Personal, Travel

Journey To The Center Of The Earth

May 18, 2016
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“Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”
~ Witches Chant, Macbeth

§ § §

It was new. Brand spanking. My first new car ever. No more Ford Pinto, no more Renault R16, no more Chrysler Imperial with occasional brakes. She was fresh off the boat from Japan, all metallic green, and gleaming; I swear she practically glowed in the dark. Less than 30 miles on her and most of that the result of driving her home from the dealership. It was a 1980 Toyota Tercel SR5 sitting calmly in my driveway on a sunny weekend. It smelled that new car smell, and I smiled that new car smile, as I looked down on it from my perch on the second-floor balcony.

A thought occurred… Roadtrip USA! The decision was made. It was almost 6:00am on Sunday, May 18, 1980, and barely 250 miles to the south, after two months of rehearsals, Mt. St. Helens was getting ready for her close-up.

Shotgun!, Keith said.

I’d been in Vancouver for nearly five years already, but my friend Keith had arrived from the east only weeks before. He was up for anything that increased his fun quotient in this newly-minted left-coast, and if it involved wheels and had no agenda, so much the better. Riding shotgun? I laughed. It was a roadtrip – unplanned and spontaneous – and he would be the only other person in the car where else was he going to sit?

Sustained by that morning’s hot coffee and hastily consumed cold pizza from the night before, we drove south, heading for the Peace Arch border crossing in Washington State and the Chuckanut Drive. Between songs by Journey, Queen and AC/DC, the radio was telling us that the border line-ups were fairly light due to the early hour. It was cool and cloudy, but the forecast called for clearing later in the morning. That surely meant other Sunday drivers would soon be out and about, and the borders would get more and more congested as the day progressed. The radio also said that Mt. St. Helens was again spewing steam while it continued to rumble and shake. They’d been saying that for months. Indigestion, some said. All talk, no action. Mother Nature venting her spleen, nothing more. Same shit, different day. We paid no attention. I changed the station, cranked it, merged onto Highway 1 and pressed the accelerator. By the time we hit the border thirty minutes later (a new record I liked this new car!) the clouds had started to break up.

Crossing into the U.S. from Canada – even prior to 9/11 – was never a swift process, but this day we were lucky. A late shift change had allowed us to be waved through without the usual third degree – Whats your citizenship? Where do you live? Whats the purpose of your visit? – none of that, just a wave through. We barely came to a stop. Never happened before, hasnt happened since. Fortunate indeed.

7:30am and we’re in Bellingham taking the off-ramp from Interstate 5 into a Chevron gas station for more fuel for my new baby, and more coffee for us. While Keith used the facilities, I checked out The Bellingham Herald, The Seattle Times, and The Seattle Post-Intellgencer newspapers stacked neatly by the doors. Mt. St. Helens this, Mt. St. Helens that. What if? they collectively said. Who really knew?

Part of the old Highway 99 to Seattle called the Chuckanut Drive was always a class “A” picturesque panic to drive. Now known as Route 11, its a narrow, twisty bit of winding road, and it’s always reminded me of the road to Hana on the Hawaiian island of Maui, a trip I’ve done twice, once on a moped (another story for another time!) Travelling on it is an experience the likes of which you rarely encounter elsewhere in North America.

“One could easily imagine being chased by dragons through Middle Earth on a day like this.”

The Chuckanut was built near the turn of the last century, but because automobiles were still in their infancy it was a graded dirt road at the time used primarily by bicycles and horse-drawn buggies. Most of the road was blasted out of the sheer mountain rock face on one side and drops off into the gorgeous watery oblivion that is Samish Bay on the other. When it officially became a highway twenty years later – an auto trail as they called it then – they could only widen it slightly. It has two lanes and a solid yellow line that runs down the centre, but there all similarity to other roads end. Its two lanes are not easily divisible by one car in some places. To this day large trucks, motorhomes and RVs aren’t even allowed on it. If another vehicle is coming in the other direction, well what’s that they say about courtesy?

Throwing caution, and likely a great deal of common sense to the wind, we flew through the bends and curves at speed, the new Pirellis I’d had installed hugging the tarmac like a train on rails. We barely spoke, me concentrating on keeping that yellow line on my left side where it damn well belonged, and Keith staring out the passenger side at the lush abyss below, and wondering if there was ever going to be a return trip. What sun there was created strobes of light on the road and the windscreen as it flashed through the dense canopy of trees overhead. One could easily imagine being chased by dragons through Middle Earth on a day like this. Powering into sweeping left bends, gearing down and braking into sharp hairpin rights, and red-lining across small stone bridges and up hills into the next sweeping left bend, that twenty-minute buzz was exhilarating.

