I am headed east. Not since starting this adventure along the edge at the mouth of the Mississippi River near Venice, LA, have I have traveled east on the edge. Today, I dropped off the family at the Seattle airport, aimed north to find and the edge and then headed east. Although I am traveling against the tide of the historical settlement of this great land, I feel like I’m heading home.
This is not so easily done as said – this heading east. One of the things that is leaving a real impression on me about traveling both to and along the edge of the country, is that out here away from the urban centers, you can’t just do what you want. Nature and topography play a huge role what you are allowed to do. You have to establish an objective and then figure out a way to accomplish it within the bounds of what is possible. We would do well to understand this ethos as we seek to understand our fellow man, particularly those outside our immediate environs. Life is different out here, and attitudes about life are correspondingly different as well. As I try to find a pass through the Cascades that is open and that will get me to a reasonable route east, I live this out. Almost 30 miles of State Route 20 through the pass at Ross Lake in North Cascades NP is closed for snow removal. Until Memorial Day. I end up finding a way through further south on US 2 which, as it turns out, will be my road until the western edge of Minnesota. It’s mildly frustrating because this means I will be some distance from the edge through eastern Washington, but such is life. I have GPS, a high-powered motor vehicle, climate control, access to food and water, etc. Imagine the challenges of those who mapped these few passes through the Cascade Range. From the Canadian border to the northern border of Oregon, there are like four passes east-west through the mountains. All along this massive range of mountains, men trekked and plotted and found four ways to get through. To be honest, I don’t know how they found four.
It’s pretty amazing to go from the madness of an international airport to a snow capped pass through the mountains in a matter of an hour or so, but that’s what I did. The trip through the Cascades was spectacular. Every corner created an expectation of “getting through” only to render another climb, another twist, another car-roof-high bank of plowed snow on the shoulder. Until, finally, the last corner comes. It feels like everything takes a deep breath all at once, and you stare, as you twist away downhill, at what seems like an endless horizon of space. It really seems like you won’t see another mountain ever again. Most immediately, however, what you get is fertility. For at the eastern base of the range, where the Columbia and Wenatchee Rivers come together, is a rich, broad valley of apples, vineyards and growth. In the eastern shadow of the mountains, protected from the worst weather, and fueled with the waters and nutrients of two great rivers, the orchards grow old and productive. Apple trees as thick as volkswagens are black-barked with age and yet still spread lacy branches wide and low for picking and, today at least, heavy with buds of new flowers.
I wish I could say this idyll lasted for a while, but it didn’t. Just as soon as I had grown to appreciate the fertile valley, I was climbing, even cliff hanging, out of it along US 2 up onto what turns out to be the real response to the eastern shadow of the Cascade Range. Absolutely nothing. In a weird twist of geography, invention, and weather patterns, I managed to find a stretch of eastern Washington that is nothing more than high, dry, scrub grass and grain fields for as far as you can see. It is uninteresting, unattractive and really, really big. Like the worst blind date you could imagine. It’s in the rain shadow of the mountain range, and it’s denied natural water by the Grand Coulee dam to its north. That dam, more on which in a second, does, however, irrigate up to a million acres of land SOUTH of this section of Washington. I’m driving right below the dam, but the irrigation is being used so far south of me I can’t even see green that direction. In fact, I literally drive across the lower dam that creates the largest holding area of water south of the actual Grand Coulee dam when I go through Coulee City, and the place is dry as a chip. I mean the reservoir is there and you can fish or whatever, but the surrounding landscape is practically lunar.
There is a deep and controversial history of the Grand Coulee Dam. I’m not going to go into all of it, but the cliff notes is that businessmen and lawyers fought about whether a dam or a canal was the answer to providing water for irrigation and power downstate. Then, with the dam-builders winning over the canal builders among the populace and politicians, there was an argument over low dam for power or high dam for power and irrigation. No where in all this was much discussion about the people, businesses, highways, cemeteries, etc. that were about to be underwater, low or high dam. Anyway, the bureau of land reclamation moved forward with a low dam and when they brought out President Franklin Roosevelt to see the progress, he saw two things: 1) progress and 2) an good project for the WPA to help make some work for everyone in the depression. So, like a good politician, he praised the work and promptly ordered a high dam. In one of the more ironic twists of history, Woody Guthrie was paid to write a song about the effort, which he did, and in which he calls the Columbia River a “wild and wasted stream.” The poet of the forgotten man forgot, momentarily, the fish and Native Americans and small business people who lost everything. I’m not saying the dam was wrong, I’m just admiring the realities of capitalism when it comes to folk singers. Finished in 1932 and improved in the late 70s, Grand Coulee generates more power than any hydroelectric facility in the US. And it helps make this stretch of US 2 I travelled today as dry and boring as a math test.
In an absolute demonstration of a higher power, eastern Washington gives way to western Idaho. Which is absolutely lovely. The forests are back, the rivers are rushing and there is a snow capped peak in every vista. Everything seems immediate, which makes sense given the narrow nature of this northern Idaho stovepipe. But mostly it is a relief from the vast bore of eastern Washington. For me anyway. I’m overnighting in Sandpoint, Idaho, and my spirits are high because not only am I back on the northern edge where I will be able to remain for a while, but I’m also headed into country I know is not boring. Tomorrow I promise more photos as I traverse Glacier National Park and northern Montana, hopefully just past the middle of the state to somewhere around Havre. After that, I will have the Missouri River at my southern side for a full day or so. It all holds the promise of grand country and adventure. I look forward to it.