The Way Back
Usually, going somewhere is more fun than coming back. Whenever I plan a trip I try to take that into account. I don’t know how everyone else feels, but I hate covering the same ground twice. I’d much rather make a loop and go out of my way, than drive down the same road more than once, unless something is worth seeing again, from a different perspective.
Cathryn and I had a great ride getting to Vancouver, but I knew I had my work cut out for me trying to find an eventful and scenic way back home. The whole idea of the trip was to cover new ground, since both of us had been out west before. Seattle came to mind. Although I’d been there twice, I never had time to see more than a few token attractions on the waterfront.
I loved what I’d seen in the city before, and I knew it had a lot more to offer. Cathryn had not been there. From Surrey, my sister and her boyfriend suggested taking the truck route south, across the border to the states. Seattle was only a couple hours from their home, depending on traffic at the border and on the highway.
On Tuesday, July 19th, we crossed back into the states of Washington. Our Nexus cards made the border a breeze, and we enjoyed about thirty miles of quiet roads, before being dumped on Interstate 5 South. I’d called ahead to our hotel for an early check-in, figuring we’d arrive around noon.
Merging to the right put us on Highway 99, which parallels the Interstate, and is an express route to downtown Seattle. Our motel was right on the highway, and it soon showed up on the GPS. Sometimes the machines are a pain in the ass—this was one of those times. There was a cement barrier down the middle of the highway, leaving us no access to the opposite side of the road where our motel was.
Cathryn got a bird’s eye view of downtown from the elevated highway, because I couldn’t turn around for a couple of miles. Turn’s out there was a way to do it earlier, but it was cleverly hidden under the highway. Live and learn. Checking in at the Marco Polo Motel was a hoot. The Chinese owner/operator should have been a comedian, kind of an Asian Gary Shandling.
The man loudly repeated everything I said, and even though I’d called ahead and was promised an early check-in, our room wasn’t ready. He yelled at another Chinese man to get it ready. It wouldn’t have been a big deal, but I’d made arrangements to meet an old friend downtown for lunch, at 1:30. It was noon.
After showering and changing clothes, I asked the manager if he could call us a cab. He suggested Uber. I got frustrated fiddling around and trying to download the app. I asked him again for a taxi.
He said one would be there in ten minutes. After waiting twenty, I went back into the office to ask him if he could check on our cab. He was on the phone with someone who called to reserve a room. He yelled back to them, telling the caller it was first come, first served. He repeated that at least three times without taking a breath. He nodded yes and waved me back out the door.
When the cab finally pulled up, Gary came out into the lot. He held the phone to his ear and yelled at someone from the cab company. We laughed and waved, and went on our way. Even with the delays, we walked into the restaurant right on time. My friend was impressed at how we drove across the whole country and managed to be so punctual.
Sipping in Seattle
Taking a cab downtown was part of the master plan. I didn’t want the bother of looking for parking, and more importantly, not to worry about drinking and driving. We planned to do more of the former and none of the latter. After lunching and catching up with my friend, Donna, we headed for the waterfront. It wasn’t hard to find, we just had to walk downhill.
The steep street we walked could rival any in San Francisco. Obviously, they don’t get snow and ice like we do. At the bottom of the hill we walked into the northern end of Pike’s Place, the public market on the downtown waterfront. The place is world-famous, known for the seafood stall where the guys throw fresh fish over the counter and through the air, when someone places an order.
The market area is also home to the original Starbuck’s coffee shop. The mob of tourists jockeying for position out front made me think they were giving away the stuff for free, but I knew better. I love the flower stalls on the street and inside the market—the vivid colors and floral scents draws your eyes and nose. The fruit stands are a kaleidoscope of shapes and colors.
To get away from the crowded main isle in the market, I took Cathryn downstairs, where a maze of narrow hallways lead to unique little shops and stalls. Unfortunately, the Pike Brewery was closed for a private party, and we weren’t invited. There are a few great restaurants on the second floor that offer a view of the bay, but we were looking for something else.
Seeing the Brewery closed made us thirsty, so went across the street to an Irish Pub. We weren’t hungry enough for a sit down lunch, but we wanted to sample the double-smoked salmon that Cathryn bought at the market. She was afraid to ask the bartender for a plate and knife, but once he saw our snack he got excited and said he’d been hoping to buy some for himself.
