Preface: This is a simple travel tale, a summer break from my usual serious intent. Enjoy.
Leaving San Francisco, our first road trip in decades, we’re feeling free and easy by the time we’ve crossed the Golden Gate and are climbing toward the Robin Williams rainbow tunnel on the other side. We’re good together, Kathy and I. With our business angst a thing of the past, we’re ready to spread our wings and see if we can still fly.
After a couple days boating on Clear Lake with our California family we shoot up through Northern California on I-5, big rigs sucking us along in their contrails riveting our attention to driving and to navigating around them on the inclines. Our peripherals catch little but the endless rows of nut trees blanketing the Central Valley, until we’re past Redding and into the Trinity Mountain range. We’re lulled by the forests of pines, oak and ash bracketing each side of the freeway, sharp rocky outcrops the only break in overlapping hills of flowing green limbs. As we crest the rise that gave us our first view of Mt. Shasta, we are shocked.
The forest has disappeared. In its place are skinny sticks, some vertical, some resting at odd angles from shattered trunks, all of them charred grey and black, every single needle, everything green gone. Kathy struggles to keep her eyes on the road and off the endlessly grim panorama surrounding us. We learn later that it was called the ‘Carr Fire.’ It burned 396 square miles of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in August of 2018. Living in California it’s impossible to be unaware of the multitude of wildfires every year, so many that we lose track of the names, the locations and the dates. The reality of their lifeless aftermath is something we will never forget.
Closing in on Mt. Shasta, signs of life and recovery returning to the roadside forest, we exit into the small town of Weed, CA. We stretch our legs, considering what it would be like to live in a town in which the entire eastern view is of a magnificent snow-capped mountain. Everywhere we stop we asked ourselves that question – ‘what would it be like to live here?’ Our thoughts tug at the option, just seriously enough to let the reality sink in. We do cite an advantage to living in Weed – we’d enjoy sending family and friends t-shirts – apparently the hottest item in every store in this little mountain town – that say: ‘I ❤ Weed.’
Leaving Weed behind, we continue north on U.S. 97. Not only does 97 angle northwest, directly toward our Coeur d’Alene, Idaho destination it wastes no time in charming us. Its freshly paved blacktop is mostly two lanes, with passing lanes at five-mile intervals, is more intimate, more like a friend visiting the countryside, less like an invasion, as the interstate often feels. Taking us first through the southern-most swoop of the Cascade Range, U.S. 97’s sweeping views of healthy whitebark pine and Alaskan-cedar subdue the recent pervasion of dead forests.
Just over the CA/OR border, Klamath Falls is our first planned overnight stop. Built around Upper Klamath Lake, its welcome sign noting 20,840 inhabitants boasts, ‘Oregon’s City of Sunshine.’ So, we’re hopeful. Instead we find it to be a silly, petty little city. Two big signs in the lobby of the Shilo Hotel, where we’d planned to stay, warn ‘No Smoking, No Vaping, No Pot – Anywhere on this Property!’ Not that either of us is jonseing for a smoke, but it seems overly authoritarian, so we push on. After dismissing a Best Western that wants $260 for a one-night stay, we drive through weirdly overlaid grids of commercial, industrial and residential neighborhoods that make up the heart of Klamath Falls and seem to make no sense. It doesn’t take us long to declare, “We’re out of here!”
Two hours north we find Bend, OR to be perfect – the place we were meant to stay that night. The friendly Three Sisters Suites and the fun waiter/bartender and great food at Kayo’s Restaurant a short walk down 3rd Street prove us right. The food and libations added to it, but at the heart of our celebratory mood is the liberating sense of being on the road and able to make good gut-level decisions.
Waking up the next morning with the same confidence in our spontaneity, we make our best among a solid rank of good decisions on the trip. We decide that after a quick stop at The Big Story bookstore in downtown Bend, we’ll head straight up 97 to Yakima, Washington.
In the late morning we breakfast at the Black Bear Diner in Madras. Knowing it’s a chain we’re none-the-less impressed with the big breakfasts, friendly people and well-done northwest woods-and-bears decor that its roadside billboards promise. Bellies and gas tank full, we coast up through the Klamath National Forest, a huge volcanic basin, 100s of miles of flat, smooth roadway curving northward, Ponderosa Pines crowding the landscape as far as the eye can see.
After watching Mt. Hood being unwrapped from the clouds in the western sky, we hit a weird traffic hold up at the Hood River crossing (OR/WA border) at Biggs. Spotting the source of the jam, we watch three huge wind turbine blades being maneuvered across a long narrow bridge. We have an easy ride up through the hills of southern Washington, many populated by tall energy-producing turbines, with immense blades like those that awed us at the river.
