North of Portland there is no choice but to enter Washington. We have zero plan and another terrible map. It’s not that we don’t want to see this state, but after a nice dinner at Rouge Brew Pub, excellent beer follow by a Voodoo doughnut sometimes the brain just stops. The body wants to sleep and the thought of navigating through another unknown place does not sound appealing at this point in the day. So north we go over Columbia river and into Washington state. A park is listed just off I-5, however, we miss the sign and find ourselves in a casino town with enough time to call the park and ask for directions. Turn around you have gone way too far but there are plenty of spots available, says the ranger with an encouraging voice. This is no surprise when we find the park and realize we are directly off the interstate. As in, we can see the cars buzz past as you walk to the bathroom and hear the hum of traffic while trying to sleep. But with a belly full of goodness, sleep is not hard to find.
Morning brings coffee and a clear head. We open every map and guide book to decide the best route for the day. How far do we want to go, what looks interesting, what general direction are we headed? Seattle to the north or Mt. Rainer National Park to the east? But then there’s Mt. St. Helen only about 30 mins away. After further investigation we learn that it will take about 3 hours to get to the sight where she blew in 1980, only 2 days before my birthday. Even though I like the fact that mother nature knew I was coming, we make the decision to head to Mt. Rainier. Another active volcano.
Crossing into the south entrance of the park a transformation happens almost immediately. The forest turns dark, the air cool and crisp like a winter morning. Western Red Cedar stand out of the crowd showing off their size and strength. With chunks of auburn bark covering their trunks, I have to lean way back to see branches towering above the forest canopy leaving just a sliver of blue sky above. Mixed in between are different types of evergreens packed in so tight its hard to see any signs of life…or bears. As we climb a clearing from the trees allows the mountains to become completely exposed. Clouds hover along the peeks and snow lies in the creases where it stays year round with some spots gaining 136 inches a year. A path of smooth stones cut through the forest with a narrow river flowing within. Gray tones blend from the stones to the cloudy water because of the sediment from glaciers. A hike takes us to a viewing point, but the fog acting like a sheet, blocks our view. Other hikers seem disappointed but we can’t help feel amazed by this entire park. Despite the fact it feels like snow could come at any moment, wildflowers are at their peek and carpet the mountain side. You can see the flowers through the fog with dashes of yellow, purple, pink and white. It feels like a spring day is lost in winter. For a while we just stop. Taking time to take it in.
We get ahold of the guy who has created Pop Top Shocks, the ones that prevent the dance I was describing before in order to put our van top up and down. He invites us to swing by so he can personally take a look to see what the problem is. Swing by means going to Driggs, Idaho and after looking at a map we realize this is just on the other side of the Grand Tetons and make the decision to head back in that direction. At first we are disappointed to change our route but know that part of this trip is to make sure June is ready for the longer journey. Any steps we can take to get all the bugs worked out is a step in the right direction. What turns out as a side trip works out in more ways than one ( that story comes later and will be titled “Cowbells, Bears, Angry Moose & Driggs).
