There are many ways to get to Richland, Washington, on a bicycle, but the route I chose had me climbing the south Cascades near Mount Rainier along Highway 410, then coasting down through the Yakima River Valley and eastward to Hanford. I intended to visit the Tri-Cities in all its paradisiacal glory. This was a portion of the state I had seldom seen, and never from the seat of a bike. It promised to be a hot, hilly, windy ride—but oh so scenic! My buttocks ached in anticipation.
I left West Seattle Friday morning and rode the supremely flat, unexciting Interurban Trail through Kent and Auburn. I passed within a half-mile of my old apartment and felt not the slightest hint of nostalgia. From Auburn I veered east to Enumclaw—where at a grocery store I inadvertently filled my Camelbak with carbonated water—before proceeding onto Highway 410, known variously as Southeast Enumclaw/ Chinook Pass Road, Chinook Pass Highway, National Forest Service Road 7184, and Mather Memorial Parkway. Stephen T. Mather was both a conservationist and millionaire (in 1904 he co-founded the Thorkildsen-Mather Borax Company, of “20-Mule Team Borax” fame), and through his inspired efforts became the first director of the National Parks Service in 1917, a year after its establishment by President Woodrow Wilson. Mather had climbed Rainier in 1905 and become infatuated with the surrounding area; he later proposed a scenic highway winding through the northeastern corner of the park called “A Cascade Parkway”—alias Highway 410.
The Mather Memorial Parkway is very pretty, indeed. Paralleling the White River for almost 45 miles west of the pass, it is shaded by thick stands of Douglas and Pacific silver fir on either side and begins its climb into the mountains at a very modest grade. (This last bit is better appreciated on a bicycle.) The river is closely bordered by towering black cottonwoods and copses of alder clones. Its water was swift and turbid, gray with glacial silt and littered with driftwood. Views of Rainier were abundant and breath-takingly close-up. I huffed and puffed up the steepening road and lingered for a bit at Chinook Pass, where a group of old people marveled at my ascent. “You rode here from Seattle? On that bicycle?” asked an incredulous man from Kent. “And you started today?” Yes, I said, I did, on that very bicycle. Another old guy glanced at my bike shorts and shook his head, saying dismissively, “You people are crazy.” I just smiled at him and stuffed my face with trail mix. A woman in a bonnet smiled beneficently at me and told me she would pray to God for my safe passage. “Thanks!” I replied, and I sped down the mountainside toward Natches.
It was late afternoon as I descended into the lee of the south Cascades. Although the road was flat and the wind slack, my pace had dropped precipitously—no amount of Wheat-Thin or chia seed could curb my weariness. Only in hindsight could I take note of the lovely Natches River on my right, the uplifted outcroppings of columnar basalt on my left, or the Western meadowlarks and scrub-jays and black-billed magpies flitting about in the fading sunlight. I rolled in Natches dead-tired and ravenously hungry. All I could find open was a convenience-cum-grocery store, where I bought a microwaveable burrito and some coconut water. As the nuking burrito turned slowly on its tray, I looked at its wrapper and noted with satisfaction that a single serving comprised almost 500 calories, as well as 58 percent of the daily recommended intake of saturated fat and 49 percent of the sodium. I ate mechanically, less enjoying the meal as looking forward to its ameliorative effects on my muscles come morning. It was only after I had devoured the burrito, picking up my trash to throw away, that I noticed the package contained “about two servings”. That was why I felt like I had eaten a stick of butter, washed down with seawater.
I spent that night sleeping on a park bench in Natches, mainly because I was too tired and unmotivated to find a decent camping spot. At dawn I woke and pursued my route eastward, riding some not-so-scenic freeway stretches to skirt the city limits of Yakima. I pushed on through Moxie on Highway 24, where the air took on a heady ganja-like scent (hops belonging to the Cannabaceae family, and this being hops country), and I began seeing the leafy vines growing alongside the road in serried rows, their “V”-shaped trellises more than ten feet high. Latinos in empty box trucks from Yakima passed me on their way to harvest, and soon these same trucks began passing me heading west, their beds brimful with bright green hops flowers. Before long the highway stretched toward dusty hills and sagebrush, parched and forbidding, and the late morning sun blazed fiercely overhead. I was almost fifty miles from Richland and out of water.
