Deer me

Shirley and I had so much to talk about, I almost didn’t leave the second day, either. Finally, in the early afternoon, we’d worked our way out to the front porch with my luggage. We were still telling stories, and Shirley still wasn’t dressed. Then she peered over my shoulder and asked, “What’s that sign?” I looked out and saw it, too, a white sign on the corner, several houses down. Bracing myself for the reaction, I answered, “Yard Sale.”

“Oh! Oh! Goodbye, then!” We both laughed uproariously at our shared obsession with yard sales. It was my cue to go.

I got onto the freeway and headed across Spokane in a light drizzle. When I saw a Best Buy, I decided to stop and pick up an FM transmitter for my iPod. I parked between the Best Buy and a Krispy Kreme donut shop, with plans to visit both. When I got out of the car, a man was walking towards me, purposefully. “Would you be missing a cell phone?” he asked, pointing at the rack on the rear of the Tracker. There was the cell phone, which had ridden across Spokane on the outside of the car. I thanked him profusely, although I had been finding the darn thing not very useful anyway. With the exception of Spokane, I haven’t found cell phone signal since I left Seattle. Traveling on 2-lane roads can be anachronistic.

Riding on a Krispy Kreme sugar high, I decided to spend a little time on the interstate before taking US 95 straight north. But even the interstate didn’t disappoint. The light showers and broken clouds produced a huge, luminous rainbow. I was heading directly to the end of the rainbow, which came and went like a guide.

When I turned onto Highway 200, I finally found a truly wild area of northern Idaho, with few houses and towns. The views were breathtaking as I followed the shores of Lake Pend Oreille. As if that wasn’t enough, the clouds became more and more dramatic, and I had to pull over again and again for sunset pictures. I finally made myself put the camera away and just look, because pictures could never do the dramatic sky justice.

After the sunset came twilight, and I still didn’t know where I would sleep that night. I thought I might just find a campground, pull in, and make myself a sleeping nest in the front seats of the car. But I couldn’t go to sleep at 7:30, so I decided I’d have to drive until dark.

About five years ago, when Barry and I drove through Maine, we decided we would no longer drive after dark. The chances of hitting a moose were too high. Hitting a moose is like hitting an 800-pound wall with feet and antlers.

So that evening in Idaho, when I saw signs warning me of deer and “game crossings,” I slowed down to about 50 mph and scanned the shoulders for critters. Then my mind wandered, and I crept up to 55.

Have you ever noticed how deer do not travel solo? When the first deer crossed the road, my brain was a million miles away in thought, but my subconscious remembered: There is always a second deer. So I slammed on the brakes, locking them up and screeching to a halt a few feet away from deer number two.

My heart was racing. The deer strolled nonchalantly away, as if to say, “See? We told you driving at dusk was a bad idea.”

A couple miles down the road, I saw the sign: “Cabins and RV Park by the river.” I followed a pickup truck down the long winding drive to a little complex of cabins and a half-finished lodge. “Do you know where the office is?” I asked the man from the truck. “I’m the office,” he told me. It made sense — he was as big as a house.

“I’m looking for a place to stay tonight,” I said, my voice still squeaky. My heart had not returned to its normal rate after the deer incident.

For $35, Dennis offered me a sleeping cabin. “It’s 30 feet away from the women’s bathroom,” he said. When he showed me the “Minnow,” an 8×10 cabin with a bed, dresser, and heater, I thought I’d found my new Happy Spot. A little private deck overlooked a river which the map identified as Clark Fork. I meant to ask whether that was the Clark Fork or the Clark Fork River, but daylight made Dennis too taciturn for many questions.

It was a funny sort of handshake cash transaction. I asked about a key to the cabin, and he admitted that the door was warped and didn’t lock. “There’s nobody here; we’re closing at the end of the month,” he said. “That’s OK,” I said, “It’s still a step up from my tent.” As we stood outside the cabin, talking, I noticed shadows flitting about. “Are there bats?” I asked. He told me there were, and that they’d had some trouble with them spending the winter in the heated attic of the lodge, leaving bat poop everywhere. Just then, a bat flew right between our faces. There were definitely bats. It’s a good thing I like bats.

It rained hard that night, making me glad for my warm, cozy cabin instead of my cold, leaky tent. In the morning, I thought about staying for a few days. It seemed like a peaceful place to sit and write. Just then, the power tools roared to life, and I remember what Dennis said about construction on the lodge. I tossed my bag in the car and kept going.

What's in my thought bucket

After my first day on the road, when I grappled with loneliness, came the second day, when I grappled with boredom. There were long stretches of US 2 between tiny towns, with nothing to see but sagebrush and cattle.

To deal with the boredom, I thought about boredom. One of my favorite sayings is, “Only the boring are bored.” If I was bored, then I must be boring. I’d begun this trip with a whole bucket full of thoughts to occupy me. Boredom seemed to indicate that the bucket was empty.

I mentally turned the bucket upside-down and shook it, then turned on the radio and searched for a non-country music station. I wondered if I should go around Spokane, or through it. Then I started thinking about Shirley.

