Lake Stevens at Last

Our last night on the road, it poured buckets. Appropriate, I guess, because it was our first night in Washington State. From Oregon, we crossed more mountains into Washington and arrived, as planned, at Ellensburg, the last town on the Eastern side of Snoqualmie Pass. SNOQUALMIE PASS. It had taken on huge proportions in our minds, the one big mountain pass that we would have to cross if we wanted to make it to Western Washington in time for Bill’s gig.

These last few days, since Denver really, had seen a whole new Bill. He’d started the trip merely focused on getting there, and getting there safely. He’d coped with my frustration, our mutual exhaustion, and my desperate need to work at any moment that we were stationary. He’d gone into the trip prepared if need be to reschedule or hand off his planned November 1 gig at the beloved Hawthorne Pub, the epicenter of Snohomish’s musician community.

But after Denver, and after we’d decided to tackle THE PASS, he began believing that we could actually make it on time. If we didn’t dally. And so, I would awake in the morning and find that Bill was already up and dressed and packing things up none too quietly, urging me in his way to get up and get going myself. Roadside stops and shopping detours were held to a tight schedule. After the first day or two–and a gentle scolding from a campsite owner who said we were packing up to leave at an hour when we should be rolling into our next campsite for the night–we’d gotten the hang of seeking out or next stopping place around mid-afternoon. But now this became serious business, with Bill calculating furiously just how many miles we could make before we had to stop for the night in our quest to reach the West Coast before November 1.

So here we were in Ellensburg, settled after dark, with yet another dinner of convenience-store subs. And it was pouring. I put on my raincoat and headed out to the ladies room. For once, we were a fair distance away across a muddy, puddled field with perhaps 50 or 60 RVs of various configurations taking up every slot. I navigated around the monster puddles to the log cabin-like building where the nearest bathrooms were. One side seemed taken up with the women’s bathrooms, the other side the men’s but, unusually, each had two entrances, one on each side of the building. I didn’t think about this much on the way in, but when I came out I realized I couldn’t remember whether I was now facing toward our van/trailer or away from it. It was dark, it was pouring, and similar-looking RVs stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction. I didn’ t have my phone with me, not that I would have subjected myself to the embarrassment of calling Bill to tell him I was too lost to get back from the bathroom. My poor sense of direction is already legendary and I had no desire to stoke the legend. Eventually, a few rudimentary orienteering skills kicked in and I recognized a few landmarks, plus the size and shapes of some of the puddles, and I headed off in the right direction, ready to be done with the road.

The next day it was still rainy, and again Bill wanted to get up and at ’em, and I didn’t blame him. The sooner we were across that damned pass the better. As we approached the Pass, our friend Bruce the uber-geek in Seattle (uber-geek being a high compliment in Bill’s lexicon) invited us to try an app called Glympse that would trace our whereabouts for a few hours, allowing our friends to track our approach. We downloaded it, and headed toward Snoqualmie Pass.

The landscape was impressive and a little forbidding with clouds and mist sweeping in and out among the pine trees and peaks. There was a lot of road construction that slowed us down, and once again steep uphills and downhills for the van and trailer to contend with. But, amazingly, it was…not that bad.

“That’s it?” we wondered as the road descended on the West side of the pass and began evening out again. That was the dreaded Snoqualmie Pass? Shoot, the mountains we’d driven through in Oregon (named “Deadman’s Pass,” we learned later) had been a heckuva lot worse. Piece of cake.

Speaking of cake, I realized, we were about to descend on our friends Drew and Cindy, and perhaps we ought to bring along some food or wine or something? We’d been keeping an eye out for wineries as we drove through the Columbia Valley which is known for its vineyards. But the only time we’d come across one, it had been long past business hours and the place was closed.

So in North Bend, the first real habitation we came to on the West side of the pass and a nice-looking small town that seemed oddly out of place after all that sweeping, empty scenery, we pulled into a QFC. Suddenly back in civilization, we wandered the aisles, marveling at all the imported foods. We combed through the wine selection to pick things that would make good houseguest–or driveway-guest–presents. We were hungry, having not stopped for too much breakfast in our haste to get over The Pass, so we also grabbed some prepared salads and sushi.

When we headed back to the van with our wines and our lunch, we discovered our friend Bruce parked in the next space. He had used Glympse to track us to the North Bend QFC, and once in the parking lot, he couldn’t miss our van/trailer combo. I was, as always, using my brief stationary time to finish an column, so I worked and chatted and ate lunch all at the same time. Then Bruce led the way and we caravaned toward Seattle.

Bruce peeled off at I-405 to head into town while we headed north, pulling into our friends Drew and Cindy’s driveway just as she was finishing supper. She ran out to give us a hug, then Bill carefully backed the trailer into a spot by the garage so we could unhitch.

