American Sabbatical 029: 10/9/96


10/9/96.. YES. All the way across!

There was mist lying on Lake Roosevelt, and a ruddy light painting the canyon walls above Coulee City, when the Festivites got up to cook their porridge. After our experiences with road food, we’ll jump at any chance we get to cook for ourselves, but we’re still a little too tender to camp again, so a housekeeping motel room was just the ticket. And it’s tourist class. We’ve been reminded on the road that there’s a two-tier economy on the roadside, as elsewhere in the land of expense accounts. The word “Inn” is a clue. Expect to pay twice as much, and park next to Mercedes, at the Inns. At the momandpop motels you often can cook for yourselves. There are risks, of course, and at the edge of exhaustion it’s easier to pull into the downscale chain flops (Super8, Motel6) than scratch and sniff down bedbug row. But last night we lucked into a lowrent dandy, and cooked up a storm (soyburger with peas and couscous), then did a Scots breakfast. Up your kilt.

Purring with brogue, we fulfilled our promise to drive across the top of Grand Coulee Dam, and it’s even more astounding up close (without lasers). Nobody seemed to mind us hanging a U-turn and stopping to play with Olympus, but we tiptoed off quickly after we looked over the edge. Pacific waters, next stop.

Dam Drive

Papa's Playground
But we fetched-up short on the edge of Coulee City when we spotted a civic memorial to Papa Gertz, the Whirlygigger of Washington. Folks, the town fathers out here recognize great art and character. I mean they RECOGNIZE it. Or at least fence it in. There on the outskirts of town was a chainlink-fenced collection of found-object whirlygigs (maybe 50 of them), along with lurid-color planters made of old washing machines (with agitator stands, a beautiful touch). Papa Gertz also concocted human figures out of welded junk, who posed about the park.

Sad to say, the genius locus himself has passed on, and some of the gigs have fallen into disrepair. A plastic doll riding a carousel-horse giggle has lost everything from the waist up, and other gruesome gaps were noted. Shouldn't there be a federal arts grant to restore and maintain this exhibition, or corporate sponsorship from GE? The pure inspiration of all these chrome and enamel gizmos clattering and squealing in the Columbia wind, in this place, where man’s hubris has channeled a billion waterhorses into rotating power, was not lost on us, and we giggled off into the west.

Protecting the Arts

Across the Coulee
Straight up the Grand Coulee itself. Lawrence of Arabia, in The Seven Pillars Of Wisdom, describes the spiritual impact of the Valley of Rhum, and some of his eloquence could apply to the Grand Coulee. Sheer volcanic cliffs of umber and burnt sienna, standing above sloping talus bases, line a drowned valley maybe five miles across. This is a containment lake for irrigation waters from the big dam, and a sight to behold. The highway descends into this deep stone trough, containing Coulee Lake, and runs alongside the water for 25 miles. The dark overshadowing heights to our left were pierced with slanting shafts of light, as jutting cliffs behind cliffs receded down our view. We stopped open-mouthed to try and paint, and a hawk came and hunted in the grass before us.

The rest of our passage across the drylands of Washington was anti-climax. We climbed out of the coulee and onto the arid volcanic grasslands again, some irrigated into rich wheat farms, the rest lying fallow in haunting gray bunch-grasses, or the wicked sage. There are stretches of the western Columbia Plateau that are flatsyourpalm, bye. And outbreaks of bony badlands that are hard on the hosses. They must raise enough wheat on the plateau to make bread for the whole world, but we couldn’t find a local bakery to save our stomachs. Finally a general storekeeper took pity on strangers, and sold me some slices from her cafe loaf. (They had espresso, of course, this IS Washington).

Grand Coulee

Grand Coulee
Then we tipped over and down into the basin of the Columbia one last time. The smell of apples rose in our faces. Along the green intervales weaving between parched khaki hills, an apple kingdom drinks from the Columbia. We followed signs to a riverside park, sidestepped the gooseshit, and sat with the gulls by the river to eat our soyburger sandwiches. Yum. We topped it off with a pitstop at a orchard stand for cherry cider and fresh fruit. Mercy: back in the fruits and veggies again.

