California Drizzling

I had come down the coast from Brookings OR on Wednesday, only to be driven inland, after another run through the Redwoods, by cold fog and rain. The California coast is as pretty as predicted, all crashing waves, iconic cypress and pine, golden grassy hills with a lace of oak trees across their crowns, but sure enough it was warmer and sunny in the interior, and the trip from the coast to Willits was beautiful. Those lacey strings of sage-green oak trees were dominant in the hills, and the trunks all looked like Japanese ink paintings, gnarly and effortlessly elegant at the same time.
The roads twisted and turned up and down the countryside in a sometimes dizzying corkscrew and I again wished for an old English sports car, something that would make driving on these roads at 40 mph seem death-defying, something out of an old movie. My Chevy handled it quite well, but with none of the lithe grace I imagined commanding from a ragtop in the switchbacks and canted curves. A newer, more luxurious sports car, a Porsche or BMW say, would require more speed, more range to be thrilling. 40 to 60 is the seat-grabbing territory of old British cars and “bathtub” Porsches (I’ve seen a half dozen of these in the past week, all restored beautifully), where the road seems so close you don’t dare to drop your hand out the side for fear of skinned knuckles.

Willits itself was a pleasant place, again a mixture of old west and new age. Signs for the rodeo share equal billing with ads for the local head-shop.

In Zaza’s, a bakery/coffee shop, I was in line in front of a group of hat-wearing scuffed-boot ranch types and the woman at the head of the line asked if the Chai was “…really good? Like, I don’t want to order it if it’s not really good. Oh, it is? Then could you give me a cup with some gently warmed soy milk?” I kid you not. The drug store signs and a Main Street “night club” are flashbacks to my first trip across America, in 1958, as is The Lark Motel, where I spend the night. Clean, reasonable and convenient– could you wish for more?

Across the street, a food truck seems permanently parked. “Burrito King_ the best burritos in California!” got my business for dinner and I’m done for the day.

The next day I fall for the weatherman’s patter about the rain moving east and a predicted mid-70’s sunshine-fest on the coast and drive back in that direction, just a bit south, toward Fort Bragg.  He lied. Slightly less wet than the day before, the coast is still in a fogbank. What was I thinking? Still, as a formerly professional photographer I meet at Russian Gulch State Park reminds me, gray weather is perfect for photography. I shoot some 4×5 on the coast and take advantage of the motel stay the next night to change all of the holders over to fresh film. I’m in for a long time in the darkroom this winter, if nothing else. I realized that I was just as over-ambitious in planning how much film I needed as I was in thinking of the distances I would be able to travel. My mother’s dictum about having eyes bigger than my stomach comes back to me with a new twist here–but I will not run out before getting home, that’s for sure.

The beaches in California are less accessible than those in Oregon– a lot more property rights issues here. Oregon was remarkably forward thinking when it declared in 1967 that all of the shoreline is public land––state park, in fact. California is not without lovely parks, however, and Russian Gulch is one of them.

The precipitous nature of the coastline and the fact that Rt. 1 hugs that line pretty closely makes for two things: more of those canted curves and narrow bridges that soar above the gulches and gullies like ribbons stretched between the hills. The one over Russian Gulch is more accessible than most, with a viewing area at its base.

Just down the coast, however, at Albion, the only remaining wooden bridge on this line can be easily missed.

I would have done so if not for a word from Bruce, that friendly former pro photographer who wanted to talk Speed Graphics and relive his salad days as a darkroom wizard in a lab at Berkley, CA, contact printing 8×10 negatives on a light table that used an array of small, independently controlled lights under a double layer of frosted glass. For burning and dodging you switched lights on and off, augmenting the process with carefully ripped tissue paper placed just right on the glass. Once you had the perfect print, you could reproduce it any number of times, he said. I tried to imagine being that kind of darkroom craftsman and decided I simply wasn’t in his league. I might get one good one, but consistency is not in my make-up and I would change all the variables every time I printed. Ah well…

I went as far south as Elk, a pretty little village seemingly untouched by the city culture that has been moving north from San Francisco.

