Road Tripping: A Prodigal Son Revisits the American Northwest. Part 2

When I was in high school in the mid- to late 90’s, I’d occasionally visit Tacoma.  It wasn’t without some trepidation that adults agreed to chaperone whichever trip we were taking.  Local legend pegged it as a rough place that shared an airport with Seattle, a city with much better PR.  Even now, whenever I say to people that I am taking a trip to Tacoma I usually get one of two reactions:

  1. Disgust
  2. Blankness (more common on the East Coast.  It helps to have a map handy.)

The good news is that Tacoma is nothing like the city I remember from high school.  I find it clean, accessible and inspired.  I keep trying to find bad news, but I am consistently disappointed.  I’m sure there is still tough stuff happening around there, but Tacoma is really so different than I remember it, I don’t know that I would have recognized it if the highway signs hadn’t kept naming it.

I arrive at the house of Evan and Kara, two dear friends, without incident and exactly on time.  I stretch my legs for a few minutes before we all head downtown to have a walk about the city.  We first head to Fort Defiance Park, an esplanade of sorts right on the shores of the Puget Sound.  On the way, we stop at Met Market to get some liquid refreshments.  As we’re checking out, I see what they call “The Cookie,” and I can confirm that it’s aptly named.  It’s huge, the size of a small plate and it is thick.  I resist the urge to sample, but this won’t be the last “The Cookie” has seen of me.

It’s a warm day and Evan remarks that it’s the most people he’s ever seen down at Fort Defiance for some time.  Even with so many people, it’s not crowded.  We catch the sight of a seal in the harbor as Mt. Rainier looms on the horizon.  I can’t help thinking I’m part of some postcard cliché, but it really is that lovely.  The park itself also encompasses a number of hiking trails and we make for an area with thickets of blooming rhododendrons.  An epic photo shoot ensues among the three of us.  Naturally, not a single one of my photos is in focus.

By now it’s dinnertime and we end up at Top of Tacoma, a sort of divey place with probably the coolest clientele and staff that I’ve encountered in a long time.  I’m not talking trendy, disaffected, hip or self-aware.  We found a really unassuming group of people just looking to eat some good food and watch the Yankees and Red Sox ball game.  The waitstaff is actually nice. After living in Boston so long, I don’t even know what that means. I accept this slowly as I dig into the delicious meatball sub that has appeared in front of me.

The next morning Evan has to work, so Kara and I take our time getting ready and eventually make our way to Art House Café for brunch.  It’s full Spring in Tacoma so all the patio doors at Art House are open and streaming fresh air into the dining room.  The Eggs Benedict are pretty amazing.

Totally sated, we head over to the neighboring town of Auburn to take a look at the wares at Jerry’s Rock and Gem.  For any of you who love fossils, lapidary and rock stuff, this place is the gem.  Don’t mind the gigantic orange cat laying on the dinosaur femur.

It’s nearly time for me to head to Oregon, so Kara and I make a couple quick stops.  First, we hit up Bluebeard Coffee Roasters.  I have absolutely the best iced latte I’ve ever had the pleasure of drinking.  It’s the only time I’ve ever done a double take for coffee.

I haven’t forgotten “The Cookie,” so I direct Kara to Met Market and get a half-football-sized cookie to shove in my bag.  Perhaps I’m embellishing the proportions a little bit, but this cookie really is surprisingly large.  I make my 3 pm departure time after saying goodbye to Kara.

Taking I-5 South, I head to Salem, Oregon.  By 7 pm I arrive at the house of some more good friends, Ian and Stephanie.  It’s been probably 3 or 4 years since we’ve seen each other, but, to keep the clichés going, it was just like yesterday.  Ian and Stephanie have two pretty awesome daughters, ages 4 and 6.  Almost immediately, the oldest one graciously serves me a “drink” served in a hollow fake ice cube with a marble in it.  I accept and thank her for such incredible hospitality.  I needed a little something to take the stiffness out of my back.  I spend the night in the living room and I indulge in a little nightcap to ease me into slumber.

The next morning, Ian and I decide to go to Portland and Ian chooses less-traveled backroads to get us there.  This is decidedly the more scenic route, with a number of vineyards and hazelnut farms lining the way.  It’s a surprisingly rural drive right up to the outskirts of Portland.

