Thursday, October 12, 2023

If it's anywhere, you'll find it.

The stretch of US 40 from somewhere east of Duchesne through somewhere west of Vernal could be anywhere. It feels more like the Great Basin to me than anything, probably because I know how that feels more than I know the Rockies.  The highway curves around the north end of the Uinta Basin, empty when it's not strewn with those sorts of dreams and garbage that pile up in the unwanted places.  It's You-inna, bee tee dubs.  Utah.  Just nod.  This zone is best at speed, just an isolated, dirty section of highway otherwise surrounded by some pretty and interesting country.  It's completely unfair to judge Roosevelt for being hard-pressed.  Perspective, I guess.  Folks live here, have for millennia.

Layers and rocks and hoodoo and stuff.  Dinosaur, UT/CO

To the east is Dinosaur, historically among the lands of the Fremont people.  They predated the Ute and Paiute and Navajo.  Dinosaur is known for its namesake, but it's a stark, beautiful landscape. Pink rock and meanders in the Green.  The Uintas curve around the north side of the basin, protective or ominous, should you be inclined to any specific temperament. There's dinosaurs in them hills, of course.  Turned to stone by the epochs.  It's the rock that you see, though.  From a distance, up close, from the grocery store in Vernal and the Church south of Naples.  Ever present.

It's an empty country, this.  Counting the miles, delineators whipping by the passenger window in the dark, pronghorn dancing off in the distance as though they aren't faster than just about any damn thing that isn't made of metal and physics and dreams.  Silhouetted against the faded blue of that huge sky stretching from SLC to Denver.  As you head east into Colorado at the town of Dinosaur, there's a conspicuous and somewhat mysterious ridgeline curving around you.  Snake John Reef.  It's a sharp little seam in the valley floor, about 6 miles long.  Artemisia and Juniperus and sunbaked earth.  The entire region is mostly sedimentary rock, layer upon layer upon layer.  Streaks of colour.

You can tell those are aspen because of the way that they are.

Eventually, US 40 will drop you off in Steamboat Springs.  I'm certain there's skiing there, but I've never stopped for longer than it takes to grab an iced tea and some petrol.  You can head south to Wolcott and the Eagle River Valley, or southeast through Kremmling and up the Blue River drainage into that most storied of counties, Lake.  You thought I'd say Summit, but if you're headed there, I bet you flew to Denver and hopped in a limo.  Or teleported in on the third rail of some business jet.

Out in the open, the fields roll unevenly to the horizon, sheep and coyote and pronghorn and mule deer.  Artemesia and emptiness and every so often, virga from a passing storm.  The Yampa off to the south.  A story in itself.  Empty meanders through a quiet valley, skirting to the south of the archetypal cowtown of Craig.  To the west of Maybell, it dives into an incredible canyon, walls a few hundred feet high or more.  The canyon walls, the layers of sediment, and the millennia of erosion are reminiscent of the desert Southwest.  Surprising clefts; a deep, cool river bottom.  Friendly shadows.  To the south, it's hill country until the Eagle River, where the Sawatch begin.

Somewhere after the Sawatch began.

I  grew up on the Wet Side, on a lahar plain.  The trees come in close, dark and broody and wet.  Fires don't happen too often, with the sort of consistently high hot-dry-windy index that plagues the Dry Side being impossible most of the year due to the ocean that's always just out of sight, over your shoulder.  The peaks aren't visible from all viewpoints in and around my hometown, a sort of mountains-for-the-hills contradiction made yet more immediate by the forest you can't see through all the conifers.

The Bogus Basin Road is none of this.  It starts out in town, just another city street.  Harrison, a historic, boulevarded lane of sixteen blocks.  You slide through the stop sign at the Elementary School by the old church, now being drawn and quartered like so much of the Treasure Valley, into expensive domiciles too fancy to be called houses, with tiny lots not much bigger than the building's footprint, and then the road just pitches up.  Sixteen miles, with little relent save the half mile or less down into Miller Gulch.  Twisting and turning, made more impressive by the consideration of this highway's history.

Okay, sue me. Sometimes the trees come in close.

Time was, it was dirt, naturally.  One lane, up in the morning and down in the evening.  Before the houses, before the pavement, it was a muddy slugfest just trying to get up to the hill to ski.  It's been paved since '62, after about 25 years of hoping it'd be too cold for mud and that the snow would be crunchy enough for good traction.  It still gets a little squirrelly sometimes, especially in the band between five and six grand.  I've never truly lost control on the road, and only once of any consequence in almost 30 years of driving.  There are some corners, though, to which I give more deference than others.

