Cross-Country

Here’s the thing: if you are up for a three-month drive with a well-spoken, educated, adventurous, and yet
eminently sensible travel companion, Cross Country is for you. — David Frauenfelder

400T E cover

In paperback and for the Kindle from Amazon
In paperback and for the Nook from Barnes and Noble

In paperback from CreateSpace
In many digital formats from Smashwords
From Kobo
From iTunes
In paperback from Powells

Synopsis

Just before the turn of the millenium, and two years before 9/11, forty-year-old M.M. Justus followed in the footsteps of John Steinbeck and William Least-Heat Moon, not to mention Bill Bryson, and took off cross-country alone for three months.

Over 14,000 miles, the inspiration for a novel, history both public and personal, and one life-changing event later, she arrived back where she’d started, but not the same person at all.

Chapter 1

My steps are echoing.  Not much room for it in an 800 square foot apartment, but when the furniture’s been hauled away to storage, and the cats have gone to live with a friend, and it’s the last night I’ll be there, I suppose they’re entitled.

I should have left today.  A day or two in the grand scheme of things shouldn’t matter much, but it does.  I had it in my mind that I would have a round trip.  One of three months, from the first of September till the thirtieth of November.  And so I shall.

Like Bilbo Baggins, I shall go there and back again.  Where there is, I have a vague idea.  But I have planned very hard not to plan at all.  Not to schedule, as has always been my bent.  Not to know exactly where I’m going to be on any given day more than a day or two ahead.

But I do know that I will be back on November 30th.  My friend Trish, who is keeping my two cats, is expecting me, and the storage people will want money again.

And so I sit on the floor, back propped against the wall, waiting for it to be late enough to go climb in my sleeping bag resting on the foam pad cut to fit my little car, and try to sleep.

It’s hard to sleep the night before the beginning of a dream.

I’m going to drive cross-country.  See places I’ve never been, revisit old friends geographical and human, and maybe find out who I am and why I would want to do something like this.

So I turn out the light and grope my way to the sleeping bag.  Slide in, settle down, try to arrange my forty-year-old female hips and shoulders against the hard floor, and wonder if I’ve lost my mind as my family thinks, or if this really is the beginning of a new life.

I guess I’ll find out.  Let it be light soon.

* * *

Bright grey morning.  No rain, although it looks threatening, odd weather for the Northwest in September.  I rise, creaking a little, and sidestep the small pile of gear to peer out the window.

I can see my car down in the parking lot.  A bright green 1998 Chevy Cavalier.  It’s a small car, but I’m a small person.  I turn to stare at the suddenly larger pile of boxes and cooler and other things that is going to have to fit inside it.

I can do it.  Owl can handle it, too.  The car is named Owl by an inheritance and a stretch of good humor.  The first car I ever owned was a 1966 Ford Falcon.  It was dark green, almost black, with a tan interior.  Owl also has a tan interior.  I toyed with calling it Falcon II, but decided it was pretentious.  So, choosing another bird of prey, I called it Owl, thinking its namesake’s silence and skill might be a good thing for it to live up to.

The car is packed in less than an hour.  A box of clothes, a box of food and utensils, a cooler.  A brand-new sleeping bag, a foam pad, a box of what I euphemistically call toys – recreational reading, guidebooks, a road atlas, blank stenographer’s pads, a cross-stitch project (I have good intentions, and, after all, I might get bored waiting somewhere), and a small container of pens, highlighter, and pictures of my cats.  A small zippered case of audiotapes.    Not much else.

I don’t need much else, and as my mother always tells me when I’m in the midst of overplanning a trip, it’s not like I’m going to outer Mongolia.

Now the apartment’s really empty.  I prowl around, opening closets and cupboards, trying to prove to myself that I haven’t forgotten anything.  On impulse, I lift the lids on the washer and dryer.  The washer’s empty, thank goodness, but in the dryer a small forlorn pile of shorts and T-shirts sits.  Great.  I guess I can mail them to Karla, the friend who’s playing mail drop for me.  I pull them out, stuff them in a plastic bag, and take them with me as I lock the apartment for the last time.