The route change means crossing northern Idaho through Montana, then south back through Yellowstone, pass Tetons and over to Driggs. We are descending into Yakima Valley and I just happen to read in our guide book this spot is not to be missed. It goes on to describe the valley as a fruit, vegetable and wine wonderland. With over 300 days of sunshine a year and the 4th largest producer of the country’s supply of fruits and veggies. I tell Colin this with much excitement and he agrees it sounds like our kind of place. I picture lushes rows of orchards, fresh picked fruit, smells of sweet grapes and sunshine. As we get closer I see signs for wine tastings. They are on cheap plywood with hand painted letters in red, Wine Tastings HERE. An oversized red painted arrow on the next plywood sign, Turn HERE. Our eyes follow the arrow and lead to a dry, dusty lot with a few small sheds. Next to the shed is a tiny field with grapevines and a fenced area full of broken down equipment; pieces of scrap metal, rusted out trucks and old parts of tractors. We both shrug and nod thinking this must be a tourist trap right before the good stuff. Then more plywood signs. This time they are bigger, announcing fresh fruit and vegetables. Glancing at the food stands it’s not looking much better, they are broken with chipped paint and sitting around filth. I go back to my book to make sure I have this right, to make sure we are in the correct state and town. Reading aloud to Colin what I thought I had read before, Yakima Valley, Washington…not to be missed…do not miss! The further we get into the valley we are ” not to miss” I am already writing a letter in my mind to send the authors asking if they have even been to the Yakima Valley. I am in disbelief that a 4th of our fruits and vegetables come from a place that looks run down, dirty and a heavy odor of spoiling fruit fills the air. I hope someone can correct me here and say I missed the spot. That I missed the 30 plus wineries and the lush goodness. I’m shaken from my disappointing thoughts of Yakima when a wind gust sends us over the white line and almost off the road. I notice Rvs and huge tractor trailers pulled over while Colin is holding the wheel for dear life. Further away from wind hell and the rotten valley we have forgotten to eat. I see an exit ahead for Othello. A town I have never heard of but it’s right off the road and I’m sure we can find something other than fruit or vegetables. Cruising along main street it’s another dust bowl. But this town is different. Houses are small, but the grounds are clean. A couple little shops on the main street have flower pots in windows and hanging off the street lights. Only a few people are seen on the sidewalk and doesn’t look like much is open so we turn the corner to see more life. Looking for a place to eat there are several Mexican restaurants but not many people inside, in fact most are empty. It’s not that late, around 6pm, but McDonald’s is full. Colin suggests that we pull through, order a drink and ask where is the best place to get Mexican food. A young girl at the window hands us our drinks while answering the question. Mexican food is about all we have around here, she says with a smile and then gives us directions to her favorite place, Checos. Her directions take us to the edge of town, over the tracks and into a residential neighborhood. A tiny black chihuahua tinkers across the road and I am laughing as I then see the restaurant is also someone’s house. This is going to be a good experience or end up like Chewy’s. I told you about Chewy’s right? Side story: While driving through El Paso a few years ago tired and hungry we happened upon a little Mexican restaurant called Chewy’s. With cars in the parking lot at a very late hour we figure it has got to be good. After being seated we notice a shrine in the corner. It is blocked off with red rope, a private big screen T.V and on the wall is a football jersey framed with the name Madden. We ask our server for the story and she flips over the menu for us to read. Evidently a few years back, while passing through El Paso, John Madden and crew were craving good Mexican food and a place to watch the game. Unfortunately, they found Chewy’s. Mr.Madden was so pleased with this experience that he took a moment during a national broadcast (of some very important football game) to rave about Chewy’s. This put the restaurant on the map and a mural on the wall. The mural should really be seen in person but I will do my best to describe it. The scene covers the entire length of the main wall in the dining room. Jesus Christ is hovering above chewy’s restaurant with open arms and angle wings. The clouds are parted allowing a bright ray of sun from the heavens to shine down on none other than John Madden’s tour bus, which is pulling into the parking lot. John Madden may know football but he does not know good mexican food. Our stomaches still quiver at the thought of that meal.
Back to Othello. What I love about traveling are the surprises. When you judge and assume and then find out how wrong you are. People surprise me all the time. I truly believe there are more good than bad, but they surprise all the same. I am in the van with Sprite observing the people coming in and out of the restaurant. They wave, they smile and they have to-go containers. Colin comes out with a big bag of his own. What a great place he says. He tells me about a conversation he has with the owner; they are happy we found them, talks about the town, the weather, where we are from and thank you for coming. While they are talking another customer comes up who clearly knows the owner. Hey Checo, he says. Checo replys, good morning! Even though it’s after 6pm, Colin notices this is something he says to everyone. The customer goes on, are you buying the old A&W in town? Yes, Checo answers, we are moving the restaurant to a better location. Why don’t you keep both going, questions his friend. Ah, because man, I only have one wife. His friend smiles and nods. We can all understand that! We sit in the van, we devour our tacos and put Othello on our map. People can change your entire outlook and experience. Good and bad. This one is good. If you happen to be near Othello, Washington stop by Checos.