Road Tripping: A Prodigal Son rediscovers the American Northwest.

There’s something indescribable about the Northwest.  I took the vastness of the place for granted when I was a kid: the great open spaces; the epic mountains; the beauty of the hills and rivers and lakes.  I go back to the Northwest because there is something incomprehensible about it, something intangible.

I don’t live in the Northwest anymore.  I haven’t lived there in 15 years, choosing instead to live almost as far away as possible in Boston, MA.  I grew up in Idaho and I left it the first moment I could.  I never hid my contempt for living there, but it was hard to explain why I felt that way.  How do you tell people that you don’t belong in a place you’ve always lived?  All you have is this gut feeling that you shouldn’t be there.  I spent all of my teenage years devising plans to get out of Idaho permanently and I finally succeeded my junior year of college.

My family still lives in the Northwest, including my two young nieces, as well as a smattering of friends from elementary and high schools. Despite my experiences in childhood, I find myself in Idaho at least 3 times a year.  I have hesitated to love anything about this corner of America because I was afraid it would snare me again.  In recent years though, I’ve begun to explore the reaches of the American Northwest, to reclaim what I tried so hard to give away.  I have been looking to tell a new story about this place and my childhood.

What better way to change my perspective than a long road trip in a ridiculously short amount of time?  It’s a wham-bam type of scenario, but I love the challenge of it.  I plan a route that will take me 4 days and roughly 1,100 miles to complete.  I’ll be staying with a few close friends who have generously allowed me to crash their weekday schedules.

Prior to heading out on the road, I spend a few days in Moscow, Idaho to see some friends and family and take in a little of the landscape.  Moscow Mountain and Paradise Ridge loom over Moscow, forming part of an area known to locals as The Palouse.  The Palouse is a hilly country between the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to the East and the Scablands of Washington State to the West.  The whole panorama is undulating hills of wheat, peas and rapeseed.

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The Route

The wide spaces and vistas here hint at something more timeless than the towns that stud its heights and valleys.  Two hours southeast of here is The Heart of the Monster, the fabled birthplace of the Nez Perce people. This land gives birth to legend. It also gives birth to allergies, particularly in spring. If you’re planning a trip to the Palouse, I can’t stress the usefulness of allergy meds if you’re prone

Sunday morning the trip begins.  I catch a ride with my dad to the Moscow-Pullman Airport and pick up my car rental for 9:00 am.  Not one to travel on an empty stomach, I stop in neighboring Pullman, WA to grab a coffee and breakfast burrito.  Finally ready, I speed out over the hills on Highway 26 toward the Cascade Mountains and Tacoma on the other side.

Before long, the hills of the Palouse recede and the Scablands open up.  The landscape is staggering.  The name is kind of gross but the area is actually really incredible.  The Scablands are hills and plateaus of hard-edged rocks formed during Pleistocene Era-flooding throughout the area.  This landscape contrasts sharply with the more rolling nature of the Palouse.  The flora here is much more scrubby, the white sage starting to bloom all around.  I keep seeing hawks, red-tailed and other, all over the place, more than I’ve ever seen before, but I suppose the pickin’s are good this time of year.

There are only a few small towns along Highway 26, so it’s mostly just scabs and hawks and sage and a lot of sky.  To occupy myself, I’ve made a playlist of Prince and David Bowie, with some Grace Jones thrown in for good measure.  I sing along all the way across Washington State.  I have received information from Kara, who I’ll be visiting in Tacoma later that day, that we’ll be going to a showing of Purple Rain later on that night to commemorate the recent passing of Prince.  It only seems right to pay my respects by belting “Cream” to the hawks and motorists that I pass along the road.

The big reason why I’ve chosen to drive this leg of the trip is to go over Snoqualmie Pass by car.  I drove this way last year and the scenery of the Pass blew me away: I was desperate to cross it again.  It’s not enough to just see the Cascades that flank the Pass, I want to drive through them.  Catching a glimpse of those mountains last year was enough to steal the breath from my chest.

The experience of driving these areas has reminded me that there are wild places left in the world.  These wild places do not need us- they have their own power and their own way.  For me, to even catch a glimpse makes me understand how people came to worship the spirits of the elements and the land.  These places are so very much alive, more than the cities and lights of the East.  I recognize something here, but I can’t name it.

I do manage to get a glimpse of the Cascades as I scream over Snoqualmie Pass.  And I do scream.  Literally.  The traffic is pretty horrible and there are huge trucks all along the length of I-90 that I must dart around.  There also seems to be interminable construction on the Pass, which leaves no areas for mistakes.  There’s no shoulder, no wiggle room, just a lot of cars and semis trying really hard to do 90 mph.  In total, I probably get 1 minute of actual time looking at the mountains, the rest of the time devoted to staying on the road and not ending up a roadside tragedy.  Was it worth it to endure the hours, the traffic and the harrowing motorists just to have a peep at Snoqualmie Pass?  You betcha.

Part two of this post is coming soon…!