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What in Sam Hill?
Phil Singher

SOVREN is the vintage racing association in our region, the Society Of Vintage Racing ENthusiasts. The final event of the SOVREN racing season is the Maryhill Hill Climb. Hill climbs have fallen out of fashion as road racing events, except for the famous Pike's Peak Hill Climb, although they were popular in the 1950s when club racing was just getting underway.

If you're having a vision of motorcycles or dune buggies driving up a cliff trying not to flip over backwards, a vintage hill climb is nothing like that. It's just a race for the quickest time up a mountain road. There's a possibility of cars going down cliffs, but not up.

SOVREN revived this event a few years back, and they've got a great road to do it on, frought with Northwest history. One of the Northwest's early business tycoons was a man named Sam Hill, who apparently adored his wife Mary enough to name the town he built after her. This is not unusual up here -- there's better-known town further north named Anacortes, after someone or other's wife's maiden name, Ana Cortes. But that has nothing to do with our story.

Sam was not only a successful entrepreneur, but also somewhat of a visionary. The road in question connected the road at the bottom of the hill it winds around and up (not called Maryhill, that's the town) to whatever was at the top of the hill (if I'd been paying proper attention, I'd know what) and, the time then being the turn of the 20th century, was used by horses and wagons. Sam paved it. This was the first paved road in Washington State.

Over the course of many years, the road fell into disrepair, being no longer really good for anything except hill climbs. There were better ways to get from the road at the bottom, now State Route 14, to points north, and when parts of the road washed down the cliffs one particularly soggy winter, it was simply closed off and left to crumble. It's only recently been rebuilt and repaved.

Now, that's interesting. Why restore a road that isn't needed and doesn't go anywhere? Maryhill is out a long way from nothing much, although it's something of a tourist spot due to Sam's other accomplishments, which I'll get to in due time. Did local shame that the first paved road in the entire state had fallen off the mountain -- a road paved by a man whose very own wife gave her name to their town -- cause the townspeople themselves to rebuild it? Did the State Historical Commission finally run out of Lewis's and/or Clark's footprints to preserve and realize they'd better find something else to fix up quick or they'd all be out of a job? It's a mystery.

Anyway, there's the road -- two miles of perfect asphalt winding up a big hill and connecting to nothing at the top except a small parking lot. It's not open to vehicular traffic and is used mostly by suicidal skateboarders (going down), masochistic bicyclists (going up) and hikers with allergies to walking on dirt (going both ways). I don't quite grasp its appeal for family outings: "Hey, kids! Let's walk up two miles of asphalt today and have a picnic in a parking lot! Won't that be fun!" But there's no denying the fact of it -- there's the road.

As historic racing associations go, SOVREN is more concerned with the historic part than most. They have strict rules that the cars really have to be fitted out with only the stuff that was available and legal to use in the year the car was built. I'm not unsympathetic to this notion, but it puts Volvos at a disadvantage because Volvo never homologated the go-fast stuff that actually was available back then. 1800s up here have to run with B18s and SU carbs, and you can only overbore the B18 .040" one time as part of a rebuild. Cars have to have full interiors and windows that roll up and down. Little Alfas and Cortinas stomp us every time, so there aren't many Volvo racers in SOVREN.

Be that as it may, there used to be hill climbs on this particular road before it crumbled, and so SOVREN has seized on the historic nature of this to start the tradition all over again. It's the only day of the year when the road is open to motor vehicles, and that's limited to the racers and two school buses that drive spectators to viewing areas between runs. Never having been to a hill climb, and being desparate for an excuse to get out of the house and away from any sort of computer for at least part of a day, I had to check it out.

Not really knowing quite where the climb takes place, I did a search on the Web. There are towns called Maryhill all over the U.S., so either Sam got around a lot more than I think he did or they're named for someone else. The keywords "hill" and "climb" will get you 40,000 websites that have nothing to do with this event. I finally found the right information on the Maryhill Museum site, oddly enough. Sam was patron of fine art and founded this museum way out in the sticks to house his Rodin collection, along with much else. The museum has a well-developed website that also seems to serve as a catch-all for whatever else is happening around Maryville, including road racing. I got the date and time for the event and a map to the museum.

SR-14 runs along the Columbia River on the Washington side, paralleling I-84 on the Oregon side. The river runs through a huge cut in the Cascades known as the Columbia Gorge. I-84 is much like Interstate anywhere, but SR-14 is a much more scenic drive that still gets you places fairly quickly. We'd taken runs in the 1800 as far as a landmark called Beacon Rock, which takes about an hour to get to. I was under the impression that Maryhill was perhaps ten miles beyond that. It's not.

Marsha and I had a very enjoyable drive, although twice as long as we'd expected. The road is both fun and fast, for the most part, and takes you through picturesque little towns. The only industry around when those towns were built was logging, so they have names like "Mill A." The logging has mostly been replaced by poverty, but the towns are still there, hanging on to the cut in the mountains by the river's edge.

After two hours and eight or nine towns, we came out the other side of the gorge. It's really sudden -- one minute you're zipping along through forest and greenery, then you go around a turn and you're in arid grassland. At the start of autumn, everything is golden and dusty and suddenly hot. I imagine it pretty much stays that way from the exit of the gorge to the Great Lakes (except for the Rockies, I suppose) and it's part of the state's character I'd never seen before. Washington styles itself "America's Switzerland," but it seems most of it is a lot more like South Dakota than the Tyrol. Of course I knew this, but I hadn't expected to see it for the first time that day.

