Friday, April 13, 2007

Across the Great Divide

Grand Coulee Dam, early morning

9:30 p.m.

I’m camped out on grazing lands east of Shelby, Montana. Followed a sign pointing toward Lake Elwell Recreation Area, entering onto a gravelly road. A mile or so along, as the land started to roll a bit, I found a trail that led off into the low hills where I could find some concealment.

Just heated some Thai noodles and munched Gardetto’s Deli Mustard-Style pretzels (“General Mills crap.”)


At Spring Valley campground this morning, awoke around 6:00 a.m. The “asshole” in a nearby motor home emerged to fire up his generator. Lovely solitude among the motor homes. A cold day. Packed up in a hurry to avoid paying the camping fee (justifying my actions: “too much for what I use.”) Fudge for breakfast. (I had purchased it at a Big Wally's trading post outside of Coulee City.)

Into Grand Coulee early in the morning, and wandered around the dam, admiring it from above, below and from both sides of the Columbia River. There’s an interesting old “company town” below the dam, lining both sides of the gorge. The dam faces north or northeast, which feels strange, since I think of the Columbia River as generally flowing from east to west. The dam and recreation area it has created appear to have given rise to a cluster of small towns.

A bitter wind out of the southwest this morning. I’m not accustomed to cold fronts coming from that direction. Low clouds moved swiftly over the landscape as I moved across a high plateau. Huge farms partitioned the land. Blue skies to the south, but the road, on a southeast track, never quite took me there. I was seeking the sun, but it continued to elude me, hidden behind a gray blanket of stratus clouds.

Northwest of Spokane, I approached Fairchild Air Force Base. What had been a two-lane highway crossing the Eastern Washington plains suddenly turned into a broad four-lane boulevard designed to accommodate sprawl. And to provide the utmost in “convenience” it was lined with the usual suburban trappings. Nothing but the universal chain and “big box” stores, ugly, junky and soul-less.

Jumped on Interstate 90 to by-pass Spokane, my sights set on Coeur d’Alene for a rest stop. Idaho felt noticeably “prettier” than Washington, but I fear it’s beauty is fading fast, as each business and homeowner pursues their own self-interest, usually involving the clearing of forest and paving over the soil. No one can fault the individual making such a choice, however collectively, our oblivious conduct is frightening. “CDA” is experiencing a building boom. Everything seems fresh and new. Life is good and “everyone” wants to come here.

Revisited the Java coffee shop downtown, enjoying a coffee and raspberry-sour-cream muffin. I didn’t linger though. Headed north on U.S. 95 through the cities of Pend Oreille, Sand Point, Bonners Ferry – names from the distant past. (And I would have called them “towns” during my previous visit in 1970. Now they all appear to be thriving vacation destinations.)

Clearing of land that fronts on the highway reminds me of the stretch of road south of Fairbanks, Alaska. Perhaps by ordinance, a curtain of trees is left standing along the highway. Behind this curtain, landowners are free to trash the landscape as they deem necessary. They undertake their personal pioneering experience, proudly clearing and claiming another swath for civilization, beating back the brutish nature.

In Sand Point, I picked up U.S. Highway 2 again. I planned to follow this road east, just south of the Canadian border, all the way to the shores of Lake Superior at Duluth.

A beautiful drive upon first entering Montana along the Kootenai River, through forests that are relatively untouched. (Overall, it seems to me that perhaps 50% of Montana’s forests have been cleared in just the past 37 years, since my first rides through this country.)

The Kootenai River in Western Montana. This scene struck me as so unusual because the forests appeared free of logging.

In Libby, Montana, I searched for something familiar. In 1970, I had been stranded in Libby for a day after a nighttime accident in rain and mud. Unable to determine the damage in the dark, I dragged the (Honda 450) motorcycle out of the gravel roadway and under a parked semi trailer, where I took shelter from the rain. Unrolled my sleeping bag and spent the night under the trailer.

The next day, I found one of the engine covers had been gouged open and most of the oil drained out on the ground. I walked to the small motorcycle shop in a residential part of town. It was my luck to find the needed part was gathering dust on their shelf. Someone had ordered it, but never showed to claim it.

But today I didn’t recognize Libby at all. Much of the town has grown up since that time. I took a detour of ten miles or so to visit the Libby Dam.

Behind Libby Dam stretches Lake Koocanusa (Kootenai-Canada-USA?)

In  the summer of 1970, after being thwarted in my attempt to cross into Canada at Roosville (the crossing was closed for the evening), I attempted to drive to the next border station to the west, in Idaho. Montana highway 37 follows the Kootenai River as it flows through a broad, heavily-forested valley toward Libby. After several miles, I came upon a scene of utter devastation. For 30, 40, 50 miles, or more, the forest was laid to waste. I couldn’t quite comprehend what I was seeing in the light of dusk. After many miles, I found the answer to the mystery when I rounded a bend and found myself looking down upon an eerie floodlighted construction project: a new dam.

Libby Dam, Montana

Approaching from below the dam, the massive edifice is now showing its age. Behind it, Lake Koocanusa stretches, broad and tranquil, toward the distant horizon. Deep beneath its surface lay the forest floor and road that I once wandered. It was quite peaceful at the overlook. Only an occasional car would pass. The construction of the dam caused an enormous landslide that delayed the project. On the south side of the dam, a steep mountain slope still shows the exposed and fractured rock.

This is an all-too-common scene in Montana (and for that matter, California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and British Columbia).

The notion of the Department of Agriculture as protector of our National Forests is a myth. This is where our paper comes from. Do we really need to use so much?

West of Kalispell, I stopped to look at a mature pine standing right beside the pavement. (It was unusual in that most such pine trees have been logged in this region.) There was a plaque nailed to it. “Tory’s Tree”. There was a story here, and judging by the rise and blind curve just ahead, I suspect it’s a tragic story. The tree has been given a temporary reprieve, perhaps until the next road-widening project.

Most mature pines in Montana seemed to have been harvested. This huge tree stands solitary along the shoulder of U.S. Highway 2 near the Cabinet Mountains of Western Montana. A wooden plaque reads "Tory's Tree", and the tree's location near a dangerous curve suggests a tragic story.

Kalispell is huge now, jammed with traffic and the usual big box stores, unpleasant, though the eastern backdrop of mountains is majestic. I paused there just long enough to refuel.

Learned that Glacier National Park is indeed still closed. No great surprise. (I had to drive a mile or two off the main highway to find out. You would think they’d at least post signs along the highway that the park is currently closed.) This is probably a replay of my experience 37 years ago. Someday I’ll ride the famous “Going to the Sun Road".

From the main highway, however, there are glimpses of amazing Alp-like peaks to the north. The late afternoon air was freezing as I headed into the 5,220-foot Marais Pass. In comparison, Snoqualmie had been rather mild. Beyond the summit, there is a long, slow descent of the eastern slopes, leading out onto the high plateaus of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

U.S. 2 turned to dirt for about a five-mile stretch. The bike felt a bit “squirrelly” in the soft soil. The reservation reflects a depressed economic condition. I wondered if alcoholism is as much a problem here as on other reservations. In the town of Cut Bank, just off the reservation, a stupid accident, someone making a left turn in front of oncoming cars, closed Main Street. Alcohol-related?

At Shelby, crossed Interstate 15, intersecting my path of June 2005. Great Falls to the south. Sunset coming early, about 8:00 p.m. out here, and with it, an urgency to find a camp.

Throughout the day, I entertain myself, singing "Dark of My Moon" and other current "road favorites" and suck on "Atomic Fireballs" (they help keep me alert!) In lieu of lunch, I snacked on peanuts (shell and all) and water.

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