Day 49 – Sedro Woolly -> Kettle Falls WA

Gorge Falls, which feeds the Skagit River just above the Gorge Lake Dam.

Our eastbound trek begins in Sedro Woolley, Washington (we never asked why the town had such a weird name). From here, the Cascades are snowy peaks on the distant eastern horizon. For a couple of hours we passed land producing apples and berries as we watched the peaks get closer. The fruit trees eventually gave way to evergreens, and the valleys gave way to hills which became mountains. We also started to notice an uptick in motorcycle traffic, which continued to increase as we went east.

As we entered the National Forest we noticed a high-capacity power line shadowing our road. The drive through North Cascades National Park passed along the shores of three large lakes, each in existence due to a massive hydroelectric dam built long ago to keep the lights on in Seattle. The raging rivers thundering down the canyons are gone, replaced by long sections of dry riverbed where the river had been diverted into a big pipe feeding the turbines further down the mountain. All that remains to “cascade” are the smaller streams spilling into the canyons from the side.

The snow-covered peaks rising above the sharply-angled slopes make the Cascades one of the most picturesque ranges that we saw on this oddyzee. Driving through the pass, we experienced the contrast between the wet and dry sides of the range. The slopes facing the ocean are true temperate rain forests, and they see more rain than almost any place in North America. But the rains cannot get around the mountains, leaving the other side dry and the land beyond it in a “rain shadow”. This slope still had rugged country, but sparsely scattered trees and grassy meadows had replaced the lush moss of the rain forest. It looked like the Ponderosa, and we half-expected one of the Cartwright boys to come riding up on his horse to greet us.

Another waterfall in the Cascades of northern Washington state.

In spite of our proximity to the Canadian border, we were on a desert that looked much more like Arizona than what we expected Washington to be. Only in the high elevations (6000+ feet) did we see the density of trees that we associate with forests. We saw one area that had experienced a severe fire in 1991. It was in one of forested areas that we had a fantastic wildlife sighting right around dusk. A mother moose and her calf crossed the road about 50 yards in front of us. It was our second moose sighting of the oddyzee, and our first since Colorado (six weeks ago).

Just before stopping for the night in Kettle Falls, Washington, we crossed the Columbia River one last time. We had last crossed it at its mouth, all the way back in the opposite corner of the state. This far upstream it is still a wide river in a deep gorge fed by the mountains of British Columbia, and it is already powerful enough to drive turbines that power air conditioners throughout the West.

 

Day 48 – Vancouver BC -> Sedro Woolly WA

Like most places that offer “free breakfast”, the Jolly Taxpayer didn’t keep the food out for people who sleep past 8am. So we had some bad coffee in the pub and got our stuff all packed up for the trip back to Bellingham late in the afternoon. The staff was gracious enough to let us keep our packs in the room while we walked around for a few more hours.

After one more stop at our favorite downtown coffee house, we got our packs from the hotel and caught a free Skytrain ride to the train station. Then we sat in line for a long time to show our tickets to the conductor. Then we had to show our passports to US Immigration before we could get on the train. The Americans stamped our passports.

It was an hour before the train actually started moving … all the more time to plug in the laptop and write some of these stories. Yes, these trains were equipped with standard wall outlets next to each pair of seats, so we didn’t have to drain our batteries while working.

We had our US Customs Declarations forms filled out before the train started moving. The train stopped briefly at the border for a group of customs agents to get on. As the train rolled on toward Bellingham the customs agents walked through, collecting forms and asking questions (they could have searched luggage at this point, but they didn’t). In Bellingham the customs agents, the strange-looking purple people, and the southbound Amtrak train all went their separate ways.

In spite of lots of walking and a bit of pack carrying, Obbie’s back came back fairly pain-free. Having left our stress in Canada, we reunited with our truck, grabbed some dinner and used the last remaining daylight to get positioned for the home stretch. We drove down to Mt. Vernon, which is where State Hwy 20 crosses I-5 to begin its journey across the northern edge of Washington state. In the little town of Sedro Woolley we found a cheap motel that will mark the end of our exploration of the West Coast. We are now firmly pointed to the east for our eventual return home.

