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Stefanie Pettit: Beauty is in the eye of the I-90 motorist

I’ve been driving back and forth across the state a lot recently, and I realize I’ve really had a change of heart about the view along Interstate 90. It would be fair to state I was a landscape snob, one of those people who thought the trip was best made at night because the view was so uninteresting.

Ah, the folly of youthful myopia.

It used to be boring, boring, boring, then the Columbia River, then boring, boring, boring, Snoqualmie Pass and, finally, Seattle. Many, many years and trips later, I’ve come to see what’s really out there.

First, the terrain of Eastern Washington is fascinating, especially if you’ve read a little. Where the big trees disappear, around Fishtrap, you can clearly see the geological erosion zone created by the great Missoula floods of the last ice age. The open, scoured landscape that resulted exists here today as channeled scablands.

Then, just when you’ve gotten used to the etched and braided coulees, up pops Sprague Lake, that long and lean 1,860-acre body of water that looks like it should exist anywhere but in those dry and thirsty environs. Such an anomaly.

The stretch from Ritzville to Moses Lake is always changing. I’ve come to love watching the progress of the wheat, potatoes, beans and everything else in that agriculturally rich stretch of the state. Identified for untrained eyes by markers along the highway fence, the scenery goes from pale green to dark green or golden, depending on what’s growing. It’s a veritable paint palette as it moves from spring to summer to fall.

Earlier this month I saw truck after truck, on the freeway and on side roads, carrying huge loads of corn. I wonder where it’s all going.

And the first time I really looked at those yellow crop duster planes precisely execute their aerial ballet over the fields, they resembled butterflies dancing in air, but dangerously close to the ground.

I appreciate how the sun’s rays look through the spray of the circle sprinklers. The stubble of the freshly harvested alfalfa on those huge fields reminds me of crew cuts. And sometimes the dust devils in the fallow fields dance high into the sky.

How could I have not seen these things before?

Of course, making the wide turn at George down to the Columbia River opens up a heroic view. I always look across the river at the big wind turbines up in the heights. Depending on the sun angle, they seem to stand as giant bright-white windmills, arms circling gracefully and gently.

I always check up to my left to catch David Govedare’s “Grandfather Cuts Loose the Ponies” sculpture high on the coulee. And I never fail to note if the large water sculpture along the river bank at Vantage is operating. It hasn’t been on my last few trips, and I’m wondering why that is.

One sunny winter day after an overnight snowfall, I observed the snow at the side of the road along the 10-mile Vantage grade. What had always seemed like a lifeless landscape revealed a veritable highway of animal tracks. I was blown over by the volume of critter traffic that had been on the move at night.

Of course, the drive to the top of the grade is rewarded by an eye-popping view, weather conditions permitting, of glorious Mount Rainier from the Ryegrass Rest Stop.

There often isn’t much traffic on I-90 until you near Ellensburg. I actually enjoy the company of the other cars and frequently try to spot odd bumper stickers or cars like my own. And there’s always the adventure of spotting where the Washington State Patrol has set up radar traps – both near Moses Lake and Ellensburg (not that I speed or anything).

On this last trip, the wind was up at Ellensburg, as it often is, and I saw something new. As the wind whipped through the tops of the corn stalks in the fields to the south, the tassels danced skyward like so many fingers wriggling toward the sky. I had a hard time keeping my eye on the road, the effect was so beautiful.

The pass has always been beautiful, but I’ve begun to notice all the different kinds of plants and trees driving down the west side of the Cascades. More moisture, more broad-leaf vegetation. And everything blooms so much earlier over there, so the colors come earlier and stay longer.

Now, I do understand that it’s always looked like this between here and there. Nothing’s changed, except me, I don’t know why. But in this matter, I feel confident in saying that vision actually improves with age.

Contact Stefanie Pettit by e-mail at