* * *

A little about me.  Forty years old, divorced twice – it took some experience to make me realize I don’t have a talent for being married – on my own for six years and counting.  Occupation librarian until a month ago, when I quit the job to pursue the dream – in other words, I couldn’t get a leave of absence and I’m stubborn.  Now when asked, I call myself a writer and try not to sound self-conscious.

Youngest of four daughters by eight years, so essentially a second-generation child.  Hauled from pillar to post enough to where people ask if I was an army brat, which may explain the sudden bouts of uncontrollable wanderlust.

Then again, it may simply be in my genes.  I’ve always had itchy feet; they were born and bred into me through my father’s line, although where he got them is another story altogether, since he was the first in his family to get a job where they sent him off to places like Libya and Kuwait and Indonesia.  The rest of his family have stayed in the small town in the South where they came when he was small, and my mother’s family, short of an aunt and one foray two states over when Mother was a toddler, have been homebodies as well.

I come from a short line of adventurers, then.  Still, I’m the only one in the current generation who would even think of writing my own entrance visa to a country about to close to the western world – my father did that, but I’d certainly be willing to entertain the notion – and that’s got to be worth something, even though my passport probably won’t get worked over at all this go round.

I say this go round as if my passport had ever gotten a workover.

It’s enough.  The journey will probably change my priorities, anyway.

Owl starts up smoothly, as he has for hundreds of commutes, errands, and weekend escapes, but this is his first long-distance trip, and it’s nice to hear the uncluttered sound of his engine.  I pull out of the lot and down the alley, my last glimpse up at what used to be my bedroom window almost costing me the whole journey when a little red truck comes flying around the corner.

I’ve gotten used to playing dodge-em, and I swerve round on my merry way.

The few errands – things I could have done the day before if I’d thought of it – money, the storage people, gasoline – spread themselves as if on purpose to make me late.  It’s noon by the time I’m on Interstate 5, headed north out of Tacoma.  Distracted, I fail to notice the odometer as I cross the city limits, an oversight for which I mentally kick myself when I realize half an hour later what I haven’t done.

An estimate is easily come by that evening, but an estimate isn’t an auspicious beginning to anything.

I turn east on State Highway 18, a road that starts out four-lane limited-access suburban and gradually narrows and countrifies itself.  By the time I’ve gone over Tiger Mountain Summit and come down to the junction with I-90 eastbound to the Cascades and Snoqualmie Pass, it’s misting enough to need my windshield wipers.  In September, no less.

The Interstate is the only way over the mountains in this part of Washington.  In this section of the world, it’s rather a moot point, anyway.  The only things that make it feel like an interstate are the exits and the multiple lanes.  Otherwise, it’s simply a mountain highway, gradually gaining elevation through sweeping curve after changing view.  The summit is almost anticlimactic, looking so similar to the western slopes below, and on a rise so gentle that perceptibility is a problem.  Or would be, if it weren’t for the signs pointing to the cluster of ski areas draped on either side of the road.

It’s not till I’m on my way down the eastern slope that I notice the disappearing act the clouds have pulled.  I must have shut the windshield wipers off without thinking about it.  Suddenly the landscape opens up – dark green Ponderosa pines, their reddish bark and long needles a far cry from the gray-black-green Douglas firs of wet country, stand in serious apartness on a tan grass ground.  The whole scheme of things is different.

By the time I reach Cle Elum, I’m in a different version of the West.  The one with cowboys and ranchers.  And the set of a beloved television show.