We’re drawn to Toppenish solely for the fun of saying its name out loud – “I fell so Toppenish today!” — learning only later a much better reason to admire the town. After many years supporting its annual Mural-In-Day Festival, Toppenish boasts seventy-five Western/Native murals covering the sides of its downtown buildings. We almost wished we’d stopped.
But, just up the road is Yakima.
We know Yakima’s connection to the Yakima Tribal lands that surround much of it, but it’s my forty-five year-old memory of the town, and not my abiding interest in Native tribes, that brings us here.
In the Fall of 1977, driving cross-country in a VW microbus with two close friends and my first wife, we happened into Yakima where we made quick friends with some fellow hippies in an old downtown bar. We hippies, quick to spot each other, banded together in those days as much for mutual support as for mutual interests. We had a great time. We closed down the place. But before last call, one of our new friends gave us the greatest gift we were to receive during our three months on the road.
Forty-five years later, I’ve long since forgotten the name of this generous young man. But, he happened to be the son of local pastor. He described a site west of Yakima up in the Cascades with four newly built A-frame cabins sitting on the shore of a small mountain lake. His father’s Lutheran Parish owned the place he described.
“No one’s there now and no one’s scheduled to be there for weeks, you should go.” Along with his earnest encouragement he used a series of bar napkins to draw us a map.
Nearly a dozen friends met up with us there. With their newly minted BA’s, BS’s, MBAs and Law degrees, longing for taste of freedom before student debt set in, a bunch of friends, all from the same Midwest college, were on the road that Fall. We kept tabs on each other through a dad willing to take messages and field calls at all hours of the day and night. We’d all been in our share of anti-war protests and student uprisings – the early 70s was a crazy time. We’d bonded over bad pot and left-wing politics, helped each other grow up and were all feeling that precious moment of suspended time before we acquiesced to being serious adults, of blissful freedom.
The remote A-frames sitting among a dense Cascade forest on a cold mountain lake became our private Woodstock week. We had music. We had food. We had wine, beer and assorted ‘enhancements’. We had firewood and starry, starry nights. We had each other. And we had the whole place to ourselves. It’s as close a memory I have to paradise. The whole experience was capped by a magical afternoon trail run. I was joined by a deer who stayed parallel to my path for nearly a mile until I finally gave in to my desire to turn my head toward it.
Kathy had heard bits of the story before, but I held nothing back my account along U.S. 97. She was happy for me. She’s always happy for me.
Checking into The Baymont late afternoon, we are immediately in love with our 4th floor room overlooking the clear, rapid Yakima River. After mellowing out, wine for Kathy, Bud Light for me, we stroll down the ‘Yakima Greenway’ that runs along the river and find a place in a copse of cottonwoods where we sit for an hour on big boulders at the water’s edge, feeling as happy and free as any 60-somethings have ever felt. The birds chirp at us, every now and then a small trout jumps out of the water to peek at us, while we keep an eye on a three-and-a-half-foot crane on the opposite shore. We never do figure out what he (or she) was staring at, or what its gentle interaction with a family of nearby ducks was all about. When the duck family, mom and six little ones, come across the river to say hello, we lose all interest in the statuesque crane.
We are too road-weary to explore Yakima that night so settle on a Mexican restaurant next door to the hotel. I sleep until 8:00 the next morning, relishing the Louise Erdrich novel I’d found at Big Story Books on our way out of Bend while Kathy snuggles in bed for another hour. We drive the ½ mile to downtown Yakima, make a ten-minute loop around downtown, refurbished with little parklets along the blocks, widened walkways and colorful streetlight banners, then find Encore Books, which I’d discovered Googling Yakima the night before.
Oddly, 95% of the thousands of books in Encore are paperbacks. None of their shelves were even large enough for hardbacks, though I do find a couple stacks in a corner – among them was a first edition of Louise Erdrich & Michael Dorris’s Crown of Columbus. Kathy teases me later for having to tell the youngish clerk the whole story of Dorris & Erdrich, their early success at Dartmouth, marriage, big family and his eventual suicide. I buy a softcover copy of a bestselling Luis Alberto Urrea historical novel called The Hummingbird’s Daughter.
We drive back to the other side of Yakima Blvd. that splits the town in half, to a district of mostly restaurants. Strolling a few blocks, opting out of a Jimmy John’s, a Mexican/Thai place and Lulu’s Lunchbox, we settle on the 2nd Street Grill. Our decision-making mojo had not fled us.
