Rockin’ A Hard Place: Notions hatched while waiting in line for new pavement

Our Scenic Isle Way on the Rock — less poetically known as state Highway 525/20 — has become even more scenic this summer as the state Department of Transportation spends a bundle to lay down new asphalt on several stretches from Clinton to Coupeville. Oh, to hear the unique sound of old pavement being scratched and scraped up. To smell hot asphalt slipping out of a dump truck. To study the curious habits of flaggers in hard hats and orange vests. How scenic can you get?

I headed to Langley last week and hit two 20-minute flagger delays each way. A trip that normally takes half an hour took almost three hours. Rather than grumble or wallow in a stream of depressing news on the radio, however, I used the time to meditate on how getting around our Rock has changed so dramatically in the last hundred years or so.

Before regular auto ferry service from Mukilteo began in the 1920s and the Deception Pass Bridge opened in 1935, many land routes on Whidbey weren’t much more than well-worn farm wagon ruts carved from ancient Native American hunting trails.

Travelling from Langley to Coupeville was rarely done by land. The smartest and fastest way to do it was on the water. The Mosquito Fleet of steamer ferries carried passengers, freight and farmers’ harvests on regular daily schedules. A trip from North Whidbey to Langley might take an hour or less. And, as a bonus, you got to enjoy the island shoreline go by.

Once automobiles started multiplying, however, Mosquito Fleet water travel disappeared. The first road designed specifically for cars from South Whidbey to Coupeville opened in 1926. It followed old coastal trails.

As I sat waiting for the flagger, I imagined driving a Ford Model T from Clinton to Langley Road, then up Saratoga Road and around Holmes Harbor to Honeymoon Bay Road to Race Road, then meandering around to Parker Road and finally getting to Front Street. Records indicate that such a trip took three hours, not counting the time needed to change flat tires or cool overheated engines. My three-hour trip last week was much less bone jarring and dusty; I kept the windows rolled up and the air conditioning on in my SUV.

I’m glad that DOT is repaving our highway. It really needed it. But I am also glad to see so many folks these days riding bikes and hiking to make their way around our Rock. It’s also exciting to know that plans are underway to make it possible to walk continuously from the Clinton ferry dock to Deception Pass without intruding on automobile traffic. The Salish people who were here for thousands of years before us must be smiling to see all the newbies walking on trails they pioneered.

One thing lacking is more travel around the island by water. I see that Island Transit is expanding its bus routes and increasing its schedules — on land. How about adding a “waterbus” that would drop off people in Oak Harbor, Coupeville, Langley and Clinton? Now that would really be a Scenic Isle Way!

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