After spending the first couple of days in the city, we hopped on a Victoria Clipper catamaran for a day at Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands. It was a three-hour boat ride from Pier 61 in Seattle. Leaving at about 7:00 am, the marine layer was particularly heavy that morning, making things quite cool, and obscuring the view past about two hundred yards in any direction, which was a shame, because we took the inner route, hugging the mainland all the way up, and so missed out on the spectacular views of the Cascades and Olympics which everyone well knew were hiding behind the clouds. The layer dropped to a fog as we neared Friday Harbor, forcing the captain to slow the boat down and pull his fog horn every couple of minutes or so. Complete envelopment in fog on the water is an eerie feeling. I can only imagine how ancient mariners, without the modern conveniences of radar and GPS navigation, must have felt. When visibility is limited to not much further than the bow of the boat, there is very little room for error.
The fog/marine layer lifted just as we docked at Friday Harbor, which is named after a pioneer settler, Joe Friday, who lived there in the mid 1800’s. It was known by the old timers as Friday’s Harbor, but the possessive was dropped somewhere along the way, probably about when the tourist industry overtook the shepherding industry in which Friday and most of the rest of the island originally engaged. But settling on the name “Friday Harbor” for a tourist spot that is a three-hour boat ride from Seattle works too well as a selling point to have been a mere accident of history. I can almost see the Seattleites at lunch on a Friday workday deciding upon a trip to Friday Harbor on Friday, because, well, it’s Friday, and that’s its Harbor.
I wasn’t much impressed with the town. It appeared to be a tourist trap like so many others you see on the Gulf Coast and elsewhere. I never made it to Friday Harbor during my sojourn at Ft. Lewis, but remembered how people would talk of it like it was one of those “it” places to go. I should know by now to avoid those sorts of places. They’re always too crowded and too fauxthentic, trying hard to be real but missing wide of the mark. They just aren’t for me. We tried to avoid the touristy shops and see a bit of the island, but didn’t have a car, and our attempt to find a beach listed as within walking distance in the Fodor’s failed. So we just ate lunch and hung out awhile, waiting on the boat to return from its whale watching excursion. Our lunch was at a restaurant overlooking the harbor, which was quite beautiful in the fiercely shining sun that had finally and completely vanquished the lingering remnants of the marine layer. The dappled sunlight playing off the waves and the brightly-colored boats and cottages along the harbor made the fried halibut, chips and beer I had for lunch, which was good already, even that much better. But that’s about all the brief stay at Friday Harbor on the San Juan Islands was good for.
When the July Seattle sun finally breaks through the clouds to reach terra firma, things quickly warm up. The sun is so bright, if only for a while, that Seattle has the highest per capita consumption of sunglasses in the country (presumably people lose quite a few pair during the long stretches of rain). So it was on the boat ride back that afternoon. What had been bracing cold out on the deck that morning turned into a tolerable chill with the strength of the afternoon sun beaming through the breeze.
On the journey home, not far from Friday Harbor, we managed to catch a glimpse of a few orcas, traveling along the shallow waters adjacent to one of the many islands dotting the area. The whales were probably half a mile away and the boat was barred by marine regulations from getting much closer. From that distance, the whales looked very much like porpoises or dolphins. Impressive, perhaps, but only by employing a good imagination.
When the morning marine layer skipped town for good later in the week, the sun had almost sixteen unfettered hours to blaze over the city. By the end of the week, it was warmer in Seattle (highs in eighties to low nineties) than it was in Birmingham (highs in the low to mid-eighties). Of course, Birmingham is far and away more miserable at those temps than is Seattle. When the high is only about eighty-five in July in Birmingham, the humidity bounces along at pretty close to a hundred percent (which is actually rain, but then it rained a good bit while we were gone). Going outside in those conditions is like pulling a warm, wet blanket all the way over your head and tying it with a cord around your neck, suffocating a bit with each passing breath. The summertime air in Seattle is fresh and crisp, like a pastry just out of the oven. The Northwest summer sun can quickly burn exposed skin, but at least the dry air makes sweating an efficacious, and even enjoyable, undertaking. All it takes to cool off is a few minutes in the shade. There is no place to hide from the mid-summer heat in Birmingham (and a whole swath of the rest of the country, from the Midwest to the Southwest to especially the South) except under an air conditioner. Air conditioning, which started as a healthful and helpful convenience, taking a bit of the edge off the miserable dog days of summer, particularly in the South, quickly morphed into a necessity, and by now has become an oppressive master everywhere except certain portions of the West Coast and Northeast. Such is the nature of technological “advancement”.