Nice place and big as a basketball court, the 2nd Street Grill has well-spaced booths and tables of gleaming wood, high ceilings with old exposed rafters and a large oval bar that takes up half the space. The bar is elevated, like a stage. Signs posted next to the steps up to it say ‘No Minors Allowed’ – a freestanding half wall also keep it out of the view of the main dining room, where minors might be longing for a view of old people drinking alcohol. (Apparently there’s some Washington law about it.)
We order the most unique thing on the menu – a waffle sandwich. Wise enough to ask our friendly, accommodating waitress if she would split it onto two plates, it features a deep-fried breaded filet of chicken, a fried egg, bacon, lettuce and tomato, covered with a maple syrup glaze, sandwiched in between two fresh Belgian waffles. We both love it, Kathy noting that we each got a full serving of the thin crispy fries that come with it. We walk out happy and stuffed.
Back at our hotel, we flop on top of the bed, bellies up, fully clothed. Surprised to fall deeply asleep, I am awake thirty minutes later. Happy to let Kathy keep enjoying her siesta, I quietly change into a long sleeve Tour de Peninsula shirt and slipped out of the room, nothing on my mind but the river.
The Yakima is not a gently flowing river. It’s a three-hundred-foot-wide curving ribbon of cold clear water, snowmelt from the Cascade Range to the west. It gushes along a rocky bed. From the hotel window I saw a pair of kayakers rush by at what seemed to be 15 or 20 MPH. Walking east along the smoothly paved path that runs along it, I encounter an official-looking electric golf cart driven by a man that looks to be about my age, the woman alongside him about the same. I wave. They wave back and stop as they draw alongside me.
“Would you like some cold water?” He leans out toward me as he says it.
I smile and say, “Thanks. I’m good.” But, before I can walk away, he inclines his head and adds, “It’s ice cold” – he shoots his thumb back over his left shoulder to draw my attention to two tall Gatorade-type containers strapped to the back of his cart. Sure enough – a paper cup dispenser, ice cold water from the jug’s spigot – very refreshing.
“So, you’re the Good Samaritans of the Yakima Greenway, huh?” I thank them.
“Yep, been doin’ this for twenty-three years now.”
“Good for you,” I say to his retreating back. And I mean it. Yakima just keeps getting better and better.
I continue along the river until it curves off to the north, presenting me with a swath of greenery separating from it. A plaque mounted on a solid 4×4 pole a little ways further along informs me that the green strip of land along a river’s shores is called the ‘riparian,’ – ‘rhymes with librarian’ it says.
Up ahead I spot a narrow path through the riparian. Figuring that it would lead down to the Yakima, I venture down it. Part of me wishes I hadn’t. The plant life is abundant, the sapling size trees all happily entangled, the tall cottonwoods interspersed among the tangle provide a canopy of shade and they’ve coated most of the plants and the leaf-clotted ground with a dirty white webs of . . . well ‘cotton’ . . . I stupidly realize that’s how the trees got their name. But, glaring out of all this natural riparian wonder is a bounty of ugly litter – discarded Doritos packages, McDonald’s cups, candy wrappers, flattened Coca-Cola cartons and a variety of soda and beer cans.
Where the trail ends down at the edge of the sparkling, fast-flowing river, I spot a couple of dusty plastic bags caught in the bushes. Squatting down to cup my hands in the clear water I refresh my face, quietly promising the river that I’ll do my best.
Halfway back up the trail, one bag already stuffed full, sweat pouring off my face, I hear and then see a young family-of-four headed my way. The two 7-or-8-something boys are as excited as puppies. Their young mom, her purple-streaked hair pulled up and knotted at the back of her head, says, “That’s so cool that you’re picking up the trash.”
“I really hate litter,” I reply, stooping to pick-up an anonymous piece of crinkly plastic wrap. As I stand I noticed the tall butch-cut dad sporting a 32 oz. Burger King drink, I withhold my suspicion, ‘Something makes me think you don’t share your wife’s beliefs.’ I I imagine his sons asking him as he tosses the empty cup into the weeds, ‘Daddy are you leaving that for that old man to pick up?’
When the sandy trail through the riparian meets up with the paved path again, two plastic grocery bags jam-packed with litter hanging from my gritty hands, I am happy to have repaid the kind examples of the water Samaritans and to have kept my promise to the river. But the trail and the river offer their own thanks. Scanning back and forth for any remaining detritus I spot a smooth heart-shaped rock as big as my fist sitting at my feet, in the very center of the trail. Considering it a gift from the Yakima it rests alongside me as I write, back in my San Francisco home.
Back at the hotel, a sweaty walk and a good clean-up effort under my belt, I shower, down a couple ice-cold Bud Lights and read more of Erdrich’s ‘The Painted Drum’ sitting on our small balcony overlooking the river while Kathy readies herself for our next adventure.
