Yesterday, we all needed the rest. Today, we had to bike, or the cross-country nature of the trip would be abandoned. More important, we had to do it together.
So we hit the road, State Route 24, south of Othello. WA 24 goes through the barren country between the irrigated oases of the Columbia Basin , around Moses Lake, and the Yakima River valley, In between lies the Hanford Reservation. In 1943, the US Gov't bought the town sites of Hanford and White Bird, as well as scattered homesteads. 60,000 people came, and, using the electricity and water provided by the Columbia, and working under rainless skies year round, built the world's first large-scale nuclear reactor. Two of the first three atomic bombs were made from fissionable material enriched there. The Tri-Cities of Richland, Kennewick, and Pasco slurped at the Federal trough for decades. In the 70's, construction began on 3 commercial nuclear power plants. Times were booming.
In the 80's, it all came crashing down. We started to destroy, not build nuclear weapons. Conservation efforts and environmental concerns forced the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS - "Whoops") to abandon the power plants, and default on $8 Billion of bonds. Hanford and the Tri-Cities spiraled towards depression.
But Love Canal and the subsequent discovery of bubbling and leaking radiation waste tanks at Hanford changed all that. Now, the clean-up of the world's first site for mass production of plutonium will pump tens of billions of dollars into the local economy over the next 30 years, more than the original war machine ever did.
But all of this happens out of sight of route 24. All we saw were barren amber hills, occasional 5' tall sage bushes, and abandoned ranch houses.
Across the Columbia River, we stopped at a rest area, the only green we saw for fifty miles There, I talked with a young man emptying the garbage cans. He had on a red T shirt, a camouflage baseball cap saying "Woods/Hunting", a beer belly, sunglasses, and a smile for me.
"Where are you headed," he asked, noting my bike attire.
"Gig Harbor. We've got two more days."
"Oh, that's quite a ways."
"Yeah, well, actually we started in Massachusetts, the first of July."
This began a long conversation about bow-hunting, wilderness areas, the damage horses do to trails, the grade at Chinook Pass, mountain bikes, and the bike-friendly nature of roads and drivers in Washington. This guy like to talk, and we had enough in common - the mountains, the wilderness, biking, a dislike of elitist hikers - to keep us going for awhile.
But Cheryl and I had to get back on the road. And what a road it was - five foot wide shoulders, smooth asphalt, and very little traffic. No rearward worries. And a variable wind - it always seemed to be blowing behind our back, no matter which direction we were biking. There were a total of three climbs, each with lo-oong shallow grades, the final drop going for 15 miles into the Yakima valley.
We saw pick-ups laden with new-cut hops, and dualie semis hauling crated red delicious apples. At the bottom of the hill, we saw one vine filled pick-up stopping by a barn. Ten Hispanic farm hands were hanging the hops on hooks, which then hauled the vines up a conveyor belt, whipping around into a barn. It looked like some kind of amusement park ride for vegetables.
Our crowning moment came just after the top of the final grade. In the distance, beneath thickening cumulus clouds, were dark blue mountains - the Cascades!. The volcanoes, Adams and Rainier, were hidden by the overcast, but we were now just one more climb (from 1000' to 5440', and then down to 0') from home.
In 1970, I drove out to Los Angeles for the first time, to begin medical school. Through Arizona, Nevada, and the Mojave desert the Interstate travels country as barren as central Washington. But when the 8 lane monster passes Victorville, jagged fir-covered peaks - real mountains - appear above the parched land. Behind this range, the San Gabriels, live 10,000,000 people, I thought to myself. If I stay here long enough, I speculated, someday I might get goose bumps seeing these mountains, knowing I'm coming home. I guess 8 years wasn't long enough, or LA never inspired a feeling of rootedness, for all I ever felt coming across the desert was "How much longer do I have to drive before I get home?", knowing the last 90 minutes was in the LA traffic.
But for 18 years, now, Puget Sound has been my home. I've never been further or longer away from it then I have this summer. Our country unfolds so slowly in most places. Weeks of passing corn fields, another week or two in the abandoned lands along the middle Missouri, another week through the Rockies. We'd gotten into a rhythm of the days, with terrain changing ever so subtly and slowly. The forests of Massachusetts and New York are still apparent in Indiana; Illinois can still be seen in Iowa and South Dakota. Mountains, valleys, and passes slowly built through our two week trek of Montana and Idaho. But once across the Snake, everything seemed to happen at once. First the Palouse, then abruptly the flats of the Basin, the low slender barren hills of Hanford, sandwiched by irrigated patches of green, to the final, massive upswing of the Cascades, filled with fir and fire and ice, down to the lush lowlands of our inland sea.
"It's a big country," I've been saying to Cheryl, who always repeats it in agreement.
"No, I don't want to live here, " Cody has been saying about every place we pass through.
Glad we've seen it, but gladder we're finally coming home - where the mountains come down to the sea - I raise and pump my right arm twice, and weave my bike at 30 mph right past Bikrutz and the final swoop into Yakima. Two more days, and I can cross the Narrows bridge again, can sweep around and under it, and into our little patch of paradise.
**Next Day's Journal**
Miles: Al 73; Cheryl 56.
Total Miles: 3319