Most of the new housing at the bottom of the road has come in the last fifteen years.  This is editorialising, I admit, but it is out-of-place, at best, and at worst, a bad idea that should never have been permitted.  There are more rooflines in this small little swatch of grasping nouveau wealth than in some entire boroughs in more tasteful locales.  At the moment, it thins at the first right hander and ends at the second left hander.  There are homes above, and some even ostentatious, but the worst of the ugliness is over, and one can see the foothills and Boise Ridge above it all.  There's room for a hawk and a harrier, for a handful of deer and the seasonal sheep drive.  Cattle in the spring in the draws, and the flies they bring looking to break the splatter of new-grass manure down before it dries and hardens and desiccates, unavailable until the Monsoon finally makes it this far north in late summer.  It's just grass and water, folks, no need to be afraid.  These are rangeland cattle, that hippest of beef, the mythical grass-fed flatiron.

The Bogus Basin Road just goes on, and on, and even if it takes a hundred shifts, it's still better in a manual than any automatic.  Better still if you have the fitness to climb it on your road bike.  The descent is fast, interesting, challenging, and scenic.

Up above the Zombie Apocalypse house, there are tandem rock piles that from below look like a big bison and a little bison.  Little Bison from above is Face Rock.  Past the county line, there's a hard left hander that'll sneak up on a fool if he or she isn't ready, and in midwinter it dives into the shadows.  Some weeks it doesn't melt out like the more exposed pavement just above and below.  Past the big turnout that overlooks Daniels Creek, the road dives into shadows again, starting the really greazy part of the drive.  It stays chilly, the northwesterly aspect not receiving any meaningful sun until March.  Not coincidentally, it's here at the Ten Mile that you'll likely catch the slow driver who will not pull over for anyone.  In our 100% completely totally scientific polling of a very representative swath of Treasure Valley residents, the driver will likely be in a large-to-huge truck or a very capable Subaru. (Okay, it's me, Amy, some BBSEF coaches she worked with years ago, our paid High School intern at the shop, Parker, Legendary Bear National Team Member CarHams, and Ryan (The Owner).)

Little Bison from above.  I swear it's a face.  You believe me, right?

Some days the snake is ten cars, sometimes thirty.  One Sunday last year, it was vintage Puget Sound stop-and-go all the way to the upper lodge, almost two hours.  And I still found good snow because heads is trippin and they ain't got that shit on lock.  (Sorry, the memory of that drive glitched my software.)  I mean to say I skied Chair 5, where most folks never venture, even when that's the exact ticket for which they drove this twisty dervish of a glorious mountain road in the first place.

The last four miles are in the trees, still turning this way and that, dodging shadows and periodically giving a little view of the Sinker Creek drainage to the left and the upper reaches of Boise Ridge, and the ski area itself.

Heading down, it's always a bit bittersweet.  I've never grown out of the desire to just live in the hills.  The view is expansive, the drive easy if you take it like a sane person, exciting in the best of ways if you push it and there's a clear view.  Sometimes it's second gear, sliding corners every so often, hoping it stayed cold behind you but knowing that somewhere along the line it'll get greazy again, that you'll drop out below the stratus deck, town glowing below in the early night, mist on the windshield, night skiers' headlights moving slowly up toward you, who knows what spirits looking on from the Purshia and hackberry.  Just don't forget to let the trolls out at the Troll Gate.  Brian Galbreaith tells us that they don't want to go home with you.

Orcinus orca, Salish Sea local, just downstream from the Nooksack.

The light isn't cold, not this deep in the North Fork.  Doesn't matter if it's snowing, or even if there's snow on the ground.  It's Western Washington, and it really doesn't get cold.  Nor is it threatening, mysterious, or any other damn thing, except dark.  The rain is dark.  The trees are dark.  The light is dark.  The Killing Woods that my buddy Todd talks about are here, of course.  Grand fir, red cedar, Devil's club, salal, hemlock, rotting tree trunks and maybe an owl or two, Strix occidentalis and whatnot.  There's a moment, every few weeks, where it's been puking and stayed cold behind the front, and the light just jumps.  A painting.

The game was reciting what was ten miles ahead.  It kept me awake.  Ten miles above the DOT at the North Fork is Artist Point, buried a few months ago under the lower 48's snowfall outlier, that tiny convergence zone that centres on this huge amphitheatre, the Headwaters of the North Fork.  The Nooksack doesn't drain massive square footage, but it is wet, all the time.  Feet upon feet in a normal winter.  Many species of ferns drip into the organic duff that clutters the forest floor.  Slugs and centipedes and beetles and passerines.

