ROAD TRIP: Over the Pass

A few weeks ago we took a three day road trip to the Methow Valley, a popular weekend hiking, biking and skiing destination in north-central Washington State. I read that Methow is an Okanagan word for sunflower (seeds). I don’t know why “seeds” is in parentheses, but I suppose that the sunflower is Arrowleaf balsmaroot, a locally abundant flower that brightens the valley’s hills in Spring.

Arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) flowers backed by Bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) at peak bloom.

To get to the Methow Valley we had to drive over the North Cascade Mountains, following the two-lane North Cascade Highway east for over 100 miles. By the time we reached the pass, our elevation had increased by about 5,450 feet (1661m). It’s an exhilarating drive, once you get into the mountains. We stopped at Newhalem, a tiny company town built around the hydroelectric plant that has powered Seattle for almost a hundred years. Here, we took a short walk on the Trail of Cedars to enjoy the view of the Skagit River and the beauty of the mature forest around it.

Skagit River at Newhalem, with mares’ tails clouds
Northern Starflower (Trientalis arctica) on the forest floor.
Mid-day shadows are well defined, and black and white brings them out.

We stopped a second time at an overlook to gaze at the blue-green waters of Diablo Lake, a reservoir created by one of three successive dams on the Skagit River.

Diablo Lake with Davis Peak in the background

As we approached the pass the clouds thickened and patches of snow appeared on the sides of the road. The North Cascade Highway is very avalanche-prone during the winter and closes from October until sometime in May, depending on weather. For a good six months you have to drive further south to another pass if you want to get from one side of the state to the other.

North Cascade Highway (Route 20) heading towards Washington Pass

Up at the pass there’s an overlook with an impressive mountain view where I hoped to stop for a look. The short road to the overlook was closed and still snowy, but we were able to park the car outside the gate and walk up. Taking care on the snow, we sucked in the fresh mountain air and enjoyed the silence.

Ravaged trees covered with lichens stand tall at Washington Pass.

A North Cascade mountain view at Washington Pass


The lichen-splotched rocks are an elegant complement to the plant life at the rugged pass.

Willow catkins

Liberty Bell mountain from Washington Pass

As we walked back to the car, a pair of Gray jays flew into view. It was clear that they were checking us out, and I knew what that meant – they wanted food! These birds are called Camp robbers, a well-deserved reputation. We happened to have a bag of nuts with us so we doled out a few peanuts, and could barely contain our joy the two jays swooped down onto our hands and grabbed the treats. I’ve fed birds by hand before, but not jays. I was struck by the satisfying plunk of their strong feet on my hand – these birds actually have a little weight to them, unlike the tiny chickadees I’m used to.

Hitting the Jackpot


Over the pass, down the mountain and into the valley we drove, from the wet west side of the Cascades to the dry east side. Before checking into our bnb we made one more stop, at Lewis Butte, where we dawdled amidst fragrant bitterbrush, lovely lupines, and sparkling aspens.

Aspen grove off Gunn Ranch Road, Winthrop

A pond reflects the Cascade foothills
A tree skeleton amidst the wildflowers near Lewis Butte

Homes with views

It’s such a pleasure to be able to experience a completely different environment after just a few hours’ drive. The small towns of Methow Valley have their charms too, with their “Wild West” atmosphere. They can get overrun with tourists at times, but it wasn’t a problem on this trip. We had a great time exploring back roads, and I plan to post photos from the rest of the trip later.

LOCAL WALKS: MORNING FOG

1. Driftwood, Lottie Bay

A late May walk on a cool, foggy morning, a favorite place ten minutes from home…

If you fly over this corner of Fidalgo Island in a small plane and look down, you’ll see a bay shaped like the curved knife used for chopping vegetables, sometimes called a mezzluna.  The knife edge is the beach. A rocky cliff takes a bite out of the edge and a long, narrow pier draws a fine line across the blade and into the bay. (A map is below, for reference.)

A bit of lawn disappears into thick woods surrounding the bay; the quiet water is speckled with rocks. To the west are more islands. In the distance, the Strait of Juan de Fuca disappears into the mist. In the off season the pier is deserted, the waters empty but for an occasional kayaker or small boat, the paths lightly traveled.

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2. At anchor in the fog, Bowman Bay

On this foggy morning there was just one other vehicle in the lot. I was effectively alone. We think of fog as removal: it takes away our ability to see clearly, it muffles sounds and obscures things.

But fog brings not-knowing forward, and what does that do? It returns us to the Wonder.

I’m not sure what’s ahead. I slow down.

3. Flowering grass, Bowman Bay

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4. The path to Lighthouse Point, nearly overtaken by wildflowers and dune grass.

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5. The growth of past seasons mixes with the fresh blades of dune grass on a tangled mess of crumbling driftwood.

