I almost forgot that Washington is not the year-round rideable state to which I’ve grown a great bitterness. It does at times offer a beautiful mid-winter’s day with the sun out and the skies blue, the temperature an outstanding 54 degrees. After weeks of relentless rain, I was stoked to jump on the XT and get the hell out of Dodge. Then Justin and I hit the freeway. There is nothing like riding 75 mph into strong headwind to remind us it’s damn cold. Nonetheless, we had been cooped up for way too long, and this was a rare opportunity to take out the bikes. And so began a 36 hour adventure to one of the weirder islands in the Puget Sound.
In some places on Whidbey, or Weirdbey as it’s sometimes called, you can see the U.S. and Canada at the same time. The largest island in the county and home to a Naval Air Station, Whidbey Island was originally inhabited by the Lower Skagit, Swinomish, Suquamish, Snohomish and other native tribes. Not unlike most of the other islands in the Puget Sound, there isn’t a native left in sight. Instead, Whidbey seems to be a hotspot for elderly couples and bursting families in search of an easy getaway. The contemporary locals are proud of their ‘weird’ reputation and go above and beyond to display their oddities – which by no means is unpleasant.
Our first stop after a short but consistently brilliant ferry ride across the water was Langley, a quaint, kitschy town ten minutes from the ferry. The visit was met by large crowds of foot traffic because; unbeknownst to us, this weekend hosted some sort of amateur mystery festival. We hadn’t a “clue” (har, har) what was going on. Being the most orthodox town on the island, Langley boasts cute shops, 100 plus year-old establishments, a modern broad-spectrum cafe, pubs and a square-mile golf-cart zone (sans nearby golf course). All of that in addition to the fact the people are not shy about wearing costumes year-round. There’s not much for off-road exploration, but the highway extends for miles adjacent to the surrounding sea. The fresh smell of pine filled my helmet, not the familiar dull wafts of a Christmas tree dying in the living room, but sweet, pungent, water-rich scent of evergreen. I swore I smelled color. Or maybe, the icy cold of the day was freeze-drying my brain. Either way, where it lacks in excitement, it makes up in beauty.
With the morning still young, we briefly met up with Justin’s father, the Captain. An accountant amidst his most busy season, he had made the trip to Whidbey as well, to get some locals’ taxes in order. We waited patiently in the stark white waiting room of the shoebox he uses for an office. Moments from heading out the door to eat, a local lady came through the door to have what turned out to be a confrontation;. a conversation not hidden from the other room. She introduced herself as the owner of the neighboring business in the complex, a space the Captain used to inhabit for a good 20 years. Long winded and without point, she went around in circles about an exaggerated $20 electric bill that he happily offered to pay. She then continued with some nonsensical rant, topping off with a “you haven’t even come by to check out my hair salon which is not very neighborly of you…” I beckoned Justin outside before my eye-rolls became so loud she could hear my irritation.
Finally free and famished, we headed to the new restaurant across the street and proceeded to consume the largest bowl of $10 mussels ever created and some burgers. The Captain inquiring on our lodging for the night informed us that recently, though not so surprisingly, Whidbey had passed a law stating that camping on the island outside of designated campgrounds is strictly forbidden. Even on private property. Typically, that wouldn’t be an issue because Fort Ebey has plush camping sites set against a watery green backdrop. Unfortunately for us, they didn’t open for another week. Scrambling for ideas and ready to break some rules, we searched for another option. Luckily, a friend of Justin’s had just moved to a “cabin” near Coupeville and would be happy to have us on his property, which worked out perfectly. We spent the rest of the day searching for single-track.
The road off the highway leading to Christian’s cabin didn’t host a soul save for ours. Any last hint of light was disappearing into the tall evergreens. A “Private Road” sign approached. With shoulders shrugged, we went on and found a property that was completely unexpected. Setting up a tent in the dark is one thing. Setting one up in the dark, after riding down an incredibly steep decline and into a gully hidden by pine trees was a whole other thing. The property was vast; I mean acres upon acres vast. With our “mobile home” pitched, the trudge back up took our last bit of energy, but beer needed to be drank and stories needed to be exchanged, so trudge up we did.
If the property was unexpected, the “cabin” itself was more so. The image we formed in our heads of this cabin was something humble, worn, and maybe quirky. This, however, was the literal definition of an architectural dream. Looming, practical, and extremely modern, the loft our privileged friend inhabited boasted efficiently used surface areas with radiant heated hardwoods throughout, a floor to ceiling expanse of artfully paneled windows, a one-wall kitchen layout with stainless steel appliances and counters, a full ceramic pedestal-insert sink, built-in cabinets galore and an openness the melded with the outside. Oh, and it over-looked the ocean.
As our jaws were gathered up off the floor, Christian invited us in for the aforementioned beers and stories. Around an industrial-art outdoor fireplace, he told us a story about an interaction with a Whidbey Island local. At a nearby pub, a man named Moon Thunder approached Christian and the two started playing a game of pool. Two games and four beers later, Mr. Thunder turned to Christian and said, “I have a gun in my back pocket and I don’t like you.” Taken aback and less than amused, Christian’s retort was, “If you take that gun out, you better shoot me…” After a moment’s thought, Moon Thunder announced that he should probably get going, and then turned and walked away. Whidbey Island in a nutshell.
Back on the motorcycles, we continued our explorations. I can’t tell you where in Whidbey, but there is plenty of dirt riding. After getting stuck in the mud just a few hundred yards off the two-lane highway, we got lost down a poorly constructed road. It was all fun if not a bit risky. After we packed up and got ready to tool around for our second day on the Island, Darth, Justin’s “trusty” XT225, decided not to start. He suspected it was a fouled plug or a flooded carb which was an easy fix. He drained the float-bowl and we looked for a hill. Fortunately, the property was made up of one steep hill after another. Unfortunately, we were at the bottom of it. So, over and over, again and again, we pushed Justin’s motorcycle up a hill, then shoved him down it, so he could try to bump-start the bike. When that failed, we tried a bigger hill and shoved a little harder. We were on the brink of exhaustion and feeling hopeless when Darth finally fired up.
When we got to Fort Ebey, we found it had a pretty beach with plenty of hiking trails. Any other activities on these trails can get you one hefty fine. What we discovered on the island, if you’re savvy, are non-motorized bike trails that lead to the water through open fields. Gravel roads lead to dirt paths that lead to double-track that threaded through dense timber past the occasional residence. Most of these roads would culminate in a dead end. The fun to be had was in the unknowing, discovering the secrets at the end of these roads.
As our time came to an end, we looked back on our weekend. The brisk ferry ride, good eats, blinding cold wind chill, peculiar towns, even more peculiar residents, enticing adventures protected by unreasonable laws and, best yet, the ever present risk of a fine, this is what makes Whidbey Island weird. And weird is what makes it so cool.
WESTx1000 was conceived in a coin-op laundry room in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. What started as an excuse to ride dirt bikes in Baja has become an online portal into the lives of two overzealous individuals, both love drunk and eager for their next motorcycle adventure.
Whether documenting the infamous Baja 1000 off-road race, exploring the back roads of the Pacific Northwest, circumnavigating Japan on small sport bikes, or riding dual-sports from Barstow to Vegas, the idea stays the same: “If you get far enough away you’ll be on your way back home.” – Tom Waits