The Open Road
Photo by Matt Halls / Unsplash

Ten days on the road are about to end. One more lovely day on the PNW coast, and here's what I observed.

Just a few yards away, the icy cold waters of the northern Pacific are caressing the mussel-covered rocks offshore. A gas fireplace warms the corner of the room while a cracked window allows the sound of the surf to soothe the morning, and a steaming cup of hot coffee fragrances the air. It's barely six am, and in a few moments I am going to load up the car for a day drive along parts of the Oregon Coast I've not yet explored.

Saga Supporter Penny Nelson asked me to write about my travels a while back, sitting as she was at the time in the doldrums. I've had those, I think we have all either had them or are still negotiating them either lately or constantly as a direct result of Covid or just life.

While I am just guessing at this, Penny might be at that point where the high energy that we all feel at the beginning of something new (a new job, workout program, or whatever) loses its initial luster, and we begin to realize that yet again, now it has become a habit we have to fold into the rest of life.

Or hell, just tired, as we all are, of the constant influx of news always and forever including the word Covid, that unrelenting reality which acts like a dense, wet blanket on damned near everything.

She didn't say that, I'm just guessing. I threw a bunch of stuff into my car and drove to a travel conference for three days in Central Washington, then added a few days in Canada, then Northern Idaho, then one along the Columbia River and now I'm back in Lincoln City on the coast for my final day before heading home.

Penny wanted me to write about travels, so I will.

I've got something new to report, as well. On Easter Sunday I got my fourth booster, and I wrote about how hard it was on my body. That left me utterly devoid of hunger for a few days, which I held onto in order to finally, finally being the process of releasing the pillow I've held onto around my waist for the last eighteen months.

I'm a fan of fasting, albeit not taken to extremes. For my part, fasting is one very efficient way for me to coax my tummy into shrinking so that I'm not eating too much at any given sitting. We love our supersized portions, and as I have written before, I've been feeding my loneliness lately. By the time I arrived at the conference, the two-day fast had turned into a four-day fast which was plenty enough.

Then, as so often happens, the conference didn't offer any kind of healthy food options, so I ended up chowing down on apples and coffee for three days, which wasn't planned. By the time I left for Canada, the pillow had largely disappeared, along with the appetite that had been feeding it.

I'd been fed by lively, engaging company, lots and lots of it, which truly reinforced the truth about how badly I've missed being around lots of people. On top of that I left the conference with a clear idea of where I could add value to the industry, which is the first time in a while I've been able to see how to translate a lifetime of skills into something useful at this stage in life.

Kennewick is in that part of rural Washington that people often don't really understand. It's flat for miles in all directions, a few hills here and there. Three rivers converge where Kennewick, Pasco and Richland make up the Tri-Cities area. For people who like adventure travel the way I prefer it served up, this is not what I'd call adventure central. However for folks of more modest means and more modest ambitions in the adventure sphere, the rivers, bike paths and local museums are perfectly adequate.

The long, hilly, softly-contoured drive up 395 to pick up eastbound I-90 into Spokane was painted pink the morning I left.  Still cold enough for frost on the ground, the Palouse is a wonder all to itself.

The Palouse
The Palouse

This time of year, the Palouse is carpeted with soft greens. The combination of shadows, wildflowers and the early morning light twinkling the frost made the long drive to Spokane a true joy as the pinks and oranges gave way to full spring light on this treeless plain.

Spokane has undergone massive changes in the years since I lived here. Some of the unique older buildings are preserved, to the city's credit, but new malls have sprung up along with the massive increase of prices. I drove through town on the main north-south drag known as Division, driven more by instinct than familiar landscapes. Much of what I recall is gone. Spokane was known  for its bargain spots, a nod to the lower incomes of the area, and those have been replaced  by higher-priced stores and restaurants in many areas.

Spokane sits in a kind little valley which protects it from the worst of the winter storms, but which still offers full fall colors, endless outdoor rec opportunities and proximity to Canada. The city's been discovered, and that's another story. Suffice it to say I am very glad I didn't move back there.

Instead I drove straight north to the Canadian border, making note of the endless parade of for sale signs along the highway. Access to our northern neighbor has been much improved lately, for after April 1st you can sign up on ArriveCan and be waved through by showing your QR code.

Drought conditions showed up for much of the drive north, with the rivers running very low and the trees showing distress. I've never seen the forests look so wan, nor have I seen the stream beds so low in spring. Still, snow sat everywhere, and with any luck those last snowfalls will support the wild and the wild life this year.

Baker Street, Nelson Julia Hubbel

Nelson, BC, is an artsy little town of considerable charm (they're getting invaded, too, natch) nestled on Kootenai Lake. They have world class restaurants twinned with world-class art, and world-class good manners. When I sat down on a stool  on the Baker Street Kootenai Bakery, a long-standing establishment, one of the servers popped up at my left shoulder to hand me a tiny container of CBD salve for my left hand.

That is so Canadian.

If you find yourself in Nelson, don't miss the French bakery Au Soleil Levant. I avoided it, doing my best to be true to my reduced intake. However, it's hidden, everyone knows where it is, and its breads, cookies and treats are legendary. That used to be a first stop in town, whereupon I would buy four thick cookies to munch as I meandered Baker Street. Not this time, the memory will stay a memory, which is precisely what I hope to do with my pillow top, which continued to slowly disappear.

