Okay, all road trips are real, but it has been much too long since I have had the opportunity to drive the width of this beautiful country. 6500 miles from Maryland to Washington State and back again, but with a timeline and an agenda.. There is a problem with having an agenda – these are trips best taken with no set places to be and no schedule, but if it took an agenda to get me out on the road, I was willing. Having to be somewhere made me incredibly grateful to Dwight David Eisenhower and his interstate highways – and if he is not responsible, to whoever was…and to that team of persons who developed the gps app on my phone. By the end of 11 or 12 hour days, I was in no shape to look for hotels. I wanted to follow clear directions. That first night in Terre Haute, (769 miles, 11 hours 43 minutes) we were taken to a side of town and an address that was clearly wrong, but she got it right after that – and even that was okay, it showed me a side of town that was familiar in an American way, that I would not have seen else.
After crossing the Mississippi at St. Louis/St. Charles through the only real storm I had to negotiate on the roadways the entire trip, David and I stopped in Gothenburg, Nebraska after about twelve hours on the road. Usually, this is my limit, unless I can stop sooner, but we really had to be somewhere, so 790 miles or so was what it had to be. It also took driving far enough to reach a place that had a hotel. Sometimes, a choice of destination has to be made based on the possibility of a place to stay. Until you get out into this wide open country it is hard to appreciate how scarce such places become. Acres and acres of farmland, mile after mile. Gas and convenience stores maybe. The odd cafe filled with farmers and maybe children on this Sunday morning. Comfortable, warm places serving too much food on a single plate; enough sustenance to give us the strength to plow those fields and get those turnips planted (okay, I overheard that. No way I was planting turnips.) But hotels? Not so much.
Arose the following morning with Cody, Wyoming in my sights. A short day, comparatively, but one that I really anticipated with all kinds of joy – we were heading into the territory I covered as a child, over and over again, and to the home and safety of good friends. From Nebraska into Wyoming (yes, there was a ten mile detour into Colorado) to Cheyenne, to Casper and onto the Old Yellowstone Highway and through the Wind River Canyon. An aside for a moment. To me, the Canyon is one of the most beautiful places in the country,a kind of natural
cathedral where all kinds of mystical and spiritual forces come together. To be there as the sun rises and watch the light of the sun wash down the western canyon wall, the color of the stone going from khaki to pumpkin until the light reaches the water is a kind of sacrament. The wind blowing through the cottonwoods is a choir and the music is celestial. I have always felt this way about this place. I don’t know what it is in my past that brings it all together like that, but even a steady stream of campers and cars, semis and gravel trucks cannot touch the serenity, nor change the essential silence of the place. It is still there, in a restorative way that brings me back and back.
To Thermopolis. My mother was born there, though since my childhood the place has changed beyond recognition. We stopped in the park where I once would go to the hotsprings to soak awhile and to scare myself to death on the rope bridge over the river canyon. That is gone, of course (whew!) and the park that surrounds the springs is beautiful, but unfamiliar. The only constant is the small buffalo herd that has been there forever. Stretch, walk about, snap a few pictures, then back on the road. Onward to Cody.
Cody, Wyoming is another place I have always gone. Always. When my friends moved there in 1987, I was first in line to help drive a vehicle out for them, and since that time, they have allowed me to make their home my home-away-from-home in the west. I go there to visit them, and one of my Golden Retriever puppies, and now his puppy. All of the driving suddenly makes sense when you can take a couple of days and unwind with people you truly love. “Old friends are the best antiques” is an appropriate adage, and one I take to heart.
There are other old friends to visit in Cody as well. The Buffalo Bill Center of the West is an amazing place, a compendium of all things western Americana. It is now comprised of not only the Buffalo Bill Collection, but the Whitney Gallery of Western Art, the Plains Indian Museum, the Cody Firearms Museum, and the Draper Natural History Museum. New curators of the museum bring alternate displays of art into the galleries, but there are a few constants. Koerner’s “Madonna of the Prairie” is one I always visit. That and the Northern Plains painted buffalo hides. I am drawn to them. So yes, there are hours spent in the museum. David and Pete went out rambling through town so that I could explore the place at leisure. Mel was working there at the museum that day, so we went to lunch together. There was a live display and presentation of the birds of prey in the garden. I could not have had a better day. Capping it off with a fine meal in Cody with friends and a night listening to a Wyoming wind blow and a wild stream run down Indian Pass was beyond words.
