Washington, Idaho and Montana trip; September 2014

Pat and I drove out to Missoula and back to visit relatives, hike and have some fun.

Sunday 9/21/14

We left Seattle late, but traffic was light; we had a pleasant drive over the mountains to the “dry” side of Washington. A few trees were wearing fall colors, but it hadn’t yet become a fad. Of course in my father-in-law John’s part of the world there aren’t any trees, other than those planted and irrigated by farmers and householders.

The sun was low over the western foothills as we made our final approach to Mattawa, casting a sharp, ruddy light across the wrinkled basalt cliffs along the Columbia, the rolling scrub-covered desert and the unexpected works of man. Angular, skeletal electrical towers marched up the slopes from a dam we passed. An apple orchard had fortified itself with walls of boxes. We passed thru an elaborate roundabout that seemed overbuilt for the trickle of cars that passed thru. John and Debi’s place was nearby; a compound with two residences and outbuildings shaded by walnut and sycamore trees.  (Click any picture to enlarge it.)

05 John's houseOne residence had begun its life as a covered patio around Debi’s Mother’s mobile home. John had built a high roof to shade the mobile home. Later he removed the mobile home from inside the building, creating a workshop. Now it’s half-apartment and half-workshop. John and Debi live here with a Pomeranian fluffball that snarls proudly from John’s lap.

The other house had once been a garage with an attached apartment. He’s changed it into a two-bedroom house. This house has been fitted out for use by Debi’s son Todd; he’s disabled by brain cancer, and the big rooms and wide doorways suit his scooter and wheelchair. Debi told us that Todd had recently walked into a restaurant using just a cane. “It took him a while, but he made it.” She’d found him a good scooter at Goodwill; they planned to use it to go to the county fair next week. Todd was gone when we arrived; we stayed in his house.

Debi served an ample supper of roasted chicken, spinach salad, and Waldorf salad made with apples and pears from their fruit trees. Two men shyly joined us for supper; Debi’s sister Sal’s husband Jim and their adopted son Jesus. Jim had been mowing the already-immaculate yard. Jesus, called Chewy as are many Mexicans with this name, had just won admittance to the welders’ union.

John talked about the fiberglass boat factory he’d owned with his brother Al near Everett, Washington, north of Seattle.

At its peak it employed 90 people, working two shifts to build large fishing boats. They had a production line of six 60-foot seiners, launching one a week into the Skagit River estuary. The shop produced complete boats, including complicated work like the radio and radar systems.

Each man was specialized in one part of the assembly, and didn’t know much about the rest of the boat. “Most guys will only do the minimum amount of work they have to do to get paid,” John asserted. “But some of them really love their work. I’d make a crew of good men and add one bad man to it, hoping they’d turn him good.” It was hard to find good men, and harder to keep them; Boeing Aircraft was always hiring them away. He kept their wages high so they’d stay; and that was part of the business’ troubles. Another was occasional custom boats such as yachts and transports for oil rigs; he could never sell enough of them at a time to get an assembly line started.

Most of the fishing boats went to Alaska. But a few went all over the world, from Brazil to the Far East. If a boat owner in Alaska found a problem that was the company’s fault, John would go up there and fix it. In some years he’d spend weeks in Alaska fixing boats. In other parts of the world, John paid for repairs by local workers.

So he doubled his men’s wages and told them that, if something was wrong with a boat that was their fault, they had to pay for it to be corrected. “Then quality really went up. The only problem with that was, I didn’t get to go to Alaska any more.”

People who live near Richland suspect that the region is contaminated with radiation from the Hanford Atomic Works, according to John and Debi. They spoke of superstition-like safety restrictions reported by people who worked at Hanford; and of mysterious illnesses and deaths among their friends and relatives. Debi recalled that her mother had moved from Richland to Mattawa to get upwind from Hanford. “The government don’t ever tell the truth,” John concluded.

Monday 9/22

We drove south and east to Orofino, Idaho. Following the Columbia, we drove thru the Saddle Mountain Wildlife Refuge, a bleak stretch of scrubland at the foot of a basalt ridge overlooking the river. Its chief asset was a pullout with a distant view of Hanford’s Reactor B, a low dome on the far side of the river. It’s a relic of the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb during World War II.

10 tractor

Antique or sculpture? The hood ornament may be a clue.

We drove on into wheat country, weaving between conical hills of stubble. Now and then we passed thru little towns, some industrious with lots full of tractors and trucks, others less fortunate whose main streets were lined with closed or abandoned businesses.