 

Day 47 – Bellingham WA -> Vancouver BC

The day began in Bellingham, which is our launch point for an overnight trip to Vancouver BC. There’s an Amtrak train that makes a run between Seattle and Vancouver, once per day in each direction. The northbound train leaves Seattle insanely early, and when we turn east, we plan to hug the northern border anyway. So as the last station on the US side of the border, from Bellingham we can leave later, return earlier, have fewer hassles with parking. and pay a lower fare than we would from Seattle.

Driving into Canada was not an option, since the Big Red Dog and its contents would be a nightmare to schlep across international borders. Carrying backpacks and riding trains is how we plan to travel in Europe this fall, so this is a perfect practice run.

Since the ferries to Alaska dock right next to the Amtrak station, there is a long-term parking lot nearby with very reasonable rates. After getting up early to catch the train, it was nice to be able to chill out while we were moving and to watch the coastal vistas go by without the stresses of driving. As we passed into Canada we could see the endless parking lot of traffic waiting to cross the border on I-5, and we felt glad to have avoided that mess.

The conductor went through the train passing out Canadian Customs Declaration Forms and asked us to fill them out. We kept our completed form with our passports, figuring that some official would want to see it later. As our train wound its way into the Vancouver station, it pulled to the inside of a long green cage made of chain link fence. We got off the train and stood in line outside, looking longingly through the fence at the many Canadian trains lined up for their excursions to the Canadian Rockies and beyond. At the front of the line we were each briefly interrogated by Canadian Immigration. “How long are you gonna be here? Where are you staying? Why are you here?” They wanted to make sure we’re not some Americans planning to become Canadian vagrants. Once we were deemed harmless, they let us out of the green chain-link cage and into Canada. They didn’t stamp our passports.

Twenty-some years after Seattle had its World’s Fair, they had one in Vancouver, but by then they were called “Expos.” Half-an-hour before our train got to the station – over 15 miles from downtown – we got our first glimpse of a very useful relic from the Vancouver Expo of the early 80’s. The Skytrain goes from the Waterfront to a point to the east well off the street map of Vancouver. It’s a fast elevated train, similar to the high-speed systems in San Francisco and many other cities. What makes this system unusual is that it is completely automated … there is no human operating the trains … it’s sort of like a high-capacity horizontal elevator.

When we arrived in Vancouver, the transit workers were on strike, so the buses and waterbus (a high-traffic passenger ferry that crosses the harbor from Vancouver to North Vancouver) were not running. But the Skytrain runs itself, and there’s a stop right next to the train station. Better still, the “Fare Inspectors” were among the transit workers on strike, so the Skytrain was essentially free. Needless to say, the trains were packed while we were there, but we only needed the Skytrain for the 15-minute ride between the Amtrak station and our hotel downtown.

Obbie leans on his cane in front of The Jolly Taxpayer in Vancouver BC.

We stayed at an English-style B&B on Hastings St. called the Jolly Taxpayer. It was a three-story European-style hotel attached to a pub. The rooms were nothing fancy, but they were wonderfully functional, and the price of $90 (including breakfast) seemed quite reasonable for the downtown location until we realized that 90 Canadian dollars are about 60 American dollars … then we were ecstatic. The shower is “down the hall” but each room has its own sink and potty, and if you need a phone it’ll have to be the pay phone in the lobby. But we could live with that to support these nice people with a nice place at a nice price.

We were wearing our bright purple outfits while we explored Vancouver. One passing hippy smiled and accused us of looking like “a couple of grapes.” Many people asked if we were from Montreal, and told us we’d fit right in there. Someday, we’ll have to visit Montreal.

We haven’t been to Britain yet, but Vancouver felt like a very British city. We only saw the downtown area, which was very cosmopolitan with visitors from all over the world. We couldn’t help but notice how the magnificent old buildings and the ambitious new ones intermingled, contrasted, and sometimes even complemented each other.

Next to San Francisco, Vancouver has the second-largest Chinatown in North America. This harbors a diverse Asian population and attracts a steady stream of visitors from all over Asia. We found some great Vietnamese food in the neighborhood.

