It has been an unusually cold, wet, cloudy spring. Only one day in April broke sixty degrees, and we wouldn’t see the temperature reach seventy until May 20th—and that was the only day that month it would do so. But that’s not to say there weren’t a few nice days in May. On the first of these, I hauled my Surly out for a longish ride over to Golden Gardens Park in Ballard. The sun shone fiercely upon my winter-sallowed skin, frying me but good (though only on my left side, interestingly enough). My first sunburn of the season, complete with bike-short thigh-lines! They would serve as melanistic benchmarks for the sunny rides to come. Oh yes, and the park. The stretch of beach was almost empty, save for a smattering of individuals who looked about as squinty-eyed and incredulous as I did. Besides the yelps and barks of a couple harbor seals cavorting in Shilshoe Bay, and the susurrus of the surf nearby, all was quiet and calm. It was balmy, and my body luxuriated in the sunshine like an ectotherm warming to life.
My birthday fell on a work-free Thursday and to celebrate I go solo hiking in North Bend. It was a cloudless, summer-tinged kind of morning and the songbirds were out in force, gabbing away in the underbrush as I wended up the Big Si trail. I heard robins and Steller’s jays, naturally, but also red-breasted nuthatches, Bewick’s wrens, black-capped chickadees, and that curious, lilting refrain of the Swainson’s thrush (a bird I have never actually seen, only listened to). There were other species singing as well, but my bird-by-ear skills only went so far. I stopped to piss behind a rotted log and heard a Northern flicker’s clarion call—keyaaa!—a sound that immediately reminded me of home.
Shaded along much of its length by Douglas Firs and big-leaf maples, the trail would eventually climb almost 4,000 feet in four miles. Many of the older firs had charring on their trunks, a lasting memento of the fire that swept across the mountainside in 1910. New firs have cropped up since, filling in the gaps. They were the climax species there, and in the absence of fire they would come to dominate the forest, shading out the smaller, early-successional types. The trees were engaged in an all-out arms race, a race so slow as to be imperceptible to my puny sense of human-time.
Along the steep switchbacks I spied trillium and red huckleberry poking out among the sword ferns. As I climbed higher, the ferns slowly gave way to subalpine grasses, whitebark pine, and mosses of outstanding variety. Thimbleberry bushes spilled out over the talus. There were lichens on the trees now, free-riding like any self-respecting epiphyte would in such damp, drippy environs. But there was no fog that day. The only dampness I encountered was on the ground already, in the form of melting snow. Slipping and sliding through the slush patches, I reached the Haystack Basin at 3,900 feet, scrambled up the stack, and took in the panoramic view. Mount Rainier loomed larger than life, capped with a neat little pile of lenticular clouds. To the north one could see Mount Baker’s alabaster flanks, and out west, past the Seattle skyline, the Olympic range rose up like a cloudbound fortress. North Bend was tiny, a cluster of Monopoly houses. The roar of I-90 was reduced to a mere hum, the river of asphalt and concrete now a spring streamlet winding soundlessly toward the Sound.
In the past I had seen mountain goats on Mount Si, but none showed themselves that day. Instead I counted Douglas squirrels, Townsend’s chipmunks, ravens, a red-tailed hawk, dark-eyed juncos, and a chittering flock of ruby-crowned kinglets. Relaxing in the basin with a handful of other hikers, I did a bad thing: I fed the animals. It’s a big no-no, I know, because it teaches them bad habits and de-naturalizes them and all that, but it was clear these critters were no strangers to handouts. Mount Si draws between thirty to fifty thousand visitors a year, easily making it the most popular trail in the state. As one acquaintance put it, “Mount Si is like an al fresco gym; it’s a luxuriously planted Stairmaster for Seattleites.” So the trail gets lots of use, and the animals see lots of people. People who do bad things like give them food. People like me. It was a one-time lapse, I swear! Plus, the other hikers around me were doing it.
