On the Road Summer 2021 Days 13 & 14 Kalispell and Hart's Pass

Days 13 & 14 – Kalispell and Hart’s Pass

I left nine-ish under skies about to spill and drove right into the rainy front. It wasn’t bad, just a steady drizzle town after town on Highway Two until about noon when I reached Kalispell. I got my nose pierced and a little amethyst jewel placed on one side at Creative Body in Kalispell. It was a pleasant experience. When I came out, the sky hinted that the sun had woken and was somewhere behind veiled curtains. I wasn’t sure where I would bed. I wanted to hike what sections of the Pacific Crest Trail I could. To get to Rainy Pass though would take me longer than this day’s driving. I don’t drive at night if I can help it. I much prefer to get a good night’s sleep every night I can no matter where I am or what’s going on.

I was expecting rural Washington to be woodsy and dotted with small, artsy towns. Eastern Washington along Highway Two was disappointing. Uninteresting terrain. Flat and dotted with impoverished towns. And the air was pregnant with a fetid smell.

I did like a billboard I passed. Its picture was two slender hands tenderly cupping the earth. Its message: Hate hurts us all.

As evening was coming on, I’d been driving for hours, mostly uninspired. I was weary, climbing a steep hill over grey asphalt under a heavy grey cloud cover, when something gripped my heart, scaring me. It was squeezing it. I became agitated, nervous and began trembling.  Was the line of giant transmission towers ascending the hill along with me causing my sudden nausea?

I did not photograph the high voltage towers and lines there. I just wanted to escape as quickly as possible. It couldn’t be much more unsightly. Is this technology truly all we are capable of?

I came to realize that I was in fact entering Hell. The most concrete ever poured in one place a sign proudly proclaimed. The Grand Coulee Dam. Everything about it feels wrong. Like an accident waiting to happen.

Have you ever seen the Columbia River? It is magnificent! Navy blue. Wide and wild, madly rushing in whitewater caps around forested mountain bends.

Stopped in her tracks?

What was FDR thinking? I mean, I can trace his logic.

Dams have been built around the globe for at least 5,000 years for various reasons, mostly local and without sprawling consequences. But Theodore Roosevelt had big shoes to fill and dammit, he was going to fill them. Seriously upping the ante, he kicked off a spree of building bigger and yet bigger dams in America, beginning not surprisingly with the Theodore Roosevelt Dam.

On the plus side, the contours of the Theodore Roosevelt from an aerial view are graceful, with the beauty of a butterfly wing, but any way you look at it, damming a river is like chaining a wolf.

So, what was FDR thinking?  Well yes, there was upholding the legacy of his uncle’s achievements, and hopefully surpassing them. You know, it’s a family thing. How could he not see the Theodore Roosevelt Dam, the world’s largest masonry dam as a spectacular achievement of infrastructure granted a growing nation?  The undeniably immense power of the Columbia River could provide electricity to an entire section of the burgeoning country!

And then there was the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps providing work to unemployed young men. (Yes, just men.) Idle hands wanting work. A perfect fit.

Sure, we know now that giving environmental considerations a backseat to progress and commerce will be our undoing, but I am not so inclined to relieve his legacy of some responsibility of foresight and sensitivity. I’m all in for a new deal of the deck when warranted. Nor am I opposed to the concept of a new contract, a new societal paradigm, a new deal, but how about considering keeping the Holocene Era intact while you’re at it? It's the only climate fit for humans.

Both of the Roosevelts were visionary thinkers, but why couldn’t they have been gods? Why couldn’t they see that wind or solar power might have been more sustainable? And throw their might into that. A lot of vision is visceral. I grew up around steel mills and coal mines. The downsides were apparent.

The night sky literally throbbed. Blazing fires from the giant open doors of the steel mills licked the night. Smokestacks spewed red dust against the sky like sparklers, particulate matter so thick it coated every house and car for miles around the mill. No one saw this might be a problem? 

Then what about all of the poisonous byproducts dumped into the river? How poor do you have to be to eat that fish? How did everyone turn their eyes from this? And yet, there wasn’t even a dialogue. It was all about jobs. It takes the same myopia to dam a mighty river. 