People who like the offbeat loved Northern Exposure, ostensibly set in Cicely, Alaska, but actually filmed in the small coal mining town of Roslyn, Washington, just a few miles north of Cle Elum.  Driving onto the streets of Roslyn is like having déjà vu.  There’s KBHR, the radio station where Chris dispensed Kafka and tales of Wheeling, West Virginia.  There’s Ruth Ann’s store.  And Fleischmann’s office.  It’s been several years since the show went off the air, but since the mine’s closed, Northern Exposure was, and is, one of the town’s main sources of income.  So the tourist sights – and the completely incongruous totem poles – have been preserved, and it’s still quite possible to buy a t-shirt that says “it’s not what you fling, but the fling itself.”  To go into the Brick for lunch, and wonder vaguely where Holling and Shelley are.

The post office, however, is closed for the lunch hour, and I wait impatiently with my bag of clothes to buy a box and send them over the mountains again, to wait more patiently for me on the other side.  They’ll be waiting quite a while.

It’s cold on this side of the mountains, even in the sunshine, even on the first day of September.  Cold and windy and dusty.  Every time another pickup goes down the partly paved, partly graveled street a small cloud rises up.

Finally, the post office is open.  I see I’m not the only one waiting.  Most people are here to check mailboxes.  Roslyn is small enough not to have home delivery, and I hear bits of conversations, tail ends of stories amidst the clanking of keys and the slide of metal boxes.

On my way out of town, I look back at a place with two names and two personalities.  The mural on the side of the Roslyn Café no longer has an apostrophe s.  Back to the way things were before Hollywood came to town.

About 30 miles east of Ellensburg, I-90 crosses the Columbia River at a place called Vantage.  The mighty Columbia looks more like a lake at this point, having been dammed to placidity by the Corps of Engineers earlier in the century.  It’s a desert river here, flowing between black basalt cliffs edged with the tan of wild grasses.

Up on the bluff, poised as if to leap hundreds of feet to the waters below, stand a herd of wild horses.  I pull off the road and get out my binoculars.  Horses, yes.  Wild, no.  These mustangs are silhouetted from metal, gracefully poised against a brilliant blue sky.

Somehow it’s hard to keep from waiting to see the first one soar out into the air like Pegasus.

But it’s getting on in the afternoon, and I still haven’t a clue where I’m spending the night.

A few miles further to the east, I leave I-90 for two lane highway 283, northeast through alfalfa fields and laden orchards.  It is apple season, after all, but what I’m looking for are pears.

When I first moved to Washington State six years ago, it was late August.  The produce section of the grocery store was full of golden-ripe, locally grown Bartlett pears.  The place was full of their scent.  I bought an enormous sackful, and walked out with pear juice dripping down my chin.

I’ve never gotten sick on fruit before or since, but let me be the first to tell you that six pears on an empty stomach is not a good idea.  I have to remind myself of that every fall.

As I do when I spot a roadside stand and slide the car carefully off the pavement and onto the small graveled parking space.

The odor in the shedlike building makes my stomach lurch slightly in remembrance, but my mouth is in control.

I walk out with a bagful, and the promise to myself that I won’t eat them all at once.

The road northeast goes through a geological phenomenon called the Grand Coulee.  A few thousand years ago, at the end of an ice age, the Columbia River followed a very different course than it does now.  Blocked by an ice dam, it backed up into a lake that makes Lake Roosevelt, the reservoir created by the manmade dam above the Coulee, look tiny in comparison.  When the land warmed, the water broke through.  It crashed across a volcanic landscape in one of the greatest floods ever to cross the face of the earth.  It carved a canyon in the basalt that should have taken thousands of years.  And it left, in the form of Dry Falls, the souvenir of a waterfall that would have dwarfed Niagara.

It’s a landscape that makes a human being feel awfully small.  At least this human being.  It isn’t the last time I’ll feel this way.

The state park nestled at the bottom of the coulee seems dwarfed by its surroundings, too.  Never mind that the campground alone has over a hundred sites.

It’s a place to stay for the night.  My misgivings are purely atavistic.  I know there’s no flood poised at the top of the coulee.  I know Grand Coulee Dam and Dry Falls Dam are both sturdy and secure.  But I feel a bit like those folks in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, would have felt if they’d known what was going to happen to the Conemaugh Dam.

