East of the Mountains

St. Andrew's Mission

St. Andrews Mission, near Crow's Shadow Institute, Umatilla Reservation, Oregon

Usually when someone says “Northwest,” referring to the Northwest United States, the image that comes to mind is of evergreens, mountains, mist, a wild coast line and rain. Lots of rain. However, east of the mountains the landscape is quite different. Between the Cascade and the Rocky mountains is a large area of high desert. It is sun drenched, windy, hot and dry. Some of it is flat, some of it is rolling hills and fields, other parts look like you are on the moon. Upon flying into Spokane, Washington several weeks ago I found out that this area is called the “Inner Northwest.”

Last Best Place

Bumper Stick seen at 50,000 Silver $

Here’s where my geography gets a little nebulous. I would say the “Inner Northwest” includes eastern Washington and Oregon, as well as Idaho, and Western Montana. But I don’t know if Montana would consider itself Northwest or “Inter Mountain” west. Anyway, what I love about these places is they are, unquestionably, the west. You know when you pass roadside attractions like 50,000 Silver $ that you are in the west.

50,000 Silver $!

50,000 Silver $, Montana

I have an aunt and uncle who live near Sheridan, Wyoming and spent many summer weeks as a child traveling out there to go visit them, help them heard cattle and ride a Welsh pony through the sagebrush (yes, really). So I have a strong affection in my heart for “big sky country,” lodge pole pines, Stetson hats, and steep mountain passes. I love long Montana coal trains that stretch on forever (though waiting for them as a railroad crossing is not fun) and was thrilled on this recent trip to watch them be assembled in downtown Missoula.

Train Yards, Mountains

Train yards, downtown Missoula, Montana

Red Sky at Night II

Sky in Missoula, Montana

The most striking part of driving through such beautiful countryside along Interstates 90 and 84, as well as smaller routes, was realizing that the last time I drove through this part of the country I was 21 years old. I was living in Portland, Oregon for the summer and had borrowed my Mom’s car to drive out and back from the east coast. This put over 6,000 miles on the car in 3 months, which may have been its death knell.

Trail Bridge

National forest, Idaho, along route 12

However, driving along those highways and byways I felt like I had just been there. I remembered the place I stopped along the road after Lookout Pass in Montana to lay on the ground and look up at the trees and sky and breathe in the sharp, piney air. I found the motel that K. and I stayed in for a night in Missoula. Everything came rushing back. The landscape looked just how it did then. And then I realized, wait, that was 9 years ago! I have lived so many lifetimes since then. I’ve finished college and nearly finished graduate school. I’ve loved and lost and loved and lost and loved again several times. I almost moved to another country and decided against it and decided to make my life in New York. I’ve held several jobs and lived through one of the worst presidencies the US has ever known. And yet, I felt, out there, I could have just as easily met 21 year old self on the side of the highway. Young, restless, a ball of nerves and energy, unsure of her place in the world.

Idaho River

River near Florence, Idaho, along route 55

Modern Hotel at Sunset

Modern Hotel at Sunset, Boise, Idaho

Rainbow Cafe

Rainbow Cafe, downtown Pendleton

Outside of Pendleton

Umatilla Reservation, Oregon

I’m still searching for my place in this world, but I am thankful for this landscape. The lanscape grounds me and to help me remember where I have been and how wide the spaces are where I could go. And I know that no matter where I go, this landscape will go on without me, as it always has.

Columbia River in sight

Columbia River, Oregon

I waited all trip for this burger!

Char Burger, Cascade Locks, Oregon (with the Bridge of the Gods out the window)

More photos on flickr.