After two days of shopping the town's ever-changing retail landscape, and buying goodies from the three stores that haven't changed in decades (THANK YOU), I loaded up my car, gassed up and headed east across the pass to return to the States via Idaho.

the view over Kootenai pass Julia Hubbel

I had also armed myself with a supply of over the counter Tylenol with codeine, legal there, but like all other things, had quadrupled in price. It was worth it for one reason alone. Where I live, the homeless population along with many others hit up all available outlets for drugs and pain meds, which makes it nearly impossible to get legitimate care for emergencies. You're lucky to secure ten pills for an acute condition, and the state monitors all your trips and requests for more. It's unfriendly and demeaning, and in the face of the kinds of injuries I have, insulting. So you do a workaround.

Heading south through Northern Idaho is a lesson in homesteading. Huge, stately houses mix it up with broken-down, deteriorating places surrounded by decades of rusting farm equipment. This is Trump Central up here even as blue folks barrel north to buy up the vast acreage still left to develop.

I passed through Bonner's Ferry, years ago a tiny forgotten dot on the map, now busy widening the main street to a four-lane highway.That theme continued south to my old haunts of Sandpoint where I once, briefly, owned forty acres on Mount Baldy, west of town.  Sandpoint has exploded even as the great Lake Pend Oreille has begun to suffer from drought, all forty miles of it showing signs of receding near the free-standing docks of the condos at the south end of town.

I spent one night there, and wandered the main street to see how their shops had fared. A few were still around, but in a fine sign of the apocalypse, three of the town's biggest merchants sold house wares exclusively to wealthy home and land owners. In those shops, one coffee table was three month's mortgage for most of us.

Gracious offerings for the 1% in Sandpoint

Those locals weren't happy either.

The next morning I drove through the woods to pick up I-90 West again.

Interstate 90 between Spokane and Coeur d'Alene used to be a long, lonely stretch of open road, considered way too far out for folks on Spokane's South Hill where I once lived. Now it's a bustling corridor of ugly car dealerships and big box stores blocking the views of the pretty lakes and small housing developments which once made Spokane Valley such a charming place.

Sometimes I just don't have words.

Before I left the town I once loved, I stopped in at my favorite gift shop in the entire world: Wonders of the World, an eclectic spot so full of stuff I love that I would really just love to buy the whole damned place. Pam, the owner, and I have identical tastes. Her shop looks like my house. Over the years I have bought from her and she has bought from me. We did it again. I had stashed a big box full of turquoise beads I'd purchased in the early 90s when I had a retail license. They had sat forever, and she was happy to take them off my hands for a pittance. I returned the favor by buying a rock statue of the Indian god Ganesh, and we parted ways happy. Here is a view of Pam's place:

Wonders of the World | Import Gifts & Bead Shops |Spokane WA.
WONDERS OF THE WORLD is Spokane WA. Most unique Import, Gifts, &Bead Shops. Located in the Historic Flour Mill next to the river on the north side of Riverfront Park and south of the Spokane Arena.

Spokane's parting shot to those leaving via I-90 is the new, ugly, hulking Amazon warehouse not far from what used to be a charming, small regional airport. Spokane's Economic Development Council was ever excellent at bringing in low-paying call centers and calling it progress. As the housing costs skyrocket, Amazon warehouse jobs are hardly the kind of income adequate to purchase a decent home, much less a pricey coffee table.

This is how we lose America's prettiest small towns. I've lived in more than my fair share, and when I go back these days, this is the theme.

For those of you who like to read the classics, you can appreciate this bastardization of Shakespeare:

The first thing we do, let's kill all the developers.
The view about a block down from my motel in Lincoln city

Perhaps the lesson in all this is several-fold. As I ready this morning to head north in the rising,  tide and rains which are pattering against my west-facing windows, there is some wisdom in hanging on to what you have, if you have land, a nice house or anything worth protecting.

Second, if you sell, be sure you do your due diligence before you do so, for what you get for what you have isn't likely to afford you any kind of decent place where you'd like to go next, if said decent place has been similarly invaded.

While I enjoyed my travels, my enthusiasm has been somewhat tempered by the stark reality of what we have lost and are losing far more swiftly: the unique towns and villages that made up the American crazy quilt are now blanketed with ticky tacky, ugly housing developments devoid of trees, character and any kind of decent planning.

On the other hand, however, taking a long, slow drive through the rural parts of our vast country does in many ways renew the spirit. Barring discussions about politics and religion, which my generation wisely considered off-limits and today people feel compelled to dig into your dirty laundry before having your first sip of coffee, people are still happy to visit. I make a beeline for folks with dogs on the beach, and invariably have lovely days full of pleasant conversation.

Today I plan for more of just that.

For Penny, and for those of you needing a breath of fresh air, here's an RX for you. Take a drive. Above all, go where you used to go, and try seeing with new eyes. Spend time interviewing folks. I found that even where I might not agree with politics, we shared the same concerns, had the same love of nature, animals and those things that really matter. As much as I decry what we are mowing down, there is still great beauty in what is left, which is worth saving. We've said that for years, and folks aren't paying attention.

They are, however, paying the developers.

And with that, I am off to explore the coast once more before the day ages on my aging face. And my disappearing middle.

Julia Hubbel

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