North Cascades Highway
Published July 8, 2017 at The Good Men Project (Click to View)
I hit the road seeking adventure. I took a long drive with myself. Just the two of us.
I packed my favorite baseball hat, a change of clothes and my tent and set out with my country music playlist and a head and heart full of questions.
My plan was to head up Interstate 5 from my home in Seattle to the Burlington exit. Then I would turn east to drive Highway 20 through the northern part of the Cascade mountains, through the National Park and all the way to Winthrop. From there I would turn back to the west, drive through Chelan and Leavenworth before I crossed the Cascades again towards home.
It would be a long drive through rugged country and there with myself, in the cab of that truck, I would seek the space that I couldn’t find for myself at home amidst all my friends and limiting habits. You can never get away from yourself, but sometimes you just need to get the fuck out of town.
And so I set out seeking adventure, and this is the true story about what I found.
She was thin and a little taller than most women. She had straight brunette hair, dark, almost black eyes and a small upturned nose with a stud on one side. She was working that day behind the information counter in her green and gray Park Ranger's uniform and I glanced at her as I walked through the North Cascades National Park Visitors Center. I only looked at her for a second.
It was about a minute later, looking into my own brown eyes in the bathroom mirror, that it hit me. It wasn’t new - the thing that made me say, fuck, out loud. It was something I thought about long ago and then set aside because I told myself ten ways how I couldn’t do it and ten ways how I wasn’t ready but glancing a minute ago at this young woman sparked life into an idea set aside long ago when I was setting things aside for later in life.
The park ranger didn't cross my mind again - not until I sat down to write this. And no, I’m not joining the Park Service. I have something else in mind.
And it wasn’t seeing a park ranger. There were several others on duty and over the years I must have seen a hundred of them. But she was prettier than most and some people have an energy about them, as if they could do anything in the world, and for a second seeing that young woman seemingly out of place in such a remote and rugged part of the country made me think that maybe she was living her dream. And so an hour and a half into my two-day road trip with myself, I was given this gift - something to contemplate, mile after mile.
The truth is, for most of the drive my mind was somewhere else and a quick look to see what was missing from the passenger side dash board was all it took to make my mind wander, but every once and a while the idea came back to me with clarity. And so, with my arm out the window, the heat turned up to mix with the cold alpine air swirling through the cab, this is how it went with me as the truck climbed higher and higher until snow lined both sides of the highway.
I was driving fast, as I often do, maybe eighty and passing slower cars with a clenched jaw. But when I pulled off to look out north over Lake Diablo, something in my stomach relaxed. My breathing changed. My jaw unclenched. I realized that I was in no hurry and that I should take time to stop and see everything. This was the deal I made with myself, a mutual agreement to slow the fuck down.
And I stopped, five or six times I think. I stopped to look at lakes, and mountains. I stopped to walk across the highway to watch for a moment the ice-cold river gushing through the snow. I would have stopped for coffee or maybe a Red Bull, but after the resort at Ross Lake, there was nothing civilized. Nothing for hours except that yellow stripe down the middle of that grey two-lane highway, yellow paint that kept the peace between cars or trucks headed in opposite directions - not that I wanted anything civilized, but the stripe did, in a strange way, keep me company.
There was a roadside sign for a scenic lookout, so again I left the highway and found a parking lot. There were a few others there and I asked if that trailhead that I was pointing at would lead to the lookout and they said yes and that it wasn’t far.
It was this moment when I turned around to see the stunning jagged mountain peak hanging thousands of feet over the highway. Holy fuck. How did I miss that? Now, after a Google search, I know that it's called the Early Winters Spires, but in the moment this unknown peak reminded me of the Eiger.
I had seen the Eiger once, from Mürren, a town high up in the Alps of Switzerland. I had sat alone in an outdoor café one morning drinking beer and looking across the valley to the vertical rock face. The view was mostly blocked by clouds but every once and a while they would open for a glimpse and sometimes a glimpse is more powerful than an unobstructed view because it shows, for a moment, the possibilities. In this way, a glimpse can also be cruel, but you never regret the knowing of it.
Since that trip I had travelled alone in Europe, maybe twenty-five times, but that was the first trip when I was truly on my own and also the trip where I realized that you have to learn how to be comfortable spending time with yourself. It’s not that easy if you’re not used to it.