Contented, barreling along in the dry Courtland breeze, we crossed the mighty Columbia at the Wenatchee Confluence, and started climbing into the Cascades. Alongside us stepped terrace after terrace of ripe orchards full of migrant workers, dancing on aluminum ladders. Pomologist heaven. Unleavened sunshine, volcanic soil, and all the water you can pump. Young women driving 18-wheel flatbeds piled high with appleboxes, Spanish accents in the air, and glistening fruit to the mountain walls.

Irrigated Apples

Up the Wenatchee we meandered, and the earth heaved and thrust its angles in the air. The Columbia Plateau is a humongus glob of volcanic flow (or flows) lying flat on central Washington, but the Cascades are crumpled, folded, and jammed up into the sky, much like the alps. Too much like the alps. We stumbled into an inter-continental space-warp as we ascended into Leavenworth. Yah. It is a Bavarian outlet-haus and alpin-mall. Set in a Swiss postcard valley, Leavenworth was wall-to-wall tourists in a shopping frenzy. Octoberfest in the Cascades among faux-chalets. When we pulled into a parking lot to take pictures an attendant in lederhosen rushed out to collect his fee. We drove on.

The east slopes of the Cascades are still partially in rain shadow (although the surging blue-green Wanatchee lived up to the “cascade” label), and the woods have a hiwestern feel, but hardwoods are mixing in, and the mingled colors on the heights are playful. And there sure are a lot of big trees out here. Spruce, pine, cedar, fir, all chasing the clouds. And a lot of them highballing down the road. The east-west arteries are all major, and there aren’t any cross-connects. It’s run with the logger traffic or walk. So we got in step and convoyed up and over. 10-4.


You could almost believe in cataclysmic orogeny, staring at the jagged peaks, knuckles, knobs, and thrusts up there. We had descended to 2000 feet on the Pacific slope, but Mt. Index was still gesturing at 5979, four grand above us. Talk about mythic finger-pointing. And trees. Dense, tangled, lush, looming hardwoods. We were coming down into it. The great northwestern coastal stew.

We broke out of the high hills at Monroe, into suburban malls, gridlock highways, diesel fumes and humidity. O glorious humidity. Hot, sticky, smutchy, wonderful sauna-like humidity. A whole new world.

And our momentum blew us all the way into Everett. Everett? It was due west. Our connection in Seattle had gone awry, our next port of call was off Vancouver, and Everett was the closest saltwater these two sailors could get at. We kept our noses to the dash compass through all the highway jigs and one-way jags of scenic industrial Everett, until we fetched up next to the City Sanitation Plant , looking onto the Naval Destroyer Base, hard-by the log loading docks, on the shore of Puget Sound. The Olympic Mountains framed the sunset. Not open Pacific yet, but the briny slosh just the same.

I hobbled down to the no access, entry prohibited, do not even think of it, water’s edge, took the striped dog whelk shell I had picked up at Popham Beach seven weeks ago from my pocket, and hurled it as far out as I could throw. Then I spat in the outflow. YES.

Is this it then? Pilgrims travel to the far side of their dreams, only to end up in the wrong place, with their friends gone, and all the good sites staked out? Is Everett the end of noble ambitions? Why, it’s just like its namesake in Massachusetts. Somehow I hadn’t expected people. High spruce-clad mountains standing down to an idyllic shore. A totem pole or two, maybe. Not stripmalls, subdivisions, and a Navy town.

We found a cheap motel on the strip, with a dubious clientele, and bedding that smells of smoke (in non-smoking), and another whiny dial tone that our modem won’t speak to. Here we sit, washed up on the other shore.. but out the window a shining volcanic peak is covered with snow, reminding us that the hills of dreams are still there. Tomorrow we head north to Galiano Island.

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