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Thursday, September 10, 2015

On the road, Part I: Bremerton to West Yellowstone, via Coeur d'Alene

We made it. After twelve days and approximately 3200 miles (5150 kilometers), we pulled into Falls Church, Virginia on Monday evening, Labor Day. My Russian class officially started the following day, though studies don't begin in earnest until tomorrow. Having first suffered through Mandarin Chinese at the Foreign Service Institute more than two years ago, people here think I'm masochistic for taking on Russian, though the choice wasn't mine (I was supposed to study Lithuanian, but the position at the embassy in Vilnius was later changed to a Russian-speaking one). The next six months are going to be brutal, but I'm determined to get through the ordeal as quickly as possible so as move on to the next post.

But back to the road. Had I the literary skills, I would write a long paragraph or two (or more) on how the lure of the open road underlies and defines the American character, but even though I've read Jack Kerouac (and not just On the Road), I don't have the ability to accurately write down how I feel. Suffice it to say, I love long road trips, provided I'm the one behind the wheel. By myself and with unlimited time on my hands, I would stop at every historical marker and roadside attraction I would come across, as I would motor down the highways and byways of this country, avoiding the interstates whenever possible. However, with a Labor Day deadline and two easily bored traveling companions, it wasn't easy combining a long drive across a continent with enough stops to relieve the tedium. For my wife, America was just too big to comprehend. For my daughter, she occupied her time in the car with an iPad, or else spent the time reading ghost stories or doing mazes, and only looking out the window when I would point something out to her. For me, however, it was a chance to see parts of the country I'd never visited, to eat at roadside diners and try local beers (after the day's driving had been completed, it should be noted), to interact with people in my native tongue along the way. I don't think Pamela ever wants to go on a drive like the one we took, but I'm more than willing to do something like this again!

We began our journey in the early morning hours of Wednesday, August 26, taking the car ferry from Bremerton to Seattle. Mt. Rainier looked majestic as the sun was coming up:

As we left Seattle behind and made our way into the interior of Washington along I-90, the air quality started to deteriorate, thanks to a number of brush fires blazing away in the drought-stricken West. The haze was noticeable as we stopped to admire the view of the Columbia River:

In the same area, Amber and I climbed up the hill to see the Wild Horses Monument:

After several hours of driving through the Eastern Washington Scablands, it was with some sense of relief when we stopped off in Spokane to stretch our legs. The hometown of Bing Crosby, the city of 210,000 (Washington's biggest after Seattle) is an oasis of cafes and culture in the desert that somehow hosted the 1974 World's Fair. The former site of the expo is now Riverfront Park, built along the Spokane Falls, a series of scenic rapids and waterfalls best viewed from the 1911 Monroe Street Bridge (the longest concrete arch in the U.S.):

America is the land of over-sized sculptures; Riverside Park has its giant Radio Flyer Wagon:

Spokane's symbol is the 1902 clocktower (151 feet/46 meters), originally part of a railway depot and now located in the center of the park:

With its fashionable downtown area, numerous bike trails and easy access to hiking and cross-country skiing trails, Spokane seems like a nice enough place to live, but we still had daylight left and headed back onto I-90 and drove on further, crossing the state line into Idaho. We ended up spending the night at a Best Western in Coeur d'Alene. 

The next day (Thursday), we continued going east on the freeway, with the smoke from the brush fires getting thicker as we drove across the Idaho spoon-handle and into Montana. It was as if we were still in China! To break up the monotony of the drive, we stopped for lunch in Missoula. Montana has changed a lot from the way I remember it when I drove through the state in 1999. Instead of cowboys and saloons, Missoula is a city of trendy cafes and vegetarian restaurants, of vintage clothing stores and shops selling Tibetan arts and crafts, of galleries and handmade chocolates, a city of young hipsters and old hipsters-at-heart. We had lunch at the cool Catalyst Cafe & Espresso Bar; I highly recommend the miso mushroom soup: 

Missoula's hipness is complemented by the historic buildings located in its downtown core:

The surrounding mountains were shrouded in smoke; the "M" on Mt. Sentinel was barely visible:

After spending time in the city center, it was back in the car and onward toward Yellowstone National Park, our ultimate destination on this day. Exiting the freeway for the drive there, we had a scare when the Check Engine light came on, the cruise control disengaged and the Subaru's engine started to shudder, followed later by the oil lamp icon blinking on and off. Which was a shame as the concerns over the car distracted our attention from the absolutely beautiful Montana countryside we were driving through; stunning, but so isolated that it would be last place you would want to have a vehicle break down in. We eventually limped into West Yellowstone, Montana and checked into the Stage Coach Inn, which would be our home for the next three nights. I would leave my car with a local mechanic the next day while we visited the geysers of Yellowstone, learning later that our engine was almost empty of oil; the mechanic was amazed we had made it that far in one piece. The Subaru would consume numerous quarts of motor oil over the following days as we made our way across the U.S.

To be continued...

1 comment:

  1. i'm with you, Jim - give me a Nissan GT-R and the backroads and i'll cross the entire country!