Not Confusing at All

There’s a song by the Emerald City Jug Band that our friend Drew played us when we were first planning to move here. It’s called “Don’t Come to Seattle,” and it’s all about how unwelcome new arrivals to the area are. Is that how locals (most of whom also started life elsewhere) really feel about newcomers? If they do, you can’t blame them–more people are moving here now than at any time since the Gold Rush.

I don’t believe new people truly are unwelcome, at least not in Snohomish, which despite severe economic pressure to turn itself into a far suburb of Seattle and Redmond remains a charming old-style small town. And people in Washington seem to be unfailingly friendly, warm, and generally happy–there must be Prozac in the water, Drew says.

So perhaps there’s some other explanation I can’t think of for the way streets and places are named around here which seems deliberately intended to confuse people and send them off in the wrong direction. Bill and I have encountered this phenomenon so many times we’ve developed a ritual around it.

Me: “That’s not confusing!”

Him: “Not at all.”

Take Second Street (not 2nd Street) in Snohomish. Logically enough, that’s a long street that runs parallel to the Snohomish River and is between First and Third Streets in the old part of town. West of Ludwig Road, it’s called Riverview Road, and it runs right along the river, at some point changing its name to Rivershore Road. (That’s not confusing! Not at all.)

Going east, from Ludwig Road through most of Snohomish, it’s called Second Street, then the same road, without turning, changes into 92nd Street, and a bit further, still without turning, becomes 88th Street. One result is that if you’re driving east on Route 2 and want to go into Snohomish, you have to take the 88th Street exit which puts you onto 92nd Street. That’s not confusing either.

In Seattle, it’s even worse. Everyone knows the mnemonic for the names of Seattle’s major thoroughfares–Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Protest–but can’t recite the names of the streets those letters stand for. And did I mention that each of these letters stands for not one street but two–Jefferson and James, Cherry and Columbia, Marion and Madison…you get the idea. Are you confused yet? I certainly am.

Even the Seahawks, who personify their city in so many ways, are in on this. Wilson successfully passed to Willson during their last playoff game this season. But here’s my favorite of them all:

In Monroe, the next town east of here, is Tye Lake, a man-made lake stocked with plenty of fish and set up for family recreation. In Concrete, about 80 miles further east and north, is Lake Tyee, a much larger lake with an RV community along its shores. Were both were named for the surveyor William Francis Tye, who laid out the railroad line across Stevens Pass? Who knows?

All I can say is this:

That’s not confusing!

Not at all.

Christmas Present, Christmas Past


Chrismast past in Woodstock. Image: Luke H. Gordon via Creative Commons

Back in New York, we had a Christmas tradition of sorts. We would shop furiously in the last weeks before Christmas, mostly online, but sometimes in stores as well. (We did the frantic Walmart-on-Christmas-Eve thing a couple of times, but that gets old fast.)

Christmas Eve, if Bill’s daughter Alyssa wasn’t hosting a gathering (it’s also her birthday) we would watch Santa arrive on the Woodstock Village Green. For those of you not from Ulster County, it’s a thing–Santa arrives on the Green at 5 pm on Christmas Eve, Woodstock time, which means anywhere between 5:15 and 5:45. Every year it’s different. In past years he’s arrived by elephant and camel (real) hang glider (suspended from a crane), giant dove that landed on a giant guitar (in honor of the Woodstock Festival symbol), flying VW minibus, and this year, although we weren’t there, he apparently arrived by pirate ship in the pouring rain.

After Santa, we’d return home to frantic candy-making or baking, and then present wrapping. I’d sit on the living room floor, surrounded by paper, ribbons, and tape, constantly misplacing and re-finding my scissors, with a Christmas movie playing on Netflix. Bill would stand at the dining table with his own scissors and tape, we’d get an assembly line going, and usually wouldn’t get finished until much too late at night.