Back on the road we did not make it far. Far enough, perhaps, with a wicked storm brewing, and with getting started after lunch. (246 miles, 3 hours, 47 minutes) The 1910 Sacajawea Hotel still operates, remodeled and updated, but with ear plugs provided in your room to remind you that this kind of old construction was never intended to close out every sound of the road and the railway and the wild high plains storms. They have a really fine dining room, a nice wine list and a wide, wrap around porch that is perfect for watching lightning dance across the wide Montana skies, brandy in hand. As a child, I was always a little horrified by the visual image of an army marching on its stomach, but I totally understand the idea now. It was the perfect end to the sojourn in Cody, really. A gradual kind of re-entry to the interstate.
Up again and out on the road. There is a little flexibility here, so we made a decision to press on to Seattle instead of heading across the northern Cascades directly to Bellingham. As it turned out, it was a wise choice. That storm we witnessed in Montana had sparked fires in Eastern Washington, blanketing with smoke our route through Idaho, Spokane and on into the Cascades at Snoqualmie Pass. It was not the last of the smoke we would encounter. Road construction, road stress, and smoke forced a break at Wallace, Idaho – which is, if you ask them, The Center of the Universe. It has grown a lot since it was that place my uncle didn’t want to talk about much (apparently, what happened in Wallace, really had to stay there…) Now it has antique shops, restored buildings, and a micro-brewery where you can have breakfast. The freeway is built over and around it in interesting ways, but it is worth trying to figure out the Gordian Knot and drop into town. So much is retained there, in spite of the changes. It is a beautiful part of Idaho. Wooded and beautiful and dangerous in drought times, as all of that country has become, but the wind contains the scattered ashes of an old friend. I like to stop and breathe.
From Wallace it seemed as though the traffic took on a new aggression. It might have been partly due to the smoke from the fires around Chelan, or just a new pace of life even in Eastern Washington. By Snoqualmie Falls, the stop to see the glory of the falls was not just a pleasant side trip. It became necessary to get out of the car and look beyond the next bumper and set of tail lights. From that point to the hotel in Seattle, it would be as much of a view as we would have, even though the smoke finally cleared somewhere around Issaquah. The “new” highway built to take the pressure off of I-5 has become as congested and outdated as the original. It was making a really serious case for public transport. The nine hour trip wound up taking about 11 hours – 648 miles, a significant portion of which was not pleasant. It was stressful and exhausting, but dinner on Boren Avenue at 13 Coins was worth it – I can always find a way to make travel worth it …
It rained in the night, and the morning was cool. It was Washington weather the way I grew up, with a misty grey sky and soft air. We were headed to Bellingham by way of breakfast in Marysville. There is a bakery there, and since we were due at my brother’s house for dinner, it seemed right to take a pie. It always seems right to take a pie.
Bellingham is where my brother has lived for over 30 years, so I am used to visiting there. A section of town is called Fairhaven and is a lovely community of restaurants and breweries and, apparently marijuana stores, where I really just like to go get an ice cream. After meeting up with John, and meeting his new wife for the first time, David and I were free to run out along the Sound on Chuckanut Drive, which I have loved to do always. Two nights in Bellingham in order to attend the party that we drove out to attend in the first place, and to catch up with family and friends. It was lovely. Without having to actually stand in rain, I was able to experience Washington weather, and the skies cleared to give John and Sarah the perfect weather for their tented party for 100. The sunset was spectacular. A perfect event. Of course.
On Sunday I headed to the peninsula to visit friends and family, leaving David with John for a day or so of boating/fishing in the north. The day dawned gorgeous so I was up and headed to Deception Pass and Whidbey Island and en route to the Keystone Ferry bound for Port Townsend after breakfast.
Cindy and Susan headed out on a road trip and wound up in Port Townsend after leaving Chestertown, Maryland at the end of last year. Such dear and wonderful people, they are much missed in Chestertown, so having the opportunity to visit them in Port Townsend was an important road trip bonus. I spent a lot of time in Port Townsend as a kid, and I love the place, and to have friends there once again is just such a warm and fuzzy feeling. Susan was working, so Cindy and I spent a beautiful afternoon wandering around. Later we all went out to Marrowstone Island where they are living on a property that was donated to a non-profit sailing/education group. In the Western Washington woods, it is good to have someone on site who can keep an eye on the forest as it tries to reclaim every structure. The moss and the blackberries alone, let alone the fir and cedars, can take an empty structure within a year. I’ve seen it happen. On the upside, it only takes a short ramble through the woods to gather enough blackberries for breakfast. It was a lovely, serene night entirely off the grid, and a much needed respite.