When reading prices in Canada, they seem a tad high but not exorbitant by big-city standards. But once you do the math and translate the prices into American dollars, they’re usually quite a bargain. The American dollar is strong in Canada: at the train station, $100 US bought us $146 Canadian. We’d have done better at the banks downtown, but it was Saturday, and the convenience was worth it for our relatively small transaction.

There are so many things to see and do in Vancouver that it could have taken weeks to do them all. But with Obbie’s back still hurting, we figured that stress (driving, keeping schedules, etc.) was probably a factor. Our favorite stress-relief medication is much more tolerated and accepted in Canada than it is in our home country. We decided to investigate the rumors and relieve our stress at the same time, so we headed for the coffee houses down the street.

What we learned is that you cannot buy your medication from the coffee houses, but you are free to use whatever you happen to have. Visiting Americans must either find something on the street (not very hard from what we hear), or share a round of drinks with gracious locals. Many new friends are made, and many deep and profound conversations take place around the coffee house tables. It was a refreshing break from the relatively fascist conditions back home.

The Canadians are pushing the envelope for the rest of the continent, but they are doing so slowly and carefully. Vancouver is a very friendly city, and we felt safe on the streets even late at night. The friendliness and progressive attitudes of Vancouver – as well as all the fun things to do near there that we didn’t have time for – put it high on our list of places to someday go back to for a longer visit.

 

Day 46 – Tumwater – Bellingham WA

We came to the Motel 6 in Tumwater last night because we wanted to have Seattle within easy reach this morning. This also gave us time to study our maps and to make train and hotel reservations for our coming weekend in Vancouver.

As we were packing the truck to leave, Obbie’s back started to hurt. When we were killing time in Portland we bought a cane. We thought it was to help us reach things in the back of the truck, but instead it’s to relieve pain while walking. It wasn’t the same crippling pain he’s had before, but it slowed us down as we walked around Seattle.

After our visit to Portland we expected Seattle to have a better transit system. There is no regional rail network, nor is there a light rail system within Seattle. They do have an extensive bus system, including many electric buses similar to those in San Francisco, which are powered by lines suspended above the street.

Seattle has many steep hills, just as San Francisco does, and these electric buses do a much better job of climbing the hills than the diesel buses do. And the diesels are a lot more obnoxious to any poor soul who happens to be standing on the street next to one as it pulls away.

Seattle has a reputation as a very rainy city, but we hit town on a bright sunny day. We parked on top of a hill near the Madison Street Market (a big health food co-op) and embarked on our walking tour of the city. Walking down the hill toward downtown, we saw the old buildings being renewed by artists and professionals. The neighborhoods we passed through on this walk had a refreshing feel to them, like young energy was breathing new life into tired old places.

As we got downtown we saw how the convention center deals with rain. A transparent archway links the roofs of buildings on opposite sides of the street for an entire block, producing a block that’s sheltered from the torrents of rain that fall most of the year.

Another thing we started to notice were the pigs … slightly larger-than-life sculptures of pigs in various styles and themes, displayed on the sidewalks all over town. We found out that they are part of a fund-raising effort for our next destination, the Pike St. Market. This market encompasses several blocks of downtown waterfront where the public can buy fresh fish, fresh produce, groceries, souvenirs, and prepared food representing seemingly every culture in the world – all from independent dealers.

Music fills the air and adds to the festive atmosphere throughout the market. Musical notes are painted on the sidewalk in various places, designating where street performers can play. Each performer gets an hour “on stage” before (s)he must yield to the next one waiting. This guarantees that many performers get a chance to play, and that those going to the market get a chance to see a wide variety of performers. Most of them are quite good.

To get from the Pike St. Market to the area of the Space Needle required a walk thru a grungy part of town where homeless people and Hispanic day laborers hang out across the street from sky cranes building new pricey condo complexes. It’s nice to see so much improvement in run-down neighborhoods, but we can’t help but wonder where the poor people are going to go once the rich push them out.

The Space Needle was built for the 1962 World’s Fair, and it is now the landmark that most identifies Seattle. We skipped the elevator ride to the top because we could think of lots of better things to do with $35-40. The Space Needle is the centerpiece of the Seattle Center, a collection of major museums, a small carnival, and relics of the World’s Fair.

