Monday, July 23, 2007

Umber Whippet Is Vexed !

Finally we get to go on vacation! We are heading towards Eastern Washington late next week. This is the great thing about drive a couple hundred miles or so in any direction and you're in a completely different environment.*

For the first ten years we were together we vacationed on the Peninsula, which is a kind of Tolkeinesque fantasy land. Morning fogs, huge trees, ferns like lace, hanging mosses and perfect lakes...but ten years was enough, and when we decided on a change, we changed big time.

Eastern Washington looks exactly like the setting for every Western movie you've ever seen, with rimrock, sagebrush, brown rolling hills and green valleys full of Ponderosa pine. This is more than likely because it IS the West. The REAL west.
OK fine, the Northwest. Still.

Many of the old boom towns are still inhabited, although those inhabitants might number 30 or less and the town be nothing more than a sign by the highway. You can drive through rangeland and see cowboys and their dogs herding animals using atv's and small helicopters, sometimes horses too. Fields of late snow high up on the hillsides get up and wander away when you crack the throttle, surprising you by being fifty or sixty sheep.
Granite cliffs and sudden basalt towers plunge out of the ground through the brown hilltops. Swifts and swallows stunt dive and circle in the updrafts they raise. Buzzards sun on fence posts with their dirty wings held half-open. They watch you with one freaky blue eyeball as you go past, hoping you'll crash.

Besides rangeland, there are unimaginably vast stretches of land out there where nothing but wheat grows, rolling out from you in all directions, filling the air with a smell like bread and grass. Wheat grows out of the crevices of the rocks. Stunted wheat grows by the side of the road as a weed. In wheat country night never gets black because the stars illuminate it with diamond dust from horizon to horizon. A falling star out here will make you completely step outside of yourself for a few moments, more dramatic than a hundred fireworks would be.

On a motorcycle travelling though wheat country you pass through invisible streams of temperature and smell. The cool of the shade on one side of a hill follows you a few seconds into the heat of the sun side, and you can smell the superheated blacktop just around the next bend before you drive into the shimmer coming off it. You know beforehand when you're approaching creeks and rivers, cattle and horses, towns, truckstops and gas stations. The background of it all is dust and a distant sweet hint of wellwater.

Some road cuts reveal banks filled with clam shells and scallops, snails and marl, a dry ocean bed that's landlocked now, uplifted past the pavement with a crown of windblown topsoil. If you stop to examine it, you hear nothing at first. Just the ticking of the exhaust pipes cooling. Heat rises in blooms from the pavement all around you. You can stand in the middle of the road and turn in a circle, put the bike on it's stand. No cars for miles. Not a dog barks. All you can hear is the wheat sliding past itself in waves as the hot air slips through it.

We usually stay in the town of Wenatchee on the Columbia river. Wenatchee is literally central to everything east of the mountains. It's a wonderful place. The town has preserved it's heritage and architecture, the public spaces are beautifully maintained. What I like best is that Wenatchee is filled with gardens and those gardens are filled with roses, every rose you can imagine, all enjoying the perfect climate. Every evening, when the sun goes behind the hills surrounding the town a wind begins, coaming like surf down from Mission Ridge, gathering dust and leaves up high, rising and rolling down the length of town, carrying the smell of all those roses with it. One night it caught us as we were riding. It was perfectly quiet. The warm wind came up from the ground behind us, rising against our backs and up past our faces, heavy with the smell of roses, and moved over us and past. We sat at the light at the top of town and watched it slowly lifting papers up past the windows of the office buildings on it's invisible crest as it rolled towards the river in the bottom of the valley.

In the evenings we cruise around from neighborhood to neighborhood and down the main drags which crisscross the town. Everywhere you go tiny quails break cover and zip around, all in a row, biggest to smallest. They look like little grey bowling pins gliding around on ball bearings, and each one has a little black flurp on top. They never seem to have a specific destination in mind, but it seems ABSOLUTELY IMPERATIVE for the whole family to dash out in front of speeding vehicles at random, at the last possible moment, to get there. I've have yet to see a dead one.

Downtown is full of vintage advertising signs, many of them pure boomerang Googie and at their best all lit up and grooving. Stopped at lights you can hear the sounds of dishes and glasses and feel the air conditioning from the open doors of restaurants. Motorcycle riders wave as they pass. In your lane they pull up alongside to see what you're riding and where you're from. Goofy kids wave at you from the rear windows of cars, and crack up laughing and hide when you wave back. Grinning dogs bark and wag from the backs of pickup trucks. Guys in cowboy hats driving trucks make traffic part around them when they stop to talk to their buddies passing by in the opposite lane of traffic.