We crossed into Idaho. On Highway 12, we followed the beautiful Clearwater River into its mountain valley, thru which the Lewis and Clark expedition travelled in 1804 to reach the Pacific. We crossed the river to “downtown” Orofino and found our Best Western near the bridge. We had a fine dinner on a patio overlooking the river (I splurged on prime rib and homemade ice cream). After sunset a symphony of crickets played for us from the forest on the other side.

Tuesday 9/23

We’d planned to hike north of Lowell. But we’d heard news about forest fires in the area. The day’s forecast high was 87 F. And, on reading the trail guide more closely, Pat found that the road to the trailhead was too rough for our car.

So instead we drove to the Big Eddy Marina on the Dworshak Reservoir west of town. The lake was half-empty, the lodge was closed, and the day-use area was almost deserted. We’d come to hike, so this was all good. We didn’t meet anybody on the Big Eddy trail until we’d reached the last slope.

15 Pat on BE trail


The hills surrounding the lake were really mountaintops, and they were very steep. Our trail traversed them where it could, but still had a lot of ups and downs. The leaves up here were turning red and yellow, and the ferns were turning pale orange. Now and then a little motorboat glided across the lake below us; otherwise we heard only bird calls, and waves lapping the shore. The sunlight was pale, filtering thru thin smoke that smelled like incense. We had lunch at an empty campground on a rocky point almost surrounded by the lake. Pat found a nickel, a shotgun shell and quartz crystals.

20 trainBack in Orofino, while Pat made a phone call, I strolled around a parked train that had caught my interest. A long string of flatcars stood next to the road, each with a vertical truss running from end to end. Later I read that they were centerbeam flatcars, designed to carry bundled construction material such as Sheetrock. Up close, I saw that they were festooned with blackberries and tree-branches and overgrown with weeds–a forgotten train.

25 ClearwaterWe drove on east, admiring the mountains and their reflections in the still river. But soon the smoke became so thick that we couldn’t see them. An electric sign parked on the shoulder warned,


Now pull-outs we passed were blocked off by rows of traffic cones. Beyond a closed campground, the smoke lifted a bit. We entered tiny Lowell and saw the back of the warning sign for the westbound lane.

We stopped for dinner at the Wilderness Inn (I had a tuna salad sandwich and a huckleberry milkshake). The waiter showed us a map of the nearest fire; it was burning in a valley on the far side of the Clearwater River, heading away from us.

We pulled up to Pat’s Aunt Ginny’s house in Missoula, Montana an hour late; we’d overlooked the time zone difference.

Wednesday 9/24

Montana’s election campaign was in full swing. A young man came up the walk and rang the bell while knocking on the door. I answered it. He started talking about how crucial it is to protect our right to vote; apparently he was campaigning against an initiative concerning voter registration. Cutting his spiel short, I told him I’m from Seattle.

He checked his phone, and spotted Pat standing at the bottom of the stairs. “Is that Virginia?”

“No, that’s my wife.”

“Is Virginia available?”

“She’s taking a nap,” Pat told him. I suggested that he come back some other time. Actually, Ginny was in the living room, listening to all this. She thanked us for getting rid of him.

30 Sandy and Ginny

Sandy and Ginny

Later on, Ginny got a robo-call from a pollster about the senatorial campaign. When the questions started sounding more like Republican propaganda, she hung up.

We spent a few hours helping Ginny clean out her rose garden and pick apples while her son Kim was at work. When we went shopping for dinner, we noticed that the Missoula Valley was full of thin smoke. The smoke was thickest in the south, from which we’d come the day before.



Pat made a nice dinner of turkey breast, vegetables, yams and salad. Ginny reminisced about how the Burrows family came to Missoula.

In the 1950s Dick Senior worked as a mechanic. His family lived in Stanford in central Montana, in a house so small that Dorothy and Dick Junior had to share beds. 12-year-old Ginny slept on the couch.

After Ginny’s mother, Alice, became pregnant with Jim, Dick Senior went to Seattle to look for a better job. He found that he could work for Boeing, but that due to the postwar economy there were no houses to be had. On his way home, he stopped for coffee at a cafe in Missoula. He talked to someone he met in the cafe who suggested he apply for a job at H. O. Bell, a Ford auto dealer. So he did, and was hired!

Dick moved his family to their new home, using the family car and a trailer. Even the family piano rode in the trailer. The new house was so tiny that Dick Junior had to sleep in the basement. But the new house had a bathroom, and everybody got to sleep in their own beds.

Bell became a civic leader in the area. Eventually the Missoula airport was renamed Johnson-Bell Field.

