East side, west side, all around the state

I got up early today, well, early for me, meaning 7:30, well after sunrise but hours before the sun would reach its peak in the spring sky. I got in the car for a long ride to Portland, first following the Columbia River and then dipping down to the interstate. I had plugged in my iPod which is bursting at the seams with 18 gigs of music, I had made a fresh thermos of coffee, and had downed a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios. I had brought with me a banana, directions, my cell phone, and not much else. 

The road from here, Walla Walla, to there is filled with microclimates. East of the Cascade Mountains one will observe magpies; west of them there are none to be found. Out here in eastern Washington/Oregon there are many rolling hills as part of the scrubland landscape–red-brown rocks and outcroppings share space with tan brush that gives the effect of looking like sheep that need to be shorn for the year. Thirty miles west of Walla Walla the gorges begin, and the royal blue river winds through the high hills as if to thumb its nose at the typically pale blue sky up ahead. And that sky is empty; only the long series of enormous windmills dare to drive up that high, standing over the scene like silent giants, spinning slowly and methodically as I zipped by. (Note to Oregon State Patrol: “zipped” means under or at the speed limit.) 

The rolling hills slowly begin to grow, and as they acquire the status of height, they pick up other things: taller scrub brush, small evergreen trees, fine dustings of snow. These, in turn, evolve to another status as deciduous trees appear on the side of the road, the evergreens get taller and taller, and the dust gives way to a thickening green carpet of moss and wild grasses. Now the blue river cutting through the rock looks complementary to the other Mother Earth colors, and then the dams begin, controlling and harnessing its flow.

The dams are not without their controversy. Fishermen wail that their harvests are at all-time lows, just 40 years after the dams were installed. Farmers cry out to keep the dams because they rely on the steady irrigation. Conservationists fret about the livelihood of the salmon spawning capability, tourist guides in Idaho bemoan what the dams are doing to their industry, and security experts talk quietly about risk assessments. I, however, am single-minded in my quest to reach my destination, and decide to defer the arguments for another moment. Such is my luxury.

Dead ahead of drivers on I-84, all of a sudden, is Mount Hood. It looms in the background like a gigantic screen saver and I have to blink many times before I realize it’s the real deal. Snow-covered as far as I can see, top to bottom. A sign that flashes by on my right tells me that it is 11,000 feet tall. That’s two or so miles high, I calculate vaguely. I see the hillsides around it; now they look like a velvet cloth has been cast over them, with the soft grass and moss and the dry patches of sand worked in. I bet this is the doing of the giant windmills. I see parts of two or three windmills passing me on the highway, dismembered on a series of WIDE LOAD-marked semis. Each truck comes with its own pacer car that alerts other drivers to the mystery of the cargo — it can take two or three trucks to figure out what these very very large pieces of white metal are, until you’ve figured it out the first time. 

Eventually I hit actual traffic, and by traffic, I mean more than one tractor-trailer and a nervous-looking woman in a 1990 Ford Escort. I have a moment where my sense memory comes back to me, so I change my distance to the car ahead, lest some jerky driver try to cut me off. I tell myself this is one of the good things about Walla Walla. 

I finally make it to my goal, shut off the car, and walk inside the building, my legs having stiffened up during the long drive and barking at me for neglecting their care. One hour later, I’m back in the car, heading home, to go through the process in reverse, and this time, with the setting sun behind me, gradually turning to a burnt umber and snuffing itself out just as I pull in to the driveway.

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Categories: driving, transplanted

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One Comment on “East side, west side, all around the state”

  1. Sharon
    May 6, 2009 at 7:43 am #

    This is by far the most beautiful drive in the world…I have driven down the gorge dozens of times and it never gets old.

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