Among the museums is the Experience Musical Project. From the outside, EMP looks like an enormous shiny metallic set of silver and purple blobs (of course, we found the purple metal to be particularly appealing). Inside, we could see the world’s largest video screen (about as high as – and wider than – an IMAX screen, about 5 stories high) along with the gift shop, cafe and bathrooms. To see any more required that each of us part with the better part of a twenty-dollar-bill, so we stopped at the lobby.

The most useless application of cool technology is Seattle’s monorail. For $1.25 – the same price as a bus fare – it will take you a mere ten blocks to the edge of downtown. This thing is NOT part of the transit system; you can’t transfer from the monorail to, say, a bus up the hill. So rather than being a link in a regional system to move people around, this train is little more than a joy ride for tourists and an overgrown ad banner sailing above the city streets. We saved our money for a real bus fare.

When we got back up the hill we did some shopping at the coop, then drove to Washington Lake Park to hang out while we waited for the commuter traffic to clear out for our drive north. We still had plenty of daylight when we made our drive to Bellingham. Tomorrow we take the train to Vancouver, and we found our way to the train station and our parking lot before booking our room for the night back up near the freeway.

Day 45 – Cape Disappointment -> Tumwater WA

Cape Disappointment may have sucked for Lewis and Clark, but it was OK for us. We started the morning with a walk to the ocean side and checked out the enormous piles of enormous driftwood, along with some of the strange plant life this unique landscape had to offer.

A view of the coastline near Cape Disappointment.

For us, the disappointment came from the breakfast we had at Don’s Portside Cafe in Ilwaco. Everything was ordinary, we paid $17 and left hungry, and the place was filled with smoke in spite of also being filled with “no smoking” signs.

Our next destination was the Quinault Valley Rain Forest, an area in the southwestern corner of Olympic National Park. On our way there, we passed mile after mile of tree farms. The lumber companies referred to their tracts of land as plantations, and big signs would proudly tell passing travelers when the tracts were clear-cut, replanted, and clear-cut again. These monocultures were devoid of the rich diversity of life one would expect of a forest. They were not forests. They were tree farms, and the difference was obvious.

The Quinault Valley Rain Forest is a rare patch of old growth. We had to drive many miles on narrow dusty dirt roads to get there. We had to cross a low wooden bridge with a 2-ton limit (hmmm… does The Big Red Dog weigh less than two tons with this load?).

Our reward was to find ourselves in a true temperate rain forest. The floor is a deep bed of downed moss-covered wood in various stages of decomposition, the trunks of the trees would require a ring of five hippies to be completely hugged, and in spite of the drought conditions there was enough moisture to sustain ferns, moss, mushrooms, and mosquitoes.

A large clear-cut near Quinault Valley Rain Forest.

We backtracked to the crossroads lumber town of Aberdeen, and after another boring and unsatisfying meal we found ourselves heading down US 12 toward Olympia. It felt odd to be following a road with such a familiar designation (US 12 runs from St. Paul to Eau Claire to Madison, so it’s part of our back yard in Wisconsin) in such unfamiliar territory.

For a little while we found ourselves driving in circles looking for a motel. There was supposed to be a Motel 6 in Tumwater, but even when we could see it we couldn’t find the right roads to get us there. It was a frustrating end to the day.

Day 44 – Gresham OR -> Cape Disappointment WA

We woke up in Gresham rested, recuperated and ready to face the day. We checked out of our motel on time, drove to the nearest MAX station and parked at a strip mall nearby, and set off on our day trip to downtown Portland.

MAX is a very popular system given the number of free spaces in the park-and-ride lot. There weren’t any, so we had to park in the hinterlands of a strip mall a few blocks away. The MAX system is almost identical to the San Diego Trolley we encountered many weeks ago. An electrical line is suspended above a set of well-kept railroad tracks, and modern electric streetcars dash down these tracks. In many urban areas, the tracks run down median strips or on the streets themselves.

Portland operates on the same honor system as San Diego. You buy a ticket from a machine at the station and board the train. If a fare inspector comes by and you don’t have a valid ticket, you get a ticket with a $50+ fine. That saves the expense of fences and turnstiles, and that savings was reflected in the fares ($1.50 each way from the end of the line to the heart of the city).