The next day we embarked on a pilgrimage to see my mountain god, Rainier. On a clear day, driving south from Seattle on I-5 towards Tacoma, Rainier looks a bit like a white-capped pyramid, floating above the eastern horizon. The mountain is actually, as the crow flies, about fifty miles distant at the midpoint between Seattle and Tacoma on I-5. The curve of the earth prevents seeing the peaks of the lesser Cascades surrounding the mountain, giving it that eerie visage of floating over, and looking down, upon all of its creation.
Off I-5, we took Washington 161 to 706, which took us to south side of the national park surrounding the mountain, and commensurately, to the south side of Rainier. The day was beautiful, like most all of them are in late July. We had the top down, and leisurely cruised through the towering fir trees along the winding roads of the park system (most of which are closed in winter, due to the massive snowfall precipitated by Father Rainier). The drive through the park was indescribably beautiful, beyond words really, it evoked a feeling that could be fully grasped only by experience.
The road suffered fits of contortions, twists and turns finding its way through the rugged alpine terrain. Sunlight streaked through towering stands of Douglas fir, darkening forest shadows in contrast with brilliantly illuminated shafts of light lucky enough to make it to the forest floor. Glacial streams roared down the mountain at a low-water trickle, proudly displaying the scoured detritus of its wash, the boulders, gravel, trees and tree limbs left scattered at the edges of the stream bed, visible remnants of the seasonal cascade of potential energy stored on the mountain in snow and ice, turned kinetic by the warming sun.
Along the way to the park headquarters, we stopped at one of the many picnic areas and feasted on our only fast food all week long—a couple of sandwiches we had picked up from a Subway restaurant in a grimy logging town a few miles from the park. (Subways are more ubiquitous in the area than are Starbucks, and Starbucks was founded in Seattle. We took what we considered were ironic photographs of people lined up at the Pike Place Market Starbucks to get a cup of café au latte, or whatever, which must have been the original store, else their behavior made even less sense than we imagined, as there were several other Starbucks within walking distance, but without the lines). It may have been the best meal we ate all week. No foodie joint in Seattle could have competed with the setting–on a picnic table alongside a glacial stream in a forest teaming with exorbitantly lush flora, and presumably fauna, as Father Rainier’s southern peaks loomed over our shoulders, craning to the sky. A couple slices of something sorta like roast beef stuffed in a hoagie roll had never tasted so good.
We ate silently, innately sensing perhaps, both the beauty and the danger of our surroundings—the woods along the glacial wash our picnic table overlooked were alive with dangerous creatures. And the mountain seemed to pulse and tremble with the memory of the violence that formed her. Or maybe after twenty-three years of not much more than exchanging cordialities and banalities along the day-to-day hustle and bustle of life, we no longer knew how to talk to each other. Or maybe it’s not even possible that human conversation can plough much deeper than the superficial. Perhaps the superficial is all that’s real. Maybe the twittering masses are getting all they can ever hope for in their 140 character sound bites. But what I was thinking and feeling furrowed deep. Being so close to the awesome power of the mountain, so close that it seemed I could reach out my hand and touch its face, brought me to a communion of sorts with the God inhabiting my soul. How humbling to imagine that the same God who created the magnificence of Rainier and the Cascades deigned to also create little ol’ me. How great thou art, indeed.
After traveling up to the park headquarters, which is also a central point for embarking on the various trails that could be hiked this time of year (during winter, the park headquarters, three stories high, is buried under the snow), we took a short, about four-mile hike on a trail which skirted along the receding edges of the glaciers. Except that standing at the mountain’s base at the edge of the glacier line makes it somehow look less imposing, the remarkable thing was the heat—walking along the boundary of the slowly melting glaciers, traversing little wooden bridges atop swiftly tumbling streams, it felt like the sun was trying to sear a hole through my back, like I was an ant under some diabolical kid’s magnifying glass.
