Summer vacation is over and it’s time for students across the Inland Northwest to write their “what I did this summer” essays.
So, what did you do this summer? I know what I did: writing for this spot in the Monday paper I’ve driven close to 2,000 miles around the Inland Northwest, looking for road trip destinations. During that time, I watched the wheat ripen and I saw fresh hay bales the color of Granny Smith apples being stacked. I’ve assessed rumps of yearlings and squinted at a blue sky for a rain cloud that was never there. It seems like the sun was shining all summer – except for that brief hailstorm in Missoula. I’ve hiked through sagebrush for miles and miles, the sand and the rock so hot the scent of warm sage made me sneeze and think of beef stew.
The stunts of crop dusters mesmerized me; flying like that really must feel like you have wings.
I’ve had more bacon and eggs than I deserve, and I’ve tipped the servers well. They were often my tour guides in little towns; I’d have been lost without their friendly advice.
Some trips have taken me to solitude and quiet, a sun-warmed rock to sit on and landscapes so big and bold I felt like the top of my head had burst open. Other trips drew me on narrow roads into dense forest and little restaurants so dark and crowded I felt like I was a bug under a rock.
I’ve dipped my toes in the Pend Oreille River, the Columbia River, the Clark Fork River, Priest Lake, Lake Pend Oreille, Lake Coeur d’Alene and Medical Lake.
I sat in the sand at Priest Lake one day and headed up to Lookout Pass the next. On the Trail of the Hiawatha, I watched a chipmunk stuff his cheeks with the last little bits of trail mix, straight out of my lunch bag.
Quail have scattered in front of my car and deer have watched from the ditches. There was a moose in the lake at St. Maries, his big-nosed head sticking up over the water like a furry periscope. I’ve seen bald eagles and osprey, goldfinches and woodpeckers.
I found all this just within a few hundred miles of here.
At the top of the hill at the Whitman Mission I saw the early settler’s view: an expanse of flat, farmable land bigger than anything they could imagine. I had an immigrant moment, wondering what Narcissa Whitman thought when she arrived there in 1836.
In Post Falls, I listened to a tribal elder tell his stories; I wanted to listen to him talk about horses and powwows for the rest of the summer.
I’ve had food that made the angels sing: prime rib so tender it just fell apart, a white chocolate cake so buttery and sweet it melted in my mouth. And I’ve had a river of weak coffee to wash it all down with.
Everywhere, I talked to people. We talked about children and dogs, and about the Olympics, God, politics, business and the future. And we talked about the past. There’s been a lot of history intertwined in my road trips. I’ve flipped through old books and tender newspaper clippings more than 100 years old. I’ve listened to seniors retelling local history and remembering what made their town what it is today. With few exceptions, people have been helpful, friendly and approachable. And they’ve shared much the same concerns no matter which state or town I was in.
“It’s just bad right now,” they said, about the economy.
“As long as we get some rain, it’s gonna be fine,” they said, about the crops.
“I just got to get the last one through college,” they said, about taking care of their kids.
“You gotta like your own company out here,” they said, about living in remote areas.
I’ve traveled roads I didn’t know existed, and when a park ranger says the roads are bad, well, they are. But my little compact car has climbed and descended, swerved around road kill and willingly taken many a detour. You don’t need four-wheel-drive to do any of the stuff I’ve done.
Still, at the end of summer many places remain on my list, unvisited.
I never made it to Paradise, Mont., though I did stop in St. Regis just the other day. I missed Winthrop and Leavenworth this time around, and I never got to take the Keller Ferry, no matter how much I schemed to get there.
I noticed on my last drive that the roads are now crowded with wheat trucks, not with RVs and campers. Fall is coming – the swallows know. Around Seep Lakes, they were gathering on the power lines ready to take off before it gets cold around here.