The naked woman was a surprise. A cold blustery day, some twenty-five miles out of Seattle, and we wanted to warm up with a hit of hot coffee. We tooled our red Lexus IS sedan up to a roadside espresso shack; the window slid back and, voilà! Naked woman.
Nearly, anyway. She was wearing a Seattle Seahawks jersey tied above her navel and barely-there underwear. It turns out that bikini baristas are a thing in the Pacific Northwest. Just one of many surprises that Washington State would dole out over a three-day road trip. (Did you know that the capital is Olympia? Nope, I didn't know that, either.)
It was Washington's weather that brought us. We were looking for snow and rain and a wintry mix. Our $49,600 IS350 had all-wheel drive, and early winter promised worthy conditions to try it out. A rather sober plan, but we didn't account for the populace's prodigious intake of caffeine and beer. The state may present fifty shades of gray, but the locals are colorful. Washington, as it turns out, is a wacky place.Meanwhile, Lexus's latest gambit is similarly surprising: the company wants to make interesting cars. Crazy, huh? The IS is a prime example, an entry-luxury sport sedan with the LFA's attitude-meets-architecture grille. It's aimed at the younger set, which in Lexus's case means under retirement age. The 350 has a 3.5-liter V-6 with 306 hp. Ours had the F Sport package, which gives it an adaptive suspension and better bolstered seats. The funky grille works nicely with the IS's modest size.
Our car cruise began in Seattle, where we took in downtown's sites through a rain-speckled windshield and eventually parked for the evening. I'd never given thought to Seattle's timber-logging beginnings until accosted by a local with a flowing white beard inside a rather beat-up bar on Pioneer Square. "They used to roll the trees down this very street and into the river," he told us. We followed this history lesson with oysters, local brews, and cocktail toasts with a bachelorette party.
Early morning brought the smell of the sea and the Pike Place Market's famous neon signs blurring in the thick, wet air. Still, the rain held off as we got crumpets, a coffee at the original Starbucks, and then a better coffee elsewhere. We then headed northeast toward the Cascades. Worse weather beckoned, after all. We skated up US 9, encountered our naked latte, er, lady, in Snohomish, and then turned onto squiggly US 2, passing through villages called Sultan, Startup, and Index. There we veered off onto a random road into the forested hinterlands, just for a go-see. A sign promised a dead end in fifty-four miles.
Wet, wet, wet. The narrow road glistened as if it never dried off, ever, with a riot of flora closing in on either side. The trees were furred over in moss so green as to seem phosphorescent. A mineral-white river rushed past powerfully, and we never saw another car. A few houses, guarded by "No Trespassing" signs, were tucked far off the road, barely visible. The people who live out here seem unlikely to relish drop-in visitors, so we were careful to avoid going off-road and getting stuck in the tacky mud.
The Lexus moved surely in the wet, surprisingly confident, but I was concerned about the tires. They were all-seasons, thankfully, but we were headed up 4000-foot-high Stevens Pass, and word was that it was snowing up there. We'd see just how the all-wheel drive fared. Meanwhile, I had a few quibbles: the trunk was small, the shifter caught in neutral every time shifting out of park, and the direct-injected engine made little real noise, even under hard throttle.
We had a second breakfast of biscuits and gravy and berry pie in the town of Skykomish before we tackled the pass. The rain was serious now, and as we climbed higher, it turned to snow. Winter tires or chains were recommended. Yet the Lexus pulled gamely up the mountain, channeling through fresh snowfall with no undue slipping or drama. I relaxed. We crested and then wended down. I tried to pull a few donuts in a parking lot, but the IS was less game for getting sideways. Call it a sport-lite sedan, tuned for weather over wildness, but that will be just fine for many buyers.
We stopped at the side of the Wenatchee River for a break, only to find four men dressed in hot-pink suits and cowboy hats taking photos on the bank. Er, hi guys. A Latino-music band, it turned out, named Komando M-1. They were friendly fellows, despite the paramilitary name and Palm Beach -- via-Texas outfits.
And then, our destination, Leavenworth, the final oddity. It is as if a Bavarian village had been picked up wholesale and dropped into Washington. Every business, from Starbucks to the bank, is done up in the German style, many with peaked roofs and names like Das Copy Shoppe, for all your faxing needs. The mock architecture is over the top, but the location framed by mountains is lovely.
We thought we might finish off the day being served by fräuleins in classic Oktoberfest-style getup but settled instead for stellar sausages at the München Haus. The Lexus positively stormed through the weather, and it wasn't such a sober trip after all.