After spending a couple of hours hiking, we hopped back into the rental car for the next destination on that day’s journey—the Yakima wine country. People incessantly complain about Seattle’s weather in the wintertime (admittedly including me when I lived there), where the brilliant sunshine of late July and August is replaced by the rainy gloom of autumn, winter and spring, when truncated days barely offer a good eight hours of light and what light that’s available must pass through a gray filter of low-hanging overcast that spits drizzle for weeks on end. The answer to the gloom is to head east. The flip side of all that rain on the west side of the Cascades is that hardly anything of the Pacific moisture is left in the air by the time it makes it over the mountains. Just as Father Rainier created the temperate rain forests of the western Cascades and Olympics, he created the rain shadow deserts in the east. Within an hour of leaving the park, the trees, which had been gradually thinning out along the way, totally disappeared, except in the river valleys, and then usually as apple and apricot orchards. The lush peaks of the Cascades, with Douglas fir sprouting from seemingly every crevice where they might gain purchase, turned into the bald rumps of mountain desert.
It got quite a bit warmer as we approached the desert. What had been a delightful sun with the top down on the convertible turned searing and oppressive about the time we hit Rimrock Lake, which stretches for several miles along Highway 12 about an hour outside of Yakima. When we finally reached the outskirts of Yakima, it was time to stop and put the top up. We pulled into the next service station, and while the wife went inside to use the restroom, I got the top up and pulled over to the pumps to top off the gas tank. I was just finishing up with pumping gas when she returned, carrying something in a brown paper bag. When I got in, she had taken a cup we’d used for lunch and was filling it with Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, from a 24 oz can she’d bought in the store. I can’t remember her ever doing anything quite so nice for me. She’s never been the type to cater to anyone’s needs, and particularly not mine, but to be fair, I never wished for anyone, including her, to cater to my needs. What my daughter jokingly says of herself, also applies to my wife, “[She] is a strong, independent woman. [She] does not need a man.” I like it like that. I didn’t hire a servant when I got married. I only sought a partner and companion.
I can’t say much for the wine country. We didn’t arrive until the day’s tasting was through at most of the wineries. We managed to get in one stop, at the Piety Flats winery, where we learned the life story of the nice German woman working the counter. She was a grandmother who had come to America during the sixties, married an American, and lived most of her life in Arizona before retiring to the Yakima desert. She reminded me of the German lady in Daleville, Alabama from whom I bought the wife’s engagement ring lo those many years ago. We bought a bottle of red, probably merlot or pinot noir, I can’t remember, and drank it a couple of days later on the porch of the bed and breakfast.
Oenophiles have a tough time in Alabama. The state won’t allow the importation of wine from other states or countries through the mail or package delivery services. It’s a great little market protection mechanism for local wine distributors, of a piece with the same sort of protection afforded local beer distributorships. There’s no border guards, checking cars for out-of-state wine (or for illegal immigrants or for cases of illegally distributed beer, not yet anyway), but carrying a bottle all the way home seemed a bit of a hassle, and possibly dangerous to a suitcase full of dirty clothes. What a mess a bottle of red would make were it to burst inside a suitcase at the manhandling received of an airliner’s checked baggage. So we drank it. According to my wife, it was good. I generally drink cheap beer, so don’t have the refined sensibilities of a wine connoisseur. But I thought it had an earthy, dry flavor with hints of oak and jasmine. Okay, I made that last part up. It was just a goddamn bottle of wine. I don’t even know what jasmine is, or how it is supposed to taste.
We left Yakima about six pm. The sun still had a ways to go until its work was done. Yakima was legitimately hot—well into the nineties. But it was a dry, desert heat. Nothing like Alabama. We thought about heading up through Wenatchee and Leavenworth, taking Stevens Pass back through the Cascades. But it would have taken an extra hundred miles or so, and we were already a bit tired, so instead chose to take I-90 East, over the mountains at Snoqualmie Pass. It was a mistake. Snoqualmie Pass, i.e., I-90, was closed by the time we got there, for blasting work they were doing to keep the pass safe during the winter avalanche season. According to the Washington DOT radio broadcast it was only to be closed until 7:30. We arrived about a quarter to eight. Traffic didn’t start moving again until about ten.
