If you have to make a duty trip, it is best to do something for yourself along the way, otherwise, the journey will be onerous and fatiguing. We learned of my nephew’s wedding date after our vacation time for the year had been assigned, so, congratulations aside, we were faced with a quick weekend run. Had we flown out of Vancouver, it would have been exhausting: a one-hour drive to the airport, arrival two hours early for international flights, a two-hour layover in Seattle, a half hour drive to my mom’s. Seven hours altogether for one and a half hour flight time! Whereas, the drive was only nine hours and we’d get to see places we honestly liked. Leaving Friday afternoon, we drove halfway, then treated ourselves to an overnight stay in a quirky little town along a route loved, enjoying the scenery.
We rose at 7:00 a.m., after a restful sleep at the Waterville Hotel, sat ourselves down around a big round oak table in the parlor, sipped orange juice and nibbled on fresh raisin scones from the Blue Rooster Bakery. Just like homemade! Then, we carried our coffee mugs out to the verandah and greeted the day. Across the street, in Pioneer Park, a few people were setting up shop. When we arrived the night before, I noticed what looked like a shuttered art fair. In the light of day, I saw the very kind of old, white-painted, wicker furniture I covet and it turns out it was an outdoor antique fair. Since we collect antiques, we decided to take a boo. It was still early enough for dew on the grass and everything seemed hushed. Only one or two proprietors were about… Tents and RVs lined the park perimeter and we heard the muffled sounds of people about their ablutions. It was time for us to get on with our day, too, so we walked back across the street to the hotel. Mark took our luggage to the car and then we snapped a few shots of the hotel grounds. I took a photo of him by the old garage next to the park. Few people were about and it seemed we pretty much had Waterville, Washington to ourselves that Saturday morning. It would shape up to be a very hot day and, as Mark stood there, I envisioned a big, old pop cooler on the sidewalk, full of orange and grape Nehi.
Pulling out, we headed east. The day was already bright and sunny and we were thankful for air conditioning. Aside from an occasional hawk, we saw no living thing and there was a serene quality that city dwellers recognize when they find themselves in rural areas. Ripe wheat, field after field, golden, with a backdrop of rich, blue sky. The Prairies. So sedate, hard to believe that what we were traveling through the site of ancient, epic drama. The foundation of the Waterville Hotel is made of basalt boulders quarried nearby and, but three hours away, lies Spokane surrounded by towering basalt columns shaped like crystal rods. Where there is basalt, there was fire. I asked Mark how close we were to Moses Coulee, one of my favorite places. Not far, he said…. Fire and ice. Fire and ice. We were witnessing the scene of formerly catastrophic volcanic and glacial activity. Plus, while it would only take us 180 minute to zip through this region, it took many ages to form and reform.
We’ve been driving this route for 10-15 years. When we were first getting used to the terrain, we noticed humongous boulders in fields. Farmers would simply drive their tractors around them. They were oddly spaced, too, only here and there. Eventually, we learned they were called glacial erratics, giant rocks deposited by moving glaciers. They weigh many tons and are now features of the landscape. According to Dan McShane’s Washington Landscape blog, erratics in part of the Waterville Plateau have been “protected under the National Natural Landmark program.” His blog post is illustrated by two oil paintings by his wife, Bellingham artist Lisa McShane: “Winter Fields,” and “Erratic and the Road.” The latter looks like it must be Yeager Rock near Waterville, which weighs 400 tons. McShane’s work is fantastic and she certainly captures the eeriness of these geological wonders, detritus of a much earlier age. The source of the basalt in this region is volcanic activity that formed ‘flood basalt.’ Eastern Washington was flooded in the Miocene and Pliocene to the tune of 63,000 square miles (160,000 km2), in one of the largest floods of its kind. “Over a period of perhaps 10 to 15 million years, lava flow after lava flow poured out, ultimately accumulating to a thickness of more than 6,000 feet (1.8 km)” states an article on the Columbia Plateau in Wikipedia. “As the molten rock came to the surface, the Earth’s crust gradually sank into the space left by the rising lava.”
I love rocks. Stones. Geological formations. Outcrops. Striations. You name it, I like, it. My first job out of high school was as a researcher for the U.S. Bureau of Mines and Geology, a sweet job I netted thanks to the efforts of our neighbor, a geologist. Many years before, I’d caught the rockhounding bug from my grandfather, who lived in Central Oregon, another rock lover’s paradise. Driving through this area of Highway 2 sends me! Next up was Moses Coulee, another favorite. It has some of the best examples of rimrock I’ve seen. Whenever I travel through it, my senses heighten and I absorb the silence of the canyon walls. Some day, I want to drive the length of it, if it’s possible. I am interested in being in the presence of such massive hunks of rock. Moses Coulee was gouged out of the landscape by raging torrents of outburst flooding caused when enormous glacial ice dams broke repeatedly, emptying ancient Lake Missoula. This lake held about half the volume of Lake Michigan, 2,100 cubic kilometres (500 cu mi) of water. Lake Missoula was enormous: 7,770 square kilometres (3,000 sq mi). About the size of Delaware, Connecticut, and Rhode Island put together. Its outflow scoured areas throughout the entire Northwest United States. The dam broke 40 times over 2000 years. Lake Missoula emptied into the Columbia River, then into the Pacific Ocean by way of was is now western Montana, northern Idaho, eastern Washington, and northwest Oregon. The amount of dirt and ‘stuff’ that was dislocated by the flood equaled 210 cubic kilometres (50 cu mi).
Still in the ‘geo-zone,’ we drove east, anticipating a glimpse of Dry Falls, our last major landmark of interest this trip. Imagine an enormous deluge from Lake Missoula thundering over rimrock 17 times the length of Niagara Falls. Beyond deafening! Now imagine it dry and you have Dry Falls and its silent testimony. We didn’t have time to drive down to it, but we took a quick peek at the scenic overlook. Though times are quiet in these areas now, ancient history belies it. Interestingly, until the 1920s, the immensity of what occurred wasn’t fathomed until geologist J. Harlen Bretz had a Eureka moment and realized the scabland channels of Washington state were caused by water. His hypothesis caused outrage among the scientific community and for 40 years, he fought for his beliefs and his work. He was vindicated eventually, but it took until the 1970s to fully quash opposition and to prove he was correct. Since then, the area has been subject to great interest and study. As for me, my mom’s from Missoula and this area seems to be in my blood…. (Part III runs on Monday)