The Road Revisited

Follow Me Around The United States!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Leavenworth to Seattle in Four Chapters.

Before heading to Mt. Rainier National Park, I had to see Leavenworth. I mean, I had to. Sure, it was a tourist trap but what am I at the core but a very apprehensive tourist?

Leavenworth, Washington straddles Rt. 2 as it reaches west to the Pacific. Coeur d'Alene Steve had been right, it was extremely Bavarian. All the buildings were built in the Bavarian gingerbread style, and speakers mounted on telephone poles piped polka music out onto the streets. The cashiers at all of the stores wore traditional Bavarian costumes, with white puffy sleeves and high black bodices. The men wore short pants with tights and feathered hats, and most had beards. The stores specialized in Bavarian souveniers, Bavarian chocolate, Bavarian clothes and German food. Scents of sauerkraut and kielbasa wafted throughout the town. And, just like Steve had said, the McDonald's looked like a gingerbread house.

However, I wasn't in the mood for a Big Mac. Instead, I ate at a traditional German restaurant, Andreas Keller. It was fantastic. The dining area is below street level, with low stone ceilings and booths nestled between stone columns, giving the place a feel of a very old gastst├Ątte. I was a bit shy being there myself in the midst of families and couples, but the waitresses, dressed in Bavarian dresses and frilly petticoats, made me feel right at home. I ordered the house special, a sausage sandwich with spicy grain mustard, with potato salad and weinkraut on the side. To drink was, of course, Hefeweizen. I ate slowly, trying to savor each and every salty, tangy bite. At one point a black peppercorn the size of a ladybug rolled out of my sandwich and I was glad I didn't bite into it, as the mustard was peppery enough. I had been starving when I entered, and left almost laboring to climb the stairs to the street. I couldn't really afford it, but it was well worth it.

At a fudgery I asked a man with a white beard how the town came to be Bavarian. "Are everyone's ancestors from Bavaria?"
"Well, yes and no," he explained. "There's a lot of German here. But years ago, this was a logging town, just like most of the towns around here. But when the government put restrictions on logging, the town started to die. So back in the fifties or early sixties, someone got the idea to 'Go Bavarian', and turn it into a tourism town. So everyone went for it -- what other option did they have? They made rules about the stores and the gas stations, the McDonald's. And the town's been Bavarian ever since."

I walked around the town, past the Maypole, past the apple orchard, through the Christmas store. Finally, when the tourist in me had seen enough of humels and nesting dolls (including a Princess Diana and Dodi set that was done in extremely poor taste) and grandfather clocks, I bid Leavenworth a fond Auf Wiedersehen and drove on southwest, towards Mount Rainier National Park.

The drive was sunny and gorgeous. The hills rose on either side like hunter green camelbacks and two falcons swooped low past my car, looking for lunch. I listened to The Postal Service as I climbed higher and higher into the foothills.

Then suddenly, almost on a dime, I turned a corner into.... nothing. Or, at least what Fantasia looked like after being attacked by The Nothing in "The Never-Ending Story". Thick, thick fog clung to every living thing, palpably dense. The song on the stereo, "Natural Anthem", was perfect; delectably bizarre, mechanical and distant. I tried looking out over the edge of a sharp curve and saw only gray. To see twenty feet in front of me was an accomplishment. Narrow, winding roads and the murky shroud lent themselves to an air of confusion, ethrealism. Soon, the shoulder of the road became sprinkled with white, then piled with snow, and eventually a thick wall of gray, with black horizontal lines showing where each new layer had fallen. The snow had literally been cut where the road lay, leaving a tell-tale cross-section on either side. My jaw gaped for no other reason than I felt I'd driven into Narnia. I was in flip-flops and a wife-beater, with a thin cotton shirt overtop. How had this changed so quickly?

Reaching the ranger station, hidden in the miasma itself, it was evident that the fog was here to stay. "How long will it be like this?" I asked the ranger as he checked my Parks Pass.
"Can't say. Maybe a few days."
"Will I be able to see the mountain at all?"
"Can't say that either."

Driving into the park, the scene was the same. Large gray and white snowdrifts lined the road. RVs were stopped here and there, people making snowballs and putting them into plastic bags. I stopped as well, and had my picture taken standing, toes bare, sleeves rolled up, grinning atop a picnic table that had been cut free of snow, but still had about 8 or 9 feet of snow around it and overtop the edge. "Be careful, it's slippery!" the woman taking the picture warned as I picked my way down the slick wooden bench in my flip-flops.
"Oh, I'll be fine, thank you. I am going to change my shoes, though!"
Sweatshirt, wool socks, hiking boots. I was ready to camp in Rainier.

