Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Eight days and thirty-two hundred miles

Richard and I just returned from a thirty-two hundred mile drive across the inland West, that wide stretch of mostly-open, treeless country between the Rockies and the Cascades. Our excuse for the road trip was a family gathering at my brother's land high above the Klickitat River in southern Washington.

We stopped in Portland first, and celebrated our anniversary with our daughter, Molly, and a dinner at Terroir, a wonderful restaurant in her Portland neighborhood that features local, fresh food served small plate style (like tapas). We shared a variety of dishes, beginning with a cold cucumber-yoghurt soup with hints of chile and cilantro and ending with a chocolate tart and a creamy slice of cheesecake topped with boysenberries. Yum! From there we braved the congested I-5 corridor in Washington to visit our nieces, Heather and Sienna, and their families, because they couldn't join us all at the land. (And yes, we spent half an hour one evening sitting in a traffic jam in between Olympia and Tacoma - I'm so glad I live in rural Colorado!)

Then we headed for the Columbia River Gorge and Bill and Lucy's land high above the gorge with a fabulous view of Mt Adams rising like the enormous dormant volcano it is on the northern horizon. We hung out, looked for birds and wildflowers - the yampah was blooming, its white Queen-Ann's-Lace-type flower a hint of the starchy bulb that for millennia nourished the people who loved on this land before us, ate salmon and fresh corn off the grill, and stayed up until what seemed way after dark to us old folks watching for the Perseid meteors.

We saw a few meteors, but mostly we just admired the myriad stars, sparkling in uncountable numbers in truly dark skies. Far from streetlights, yard lights, billboard lights, parking lot lights and stadium lights, the sky was the best show of all, black and infinite and positively littered with the twinkling dots of so many stars you can't begin to count them all. Looking at the heavens like that is a glimpse back in time to the universe where life began, a look at the wondrous fact that we exist at all, here on the only blue planet we know in all of space.

On the long drive home, we detoured to blue highways, the two-lane roads that take longer to get from point to point, but which gave us a more intimate experience of the landscapes. We saw stepped canyons cut in dark layers of basalt, sagebrush twice as tall as I am flourishing in the deep soil of stream bottoms, the searing scars of windblown range fires blackening miles of what had been green and sage-clothed landscape, pelicans riding the choppy waters of inland lakes, rivers sliding over worn cobbles, black-necked stilts teetering on impossibly long and skinny as they probed for food in muddy pond shores, the smoke of distant fires blurring blue horizons, mountains rising like waves from desert basins, red cliffs against blue sky, sagebrush coloring miles of high desert like gray-green and fragrant suede, bluebirds winging through Gambel oak.

We saw huge wind turbines with blades spinning in slow circles like one-legged dancers atop high ridges, pump jacks see-sawing up and down as they sucked ancient liquified carbon from the earth, the lighted derricks of drill rigs slowly piercing the skin of the earth, trucks racing their shadows down hills, trains winding up long grades.

We saw Wasco, Spray, John Day, Prairie City, and Unity, Oregon; Nampa (could that be a variant of yampah, the region's native "potato"?), Boise, Mountain Home, and Grassmere, Idaho; the Duck Valley Reservation, home to Shoshone and Paiute people; Owyhee, Mountain City, Elko, Deeth, and West Wendover, Nevada; Aragonite, Tooele, Salt Lake City, Spanish Fork, Helper, Price, and Green River, Utah; Fruita, Grand Junction, Delta, Montrose, Sapinero Gunnison and Parlin, Colorado.

We crossed the miles-wide Columbia, the John Day (three times), Malhuer (twice in two different states), Snake, Boise, Owyhee, Humbolt (the river that runs 250 miles west across Nevada only to disappear into the desert), Green, Colorado, Uncompaghre, Cimarron, and Gunnison rivers. We crossed the Columbia plains, Blue Mountains, Snake River plains, Independence Mountains, Pequop and Goshute mountains, Great Salt Desert, Wasatch Front, San Rafael Desert, Grand Valley, Cimarron uplift, and the Sawatch Range.

We traversed a huge sweep of country, all of which gave me a glimmer of the book I'm hoping to start this fall. But best of all, we came home. This valley in between two major ranges of the Rockies, this town that sits on the Arkansas River, this house on a formerly junky industrial site now restored to a native wildflower and bunchgrass grassland where the hummingbirds trill among the Indian paintbrush flaming bright scarlet is truly where my heart is: home.

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