The native guide, sahib

We recently had a visitor from Sweden named Mattias (ma-TEA-us), stopping by on the last leg of a five-week driving vacation around the United States.  Eager to meet him, I promised to act as a native guide and driver; after over 8000 miles of driving, I figured he’d be pretty happy just to be in a passenger seat with someone else responsible for navigation and steering.

Matti speaks very good English, and I speak a little bit of Swedish, so we mostly spoke English together.  The exceptions came when I had something to say and could remember how to say that in Swedish.  It’s actually a very easy language for English speakers, because one can see where the two languages parted in development centuries ago.  A good example is the word ‘so.’  Define the word ‘so,’ please.  Ulp…err…it means…damn!  Yeah.  You see the issue now. Imagine trying to explain it to a Russian or Arabic speaker in all its contexts.  Happy day:  Swedish not only has ‘so,’ used exactly the same way, but pronounced the same:  ‘så.’  How hard can this be? (And what does it say about me that I speak it so haltingly?) Anyway, Matti was patient and tolerant with the indignities I inflicted on his native language, though it wouldn’t surprise me to get a letter from His Majesty the King of Sweden asking that I please not attempt to speak it in the future.

Our first sojourn was down the Columbia Gorge and back.  I decided to start on the Oregon side and return via Washington, so that sahib could have the best view both ways.  If you have never seen the Gorge, well, it’s a river roughly a mile wide ripped out of basalt lava flows by Ice Age floods involving about 500 cubic miles of water leaving the Missoula area all at once.  This makes for steep basalt cliffs and impressive vistas, especially for a geology nut like Matti (or me).  We lucked out with a cool day in the 60s, which is great because I’m too cheap to put air conditioning in my truck.  Drove past Hermiston and then down to The Dalles, pointing out various sights and features to sahib.  It’s about two hours to TD, where we stopped at Spooky’s pizza place.  This is in western TD, pretty much out in the middle of its Cletus country, and is one of the best pizza places I know.  In my youth it was even better, but a couple of misguided business makeovers have left it merely great rather than oh-my-god-what-is-this-doing-all-the-way-out-here superlative.

Since we were doing well on time, I suggested we go as far as Cascade Locks and cross at Bridge of the Gods.  This is named for an ancient land bridge created by a large landslide, attested by Indian legend and corroborated by modern geology.  The modern version is a steel cantilever structure with a $1 toll and a 15 mph speed limit.  By this time it was raining, exposing sahib to the sudden climate shift of going from the dry side to the drench side.  The Washington side is not freeway driving, so it’s slower and a bit more leisurely, with the road climbing higher in several places for the kind of views that make jaws drop. Matti spent a lot of time making bad jokes until I began doing variations of the headdesk:  headsteeringwheel, headtable, headwindow, headinterpretive placard, headetcetera.  This habit committed the error of encouraging him, making sahib attempt to increase the density of bad jokes just to see if I were resourceful enough to find new objects to bonk my head against.

We swung by the Maryhill Museum, which has a brand new wing this year.  That’s the good news.  The disappointing news–and you know I have to be pretty damn disappointed to say anything less than glowing about a museum–is that the new wing isn’t that big a deal in terms of displayed objects.  They moved the deli there, basically.  They did improve the overlook view of the surrounding beauty, I’ll give them that, but I was hoping for much more new exhibition.  I don’t think Matti was terribly wowed by the museum, not that he said anything, but I do think he was surprised to find something like that out in the middle of nowhere.  We continued on to Stonehenge (a concrete replica built full-size as a WWI memorial).  I think sahib found it interesting for the sheer novelty value and photographic opportunities; as a camera nut, he was taking pics every chance he got, with me doing zero to discourage him.  A long and lovely drive it was, as ever.  That night, I made him some glögg (Swedish style mulled spiced wine) which was a great drink for a cool evening.  It was only six months out of season, but never mind; glögg I had procured for sahib, and we were going to drink it.