Escaping the talons of the dragons we emerged into the relatively flat 55 miles-per-hour expanse of the Skagit Valley. Slowing down for what seemed like the first time in a week, we eventually came to a junction between the tiny towns of Bow and Edison, Washington. We cruised past the Rhododendron Cafe and turned right at the post office. As we did, Keith pointed and said, Is that Mt. St. Helens? It was actually Mt. Baker, slowly becoming visible in the distance over our shoulder to the south. A good sign the weather was continuing to clear. It was just after 8:00am.

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Throughout the 1970s and 80s Edison was known as the town that time forgot, and it was, almost literally. With Interstate 5 (I-5) bypassing the most beautiful sections of the Skagit Valley there was little reason for traffic to go through the town. Once there, there was even less in the way of commerce to entice you to stay.

Edison sits on an ‘S’ curve – more of a discombobulated ‘Z’ curve, truth be told – where West Bow Hill Road and Farm To Market Road meet. Once through the town you’re on a straight line till you hit Highway 20, which will take you to wonderful scenic towns like Anacortes and La Conner to the west, or back to I-5 to the east and south if Seattle is more to your liking.

Keith and I were discussing the very same thing, trying to make a decision, as we took the corner in the first half of the ‘Z’. Seattle for lunch at Pike Place Market? La Conner for the stroll? Anacortes just because?

“I’m glad the brakes worked well on my new car.”

An old Buick had been towing a U-Haul trailer and miscalculated the ‘Z’. The vehicle, now unhitched, was sitting on the left side of the road with its hazard lights flashing. The U-Haul – one wheel in the ditch, the other on the actual road – was perched precariously on its rear doors on the right side of the road, its trailer tongue sticking up in the air like an exaggerated middle finger. We were screwed. A tow truck looked as though it had just arrived and was maneuvering into place to hopefully put the trailer back on the straight and narrow. Regardless, the road was blocked in both directions, so we opted for turning around and heading back to the junction.

Who drives a Buick, anyway? Keith said. We both laughed.

Seriously, I said. I mean — BANG! A small bird had hit the windscreen and lodged itself under the passenger side wiper. I braked, lurching, as we skidded to a stop.

What the hell! I began to say. Keith tapped the window on his side. Look, he said, pointing. A half dozen horses were racing around a fenced-in field, neighing wildly. As we watched, one tried to jump over the fence but tripped and fell over it. Then it got up and galloped away into another field. Instinctively, we rolled down our windows and started to move the car forward, slowly, looking out and around. In the sky, all manner of birds were screaming, swooping and diving haphazardly in all directions not flying instinctively in tight formations as you’d expect. A short distance away a lone cow was on the loose and was literally stampeding up the road ahead of us. Keith said later that he saw other cows knock down an old wooden fence and get tangled in the beams and each other. I accelerated. In the distance, I could see the cow running up a slight rise where a small bridge crossed a creek. It then disappeared over the other side. I drove faster. Then, we too came over the rise.

The cow ran up to and then through a dark cloud, a fog of some sort; a fog not only hanging over the road but right smack in the middle of it. The fog was moving in our direction. WINDOWS! I yelled. ROLL UP THE WINDOWS! I may have used other choice words at that moment too, I don’t recall. No sooner had the car windows been thankfully re-sealed, than I realized what was upon us. I floored it. And drove headlong into thousands upon thousands of BEES! I learned later that at this precise moment it was shortly after 8:30am.

If ever there was a shared WTF moment, that was it. On came the wipers full blast, pumping as much washer fluid onto the windscreen as I could, trying desperately to dilute and remove the bee guts – I’d completely forgotten about the poor bird. I couldn’t see a damned thing out the front of the car, and we were still traveling fast. Keith said, Wheres the cow? I don’t see the cow. I regained my composure, slowed to a crawl and squinted through the yellow-tinted glass, wary, now, of hitting the animal.

As we both looked around trying to see where the bovine had disappeared to, it came running up alongside my car, startling both of us. Apparently, in my own state of agitation, I’d raced right past it. Keith and I both turned to look at the strange sight that was close enough to touch.