The next morning we’d wake, bleary-eyed, drag ourselves to the car, and race up to Catskill or Albany or Freehold or Medusa, depending on where the kids and grandkids were gathering. Sometimes we’d bop from one to the other if they weren’t all in the same place. I would start out grumpy, feeling put out, and wishing we could just have a quiet Christmas at home, but by the end of a day spent handing out presents to kids, unwrapping some of our own, and eating way too many sweets, I would feel festive and content.

But that was there and this is here. A year ago, the racing around we did was far enough before Christmas for us to send huge boxes, one to Bill’s daughter’s house, one to Bill’s son’s house, filled with presents we’d either bought locally or ordered online in time to pack up. This fall was so crazy that we didn’t get it together to do that and wound up sending presents purchased online directly to their recipients, and also a box of extra doodads and gift cards that in each case arrived on the day after Christmas. We spent Christmas with the friends who inspired our move out here, friends so close they are almost like family. No presents by prior agreement. But we missed the kids and grandkids back in the East.

Last year it didn’t bother me; we’d only just moved. This year, even though we’d spent a lot of time with Steve’s family in August and Alyssa’s family in October, it bugged me a lot. Christmas felt decidedly un-Christmasy and the relentlessly rainy Western Washington weather didn’t help. It would have been silly to fly home for Christmas when we’d been there less than two months earlier after Mom died. (Maybe that’s another thing that made Christmas not feel like Christmas.) But…next year?

Part of me likes the idea of going–I’m training myself not to say “home”–back to New York for Christmas. But then again, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss New Year’s here, which was so nice that I dragged myself to two parties with a bad cold and had a great time anyway. The Hungry Pelican, where the old Hawthorne crowd now congregates for its Thursday night open mic and jam, had a heckuva nice New Year’s party and most of the Snohomish gang was there. There was great food, even better music, and a champagne and a lot of noisemakers and streamers at midnight.

I wouldn’t want to miss that next year. I guess this is what comes of having one foot in two places that each in its way feels like home. Christmas 2016 in New York, New Year’s in Snohomish…? Something to contemplate.

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Mom & Me

Mom and Minda

My mother died at 91, during the night of Labor Day, apparently in her sleep. She looked peaceful, and so beautiful, say the people who saw her body. I was 3,000 miles away.

Mom had Alzheimer’s for 15 years before she died, needing increasing care, losing quality of life drop by drop until there was nothing left. Before we moved, I asked my stepsisters’ permission to leave, since they were the ones caring for Mom and my 102-year-old stepfather Bill as well. But I knew they wouldn’t say no. They had been coping with everything beautifully, with only the very occasional request for help, such as our last Christmas on the East Coast which we spent with Mom and Bill. Which in retrospect means I got to be with Mom for her second-to-last Christmas on earth.

My history with Mom was complicated and wonderful because she herself was complicated and wonderful. Born in a village in the Philippines, she ran away from home at 13–by stowing away on a boat!–to escape the marriage her mother had arranged for her. She sang to the troops during the war, and afterward became an actress, starring in more than 20 Philippine movies. She kept acting, and working in theater, after moving here.

She met my father while he was vacationing in pre-Castro Havana and she was performing at the Tropicana. He was a psychiatrist, in every way her opposite, which may have been why they fell in love. It was a marriage that could never work in the long run.

When I was small she doted on me completely, lavishing me with the over-the-top affection she brought to everyone and everything she loved. When I was 11, she left my father, which is where things first began to get complicated. She was right to go. He was a good man, and a talented psychiatrist, but not able to be entirely present in their marriage or any relationship. I would live with her of course. No one ever considered any other possibility.

