The Cascades

Max has said that he dislikes Spokane, and though I gave it nothing like a careful inspection, I’m inclined to agree. It is the nature of this type of travel to make snap judgments about places. You drive into a town and decide that it is or isn’t a place where you wish to stop and linger. The Rotary Club types of small, tourist towns know this and spend a lot of capital on each approach to their fair city. The approach to Spokane from the east on Rt. 2 has had none of this attention and urban sprawl has taken over. What seemed like miles of shopping centers, gas stations, malls and fast food joints form a gauntlet to be run before the actual city appears. When it does, it is underwhelming. Perhaps it is inevitable, given the nature of American shopping culture, that chain stores will proliferate and shopping centers will be built to accommodate them, but I think we are in danger of turning all of our settled areas into parking lots. Grand Forks, ND seemed a perfect example of this trend, as I have written. Parking lot as urban design… not a great move forward as a culture, I think.

Twisp, WA is a very different place. After the trip to Grand Coulee and an hour or so of fairly gentle hills, I dropped down into the Methow valley, a green and growing place nestled in between the grasslands on one side and the mountains to the south. Here on the eastern slope the Cascades rise up with dry waves of hills rather than abrupt forested slopes, but the rise is inexorable. Every turn in the road leads to another slow-vehicle lane and my transmission downshifts for the climb. The Methow is a pretty ribbon of water and trees through the middle of it. Twisp itself appears with the usual gaggle of outskirt businesses, the fuel dealers, auto resale lots and construction companies. As the town center approaches the nature of the businesses along Rt. 20 change to sports outfitters and small motels, a “whole wheat” grocery store (Hanks, since 1978) and the occasional art space. The actual center of town is off to the right of the main drag and has an old-west look without having been dolled up for the task. There is what seems to be an active local theater company, a health food store, a great bakery/coffee shop called “Cinnamon Twisp” and a couple of bars. At one of these, The Antlers, is where I have dinner. Special tonight, a foot-long chicken-fried steak with mashed potatoes and corn, served with garlic bread, $8.95. I say what the hell and go for it, forgetting that “gravy” out here is white, with bits. The whole plate was vaguely white, and there was a lot of it. This will not be tried at home. As has become usual, however, nice people make the experience worth it.

I take the back road between Twisp and Winthrop, a town that has put a lot of effort into the whole old-west thing. The drive reveals the diverse nature of local sensibilities. There are trailers, upscale ranch-ettes, small, working farms, huge metals sculptures in front of substantial studios and the occasional geodesic dome. This and the clientele at the café show me that I am now in a different part of the west.

One rather remarkable place in Winthrop is the Shafer Museum. A local businessman in the early 20th century, Mr Shafer took to the idea of barter as a way to help the community through the depression. He took, it seems, almost anything, and folks gave up lots of old stuff that was around the place from pioneering grandparents and those who had lived in the houses before them. Mr Shafer eventually bought a building to serve as a museum and put most of the goods on display. Today it occupies a very pleasant plot just up the hill from the center of town and is run by volunteers from the county historical society. Even though the buildings weren’t open this late in the season, the grounds, amply littered with all manner of gear and goodies were left as a self-service tour. A simple donation n the bucket and it was yours for the viewing. This is a nice touch, and the place is well worth a visit any time of the year.

When the Cascades stop messing around and assert themselves, the views are glorious. Washington Pass offers one of the best roadside vista stops in my experience. There is a trail leading from the parking lot to an overlook of the road you have just traversed to reach the pass, and also of the Liberty Bell formation, which dominates this part of the range.

The North Cascades National Park has no formal entry or concession area. It is bisected by Rt. 20 and contains miles and miles of wilderness, along with more glaciers than any other mountain range in the lower 48 states. It is some of the wildest and most remote country in America. Mount Baker, the peak my son almost calls home, had the largest snowfall on record in the US a couple of years ago. Sitting barely 30 miles in from the Pacific, it dominates the view from just about any direction. This is so not-New England

The western slope, much wetter and covered in deep, dark forest, is also much steeper, and the road seems to drop forever as I travel toward the coast. Some folks who were traveling in the opposite direction told me at the Washington Pass overlook to stop at the rest area above Diablo dam, that I might enjoy the view of Ross Lake. I think they were on to something.

The view of Ross Lake from Highway 20

Tilly Gorge appears almost as an afterthought, an aside to anyone still looking after the dizzying descent to the dam and somewhat flatter driving. This place is amazing.

I drive on through Newhalem and Concrete, unable to process the quiet nature of theoir attractions after the mountains. Max says they are worth a photographic excursion on their own, but not now. I’m in Bellingham before I know it; the “City of subdued excitement” as one local has titled it on a store display right next to the city hall.

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