Sharing our treat with him not only got us utensils, he conveniently forgot to charge us for a round of beers. Sharing, and making new friends always pays off. From the pub, we headed back to the waterfront. Cutting through the market, we walked through Gum Alley, where thousands of wads of chewing gum have been stuck to the walls on both sides. The colourful gumfiti walls looked like a candy machine had blown up there. The air smelled of mint.
The wharf and boardwalk had a carnival atmosphere, stretching from the Aquarium to the giant Ferris Wheel. A large fountain seemed to be a gathering spot for passengers who waited for the sightseeing cruises that toured the harbour. The crowds and scorching heat drove us indoors at Red Robin, where we sampled a couple more craft beers, and succumbed to the temptation of their smaller version of the onion ring tower.
Cathryn and I made a joint decision that sampling food and drinks would be our mission for the evening, so I asked the bartender where we could find the type of action we were seeking. She answered with my favourite line, “I don’t know, I’m not from here.” A friendly waitress overheard the conversation and pointed us in the right direction.
It was only one block uphill, to First Avenue and the Triangle Pub, which is in a building of the same geometric shape. I ordered a couple beers at the tiny bar inside, but it was like standing in a blast furnace. We found standing room on the patio, which was much cooler and twice the size of the bar. The place was bustling with baseball fans, the Mariners were playing at home, just a few blocks away.
Trying to learn a bit of history, I asked one of the locals how old the bar was. Another guy got in the conversation, which turned into a debate over which Seattle bar was the oldest. I looked at Cathryn and we both smiled. Our itinerary was set for the night.
Working our way down First Avenue, we found the J & M and Central bars, two that call themselves the oldest. The latter had a sign out front that said 1892. That’s old. We tried both places, having some awesome wings at J & M. There was a German place a few doors down where we enjoyed a warm pretzel on the patio, and listened to a street musician pluck away, playing the blues on his guitar.
Wandering further uptown, near the Seahawks football stadium, we found a brewpub called Elysian Fields. The one hundred and twenty foot granite-top bar, and row of shiny beer taps was a perfect place to sample some more of Seattle’s goodies. I could never name all the other places we tried, but somehow we ended up back at the J & M for a nightcap, a little dancing to the live band, and one more order of crispy wings for the road.
Although I think we visited more bars in one night than most locals would in a year, we had a great experience in downtown Seattle. I’m sure things are normally quieter on a Tuesday night, when there’s no ball game, but the city welcomed us with open arms, and delivered us a fun time.
Navigating the old fashioned way, using a map, I was a bit confused driving west out of Seattle. The Interstate offered pristine lake views, with fancy villas planted on the hillsides. I 90 was a necessity to get out of the city, then I found the smaller roads I wanted to get to State Road 410, marked a scenic route. Those last two words were an understatement.
I knew the route would take us through some wilderness areas and Mount Rainier National Park, but I overlooked the fact that we’d travel through the Cayuse Pass, at almost five thousand feet above sea level. The big blue sky and a few puffy clouds were the backdrop for Washington’s tallest mountain. We felt the drop in temperature in the pass, and stopped along the road so Cathryn could make snowballs in a huge drift.
The steeply banked and curvy roads, with switchbacks, were a little unnerving, but they made for an amazing morning ride. A biker’s and traveler’s dream come true. The remainder of the afternoon was divided up on I 82 and US 12, to Walla Walla, where we called it a day.
If anyone reading this has ever heard of Walla Walla, in the state of Washington, give yourself a pat on the back. A biker from California who stayed in the room next to us said he’d heard of the area being famous for its onions. We were surprised to see miles and miles of grape vines coming into town, and then fancy winery/restaurants downtown. You learn something new every day when you travel.
Lewis & Clark
On July 21st, we continued east on US 12, finding ourselves immersed in gentle hills that were covered with golden fields, as far as the eye could see. The engulfing baby blue sky and shimmering wheat were only interrupted by the ribbon of road that we were on. When we stopped to take a few pictures, I told Cathryn to listen for a moment. The silence was deafening.
