at work again

Non-fiction, 11/27/08

It’s a dreary Saturday morn and the second leg of our Tour de Lakes is under way. With navigator Niki at the helm, we dauntless (re)discoverers shall venture south, toward the fertile glens and leas of Skagit and Island County. We’re told there are lakes to be found in these far-off lands, and morale is high.

A sheet of rain pummels our windshield, obscuring the Chuckanut Mountains from view. Niki promised clear skies today. She still looks sanguine. I should’ve put money on it, or at least said something to the effect of, “Well, I’m no weatherman, but this looks like rain, followed by more rain, with chances of biblical flooding later in the evening.” But, lo and behold, once we reach the Skagit Valley there it is: glorious, radiant sunshine. It feels wonderful through the thick windows, very warm and a little tingly. Good thing I kept my trap shut.

We peel off I-5 near Arlington and drive northeast along Highway 9, looking for the first cluster of lakes. I’ve never seen this part of Skagit County before. There are lots of soggy maples, and I glimpse a couple red-tailed hawks roosting amidst their crowns. Turns out I wasn’t missing much. While lazily scanning the landscape, however, I spot a quaint little house tucked back a ways from the highway. It’s shaped like a geodesic dome. A geodesic dome-home. I blurt out my find to Niki, pointing wildly through the window. Amazingly, she doesn’t seem interested at all. Maybe she just didn’t see it. I decide this is the only plausible explanation, and so let the matter pass.

I am in dire need of binoculars. At many of these secluded lakes there are scores of shorebirds and waterfowl, all annoyingly far from shore and hence difficult to identify without field glasses. This causes me considerable grief, being a bird nerd and all. (Don’t hate! I’m only like an armchair Audubon, a backseat birder—I swear!) We spot loons and grebes, herons and cormorants, gaggles of geese and droves of ducks—all from a distance, though. Many of these birds I had seen before only in photographs. I’m super-pumped. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm doesn’t quite spread to the other end of our cab. I sense Niki growing weary of my pointing out every bufflehead and Northern Shoveler we chance upon, so it becomes more of a silent, to-myself sort of gratification after the third or fourth lake. Fine by me. I’ll just squirrel away all this avian adoration for later, maybe draw an exultant picture or something.

Niki’s really into rocks, I learn. She’s always directing my attention to some geologic formation or other, slowing us down beside exposed hillsides and explaining the tectonic processes that bore them. Some of it is really quite fascinating. Who knew that batholiths are by definition plutons, but plutons aren’t necessarily batholiths? Igneous magma intrusions rock, man. But a few of Niki’s observations strike me as slightly dubious. As we leave the public access site at Lake Campbell she points to a row of battered rocks, apparently serving as a crude barrier between the lawn and the gravel parking lot. “See that? Erosion. That’s the geologic cycle happening right before our eyes.” Wait, what? I counter, “Or perhaps it’s evidence of people not knowing how to reverse without hitting things.” She smiles sheepishly and laughs. “Or that.”

We’re heading down Heart Lake Road in Anacortes, just off Highway 20, when Niki decides that I need to see Mount Erie. “It’ll count as our lunch hour,” she says. A clever ruse. We take a vertiginous road leading straight up the mountain, and our radio begins spewing snatches of what sounds like operatic gospel music, accompanied by a harp and lots of chimes. Suddenly I smell brine. To my left Niki’s cracked into her lunch, and it’s another doozie: fat chunks of chicken breast and baby dill pickles, coupled with matzo bread and a Mason jar of V8. Words escape me in describing this meal. “Awesome” does it ample justice, I think. At the top of Mount Erie are several lookouts, and on a clear day one can see for hundreds of miles in every direction, Niki says. Today clouds and mist envelop the peak, but the view is incredible nonetheless. Fidalgo Island unfurls before us, hilly and green, and beyond it stretches Whidbey to the south. A bald eagle soars nearby with languid indolence. I watch fog roll up the sides of the mountain, ephemeral plumes dissipating in frigid puffs. It occurs to me that the Mount Erie summit would make an epic Mortal Kombat locale, complete with eerie mists, a level fighting stage and—here’s the kicker—precipitous cliffs, off of which opponents are pitched, naturally.

Going south on Highway 20 we pass another geodesic home, this time on Niki’s side. She seems duly enthused, and I find this strangely satisfying. I knew she would cave, that Buckminster flunky. We cross Deception Pass on our way to Whidbey Island, and I crane my neck to watch kayakers splash in the turbid currents, water the shade of Simple Green. Though better viewed on foot (as opposed to from inside a car, my current location), I never tire of this traverse, especially when the weather’s mild and skies are mostly clear. Much like today, actually. People on the walkways are taking pictures, leaning over railings, inducing vertigoes with reckless abandon.

I’m dozing off by the time we set sights toward home. After nine hours on the road Niki tallies up our numbers: 300 miles, 12 lakes, a couple wrong turns, several pickles, and two glorious geodesic homes. I’d call that a good day.

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