When I was 13, our relationship began to unravel. It was the same age at which she herself left her mother’s home–not a coincidence, I’ve been told by a therapist. To my perceptions then, she was completely erratic. The same transgression that got little reaction one day would send her into a rage the next. Sometimes I walked around thinking, “I hate her, I hate her,” over and over. I told my father again and again that I couldn’t stand living with her and eventually he asked me to move in. He told her it was for a couple of weeks; he told me it would really be permanent. It was a brilliant maneuver–she never would have let me go if she’d known the true plan. For the next few years, our relationship was tense, unpleasant, occasionally confrontational, and then practically nonexistent

With hindsight I can now see that Mom was living on her own for the first time in many years. My 22-year-old half-sister, who had just relocated from the Philippines, lived with us for a while, but after she moved on, I was the only other person in the household. She must have yearned for me to fill some of that void. Whereas I, as an adolescent, was in that stage of life where you separate emotionally from your birth family in order to become part of a larger world. It was a case of spectacularly bad timing.

We recovered, because we both grew up. After I went away to college, I found myself rediscovering my mother on my trips home. She had found her footing as a single woman and she talked to me like I was another grownup which I suppose I was. When I graduated, she advised me on my job hunt and tried to get me a job at Time, Inc. When I found work in publishing, she celebrated my successes. She gave me a Philodendron 30 years ago to celebrate my first business trip. I regretfully left that plant, which had grown huge, back in Woodstock, but a descendent is sprawling across the bookshelf in my office here.

Because of this history, I now tell people struggling with difficult teenagers to hang on, that better days are ahead. For me and Mom, the good and bad days are all behind us. And yet, it doesn’t really feel like she’s gone. Maybe because, I’ve been listening to her voice in my head for all these years, and it’s still there.

Goodbye, Mom. This world had never seen anything like you, and it never will again. I’m so lucky that you’re part of me.

Norman and Amanda

September 15, 2015

(Catching up to the present with this post.)

Amanda Meyer was born in 1912, the same year as my father and died on Bill’s birthday last year, at 101. She lived 99 of those years in Snohomish, and 83 of them here in this house on Ludwig Road, where she moved as a 19-year-old bride in 1931.

Her husband Norman L. Meyer was born in 1906 in Wisconsin but lived most of his life here and grew up on this property in a house that burned down and was replaced by this one. He and Amanda went to school together and she said he teased her but she got even by marrying him. At least, that’s what one family member told me when they dropped by to check something on the property. Norman’s nephew is our landlord. Living in this house, where Norman and Amanda spent all 69 years of their marriage, you might say Bill and I are slightly obsessed with them.

I can’t imagine any of it. I can’t imagine living over 80 years in the same house, or marrying at 19 and staying married for life, or living as they did, on a family farm with cows, horses, chickens, fruit trees, and I’m not sure what else. Last weekend, some old friends on their way to visit their graves in the cemetery up the road pulled into the driveway on impulse to see who was living here now. “Norman did a lot of grafting,” one of them told us, solving the mystery of why the big cherry tree near the wood shed seems to bear both Bing and Rainier cherries.

The two of them, and then Amanda by herself, must have watched as the city spread and development filled in the farmland. Were they proud to see their city grow or sad to see the farming way of life disappearing? They built this graceful house, and married, in the midst of the Great Depression. What was that like around here?

The house next door to ours, even older than this one I think, was recently sold to the developers whose work is coming up Ludwig Road, straight toward us like a slow-motion freight train. Bill went to a hearing about it and learned there was no way to slow the process, or even make the developer save the huge and ancient oak tree standing on the property in a region that–to my East Coast eyes–could use a few more deciduous trees.

We thought they’d be slow to sell the houses they’d built so far–big houses a few feet from one another with almost no lawns. “17 Unique Floor Plans” boasts the sign for the development. Since there are more than 60 houses, the language maven in me has been resisting the urge to drop by with a dictionary and explain the definition of “unique.” But that’s the least of our worries.

Bill brought home the map of the planned development and it’s evident from the way its roads come to the edge of our property and stop abruptly that in their future planning this place is next. If that happens, it won’t be for at least a couple of years. In the meantime, construction will start any time now on the property next door. We’ll watch the ancient trees come down. Building will come to within two feet of our driveway.

