Day One – Getaway Day, Sunday September 12
It seemed fitting that our leave-taking of western Washington should be accompanied by overcast skies and drizzle. We headed east on I-90 and hit Snoqualmie Pass about an hour after leaving the house and stopped for the first of 2,197 potty breaks. No really, I kept count. See, I have this theory about women, pregnancy, and the long-term effects of said pregnancy on their internal organs, specifically the bladder. Like many things in life, as a man I can understand this intellectually, but in practice, well, sometimes it can be just a teensy bit annoying. I’m sure if I’d carried something the size of a pumpkin around inside me and had it squashing all my organs for nine months, I would probably have some issues with bladder control for the rest of my life, too. Plus, my wife likes to drink tea. But I digress.
(I-90 bridge crossing the Columbia River near Vantage, Wash)
The temperature at the pass read fifty-one degrees Fahrenheit, but half an hour later when we stopped to stretch our legs after crossing the Columbia River near Vantage it was well into the seventies. We wouldn’t see the mercury drop lower than that during the daytime for the next nineteen days, the entire duration of the trip. In fact, the seventies would have seemed positively frigid most of that time.
(Wild horses above the Columbia River)
We breezed along through the eastern half of Washington State with Spokane, the Idaho panhandle and western Montana and the Rockies beckoning to us. If you’ve never visited the state of Washington you might be surprised by the vast difference in terrain and climate between the eastern and western halves of the state. With the Cascade mountain range acting as a natural rain barrier to all that wet ocean air which regularly inundates Seattle and the Puget Sound, the eastern half is much drier, hotter in summer, colder in winter, and primarily agricultural. For me, this stretch of the trip might be more interesting if I hadn’t driven it ad nauseum during my college days shuttling between Seattle and Pullman. Unless you’re a farmer or really, really like looking at wheat and hay fields, volcanic rocks, sagebrush, etc. it’s not the most scenic part of the state.
We made it through Spokane around four o’clock, then crossed the Idaho state line a short time later. Ordinarily, cruising along I-90 at 65+ mph it would have taken about an hour to cross the Idaho panhandle. However, we took a late lunch break at a rest area in Post Falls. Most of your freeway rest stops are pretty generic, and that’s fine. After all, it’s basically a place to take a leak, stretch the kinks out of your back and let Fido do the same (if you’re one of those people who insists on traveling with your pet – more on that subject later). Normally, as long as the john is reasonably clean and doesn’t reek too badly, I’m happy.
(Picnic spot in Idaho)
This rest area proved to be a cut above, more like a well maintained city park, with shade trees, new picnic tables, and a lawn clipped like a golf course. We took out the cooler and enjoyed the perfect lunch spot with a nice breeze rustling through the leaves and leavening the eighty degree temperature. We relaxed a few extra minutes, then packed up the cooler and pushed on past Couer d’Alene, Idaho.
Circumventing the lovely Lake Pend Oreille (the name comes from the early French trappers and refers to the earlobe pendants worn by the local Kalispell Indian tribe) whose deep blue waters sparkled in the brilliant afternoon sunlight, we were sorely tempted to take a scenic detour around its shores. But, alas, not on this trip. If you’re ever in the market for a pristine mountain lake area to spend some quality leisure time, yet still be less than an hour from a good-sized city, this is the spot for you. With a surface area of 148 square miles, there is plenty of room to spread out and find your own private bay. We filed it under the “places to explore another time” list and moved on, and in what felt like no time at all we’d crossed our second state line into Montana.
Many people will argue that you don’t get the best scenery or see the “real” U.S.A. when driving the interstate – in fact I think I’ve said that myself – but it’s a tough argument to make against this stretch of road. The majestic Bitterroot Range of the Rockies surrounds you as the freeway climbs and circles the towering mountainsides cloaked in dense pine forests. Now some of this scenic beauty and grandeur might be lost on me if I was, say, a trucker hauling a fully laden fifty foot trailer over these mountains in January and dealing with blizzards and chains and the like. But we had no such concerns as we rolled along basking in the mid-September glow of the setting sun and warm temperatures.
By the time we hit St. Regis and stopped for gas, it had become obvious we would not be reaching my preferred destination of Helena that night unless we drove for several hours in the dark, thus missing out on some spectacular views, something neither one of us wanted to forsake. At the same time I wasn’t ready to quit for the day, so I compromised a little in each direction and decided to drive on to Missoula, stay the night there, and then we would only be a couple hours from Helena in the morning.
Dusk settled over the mountains quickly, but seemingly in compensation for the loss of light, we were treated to a magnificent display in the night sky. As the freeway snaked on through the mountains and darkness took hold, the beacon of Venus rose in the east to guide us on, while to the south we caught glimpses of a crescent moon descending over the Bitteroots and casting a silvery glow over everything, winding down its day as we did the same.
We arrived in Missoula shortly after nine and found a room at the Brooks Street motel for $55. Located several miles into town off the freeway, we only ended up there because our first attempt, a Motel 6 next to the freeway, was all full except for three stinky smoking rooms. The clerk was helpful enough to call the Brooks for us and give us directions. Our room on Brooks Street was small but clean enough and reasonably quiet. I’d rate it a three out of five.
A quick word on my motel rating system. When my wife and I travel we are looking for a few things in a motel and if those are taken care of, I’m happy enough to recommend it. First and foremost, it’s gotta be clean, and by that I mean the bathroom should pass a pretty strict white glove test. Clean sheets on the bed are a must, and no critters in there, please. Second, it has to be quiet enough that I can sleep. If I have double-long semis whooshing by on the interstate or rolling through the truck stop next door all night, that’s not gonna cut it. Next comes value. This doesn’t mean it has to be the absolute cheapest place in town, but it’s not gonna be the Ritz, either. Like an awful lot of travelers, we are looking for that rarest of species, the clean, quiet, cheap motel. For me, then, a five star joint would be – can you guess? – clean, quiet, and cheap. So when I say the Brooks Street Motel gets 3 out of 5, that means for the money it was just about right. Nothing spectacular, but no nightmares, either.
And so, our first day on the road ended with 476 miles covered, no major incidents, and the wife and I still on speaking terms. All in all, that’s a good day. Tomorrow would bring Helena and panning for sapphires.