I say seemingly, because, if you look closely at the cars, or more closely at the people you can see that many of the “locals” are pretty gussied up, and the wealth on display did not come from a local economy, since there isn’t really a local economy. The nearest larger town is Mendicino, which is picture perfect enough without my taking many pictures of it. I did catch this one however, from a bluff nearby. If the folks in Elk are working in Mendicino, they’re commuting the twistiest road I can think of to do so. There really isn’t any quick way to get anywhere on this coast.

In the afternoon I decide that a night out in this weather would not be good, and that I am unlikely to be able to meet any of the folks I had planned to meet in San Fran. I also have to face the fact that I will not be able to go as far south on this trip as I had planned. Time to head back to the right coast- slowly. So I write emails to folks apologizing for leaving them hanging, and head on up and over the hills again- this time to Santa Rosa. From there it’s a short 4-hour hop through the wine country to Yosemite and two nights in a campground.

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This is a little out of sequence, but I wanted to get my thoughts on the Vancouver visit in as soon as I could get them worked out.

I’m not exactly sure what it means to be nice, but by any definition I can think of, the folks in Vancouver have it down. We booked a hotel on-line before coming up, and Max made some suggestions as to places we might want to go. He realized as he was doing so that his tastes are not ours at this point in our lives, so he stuck mainly to museums and Stanley Park. He did say that the hotel was located in the gay neighborhood. Little did I know at the time that this is an official distinction in the city, clearly marked by the pink trash receptacles on the streets that have heart-shaped openings. It is a great place to stay. The Sunset Inn and Suites is staffed by the nicest people, has the best rooms and is reasonable- no, it’s cheap. In an expensive city, a $130 suite is unheard of. On Trip Advisor I booked this one for $111 a night. Its location, on the west end of downtown, makes it perfect for walking, public transport, quick in or out of the city drives, etc. The place is great, and the gay neighborhood is the place to be. Lively, convenient and very much a living neighborhood, it has a warm, welcoming feel to it– restaurants and shops all along Davies Street and an instant shift to quiet/residential as you leave Davies. If you hit Vancouver, I couldn’t urge you more to make this your home ground. The walk along False Creek with a quick water taxi across to Granville Island and its markets can take up a whole weekend.

It was in wonderful Stanley Park, however, that we came to feel that the people of Vancouver have some claim to being among the most welcoming people in the world. First there was the mother of Esmay (Ismay?) whose name we never caught, though Esmay took great pains to make sure we got his, as only a three (and three-quarter) year-old will do. She asked to look at our map of the park and realized that we had not purchased a parking permit yet because the meter we had stopped in front of was broken. She immediately whipped out her phone, purchased a day’s parking for us (“anywhere in the park- they have your license number now”) and would allow us to pay her for it. “It’s only $5 and yesterday somebody paid for mine- this is just passing it along.”

Then there was Dave, an elderly architect (technical architect, he stressed, though the distinction is lost on me) who stopped on his bicycle to discuss photography, his understanding of the best lenses ever made and his beloved city. The conversation went a bit long for Lena, but he was nice about it and wished us a good visit.

After a long walk around the lost lagoon, a drive around the seawall and two or three long walks at various stops, we ran into Steve, who works for the Vancouver City Parks and Recreation Dept. and loves New England. His daughter lives in Shrewsbury and he had just gotten back from a trip east. He will, he says, probably retire near there, though he has yet to figure out the health care part of it all. He would have to go back to Canada every 6 months to keep his pension and to be legal in the states. (“I’ve two lads what live here, but they’re lads- they don’t want me around!”) Steve came to Vancouver from York, England some thirty years ago and has only marginally changed his accent.

Stanley Park deserves a few words its own. The largest city park in N. America, if not the world, it has an amazing array of habitats, (seaside to genuine temperate rain forest) walkways, attractions and opportunities for walking and biking. Most of the seaside in Vancouver is traced with a public walkway and bikeway, and in most of that, the two are kept distinct through signage and a raised curb.