A few years ago, my friend Tina and I discussed the possibility that we were doppelgangers. She started a list of all the things we had in common, including the fact that we have the same hair color and complexion and birthdays a couple of days apart. To this, we added first boyfriends with the same name and the fact that our first cars were brown Volkswagen Rabbits. At the time, Tina knew she was adopted, and I secretly wished that she was my twin sister.

Then Tina discovered her birth mother, Shirley, and reluctantly, I gave up the idea that we were secret twins. When I met Shirley, who is from Spokane, I realized that Tina had lucked into the coolest mother on the planet, and I decided this was someone *I* wanted to adopt.

So that Friday, on my way into Spokane, I called Tina’s partner Will in Seattle. “Hi, Will! I’m in eastern Washington, and I need Tina’s work number, so I can call her right away.” “OK, let me see if I can find it,” he said, sounding awfully sleepy for 11 am. “Hey, Tina, what’s your work number?”

“Will? What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m asking Tina for her work number,” he said.
“What’s Tina doing there, instead of at work?” I asked.
“We’re going camping this weekend,” he said.
“Well, if Tina is at home, then I don’t want her work number,” I said.
“OK,” he said, maddeningly. He didn’t get the hint.
“I. Need. To. Talk. To. Tina.” I said. Finally, he handed her the phone. I think he needed coffee.

Despite admitting to still being in her jammies, Tina was more coherent and was able to give me Shirley’s phone number. With some trepidation, I called Shirley — and she remembered me. “Would you be free for a cup of coffee or some lunch today?” I asked. “Sure!” she said, giving me directions to her house. “I’m still in my jammies, but I’ll wash my face and be out on the front porch. You’re only about 10 minutes away.”

At 11 am, I wondered if I was the only person awake, alert, and dressed in the Pacific Time Zone.

I pulled up in front of Shirley’s house, which I recognized from a photo. It’s a glamorous 1903 Craftsman with a front porch big enough for a pool table. I know this because there was a pool table on the front porch. It was probably 11:15 when I arrived, and we started talking and drinking iced tea. Shirley asked me where I was planning to stay, and I said I was going to continue on the road and find a place later that night. “I have a guest room, and you’re welcome to stay here,” she offered. It sounded heavenly, but I felt badly about dropping in on such short notice and declined.

We talked for a couple of hours, nonstop, and she offered the guest room again. “Oh, no, I really should keep going,” I said. After my morning of boredom, here I was talking with one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. But I didn’t want to be a bore. I’d said I was just stopping by for a cup of coffee; how could I admit I’d love to stay for days?

Then we went to lunch at an amazing diner called Frank’s. It’s an actual railroad dining car that has been converted to a restaurant, and Shirley knew both the owner and the craftsman who’d done the intricate wood inlays. Despite the fact that it sits next to railroad tracks, so that it routinely rumbles and shakes authentically when another train goes by, it was brought to Spokane by a semi.

We were on a conversational roll, with hardly a break between fun topics, when Shirley asked me, “Did you hear about the man at the State Fair?” I shook my head.

“There’s a state hospital near here for the mentally ill. Yesterday, they took a group of criminally insane patients to the State Fair, and one of them escaped. He’s a murderer who once decapitated a little girl, and they still haven’t caught him.” “Are you serious?” I said. I thought she was teasing me, since I was adamant about camping in my little tent.

A little while later, Shirley said, “Are you sure you don’t want to come see a play with me and spend the night?” I realized she really meant it. “Well, it does sound like a lot of fun. Twist my arm!” And she did. I was glad to be safe from the axe murderer, but mostly, I was looking forward to the play and more conversation.

Back at the house, I had gotten my overnight bag out of the car when Shirley asked me a strange question. “How do you feel about clowns?” she asked. I wondered if this had something to do with the evening’s activity. Did I have to dress up as a clown to go to the play?

I admitted that I didn’t have a lot of feelings one way or the other about clowns.

“You’re not afraid of them, are you?” she continued. Now I was really wondering. I’d heard of people who were clown-phobic, and I may have been one as a child. But I’d gotten over it. My only phobia is dogs, and Shirley’s adorable shi-tzu was helping me overcome that one.

It all made sense when I saw the purple and lavender guest room decorated with Shirley’s clown collection. There must have been over 100 clown statues and dolls, plus many clown paintings and two hilarious clown slippers. I was surprised by the sensitive and artistic renderings (except for the slippers, which were pure kitsch), and I could have spent days studying them.

That afternoon, I spent a couple of hours with my notebook and laptop, trying to capture some of the things we’d talked about. But I couldn’t remember it all. In just a few hours in Spokane, I’d gone from the emptiness of boredom to mental overflow. Thanks to Shirley, my thought bucket was completely full.

Chasing butterflies

The whole USA is my backyard. I’ve traveled over the whole country at very slow speeds, not just by car, but by bus and train and bicycle, too. And how many people can say they’ve not only crossed and criss-crossed, but circumnavigated the USA in a vehicle named Squidley?