Onward the next morning. Cindy was going for a few days sail on the Adventuress out of Port Townsend, Susan to work at the bookstore, and I was off to Poulsbo along the lovely Chimacum Valley. Glittering sunlight on the Hood Canal welcomed me back to where I was raised in Poulsbo, Washington where I promptly went for blueberry spice donuts and Swedish Hearth bread at Sluys’ Bakery. I don’t know why I bought the bread except that it has always and forever been my favorite – until I met a baguette. Still, the memory lingers. The flower baskets and the overshadowing Lutheran church demarcate the town still, though many of the old businesses are gone, some remain. It is recognizable, even though the Josie Heins murals are long gone, and I didn’t see any signs that mentioned the visit of King Olaf of Norway. Still, there is an essentially Scandinavian flair to the place that would be difficult to erase entirely, in spite of Starbucks and upscale restaurants. It is nestled at the headwaters of Liberty Bay which even yet seem like the ideal setting for a fishing village in the same way it did to the Norwegians, Swedes and Finns when they arrived. The essence of the place remains. Lunch in Port Gamble. The best and clearest view of Rainier of the entire trip. Friends, family and clarity. All good.
The night was passed in another hamlet on Liberty Bay; Keyport, where I had many friends when I was young. The sunset was spectacular, borrowing colors now from the eastern fires. The smoke had not traveled west, so the air was clear and crisp. It was nice to have a jacket for an early morning walk. Breakfast at the Keyport Merchantile which has stood in this place for over 100 years and provided ice cream and sandwiches and yes, breakfast to a varied and endlessly colorful cast of characters. It holds all kinds of nostalgia for me, but there is only so much of that one can wallow around in when it is time to get back on the road and “head for the barn.” Nevermind that the barn is 3300 miles away. It was time.
Another ferry ride, Kingston to Edmonds. It is so easy to fall into the rhythm of the ferry schedules. It is so civilized. A short boat ride in whatever weather settles a person for whatever comes ahead. Well, maybe except for the Columbus Day storm back in 1962 that came across Tatoosh Island and hit Seattle at about 65 miles per hour. They called it “The Big Blow” and I got to spend about six hours riding it out on a ferry in the middle of Puget Sound. The memory is indelible. For lots of reasons, not the least of which was my learning that even dogs could get seasick given the right conditions. They were too right that day. But no such danger this day. It was beautiful.
I was on an earlier ferry than anticipated, so I had some time in Edmonds to drink coffee on the beach and watch the fishermen (and women) on the pier on the Edmonds side. There is a smell that is the Sound, creosote, diesel fumes and seaweed that is unique to such a place – as a child we would meet my step father at the 5:05 ferry in Winslow and spent a lot of time climbing down the hill to the beach when we were early. The children on the beach could have been us. It is all conjured in that smell. No clear view of Mount Baker. The smoke was working its way west.
By noon David and I were reunited and on our way east. Our travel plans kept us far south of the fires, but the smoke became a constant companion. We angled through eastern Washington into Oregon, headed for the Idaho border. We made it as far as Ontario, Oregon, almost 8 hours later, just across the border from Idaho. We were already getting into territory that put places to stay further apart. Our mid-point destination was Gunnison, Colorado. We just had to get there.
But there is only so much a person can do after so many days on the road. Ontario to Grand Junction was the limit – somehow, I had no real desire to start climbing mountains as the day was winding down. Ten hours of driving was enough – on interstate highways I was beginning to resent. I was missing the old routes and the small towns and even to some extent the camper trailers of summer that my mother used to call the Runamucks. I had been surfing the semi trucks just about long enough. I have always appreciated the railroads, but their limitations are overcome by the highways and the incredible amount of goods moved over them by long haul truckers. Cheers to those folks, and safe travels, but wow.
The smoke obscured the mountain view in Grand Junction, but the rivers were beautiful. Grand Junction is where the Colorado River receives the Gunnison River, and the valley is green and lush in the midst of the high plains. Peaches. They grow great peaches. My grandmother lived there for years, so it was a common destination for me. By now I was getting into pilgrimage territory. My great grandparents homesteaded in Gunnison, and a part of me was formed there, on the Ohio Creek. So next morning, we rose early to head to this home place.
There are changes on this route as well. in 1965, the Gunnison River was dammed for the first time, creating the largest lake in Colorado, the Blue Mesa Reservoir. It is some 20 miles long, or so, and is perfect for fishing and boating and all of those activities. Still, it is strange, on Cerro Pass, to get behind boats on trailers. It seems wrong somehow.