In my travels, I’ve witnessed everything from religious devotees piercing their tongues and other intimate body parts with sharp needles at a Thaipusam festival at the Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur, and watched a bloody knife-fight on a street corner in New York City. Ive eaten BBQ grasshoppers off a make-shift Hibachi at four o’clock in the morning in Bangkok, downed deep-fried dog on a stick from a food stall in a back alley in Hong Kong, and returned a plate of parasite-infested swordfish to the kitchen of an expensive restaurant in Vancouver (I’m adventurous not stupid!) I’ve been shot at, had machetes swung at my head and fallen through the ice into frigid waters, twice. But no experience compares to driving along a back country lane and watching as a cow, covered with angry bees, passes you. Surreal doesn’t begin to describe it. I felt like we’d arrived unannounced on a Terry Gilliam film set. Horrified, I pressed gently on the go fast pedal, and sped away from the awful scene.

Keith and I started to laugh, almost uncontrollably. Our eyes and ears couldn’t explain what we were seeing and hearing, and our brains couldn’t compute. There was no frame of reference.

As we reached the junction again a few minutes later, I made the decision to pull into the tiny gas station across from the Rhododendron Cafe. However, there was a huge motorhome in the sole refuelling spot, so I parked along the side of the building and we got out. We walked around to the front of the car. Holy shit! we said, almost in unison. The entire grill, headlights, turning signals and ground-effects air scoop were covered, caked with dead and dying bees. “Yeah, us too”, said the motorhome driver. Keith and I walked over. I could hear rumbling. Had he left his engine running? Is that thunder?

It was only on approaching the RV that I realized he wasn’t refuelling, but spraying water from a hose to clean the front of his rig. The ground around the front of the motorhome was an inch deep in yellow water, and he still hadn’t finished.

What the HELL?! I said. The RV driver pointed behind us. “She finally blew”, he said. We turned and looked. There, due south, on the horizon, a thin wisp of smoke that might have been discounted as just another house fire on any given day. And then, in the distance, more rumbling. It had never occurred to us that an earthquake had caused Mt. St. Helens to erupt sending the animal kingdom into a frenzy.

Middle Earth had just given up the ghost!

mt-_st-_helens_usgs3An hour later, and back on the Canadian side, radio was reporting calamity of all stripes. Volcanic ash falling in the vicinity of the blast, lava flows and something called a pyroclastic flow had been reported by some close enough to see it, but far enough away to reach safety, thankfully. Initial readings of seismic waves revealed an earthquake and several strong aftershocks, and eyewitnesses reported lots of noise and lots and lots of smoke. Prevailing winds were carrying the airborne debris mostly east and south, so they said, but those winds could change direction at any time. Airplanes flying near ground zero radioed that the smoke was reaching their altitude, which meant that the smoke, volcanic ash and poisonous gas could result in a historical global event the likes of which had not been seen since Krakatoa. When that Indonesian volcano erupted in 1883, the explosion was heard more than 2,000 miles away in the Australian city of Perth, its shockwave was recorded to have circled the Earth seven times, and two weeks later parts of England awoke to see volcanic ash falling from the sky. That explosion also affected temperatures worldwide, reducing them by a degree or two, and having a disastrous effect on animal and plant life in many regions of the world for decades after. No one knew what the Mt. St. Helens eruption would mean for us in the Northwest, or the rest of the world.

Two days later the winds had changed slightly. Radio and television were reporting that ash had fallen overnight in parts southern British Columbia. And thats when I noticed it. Among the remains of bee guts mixed with a slight dusting of volcanic ash, someone had hastily written the words ‘Wash Me’ on the hood of my once-gleaming metallic green new car.

Shotgun indeed.

§ § §

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I took this photograph of Mt. St. Helens near the town of Randle, Washington in August 2006. Had you not known that it was an active volcano you might assume this was just another majestic Northwest mountain. Perhaps its true, maybe time does heal all wounds.

As for the Chuckanut Drive and the area of the Skagit Valley in and around Bow, not much has changed. It’s still one of the best drives you can take anywhere in the world for my money, and out of Vancouver going south, or out of Seattle heading north, its still just a day trip.

Edison, on the other hand, has changed quite a bit. You now have every reason to stop and enjoy that discombobulated ‘Z’ curve and the commerce that’s been a part of it for the past half a dozen years. It now boasts a couple of taverns, an art gallery, a fun second-hand collectibles shop, a spectacular bakery, and one of the best wine and cheese shops to be found anywhere. In fact, I’d say Edison is now a featured destination. If you needed a reason to drive the Chuckanut – other than for the sheer beauty and exhilaration – Edison would be it.

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