Monday, February 28, 2011

Skykomish, ever again?

Few places speak to my heart as Skykomish. A very small town less than two hours from Seattle. In the Cascades’ green and wet mountains. So, what’s so special about this community? My answer will be as short as honest: nothing, when viewed from a distance. But you should look at it from the inside, and that’s how it charmed me. But Skykomish might not be Skykomish anymore.

In the summer of 1995 I paid my first visit to Skykomish. I’m not sure anymore if it was a planned visit, or just a stop to spend the night. It was probably planned, because I was travelling with a railroad enthusiast and Skykomish does have a name, albeit not too big, in the circles of trainspotters. The town’s existence can be attributed to the railroad. During the days of steam locomotives, the Great Northern railroad had an important yard here. Electric locomotives were added to help the trains over Stevens Pass and through the Cascade Tunnel. But like many communities that depended on the railroad, things went downhill after steam and electric locomotives were replaced by diesel engines, requiring far little support and labour as the old impressive locomotives did. So the Great Northern left Skykomish, and only a few diesel locomotives were stationed in Skykomish to help the trains over the steep tracks of Stevens Pass. Great Northern became Burlington Northern, and after the merge with Santa Fe, the locomotives show the logos of the BNSF.

The beige building is stove store, the historic Skykomish Hotel at right. The hotel suffered inside damage after the rebuild because of too high water pressure.Photo by Cornelius Koelewijn.

After that first visit, a few more followed. Because Skykomish is for some reason a great place to stay a few days. Is it the crisp mountain air? Maybe. But there are more places to go if you want to breathe air so pure. And the Cascades can be gloomy – rains are frequent, and clouds will hang low, giving the area a Twin Peaks mood. And actually, David Lynch shot his cult series not that far away from Skykomish. There are many names here that make this area special, for several reasons. Fox River Bridge, Scenic Hot Springs, Tye. You´ll find Tye after some looking around. You can hear the buzz of this once important town at the base of the old Cascade Tunnel through the sound of the wind in the trees. March 1, 1910 an avalanche swept away an entire train here, killing 97. To this day one of America’s worst railroad accidents. Some claim that the cries of the victims can still be heard. Later the tunnel closed, when it was replaced by a new one and the town died, and what is left are only the fundaments of its structures. 

Snowsheds at Tye protected trains against avalanches near the entrance of the old and defunct Cascade Tunnel.

But I suppose that the easy pace life takes here plays as a role that defines Skykomish for me. The great Sky River Inn, where you walk out of your room before breakfast through the glass sliding doors and you stand with your feet in the moist grass alongside the Skykomish River, is just a fine place to relax a few days. During the night you’d hear the rumbling of the diesel engines of the locomotives waiting for trains that need extra horsepower. Walk to Main Street, that follows the BNSF tracks, and it is not hard to imagine that little has changed the 1920s. But Skykomish still has its importance for services to many people living in the area. There is a large school, and a small library. And a vintage stove and oil lamp store caters for the nostalgic needs of Seattle yuppies. The lady who owns the store when I visited, did not express too much friendliness though, as if helping clients who bought some old postcards were an annoying disruptance of her quiet afternoon.

For railroad buffs there is enough to find between Skykomish and Stevens Pass tunnel. However, not being a trainspotter myself, there is something else that makes this part of the Cascades interesting for me. The mountains and forests around the town offer a labyrinth of gravel roads that just beg to be explored. I remember that during a weekend along those roads you’d see many people camping out with RVs or tents. You need to have a permit though, but where to obtain one is something I never understood when reading the notices. But so far, those forests and mountains did not really deliver what I always hoped for. Even though a man who was camping nearby told me that he saw a mountain lion just a day before, I have not seen any wildlife there – safe for a marmot. No bears, not even lynxes, let alone that mountain lion.

 The Sky River Inn, not seen from its best angle here, will open again in 2012. Photo by Cornelius Koelwijn.