I picked a campsite and paid the shy, cute, corn-fed boy in the green uniform. At least the campground was snow-free, although chilly. Tent pitched, soup eaten, I wandered down to the campfire circle where a ranger program was being held, "The Total Trekker". The ranger giving the program was an experienced hiker and gave us -- a large group of Mennonite girls, three couples, a family of four and myself -- tips on what to carry and how to avoid injury during hiking. I felt special because most of the emergency gear he recommended I already owned. When it was over, I walked, sans flashlight, back to the campsite and built a fire.... that wouldn't end. I had bought wood earlier that day but didn't realize it was so slow-burning. Not wanting to carry dirty, bug-infested wood in my car, I tried burning it all. But I didn't have the wherewithal or patience -- I was sleepy, and finally double-bagged what was left and vowed to burn it before I reached Oregon.

There were no stars that night. Clouds that had fathered the fog sat stubbornly high, refusing to budge. We had a staring contest and I dared them to move, but no luck. As I crawled into my tent, I gave them one last long gaze and wished on the star light, star bright that lay behind them that the fog and clouds would lift and I could actually see the moutain in the morning.

The next morning, my prayers were answered. I unzipped my tent onto a bright, beautiful, blue sky. Crisp Washington mountain air kissed my cheeks as I made oatmeal and coffee, and nipped at my heels as I changed my socks. I broke camp and all but leapt into the car, anxious to see the mountain. I was not disappointed. I turned a corner and lost my breath.

Mt. Rainier rose from the pines like a god, like a temple, like a monolith, like a list of cliches that could go on forever. My jaw was in my lap as I pulled over, wetting my thigh with drool. My little eyes felt inadequate, unable to take it all in at once. Camera in hand, I bolted to the edge of a scenic overlook (one of many) and started snapping. "It's hard to believe, isn't it? Would you like us to take your picture?" an older man asked. He was standing next to an RV and another older gentleman.
"Sure!" I looked a mess, but even Angelina Jolie would look a mess next to something so terrifically spectacular.
"Is this your first time? You're a long way from home," they noted, pointing to my license plate.
"Yeah, first time. It's amazing! Is it your first time, too?"
"Oh, no! We do this every year. We usually do a loop around or so, to Bellingham and Mount St. Helen's. We've been watching it change."
"Watching it change?"
"Oh, yes! Something's brewing in there. The top is changing. It's getting bigger on one side and smaller on the other. We've been watching it for the last few years now. Something's definitely going on. Are you here all by yourself?"
"Yes, sir."
"Well, how about that! Seeing the world, are you?"
"Exactly! And everyone in it!"
"That's just great! Well, you take care and be safe!"
"Thank you, I will. And you, too -- you're the ones hanging out near volcanoes!"

At the visitor's center I took time to go through the museum that chronicles the history of both Rainier and St. Helen's, including the eruption. There were exhibits on the local Indians, how they lived, the first woman to climb Rainier, and how Harry Truman died, refusing to evacuate after the eruption of Mt. St. Helen's. The museum itself winds its way up three circular floors, eventually ending in an observatory. From the observatory, Through large metal telescopes, one can see the ranger station set high atop the mountain for climbers, and even some climbers themselves that bright, clear morning. Leaving the center, more truckloads of climbers sat laughing, strapping, counting, packing, pinning and anxiously awaiting a trip up that mountain.

After watching the climbers, I was ready to do some hiking myself. A ranger gave me a list of good trails and I picked a 2.5-miler that went past a waterfall. It was moderate, but it had been over a week since I'd hiked or even worked out, so I struggled a bit. But as I huffed and puffed my way up the base of that mountain, I thought about Willow, about her learning to walk again by going up and down those steep and grassy Montana hills, over and over. I couldn't complain about shallow breath while thinking of her. And thinking of her also made me think of Annie. Annie is a friend I lost in Tower 1 on September 11th. When I piss and moan about things, I try to think of her, and how she never got the chance to revel in whatever it is that's making me whine. She accompanies me on many hikes when they start to get too strenuous.

I don't know if I made it all the way to the end of the trail. I made it to a waterfall, I know that much. And when I started to get too tired, I turned back around, teasing chipmunks as they scuttled past and watched me, hoping I would drop a crumb or two. "I see you, silly boy!" I laughed at one as he cocked his head to one side.

When I finally reached the bottom, I said goodbye to the mountain. I was ready for a shower, and Seattle.

