Summer triggers a yearning to get out on the open highway out the road less traveled

By Katy Nesbitt/The Observer June 12, 2013 11:38 am
Last night I asked a friend about his trip to Southeast Oregon. The only story he told was getting stuck in the middle of a thousand-head cattle drive on the highway.

Riding a sport bike, he said he was challenged to maneuver through the slippery green carpet left behind the cows.

We used to call that a Lake County traffic jam. I remember once seeing the Marlboro Man while stuck sitting in one of those drives.

When I was a teenager, I set the world speed record for four-speed Oldsmobiles on that same highway, expertly avoiding state troopers, sheriff’s deputies, jackalopes and ground squirrels.

On another highway that veers to the northeast, I put a Datsun pickup through speed and agility tests. Speed is controlled on that road not by troopers, but by vehicle-size potholes. It took a Jolt Cola to keep me alert enough to dodge them.

As for the loneliness of the desert, there are two outposts that are occasionally open in Alkali Lake and Wagontire — where you may be able to get a pop and a candy bar.

 When you can’t get radio reception, you can hear Dwight Yoakum’s “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere” whistling in the wind.

 It’s summer in Wallowa County; I know this because I dodged small humans in the middle of the street this morning on my way to a meeting. I also know because of the yearning I have for the open highway. However, these days I set my cruise control for something close to the speed limit.

I snuck in a road trip just before the summer craziness started and I highly recommend exploring the “blue highways,” the two-lane, less traveled routes, during the shoulder seasons. Driving over the North Cascades highway just days after it opened, and before RV season, was so pleasant that I took the time to stop and take pictures of someone else’s snow-capped peaks.

Diving down into the Methow Valley (pronounced Med Ow), pastures dotted with cattle and surrounded by ponderosa pine felt familiar, though I’d never been there. By day’s end I realized how close I was to half of the expatriated Nez Perce Indians. Two days later I stopped at the Chief Joseph memorial — a rest area with a bathroom and a small bronze statue honoring the patron saint of our county.

I stopped at the Nespelem Chevron station for directions to Joseph’s grave. I easily found it, the marble pillar among less distinguished graves in a graveyard surrounded by a chain link fence.

Grand Coulee Dam was the next marvel along the route — that awesome structure holding back miles and miles of Columbia River turned into Lake Roosevelt. Its magnitude impressed me far more than it did the first time I saw it as a 9-year-old kid. 

I thought it ironic that though Chief Joseph, who was born in Wallowa County, was buried so far from home, but so close to a contentious icon of culture clash —
hydropower and salmon.

That afternoon I drove a desolate highway through the Hanford site where nuclear bombs were once made. Except for the massive overhead electrical lines, the countryside looked like any other dry land cattle range.

Stories of the open road on motorcycles, bicycles, and SUVs were told around the picnic table last night and I now I am suffering from wanderlust. On the two-lane highway, one’s main concerns are finding gas stations and seeking out the unknown, the unfamiliar, the road less traveled, where traffic is impeded by cattle and disrepair.