Back out west

When my summer job concluded in early October, it was definitely too late to go out west. The Rocky Mountains are known to offer October blizzards, stranding motorists for days. My new vehicle wasn’t a four-wheel drive monstrosity either, it was a high-mileage car, just shaped a bit like an SUV. We’d be foolish to go anyway; surely all the summery sights of the tourist season had withered, clouds would be oppressive and rain more the rule than the exception. Maybe better to just stay in western Pennsylvania.

So, on October fifteenth, my packed-to-capacity Kia Soul merged onto the Pennsylvania turnpike, headed west. Susan was in the passenger seat and Washington State lay somewhere out on the horizon. We were just foolish enough to try it, though I’ve done things even more foolish.

Last year I’d also traveled to Washington State where I’d started an eight and a half month walk across America. Susan had stayed home, safe, but seeing none of the marmots, mountains or good people I’d encountered on the way across. She’d done logistical support remotely, support that got me through, time and again. The drive west was simply Susan’s turn to see it all, a gift if the weather held, a more harrowing adventure if it didn’t.

Two days after leaving the Pittsburgh area, we encamped near Des Moines, Iowa, if “encamped” is the right word for staying at a cheap motel. We visited an old friend of Susan’s and picked a maitake mushroom for her, one of the last really good mushrooms of the mushroom season and a fortuitous find on unfamiliar ground. Mushrooms could still be harvested – all was good weather-wise.

The next morning we woke to seventeen degrees on the Iowa/South Dakota border. Something like frost was trying to form but it seemed difficult without humidity. Ice could form though and we passed a frozen lake as we made for I-90. The temperature had hit seventy the day before but now winter was inescapable. What were we driving  into?

We spent a couple of nights in South Dakota’s Black Hills where the weather remained nice, against all odds, but I did try on my new tire chains just to make sure they fit. We were likely to need these for the imposing passes ahead. Geese made for the south en masse, also sensing change and hardening waters. Pronghorn and bighorn sheep were on the move here, to Susan’s delight. I’d seen these for the first time last year but Susan never had.

The day we crossed the highest passes of the Montana Rockies, a rain system was blowing through about which we’d heard warnings already along the lines of, “Possibly deep snow expected in higher elevations. Avoid travel.” Oh well, we’d been fortunate over the first five days and now we’d have to deal with some treacherous conditions and, no doubt, a rushed and uncomfortable chain-up during a blizzard.

The highest pass, known as the Continental Divide or Homestake Pass (or the crest of the Boulder Batholith)passed under our tires without incident. We stopped for bad coffee at Butte. But as we started up each of the last two passes, hours later, it was raining steadily and we expected the worst. I wished for an altimeter on the car’s instrument panel but had only a thermometer whose readings fell steadily from 50’s to 30’s. Rain was replaced by sleet and then snow. But at each crest, we found only wet pavement, reduced speed a bit for the precipitation and tight curves, and sailed on, stopping for the night safely in Spokane, Washington (as safe as  we could be in Spokane).

The next several days were among the best of this four week sojourn – five days spent in Washington State. We stayed two nights with Dwight, a fellow who’d been more than generous as I’d walked the walk last year We raveled around the wilds of northeastern Washington, through high places and low places, touring the natural history and experiencing some new fauna, including the raucuous Stellar’s jay. It’s good to have friends in high places. I drove my car up an old woods road to the peak of a minor mountain from which we could look off to the nearby Canadian Rockies and these peaks were already deeply snow covered. How much time did we have before the rest of the Rockies were as well?

Turning back east at the eastern edge of the Cascades, we began to primarily follow the route of last year’s walk back toward the Mississippi. Temperatures fell into the twenties at time, the winds howled across mountain crests and across the plains but winter never caught us. We saw a few very non-threatening snow flakes and a few iced ponds but I never did truly test the tire chains. Finally, we did cross the Mississippi on the Minnesota/Wisconsin border and went on to visit good friends in the Midwest.

Susan was able to walk the channeled scablands of Washington State. She was able to watch eagles pick a deer carcass. She climbed for a fine view over Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho with another good friend. And she stood at particular places I’d taken some of my favorite photos last year.

I’ve talked to almost all of our western friends by phone since arriving back and they now report icy conditions and snow laying on the ground from Washington State through South Dakota. After an Autumn of unusually mild weather, the forecast for much of the west now shows below average temperatures over at least the next week. And yesterday I watched gentle flakes floating down here in Export, Pennsylvania.

So, the truth was that the timing of our trip couldn’t have been better. We came along far behind the regular tourist season so places were uncrowded and hotel rates were low. In Washington State, foliage was actually at its peak though the leaves were gone by the time we returned to the midwest. Animals abounded and winter, though always on our heels, never caught us. Susan was able to see the northwest in an exceptional way, as few vacationers are able to.

I often write on the things that compress us into narrow channels, in our outdoorsmanship as well as in our thoughts. Our modern desire for perfection and for pre-ordained “adventures” put us on the same two-dimensional tracks as a hundred thousand other “adventurers.” And our fear keeps us from acting until we feel assured everything will go right.

But while waiting for certainty, what have we missed? What do we never see because we didn’t go?

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