I haven’t been to Portland since I was in high school and I really don’t remember anything about it.  The only “research” I’ve done is watching Portlandia.  I tell Ian that the only place I really want to go is Powell’s Books, a gigantic bookstore in the Pearl District.  It is also the only thing that I really know of in Portland, so we decide to wing the rest of the day.

As we dodge pedestrians in downtown Portland, I’m struck by how much Portland looks like Boston.  Both cities have quite a lot of brick architecture, green space, a river running through it (or technically north of it in Boston’s case), and ridiculously narrow streets downtown that make everyone act a little like an asshole whether motorist, cyclist or pedestrian.  I am forced to apologize for my driving several times in our first five minutes within city limits. By the time we park, it’s time for lunch.  We hit the food trucks- whole parks of food trucks.  Korean barbecue is the obvious choice and we are not disappointed.  Boston, you have much to learn.

Ian delivers me to Powell’s Books as promised and I almost can’t handle it.  I find too many books, spend too much money and still manage to find Ian among the stacks without having to call him.  I tell him we have to leave before I spend all my rent money.  I love this place.

We spend the rest of the day hoofing it around the city.  Since Portland is so lovely, this is really the best thing we can think of to do.  We cross a few bridges and take in various views of the city.  We notice that there aren’t a lot of indie shops to wander into around the Pearl District or Old Town.  There are, however, an almost impossible amount of restaurants, bars and coffee shops to choose from.  Portland’s priorities seem obvious.

Throughout the day, Ian keeps mentioning Voodoo Doughnut, which evidently makes unexpectedly large and awesome donuts.  We find our way to one Voodoo outpost and pick up a selection for the family and ourselves.  I pick a maple bar and a chocolate glazed donut, likely some of the tamest they offer.  I’d like to point out, however, that both are about double the size of any Dunkin’ donut and weigh as much as a bowling ball.  And damn, they are delicious.

By now we’re approaching 5 pm and it’s time to head back.  I have not seen the Portland Japanese Garden, which I’m told is amazing, but I resolve to come back and see everything else I missed in the one day I spent in the city.  Ian and I make it back to Salem in time to get some dinner together for his wife and daughters.  We managed to restrain ourselves and save the donuts for dessert.  Afterwards the girls mention that donuts would be their food preference for all desserts, as well as all breakfasts, lunches and dinners.  It takes some time to convince them that a body does not live on carbs alone.

The next morning, it’s time to head back over the mountains to Idaho.  I’ve been looking forward to this part of my trip.  I drove the Santiam Pass about 3 years ago and this stretch is one of my favorites from the past.  The vibe of this pass is so different.  It was so misty and mysterious the last time I went through, I am hoping that it will be much the same again.  I am not disappointed.  The clouds shroud the trees and play over the reflections of Detroit Lake.  I turn off the radio and travel the Pass in silence.

On the other side of the pass, I enter more arid land near Redmond, OR.  I pass near Smith Rock, one of my favorite sites in Oregon.  I curse myself a little for not leaving any time to visit it this trip.  I make a mental note to find a picture of Smith Rock to include in this piece.

The scrubland gives way to the Columbia River valley and I travel with the river for a few hours.  I am not listening to music, nor am I thinking of what I’ve done on this trip.  I am not musing about life and the human experience.  I am simply blending into this place, expanding over the landscape.  I’m weaving it into the person I am…until I cross the Columbia and find myself in the three cities of Pasco, Kennewick and Richland, Washington.

I am sure there are some great things about the Tri-cities, but I see nothing apparent as I drive through.  I-82, as it passes through Kennewick, is all box stores, gas stations and roadside fast-food joints.  The land is hazy and flat and there is a noticeable lack of color in this springtime.  If you plan on traveling to this area, I’m sure there are some folks that would do a great job telling you about all the points of interest in these cities.   I am not one of those people.  I sneak through Kennewick and Pasco as quickly as I can and rejoin the desolate road stretching out over Eastern Washington.

10 hours after I leave Ian and Stephanie’s house, I pull back into the Moscow-Pullman airport.  It is Wednesday evening.  The odometer on the car reads 1,095 miles.

I’m a little road-weary, but not worse-for-wear.  I take a moment to appreciate this trip and the generosity of my friends and family for making it a reality.  Without them, there would be less meaning on the roads I travel; there would be so many fewer adventures to undertake. The ties that bind me to this place are not shackles, but rather, deeper relationships to the people and lands of the West.