It was lunch hour on Wednesday when the MAX delivered us to downtown Portland. We found a bustling and thriving urban center. Musicians gave lunchtime performances in the plazas, and the sidewalks were as busy as those in Manhattan. Wednesday happened to be one of the days that the Farmers Market operates in a downtown park. Fresh produce and packaged products (salsa and apple juice, for example) flew out of the stands set up by area farmers and into the crowds of people circulating thru the market. It was a shining example of a successful downtown Farmers Market.

Portland, like many other cities, has a fare-free zone in the downtown area. We saved about 6 blocks of walking by hopping onto a newly-inaugurated streetcar for a couple of stops. We found some great Thai food, peeked thru the windows of the Chinese Garden (the admission price was a bit spendy for our tastes) and finished our walking tour of downtown before hopping on the MAX for the ride back to our truck.

Obbie first experienced Portland as a dumpy working-class town in the 1970’s and it seems to be on quite a rebound since then. We saw a lot less demolition and a lot more rehab of historic buildings than we see in the town we call home. La Crosse can learn a lot from Portland.

Continuing on from Gresham, we bypassed downtown Portland by following the banks of the Columbia River going westbound. On our left was Portland’s airport. On the right, we saw several exclusive gated communities on the water where massive yachts were tied to mansions on stilts. Traffic along the river road flowed smoothly and steadily except for a brief interruption for construction, and it was stress-free until we missed an important turn due to inadequate signage (see “signage rant” from a few days ago).

Once we had Portland firmly behind us we started building momentum down the Columbia River toward the ocean. We saw logging trucks, sawmills and more clearcuts while on the local community radio station Jello Biafra talked about the corporate takeover of America. We saw some majestic old bridges and got a distant glimpse of Mt. St. Helens.

As we got closer to the coast, the weather cooled down again and the logging towns gradually gave way to fishing towns. By the time we got to Ambrosia, Oregon, we were squarely in fishing territory and presented with our last chance to cross the Columbia River. From a distance, the last bridge to Washington (or the first, if you’re coming from the other way) looks like a fragile ribbon of steel stretching across the 4-5 mile expanse of river. Up close, it’s a splendid specimen of early 20th century American engineering.

A sculpture commemorating the Lewis and Clark expedition, carved from the trunk of a redwood tree.

On the Washington side of the river, historical markers reminded us that we were following the footsteps of Lewis & Clark, the first white explorers to reach the mouth of the Columbia from the east. They came there looking for a place to spend the winter before heading back to St. Louis. We came there looking for a place to spend the night before heading on to northwestern Washington. We camped in a state park near Cape Disappointment, a place that the historic expedition invested a lot of effort into scouting, only to find that it wouldn’t be the right place, hence the name.

Lewis and Clark were disappointed because this site had brutal winds in the winter time. But we were there in the middle of the summer, and we enjoyed the break from the heat.

Day 43 – Mt. Hood -> Gresham OR

Obbie was nauseous this morning, and we both woke up with headaches. We would have suspected hangovers, but we’d only shared one beer between us last night. It may have been altitude sickness, exacerbated by the beer. We had been close to sea level for several days, and then we suddenly spent a night at seven thousand feet without having a chance to get acclimated first.

Hiking on the volcano was not going to be on today’s agenda. We are wiped out, and in no mood to do much of anything. So we rolled down the mountain with our tails between our legs, embarrassed at our failure to respect the mountain. Between the flat tire at Crater Lake and getting altitude sickness on Mt. Hood, our experiences with volcanoes have been less than optimal.

Tomorrow we plan to spend the day in Portland, so today we need to rest and recover. We’ve been hearing about an innovative light rail system called MAX, so we’d like to check it out. Driving in a big city is usually a nightmare, so for tomorrow’s visit to Portland we plan to park in the suburbs and ride the MAX downtown.

We came armed with a Portland street map that showed the MAX routes and stations. As we approached the city, the first suburb with a MAX station is Gresham, so that’s where we stopped. We found a room and relaxed, saving our strength for tomorrow’s day in Portland.