wholepeace

Washington State and into Idaho

In Travels With Myself on July 27, 2013 at 2:23 am

As soon as I have turned east on Route 14 out of Vancouver, Washington, I am struck by the one inescapable feature of the skyline. Mount Hood, that nearly iconic façade of rock and ice stands like a sentinel above the lesser hills beneath it. I could easily imagine the mountain following me all the way through the Columbia Gorge. But by the time I had gotten past Camas and Washougal, no more than twenty or twenty-five miles along the way, Mt. Hood had disappeared from sight as the road began its track through the gorge.
I had sort of thought that a highway through a gorge along a major river, would be along the bottom of the gorge. Route 14, however, spent as much time clinging to the wall of the gorge as it did running along the river at the bottom. The views of the river and the cliffs defining the Oregon side of the Gorge were spectacular. From Camas to White Salmon, the Columbia is a wide, fast-moving river, kicking up whitecaps on its way to the Pacific. The area is a Mecca for sailboarders and kayakers who fill up the riverside parks with their trucks and RVs.
Between the highway and the river on the Washington side of the gorge is the railroad. I have not mentioned the railroads before, but they are a constant feature west of the Mississippi. Three and four engines pull long, long strings of freight: hopper cars of grain and feed in the heartland, tanker cars in the Rockies, and everywhere the container cars of who knows what. What surprised me was that the railroad runs almost exclusively along the floor of the gorge, climbing only occasionally up the walls. I wondered why the highway couldn’t do the same. The view from the cliff-side was spectacular, but so much of y attention had to be on the road, and there were so few viewpoints and turnouts, that I could only glance to my right once in a while to get the flavor of the view.
For the child in me, there is something irresistibly exciting about tunnels, however sort or long, that cut through a section of mountain. I love the feeling of momentarily being inside the mountain itself, then rushing out into the sun again. I find it magical. Route 14 between Carson and White Salmon offers six tunnels. In one of them I passed through the on the road as a train passed through a second tunnel to my right. I actually shouted: “Wow! That is so cool!” Another one was a little longer than the others, with a kind of natural window halfway through it throwing a little light across the tunnel floor.
As I emerged from the gorge, the landscape changed dramatically. The steep dark walls of the gorge turned into low rolling hills covered in pastureland, spotted low green shrubbery and sage; endless prairie that a few cattle shared with wind turbines and high tension wires; a river of energy as wide and powerful as the Columbia rushing seaward below it. This land stayed with me as I turned northward on I 82 toward Spokane, until it morphed into actual amber fields of grain, occasionally broken up by vineyards and pastureland.
Above Kennewick, where Route 395 takes over on the way to Spokane, the land changes again. 395 is a wide, straight, smooth highway that begins a climb up toward the mountains that is so gradual that it was hard to tell that I was gaining altitude at all. I knew, however, that Spokane sits at about 2000 feet above sea-level and I was well below 1000 feet when I left the river. But I was surprise as I left Pasco, how quickly the evergreens began to appear, first a few little groves then whole hilltops. Not long afterwards, I began to see the faint outline of the distant mountains peeking above the horizon. In Colorado, the Rockies had jumped out of the morning haze, majestic and beautiful. Here they crept slowly into view, just a soft swelling of the horizon, until I turned east again past Spokane and headed into Idaho.
Now the mountains stood in front of me. But they seemed less stark than the southern ranges, more welcoming, somehow. Some of this I attribute to I 90. As the interstate starts into the first passes and short valleys of the Idaho panhandle and the Coeur D’Alene National Forest, it remains wide and fast, sliding gently between the peaks. Some is because these peaks aren’t as imposing as the Colorado peaks, and the passes are not as high. Still, there are lakes and valleys and slopes that roll into view around each bend, and I look forward to the passage east.

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