When you cross off onto a residential street from the middle of town the sidewalks are shaded by trees. Men sit on their front steps and smoke cigars, women sweep their yards and water red geraniums in pots hung from the fences. Big dogs watch you from the end of chains and medium dogs run out to jump and bark. Kids stand in groups around their cars with the stereos up loud. Halfway down the block in someones front yard is a statue surrounded with silk flowers and votive candles. Everyones dinner smells like heaven.

Up another street everyone in the neighborhood is sitting in lawn chairs out on their driveways, watching kids play basketball in the street. Horses with riders walk along the sidewalks plucking overhanging fruit off the trees. Laughing groups of people sit on their porches, burning incense stuck in between the cracks in the stairs, passing joints and paper plates of fried chicken and potato salad. Teenagers bomb around stuffed eight into crew cab pickups. Retirees mow their lawns. Sprinklers pop up and rain. Neighbors sit on blankets near the sidewalk, shouting to their friends as they go by. Everyones' door is open. Coyotes come shadowing down the arroyos and sneak across the streets, acting suspicious, stalking cats. Chihuahuas yap at them from up on someones shoulder or out open windows turned blue from television light. Meanwhile the rich folk booze cruise up and down the river, laughing and smoking.

Commercial tree fruit is grown everywhere in the Wenatchee valley on whatever land hasn't been sold to developers, even within the city limits. When the fruit is ripening each grove gives up its aroma in rich currents that are amazing to ride through...apples, peaches, pears, nectarines, plums and more. The whole Wenatchee valley is rolling full of things growing and ripening in August. For me the tomatoes are the worst... beckoning you with indecent tomato promises and making your mouth water as you pass through the smell of them.

Most of all, underlying everything, you can smell sagebrush. It's almost a perfume yet almost unpleasant, something like lavender but also like burning paper, soft but pervasive. You can smell it in the dry cold air pulled through the air conditioning. You can smell it in the clothes hanging on the racks in the stores, faintly. You can smell the sagebrush over the hot coffee you're drinking in the morning.

Three days isn't going to be long enough. It never is every year.


*or maybe in the ocean or a lake or something, or at the dump, or maybe in a big mudhole. be careful.


  1. Anonymous11:38 PM

    vacation time again? take me with you!

  2. It sounds like heaven, if heaven were the hybrid love child of Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Jack Kerouac.

    One of these days when I start printing my own money and get an RV again, I will have to go there.

  3. You almost make me miss America.

    geddit? Miss America?! ha!

    but seriously, that sounds diving, and i'm this close (*pinches fingers*) to getting on a plane right now. but i know if i actually went there the the spell would be broken as soon as one of the porch-sitting fried chicken eaters said something wonderful about W.

  4. Have fun! I lived in Tacoma bevore and your post just made me remember times long gone by. I wasnt to happy about living in WA because I stayed in Cali bevore, but reading your post I realize that there where quite a few romantic spots...
    Missing Wenatchee now :(

  5. Now that makes me want to get a bike.

  6. Anonymous2:28 PM

    This is the America I have always wanted to visit - instead I got New York and Miami... what is wrong with me?? Lovely post Ms FN..

  7. And saloons? Sawdust, an out-of-tune piano, a poker game and Marlene Dietrich singing 'See what the boys in the backroom will have'?

  8. Far too many people have tossed "awesome" around like old gum wrappers.
    This piece of writing is worthy of the word in its true meaning.

  9. Dinahmow sent me over to enjoy this post. Wonderful stuff. And yes the northwest is still the real west, especially when you consider that movies that are supposed to take place in Wyoming or are often filmed in BC and Alberta (just saw An Unfinished Life).

    My dog is from the Wenathcee shelter.

  10. pink: if you' fricken MOVE HERE, you'd already be here.
    i know what i meant.

    Fatty: hopefully that's a good thing.. you know, the best way to see this part of the country is with a motorcycle and a credit card? the only downside is having to play public toilet roulette, and if you're an intrepid lady wanderer you can whiz al fresco, which takes 50% of the scare factor out of that game. travel light, wash your clothes in the sink every night and go where your curiosity takes you. heaven indeed.

    cb: it's true...the further east you head into the continental u.s. the more conservative the people seem to get. eastern washington is full of 'rush is right' stickers and skinhead shitholes. but the amazing thing is, you ride a motorcycle (particularly a harley)? none of it touches you. it's like a travelling nation. it's the damndest thing. i've bullshitted with people i would never pass the time of day with otherwise, because we were all on two wheels. and it was good fellowship, too. i can see why there are lifelong saddletramps. it's seductive, man.

    mone: Tacoma! now that's hardcore! *impressed*

    joe: DO IT NOW SON. get right. there's still time.

    muttley: baby, now you know where to go. there's a book you can read called 'Blue Highways' by NA William Least Heat Moon which is a good introduction to real America and how to travel here. This is a cool country once you get past the politics.

    mangonel: i know two places like here in Sumas that used to operate as the Lone Jack (and is now a UPS shipping warehouse, but still has the bar, gallery and stage) and one on Burnside Street in the middle of Portland, Oregon. the last one is derelict, closed off behind a steel fire door while the front 1/3 operates as (last time I was there) the Caribou Tavern. go past that door, though, and it's straight off the set of Shane, stopped in time. Upper gallery, long bar, mirror, spittoons and all, covered in dust.

    dinamow: thank YOU.

    andrea: welcome! pound puppies are the best! you know all those BMW ads where the car is zooming down the twisty, snowy mountain road in 'Bavaria'? filmed here. Mt. Baker Highway. The crews used to stay at the lodge where I was concierge. my brush with fame!