I held out my hand, willing the gray jays to see my offering of homemade granola. (See? I truly cared about these birds. Only the best would do.) Within a minute I had gray jays landing on my hand, my arm, even my knee, waiting for a chance to snatch at the food. Some even perched for a bit, sifting through the granola for the choicest bits. They seemed to prefer raisins over all else.
Later that day, as I was making my way back into town, I received birthday phone calls from three of my favorite people in the world: Logan, Katie and Will. It capped off what I thought was a rather marvelous outing.
Will invited me to visit him for a weekend out in Brewster, Washington, before his Americorps stint finished up. I had never been to Brewster, had never even heard of the place, so of course I said yes. As it happens, Brewster is a small town of 2,200 in Okanogan County, located just northeast of Chelan along the Columbia River. (Actually, the river is called Lake Pateros at that point, but it doesn’t matter.) The town exists mostly by virtue of the surrounding orchards, pumping out muchas frutas. Millions of boxes of cherries, apples, pears, nectarines, peaches, apricots, and plums are shipped out of Brewster annually, with most of the picking being done by Hispanic laborers. So it is that at the town’s elementary school, where Will volunteers, the student body comprises mostly Spanish-speaking children, the progeny of parents working long hours in the orchards. I took an afternoon Greyhound to Wenatchee, where Will graciously drove out to pick me up.
We headed north along Highway 97, following the Columbia’s course through miles of cherry and apple orchards. Many of the trees were adorned with shimmering tassels and tinsel—an attempt to deter fruit-eating birds, I knew, but in the waning amber light they gave the countryside an almost festive appearance. Just outside of Brewster we turned onto a gravel road, which grew steeper and more rutted the further up it we traveled. This bumpy turnoff amounted to Will’s driveway, a treacherous path that, in the ice-caked winter, proved almost impassable at times. I was glad to be experiencing Brewster under more clement conditions, and Will agreed. “This is great that it’s sunny now,” he said. “There was still snow on the ground a couple months ago.”
Katie was waiting at the house, and together we had homemade pizza and apricot beer and played Farkel while catching up on all that had transpired in the months intervening. It was a joyous reunion. The next day, while walking through Will’s “neighborhood” (dirt roads transecting sagebrush scrub, with houses few and far between), I spotted Western meadowlarks, Western and mountain bluebirds, and a hairy woodpecker hammering away at a stump. I was pretty content with that, but later in the afternoon we were treated with something even cooler: snakes! While driving back to the house after picking Will up from school, we saw a long, brownish ribbon coiled loosely on the road. “Snake!” I squealed, my seatbelt already off, fingers on the door handle. “Katie, pull over!” Will and I leaped out and surrounded the hapless creature. It was a yellow-bellied racer, an extremely quick, nonvenomous constrictor out sunning itself in the dirt. The snake was not pleased to see us. Lunging like a goddamn cobra, it bit each of us before I finally pinned its head and gently lifted it up for a closer look. The scales were a burnished olive-green, almost slick to the touch. Its forked tongue shot out, the same dark shade as its large, unblinking eyes. I put the snake down and it zoomed into the underbrush.
A mile or so later, we saw another snake-like coil on our path. “Pull over!” we shouted in unison. This time it was a Western rattlesnake, maybe two feet long. As we stepped out of the car it pulled into a tight little bun, the telltale rattle shaking like mad. There was no fucking around with this guy. We got as close as prudence would allow and then we drove off, leaving the snake in our dusty wake.
There is a curious little place about 20 miles east of Steven’s Pass called Plain, Washington. Continuing eastward along Highway 2, you take a left at Cole’s Corner and follow 207 until a sign directs you to turn right toward Plain. You will cross over the Wenatchee River. Upon arriving, you will notice that there is not a whole lot going on in Plain. In fact, Plain is not quite a city; it’s officially designated as a “populated place in Chelan County”. Postal addresses in Plain read: Leavenworth, Washington. There is a hardware store, a defunct gas station, and a small grocery-cum-convenience store. There is a large RV garage. But don’t let appearances fool you: This “plain” place is anything but.