But as I packed my bags last night in Seattle, I felt butterflies in my stomach. This time, I’m going alone.

Fifteen years ago, my sister Julie did a trip like this, with a car, a tent, a bicycle, and no cell phone. I envied her courage. At the time, others envied me — I was bicycling across the northern USA with Barry. I didn’t realize that my travels with Barry took a different kind of courage.

Since I’ve planned this trip, women have asked me, “Aren’t you afraid of traveling alone?” Men say, “I wouldn’t let my wife do that.” I laugh and say blithely, “No, I’m not afraid of being harassed or attacked.”

But when I packed my bags, after I took Barry to the airport, kissed him goodbye (many times), and said, “See you in North Carolina next month!” the butterflies revealed my secret: I am afraid to just be alone.

Driving alone away from our friend Margaret’s house, where we once lived for a year, was like leaping into the void, embracing my fear and hoping the universe would catch me.

But the beginning wasn’t scary at all — I drove across the I-90 floating bridge, which I’ve driven hundreds, if not thousands, of times, and have even bicycled dozens of times. Cough, cough. I can’t recommend bicycling alongside an 8-lane interstate, even if it does cross one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Today, the deep blue water sparkled as though topped with diamonds. And then I headed up 405, that river of SUVs, only a little less familiar, but the route I’ve traveled to reach many good times.

All travel begins with a single step. Then it continues with single steps.

When I reached US 2 and started going east, I thought, “This is it! I’m traveling alone now! What if nobody talks to me?” The butterflies came back.

I chased them away by noticing funny things along the way. Pickle Farm Road made me laugh out loud. How do you grow a pickle? Do you grow a cucumber and water it with vinegar? Then I went through Startup. Wouldn’t it be funny if the venture capitalists moved there from Silicon Valley? I wonder what they would think of financing the Startup Market, which is probably older than the venture capitalists themselves.

Knowing that I would forget about these things as I kept driving, I pulled over to dig out my notebook and jot them down. A kindly, well-tattooed man sauntered out and looked at me and the Tracker. “Can I help you?” he asked, his smile genuine. I shook my head. “I just needed a place to pull over,” I said, but I was thinking, “Thank goodness! Somebody talked to me today!” And as I left his wrecking yard, with the junkyard dogs snarling, the butterflies were gone (despite my nearly pathological fear of dogs).

My drive took me across Stevens Pass, and now I was in travel mode, recording the scenes as I passed. I compared Stevens with Willamette Pass, which we crossed last week on our way back from Burning Man. Willamette Pass is green and cozy, with a tunnel-like feel. Stevens is full of sweeping vistas, meadows, vast rock-faces. The road slides along the side of the mountains, instead of twisting its way down at the bottom.

I didn’t linger long in Leavenworth, but I stopped in Cashmere, because my friend Margaret said it was a really cute town. I needed an excuse to talk to somebody, so I went into the Hometown Market. I wanted to measure the butter.

A couple of months ago, when I got to Seattle, I wrote a piece entitled “Crossing the Butter Divide.” In it, I mentioned that one difference between the east coast and the west coast is that quarter-pound sticks of butter are shaped differently. So when I decided to drive across the country, I thought it would be fun to actually find the mythical “Butter Divide.” That’s the place where sticks of butter on one side are long and skinny, and on the other side, they are short and fat. And people’s butter dishes are different.

I have mentioned this idea to a few people, and they either look at me as though I’m nuts, or they laugh. There’s a fine line between insanity and hilarity, and I am on it.

Those who don’t think I’m nuts have hypothesized that the butter divide may coincide with the continental divide. Or it may follow the Mississippi. Either way, I plan to find it, and perhaps, follow it.

Back to Cashmere, when I told the woman with the movie-star black pageboy in the grocery that I was measuring butter, she threw her head back and laughed. “Is somebody paying you to drive across the country and measure butter?” she asked, incredulous. I told her that not only was I not being paid, I was so scatterbrained I’d forgotten to bring a ruler! She sent me over to Doan’s Pharmacy, where I got an old-fashioned 12-inch wooden ruler for 49 cents and an Italian soda at the soda fountain for four times that amount. “You can get anything you need at Doan’s,” said the silver-haired cashier.

Then I went back to the grocery store and measured the butter boxes, and, just for kicks, the margarine boxes. I continued up the road and measured the butter in Wilbur, Washington, too, just to make sure the butter divide isn’t here in Washington. It’s not.

Along the way, I stopped at Dry Falls, imagining water and icebergs coursing over the largest waterfall in the world at the end of the last ice age. In 1958, my Dad was also entranced by Dry Falls, and he took me and my mother there in 1978. In those days, we visited a lot of waterfalls, and I’ll never forget the look of disappointment on Mom’s face when it dawned on her that the breathtaking Dry Falls he’d been telling her about for 20 years were actually dry!

Now my little blue tent is set up in Wilbur, next to Highway 2, in a little RV park full of friendly people. I’ve had lots of conversations today, and the butterflies have flown completely. Tomorrow, I’ll continue to seek the butter divide, or I’ll talk to more friendly people. It’s really the same thing.