Secrets of the Pacific Northwest

I had received a tip of an annual event called Big Back-In hosted by the townspeople of Spirit Lake, Idaho. As it was explained to me, this was a motorcycle event with some sort of lawnmower races as one of the main attractions; few other details were provided by the information source.

As the weekend of the event approached, the weather report promised sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-70s. Perfect! Preferring to be surprised by anything found at the event, no other research of the Big Back-In was done. I took off straight from work Friday afternoon and beelined it — as best as US Route 395 and then Interstate 90 would allow — toward Spokane.

My 2013 Harley-Davidson Ultra Limited Electra Glide is a thing of beauty, grace, and comfort when stepping out on the open road when I want to cover some miles quickly, as I did that evening.

On Saturday morning, the FLHTK gets a quick wash and I set out motoring east from Spokane through Spokane Valley, and then crossed into Idaho. Once in The Gem State, I headed north- east to Spirit Lake—about an hour of ride time from Spokane.

Surprise I asked for, and surprise I got! Arriving in town, it became apparent this was more about lawn mowers than motorcycles. A local explained to me that about 30 years ago, large numbers of motorcyclists would congregate in this community to raise more than a little Hell.

They would back their motorcycles to the curb in the downtown area, taking up most all of the parking spaces while they partied away at the local watering hole. Although good for the tavern, it did little to help the other businesses that relied on availability of parking space for their own patrons.

Fed up with the takeover of their town, local businessmen and townspeople made a plan and put it in place. One day, when the less-than-welcome motorcyclists arrived for their usual park-and-party time, they discovered there were few parking spaces left in the downtown area.

Earlier, dozens of lawnmowers were ridden into town by the locals and backed to the curb, denying space for the bikes. That was the first Big Back-In. As the story goes, the bikers took the hint and moved on to another town; the Big Back-In has been an annual event ever since.

With the Big Back-In officially established — the 2014 edition is its 14th Annual — more than a few motorcyclists have returned, and they show up to celebrate with rides sporting fancy paint jobs, leather, and chrome. Now, they do know their place, and it isn’t at the lawnmower race starting line—my mistake for trying that!

I backed down quickly, not wanting to get beat in the 200-foot street drag race by some jackrabbit-quick riding lawnmower. Later in the day, one rider did scoot his mower across the finish line at 53 mph, only to be disqualified as there is a 50 mph speed limit imposed on Maine Street. A man’s got to know his limitations—Dirty Harry said that, I think.

A variety of majestic features in the Pacific Northwest combine to offer motorcycle enthusiasts some extraordinary riding opportunities fit for all levels of riding skills whether on or off road.

Fortunately for me, my starting point in Kennewick, Wash. is smack dab in the middle of it all at the confluence of the Snake, Yakima, and Columbia Rivers. This allows me to hit any one of these great destinations within a day’s ride — Mount Rainier, the Pacific Ocean, the Cascade Mountain Range, the Blue Mountains, the Continental Divide and Rocky Mountains, the Columbia River Gorge, the Snake River’s Hells Canyon, and British Columbia, to name drop a few.

The Columbia River is the artery of the Pacific Northwest, with oh-so-many tributaries along its route spilling water from deep within Canada for delivery into the Pacific Ocean. The numerous irrigation projects east of the Cascade Mountain Range obtain water by feeding off the Columbia River Basin watershed, either directly from surface water or from the wells tapping into the aquifer.

Agricultural crops push up against the freeways, highways, and gravel roads leading up into the less-accessible high country. Birds and animals of all types take advantage of the man-made waterways that add to the sights along the traveled routes.

An annual event many of us look forward to is the Northwest Nitro Nationals Pro Hillclimb, providing mountain-grinding excitement for spectators and riders alike. Guaranteed 200-horsepower off-road motorcycles attacking an 800-foot hill will certainly move the needle on your thrill meter.

Located at the junction of State Highways 24 and 241, east of Yakima and just north of Sunnyside in Washington, this stop for the competitors in the North American Hillclimbers Association Pro Hillclimb Series is usually held in mid-May. Stunt motorcycle exhibitions keep the audience entertained during any extended breaks in the family-friendly atmosphere.

A few weeks later, I took a run up to Spokane to ride along the Spokane River to further explore Spokane Valley, an old industrial railroad town turned modern city. Jason, one local rider, stepped off his own 2013 Harley-Davidson Street Glide for a few minutes to suggest a lane or two in town he thought I would find fun to cruise along the Spokane River.

East of town, my lunch break is taken at Cruiser’s Bar & Grill, just over the Idaho border. Cruiser’s offers the option of riding your motorcycle right through the bar — all you have to do is stay on the painted “road”. They prefer you do this when you arrive, rather than when you leave after having been there for a few hours!

For the less flamboyant, Curley’s Dining Car Lounge at Hauser Junction is an alternative welcoming spot for motorcyclists in Post Falls, Idaho. Good food, a friendly staff, and a memorable western theme have folks returning time and time again. The walls and shelves are adorned with antique household items, along with a beautiful collection of long guns.

With summer advancing, the temperatures are up in the 90s most days; a pre-dawn departure time of 5:30 a.m. beats the heat. This day, my ride has me taking Clodfelter Road south out of Kennewick. I cut up over the Horse Heaven Hills on the undulating roads through the wheat fields and sagebrush.