  11. Ah, Mt Baker. Severely broke my leg on the ski hill there at age 10!

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  13. Firsty, I was in Wenatchee two weekends ago. Lovely place..and just as you describe it. I have close friends that have a small apple orchard there.


  14. You forgot to mention that you can smell the Sasquatch before they hurl bolders down at you.

    By the way I was hummin' John Cougar Mellencamp songs in me 'ead whilst reading your wonderful travelogue...
    oops the channel just switched to Willy ((phhhhttt)) Nelson
    "On The Road Agin'."
    ((cough cough))

    Watch out for those Saksquatch Man!

  15. Anonymous9:55 PM

    I'm going to have to respectfully disagree with you about Wenatchee. We stayed there when we had our event in Chelan last week, and found it to be full of nothing but nastiness. Of course, we clearly didn't get out and explore as you obviously have.

    I hope you have a great time and stay safe! Let us know how the Lady of the Lake cruise goes.

  16. damn fine writing, west coast visit will be down in la jolla/torrey pines/san diego way...if it weren't a wedding, i'd head up north...

  17. wow, feel like I've been there now!
    So can cross that off my list, where next FN?

  18. FN , wooo hooo this looks like one to saviour at liesure , so I will be back a bit later to have a relaxed read :-)

  19. Anonymous4:16 AM

    first nations - if you know what you mean please share with the rest of the class, cause we don't know what you mean. at least, i don't.

    *has a confused look*

  20. Have a luvverly time, you two. Cue Cliff and the Shadows and that double decker bus....

  21. andrea: yeeOUCH!

    dinamow; roger wilco

    pam: god, i love it there, don't you? we're seriously considering making it our retirement destination.

    homoE: dude, i live smack dab in the middle of 'Quatch country *snork*. they hold the annual Sasquatch festival right up the road in Maple Falls! i didn't know they had them on that side of the cascades! explains the smell, though...

    kristy: yeah, you have to explore around. central around the fruit warehouses is kind of bleak, and East Wenatchee is a tract home nightmare, i'll hand that to you. where did you stay?

    savannah: oh go ahead. send them a gift certificate to Wal-Mart and hop on the train!

    ziggi: where would you like to go?
    i'll tell you about it.

    beast: awww, are they making you do actual work today? :)

    pink: i keep TELLING YOUR REDNECK ASS to move up here. we're rednecks too but our economy is better, the fish don't walk and the cockroaches aren't airbourne. bring awaiting and strangely too. then you wont have to drive so far to visit wenatchee. because you'd already be here. is what i meant.

    ara: thank you!
    and thank you for passing on the obvious 'banjo theme from Deliverance' joke opportunity there too.

  22. Jack Kerouac eat yer heart out.

    If the dude had laid off the stimulants he could have written like that.

    Slap yourself with a loofah me lovely.

  23. Anonymous7:43 PM

    I commute by bike (900cc Triumph Legend) most every day - and love it dearly, especially the carpool lane. It is the one time when I have no kids to deal with - me time.

    Vacations involve the kids - and while they can be fun, it isn't anything like being on the bike without them.

  24. Yes they are making me work , damn their eyes.
    Sounds like a fantastic holiday , that squeaking you hear behind you when you cruise around in the evenings will be me following on the dreaded moulton , peddling like fuck :-)

  25. "For the first ten years we were together we vacationed on the Peninsula, which is a kind of Tolkeinesque fantasy land. Morning fogs, huge trees, ferns like lace, hanging mosses and perfect lakes."

    Puts on aviator sunglasses, strikes military pose, "Hell, there's nothing like the smell of orc-shit first thing in the morning"

    I loved the description of the people in their neighbourhoods, I'm glad to hear that other people like to wander around the suburbs instead of just gawping at the eye-magnets. I spent my weekends in Japan walking through the back streets just watching the other-world going on around me. It's how I imagine a time-traveller would see the world, in it, but unable to be a part of it.

  26. Wow, that's so magical. I particularly like that time of day and it felt like I was right there riding along with you. Dreamy.

    Enjoy your trip. It's always good to get away.

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