Heading into town, however, was familiar. Despite a proliferation of coffee houses, adventure outfitters, and tee shirt shops, the bones of the old town remain. The pickups are fancier, but the ranchers are the same. I still knew where to find my Aunt Lizzie’s house and the road out to Ohio Creek. Something at the core of me became very still, even content. I could have stayed. Even before I got all the way out the gravel road to where the ranch once was – it felt like the essential home place that is never replaced. David will never understand it. He might, if he were moved as far from the ocean as I am from those mountains, but it would not be until then. I could stand still up in that spot and hear the voices of my greats and grands – the accent of the mountains with an undercurrent of Austria and Bavaria. Old stories of actual highjinks, laughter, dancing, music, work. Life, death, anger, and joy. Poverty and plenty in the same place, at the same time. Being alive and one with the world. It is a goal to strive for anywhere else. Up there, it was the only choice.
Back in town I stopped into the Pioneer Museum. In that few minutes I met people who remembered my Aunt Lizzie, and played cards with my Uncle Gabriel. They remembered what I remembered. Yes, I could have stayed. But it was not meant to be that way. We still had many miles to go before reaching what is, in fact, home, so it was back on the road to conquer Monarch Pass before day’s end. Monarch Pass is on the Continental Divide and is 11,312 feet at the summit. I remember when they opened this “new” pass – the old pass was unpaved and rose to 11,365 feet which was significant mostly because it was essentially a goat trail at best. It is funny how the “new” pass feels so narrow and dangerous now. It seemed, at one time, so big. Now, going down the pass, I appreciate my grandmother’s desire to crawl into the back seat of the car and cover her head with newspapers rather than view the progress down the mountain. The road construction probably didn’t help, but the large lighted signs kept us apprised of it, though my favorite told us in bright buttons of orange, that there were ZOMBIES AHEAD. At Tomichi Creek, we left the Gunnison and started along the South Arkansas River, through the gorges and along breath taking drops to eternity.
After the 125 miles up to Gunnison, and the stop that could have been forever, we didn’t’ really get very far that day. We didn’t make it out of Colorado, going just another 320 miles or so to Burlington, close enough to the Kansas border, but once again, with certain accommodations. Actually, it turned out to be serendipitous as Burlington, Colorado is home to Philadelphia Toboggan Company Carousel #6. Technically, it is a coaster, as the animals do not go up and down, but there, in the middle of the plains is this beautiful thing – this amazing work of art, one of only about 150 remaining carousels of 2500 or so that once proliferated across the United States. Built sometime around 1905, it has been in place at the Kit Carson County Fairgrounds for all this time. It is a glorious thing, complete with horses and goats and tigers and fantastical sea horses and a giraffe. The paint is original on both the animals and scenery and it is a glory to behold. Fully operational and open most days, it is worth a trip out from Denver to see.
The next night’s destination turned out to be Springfield, Missouri. (9 hours, 604 miles) I was mocked by a cabbie for routing us this way, but I’ll go a long, long way to avoid going over the Mississippi at St. Louis twice in one trip. So, at Salina, after some incredible barbecue at Biemers, we headed south to Springfield where we passed a lovely evening with a great steak dinner at a place called Jimm’s. I was reaching the point where I had to notice where I ate, and to pick up business cards so that I could orient myself in the morning before stepping out of the hotel. It is a danger when you stay in chain hotels across country. Eventually, you start to notice that even the carpet is the same from establishment to establishment. It can take two cups of coffee to figure out where you are.
So from Springfield, Missouri to Charleston, West Virginia through the Mark Twain National Forest, through Kentucky along the Bourbon Trail. 11-1/2 hours and 734 miles through some of the same territory Mark Twain traversed on his way west. It’s been a long time since I read Roughing It but I think I will again. We covered a lot of the same miles as are described in that trip, though at a much faster clip. The most memorable sign was hand painted and told me that MOT SUCKS. It was a wide and easy ride. We crossed the river at Cairo, Illinois. I can’t remember the last time I was there, but it was sad to see. This once prosperous – very prosperous river city is a shell nowadays – huge, glorious Victorian houses with windows shattered, empty businesses and places where vines are beginning to eradicate history. I don’t even want to think of the money that would have to be directed there to bring any of it back. It both makes me want to know more, and to get away from it as quickly as possible – the syndrome more often described with car wrecks. It took a lot of miles in Kentucky to soften the kick to the gut that was Cairo.
But Kentucky is beautiful. Onward to Lexington, to Louisville, through the Daniel Boone National Forest and on into West Virginia where the roads are really, really good. The night spent at the Sheraton beside the Kanawha River felt almost vacation-like, especially knowing that the following day we only had six or seven hours of driving to get home.
Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Home. The end of a trip that took us from Maryland, across Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Next time, we need to head south, though there is so much of this I need to see again, and in depth. Also, next time, I need to stay off Eisenhower’s plan for easy troop movement. I mean, I understand his aversion to hedgerows after my travels through Normandy, but seriously. There is a lot of this country missed because of great roads.