Believe me, when there are as many bicyclists as we saw in Vancouver, it’s wonderful to know that most of them will not be racing by you on the pavement but will be on their own pathway- most of which is one-way around the park. Of course there are always yahoos, even in Canada, and the occasional biker zips by just a bit to close, but this doesn’t seem to happen much–at least it didn’t to us, and then it was someone lost, a first timer on that trail, or the big-city, big-bucks folk from down on False Creek (apartments- 1 million to start, in the ads I saw).

False Creek and the Burrard Bridge- a great Art Deco construction.

And this, perhaps, is a good way back to my original statement, that Vancouverites are nice. There seems to be a much stronger and more generally accepted social contract in this city- an understanding that civility, and helpful, reasonable behavior are ways to insure that living here is kept as hassle-free as possible. It’s not a law, it’s what you do. Like the English of my time in Sussex, who would queue up for everything without any real command to do so, as if getting in line quietly assured fairness, and fairness was a thing to be desired by everyone, all the time, the Canadians I know seem to truly care that everyone have a good time is any exchange. People in shops, people on the bus, people on the street– all went out of their way to say hello, to help us find our way and to wish us a good visit. We couldn’t stop in front of a city map or a bus schedule without someone offering assistance.

The folks in Vancouver will say that Americans are nice too, that they have just as many selfish people as anywhere else, but it doesn’t seem that way. Look, there are a lot of idiots in the world, and it stands to reason that some of them are Canadian, but I think there are fewer than statistics would predict. I think the western ethic, the more open, more engaging way that folks interact with strangers, has a lot to do with how this plays out in BC.

Sun Yet Sen House and Garden

Vancouver is a city of great variety, with a huge Asian population (wonderful Chinese Cultural center with the Sun Yet Sen house and Garden), immigrants from central and eastern Europe in larger numbers than in any US city I know and a sizable presence of First Nation Communities, native Canadians who are much more in evidence than comparable Native American communities in US cities.Totems in Stanley Park

Canada is a bi-lingual commonwealth nation, with as much diversity of lifestyles and income as the US, but less evident strife about it all. There isn’t a lot of bad-mouthing the other guy, the tactic that is so much in evidence in this election year south of the border. There is tension, especially in the east, I think, but those in BC seem to take it in stride. Welcoming, generally happy with their lot and happy to have you know it, they put this visitor at ease very quickly. A Canadian I met later in this trip said that the thing to remember is that Canadians are passionate about mediocrity. I think he’s wrong. They seem passionate about the middle ground, not mediocrity, and that makes them easier to get along with.

Nice place. I want to come back soon.View from our balcony at the Sunset Inn

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Down the coast

I knew before I began this crazy journey that I would miss a lot of places that I really, really wanted to see, but I avoided the thought through most of my trip west. I had a deadline, of sorts, and I excused everything for the sake of getting to Seattle in time to meet Lena. Now, as I started my trip south, I had to face the fact that there was just too much of the Left Coast for me to even think about “seeing” it. I just had to pick some places and run for them. I chose, in that light, to bypass the part of OR that I had loved on seeing for the first time (Newport to Astoria) and to head for the southern OR coast, mainly, I think, because those I asked about it said, “I don’t know, I kind of skipped that part.” I hit the highway right after putting Lena on the plane for Boston and didn’t stop until I got to Florence, at the wet end of route 126, coming west out of Eugene. The highway was, as they all are, boring. But the wind was in my sails now and I had had most of a week without a lot of driving.

Florence is nice, in a touristy way, with a great riverfront marina area- not as full now that the season is pretty much over, but some action still going on the boardwalk, with booths and sellers of merchandise just winding up as I got there.