Will invited me out here (Will invites me everywhere, it seems) to visit during his three-week volunteer stint at the Grünewald Guild. Now, this guild defies any sort of neat, conventional classification. It’s part artist retreat, part religious commune, part craft workshop, and, all in all, rather strange. When the uninitiated inquire about the Guild, members will respond with something along the lines of, “The Guild is something you have to experience to really understand.” But Will tells me the people are fascinating and super nice and the location is tough to beat, so I figure it’s worth the trip.
I rode to Plain one day after work and spent two days immersing myself in the workings of the Guild. By that I mean that I largely stood in the peripheries while other people did stuff, but they chatted with me amiably all the same. I met a weaver, a potter, and a stained-glass artist, all teachers at Grünewald and voluminous talkers to boot. Will was volunteering in the kitchen, and through him I met the lead cook Nate, who actually didn’t talk much at all. The grounds had a quiet, contemplative air to it, and I felt immediately welcome. When we weren’t hanging around the Guild, we were walking around town admiring the flora (red columbines, Mariposa lilies, Western coralroot) and fauna (white-crowned sparrow, Western tanager, antlions!) of the region. On my last night there, Will and I commandeered the kitchen, got extremely high and somehow botched a quadruple batch of blueberry buckle he was planning to serve to a group of Americorps volunteers in the morning. Don’t get baked while you bake, kids, that’s all I have to say.
I rose to clear skies and bade the Guild farewell, not realizing that as soon as I hit the pass it would be overcast and rainy for the rest of my ride. Makes sense, though: warm, moisture-laden air pushing east billowed up over the mountains, whereupon it cooled and condensed into cloud. Rain was imminent. That’s just orographic lift, plain and simple.
My cousins had planned a weekend getaway on Lake Chelan and asked me to come, claiming that an acquaintance’s beach house would be made available for our use. Always down for adventure, I agreed to go, deciding right away that I would bike there. I already had a route in mind: North Cascades Highway, Washington Pass, et al. I pulled the requisite strings and wheedled my coworkers into giving me time off. On departure day I rode my loaded Surly to work, did my time, then hied it northward under a slate-gray sky. At this point the bad news had already been related to me: the house plans fell through. Everyone was still keen on going to Chelan. Since I was heading out there early (to visit a friend in the Methow Valley), they reasoned, why don’t I try to secure a campsite for the group?
I took Highway 9 to Arlington, and from there it was 530 up to Rockport, and Highway 20 beyond. Riding on 530 was downright dreamy—there was no appreciable elevation gain, and the road wound through bucolic fields dotted with happy-looking livestock. Thimbleberries lined the highway, though most were not yet ripe. The air smelled faintly of manure. Outside of Rockport I stopped at Cascadian Farms and ate some amazing raspberries, and just as I had gotten back on the road a greenish-brown tuft flew in front of my tire. I rode past and flipped a u-turn. It was a female rufous hummingbird, killed seconds earlier on the windshield of a passing car. Standing on a narrow highway shoulder was no place to study my find, I realized, so I put her in my pocket and continued on. My goal was to reach Newhalem by sundown, and a friendly cyclist in Darrington informed me that my plan was feasible. Garth and I were headed in opposite directions, so we traded tips on our respective routes and wished good luck to one another. It was 6:30 and I had 20 miles to go.
Newhalem is not a run-of-the-mill sort of town. First, it’s nestled in the beautiful foothills of the North Cascades National Park, right before the elevation starts climbing precipitously. Second, it’s actually a “company town”, owned by Seattle City Light and populated almost entirely by employees of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project. Third, well, it’s just kind of creepy. Especially at dusk, which was when I rolled in. Besides a small residential strip set along the Skagit River nearby, Newhalem looked just like a park, complete with manicured lawn, paved walkways and informational signage (hailing the wonders of hydroelectric power). I saw nary a soul and decided to set up camp in a picnic shelter, mostly because I didn’t want to shell out money for a campsite outside of town. That night I examined the hummingbird under my headlamp. Iridescent green back, tawny sides, light brown rump, white-tipped retrices. Her needle-like tongue was sticking out, in a darkly humorous twist. She probably weighed less than a couple raspberries.
