Observations From the Road (The “We Made It [Well, In One Sense]” Edition)

Seattle Space NeedleArriving in Seattle Sunday evening, Claire and I celebrated making it cross-country with a dinner in the revolving restaurant atop the Space Needle. We did the Atlantic to the Pacific thing! I can check off one bucket list item. Who hoo!!

Of course, we’re just one day into the second half of our tour. Now that we’ve done the width of the country, we still have the length to go. Southern California or bust!

So this edition of Observations From the Road is the “We Made It (Well, In One Sense)” edition.

Sunday was a long day on the road – from Kalispell, Montana to Seattle, Washington. Three states (Idaho is in the middle there, for those who are geographically challenged.) That’s why this post is being finished on Monday morning. The trip was made longer by an hour-long back-up on I-90 in  Washington State.  There might have been an incident, but we suspect it was tied up as people gawked at the forest fire smoke that was coming over the mountains.  More on that later.  But long days give you great time to talk about such important items as:

Aloe Blacc, stage names, and television viewing habits – When Aloe Blacc‘s song Wake Me Up (Acoustic) came up on Claire’s playlist yesterday, I first said, “I like this guy’s voice.” Then I looked at the radio monitor and said, “Who would name their kid Aloe?” Claire replied, “I guarantee you that’s a made-up name” to which I replied, “Well, let’s Google it to find out.”  (Careful readers are seeing a pattern here.) Sure enough, the guy’s real name is Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III. Boy, if anyone is in need of a stage name it is END III! (Hey, why didn’t he choose that?!)

But the story doesn’t end here.

Somewhere else along the road, Claire was talking about going to Joshua Tree National Park this year, before she completes college. I have been to this wonderful place in the desert and I encouraged her to go. She mentioned that there was a television show she was watching that had a section about Joshua Tree, and then she added that it was on The Bachelorette.  We laughed when I said I was hoping to hear if it was something like National Geographic Discoveries or some similar serious series. But then I admitted that the only TV I watch is sports. We both agreed that we don’t get our intellectual stimulation from television.

Now, back to Aloe Blacc.  As we were nearing Seattle, his song The Man came on.  I said, “I know that tune.  It is the music for Beats by Dr. Dre headphones.” She said, “Huh?” And I said, “Oh, it is on ESPN all the time, with these famous athletes wearing his headphones and listening to The Man while people scream at them.”  She responded, “Oh…television sports” and didn’t have to say more.  We laughed. Again. Bottom line:  don’t come to me for pop culture trivia unless it stars some sports guys.

Montana Western Landscape

Montana gets more and more interesting as you drive west The eastern portion of Montana is very interesting, if a bit big. The western slice, on the other side of Glacier, is amazing. We drove by Flathead Lake – which is beautiful in the morning sun – and then took the road to Wallace, Idaho through some of the most stunning mountain scenery I’ve ever seen.  Claire’s panorama above is beautiful, but you don’t get the sense of the heights of the mountains here that one has as you drive.  The road literally hugs the mountains and separates them from the river for miles on end. We pulled over several times just to gawk.  Amazing.

Solitude and other thoughts – I had so many wonderful conversations with Claire on Sunday. They are too numerous to mention (and some too personal to post). That’s the wonder of long periods together in the car.  But one that struck me was her take on nature and solitude. As we were driving through Montana – where you can go for miles without seeing a house, much less a person – Claire began talking about her readings while on a special summer environmental studies class during high school at Sanibel Island. This was an experience that profoundly changed her and helped her, for the first time, think deeply about who she is and what she wants to do with her life. It is when she became a vegetarian – a practice which she maintains to this day. But in yesterday’s context, she was talking about the necessity for solitude. As part of the creative reading and writing portion of her Sanibel class, she had read the famous environmentalist John Muir’s take on solitude – then she had spent the day alone and had to write about the experience. It moved her deeply, and yesterday’s landscape reminded her of how these places can feed the soul.

We also spent a good time in conversation talking about personal gifts. I was able to remind Claire that one of her personal gifts is the ability to think sensitively about how others feel, and then to act on that understanding. She is very wise this way, and helps lead our family into a deeper respect for others – and especially others who are very different from us. It took the conversation into many different areas of our life but – as is usually the case when I talk with Claire – I came away enriched.

