WE WERE GOING to the Deep South. We bought a guide book, spent time looking at maps, planned routes – even got a quote from a travel company for flights and some sadly unimaginative accommodation. Then we booked to go the Pacific Northwest instead.
This was our first foreign holiday since our year of travel in 2014. We had two weeks. We once spent that long staying on one beach in Malaysia. It seemed like a ridiculously short amount of time. We wanted epic landscapes around every corner, not desert, swamps and long straight roads (I’ve never been to the Deep South, but I’ve seen True Detective, I know what it’s like…). This was travel for the Instagram generation.
We were also seeking an instant relief from others things: my job was stressful, perhaps doubly so because I was trying to balance it with a part time MA – the anxiety curled up tightly inside me, and, it seemed, around both our lives. In hindsight, it was one of those times in life where you need reminding that you are not, in fact, pivotal to the continued existence of the universe, despite everything seeming previously to have been arranged for you – right down to the stranger who bags the last empty seat on the tube having been sent to thwart you, personally, and having no other purpose on Earth.
To gain perspective from travel, from nature, from the unexpected, and thus to lose the chagrin of the lost-seat-on-the-tube: this is to be free.
WE PEERED AT Mt Rainier from the highway, jammed amongst rush hour traffic on our journey south from Seattle-Tacoma airport, bound for a cheap hotel. The snowy peak hulked over everything, pushing through the gaps in trees and billboards. That night, after a fatigued dinner at Denny’s, I dreamt that we climbed it.
The next morning, amidst the waffles and fruit loops of the Comfort Inn complimentary breakfast, I thought that perhaps some of our fellow guests may have consumed Mt Rainier whole. An enormously fat family of four crowded a table, shovelling cereal into their mouths. We squeezed past them to the buffet, vainly searching for the low sugar, dairy and gluten-free dietary options. The coffee was bad. I don’t even want to talk about the tea. There was only one solution to these first world problems:
Four hours later, I was sat on the steps amongst the other lunchers outside the Portland Saturday market, eating empanadas, scalding hot juices running down my chin. The lady on the step next to me was knitting. I watched a homeless woman colouring her obligatory cardboard sign with felt tip pens.
The next few days passed in a caffeine fuelled blur of locally-sourced, ethically-produced, craft-brewed hedonism. Basically like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, except with Triple Echinacea Green Tea instead of mescaline.
For a pair of bibliofiends, Powell’s City of Books was a highlight. This is the only place in the world where I’ve come across secondhand books mixed in with new, so you stumble upon an untouched edition sitting next to three used. It’s inspired, and it obviously worked: I left with a bag full of books. All other bookshops, please take note.
Frankly, if this doesn’t set your heart racing, I don’t know what will.
But as glorious as beer, caffeine and books are, it’s not what we travelled for. Consuming is fun for a while (quite a while – we spent 3 hours in the REI store), but shopping bags, beer flights and fancy meals all have diminishing returns*. We went for this:
*except for fish tacos, obviously.
It was spring, and the waterfalls of Colombia River Gorge were crashing torrents. We spent a long time just standing and staring up at one particular waterfall, close enough for its spuming drizzle to soak us through, close enough to feel utterly insignificant against its urgency. Its roar filled me.
This is what I want from the wild: to feel very small. Other people visit dominatrixes.
That night we crossed back over the Hood River into Washington and stayed in a hut in the countryside, just outside a place called White Salmon. It was, like all the best places, an AirBnB place. After briefly meeting the owners, we watched the sun sink over trees and a sky full of stars emerge above.
In the morning, following the owners’ advice, we walked down to a little creek, passing on the way bullet-holed shooting targets. We stood on the riverbank, trying to absorb a tiny slice of sunshine, taking stock of our lives and what might be next. Then we bundled our luggage back into the rented gas guzzler and were away.
A few hours later we were driving down criss-crossing rural roads, red barns perched atop rolling hills. In the fields we passed were row upon row of young pine trees, each destined to one day be decorated with tinsel – for some reason it had never occurred to me that Christmas trees would be farmed in this way. They seemed oddly incongruous amidst the spring greenery.
After a quick stop off at our accommodation (a lavender farm, no less), we were at Silver Falls State Park, walking the Trail of Ten Falls. These stellar examples of falling water were, in fact, even better than those we witnessed in Colombia River Gorge, helped partly by the fact that it was sunny rather than raining and that for a few of the falls, it was possible to walk behind them. I began to think that I was becoming something of a connoisseur, and looked rather haughtily on some of the lesser examples that, if I’m honest, were just making up the numbers to allow for some easy alliteration in the trail’s name.
Back at the lavender farm, we sat outside in the warm spring sun and read. It was quiet, just the sound of birds and occasionally a car from the road below. A helicopter flew above us, and even it seemed to be following a lazy meander through the sky. Rolling hills spread out to the horizon and as the air cooled and the sun dipped, the first stars emerged and we could see the lights of Salem twinkling in the distance.
The next day was a travel day – a six hour drive south down the I-5 to the northernmost tip of California. We ate a Wendy’s for lunch. I don’t know why. The man behind the till was excited to meet us. I was excited about the fact that they named a burger after me (no one even told me), but he was more interested in our accents. We had the usual “where you guys from?” conversation, I got my Dave Burger, we sat down.
About midway through my namesake burger, the man from behind the till – let’s call him Joel – approached our table.
“Pardon me for interrupting, but when will Kate be inaugurated? I heard Her Majesty had passed.”
“The Queen’s dead?”” I asked, thinking immediately of my mother, the diehard republican. “We haven’t seen the news. When did it happen?”
“Oh, I saw it on TV,” said Joel. “A few months back.”
BKC and I exchanged a look.
“Are you sure you’re not thinking of Margaret Thatcher?” I asked. “She died a few years ago. There was a big funeral. I don’t think the Queen is dead. We’d know. Someone would’ve noticed.”
“Oh!” said Joel, “Well, that’s a relief to know Her Majesty is still with us.” There was an awkward pause, then he added: “Kate will make a great Queen.”
I picked at my fries. BKC explained about the line of succession.
Joel nodded sympathetically. “Such a shame about Diana,” he lamented, “she would have made a good Queen.” Then, cryptically, he exclaimed: “let’s hope Charles doesn’t get the guillotine out again!” and swished his arms as if swinging a sword.
“Sometimes,” he confided in us, as I struggled to consume my burger as quickly as possible, “I like to push it as far as I can, you know, politically.”
I didn’t ask him about Trump.
NEXT TIME, in part two of my Pacific Northwest adventure… Redwoods! Whales! Endless pictures of beaches! Don’t miss it.