I awoke to soaking mist and broke camp in the pre-dawn light. Nowhere to go but straight up the mountain, so up I went. Washington Pass is 5,477 feet above sea level, and by the time I summited that, I felt like a champ. Coasting down from the pass, buzzing with adrenaline, I started noticing a marked difference in the surrounding vegetation. Gone were the moss-wreathed pines, firs, and towering cedars of the mountains. Now, rather suddenly, the rocky hills were covered with stunted trees and straw-colored grasses. The road flattened out, flanked by meadows and fields of hay. Welcome to the Methow, courtesy of the Cascade rain shadow. I passed a large yellow sign with the heading, “Methow Valley Deer Kill”, followed by a list of figures. It was an annual tally of mule deer deaths by car and the resulting cost of damage to said vehicles. So far, more than a hundred had been struck, costing tens of thousands of dollars. I saw two of them grazing right next to the highway, and I wondered if they felt as foolishly reckless as they looked to me then.
That evening I had dinner at the Twisp River Pub with my buddy Collin and his coworkers, Kelsey and Katie. (Katie was the boss, though that’s not exactly relevant.) They were field biologists, a stalwart group whose daily sojourns into the nearby foothills tracked an elusive quarry: the Western gray squirrel. I had never seen one of these critters, which, I was told, isn’t very surprising. Western grays are pretty rare in Washington, as it turns out. They’re also quite shy, and their range and numbers have slowly but continuously dwindled since the state listed them as a threatened species in 1993. This situation is, of course, in stark contrast to that of the Eastern gray squirrel, a nonnative generalist whose willingness to co-habitate with humans granted it near-immortality status as a species. Why this was happening—why the Western grays were disappearing, especially when it seemed that the Eastern grays did not directly compete with them—well, this was something that Collin and his cohorts sought to elucidate. Habitat loss was almost certainly a factor, Collin said, and competition with other species such as the Douglas and red squirrels might also play a part, but no one knew for sure. I told Collin I wanted to see a Western gray in the field, to go out and “chase squirrels,” as the group so fetchingly put it. To my delight, he agreed to let me accompany him on a squirrel chase the following morning.
Collin, Kelsey and I piled into their pickup truck at nine or so and eased down the bumpy gravel road. (Katie, being the boss, opted to stay home this time.) The three lived a couple miles up the side of the Methow Valley, just off Highway 153, in a cozy little shack with an antique firetruck parked out front. The power lines electrifying their house were crowded with violet-green swallows that scattered as we drove beneath them, regrouping a moment later in a flurry of satiny wings.
We had with us some radio-wave receivers, which were essential to tracking down the already-collared squirrels. Collin and company had trapped a number of Western grays over the previous year and fitted each with a radio collar—thus, “chasing squirrels” meant that the receiver-wielding biologist would track down the desired squirrel (each had a specific radio channel), record its location via GPS, and all parties could go on their merry way. The only problem was, the squirrels liked to move around. Not just from tree to tree, but sometimes kilometers away from the last recorded spot, and there were no trails to follow.