 

Wild Nootka roses (Rosa nutkana) sprinkle the path like fat, pink polka dots. The pretty magenta flowers of Common vetch (Vicia sativa) are plentiful too, but are almost lost in  the welcoming, cloud-like drifts of Cow parsnip (Heracleum lanatum).

Stillness hangs heavy. The air is cool.

At the south end of the beach is a tombolo, an Italian-derived word for a narrow strip of land connecting an island to the mainland. This tombolo, strung between two bays, connects Lighthouse Point to Fidalgo Island. It’s the kind of place where edges have no edge, dancing with the tides, creating and erasing boundaries with the unpredictability of a butterfly’s flight. One day, masses of seaweed wash up onto the beach in spongy, pungent mounds. Another day a windstorm spills bay water into the marshy wetland. Sands shift and reach into the dune grass that lines a path over the tombolo. Waves cut shallow scoops from the shoreline. Forty-foot logs are tossed about like toothpicks, eventually becoming rooted in place by wildflowers growing around them. The rubbery ropes of Bullwhip kelp scribe messages in the sand alongside dainty racoon tracks.

It’s always changing here.

7. A receding tide deposits layers of seaweed on the beach and bares barnacle-studded rocks at the base of the cliff.

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8. On top of the cliff the view through the smooth branches of a Madrone tree is fine. Even on a foggy day. Especially so.

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9. Splashes of ochre-colored lichens, chestnut-hued moss, wildflowers, grasses and stunted trees provide decor on a cliff to the north of Light House Point.

On the back side of the tombolo a damp wetland gives way to a sheltered cove called Lottie Bay. This bay is fed by the straight whose churning waters barrel through Deception Pass several times a day, carrying water from the Pacific, ninety miles to the west. With its muddy, shallow bottom, the little cove is a favorite spot of gulls, ducks and chattering Kingfishers. On this day Kildeer spew their high-pitched cries into the gray air, raising the alarm at the slightest perception of threat. One bird drags its wing in the classic “broken wing” feint, designed by some mysterious twist of genetic material to draw would-be predators towards the bird pretending to be injured and away from its vulnerable young.

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10. Cow parsnip (Heracleum lanatum) is beginning to go to seed. The young plant stems were peeled and eaten like celery by local tribes. Black bears forage on it too, which makes me wonder if the bear that swam ashore near here three weeks earlier might have snacked on this plant. That young bear swam to several other islands before being spotted back on the mainland, near a highway. It was finally darted, captured, and hauled off to the mountains. Life should be easier there, assuming this youngster didn’t get too used to dining on birdseed and trash during his island odyssey.

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11. A washed up, barnacle-studded branch is caught in a tangle of dune grass. Another still life to admire, until it all changes again with the next tide.

I return to this magical place at different hours, in fair and foul weather, through all the seasons. Because different habitats are jammed up against one another edge to edge, there are quick, dramatic changes to experience with all my senses. The chill in the air, the scent of low tides, the zippy flight of swallows and the echoing calls of Oystercatchers – it’s always a sensory banquet.

Woods, beaches, a wetland or two, rocky cliffs, a muddy bay, off-shore islands – all in the space of a half mile or so. That’s just what I see on foot, but if I were a seal or an otter, an eagle or a squirrel, then I would have parsed this place into different components. I’d have it memorized by sense instead of names: the place of fast water, the high tree where everything can be seen, the tangle of brush to hide in…

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12. A bouquet of wildflowers cascades off a cliff on Lighthouse Point. Delicate pink Streambank Spring beauty (Montia or Claytonia parvifolia) intermingles with the yellow flowers and succulent, blue-green leaves of Broad-leaved stonecrop (Sedum spathufolium).  Grasses, Licorice fern and Bedstraw (Galium triflorum) help anchor the mass to the rocks.

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13. Delicate Streambank Spring beauty.

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14. I believe this is Baltic rush, Juncus balticus. Rushes look like grass until you get closer.  They’re “walk right by” plants of cool, damp places that most people don’t notice. In Spring, the discerning eye can find a complex, beautiful architecture in their flowers.

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15. The evergreen Sword fern (Polystichum munitum) is ubiquitous in the northwest, thriving in many different habitats. The repeating patterns are irresistible.

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16. Seaweed caught on a branch shows just how high the tides can go. This may have happened last winter in a storm. It’s a rather desolate look, but I think it captures the wildness of this place.

***

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn
by Wu Men (Hui-k’ai)

English version by Stephen Mitchell

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.

from Poetry Chaikhana Blog

(The poem is a verse from Ordinary Mind is the Way, Case 19 in the Gateless Gate (Mumonkon), a compilation of zen koans compiled over 700 years ago in China by Chinese Zen master Wu-men Hui-hai.)

