KITTITAS COUNTY, Wash. – Kirk Holmes conquers 71 miles and a mountain pass each morning, most of the year leaving his home near Ellensburg before dawn.
He says waking early to make the commute is no problem: “I grab a cup of coffee and away I go.”
To others, though, driving upward of an hour one way – over ice, and through snow and sleet in winter – climbing to an elevation of 3,022 feet and adding thousands of miles to a vehicle every year might sound crazy.
But for hundreds of Kittitas County residents, crossing the Cascade Range to get to work is no more nuts than sitting bumper-to-bumper in a sea of concrete.
“Freeway miles are not hard miles,” Holmes says. “It beats stop-and-go.”
And usually, Snoqualmie Pass on Interstate 90 is no problem – unless the snow kicks up; the congestion’s nothing compared with the strangling traffic of Interstate 5 or 405.
“The traffic on I-90 runs smoothly most of the time,” says Mike Westbay, communications manager for the state Department of Transportation’s south central region.
“It’s a piece of cake,” says the 42-year-old Holmes, director of public works for the city of Snoqualmie. He’s been scaling the summit to get to work for more than four years. “You wave at people. You don’t know them, but you see them every day.”
More than 1,250 people commute from Kittitas County to King County, according to 2000 census information.
The number is likely higher now, because in the past four years, Kittitas County’s population has grown faster than all but three other counties in Washington state. According to the most recent estimates released by the state Office of Financial Management in April, an estimated 35,800 people live here. That’s up 7.3 percent – an estimated 2,438 people – from 2000.
Today’s Kittitas commuters travel to jobs as nurses, flight attendants, pilots, contractors, real estate agents, software engineers, administrative assistants. Many work at Microsoft and Boeing.
Some are Seattle-area transplants, former big-city folk who gave up metropolitan living for a quieter existence in a tranquil place. They want to live where they play.
So for many, Kittitas County – away from the hustle and bustle, but close to the highway – seems the perfect place.
“You live here for the lifestyle,” explains Craig Nevil, a 51-year-old stockbroker and avid hunter and fisherman. He moved from Bellevue to Cle Elum in 1998 and works in downtown Seattle, making the 85-mile drive – one way – about four times a week in his four-wheel-drive pickup. “I plan on living here forever,” he says.
Like most Kittitas County residents, Nevil loves the lighter traffic, proximity to mountains, rivers and lakes, and seeing the stars in the night sky, where there’s no glare from city lights.
But there’s no sleeping in, either – some commuters wake up as early as 3:30 or 4:30 a.m. And not much of a night life – most go to bed around 9 or 10 p.m. to get ready to spend as much as three hours a day in a vehicle.
“The quality of life is worth the sacrifice of spending a little more time in the car,” says Todd Porter, a 39-year-old snowmobile enthusiast and Web developer for Microsoft. He and his wife Karen, 40, a Microsoft marketing manager, live halfway between Cle Elum and Easton. They moved from Seattle in 1999 and often make the 82-mile drive to work together.
“The first year out here, I thought we made the biggest mistake,” says Karen, who wasn’t accustomed to driving in snow and missed her favorite bagel shop, city shopping and the variety of restaurants on the West Side.
On the plus side, although the average price of a home is on the rise in Kittitas County (up about 16 percent from last year), it’s still cheaper to buy a house here than in King County. According to figures from the Northwest Multiple Listing Service, the average price of a home in King County is $292,975, compared to $168,700 in Kittitas County.
But Kittitas wages are lower, too. The average annual income in King County is $47,185, according to figures from the state Employment Security Department. In Kittitas County, it’s $23,283
“There’s not a ton of good-paying jobs,” says Ron Sweigard, 41, a firefighter who’s worked for the city of Kent for 19 years. To work in the same capacity closer to home in Cle Elum, “would be a big pay cut,” he says.
So Sweigard drives 96 miles one way to work, leaving by 5:15 a.m. in winter in order to grab a latte, avoid semitrucks departing Ellensburg and arrive at the station on time for his 24-hour shift, which starts at 8 a.m.
“It’s a little bit of a compromise,” says Sweigard, who moved eight years ago from Federal Way. But, “we didn’t want to raise a family on that side.”
He and his wife have two daughters, ages 10 and 7, who can sled down their driveway, or snowmobile to the Old Number Three in Ronald, a favorite burger joint a few miles away. And Sweigard, who – as a firefighter – has one of the most stressful jobs in the country, second only to the president of the United States according to the 2002 “Jobs Rated Almanac,” gets to live “away from the sirens.”
The drive’s not so bad most of the year. It’s a straight shot on I-90 over the mountains to downtown Seattle, where many Kittitas commuters work.
Once the temperature drops, though, braving the pass can be a harrowing experience. Or a harebrained undertaking, Or both, depending on whom you ask.
Snow and ice make it difficult to see the lines on the roadway, let alone deer or coyotes that might be darting across lanes. Semitrucks also shoot past, splattering slush across windshields. It can be a white-knuckle drive.
The pass can close, too, leaving commuters stranded in the Seattle-area, seeking hotel rooms and restaurants or the hospitality of friends and colleagues. It can also leave them stuck at home, unable to get to work.
Bill Burr of Thorp, a senior project manager for Microsoft, takes his laptop computer home every night, just in case something – the weather, a bad accident on I-90 – prevents him from getting to work. But normally, he hits the road around 6:30 a.m.
The commute “is a good time for me to prepare myself mentally for the day,” says Burr, 51, who moved from Michigan in 2001 for the job. Now, he logs 81 miles one-way to work. “On the way back, it’s the opposite; it’s good decompression time.”
Many commuters have their favorite radio stations preset and keep their most-listened-to CDs close at hand. They practice presentations, dictate memorandums, drink a cup of coffee and make work-related calls, usually via hands-free cellular phones. There’s even the occasional epiphany.
“I think about work or basketball or both,” says Holmes. “I’ve created really good basketball inbound plays. I’ve figured out where to catch fish on a particular body of water. And I’ve solved problems – work-related problems, dinner-table problems – in the car.
“Half the time, the radio’s not even on,” he says.
Cresting Snoqualmie Pass for the final descent of the week, work worries and West Side concerns seem to be left on the other side of the mountains. Kittitas commuters welcome that homestretch of I-90 and the county roads that lead to their unpaved driveways.
Once Holmes is back, “I’m just glad to be home,” he says. “It’s such a different world out here. Just being here is a big relief.”