We turned onto a forest service road and let Kelsey out. She was after “Henry”, who apparently frequented this particular spot, while Collin and I were tasked with finding a “Princess Kate”. In addition to the chase, we were also checking a series of trap lines for any new arrivals. We drove on for a bit, Collin pointing out the fireweed and Indian paintbrush growing along the roadside. At what seemed to me to be a completely random point on the road, Collin stopped the truck, fired up his GPS, and we started hoofing it through the underbrush toward the first trap line. Save for a few unhulled walnuts used for bait, all of the wire traps were empty. Suddenly I heard a shrill chattering from a tree nearby. It sounded squirrelly to me, and I ask Collin, “Hey, what is that?” He barely looked up, focusing instead on finding the next trap. “It’s a red squirrel. The Western grays are pretty quiet, actually.” We made our way to the next line of traps. Again, no dice. I heard more chattering. “Hey, what’s that?” Collin was a ways ahead, gliding through the thicket while I crashed and stumbled about. “Another red squirrel. I’m telling you, the Western grays are almost silent.”
After all the traps were accounted for—not a one was hit—we directed our focus to finding Kate. Collin unpacked the receiver parts and assembled the antenna, which looked sort of like a capital “H” made from thin metal tubes. Plugging in headphones and putting them on, he held up the receiver and started circling a copse of pines. The closer Collin got to the squirrel, the louder the response signal grew. “She should be right around here, like, in either this tree or that one.” He was standing between them, craning his neck skyward. “Go climb up that hill, you’ll probably have a clearer line of sight.” I climbed the hill, scanned the uppermost branches and, lo and behold, there she was! Her Highness struck a perfect squirrel profile, back-lit by the morning sun, that bushy tail curled just so across her back.
Our work was done for the day. Hiking back along a recently-dug fire break, Collin pointed out the yarrow, mock orange, and balsam arrowroot blanketing the hillside. “Hiking around these woods is definitely the best part about this job,” he said, gesturing to the scrubby knolls and fire-thinned forest surrounding us. “It’s a really beautiful place.”
I left the biologists at noon and started riding the last 25 miles or so toward Chelan. There was a stiff headwind blowing, and I was pretty tired at that point, having rode more than 200 miles in the past two days. When I finally reached the lake at four in the afternoon (it was a Thursday), all the campgrounds were full. Of course. I slogged a little further south on 97 and reached Orondo River Park, where I claimed a site and held down the fort until reinforcements arrived. It was little more than a glorified RV campground, with its bright green lawns and scanty tree cover, but it would suffice. While waiting for the cousin caravan, I spotted cedar waxwings, grackles, yellow warblers, an osprey, and a pair of California quail strutting through an orchard. It was pushing eighty degrees in the shade, but the nearby Columbia remained cold as ice.
It wasn’t long before I found myself careening down Highway 20 again, reliving the route at a brisk seventy miles per hour as the familiar terrain blurred past my window. This time I was with Will and Katie, and we were driving to Colville on route to the Ranch for a week of music-making. My drum kit lay broken down and stacked up behind me in the trunk. Nearby was a violin, banjo, harmonica, penny whistle, and a didjeridoo. There wasn’t a whole lot of room in Will’s Subaru, but we made do for the seven-hour trip.
We planned to stay two days in Colville, where some family friends of Will’s had offered us a day-long catering gig and a place to crash. Will and John had known each other since boyhood, and John’s mother owned the catering business to which we would be briefly employed. John was in his early twenties, stocky, with a shaved head and a footballer’s physique. His intimidating exterior belied a polite, thoughtful, disarmingly affable young man who, as it turned out, could roll one hell of a blunt.
One morning Will and I took a stroll through the forest outside the house, along a trail that he and John used to perambulate as kids. We walked through groves of paper birch and beaked hazelnut and black cottonwood. Growing closer to the ground were lupine, fleabane, black raspberry and thistle—in one of these purple blooms we found a pair of torpid bumblebees buried thorax-deep. Butterflies and dragonflies abounded, flitting about. I found a greenish-bronze chrysalis and took it with us, just for curiosity’s sake. (It turned out to be a California tortoiseshell.) At one point we scared up a bright-green Pacific tree frog near the trail. We were moving slow, taking our time, trying to notice everything at once.