A couple of weeks ago, Norman’s great-nephew was here, looking over the property, and we learned a bit more. Norman worked for Weyerhaeuser and was, his nephew says, “A lumber snob.” So that almost none of the wood in this house has even a single knot in it. Also that the last time the barn was re-roofed the people who did it were cursing Norman for “using so many nails.” Meaning that he didn’t just have the house built, and the barns, garage, woodshed, and chicken coop. He himself built them.

It seems the house with its outbuildings could be parcelled off from the rest of the nine acres that inevitably will be developed for housing and so we may try to buy it, though we’re not sure we can afford it. If we don’t, sooner or later, the beautiful knotless barn will be destroyed, and the barn owls who fly out every night to hunt will have to go elsewhere. And the house too will likely be demolished, Norman’s fine wood and excessive nails carted away as debris. Or else, it’ll be remodeled into something unrecognizable and moved to a tiny corner, as happened to the hundred-year-old house in the development next door.

Either way, I hope Norman and Amanda, wherever they are, won’t be watching.

Image: My photo of Norman’s knotless barn

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Ludwig Road

November 12, 2014

We had decided that Snohomish was the right town for us after all. But where to actually live? Bill had his wish list: A yard, some grass, a house, not an apartment. Someplace where I could have a vegetable garden, since I had a huge one back in Woodstock.

Bill is a very avid vicarious gardener–perhaps he’d be an avid gardener himself if he could bend down and sit on the ground as easily as I can. Us growing our own foods sets off a primal form of satisfaction in him. It reminds me of the first time he went fishing after we got together. Generally, he’s a catch-and-release fisherman, but this one time he killed and cleaned a bass, cooked in on the grill, and watched me eat it with intense satisfaction. Me…feed…woman.

So, he wanted a garden. I wanted to walk to town.Walking into town was one thing I loved about the house we briefly owned in Massachusetts and one of the few things I didn’t entirely love about the Woodstock house–it was three miles to town so walking there and back was enough of a commitment that I only did it once. If we were a walkable distance to town, we would both walk more, I thought.

The final item on our wish list was not a wish but a must-have: rent approximately equal to the rent we would receive for the Woodstock house. That might be tricky, I realized, because Snohomish County is an upwardly mobile county in a region where the rapid dominance of tech has brought growing economic might. It’s also closer to the big city (the next county down is King County, which contains Seattle), and much more urban than rural Ulster County was back in the Hudson Valley.

November is a tough month to look for rentals (conversely, a pretty good month to be a landlord looking for tenants, I’ve found). The woman at the real estate agency looked through her list of rentals, thought for a while, then asked if we’d be willing to come up some over our target price.

Maybe…we said.

Then she called one of the agents to ask if some prospective landlords might be willing to come down some from their price. Yes, was the answer.

We were skeptical–the proposed price was the same as for the condo in the middle of town that was pretty nice and would save us on utilities, yard maintenance, water, and garbage removal. This house didn’t sound any bigger than that large condo. But we agreed to take a look. And then we fell in love.

Ludwig Road turned out to be right next to, and parallel to, route 9. Suburban-style houses, side by side, fairly modest, then a new development in the midst of being built, and then…a tall white farmhouse, set back from the road, with two horses grazing in a paddock in front of it. The horses belonged to a family friend who lived nearby and they would be leaving soon, we were told. They looked like they belonged–it seems that every house in Snohomish with a bit of land has to host at least two horses on it. There was a large and beautiful old gray barn, a shed by a paddock in the back with a couple more horses, a wood shed and a long flat building that turned out to be a chicken coop. It had been a real working family farm.

But what really got us was the living room. It stretched the entire length of the house, with large windows on three sides and light pouring in from all directions, even on a rainy November day. The wallpaper had a 50’s look to it, though I imagine it’s really newer than that, light colored with a reflective sheen and sparkly accents that, Bill believes, make the room even brighter. I knew that lots of windows, letting in lots of natural light, would be my best defense against the psychological effect of the Northwestern winter gloom. I immediately wanted that living room.