Thursday 9/25

We turned toward home, following I-90 west over several passes to Spokane, Washington. Here we turned onto SR-2 and headed northwest. Fields of wheat stubble gave way to scrub and boulders. In little Wilbur, my iPad with which I was navigating lost touch with the Internet. Flying blind, we turned north on SR-174 toward the Columbia River’s Grand Coulee Dam.

We had supper in a little cafe at a bowling alley on the Colville Indian Reservation under the dam. The reservation looked like any small town, although of course this one had a big casino. The food was simple and good (I had a southwest chicken wrap). Afterward we stood in a park across the street and watched a laser show projected on water spilling over the dam.

Our motel room in the Grand Coulee Center Lodge was so tiny that I could hardly open my suitcase, but in every other respect very nice.

Friday 9/26

I found Flo’s Cafe serving breakfast a block from our motel; so we went there. It’s a small, busy place, decorated with an odd mix of kitsch; old license plates, Christmas tree balls, prints of photos and cartoons, coffee mugs and homilies. “The rooster may crow, but the hen produces the goods.” The waitress was almost running to keep up with the hungry locals who come here. I had a Spanish omelet that involved mildly hot peppers.

North dam and inlet canal, Banks Lake.

North dam and inlet canal, Banks Lake.

We drove west a few miles to Electric City, located between Banks Lake (which is filled by water pumped up from the Grand Coulee Dam) and Lake Roosevelt (backed up by the dam). We’d planned to rent a canoe and paddle to some rock formations on Banks Lake. But it was cloudy and windy; so instead we walked across Banks Lake’s north dam. It’s an earth dam with a road on its top. The blocked-off road is a popular local walk; we saw lots of bicyclists, families and dog-walkers (they don’t pick up their pooches’ poops, unfortunately). A retired lady told us that when Banks Lake was created during the Depression it covered some old homesteads. She added with a laugh that she hadn’t been around then. It’s the top reservoir of a chain of lakes that provides irrigation water all the way south into Oregon.

At her suggestion, we walked around the inlet canal and the rugged shoreline beyond. The deep concrete-lined canal has four floodgates; eddies and ripples around them demonstrated a powerful current. “Stay out and stay alive,” warned a sign on the fence. A rough road across the desert beyond gave us a close look at some of the massive basalt pillars that are scattered across the desert in this area. They seem to be made of jumbles of squarish boulders melted together.

80 farmhouseOn our way back to the car, Pat slipped the nickel she’d found at Dworshak Reservoir into a crack in the pavement, heads-up for good luck, for some sharp-eyed kid to find. We drove west, passing desert, ranches and farms irrigated by the dam. The rolling fields were dotted with rock “islands” that the farmers had made while clearing their land; basalt pillars stood here and there. Emerging from the river valley onto a plateau, we turned south. Near tiny Mansfield, we found an abandoned farmhouse gone to ruin and I took some pictures of it.

We’d hoped to go hiking in Moses Coulee; but we were running short on time and gas. We crossed the Columbia near Chelan, after pausing at a lovely park and campground for a short walk. South of the bridge we saw a steel tower on each bank; they seem to be relics of an old suspension bridge that spanned the gorge before dams transformed it into a lake. In Chelan, we stopped at Bill’s Gas for a refill. The customers who stood in line with me were talking to each other in Spanish.

We followed SR-97 to Cashmere; and had a slow but excellent dinner at The Hideaway, a dark, nearly empty restaurant that played blues. I had salmon. I’ve noticed before that the size of the waiter’s pepper grinder is a good indicator of how high the prices are; this waiter’s grinder was immense. After we’d finished our dinner, the waiter produced a little silver dustpan and whisk broom and brushed the crumbs off our tablecloth in order that the presentation of dessert not be marred. I had Banana Foster, a very rich concoction of banana flambé, caramelized sugar and ice cream. It was delicious, but I paid for it later.

At least, thanks to our dallying, Pat didn’t have to drive into the sunset. We crossed Snoqualmie Pass, and paused at the darkened factory outlet mall in North Bend to stretch our legs. At one point during our stroll, mechanical giggling erupted behind us. It was a Twilight Zone moment. A sidewalk kiddie ride, consisting of a little fire truck driven by cartoon characters, was making the noise. Maybe it had a motion detector; or maybe it just laughed at random? Anyway, it was letting us know it was available if we wanted to have some fun. As we continued around the mall we were greeted by two more rides. Also, a light went out as we stepped under it. It was a somewhat unsettling place.

We got home at 11 PM, missing our goal of 6 PM. But at least we arrived on the right day.


… more photos …


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