I drove down to Idaho’s capital, where we anticipate we will be living before 2013 is out, to visit Deb. She has completed her first week of work at a new job and we miss one another keenly, though we have a plan that depends upon me not just ripping up stakes and moving quite yet.
Boise is a 4.5 hour drive from here, if one wants to avoid falling foul of the Oregon State Police. When you have any tags but Oregon on your car, you very much do not want to make yourself an interesting person to pull over. The trip is mountainous, winding and beautiful. Reunion was joyful and came just in time for us to find a fun Lebanese place in Boise. Tried my limited Arabic on the staff, but none would answer in it. One may take that as a sign that my pronunciation was atrocious, or that they kind of try not to be too conspicuous–I don’t know.
The next day, we wandered around to some specialty stores related to hobbies of mine, which was quite fruitful, then headed to the Basque Block downtown. About the only place in the world with more Basques than Boise, we are told, is Euskadi itself (Spain’s Basque country). Stopped in at one of Boise’s more storied Basque spots, a tiny corner pub named Bar Gernika. (Accent on the second syllable–and yes, the name refers back to Guernica, of Spanish Civil War tragic fame.) I liked my paella and croquetas, and Deb enjoyed her selection as well. Lots of Basque flags there (looks much like a Union Jack but with a green background). Did not try my Spanish there; one suspects it is widely spoken, but as the language of what Basques would consider an oppressor, might be a real bad start with people.
Headed out earlier today, and decided to describe the travel, for those who have never been to this part of the world. A trip from Boise to the Tri-Cities of Washington mostly crosses northeastern Oregon on I-84, which can be formidable in winter even though the summit of the Blue Mountains is only just over 4000′. From Boise to Ontario, OR is fairly flat past croplands and medium-sized towns like Nampa and Caldwell, enjoying Idaho’s 75 mph speed limit. (I could not stop calling the former ‘Nampon’ in my mind. I may one day blurt it out.) At the Oregon line, speed drops to 65, shortly after which comes the climb up to Baker City, and the trucks begin slipping back shortly after crossing from Mountain Time to Pacific Time. Soon one sees the first of many breathtaking vales and valleys, which almost become dull: the majestic turns commonplace. One eyesore: an old lime plant in full decrepitude, looks like a lot of kids go where they would be wiser not to and mess around in the ruins. I guess kids need to do stupid things in order to adventure and learn.
At this point in late winter, the road is clear but the mountains surrounding are still quite snowy where one can see that the sun doesn’t strike directly for long during the day. There is usually a river near the freeway, or a snowy field, or a herd of cattle, often all three. Snow drift barriers are rarely out of sight; these look like fence sections leaning over, and exist to control the heavy drifting of snow–presumably onto the freeway, since most are close to it. North of Baker some miles, a sign announces that you’re crossing the 45th parallel. It feels compelled to explain that this means you are halfway between the Equator and North Pole, which says a lot about the state of geography education in this country. From Baker to La Grande is more very empty and pretty country, where the freeway sides are often far apart and many steep descents and climbs show up. In numerous spots, wide roadside areas advise that one may use them to chain up–indeed, in winter, carrying chains or having traction tires is the law in this stretch of the Blues. Even though it’s in the 40s, the wind at a rest stop is punishingly hard and cold, a reminder of what it’s like to make your living up here.
Past La Grande some miles, one begins to descend out of the Blues, and one sees those signs that are the clearest signs that one is in a mountainous part of the West: RUNAWAY TRUCK RAMP 5 MILES. Other signs set aside areas for trucks to check brakes, give speed guidance based on gross weight, and otherwise make absolutely clear that everyone on the freeway knows the danger. This is when it hits you. If in your rear view mirror (which you should check frequently), you see a semi barreling down on you at what looks to be 90 mph and accelerating, he hasn’t gone crazy or decided to bully cars (as trucks sometimes do, in my experience). He’s lost his brakes, is hoping not to roll his rig before he reaches a runaway ramp, and he can not stop. You can get out of his way, or die. The runaway ramps themselves are steep tracks into the mountainside located at bends which a runaway truck could not hope to survive at those speeds, paved with loose crushed rock (probably a couple of feet deep), to soak up the speed in conjunction with the steep climb up the slope. The first one I passed had numerous ruts, some all the way to the top of the ramp. If you weren’t checking your mirror before seeing that, you would start. Deadman Pass is along this stretch, and it’s not inaptly named. Just a couple months earlier this winter, a busload of Korean exchange students going to Canada from Las Vegas went down a steep embankment at Deadman Pass. Nine fatalities, dozens injured. To stay alive up here, one best look alive.
For my trip, happily, everyone’s brakes were fine. Coming down toward Pendleton (yes, home of the Roundup), one crosses wide farming areas on the Umatilla Indian Reservation. On the way there, I had seen a tribal police speed trap, and watched my speed carefully this time–but the only speed trap on the way back on Umatilla land was an OSP van hidden in a clever defile. From Pendleton to the Columbia is rolling high desert, heavy with sagebrush and offering the turn onto I-82 north for home. I pass at one point the hundreds of bunkers in which the nation once stored enough nerve gas to wipe out a fair percentage of humanity. I always feel happy when I’m onto the bridge and the sign welcomes me to Washington. I feel a little less happy when other signs start to harangue me about various laws, but I guess we need them. Limit is 70 in Washington on this part of I-82, which seems kind of symbolic that we’re partly like Oregon and partly like Idaho. Of course, as always, the Oregon license plates will tailgate one even more readily in Washington than in Oregon–they take deep personal umbrage at being impeded in any way, even if there are four other cars ahead, and will come up within a yard of your rear bumper. I’ve never figured out why they do this, but it got old a long time ago.
These drives used to be worse before the Ipod came along. I got four and a half hours of Viking metal quality time, though my truck is noisy enough that I must jack up the volume in order to hear anything over the background road noise. Pick up the dog from Rich and Betsy (bless them), drop off some Basque sausage for them (Rich is Pennsylvania Polish, thus the perfect tidbit), and home to some cold beers.
After four and a half hours in the saddle, with only one ten-minute leak break, I need them.