But still, the rent was higher than we wanted. Well, we thought, we don’t actually need 9 acres. So I made a counter-proposal: Could they come down on the rent if we took just the house and the yard and the owners could still keep the paddocks to rent out for horses? The answer was yes–and they came right down to our planned maximum price.

There are a lot of things I love about this house: Its age, its character, the way you can see it from Route 9, for just a second between the trees, standing stately under a street light. The little trapdoor by the bathtub that goes straight down to the basement–for dropping laundry it was explained, and now I do that every day.

But the most perfectly on-target perfect thing about the house is the light fixtures in the living room. Relics of another era, they resemble nothing so much as fake flying saucers from bad 1950s sci-fi. Bill, the MST3K fan, used to have “Bad Movie Night” every couple of weeks where he and a friend or two would watch something like Robot Monster.

It was as though the house knew we were supposed to live here.



Snohomish After All

After all my arguing, after our admittedly bizarre plan to live in two places–one a small apartment in the city, one an RV in an RV park–we did what made the most sense on every level and looked for a rental in Snohomish. Bill yearned for a yard, some space to call our own. I wanted to be close enough to town to walk there, and also lots of light. Getting as much light as possible is important in the Pacific Northwest, I’d been warned, and I was on board with that plan. Fear of seasonal affective disorder is the only thing that ever made me hesitate about living here.

The Hawthorne alerted us to condos for rent, right in the middle of town, above a health food restaurant called Grilla Bites that we like a lot. We went and looked at one and it was very nice, and surprisingly roomy, with nice fixtures and a gas fireplace and a balcony overlooking First Street. Tempting, but from Bill’s point of view lacking a yard and from my point of view not really a walk into town since it already was in the center of town. Plus it was a little more than we were comfortable paying.

We said maybe and went to Gilpin. Gilpin, a real-estate agency with its office on Avenue D, the artery that runs through both old and new Snohomish, seemed to have its sign outside every rental we’d checked out on our just-getting-a-sense-of-what’s-out-there explorations on previous trips. And so I had gotten it in my head that when we were ready to rent in Snohomish, Gilpin was the place to go.

Devoted readers of this blog may remember that I was at one time determined not to live in Snohomish. Why did I change my mind? For one thing, our tentative plan to live in two places, an RV park and a studio in Seattle turned out to be impractical if only because affordable Seattle studios aren’t plentiful. And once on the ground in Snohomish County I realized more fully why Bill needed to be here–there’s an intense and active community of musicians based around this town. So much so that many members of the community drive long distances several times a week to take part in its gigs and open mics, which really amount to wonderful music sessions with jamming among really proficient musicians. Non-musicians turn up just to listen.

And all these musicians get gigs and the local bars are happy to give them gigs because they know the musician community turns out for each other. And so every place around here has live music, even the pizza parlor where Bill runs an open mic on Wednesday nights. Our friends are here, the housing is affordable, and Bill needs to be in or near Snohomish nearly every night of the week.

And then there’s the fact that Snohomish is old. Coming from the East Coast, especially the oh-so-Colonial Hudson Valley, this is something that you to want and expect, the personality and history of old structures. But old structures are few and far between here in the West. Towns like Mill Creek are beautiful but too new-looking for us. Snohomish is a turn-of-the 20th Century logging town that has carefully preserved its downtown, its historic central neighborhood and many of its old buildings.

And so I who had argued long into the night that I didn’t want to live in Snohomish, that it felt like giving in to the path of least resistance rather than forging our own way, capitulated completely. And not unhappily. Besides the many music venues for Bill to play at, this town has a yoga studio that I like, a great health food restaurant (the aforementioned Grilla Bites), a good Thai place right downtown, Pho (which Bill and I both love now that we live where it’s readily available) and lots of nice places to walk.

And then there’s the name, obviously Native American, seeming more like an adjective than a noun to our English-speaking brains. I love giving my address to people in other places. It’s just so much more intriguing a city name than Lake Stevens or Mill Creek or Lake Forest Park.

