Tag Archives: nature

Riding off into the sunset burns my retinas

To say I’m sick of driving would be to trivialize everything I’ve seen on my journey across the continent and back, would be to make too much light of the 8,600 miles of the trip, in which I’ve encountered everything from:

  • tiny baby bunnies
  • crystal blue boiling pools of adulterated water that are fueled by the unseen middle of the earth
  • exasperated parents who look like they’re questioning the entirety of their lives
  • all manner of coffeehouses and espresso shacks that dot the West like freckles
  • at least 50 species of birds—sparrows, swallows, hawks, eagles, kingfishers, vultures, quail, turkeys, hummingbirds, and more
  • barns and rural structures in all stages of their life cycles
  • blue-collar men who all looked dazed and stressed, no matter where I encountered them
  • lightning bugs outside a greasy spoon diner in Pennsylvania
  • long moments of coasting down from mountains just after fighting to get to the peaks
  • many, many anti-abortion and anti-Obama billboards
  • tired front desk hotel staff

All of these people, animals, and situations were notable enough that they left their impressions on me. I don’t know their stories, except in some rare instances in which we had time to converse. Like an unfinished painting, I’m left wondering about all of the open canvas and what could be drawn on to fill it in. Perhaps some of these things will get worked into a story or other over time, or my memory will do that thing I hate and blur different events together in its quest to find patterns and meaning. But that tendency is why I write things down—then I retain the edges of each experience.

That said, I am loathe to sit behind the wheel of the car right now, even to go set up Internet in our apartment or buy bread. I’m sure that this hatred will fade, but hopefully I’ll remember that I don’t particularly enjoy driving 3 days in a row for 12 hours a day.

We rolled into Walla Walla on Friday evening, having come through the evergreen forests along the waistline of Idaho. Sister cities Lewiston and Clarkston, watching each other from across a river and state boundary line, seemed small and a bit bedraggled, the road infrastructure not seeming to lead to any important point in either place. We opted to get some drive thru food, knowing how close we were and not wanting to take any more time at a pit stop. Finally, at long last, the wheat fields, close to harvest, signaling that we were almost back. I’d gotten so used to driving into the sun that I didn’t need to put on my sunglasses anymore. Around this turn and that, we swirled around the low mountains, revealing the last inkling of daylight and then burrowing into dark indigo again, weaving through what must have been a tapestry of bold colors, if only we’d had a bird’s eye view.

A bird’s eye view, I realize, is precisely what I’ve been interested in finding this summer. Something to help me understand my time in Walla Walla and how to get through the next portion of it when it inevitably sneaks up on me this winter. I’ve asked a lot of questions about who, what, how I am and I’ve enjoyed the funny moments, for sure (the leaky tub dripping into the kitchen below, not so much), but I do still feel the need for some larger perspective.

Maybe it’s all a big joke, a set on Laugh In that I haven’t realized is still being performed on a sound stage in southern California. Maybe I just need more time to elapse before I’ll come to the punchline, or the Big Reveal. In the meantime, we’ve reached Seattle, and wow, is this town a hoot. All this bluster about saving the planet but everyone chain smokes. Aren’t our lungs part of the planet, people?

I think this is going to be interesting, this fall.

Driving up

Posting on this blog wasn’t possible while we were on vacation because we had no Internet access. I’d forgotten there were places in the US that still had big gaps, but after trekking through the wilderness, the real, bonafide wilderness, I’m glad the gaps are there.

Last Monday we climbed in the car and headed out past Spokane, through the prettiness that is Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, and into Montana, to Glacier National Park. The park is the site where the Pacific and Atlantic tectonic plates collided, hundreds of millions of years ago, forming the Rocky Mountain range and the Continental Divide. We paid the guard at the gate and drove through an evergreen forest, suddenly taken aback when the long McDonald Lake appeared on our left, sparkling like a blue sapphire in all of the greenery.

Mountains behind Lake McDonald

Mountains behind Lake McDonald

We found our lodge and checked in to our cabin. This was a more slow and cumbersome process than one would realize, because the lodge had just opened up for the season, it being Memorial Day Weekend, and the staff still trying to figure out the computer system. I hoped these weren’t actual Park Service employees.

We signed up for the last boat ride of the night on an 81-year-old wooden vessel, and cruised around the lake, listening to the guide tell us about the Robert fire of 2003 and how the mountains came by their monikers. The sun set slowly in the enormous sky, and we had dinner in the lodge’s restaurant, then settled in for some board games by the very large, 20-foot long fireplace, a popular spot, clearly, for the lodge guests.

Tour boat

Tour boat

The next morning, we drove back out of the park’s west entrance because the road through was shut down in the middle with an avanlanche and about 35 feet of snow and ice. In May. Two hours later we’d driven south around the bottom edge of the park and were on the other side of the Divide, at the East Glacier entrance. We hiked up an embankment to look at St. Mary’s Lake.

St. Mary Lake overlook

St. Mary Lake overlook

Wow. There were so many interesting stones, tree roots, animals, and waterfalls, we started to lose track in all of the beauty. It’s a spot I’ll have to see again, and I am now officially a fan of national parks. You can find more photos on my Flickr account, linked on the main page.

Tom’s house

In my quest for all things interesting in the Walla Walla valley, a friend (former physical therapist of mine, actually) and I went out to Dixie, Washington, a town a little to the east of town. Unlike towns on the east coast, many miles of farmland separate Dixie from Walla Walla. We curved around the rolling foothills of the Blue Mountains, passing the occassional pickup truck, but otherwise we had the road to ourselves. About 10 minutes later, my friend pulled into what seemed to be a random house behind some strategically grown pine trees, put there, presumably, to break the desert wind and keep the house from a near-constant pounding. A large German shephard came out to greet and inspect us, not necessarily in that order. He clearly knew my friend but not me, so he gave me a good growl as a warning that I not do anything  stupid nor make any sudden moves.

As we walked around the free-standing garage, I saw that there were other people assembled here, a kind of makeshift Zen meditation and country sermon, as it were. They sat on a variety of plastic lawn chairs and wooden benches, and all among them, floating with the sound of tiny racing cars, were hummingbirds. Tom, the 84-year-old who has lived in this house all his life, shook my hand and welcomed me into the inner circle, and I moved slowly (for the hummingbirds skirt away if they see jerky motion) to a bench to watch the nature show. My friend stood just next to a bird feeder and put her fingers out in case a hummingbird decided to sit on her for a few moments. They aren’t still long, not while they’re tanking up on sugar water just before they go to sleep.

Hummingbird’s hearts beat at a frenetic 500 to 800 times a minute, until they sleep at night, and then they take a mini-hibernation before resuming their pollination activities for the next day. Their metabolisms are astronomically huge — weighing in at something like 1.3 ounces, they are the smallest birds in the world, yet they take in great quantities of fuel. On this night we saw something like 100 birds, totaling 3 species, my personal favorite being the orange Rufous. They have neck feathers that if they catch the sun at just the right angle, seem to glow from inside each feather. It was mesmerzing.

I was clearly the newbie to the group, as I had not brought a camera. I’ll make sure that I take one along next time. Tom’s house, festooned with hummingbird feeders of all kinds, draws something like 600 to 700 hummingbirds at the height of their season. It’s one of only a few places in the world with such a concentration of them. Perhaps only pictures can describe the joy of sitting and watching a group of hummingbirds jockey for position at a feeder — the male birds let the female birds in, but show no chivarly to other male birds, which they yell at to find another watering hole. Scratch that — perhaps only seeing them in person and experiencing it oneself is satisfactory.

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