I had determined that this would be a motel evening, but the ones in Florence were priced for a different type of tourist, so I kept heading south. Just past Reedsport, on the banks of the Umqua River, I found Winchester Bay, a somewhat rag-tag gathering of houses, state and county parks, and businesses around Salmon Harbor. The prices were right and the folks nice, if not as talkative as I had come to expect. There are RV camping areas at the parks and at the marinas themselves, and my guess is that this is a gathering place for a lot of folks who come up for weeks at a time to crab, fish and swap stories. At this time of the year it was winding down. A late afternoon fog prevented me from seeing much of the surroundings, but I got out with a camera the next morning. Please excuse the sloppy panorama. I didn’t think to do it in the phone!


This is the view from just south of Salmon Harbor, in front of Umqua Light, which is a graceful old place, though surprisingly petite and far away from the actual shore to my New England eyes. The hight of its placement needed no larger building, I guess, and you build on top of the hill- not down in the dunes, as we have found out in places where our east coast lights have had to be moved due to erosion.

Lord knows they need lighthouses on this coast! I have never seen such an inhospitable place for shipping! This is from just a bit further south. Oh, and did I tell you that the water is seriously cold?


All in all it’s a lovely place. Towns are spaced widely along the line of the coast, some large enough to warrant a 35 MPH speed limit and others a mere nod to 45 while passing through the village. Some have their outskirt-shopping-centers and others rely on main street stores for all commerce. Some seem up-right and middle class, others a bit counter-culture, but there wasn’t a klinker among them to my eye. I stopped at the Langlois Market  for some provisions and was greeted like an old friend.

Cape Blanco was a treat. (and how could a guy named Whitey not visit Cape Blanco?) I ran into one of those women of a certain age who carried herself as though she were 22 and laughed as she shot picture after picture of the same things I did, telling me she had lived in the east and the west but that she was never going back east. She waved goodbye and zoomed off for the next destination at twice the speed limit.

I shot a lot of 120, but the afternoon fog came in before I could get out the 4×5. In the past two days I’ve shot over 10 rolls of 120 and 35, but the Speed lies lonely and almost forgotten in the back of the car. I vow to change that in CA!


I yearned for a yurt at the Harris Beach State Park in Brookings, but found them all taken before I could get there. In fact, the place was packed. Clearly, this close to the CA border, Oct is still swing time. The tenting site was small and crowded, but I signed in for two nights anyway since it made spending time with the CA redwoods a lot cheaper than tenting in CA. Tent sites are $16 in OR and $35 in CA. Gas was $4.07 on OR and $4.87 on the southern side of the border. I filled up the next day and headed out to see me some big sticks, but more on that later.

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Down time… sort-of, in Bellingham

In the end, what had become a very complicated WA stay got simplified. The wildfire situation on the eastern slope meant we skipped a planned trip to Lake Chelan and spent a a few days in Bellingham, a time in Vancouver and another bit at Max’s house to end it up. More on Vancouver in another post. Here I want to talk about my son’s home town.

Bellingham is an interesting town. Cobbled together from three separate cities in the 1920’s, it has a decidedly unorthodox street plan, with some major roads changing names and directions two or three times as you move north or south. The section in the middle is called the “numbered streets” and the neighborhood and where Max lives is still zoned as agricultural although it surmounts an old coal mine and is inside the city limits.  There is a highway that curves east of the downtown as it heads north to the Canadian border, and the area surrounding it is urban sprawl, but without the obsessive angularity common to many of the cities I’ve visited out here. There are gridded areas, and roads in the country have a disconcerting way of following a grid even when they move up against rivers (go straight, take a sharp bend, go straight, another sharp bend, another straight section, etc.). In other places it seems that the lesson of transportation was that the river is god’s way of showing us where to put the railroad, and later the road. Here, it’s like a robot who bumps up against barriers , recoils, turns and moves off in another direction was the model for planning.  As in all things observable, however, Whatcom County is eclectic in this, and there are wonderful, twisty, turn-y roads that appear in front of you at times, just waiting for an old MG and a sunny spring day.

With more than twice the area of Rhode Island, the county covers a lot of very different geography. Most of The Northern Cascade National Forest is within its borders and most of the almost 204 thousand residents live in the western third, between the mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Bellingham is both county seat and market town for everywhere from the Canadian border to the more developed Skagit Valley to the south.