The first ten mile was somewhere near Nugent's Corner.  Highway 9 heads north to Canada.  There's a market, and today a roundabout that wasn't there 22 years ago.  The second, I don't know, somewhere south of the North Fork Beer Shrine.  A random bend in a highway made of bends, in some trees along a highway buried by trees.  I didn't really get interested until Kendall.  Or should I say, I stayed awake most times until Kendall, when the dark got darker and the trees closer.  Kendall's just about the 23 mile, and Maple Falls, home of Maple Fuels Wash-a-ton, just past the 25 mile.  35 is just past the Snowline, which is just upstream from Glacier, which is the last actual town on 542.  Then comes 36, and I could start relaxing.  The DOT is at 46, and then it's twisty, windy, steep, and sometimes gripping until the E Lodge just across the lake from Chair 1.

Just past the DOT, as soon as you cross the North Fork for the last time, there's a 90 degree left.  It never gets any sun.  My brother John talks about spinning a 360 there with Kelly Jo, who incidentally is both Craig Kelly's ex and one of the better cooks whose food I've had the pleasure of eating.  He says she told him to do it again, meanwhile he's tryna get his BP down below 200/150.  Another evening, heading up this time, Eli spins out in his old Metro, that green three-cylindered beast.  I might be misremembering, but I'd just finished my EMT and I'd swear his heart rate was like 199.  I checked.

Shuksan, Upper North Fork of the Nooksack, basically Canada.  Just ask the locals. USGS photo.

Two mornings, same corner.  John forgot his license--and I assume wallet, or he just had one of those moments--so he had me drive the Blazer.  I didn't know the corner, just a couple weeks into my first winter at Baker.  The sleet was tapping on my window on Garden, the streetlights a streaky orange.  It was good going until the corner, having dried up out by Barclay, maybe the Haggen.  That corner, though, just below the 47 mile, it doesn't melt.  Or if it does, it's only so that it may refreeze again, and it was definitely refrozen.  It was also snowing again, as evidenced by the DOT plow driver who pulled us out.  John said he saw his life in a flash, like in the movies.  Fortunately, the snow in the ditch by that massive Doug fir rootwad was rotten, crunchy, non-supportive.  We stopped less than a foot from major problems.

Second morning, late that winter.  I hitched up from Bellingham with my roommate and his buddy.  They were seniors at one of the high schools down there, not sure which.  Roommate's buddy, we'll call him Buddy, had an early-model Tacoma, long before they cost twenty fifty grand for a twenty-two-year-old model with 257 thirty billion million on the spinny thingy.  Two doors and a canopy.  I'll give him this, he had sand bags against the head of the bed.  And a camp chair, which was surprisingly comfortable.  The dark rolled past, snow from town, continuously whipping by at 60 or so, his confidence far outreaching his experience or skill, as evidenced by the ridiculously quick 360 he did not mean to turn at the left hander just past the North Fork bridge.  The snow was going in the correct direction, toward the back of the canopy, then it slowed up until it was headed the other direction entirely.  Without a beat, it stopped and then headed toward the back again, although at a much steeper angle now that he'd slowed down below 35.  Buddy trundled the rest of the way to the E Lodge at codger speed, but we made it.  Six miles he had to calm down, and he was still white as a Peanuts bedsheet ghost.

Somewhere on the first mile or two or three of the climb above the DOT, Shuksan appears through the canopy, that matriarchal Orca.  The Price, the Hanging, and the White Salmon Glaciers white above the deepest green.  October wet, August dry, March sunny break, she's there above the rest.  The remainder of the drive is what you'd expect.  Breathless anticipation, abject fear at 2 a.m. o'clock in the morning when there's a foot of variable on the highway and all you can do is hope the cat in front of your '87 GL didn't drive over the edge first, ghosts and those cold-day sprites, floating ice crystals no bigger than a flake of black pepper.  A scree field that'll swallow a liftie's Jetta like a batter swallowing his chaw after a particularly high insider.  It's sub-alpine, already, not even to four grand.  Then, depending on the day, it's time to boot up, time to go to sleep, time to walk along the Chain Lakes, eat breakfast after Buddy calms down, or just sit in the September sun and watch the pika make hay, the sky eerily empty on the 12th of September.

I didn't believe Pa when he tole me, but then I seent it up on ol' Table Mountain.  NPS photo.

Title from Lee Roy Parnell's epic road poem, On the Road.  Better than the book, I think.  Kerouac was, um, overrated.  Fight me. Besides, Kerouac could kinda write, Lee Roy can shred the slide guitar.