Admittedly, it’s farther from Seattle than I wanted. Or thought I wanted. Because I still haven’t entirely figured out what that is.

Image: Erin Kohlenberg via Creative Commons

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Welcome Home!


I hadn’t been in the Hawthorne Pub in many months, and things had changed. It was still tiny, the downstairs of what had once been an ordinary house, with a not-too-big room in the front with tables and a stage for performers. Further back was an even smaller room, called, for some reason, the Whistle Punk Tap Room, where there was a bar with taps and wines. No hard liquor at the Hawthorne.

The walls were still dark wood with random rock-and-roll art artifacts mounted on them, including a poster for Lost Dogma, the band where Ted, the owner, was the bass player. But the wall between the tap room and the performance room had in large part been removed and fixtures everywhere had been redone and spiffed up, the work of our soon-to-be good friend Kyle.

It was our second night in Snohomish County, the night of Bill’s gig that we had raced across the country to make. And the place was packed. “When Bill has a gig, everybody plays!” I’d once heard him tell some musician friends. And indeed, after he started out with his familiar tunes and “Gear Shift,” his signature tune that demonstrates his agility with a pick and a slide, he began inviting them onto the stage,  to join him.

I sat, spouse of the star, at a table right up front, jammed in with Joe, Bill’s new good friend, a keyboard, guitar player, and one of the few singers I’ve encountered on a par with Bill. Joe and Bill together are a duo called Cool & Groovy (Bill’s “Cool” and Joe’s “Groovy,” the theory goes). Bruce, ASJA’s webmaster and our first friend in Seattle sat on my other side with his friend. The stage got more and more crowded as musicians came and, less often, went. “Welcome home!” they told Bill, one after another. “Welcome home!”

I sat there smiling. He was so happy, and I was happy for him. But also a little envious. He was so at home here, and already had so many friends. When would I make my own friends? And when would this place start feeling like home?

Toward the end of the evening, Bill decided to try something out he’d been fooling with behind the wheel for the last couple of days of our trip, a jazzy little jingle he’d made up just for the Hawthorne:

Come to the Hawthorne if you like good music,

Come to the Hawthorne if you like good food.

Come to the Hawthorne for local beer, wine, and cider–

Nothing’s finer than a night out at the…Hawthorne!

There were two verses and a bridge and Bill had worked it all out while driving–vocally. Unfortunately, although he’s extraordinarily good at both driving and playing guitar, even Bill couldn’t do both those things at once so he hadn’t worked out the guitar part to go with it. This, from what I’ve observed, is the opposite of how he usually writes songs, which begin on the guitar and have a vocal line and lyrics added afterward.

But Bill is a fearless performer and lives (both musically and in life) by his ability to improvise. So he went for it. He summoned Rod, who plays bass for about half the bands in Snohomish to the stage. Now, Rod had never heard this little tune and he was about to provide its only accompaniment, but being another fearless performer, he was game.

Only now, where was the Hawthorne’s owner Ted? Tapping a keg, it turns out, an operation that takes a little while and can’t be stopped in the middle. There was a bit of awkward shuffling around but eventually Ted appeared, looking harried and carrying a very large wrench.

“We don’t got it,” Bill said. “But we’re going to do it anyway.” And he launched into “Come to the Hawthorne” with Rod following along pretty decently on his bass.

By the end of the evening, Bill was glowing and all his friends had crowded on and off the stage. Near the end, he played with Jeff, a sort of musical Swiss army knife who plays guitar, drums, and harmonica. They did Railroad Earth’s “Bird in a House,” a song that I love and didn’t know anyone else knew about. Then Bill finished off with a couple of his songs.

We climbed happily into our van bed with our cats that night. This was it. It was exactly what we’d come here for, ripping up our Woodstock life and driving more than 3,000 miles with our cats cooped up and our trailer in tow. Just this.