 

***

A rough map of the places mentioned in this post

Eyes on Leiden

1. Morning in the heart of Leiden.

Leiden is on the Oude Rijn, part of the Rhine delta that empties into the North Sea. Like a number of historic cities in the Netherlands, it’s old; a hill settlement goes back to at least 860. The country’s oldest university, Leiden University, was founded here in 1575. A picturesque, canal-filled, culturally vibrant city, it seemed a good place to begin a trip to northern Europe – not least because our flight from Seattle landed in nearby Amsterdam.

I found an airbnb at a beautiful home on a canal (which turned out to be one of the best places I’ve ever stayed in). Most people are fluent in English. Museums are not as crowded as they are in big cities like Amsterdam, and there are things to see (Rembrandt’s birthplace, an historic botanical garden). The transportation looked doable….so we made Leiden the first destination on a three-week northern Europe  trip.

 

2. An early morning view from our second floor digs on a picturesque canal. The little structure is a small aviary full of parrots and other exotic birds.

 

Leiden turned out to be more delightful than we could have imagined. The people we met were open, warm, enthusiastic, intelligent. I know, it seems idealized and it’s a generalization, but that was our experience. The food we ate wasn’t elaborate, but it was excellent. It seemed to us that the ingredients were fresher, and respectful attention went into the preparation. I enjoyed the aesthetic awareness and care brought to bear on everyday functionality (like the trains and buses) and mundane details of daily life (like clean streets). In restaurants and coffee shops people appeared to be immersed in animated conversations.

Western civilization’s long history in Europe lends a certain depth to life there. On the other hand, I think Americans carry a sense of wide possibilities, facing towards the future, which Europe’s tradition-laden culture can dampen. Of course it was just a few weeks, not a year or a decade, so my observations are superficial. The same holds for my photographs, which don’t have the kind of depth that I’m able to bring to subjects I’ve lived with a long time. With those reservations, here’s a group of photos from four days spent walking around Leiden.

 

3. FF Burgers makes great burgers and serves a variety of sides, from papadoms to sweet potatoes. Blankets on the bench are there to wrap yourself against the chilly Spring air.

 

4. A quiet moment at Anne & Max, which advertises “slow coffee.” The espresso was perfect, the food delicious.

 

5. A street corner in the heart of the city, where cars are scarce.

 

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6. There were lots of handsome vintage bikes around.

 

7. The cats have learned to watch out for them.

 

8. The Jackdaws mostly watch out for errant crumbs – they don’t seem to be afraid of much.

 

9. I couldn’t stop admiring the cobblestones and brick.

 

10. Where I live, the only things this old are rocks, and maybe a few trees.

 

 

 

12. The titles on these books speak to the fact that this is a university town.

 

 

 

14. A mural, and the ubiquitous bikes.

 

15. A residence in the old part of town. I wonder what’s up with the stack of stone circles on the left.

 

16. Leiden has some wonderful old trees, like this sycamore next to a canal.

 

17. More historic architecture from the city center.

 

18. The canal reflections never stop.

 

19. Even locals stopped to take pictures with their phones of this sunset, lighting up the underside of a bridge.

 

 

21. The coat of arms for Eva van Hoogeveen, “a very decent and praiseworthy girl,” the daughter of Albrecht van Hoogeveen, a mayor of Leiden in the mid-1600’s. Houses for poor widows and unmarried women were built here in 1654-55.

 

22. I tried, but this was untranslatable. Maybe Harrie can explain.

 

23. Fallen flowers and reflections in a canal.

 

24. A view from the Burcht, where a fortified tower built in the 11th century affords an opportunity to gaze through the trees at a jumble of colorfully tiled rooftops.

 

25. An evening view down a bike-strewn street in the heart of Leiden.

 

The highlights of Leiden were things we didn’t plan, as is often the case. We stumbled across an especially fascinating “un-museum” – the American Pilgrim Museum. There was a good hour or more spent exploring a spell-binding antique store, housed in a warren of centuries-old, connected buildings. The Saturday market and the botanical garden next to Leiden University were both impressive, but I’ll save the garden, antique shop and museum for later.

While we were in Leiden we took a quick train ride to Rotterdam; that’s another story too. From Leiden we traveled to Ghent, Belgium, another old city full of canals and history. There was a day in Lille, France, a week in Germany, and a few days in Amsterdam. We were on the move a lot, though we were careful to avoid one-night stops. Most people I know have been to Europe, many of them more than once. I wasn’t interested in Europe when I was younger. Later, family and job responsibilities kept me from traveling more than a week at a time. But finally the time, the desire, and the funds converged, so we did bounce from country to country a bit, wanting to experience as much as possible. As I get a little more perspective on the trip it seems worth it though. It was a late-life crash course in northern European culture, and we’re better for having done it.

 

26. Sunset, canal view, Zoeterwoodse Singel.