Top speed = 55mph. Ok; so that’s the legal top speed. Those going faster than that get to possibly meet those other folks with the flashing lights and sharp uniforms. If 55mph sounds slow, welcome to a place where getting to go that fast can seem like a treat. Life in the fast lane? Well, that would require adding a lane or two, and that rarely happens on the island. Welcome to a place that encourages (almost) everyone to move slowly.
Step one, getting onto the island. Drivers have three options for getting onto the island: the Clinton ferry, the Coupeville ferry, and the Deception Pass Bridge. The ferries are naturally speed bumps. They run fairly regularly, and are official parts of the state’s highway system, but driving straight onto the ferry without a wait is a story to tell. Usually, there’s a pause while waiting for the ferry to dock and unload. The breather naturally slows the traffic, the people, and the attitudes. Leave the frantic traffic behind, at least for a while. The bridge sounds like it would be quicker, until you see it. It is old, narrow, and classic, a speed reducer constructed by the fact that it would be hard to fit a wider bridge into the same jump from cliff to island to cliff. Cross the bridge during the day, and the views are a great excuse to slow down.
After you’re on the island, things speed up a little. Whidbey Island is roughly bisected down the middle by two roads that act as one: State Route 525 and US 20. Locals call them the highways, but except for left-turn lanes and the necessary widening through the shopping areas of Oak Harbor, almost all of the roads are two lane. The top speed limit may be 55mph, but that’s intermittent and frequently constrained by two solid yellow lines that emphasize the error of passing along the island’s curves, hills, and other blind spots. A few stretches have passing lanes, but don’t stay in them too long because it all squeezes back into two lanes soon.
If there’s no traffic, there’s no problem. Drive the speed limit as safety and the law allows. And, there isn’t much traffic, at least not compared to Seattle. But, it doesn’t take much. One slow truck on a hill without a wide enough shoulder means an opportunity to slow down, maybe notice a bit more of the world going by, maybe detour if there’s a shop, a chore, a friend, or a view near. The main road is also the scenic road. The island is a tourist destination. That means more than just trucks. Think RVs that are purposely not in a rush. They’re enjoying the view. You might as well, too.
In places where the main road is a major Interstate, the traffic is in a rush to get somewhere. Trucks may have started a thousand miles away and have a thousand miles to go. Whidbey Island is in the upper left corner of the lower 48 states. It’s on the way to the Olympic Mountains, but even the coast is only a hundred miles away. It’s on the way to Canada, sort of, but not really. The island is a destination and any destination on the island isn’t going anywhere. A bit of patience, a bit of island-time scheduling, and a willingness to explore comes in handy.
The good news is that a drive from any of the ferries or the bridge to any of the other entrances and exits is many vacationer’s dream. Starting in Clinton and driving north takes a scenic route between views to water on either side, the Cascades in the east and the Olympics in the west. Around the Coupeville terminal is a series of parks, preserves, and old forts. Deception Pass is a destination, and the drive through it also leads to windy roads past craggy rock through thick forests and to views out to the Pacific.
If the highway is only two lanes, then it is no surprise to find the side streets, arterials, and neighborhoods are the same size or smaller. So are the speed limits. It can take a while to dial back road rage, to dial in a pace that makes it easier to stop, say hello, maybe lend a hand, or simply enjoy a particularly nice spot. Two lanes, few folks, and familiar cars and trucks also mean you may find a road temporarily blocked by two friends stopped in the middle of the road sharing a quick hello and a story. They won’t be long.
Two lane roads may be one of those subtle forces that connect the various towns, but also help people connect to a quieter way of life, a pace that makes it easier to stop and smell the rhodies.