We head back downtown and find a couple open stools at the 2nd Street Grill’s oval bar. Knowing we are early for the Yakima Summer Nights festival we’d seen on promotional posters on our earlier sidewalk tour, we order drinks and chat about what it would be like to live in Yakima.
We notice that over half of the people around the bar, at least twenty of the thirty crowding it, are over 60. Our 30-something bartender is swift and alert so it doesn’t take us long to catch her eye. We ask if Yakima is in some way courting seniors.
“I’ve lived here my whole life,” she confirms, “And I’ve never seen anything like it.” She manages to keep a smile on her face as we ask about what it must be doing to housing prices. Leaving town a day later, we finally notice a billboard at the edge of town announcing, ’Yakima – The Palm Springs of Washington.’
I don’t know what it might have had to do with Palm Springs, but that night we do have a great time partying with the people of Yakima – young and old. Maybe it’s the good karma we brought with us. The Summer Nights outdoor gathering is just a couple blocks from the 2nd Street Grill. After buying tickets, we snatch up a couple hot Spring Rolls. The young ticket-taker looks so beleaguered that Kathy offers her a Spring Roll along with the ticket, assuring her, ‘I work fairs, I know what it’s like.’
Just as she says it, the plate bends and one of the rolls falls to the pavement. Kathy snatches it up quickly and citing the ‘5-second rule’ puts it back on her plate and offers the other one to the grateful girl.
Making our way into the crowd, taking turns munching the Spring Roll (without regret), we’re finally able to see the performer on-stage. He is a younger version of Charlie Daniels, long thick beard, big belly, booming voice and all. He’s already energized the crowd and we just drift through the warm evening air until we find a spot shaded by one of the restored four-story brick buildings that line the street.
Responding to the crowds’ open, festive vibe, we aren’t halfway through our drinks when we fall into conversation with a middle aged man, trim, well-groomed, with a nice hip/casual dress — much like Kathy and I had hoped for when we checked each other out back at the hotel. When he finds out we’re from San Francisco, Derrick delights in telling us of his brief time there. “A few fun, fun years” is how I remember his description.
When we touched on the obvious topic of music and routed it around to favorite bands, he proclaims himself to be a ‘major Dead fan!’ Two things occur to me simultaneously – his exuberance confirms that he is definitely gay (I wasn’t sure) and his proclamation makes me wonder why I’d never met a gay Dead fan before. Why, until then, had I never considered the fact that, of course, among the Grateful Dead’s massive, multi-generational and fanatically loyal fan base every gender and every member of the LGBTQ+ community is represented.
I tell Derrick the tale of how I’d acquired dozens of bootleg Grateful Dead CDs, recordings done by Deadheads at the live concerts they followed like points of light around the globe – a tale for another time involving a ‘Deadhead runner’. He asks me how much I want for them.
“Oh no,” I admonish, “They were a gift, a series of gifts really, so I wouldn’t think of taking money for them, but . . . “ Or something like that. By then, Derrick, Kathy and I have gotten another round of drinks and I may have lost some of my eloquence.
Anyway, I promise Derrick the CDs. His gratitude is sweet, a tad too much after a while, our unexplained generosity having gotten in the way of the easy-going conversation we’d been having. So we slip away, looking for the food we insist we needed ASAP.
As the last of the sun is peaking over the buildings to the west, we sit down in a staircase at the edge of the crowd, where we can watch the crowd and still hear the music. We’ve bought a couple skewers of roasted chicken from a Thai booth and when we spot a down-and-out young man sitting on the ground across the alley, we feel compelled to offer him one. When I approach him his eyes look past me, out of focus. He reaches for the skewer when I hold it toward him, but says nothing. We leave him to his private miseries, but ten minutes later when a couple friends come by and help him to his feet, we see him let the skewer, still loaded with juicy chicken chunks, fall to the ground as though he were completely unaware of it. Oh well. We’ve long agreed that you can never go wrong with generous intentions.
Back at The Baymont by 10:00, we are full of food and drink and as happy and playful as two teenagers who finally have a room to themselves. We find the perfect ending to a wonderful night in Yakima.
The rest of our trip flows just as easily. We have a fun, relaxing family reunion in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. We make smart stops and serendipitous discoveries on the way home – including The John Day Fossil Beds along Oregon’s ‘Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway. We click, we watch, we reminisce – four days back and forty years. But, Yakima was the heart of the journey – a ‘we’ll always have Yakima’ sort of thing. A little town in central Washington named after the local tribe seems to have been a double destiny, separated by forty-five years.