Homesteads—and, presumably, potable water—were few and far between along Highway 24, a fact I had somehow not taken into account when planning the route. After five miles of gazing rather dubiously at roadside trash for a sealed water bottle—mostly it was Gatorade bottles filled with trucker urine, and I wasn’t that thirsty—I reached a small rambler just shy of the 241 junction. Fortuitously, the woman living there happened to be walking out with her dog just as I arrived, and I waved to her from the gravel driveway. “Hello there! Sorry to bother you, but could I possibly fill up on water? I’m all out.” She nodded and beckoned me toward a spigot in the yard. Her name was Carol; she was in her fifties, with grayish-blonde hair and deep-set eyes and a tired sort of smile. Her dog, Tai Chi, circled me with a wagging tail but refused my petting advances. “He’s really shy,” she said, turning on the hose for me. “He probably won’t let you touch him at all, actually.” What breed is he, I asked, studying the dog. He was very small and wiry, terrier-sized perhaps, and he peered at me with black eyes in a rat-like face. His gray fur was extremely short. “He’s a Mexican hairless, only he has a genetic mutation that makes him grow hair. They call them ‘coated’ Mexican hairless.” Ah, but of course! A hairless breed with hair! Carol saw me staring at Tai Chi and asked, “Do you want to see the rest of my animals? Here, I’ll just give you the tour.”
Carol led me to her backyard, where a family of goats lolled in the shade of a small shack. “They look pretty hot,” I offered, because I couldn’t think of anything else to say. “Oh, they just ate,” she said, waving her hand. “They’re just lying around, digesting.” She told me how she used to raise and train mules (which are the sterile offspring of male donkeys and female horses) and hinnys (which are similar, only the parents’ genders are reversed). She’s even written a book on the merits of owning and training mules. “I wanted to do a series of YouTube videos about this one here,” she said, pointing to a brown mule named Anna, who apparently possessed a repertoire of tricks. Carol frowned at the mule. “For some reason, though, Anna stopped doing her tricks about a month ago. I have no idea why. The only one I can get her to do is this. Smile, Anna!” Carol held her hand at chest level, flat and horizontal, and moved it up and down. Anna’s lips parted hideously, revealing huge yellow incisors and reddened gums. “That’s pretty cool,” I said, and I meant it. “It’s crazy that she stopped doing her other tricks, though. Maybe she has stage fright or something.” Carol seemed to consider this for a moment. “Yeah, I just don’t know. I really don’t.”
Carol watched me fill my Camelbak and offered to give me a bigger backpack. “I don’t even use it,” she said. “And it’s got a lot more room that than one, I think.” I politely refused, insisting that I’m trying to travel light. “How far to Richland?” I asked, knowing I couldn’t be too far off. “It’s forty miles,” she said, “and there’s a big hill coming up. But it’s flat after that.” I winced a little, inwardly. Tai Chi eyed my bike with trepidation as I walked it up the drive. “Thanks again,” I called out, getting back on the 24, trying to psyche myself up for the hill. The junction ahead would get me to Highway 240, which runs alongside the southeast border of Hanford, home of the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States.
The nuclear reactors at Hanford were built in the 1940s as part of the Manhattan Project, the war-time R&D endeavor funded by the U.S., United Kingdom and Canada to produce atomic weapons of mass destruction. Eventually nine reactors would be built in Hanford, the most (in)famous of which being B Reactor, the world’s first full-scale producer of weapons-grade plutonium, or plutonium-239. B Reactor’s plutonium was used in the first nuclear bomb test (code-named “Trinity”) in Socorro, New Mexico, as well as in the “Fat Man” bomb detonated over Nagasaki, leading to Japan’s surrender and effectively ending World War II. Things have quieted down a bit at Hanford—the weapons-grade production reactors have since been shut down—but its war-time legacy endures. Decades of plutonium production at the site left copious amounts of long-lived radioactive dross—53 million gallons of “tank waste”, 25 million cubic feet of solid waste, 200 square miles of contaminated groundwater possibly leaking into the Columbia, and potentially much more yet to be discovered—and most of the activity at Hanford these days is directed toward its cleanup. From the highway I could see little of the site, but a sternly-worded sign posted at intervals along the fence advised me to “Keep Out” of the “Restricted Government Area”. I pedaled resolutely toward Richland, my mind on happier things.
Reaching the Crowley household in Richland was a momentous occasion, bordering on transcendence. It’s quite likely my perception was distorted from fatigue, but every little detail seemed tinged with a preternatural glow: the waves of heat rising from a sky-puddled road, the locust tree fronds waving in an oven-like breeze, an early-evening sun shining valiantly through a screen of wildfire smoke. Mourning dove coos bookended the days and unidentified gulls soared high over the Columbia. Will and I walked to the river and swam; we caught crawdads and skipped rocks and explored an island covered in yarrow and deer shit. The food we ate was so good, I don’t even want to talk about it. On Sunday night I had the pleasure of being the third Peter at the table—Will’s father, Peter, and his uncle, Peter, were there—and this was a first for me. It was such affable, estimable company. I was in the kitchen Monday morning, getting ready to leave, when Will’s mother Calla said to me, “Will is very lucky to have a friend like you,” and I damn near teared up, I don’t know why. I said something about him being lucky to have such an awesome, loving family, and that I feel fortunate to count Will as a friend, but it probably came out a little weird. Whatever, I meant it.