The next day, Matti had a barbecue/picnic to go to with Amanda and her friends/family.  The day after, he and I set forth for Vantage, then Palouse Falls.  We got a late start, so I decided to take the Hanford way rather than the Ellensburg way, hoping to go up I-90 at Vantage and come back so he could watch the whole thing unfold on approach.  Then I learned that the first westbound exit and return is twenty miles past Vantage, almost at Ellensburg.  Oops.  Sahib had to be content with what we had, and it was a hotter day.  Back across the Columbia, then off through Royal City and Othello (about 80 miles of farms and sagebrush).  I always get turned around going to Palouse Falls, and made sure sahib got a good view of the inhabited junkpile that is Kahlotus.  Amazing: the state actually regraded and oiled the dirt road to Palouse Falls.  No washboard!  Seriously!  On a sunny day, the falls were all they were cracked up to be, and surprisingly well attended.  Normally there’s almost no one there; today there was a tour bus plus about fifteen cars.

Palouse Falls is where the Palouse River falls off a cliff into a big cylindrical hole and continues downstream to join the Snake.  You look at it from above; I’d guess it’s 70 yards to the bottom, sheer cliffs with somewhat low fences restraining one from accidental swan dives.  Palouse Falls is a thick, powerful waterfall where kestrels fish, rainbows play off the spray, and all sorts of birds make their homes.  I saw a lot of swifts, barn swallows and an oriole, plus some dark average-sized bird with an orange head.  Not red, orange.  No idea what it was.  Sahib lived by his tripod.  Footing was hard for me with a cane and a lame/heavily braced knee, but one just doesn’t miss the views of Palouse Falls.  Another gem, even more in the middle of nowhere than Maryhill.  The nearest towns are Washtucna, Kahlotus and Starbuck, and of these Washtucna was the only one I was pretty sure had a functional open gas station or place to eat, though we instead headed for Connell.  Connell is unremarkable unless you are attracted to medium security jails, but it was sure to have a gas station.

Our last leg was a bit rushed due to our late morning start, but I wanted Matti to see Wallula Gap.  This is where Lake Lewis (the Ice Age lake that repeatedly inundated eastern Washington) backed up and blasted out, near where the Oregon border ceases to be a straight cartographer’s line and becomes the Columbia.  Imagine all that water pressure forced through a mile-wide gap, which must have been much narrower at first, before several dozen such floods got a crack at things.  The atmosphere on the way to the Gap is worsened by a paper mill and an Ioway Beef feedlot, with dozed-up rows of piled cow manure right by the highway.  Tyson now owns the feedlot, so one expects all the scumminess one associates with Tyson.  Even so, that couldn’t ruin the majesty of Wallula Gap for sahib, who took his fair share of photos of the imposing sight.

Amazing privilege:  as I was sitting and gazing, I heard a familiar sound overhead.  Familiar to me if not to most today: a World War II bomber’s engines. It is familiar because I have taken a ride in a B-17–well worth the cost, even if they weren’t at all designed for guys who eat as well as I have been doing. I looked up and it was a B-24.  Nothing else looks quite like those.  I alerted sahib so he could snap some shots. He was educated enough in aerospace studies to know what a B-24 was, to his credit, despite hailing from a nation that typically builds and uses its own military aircraft, with little need or reason to know of ours. I never tire of Wallula Gap myself, but Deb was making us nachos and we were both in Voracious Males mode, so we booked back to the house.

I hope Matti had as fine a time as we did.  I have to give the largest share of credit to Deb, though, for cheerfully letting me run off and do this stuff while she did work at home, cooked great dinners, and otherwise reminded me yet again why she is not merely a great hostess but a sweet wife.  It is always fun to share the West with someone who appreciates what he’s seeing.


4 thoughts on “The native guide, sahib”

  1. Fascinating exposition about places I’ve known about my entire life but several I haven’t visited in years, nay, decades. I also learned (or was reminded of) a few new things.

    On your next trip be sure to stop by the Bonneville Fish hatchery. It’s great! Viewing windows permit you to see fish migrating upstream via the fish ladders. And there is is Herman the Sturgeon, who is about 70- years old IIRC.


    1. Herman must be one of those 12′ monsters. You know, I have never been to the hatchery. I remember one time my dad caught a sturgeon near Hood River–37″, barely big enough to keep legally. It was still alive three hours later when we got it home.


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