After a little while more, we saw a sign for the Maryhill Museum and followed it. I was under another mistaken impression that the staging area for the hill climb was right by the museum. I wasn't alone in this, for there were several other sporty-looking cars circling the parking lot looking for clues. Not finding any, we went back to the main road and continued on. Half a mile later, there actually was a temporary sign for the event, and then another one a ways down that road, and then we were there. How people who want to go asphalt hiking and parking lot picnicking find the place the rest of the year, I have no idea.

"There" turned out to be a cow pasture, just recently emptied of cows. A paved road gives ready access to the pits, but spectators have to drive across the pasture for a good ways. It's a lumpy pasture. We crawled along in first gear along with BMWs, Porsches and a vintage Ferrari. I don't recall ever seeing six-figure machinery dodging fresh cow pies before. They weren't any better at it than we were, just more worried about it.

Having arrived a lot later than planned, it was now time for the lunch we'd packed. Marsha's not much for heat and dust and not a speck of shade in sight, so she ate her sandwich sitting in the car. I took mine for a stroll over to the starting line, along with a pickle that seemed determined to leak juice all over my shirt whenever I bit it. Best to eat it right away before it dehydrated. There was quite an assortment of race cars -- everything from open-wheel formula cars to a lovely old Allard to a mid-'50s Lincoln Capri that was once used to run La Carrera Panamericana, and everything in between except for Volvos.

Lincoln Capri

The next run was just starting. Cars lined up nose-to-tail were launched at one-minute intervals for solo runs up the hill. The official doing the launching used a flamboyant technique, holding a checkered flag in front of each car's windshield while counting down the seconds remaining on an electric bullhorn. When he got to zero, he'd yank the flag out of the way, the car would take off and disappear around the first turn a hundred feet up the road. The line would then immediately move up one car length and the process would start over.

I didn't understand the launch technique attempted by drivers of the many old small-bore Alfas. The method was to rev up like a giant angry mosquito as the count neared twenty or so, then dump the clutch as the flag disappeared from the line of sight. Not having enough torque on hand to actually spin the tires, the car would leap forward about a foot until the flywheel quit and then just about stall. The driver would push the clutch in, persuade the motor to keep running, and make a second, much quieter departure. I can understand one or two Alfa drivers trying this once or twice, but they all did it every time. Maybe that's how Nuvolari used to do it, or something.

The best take-off of the day was by a '62 Corvette that showed no evidence of being a race car except for sporting a rollbar. Most drivers would be in their cars at least five minutes before their runs, eager to move up a spot in line (as if that would get them to the top any sooner). Not the Corvette driver. There were four empty slots ahead of him before he even approached the car and casually began putting on his racing suit. By the time he got into his seat, his minute was already ticking away.

"Does that thing run or not?" shouted the official through his electric bullhorn.

"Hey, I heard that!" yelled the unruffled driver back, casually pulling on his helmet and adjusting its strap for a while.

At 30 seconds, he put on his sunglasses and fiddled around with them. At 20 seconds, he started the motor and began idling up to the start line as slowly as possible while getting himself strapped in. At 10 seconds, he began pulling on his gloves. At five seconds, he was fastening the snap on his first glove. At two-and-a-half seconds, he was snapping the second glove. And at zero seconds, he was away in a cloud of tire smoke, never having revved the motor once. Those Route 66 actors could take lessons in cool from this guy.

We took the bus ride to the top before the next run. That hundred feet before the first turn is the only real straight in the two miles, the turns are mostly hairpin and the road is so narrow that the downhill bus has to wait at a wide spot for the uphill bus to go by. It's a tough two miles for the drivers. You can see most of the second mile of road from the top, and cars come into view as little bitty things way down below. Another official was doing his best to announce the race through another electric bullhorn, trying to identify the cars as they came into sight, look up the drivers' names and think of something interesting to tell the small crowd of spectators about whatever car was coming up next. I took pity on him and helped with the spotting and looking up for a while.

There was no more shade at the top than at the bottom, there was no less heat and there was, if anything, more dust. Marsha and I bailed out, took the bus back down, drank most of a bottle of water we had in the cooler, crawled our long way out of the cow pasture in first gear and headed for the highway. We wanted to see one more of Sam Hill's claims to fame before turning for home.

Sam was not only a millionaire, a town namer, a road paver and a museum bulder, he was also a member of the Society of Friends (commonly known as Quakers) and a devout one at that. The death toll of young Washingtonians in World War One horrified him, so he built a war memorial. I suppose it wouldn't do for a by-definition pacifist to put up some sort of heroic military statue, and a fountain or flower garden lacked sufficient drama, so Sam built a full-scale replica of Stonehenge out of concrete. There it is, all by itself out in the middle of nothing, looking entirely out of place in the desert-like fall climate. But just like the road and the museum, there's no denying the thing -- there's Stonehenge.

Stonehenge in Washington?

I gave all the 1800's windows a good cleaning to get the dust off before hitting the homebound highway. The sun would be setting in front of us before long.

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