Idaho was all but over by the time I realized I wasn’t in Montana anymore. This is more a comment on my state of awareness, I think, than on Idaho. The Lake Pend Oreille area is a big vacation spot, and like all big vacation spots, it has built up areas. I didn’t get to see much else coming through the panhandle as I did. Besides, this horse was tired of driving and the barn was in sight. In a day or so I would be in Bellingham with my son, and soon after that, with my wife. I’d been on the road for over two weeks.
First, however, I had to get over the Cascades. The southern route of the Cascade Loop, Rt. 2, was in deep smoke. Wenatchee, they told me at the information booth in Spokane, was so smokey that the main road had been closed for a time and people were being asked not to spend any time outside. The lady said folks there were all wearing masks to do anything that took them out of the house. I have no way of verifying that, but it made me all the more determined to take my son’d advice and drive Rt. 20–after a quick trip to the Grand Coulee Dam, of course.
The thing about Grand Coulee Dam that seems the most amazing, after getting over all the facts, like the amount of concrete in the thing, is the inferiority complex they project when anyone mentions the Hoover Dam. Grand Coulee is larger in every way but the actual height of the structure, and all of the literature passed out on the tour presses this point. It’s like they feel the need to prove something. All they really have to do is watch the look on the faces of those who visit- we’re impressed already! This place is huge!
Approaching from the east, you don’t really have any chance to get ready for the scale of the dam. The land is rolling fields and small, crossroad settlements. At this time of the year it remains golden even though it’s the stubble of the wheat that remains to color the view, not the grain itself. Amber waves of grain isn’t just a line on a song, I guess, and I’d like to see this on a late afternoon in August. At of the crossroads, a sign indicates that the Grand Coulee Dam is off to the right, though nothing in the landscape supports the possibility of a dam that backs up a 151 mile-long lake. Almost immediately on turning, however, you find yourself driving down into a rougher, almost broken land than was visible from Rt. 2. The farms are gone and the sandy hills give way to badlands. You continue to drop into the valley at a pretty fast pace and signs predicting the dam pop up with more frequency. Eventually there are homes, and businesses; Electric City, and a long green park, with a view across a large lake. This must be the place!
No, this is the reservoir of irrigation water pumped up the hill by these
Each one of them requires 650,00 horsepower, by the way, supplied, of course, by the other powerhouse, on the other side of the dam. There are three powerhouses now, with a fourth planned for the future. There is a lot of water moved here, and a lot of power generated as well. Another long hill to descend and then the top of the actual dam appears before you.
The guide who took us around was originally from Las Vegas, where guess what other dam is the big local attraction? You got it- Hoover. The points she raised in comparison between the two projects were mostly canned numbers games, but one of the points made the place seem more real. She said that in Nevada, the workers were bussed in or had to live in the desert with very little support from the government. Here, there were two towns actually built at the site. One, Grand Coulee, was where the engineers lived. It is still there, with middle-class bungalows nestled in very green lawns (no problem with water here!) and lots of shade trees. The other side of the bridge (you can no longer drive across the dam itself – for security purposes) was a town for the workers. It is on the Colville Reservation now, and may have been then, for all I know. It is less well tended, less “pretty” perhaps, but far more real in my eyes. The local high school track team were out running the streets for practice when I drove through.
Another thing on the reservation, is a memorial to the great Nez Pearce leader, Chief Joseph, of “I will fight no more forever” fame. The highway rest area named for him seems sadly empty and underwhelming, but I’m not sure what I expected. The story of the Nez Pearce, like many stories of native people living where the white man wanted land or natural resources, was a sad one. The Colville Reservation seems a place less mired in the past than one focused on the future, and I hope that is true. Mason City itself is not a downtrodden place but a town much like any other in the rural west, with points to recommend it and challenges of it’s own, without dwelling on what happened a hundred years ago. Still, it should never be forgotten. Chief Joseph deserves more than a rest stop. Next trip I’ll go downstream, to the dam actually named for him, the only one named for a Native American in North America.