Later that day we attended to the catering business. First was a wedding in the afternoon, followed by a high-school reunion (class of ’61, if I recall). The work was well-paced and passed by quickly enough. I ate a tremendous amount of fruit, simply because it was there for the taking. After the reunion wound down we went out to score some pot from a guy named Ben, a friend of John’s. We met at Ben’s house and piled into a small office, where along one wall lay a giant, roofless enclosure housing a guinea pig. A coffee table nearby provided support for a percolating bong maybe three and a half feet tall. There was a ventilating fan on the windowsill. Clearly, this was a room where much smoking took place. As a young boy, Ben had developed a cancerous tumor on his right eye and, in order to remove the growth, surgeons were required to cut away most of the pupil and lens, blinding him on one side. He wore a glass eye as a result, and he gladly took it out to show us. It was oddly triangular in shape, and sort of thin, like a chunky contact lens. As Ben talked, John steadily worked at emptying a Swisher Sweet onto his lap, refilling it with pot, and expertly rolling it back up. I say he worked “steadily”, but that’s just how it appeared to me; John was holding up a multi-directional conversation all the while. We passed the blunt in proper fashion and I don’t remember much else.
The next day we parted ways with John and drove to Spokane, where Katie unfortunately had to catch Greyhound back to Seattle for work. It was just Will and I now, and our carful of instruments. Davey was already waiting for us at the Ranch. We drove to Priest River in Idaho and headed north on Highway 57, taking a left on Bear Paw Road. Going west now, we soon found ourselves back in Washington, bumping along on a gravelly lane. This was the route to the Ranch, the site of our seven-day drinking, smoking, and music-writing sojourn.
The Ranch belongs to Davey’s parents, who built it themselves more than thirty years ago. Comprising four log cabins (all with electricity and plumbing) on a good hundred acres of meadow and woodland, the Ranch is an idyllic place both comfortingly modern and refreshingly remote. Besides us, there were no people, no cars, no houses for miles around. Crickets chorused day and night. Across the meadow, a stand of quaking aspens shimmied in the breeze, their wide, rounded leaves undulating almost hypnotically. I went on many walks, tromping through the meadows in search of insects. Sometimes, though, the best spot to watch for them was from the porch of the main cabin, preferably while seated in an Adirondack chair. Syrphid flies hovered at eye-level, seemingly curious, as blue darner dragonflies strafed the lawn in search of prey. White-faced hornets lorded over the hummingbird feeder to my left, assiduously chasing off the chirping—indignantly, I imagined—iridescent little birds. I found a predatory water beetle more than two inches long in the pond out front. In the evenings the mosquitoes were fierce. One night a trio of white-tailed deer wandered across the meadow, oblivious to our presence.
We wrote country songs and drank a lot of booze. I was constantly in awe of Davey and Will’s musicality, especially while playing together. What would start out as a simple riff soon blossomed into a full-blown song, and this would happen over and over, day in and day out. I was mostly along for the ride, playing drums and writing lyrics. The days were filled with sunshine and music, and it was grand.
The weird thing was, I started to miss my bicycle about halfway through the week. I thought about it and realized that, until then, in the two years previous I had not gone more than two or three days without riding my bike. I felt off, and though I went on a couple nice runs down that gravelly road, it just wasn’t the same.
One day I decided to ride east along the I-90 corridor, using the John Wayne Pioneer Trail. Formerly a roadbed for the Chicago-Milwaukee-St. Paul-Pacific Railroad, the gravel trail runs more or less continuously for some 290 miles from North Bend to Plummer, Idaho. I only rode to Lake Kachess for the night, but it was far enough to get me to the newly-opened Snoqualmie Tunnel.
Re-opened in July after some structural repairs, the 2.3-mile long tunnel is ramrod straight and dark as a coffin inside. As I approached, I noticed two plastic reflectors that someone had thoughtfully put up on either side of the tunnel. A third point of light directly ahead, which I mistakenly took to be another reflector on the ceiling, turned out to be the end of the tunnel, more than two miles distant. It was tiny.