But just so you don’t get the feeling that we’re getting all heavy on you, we also discussed the only major difference we have as travelers.  Claire likes the shower head set to the “beat the hell out of you” setting, while I prefer the “gentle rain” version.  Of course, since she takes her showers in the night, I am always surprised by the pelting I get when I step into the shower in the morning.  You’d think I would learn.

Wallace, Idaho Main Street

Never stop near the interstate exit for food…unless you are in Wallace, Idaho – My colleague Sheri Freemuth had recommended that we stop in Wallace, Idaho, a beautiful historic town tucked underneath (yes, you read that right) the interstate. To avoid wiping out part of the town, they literally put an interstate bridge over the top of one edge.  In this case, with the mountains at play, it works.

We arrived Sunday shortly after noon (11 a.m. local time, since we just switched over to the Pacific time zone), but this little town was already awake and buzzing. We checked out the buildings, and then headed over to the Smoke House BBQ and Saloon.  What a find!

Wallace, Idaho and the Smokehouse Saloon

We had already spotted the local Wallace Brewery across the street (which didn’t open until 1 p.m.), so we had to try their I.P.A.   Tasty! And we split some salmon-covered nachos, as we were going for two small-plates experiences instead of lunch.  Very tasty! But more than the food and beer, I loved the ambiance – and the feistiness of the wait staff. We carried on a running conversation with the 3-4 folks behind the bar, learning about their late-night exploits from Saturday night in the process! The restrooms were also a trip. To begin with, these one-holers had “Man” and “Woman” on the door.  Claire said that was a more truthful way to let you know the capacity! Me, I loved the old Borax soap containers. I haven’t seen, or used, Boraxo in years…but it was fun to tell Claire about the 20 Mule Team strength of Borax! My mother is smiling somewhere today.

Oh, and did I mention that the landscape here in “Northern Idaho” is just as stunning as the Montana landscape to the east?  What an incredible 3+ hour drive.

Never stop at the interstate for food…especially when you can drive into Ellensburg, Washington – The Yelp app is one amazing tool for today’s traveler.  As we were looking for our second food stop later in the day, Claire pulls up Utopia Frozen Yogurt and Coffee House across from Central Washington University in historic Ellensburg.  Frozen yogurt – the perfect second small plate offering to go with our nachos! So we pull off and drive through a beautiful and thriving historic Main Street – which I later found out was a National Trust Dozen Distinctive Destination winner in 2007.  I concur!

Columbia River panorama

Oh, and the Washington State landscape isn’t too shabby either – Much like Montana, you get a little bit of everything driving east to west across Washington. The landscape around Spokane is a bit dull as agricultural landscapes go, but at least they have this little patch of drive where they actually post signs telling you what’s growing in the fields beyond. We saw beans, field corn, sweet corn, peas, and Timothy.  Timothy?  What the hell is Timothy? Turns out, it is a type of hay.  Who knew?  Then we also passed over the Columbia River, where Claire got this amazing panorama view. And coming into Seattle, one feels you are tumbling down a very long mountain…which I suppose in one sense you are. There is a lot of elevation drop to get to sea level!

Forest fires are devastating the west – This is not news to those who pick up a paper or listen to the radio and TV, but we saw it first hand today.  First, we saw a helicopter carrying a bucket of water, then we began to see the smoke from what I suspect is the Snag Canyon Fire near Ellensburg. The smoke coming over the mountaintop was massive. One of the smartest writers about this topic is the New York Times’ Timothy Egan (you can see his link on the side of More to Come… in the “writers” section). Egan is the author of the excellent book The Big Burn:  Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America. In last week’s Times, Egan had an opinion piece where he calls out the bad public policy debates we have over things like wildfire prevention.  Recommended.  This is a very sad testament to our dysfunctional political system where gaining points to fire up a right-wing base are more important that people’s lives. End of sermonizing.

Music for the trip – We listened to a lot of music during the day.  I thought of posting Paradise by Coldplay in honor of Paradise, Montana – but it didn’t seem to fit. But the music that fit the Montana and Idaho landscape best for me is the work by the Matt Flinner Trio – the best mandolinist no one knows. So I’ve posted a video of his Winter Harvest, which seems to fit this landscape and – in some ways – is a lament for the terrible things we do to it today.

More to come…

DJB

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