The same shortsightedness to disregard the cascading effects when habitats and biodiversity are destroyed. And the planet's commensurate ability to perform its many life-giving services, like filtration, temperature moderation and providing drinkable water.  Surely the policymakers might have considered less drastic alternatives to accommodate human wants than vastly altering entire ecosystems?

I’ll get off my rant. Terror can do that to a soul. And I was terrified. Trembling is not a normal physiological state and it had come upon me suddenly without warning. 

Trying to make sense of this in my head, catalog what I was seeing, I couldn’t come up with the name of transmission towers. I'd pulled over to read the proud signage and get a better look at the American  monstrosity that had ol' Teddy puffing out his chest. As I was googling “electrical towers,” not surprisingly I came upon the concept of visual pollution. Not surprising because they are embarrassingly ugly. Scars on the landscape. A blight along roads and across urban intersections. These wires and poles and transmission substations everywhere make me ashamed of the human race. How barbarously primitive we are.

On a lighter note, do consider this gem I came across when you have a moment: a Wikipedia author asserts that a primary effect of visual pollution is loss of opinion diversity.

The Grand Coulee Dam Chamber of Commerce invites you not to miss the laser light show, “broadcast every evening between Memorial Day and September 30 onto the mile-wide face of the Grand Coulee Dam!”

Bring out the clowns.

Deflated, I moved on from the circus. There were no rest stops indicated on my map, but I knew roughly where the national forest I’d be closest to at sunset began, and that land is our land unless proscriptions are explicitly noted.

On I went. If I’d have just traveled another quarter mile along Highway 20, there was a legit campsite. But I was so beat, I might have not made it four miles down its dusty road. As it was, I pulled off a side road. Long and straight with little traffic and wide berms. I pulled off onto a wide berm in front of a fenced-in pasture, privatized my car, brushed my teeth, peed in the grass and went to sleep. If you’ve never done this sort of things, be advised that it’s better to pee in the grass than on the road as it will splash on asphalt and wet your leg. As I was rising the next morning, some sonofabitch redneck rancher rode his horn the entire stretch just to wake me. Fuck him and all of his buddies. I was awake and ready for his kind.

Soon I came upon a sweet little town with a convenience store with fresh coffee and hot homemade breakfast sandwiches. Twisp. This was the Washington I’d imagined. The lady there was super nice but she did tell me with a certain amount of authority in her voice that Cutthroat Pass, where I was heading, was closed.

She seemed genuinely concerned about me. And well she should have been. Truly, if you are going to hike the woods in the northwest in summer, you should understand a little bit about fires. If not a lot. A wilderness prep course is not a bad idea. She was pretty certain the entire North Cascades Park was closed and had been all summer. 

I knew that wasn’t true.

She strongly advised me to stop at the ranger station a few miles down the road in Winthrop and find out where the fires were so as I didn’t get myself killed.  There have been close to 50,000 wildfires annually in recent years during fire season in the northwest and the number is increasing. Folks in these towns are ready at any moment to evacuate. Maybe not literally, but mentally.

Then I began to see signs of fire-fighting staging. First, a water station at the river. It wasn’t long after, traveling down a road I shouldn’t have been on, having unwittingly got turned around, that I was stopped. The road was blockaded. 

I credit this sort of experience to the local gods, in this case, naiads and dryads. I got to experience something totally alien that I would not have, had I not inexplicably got off track. Two fellows, blockade blockheads, assisting in the firefighting effort by manning the blockade were not locals and didn’t seem particularly credible despite their sincerity, so I didn’t get too riled when they plied me with misinformation, like not only Highway Twenty, but every possible route out of there was closed.

Fire staging camp north of Winthrop

Truly, rather than driving, I would love to hike the 1200-mile Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail westward from its origin on the Continental Divide at the US-Canada border near Chief Mountain in Glacier National Park, traveling through seven national forests and North Cascades National Park and ending near Cape Alava in Olympic National Park, about 22 miles northwest of the town of Forks. It also crosses the 3100-mile north-south Continental Divide National Scenic Trail and the 2,650 mile north-south Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail.