So there I was, travelling again with myself, just the two of us, and by two of us I mean the guy who drives fast, sings along to country music and appreciates the smell of the pine forest, and the other guy - the one deep on the inside who watches the first one. These two have to get along if the day is going to be an adventure.
If you’re wondering what happened on this trip, what made it an adventure, then you may be disappointed with my account of the events. You see, from my perspective, an adventure is not the result of what happens to you along the way. It’s not a product of external events. An adventure is experienced from within. It is about the traveler and his journey. It’s about stepping outside the comfort of familiarity and pushing your edge. That edge is different for everyone. For me, on this trip, it was about learning to explore again, and learning how to do it alone when there’s so much on my mind.
And so I hiked to the lookout to get a clearer view of the Early Winters Spires, then returned to my truck and the highway to make my way down the east side of the mountain pass.
The first town down the east slope is called Mazama and I had heard the name so many times that I had to stop and see what the place was about. Turns out that it's a little vacation community along the river, at the base of the mountains and on the other side of a highway that closes for snow half the year. It sits at the point where the mountains and pine forest start to turn into bare rolling hills covered only with sage - the place where your breath slows.
Mazama has a country store, the kind with everything, and it was there I bought my Red Bull and a veggie sandwich, which I ate it in the courtyard under the shade of a tree. That may have been the best veggie sandwich I’ve ever had.
So, there’s a jet stream that flows east across the Pacific and into Washington. When it hits the Cascade Mountains it rises, turns colder, condenses and turns to rain. By the time those clouds crest the peaks and flow down into the eastern half of the state, most of the rain has been left in the west to feed the thick green forests of Douglas-fir and Western Hemlock, leaving the east to the Ponderosa Pine that thrive in drier soil. Further east, the pine forest gives way to tan grass and milky-green sagebrush, which cover the tall steep mountains. It is here that the trees mainly grow in deep river valleys, where they find water and relief from the relentless sun. It is here along the Methow River, which winds through those rugged and bare mountains, that you will find Winthrop, a town which I saw for the first time as I drove through, slowly, with my country music and all four windows down. I should have brought my boots, I thought.
Winthrop is a place to slow the fuck down, sit in the shade and drink a cold beer. It’s also a place to fish and hike and mountain bike, but that day for me, it was just a place to slow the fuck down.
And so I walked up and down and up again the main street. Asked about a hotel. Found a beer.
I stood outside a tavern and talked with a middle-aged woman who's face told of a lifetime sitting on torn-vinyl barstools. She was outgoing and kind and with her cigarette voice she made good conversation and good company. But I also imagined that later that evening the bourbon would dull her self-control and with drunk-sleepy eyes she would invite someone new inside her - probably one of the many leather-clad bikers that were already filling the Winthrop bars by noon. And as I talked with her I thought that she, in this way, was so human - and also so ordinary.
I imagined where she would be the next morning - walking out of his smoky hotel room with dirty bare feet and shoes in her hand, texting a lie from her phone. And as I thought about her headache, her tired eyes and the soreness made by a stranger, I was sad to think about the choices we all make in pursuit of a little squirt of dopamine. I wasn't judging her, I don’t care who fucks whom, that's not my business, but it made me sad to think about how much we give up for so little.
So I moved on.
I loved Winthrop, and promised myself to come back. But not alone.
And so I moved on. I followed each curve of Highway 153 that followed nearly every bend of the Methow river. I followed it until the Methow flowed into the Columbia, and then I followed the Columbia River all the way to Chelan.
But Chelan was too big for me that day. Too many stoplights. And Leavenworth was less than an hour away.
On the road, every curve in the highway reveals something new. Around the bend a calm river changes to rapids. An orchard fills the narrow valley with all its pruned trees laid out in neat rows and fills the truck with its sweet fragrance. And as the warm wind blows though the open windows, around the cab and around your body, as a new world is revealed in your windshield before it quickly whirls by and into the past, you are given in that truck the space you need. You are given space for clear reasoning. Space to contemplate choices. Space for heartache. Space for the anticipation of what's around the next curve in the highway. You’re given space to help figure your shit out - and that is the beauty of a road trip with yourself. It's just the two of you.
Remember, it’s not the things that happen TO you along the way - it’s the things that happen IN you along the way.
And that idea, the one at the visitors center… it’s a good one. But I’m keeping it to myself.
And Leavenworth - that's a whole separate story.