I have not travelled to Skykomish for many years now. I wanted to, but there is little point going through the trouble right now. Skykomish is and is not. Its involvement with the railroad left a deep scar under the surface. Massive oil spill, when servicing and fuelling locomotives was done with little regard to environmental consequences. Since 2006 street by street buildings have been relocated to a field outside of town. Even the historic hotel on Main Street. The Sky River Inn closed its door when it too had to be removed. Its website - tells us it will reopen again in 2012. But what will be left of the heart and character of Skykomish? Trees gone. Branches gone. New pavement. New sidewalks. New lawns. A new town with old buildings.
Will I feel the wet grass under my feet alongside the Skykomish River again?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Joy of MX-5

Drive to the corner with full throttle. Shift down. Hear the engine revs when the needle moves to the redline, while reducing speed using engine brake. Feel how you steer the car into the corner and halfway press the pedal again, exiting with full force. Enjoy how the car seems to be part of your body. And to go with that: feel the wind in your hair. Welcome in the world of Mazda MX-5. Or Miata, as the Americans know it.

The current MX-5 on a rural black Forest road

Years ago, when I visited relatives nearby, I parked my first Mazda MX-5 in front of their garden. While sitting outside, enjoying a drink, a neigbour said, “nice, but when I see a car like that I always think what you should do with it”. She missed the point. And she will never understand. It is a fact that most women do not like sports cars. They only like MPVs, even when they don’t need one. And if an MPV is too ridiculous even for them, they will only drive very small cars. And can anyone tell why women, when they do drive a cabriolet, always do so with the top closed, even on the brightest of days?

A roadster is pointless when you look at it in a rational way. It is highly unpractical. And we can think of cars that are more comfortable. But that is not the issue here. A roadster has a mission. And that is not just the topless driving experience with the wind in your hair and the sun in your face. It is the joy of driving with all your senses. It is the way how the car handles. How it seems to swivel from under your butt in corners. It is the experience of a responsive car that makes you sense all the reactions that come from your commands, the inputs you feel from the road or whatever you pick up from the world outside. It is driving, not because of transportation, but of being involved in a machine and being rewarded by a car that does what you want it to do. If you ever had one, you’re hooked. There is no escaping. A coupe may have its advantages over a convertible, but in the end it is car like any other, just more cramped and its limitation will be apparent soon, because there is just not enough to compensate for that. But drop the top, press the pedal, and you know why a closed car can’t compete with a roadster.

For sure, you can’t live with roadster like this, if it is your only car. But since I have that obstacle covered, I can safely say that love does not make blind – because it doesn’t matter in this case. My love affair with the MX-5 goes back from the day I first saw one. At the time I did road tests for the newspaper I worked for, and of course I immediately inquired at the Dutch distributor if I could have one for a week. No problem, said the friendly PR lady at Mazda, but you have to be patient. I was, and waited, and waited. Every time I called, she could not tell when it would be my turn. Obviously, car magazines and national newspapers came first. Months went by, and then just a week before I would leave my job, the friendly Mazda lady called. I could have one for seven days just a month later. Too late. And that was my only regret when I left the newspaper.

Left: the first MX-5. Black Forest, of course.

Years passed by, and the spark was ignited once again when I saw that little roadster at a convertible car show, and for the first time, I could sit behind the wheel. Quite stationary, mind you, but it was more than I had ever experienced Mazda-wise. But I was not in the market for a new car then. So, again a couple of years went by – and then it was time for a new car. However, by that time the MX-5 had sunken deep in my subconscious, and for some unexplainable reason I had convinced myself that a Subaru Forester semi-SUV was the vehicle I needed. Buying proved to be not so easy, because the only salesman was occupied with another customer, and there was still someone waiting before me as well. I decided to go away, and come back next Saturday. Now, something odd happened just two days later. You might say I was guided, you might call it coincidence. But I walked to my supermarket, and on the parking lot there it was, waiting for me in a beautiful bronze colour, topless, and winking at me. The new second generation Mazda MX-5, most likely parked there by a nearby living Autoweek journalist doing a road test. Lightening struck. And a silver MX-5 was ordered that same week in May 1998. With thanks to the Subaru salesman, who was too busy.

Meanwhile I am on my second MX-5, the current generation. The car has grown more mature, lost some of its boyish light footedness and simplicity. But it gained in strength, speed, economy, comfort and quality. With 160 horses on tap in a small light car, traction control and a limited slip differential it is an absolute thrill to drive over curvious mountain roads and a joy on the Autobahn. I do not have to explain to you that Germany is one of my favourite vacation destinations, do I? But has the MX-5 reached its zenith with the current generation, and in my experience? I sure do not hope so, but the images of the next generation do not pump the adrenaline. And a 1.5 liter engine as the only choice? I’m all for progress, and the same horsepower and performance as the current 2.0 liter look fine in print. But what about that low end grunt? That ever effortless accelerating, no matter how fast you go? Because, why be rational here?