The population is just as eclectic and varied. There are suburban types, who keep all those big-box stores and chain restaurants out by highway 5 in business; semi-urban hipsters who have escaped Seattle or Portland and brought their version of cool to the small city. There are college kids and academics from Western Washington U. as well as a strong community college; farmers of all stripes, from the large-scale berry farmers who grow one crop to those who espouse a growing philosophy that is all about variety and experimentation––small-scale, eat-local foodies. There are fishermen, artists, native people and rabid political advocates of all types (mostly pretty leftist in town. Out in “the county” as the area surrounding the city limits is known, things are a bit the other way, with hippie enclaves scattered about to make things interesting). Perhaps this is true of many small cities, especially ones gifted with such a spectacular natural beauty and wealth of resources, but it’s pretty obvious in Bellingham.

Most evident to me, however, is that there is a downtown culture and then the other world that surrounds it. Green politics is big here, and there is a strong, evident desire in the downtown culture to keep the nature of the place sacred as well as the place of nature. Folks are working hard to make the downtown a very nice place to hang out. Recycling is a religion, but so is balancing life and work. Folks seem to believe that Jesse Winchester wasn’t just singing about “old Vermont” in the line, “what you do all day depends on what you want.” People of all ages here seem to have the idea that time is more important than money. What a concept! …and here I thought it was only old people who had already made their money and students who thought that way! It’s not that people here don’t work hard, they do. It’s just that there is also a lot of volunteering; gatherings at the drop of a hat; all-day bike tours of the city with the word “tweed” as the unifying concept; races from the sky (Mt Baker) to the sea involving skiing (nordic and alpine), biking, running, canoeing, kayaking and, for those who chose to do it, a no-motor-vehicle ferrying of the gear over 30 miles of roads up the mountain to get the whole thing started (I wish I had a picture of the canoe trailers that the bikers used). While many of those who are involved in this stuff are 20-somethings or 30-somethings, many aren’t so young any more. The age of the folks who showed up to help pick beets and corn for the food bank ranged from college kids to folks pushing 70. Max said it was a younger crowd than he often gets. I got to drive the truck.

He talks of community a lot, and I think I can begin to grasp what he means. It’s different from the sense of community that I have encountered back east just as the houses and the towns are different out here. It isn’t church-y, or centered around a single concept. It’s an open, friendly belief in the worthwhile nature of cooperation and in the fun to be had in the company of others. It isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t always work, but I know it means something to those who call this place home.

For my part, I think the world could use a few more places like Bellingham.

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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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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.

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Almost Idaho

Because I couldn’t take the wildfire smoke that was predicted along my chosen southern route through Lolo pass, I made a quick decision and drove up Rt 200 to meet Rt. 2 in Sandpoint, Idaho. Where it took me was to Paradise. Yes, that is Paradise, MT, just southeast of Thompson Falls, but I also mean that it showed me why some people fall in love with this country. I’ve been driving every day and have, in a number of posts, remarked that I would like to come back to a spot, or I wish I had time for a spot, or some spot looked interesting but I had to make up time.

What the hell am I doing out here if I’m trying to make up time?

Just south of Paradise on Rt. 200.

The speed at which one drives in MT makes the world fly by like a movie outside the window, but today the movie was so beautiful that I kept stopping the car and wandering along the side of the road. When I came to a National Forest Campground at Bull River I checked in for two nights, determined to slow myself down. Immediately I second-guessed the decision, of course. I think I’ve become used to the hum of the tires and a destination for each day. Besides, this is bear country, and I’m a city wimp. The place is almost deserted. There are some trailers and fifth-wheel campers around- just no other tenters. The silence is deafening; it is also liberating. Behind me is the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, in front, the Clark Fork River, one of the most lovely I have ever seen. Beyond that there are more hills and mountains and then Idaho. My iPhone thinks I’m in Idaho and displays Pacific time. I’ve shot three rolls of black and white film already and I loaded the Retina with some fast color film. The iPhone is filling up fast.