I figure that if I survive the first night in a place like this, the rest of the trip will be a piece of cake.

* * *

I always awaken early when I’m camping.  Something about the sun beaming down through cloth and window, the excitement of being outdoors, and my tendency, as a woman alone, to sleep with one eye open on principle.  At any rate, the sun is just coming up over the wall of the coulee when I climb out of my sleeping bag and head for the restroom.

The first morning after the first night on the road.  With any luck, there’ll be eighty-nine more just like it.  Not all in campgrounds.  I have a book of hostels, and another of inexpensive motels.  And a mental list of people I want to visit along the way.  But it’s the principle of the thing.  If the first night went this well, it augurs well for the next.  And the next.  And the next.

The sunrise is gorgeous, lighting everything in pink and pearl, darkening to orange, changing to everyday light as the sun clears the coulee wall.  It would be perfectly peaceful.

Except for the seagull who’s following me.  I think he’s insane.  He certainly sounds it.

Maybe he’s lost, sees my west-of-the-mountains license plate and thinks I’ll take him back to the ocean.  Maybe he’s lonesome – I seem to be the first human awake in the place.  Maybe he’s hungry.  I take a chance that it’s the third option, and throw him a piece of muffin.  He eats it, but that was a major miscalculation on my part.  Now he’s back, noisier than ever, and a half a dozen of his relatives are on to me, too.

Uncle.

I break camp as quickly as possible, and head out onto the road again.

* * *

Nine a.m. at the base of Grand Coulee Dam, one of the biggest dams in the world.  It certainly looks the part, hunkered down between its basalt walls, ropes of electrical wires attached to it like electrodes to the chest of someone taking a treadmill test.

They run tours, but I’m here too early.  This late in the season on a weekday, they don’t start till eleven.  I have a long drive ahead of me today, and I don’t want to hang around.  But the museum is open, and I wander in.

It’s very modern in a sixties sort of way.  High ceilings, lots of glass, everything very streamlined.  Lots of pictures of construction, lots of captions extolling the virtues of engineering.  Daddy would have liked this.  Actually, he probably had.  We’ve been here once that I remember – one summer when I was a teenager.  All I remember now is concrete shimmering with heat and giant turbines.

It seems smaller now.

A display over in the corner seems out of place.  I go over to inspect it.  It’s a wheelchair and leg braces, 1930s vintage.  They belonged to Franklin D. Roosevelt, President during the Depression when the dam was built.  He came to give it his seal of approval.  He used the chair and the braces while he was here.

I wonder what he would have thought of a museum display of something he’d tried to hide all his life, and decide he probably would have been resigned to it.  He was famous.  Not having a private life seems to be part of all that.

At least his affairs didn’t become part of the national psyche until after he was dead.

The road southeast from the dam runs through barren, desertlike country.  Not what most people would associate with Washington State, known for evergreen forests and endless rain, but actually typical for this part of the state.  Further south, irrigation kicks in again, and the land is golden with wheat.  It looks like cat fur.  One of the cats I left with my friend Trish is the color commonly described as orange, and he’s the exact shade of these tawny rolling hills.  I want to reach out and pet the landscape.

Rolling hills have another use as well.  They’re darned fun to drive on.

The car is loaded, of course, and being a small compact with a commensurately-sized engine, doesn’t have a whole lot of get-up-and-go, but I still manage to maintain some momentum on the upsides of the hills, and to swoop over the tops and down.

I slip a tape into the machine and sing over the deserted hillsides.  It’s almost disappointing when I reach the interstate again.

Through Spokane, which used to be my nearest big city when I lived in Montana, and a stop for lunch and gas.  Then over the border into Idaho.

Goodbye, Washington.  See you in three months.

In paperback and for the Kindle from Amazon
In paperback and for the Nook from Barnes and Noble

In paperback from CreateSpace
In many digital formats from Smashwords
From Kobo
From iTunes
In paperback from Powells