Upon crossing the Washington/Idaho border, we drove through the towns of Clarkston and Lewiston, each on their own side of the Snake River. The towns were named after the famous explorers, US 12 follows part of their overland route. I thought about their exploits, while comfortably cruising on my iron horse at sixty mile per hour. I had a hard time imagining such an undertaking—exploring the great unknown by animal or canoe or foot, with no maps or GPS. Mind boggling.
Heading east along 12, the explorers’ scenic route took us through the upper part of Idaho, along winding riverbed roads. The day was hot. We stopped in a town called Orofino, and instead of eating fast food, we chose a sit down Mexican restaurant. We were the only white people in the restaurant, and in the whole town for that matter. The food was delicious and the decor was wild. The walls and ceilings were painted bright red. The wood tables and chairs were carved with Mexican scenes, then painted in every bright color imaginable. It was a cross between eclectic and gaudy.
The afternoon sun was relentless, but the road narrowed in spots along the riverbed, allowing intermittent shade from huge tree canopies. We followed the same river for about two hundred miles, to the Montana border. I can’t remember ever traveling along the any one river’s banks for so long.
The Lochsa River ended in the mountains, below Lolo Pass. The ride was a nice finish to the day, but in our opinion, not even close to the Mount Rainier pass in Washington. Other bikers we’d met on the road had bragged Lolo up to us, so maybe we were expecting too much. Just another windy, curvy, scenic mountain pass.
Approaching Missoula, we rode along another river. This one was littered with people floating downstream on inner tubes and air mattresses—a cool way to beat the heat. We stayed in town for the night and ate a casino/restaurant across from our motel. It seems that every state has casinos now.
Faithful to Yellowstone
From Missoula, Montana, we did a half-day jaunt to the town of West Yellowstone, which is about thirty minutes from the west gate of the national park. We stayed about fifteen miles out of town, in a shoebox sized cabin on Lake Hebgen. The idea was to be near the park, so we could get an early start and beat the heavy tourist traffic.
I thought the plan worked, until we saw the hoard of vehicles lined up at the gate. Once inside the gate the traffic thinned and dispersed into the wilderness that’s larger than the state’s of Rhode Island and Delaware. About twenty minutes into the park we hit our first traffic jam. It was caused by gawkers who stopped to look at a couple of buffalo that were grazing along-side the road.
Now matter what the park rangers and road signs tell people about stopping on the roadway, every animal sighting warrants a traffic jam. Unfortunately, some tourists treat the park like a huge petting zoo, they try to see how close they can get to the wild animals for that perfect phone picture. According to the local media, a few knot heads have managed to get themselves gored by bison who were protecting their young.
Our first stop was the geyser basin where Old Faithful resides. We were early for her next scheduled eruption, so we walked the boardwalk loop around the other smaller geysers. The colourful, steaming caldrons scar the landscape, leaking nasty chemicals like sulphuric acid. I noted several new fences and warning signs since my last visit. They’re posted to keep stupid people away from the death traps. Apparently more than one idiot thought the pools were hot tubs, they took dips, and were scalded to death.
While we waited for Old Faithful, we were treated to a surprise eruption of the Beehive Geyser. It is irregular, going off once or twice a day. Tourists who were standing nearby admiring it, got a wet surprise. Old Faithful blew her cork on time, but to us, it wasn’t as impressive as the Beehive when it spewed water a hundred feet into the air.
There’s not a straight road in the park. They weave and wind their way through forests that were lush and green, and others that were heavily scarred by past fires. Geysers and caldrons are scattered throughout the geologically unstable area. About half way through the park, we climbed and crossed over the continental divide. It runs down the center of the Rocky Mountains.
The scenery in the park is ever-changing. Just outside the eastern gate, while we climbed and rode one of the ridges on Sleeping Giant Mountain, a buffalo the size of a VW Beetle appeared from the shrubs and entered the roadway near us. The beast startled us and I think we startled him—he paused at the edge of the opposite lane as we cruised by him. Cathryn shrieked something like, “Don’t stop,” but she managed to snap a picture to prove our close encounter.
Previously, I’d only seen buffalo grazing at lower altitudes, in the grass. Apparently the big guy was on a walkabout in the mountains. So much for keeping a hundred yards away from the wildlife. We were almost close enough to see our reflection in his big eyes. Aside from the amazing alpine scenery, it was our highlight of the day.
Concluded Dec 5th.
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