The drive to the Pacific was beautiful, and fraught with anticipation. Seattle, like nearly every part of the country I'd seen to that point, was uncharted territory. Thoughts passed through my head so fast they were merely words. "Fish-throwing!" "Pacific Ocean!" "Mariners game?" "Shower." "Hostel?" "Car-sleeping?" "Wear my green dress!" "Awesome!" I had been trying to save money up to that point so I could have one good, spoil-myself-rotten night in the city -- dinner at a nice restaurant, maybe some nice glasses of wine.... I couldn't get to Seattle fast enough.

Finally, I saw the tops of skyscrapers begin to appear on the horizon, then the middles, then the Space Needle. I let out a shout, a manic utterance from the depths of my lungs that no one heard. The one-word thoughts became even more rapid. "Left?" "Sign?" "Pike Place?" "Huh?" "Wi-fi?" "Parking?" "How much?" "Oh, God." "I smell bad." "Hope I can afford this." "There's the sign."

I parked at the mall because it was the first parking sign I saw. The streets reminded me much of New York City, although this time I felt less like a know-it-all and more like Robin Williams in "Moscow on the Hudson". Well aware of how out-of-place I looked, I wandered around, face to the sky, mouth open, laptop and lunchbox in hand, trying to find someone who could direct me to free wireless internet so I could look up some hostels. Then I could worry about long-term parking and showering and food. The guys at Gamestop were pretty helpful, telling me that I could probably just go out onto the street and use the free wi-fi signals that float along the streets of the city. That led to me getting some strange looks as I set up my computer on the edge of a planter and trying to sign on as palm sprouts blew in my face, but I didn't care. However, I couldn't get the damn thing to work, on the planter or on a bench in a nearby park or anywhere. While in the park I watched four young black guys slip behind a retaining wall and spark up a joint, and a homeless Native woman unwrap a bloody and bandaged foot, then re-wrap it.

The connection wouldn't work, so I asked directions from someone I thought was an expert on Seattle hostels -- the panhandler on the corner with the faux-hawk. He sat cross-legged and straight-backed on the ground, and with his long neck and large, hooked nose gave the impression of an ostrich. He answered with a mouth devoid of teeth. "There's the Green Turtle Hostel down two blocks and around the corner." I gave him 64 cents for his help.

The Green Turtle Hostel was almost full that Thursday night, and had no beds available the next day, so I paid for only one night. My room was on the third floor, the bed the one closest to the window. I laughed as I opened the door, because the hostel was certainly doing its best to ensure they got the most out of the available space -- the beds were actually thin mattresses on the floor, squeezed into the room shoulder-to-shoulder like sardines. Not stepping on someone else's bed was nearly impossible, but no one seemed to mind. The only other girl in the room at the time was a sweet, hung-over Swede. She lay under the covers, reading a French-English dictionary. It was nearly five o'clock and she was still recuperating. In a soft, rolling accent she introduced herself as Christine and informed me that it had been a long night. She was in town on a guided bike tour of Northwest Washington and southern British Columbia. The tour was set to begin Sunday and she came in a few days early to check out Seattle. "I must go downstairs now because there is problem with my reservation. I made online, yes? And the thing, it did not make reservation for this place, but for hostel in San Francisco. And now there is no room for me tomorrow, so I don't know what to do. I hope they fix."
"I hope so, too," I said, as I went off to find the showers.

The building was very old, with high, pre-war ceilings and claw-foot bathtubs. Each bathroom was individual, with black and white neo-classical tile patterns and a full-length, wood-framed mirror. The tell-tale signs of shared hostel bathrooms abounded, though -- razors "hidden" atop the crown-molding above the door, and three different colors of dried toothpaste in the sink. Luckily, I'm not very germ-phobic and it just makes me giggle to see such things.

For my big night on the town in Seattle, the plan was to dress up -- or, at least, my version of dressed up. That meant pulling out the green and white vintage dress I had bought second-hand in Chicago, pairing it with beige Dollar Store flip-flops, and actually putting on mascara. I let my hair air-dry to a mish-mash mess of waves that I managed to finger-comb to something resembling acceptable and applied lip gloss. Match said green dress with a happy smile and a bright blue metal lunchbox and I was stylin' and profilin'. Well, really, I looked exactly like what I was -- a silly, excited girl who didn't give two shits if she was wearing the right shoes or not, because she was going to eat oysters on the half-shell and drink pinot noir and have a fabulous night anyway.

I marched down the avenue, hair a-flying, lunchbox swinging, face about to crack from grinning, in love with life and all it has to offer if you bust your ass.


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