It was October 31, the night before Bill’s gig, and 28 days since we’d pulled out of our driveway in Woodstock, leaving our trailer awning behind. We’d been up and down, cold sometimes, sometimes dripped on, eaten way too much junk food, slept sometimes under glaring lights, but we had also seen spectacular country, learned a lot about how to live and camp on the road, and connected with some very good friends along the way. And now here we were.

It was also Halloween, and a Friday night, and there was an open mic to go to that Drew was headed for. Bill was undecided. I was quite decided not to go. I wanted a bath. I longed for a bath. A bath is one of those simple pleasures that never fails me, and–other than my visit to the Japanese bath house in San Francisco–I hadn’t soaked in hot water since we’d left Woodstock.

Bill could go to the open mic if he wanted to, I said. I was going to take a bath. And that’s what we did.

Image: Ed Suominen via Creative Commons

The Oregon Trail

We crossed into Oregon and everything changed. Or at least the landscape changed. Dramatically. The flat brown and feedlots of Idaho disappeared, and Interstate 84 wound its way around steep mountainsides studded with conifers. Nothing but conifers. Just like that, we had entered the great Pacific Northwest.

It was late afternoon, a great time to view this breathtaking scenery. The landscape was just as empty of human habitation as the great spread of Idaho had been, but here instead of livestock, you could see the occasional remains of an earlier mining industry, railroad tracks that led into tunnels in the mountains; small pieces of rusted-over equipment. And mainly, mountains in all directions around us. We wove through them as the dying afternoon slowly turned the light deeper and pinker.

The road, meantime, was getting steeper, both up and down, as we crossed over the hills we weren’t circling around. Up the inclines we climbed, the trailer slowing us down. Down the other sides Bill gripped the wheel as big trucks blew by. We were no longer nearly shoved off the road as we had before we got the load levelers in Indiana. But the blowback from these trucks was still enough to push as around. Though we didn’t realize it at the time, we were on the Oregon Trail, the history route covered wagons had once used as the pioneers settled the West. We learned this later when at rest stops where the name and a bit of its history were commemorated on plaques. For now, all we knew was that this was a pretty steep and curvy road for an Interstate.

And then we saw the first warning. We knew it was the first warning because it said so: “FIRST WARNING 6 MILES 6% DOWNGRADE AHEAD.” I wondered whether that meant a 6% grade for the next 6 miles, or in 6 miles? We were certainly going downhill though I couldn’t say at what percentage. Another mile or two and there was the second warning. And then, impressively: “LAST WARNING 6 MILES 6% DOWNGRADE AHEAD.” It was one of those moments that was so scary it was funny. “This is your last-last-last-last-last warning-warning-warning-warning-warning,” we joked in that echoing announcer’s voice reserved for really momentous sales or horror movie ads. What were we in for?

Well, there certainly wasn’t anything I could do, sitting there in the passenger’s seat, which I was striving not to think of as the “death seat.” Except trust that my husband could handle it…which I did. He said later that, because the road wasn’t built to bank with the turns, he kept expecting the trailer to just topple over. Tandem trucks whizzing by shook our stability further but at least there weren’t any truckers crazy enough to bring a triple trailer onto this road. We’d seen, and been rattled by, enough of those in Idaho to last us a while.

There’s a certain amount of scared that doesn’t make sense if you’re in a position where you can’t do anything about it, so I more or less relaxed. And looked at the scenery, which was astounding. Mountains rose around us and the setting sun had turned the sky into thousands of shades of purple and pink. Eventually the highway leveled out, and after many miles of scenery and nothing else, what looked like a large, well-appointed-looking rest stop came into view. We pulled over gratefully if only so we could walk around for a bit and decompress. On closer examination it was a casino, truly in the middle of nowhere, because we were on the Umatilla reservation.

We didn’t go anywhere near the gambling but did wander the touristy gift shop/rest stop. There were lots of Umatilla crafts and doodads, and everyone working there looked Native American. We wandered around for quite a while, considered buying blanket or a t-shirt, actually bought a few snacks and got back on the road.

That night we slept in Baker City, Oregon. We’d been heading for an RV Parky suggested site when Bill noticed that a motel we were driving past had a sign welcoming RVs. It looked inviting, so we pulled in and got a spot beneath a giant tree.

The people who owned the place, a fun young couple with a rambunctious and lovable dog, directed us to a diner for dinner which turned out to be one of the nicest diners we’d ever encountered. We went back there again for breakfast. It was a pretty little town, with a classic downtown, old-fashioned banks and little shops. Kind of a town where you might want to live I thought idly. But we were still too far from our friends, and from Seattle, and from the temperature-moderating effect of the warm ocean waters. These places would get real snow come winter. Besides, Bill told me what the motel owner had told him–that almost everyone in town “carried.”


Firearms, that is.

Yup. We were in the West.

Image: Jeremy Riel, Creative Commons