party pulled off the freeway. I was already soaked from my usual trick of being too lazy to put on all my rain gear and besides was already into my third verse of 'Singing in the Rain' and unwilling to break the mood. Grand Coulee is a great weekend ride destination and despite the last leg we were exceptionally lucky with otherwise uncooperative weather. The long stretch between the Gorge and Highway 155, the 'Valley of the Giants' road, is the domain of the long distance tourer or sport cruiser i.e. windshield and big engine. Challenging curves were all but absent and the open countryside and big sky are catalysts for the more reflective side of motorcycling. The awesome changes of scenery in and around the Grand Coulee area are well worth the drive (and the drive back). All agreed it was a fun weekend and thanks again to Mike Coffman for the pre-ride and destination checkout.

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© 2000 Open Road Rider: Photographs and article