Cabinet Mountain Wilderness, from Mt Rt. 56–a major grizzly habitat, according to the sign.

But is this more of the same thing, putting the camera, like the drive, between me and the place I am now. Doing in place of being.  I have taken pictures of signs on the side of the road in the past few days, but I didn’t stop to photograph the billboards that appear at the state line coming in from ND. They simply have a map of the state with the words “Get lost in Montana” superimposed––low budget, no models, no fancy props, just an idea; one I don’t think I understood until today.

View from my campsite at Bull River

After cooking my evening meal (carefully, with everything kept away from the tent and all food stored in the bear box) I drove across a small bridge to Noxon, a tiny town on the other side of the river. There is nothing else on that side of the river, or so I had been led to believe by the state map. At the end of a single row of tiny houses and a general-purpose food place (deli cum restaurant cum food store) there was a tavern with some pickups out front and a sign that pointed me down the road to Heron. Another town? I took the bait. After about 6 miles of wash-boarded gravel road sure enough I came to an even smaller town, this time with no tavern but a church. Maybe the population of the two towns is self-selecting by pastime. These two do seem to play a very large roll in rural life, drinking and praying, and one can only speculate how much the traffic on that gravel road shifts back and forth between Saturday night and Sunday morning. The road took me past this, however, so it wasn’t a waste. Back the next day with the Speed Graphic.

The view from just past Noxon, looking back to the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness

I said that the road took me to Paradise, and I can see where a person could find that in this country. The scenery is awe inspiring, the freedom from interruption and busy-work could make for calm reflection and focus in one’s everyday tasks, the air is clean and nature is present in all of its glory right outside your door. There is fishing and hunting aplenty and most likely, like-minded folks around you with whom to commune. There are Mennonites (good roadside store on Rt 200 – Belknap store, where the folks running the place seemed that they might be members of the Mennonite church I saw just about ½ mile further on) and seventh Day Adventists evident in number. No obvious militia groups that I could detect- I guess you have to look more closely for that sort of stuff.

I can also see where someone would consider it a hell on earth. There is little to distract you, lots of work to do to stay on top of all that nature that keeps trying to take back your living space and little opportunity for gainful employment. Everything is at least a couple hours drive away, there are scary animals (sign at roadside rest area: Rattlesnakes have been seen here- stay on pavement), and the winters are long… and I mean long. This is northern Montana, after all.

It’s just a matter of your point of view. Right now it seems pretty sweet. I took the no travel day and just drove a few miles (well over 100, but that’s just around the corner in this part of the world) to see old-growth cedars off Mt Rt 56, and the swinging bridge at Kootenai Falls. Going just past it, I came to Libby, a nice town and one that had all the amenities I needed: a place to clean off the pounds of MT bugs that I have so wantonly slaughtered in driving, a grocery store for dinner and a pharmacy where I can get some antihistamine to combat the lingering effects of this smoke.

The cedars are amazing and make me look forward to the redwoods of California. It’s great to feel really small in the forest! These trees are 500 years old and up to 8’ in diameter.

The Kootenai River is a brilliant green in the distance, especially in the rapids, and clear as air up close, actually a lot clearer than the air around Montana right now. The falls had been slated for a dam, but the folks in the area fought it and won. It remains a wild place, crossed just below the falls by a bridge that looks like something out of a Harrison Ford movie. There are warnings near the bridge to keep people out of the water (“12 have lost their lives!”) but I think anyone who tries to enter the water here is already so far gone that they can’t read anyway- it’s about a 30’ drop to a very fast moving set of rapids.  The load limit of the bridge is stated as 5 people, but they don’t say what size people so I assume that don’t mean a Whitey and 4 others. Anyway, I demur and head back up the trail to the 64 steps needed (no, I didn’t count them–it’s posted) to get over the train tracks and the long climb back to the parking lot. A peaceful late-afternoon drive back to the campground and I’m ready for Idaho tomorrow.

A mountain meadow by the side of Rt. 56, looking west.

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