The brilliant sunrise is on my left side and the Columbia River is behind me as it winds through the Tri-Cities (Kennewick, Pasco and Richland). As I hit the highest point of this ride, I see the Columbia River ahead of me separating the states of Washington and Oregon as it finally points itself west towards the Pacific Ocean.

Stopping in the small community of Plymouth for a brief muscle stretch, I notice the fishermen are out and about heading down to the water with their boats. They are likely in pursuit of the large Walleye or monstrous white sturgeon for which the area is known. The nearby Spring Walleye Classic and Governor’s Cup tournaments draw competitive anglers from all over the country.

Back on my H-D Glide I take a winding two-lane road that rises and falls abruptly over and around the ancient basalt lava flows common in the area. The road stops at a boat launch just after crossing the dike on the north end of the McNary Dam. Early in the morning, the water in Lake Wallula behind the dam is smooth, save for a few ripples left by the handful of boats on the water. Tranquil best describes it.

The traffic is light on Interstate 82/US Route 395 as I head south across the Umatilla Bridge into Oregon and through the towns of Umatilla and Hermiston, then on to my destination community of Heppner. The Morrow County Museum is a site to see with its fantastic murals depicting early western life in the area.

Local businesses welcome motorcycle riders, as is evident by the number of riders I encountered in this small town, with some sporting out-of-region licenses plates. I hang around the area until the sun drops low enough to cut the mid-day heat, and then head back to Kennewick.

Another favorite ride is heading east from Pasco on US Route 12, crossing the Snake River only a mile or so upstream from where it joins the Columbia River. A few miles later the highway paralleling the river passes waterways and marshes that provide habitat for great numbers of waterfowl, many of which are visible from the divided highway.

Some 10 miles later, the Walla Walla River is crossed near where Fort Walla Walla once stood. The decision is made to take US Route 730 west, rather than continue on US 12 to the historic town of Walla Walla. US 730’s two lanes hug the Columbia River tightly as it winds through Wallula Gap.

Ancient lava flows cut by the river rise 800 feet and more, towering over both sides of the highway. Hawks and eagles make their homes among these cliffs. They can be seen now and then, soar- ing over the river and adjacent land looking for their next meal.
I count myself among the fortunate few that has witnessed a majestic bald eagle—a symbol of strength, courage, freedom, and immortality, and our national bird—swoop low over the river, and then pluck a fish from the surface of the water in its deadly talons. Once in its grasp, the eagle nimbly turns the fish so that it faces forward to take advantage of the fish’s aerodynamic (or is it hydrodynamic?) body. Good for the eagle; not so good for Mr. Fish.

Having crossed the border into Oregon, it is time to head eastward on State Highway 37, which climbs rapidly away from the Columbia River. The Electra Glide’s deep rumble rises and then falls as I upshift, winding my way up a ravine until the road flattens out. Tapping the shifter one more time, the Harley- Davidson zips along in 6th gear with few vehicles encountered to slow the ride on this clear morning. Taking a short break in Athena, I top off my fuel tank before heading further east into the Umatilla National Forest in the Blue Mountains.

Although the elevation at the summit near the homey Spouts Springs Ski Area is just a mile above sea level, it is enough to have the temperature in this area 15 to 20 degrees cooler than the lower elevations of Eastern Washington during the summer. I stop off at ABC Mountain Retreat just a few minutes from the ski area and speak with the proprietors, Rod Palmer and Noreen Thimell.

Rod and Noreen report that a few motorcycle riding groups have discovered them and they look forward to entertaining more in the future during the better weather times of the year. Previously they have catered mostly to the winter hunters, skiers, and snowmobilers. ABC Mountain Retreat features nice cabins and well-kept campsites. Every ride doesn’t have to be finished in a day.

Retracing a few miles back towards Athena, I head north through Walla Walla where I reattach myself to US Route 12. A half-hour later, I reach Waitsburg. The historic town has become known as a culinary destination thanks to the tapas at Jimgerman Bar, and Whoopemup Hollow Café’s southern comfort food. My timing isn’t right for a meal, unfortunately.

Instead, I point my front tire west on two-lane State Highway 124 that parallels the Touchet River. I eventually recross the Snake River just before arriving back in Kennewick with the memories of yet another good day’s ride.

With so many more rides yet to experience from here in southeastern Washington in the great Pacific Northwest, the only problem is deciding which one to do next. Rather than the proverbial Kid in the Candy Store, I am the Electra Glide pilot in twisty road heaven!

While there are no local major motorcycle rentals to be had in the Kennewick area, both EagleRider and Harley-Davidson Authorized Rentals are in Seattle and Portland are an easy day’s ride from southeast Washington.

The Cherry Chalet is a popular bed-and-breakfast in Kennewick, and serves as a unique home base. Lodgers who prefer a more traditional setting can ride from the Hilton Garden Inn.

And, if you see someone on a 110th Anniversary Harley- Davidson Ultra Limited Electra Glide, be sure to wave — I promise to wave back.

Riding Style:

  • Helmet: Harley-Davidson FXRG
  • Jacket: Harley-Davidson Crossroads
  • Gloves: Harley-Davidson Centerline
  • Pants: Levi’s 501 Original Button Fly
  • Boots: Harley-Davidson Downshift

Photography by Rick Kippes and TV Kippes

Story from Ultimate MotorCycling Magazine; for subscription services, click here.