Northwest observations and surprises

The Thinker by Rodin

To this couple largely attached to the east coast, our driving tour of Washington state and Oregon has proven interesting and occasionally surprising. Here are some of my notes and observations over the past few days:

  • I expected the “Cascade Curtain” (the Cascade Mountains) to let across more moisture than it does. In fact, it seems to stop most of the moisture rolling in off the Pacific coast, making the change startling when you cross over the divide. Very quickly the landscape devolves into desert. It is a desert that looks substantially different than the desert I was more familiar with in the American west where the latitudes are lower. No cacti to be found in eastern Washington state, but there is plenty of sagebrush. During the summer, the land seems awash in pastel colors, principally brown and shades of off-yellow but also a grayish blue from the sagebrush. With its lower humidity come a lot more summer sunshine and higher temperatures. Higher temperatures were particularly noticeable in out of the way places we visited, like Othello, Washington where temperatures hovered in the nineties.
  • Near Othello, Washington is the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge, which few visit but where more should. We ventured deep down gravel roads and into small lakes where wildlife mostly lurk and where visitors can wade into cool, clear lakes such as Soda Lake very far from the maddening crowds. The terrain includes gently rolling mesas that are largely unseen by tourists and that are populated by more than 230 species of birds. It is worth the drive, but our AAA tour book somehow missed giving this off road experience the Gem attraction status it deserves. Maybe it’s best that fewer go there. With more tourists, something doubtless would be lost.
Columbia National Wildlife Refuge
  • The Columbia River in Washington State provides so much water that it seems it can provide limitless irrigation. This is probably mostly an illusion, as the many dams along the Columbia create huge backstops of water. I have eaten plenty of delicious Washington State apples, but I had no idea so much else was grown on what would otherwise be desert land in eastern Washington State. Fruits and vegetables of many kinds can be found growing along the roads of the state, all artificially watered from the sometimes quite distant Columbia River. So many of these crops require humans to harvest them, which probably explains the large Hispanic population in eastern Washington state. Many of the towns we stopped in (such as Othello) seem to be largely overrun with Hispanics with English signs hard to find. Presumably they provide the bulk of the migrant labor the area needs. We stopped at a Laundromat in Wenatchee where we were the only English speaking people in the place, where cashing checks was a big business in the store next door, and where soccer in Spanish played loudly on the TV in the Laundromat. It was a strange experience to feel an alien in my own country.
  • The Tri-Cities area of Washington State consists of the cities of Richland, Pasco and Kennewick. We spent a night at a Red Lion in Richland and found Richland to be a delightful and well maintained small city. It was a short walk from our hotel down to the banks of the Columbia River where we found a city dock and dozens of people happily swimming in the water, whilst trim joggers and cyclists inhabited the walkway next to the river. If I were looking for an eclectic place to retire, Richland would be it. It surprised us. It was also delightful to know that the Columbia River was so clean that people could frolic in its waters without a care.
  • And speaking of the Columbia River, a scenic drive along the Columbia Gorge should be on every traveler’s list of journeys. It is a bit like a raft ride through the Grand Canyon, except that for much of it you are hugging the interstate on the Oregon side of the river. The bottled up river gives it a surreal look because it is surrounded by desert hills and mountains. The contrast of the blue Columbia River water compared with the brown hills is startling and the scenery rarely changes over hundreds of miles. For the most part the basin lacks the massive rock strata one sees in the Grand Canyon, but this may be in part because much of it is submerged underwater.
Columbia River Gorge
  • We discovered a few hidden gems along the Columbia River Basin. One was the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum a few miles east of The Dallas, Oregon. While relatively small, it is beautifully constructed and has a prime view of the Columbia River. Inside there are exhibits talking about both the geological and historical history of the gorge along with films you can watch that will kill a couple hours. There are also wildlife rehabilitation specialists at the museum who gave a talk on the many raptors in the area. We got to see up close a great horned owl and a red-tail hawk that were too injured to be released back into the wild and were sheltered at the center. We watched enrapt (and somewhat squicked) as each devoured a dead mouse, skull, tail and all.
  • The museum also provided us with a map of old U.S. 30 that sits next to I-84. Doubtless most of the tourists zipping up and down the interstate are wholly unaware of a set of spectacular falls along this road that dump into the Columbia River. Taking the route proved fortuitous, not only for viewing these spectacular waterfalls, but to get around the traffic that was bottling up westbound I-84. Perhaps the most spectacular of these falls is Multnomah Falls, which plunges 620 feet. It is the second highest year-round waterfall in the United States. Niagara Falls gets many more tourists, but even if you find yourself not too impressed by Multnomah Falls, there are a half dozen others along a short stretch of U.S. 30 to enjoy as well.
Multnomah Falls
  • It’s been five years since I was in Portland, Oregon. This time I am here for pleasure, and this time there is not the unrelenting rain I encountered in 2005. Instead we are blessed with beautiful sunny days and temperatures that don’t quite make it to eighty. Portland is but a shadow of its big brother city Seattle to its north, but arguably it is a much more livable city. Light rail makes getting around much of the city easy. The city is very bike friendly, and its moderate temperatures make biking year round to work a realistic option for many commuters, even in the rain, which rarely amounts to a driving rain. It is a strange mixture of progressiveness and conservatism. On the conservative side is its strange tax structure, which forgoes a sales tax but levies a hefty income tax instead. The result in economic downturns is not pretty and include shortened school years and talk of four day school weeks this year. Yet there seems to be money to extend its light rail system. The city feels clean and safe. Like Richland, Washington the City of Portland also feels like some place that I could comfortably retire.

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