As it was though, I was driving, the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington my destination. Having heard my brother praise the views on the Pacific Crest Trail in the northwest for many years, I swore I would see what I could see by hiking sections relatively accessible from Highway 20. I bought a book on section hiking the PCT in the State of Washington, thumbed through the photos, compared them with my travel maps and decided I’d like to take Rainy Pass to Cutthroat Pass. I realized after talking with the Ranger at the Winthrop Ranger Station that I wasn’t clear. I didn’t want to take Cutthroat Trail, which was indeed closed due to a wildfire. But actually, I’m glad I was unclear. Advising me to avoid Cutthroat, she armed me with a fantastic map and sent me up to Hart’s Pass, upwind from the smoke. After chatting with her, I went back into Winthrop, a cute, touristy faux saloon-town, bought two delicious IPAs from the convenience store for my stash and headed toward Mazama.


My intention was to hike the PCT as far as I could on my wobbly ankle, both south and north from Hart’s Pass.

Mountain goat feet have soft rubbery soles which can conform to the shape of the terrain and can act as a suction cup. The two toes of each hoof have separate sensory understanding and can operate to balance. Press your index finger and middle finger like a V onto a tabletop to comprehend this. The wrap-around toenails are thick and strong keratin. They can, and seemingly on their own volition will provide a non-slip barrier once the suction cup is enabled to help maintain balance.

As I was struggling to maintain my weak-ankled balance on the narrow crumbly sometimes disappearing mountainside trail, glancing warily down into the steep canyons, trying not to become quite that “one” with the woods of the Pacific Northwest, I wished for mountain goat feet.

Trail just south of Hart’s Pass campground

It's pretty well known that the goat-man god Pan can be playful. The usual notion of him is mischievously prancing about playing panpipes but evidently, he can also become crazy angry. During these episodes, his bloodcurdling yell scares the shit out of everybody. 

The wisdom of folklore tells us that those who experience a sudden overwhelming agitation and fear should realize that it is Pan’s unseen presence causing the panic.

Pan had visited me once already this day before I even set forth on this so-called trail. Nearly paralyzed with fear navigating the primitive road I considered abandoning my vehicle and just leaving it there on the deeply-rutted narrow and harrowingly-steep mountain road. The next rain would wash it over the edge, sending it banging down 10,000 feet of rocks into the canyon. Driving was fierce. Overhanging cliffs blocked visibility on hairpin curves, leaving no time to know if a vehicle was approaching head-on. If one indeed was coming, the outcome was clear. One of us would tumble off the steep cliff and slam against the jagged rocks for a long, long time. But I stuck with it, white-knuckled and teeth grinding until I made it up to Hart’s Pass. 

Funny, when she was giving me directions, the ranger never so much as raised an eyebrow when telling me to take Lost River Road after Goat River Road. 

I feel a bit honored.

How did hiker survive the PCT? Carefully watching each step of my square hobbit feet as one misstep on the shaley berm could lead to a painful death, I mulled over the difficulty of maintaining vigilance over 2600 miles. Some even hike at night. I might be a bit too dreamy, too inclined to distraction by the splendors around me for the close scrutiny and simultaneous circumspection required day after day. For example, I could see being in the southwest desert hot and dehydrated, seeking shade to  curl up in and forgetting that rattlesnakes probably had the same idea.

It’s hard not to want to accomplish every possible noteworthy feat, but I think tackling small sections might be a better option for me than beginning in Mexico and walking to Canada. That way I’m not at risk for taking sweeping panoramas for granted, wishing I’d just make it to the border sometime soon. Hart’s Pass is the last stop-over, just 30 miles before the end of the trail at the Canadian Border. After reaching their goal, a lot of hikers retrace the last section to get a ride down to civilization from Hart’s Pass. It’s not only ridiculously beautiful but the vibe at Hart’s Pass campground is one of excitement. I hiked as far south as I could and then after resting, hiked as far north as I could.

The views of alpine forest, steep precipices, fields of wildflowers and distant mountain ranges were unique from the crest of each hill and around each bend.

My campsite was pretty and had a stellar view. I shared it with a couple hikers just cause I'd paid for it and they were broke, one a through-hiker just returning from the end of trail in Canada and the other, a section hiker.

I did not find the drive down from Hart’s Pass as heart-stopping. But then again, I had fearless company; I gave Boone from Kentucky, the through-hiker who shared the campsite a ride down to his lodging outside Winthrop. I have since read that this road is in fact considered one of the most treacherous in the state, which is saying something in a state with mountain peaks exceeding 14,000 feet. Still, I’d do it again…maybe. Depends whether Pan is traipsing about.