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

Horse and a Diner


This old boy was born with the dreams of the old songs,

Riding the range and singin’ like Gene Autry

Watching Roy Rogers and Trigger right after Hopalong

I’d ride through my backyard prairie just like they taught me.


October 28, Wendell, Idaho

Those are the opening lines of “Horse and a Blanket,” Bill’s song about, as he puts it, “Growing up watching cowboys on TV and knowing someday I was gonna be one.” This is many people’s favorite song of his.

It’s easy for me to forget that Bill has a boyhood cowboy stored somewhere in the back of his head. I rode horses for years while we were together and he never showed any interest in getting on one himself. On a trip to the Southwest, he had to be more or less dragged into the red rock desert around Moab although once he got there he fell in love with the landscape. This was where many of his favorite boyhood shows had been shot, he said, and it all looked familiar.

We didn’t get anywhere near Moab or the red rock desert as we drove westward out of Wyoming and we crossed the northeastern corner of Utah quickly, spending only one night there. The next day, we saw a reflective glint on the horizon we thought might be the Great Salt Lake, and shortly after that we were in Idaho.

In some ways, Idaho was a lot like some other Western and Midwestern states we’d crossed: Long, largely uninhabited, windy. In another respect it was different: This was unquestionably cattle country. We saw them–the giant feedlots, endless expanses of brown earth and thousands of cattle–and we smelled them at the RV park where we spent the night. Even though we hadn’t seen a feedlot in miles when we pulled in, the very air smelled of cow. For the first time, I got an idea of how these feedlots and their methane could cause asthma in children hundreds of miles away.

For our first meal in Idaho we pulled off the Interstate where there seemed to be no restaurants or truck stops, and drove up a small side road following signs to a diner. Bill pulled our van-trailer contraption onto a wide gravel shoulder behind a horse trailer. Of course, I couldn’t resist peeking into the trailer and there was a lone horse, wearing a western saddle, standing patiently as though he did this every day.

“That’s a working horse,” I said.

Inside, the diner seemed to be a set out of a 50s sitcom with checked tablecloths and a languid waitress holding down the fort all by herself. It was clearly a neighborhood hangout, but there were few people, as there seemed to be in the whole state of Idaho. At the table next to ours were a couple of older gentlemen wearing cowboy hats, one of whom clearly belonged to the horse in the trailer outside.

Then yet another cowboy walked in. Worn leather jacket. Fringed chaps that ran all the way down his legs looking shiny from years of use. The real deal.

I had encountered real cowboys only once before, years ago, when I wrangled my way into a free passage on a horseback riding trip in Wyoming with a magazine assignment for a piece that wound up getting killed. We slept in a primitive camp in the mountains where you were not allowed to build any real permanent structures, or corral horses for that matter because too much grazing in one location would kill of the grass and make the land vulnerable. So every night our cowboy guides would let the horses go (you had to watch out for a few minutes there while they zoomed around camp in an excited herd). Then they’d rise before dawn and round them up again for the day’s riding.

Those were serious cowboys, but still, their job was to act as guides for “dudes,” as they called us all. Around here, I doubted that these were tourist-wrangling cowboys–there didn’t seem to be a tourist area for a hundred miles in any direction.

I looked at them with interest for a few moments and went back to eating my lunch. I was road-weary, I was, as always, scrambling to catch up on email and work every moment that we were stationary. Bill, though, was fascinated.

I didn’t know it until afterward, though, because gregarious Bill–he who walked up to Nicolas Cage, asked for a picture, then asked what kind of cigar he was smoking, he who flagged down Uma Thurman in a parking lot to tell her we both had the same cleaning person, he who was absolutely fearless in the face of celebrities and earth-shakers–he was too shy to talk to the cowboys. They must have been actually using horses to get around their ranches and manage their herds, like I had thought no one did anymore in this age of factory farming. The real deal.

“I wonder what they would have thought if I had played them my cowboy song?” he mused later on. I wish we’d gotten to find out.

Image: rarejacksonholerealestate via Creative Commons