Before arriving for our two-hour sojourn in the line of parked cars on the interstate stretching as far as the eye could see, we had stopped in Cle Elum, a dinky little town just on the eastern side of the Cascades, to eat dinner at the Sunset Café. The café clientele definitely had a local flavor, i.e. there were guys with tattoos and ball caps and t-shirts, who undoubtedly owned the four-wheel-drive pickups in the parking lot, who were there with there with their tattooed wives and girlfriends, whose bare bellies and midriffs flopped in fatty folds over their skin-tight jeans. Outside of the Puget Sound region, Washington is as redneck as rural Alabama. I didn’t notice any meth teeth, but then, I didn’t take time to chat with any of the locals.
I had a thirsty two beers, and ordered the “world famous ravioli” (according to the Sunset Cafe, and an honorable mention in Fodor’s). It was homemade. I suppose offering homemade ravioli in a restaurant on the western edge of the Yakima desert was unusual enough to make it remarkable. It was good, but I was hungry. Pretty much everything tastes good, homemade or not, if you’re hungry enough. But I did enjoy the ambience. It felt like a bit like home—the good parts of it. I’ve always preferred the company of rednecks to good ol’ boys. And if you don’t know the difference, you don’t know the South.
During our time waiting out the construction closure of Snoqualmie Pass, it was remarkable the patience with which the natives took the inconvenience. They just sat in their cars, or walked around a bit, some dashing off to the woods along the side of the interstate to relieve their bladders. But there was no cussing or fetching or gnashing of teeth. These people knew and had internalized, even if they didn’t know that they knew and had internalized, the reality that Mother Nature’s immense power, as she was displayed in the Pacific Northwest, could not be conquered by mankind. Mother Nature, manifest in Father Rainier and the Cascades and the Olympic Mountains, reigned supreme. She could only be cajoled and caressed to temporarily do man’s bidding. If Mother Nature wanted to close Snoqualmie Pass during the winter, then by damn, that is what she would do. All man could do was attack her with his feeble machines, blasting away at the mountain, cleaning up with a backhoe, hoping beyond hope that she would yield to his ministrations. Sometimes she did. And sometimes, as the natives well knew, she arbitrarily and capriciously decided to wreak havoc on human souls. A few hours waiting so that she might acquiesce to mountain passage during the winter must have seemed small beer to the locals who knew the wrath of which she was capable. There is nothing, save the occasional tornado, that similarly grips the heart of the average Alabamian. Alabama’s topography yielded quite readily to mankind’s imperatives upon her settlement by Europeans a couple of hundred years ago. In Washington, still, they struggle.
Talking to my wife about the trip to Rainier and Yakima and back as I was writing, her most vivid memory seemed to be of a what I thought was minor spat over her navigation skills. She was charged with the navigating, i.e., with the map reading. I did the driving, doling out the duties in much the same manner as I’d done in the cockpits of the helicopters I had flown over the area all those years ago, except that the pilot in command usually did the navigating. Not many women are very good at reading maps. My wife is not one of the exceptions. I must have been quite harsh in my criticism, but I can’t now even recall what I might have said. Perhaps I slipped back into the Army mode, where incompetence in the cockpit is criticized without much thought to the impact on the recipient’s emotional well-being. A mistake in the cockpit might yield a hugely detrimental impact to not only one’s emotional, but also physical and spiritual, well-being. In our case, the only consequence to her map-reading ineptitude is that we entered Rainier National Park via a different route than I had planned, but one which turned out better for heading east to Yakima. I can’t imagine I would have made such a fuss over it.
But it’s funny what people remember. When you consider that each of us create our own subjective reality out of bits and pieces of sensory inputs that our brains consider relevant to survival in the present, trying to recall what we really experienced of a previous present is something akin to trying to remember a dream upon awakening. Thus this trip memoir, though true to my memory, flawed as it necessarily is, can’t be much better than the sort of fiction “inspired by historical events” that is so often purveyed at theatres and book stores. This account is based on actual events. The problem is, there are dozens of ways, even in my own brain, of remembering and interpreting those events. All story-telling is fiction.