Road Trip II: Up to Portland
Summer jobs when you’re in college are a grind — hot, low-paying, mostly boring. Chasing shopping carts around in a parking lot. Xeroxing rolodex cards. Interpreting cheeseburger orders in sophomore-level Spanish through the drive-thru window. Our youngest Lee has been pulling 5:30 am shifts most of the summer, unloading the trucks at Homegoods, schlepping rugs and mirrors around for hours. If they’re lucky and get a full shift, then they spend the second half smiling at customers who give long elaborate stories about why they have no receipt but want to return this ceramic dog with a chip in it.
It seemed to me Lee deserved a road trip before heading back to school, so we were determined to take one. A close friend lives just up in Portland. That’s only two days drive. Synchronize your watches! Pack up the car! We’re heading north!
We’re sliding this drive in the handful of weekdays between their last unpleasantly busy shift and college move-in day. I wrote last year about my fondness for the Great American Road Trip. It just so happens that this “lighting out for the territories,” as Huck Finn used to call it, takes place at the same time as the first full solar eclipse in the U.S. in a century. A whole lot of other people were road-tripping, many of them in the same direction.
This was not fair. My brother and I discussed this eclipse a year ago; we were planning way ahead. We shouldn’t have to fight these “I decided yesterday” types. Even so, circumstances intervened and, though I knew he would be in the Path somewhere with his telescope, we couldn’t leave until late Sunday, so an extended meetup was not to be. To be entirely clear then, we were not going just to see the eclipse because if we were doing that, we would have been in the Path somewhere at the appointed time. I just want that on the record.
Meanwhile, friends in the Path started giving dire warnings from Oregon. Highway patrol was warning of gas shortages, freeways completely blocked, hospitals on high alert. A million more people were coming and that would double the population of the state or something. Of course, the Californians scratch our heads. A million people? I’ve stood in a sea of a million people (March on Washington, 1993) and meh! I can handle that. I’ve driven through the LA Basin. I speak jammed freeways. But, just in case, let’s take the Prius instead of the more comfy less gas efficient van.
Corporate Silos on I-5
Gasing up just outside of Red Bluff, I was surprised at how industrial it’s become in northern California. This is farm country, far away from the skyscrapers near the Golden Gate or the piers of Santa Monica. The Free State of Jefferson is still announced boldly on the side of a barn. These are the folks that want to secede so that they don’t pay taxes to the gov’ment.
But along with the billboards denouncing the cheatin’ Congress that’s takin’ thar water, I noticed that the freeways are better paved with more exits. And up near Yreka, several industrial looking complexes have replaced the single farm silos, warehouses with ADM and Cargill on the side. Conglomerate corporate farms.
Completely coincidentally, I’m sure, the haze has never been so thick around Shasta. I know we’ve had fewer fires this year, but the windless August heat has nonethless built up a thick layer of sludge in the air. You couldn’t even see the 3600 foot mountain until we passed right under it. Northern Oregon was the same. There have been fires in Klamath falls and up and down the western corridor. It was like this last year when we drove through, so this won’t be the last either. So the second biggest question was would traffic be so bad that we wouldn’t even get close enough to see the eclipse happening? But the biggest question was would we be able to see the sun enough to not see it?
Riding the Path near Totality
We stopped nine times to watch the eclipse. I counted.
Outside of the metropolis of Weed — population 2654 — we used the facilities at a gas station/diner and eyeballed the fritters. It was 9:15 am PST already and I had my cereal box ready. In denial over not being in the Path, I had never gotten around to buying the special eclipse glasses. So I watched a quick video “hack” and with a cereal box, some aluminum foil, a push pin, and tape, I created an eclipse watcher. It did seem a tech ridiculous, but it worked! We took a look at 9:16, and sure enough there was the circle of the moon sticking its thumb into the eye of the sun. We could see it!
I stopped at three more on/off freeway ramps to watch the shadow pushing up into the circle. Not the same as a telescope, no, but something was happening for sure. Finally, at the California/Oregon border there was a rest stop we could pull into at 10:10. Totality would be in about five minutes. As I pulled out my cereal box, this dude came over. He and a group of young folks were sitting on towels spread on the grass, already watching. He had glasses and dreadlocks and looked like what I would describe as “graduate student.” He had an extra pair of the Eclipse Glasses! We thanked him profusely and looked.
Oh! My! My God! That was echoed around the rest stop as groups of travelers — student types, older people, families, and the flotsam and jetsam that pass through in campers — were all stopping to look. Holy expletive deleted! The sun’s curve was now a tiny orange smile to the side that slid from the western edge down to the southern edge as the moon passed up through it on a diagonal. I was able to take a photo on my cheesy old android camera and even that was exciting!
A Latino family walked by, no cereal box or glasses, knowing something was happening, seeing us all excited, but not sure what to do about it. The teenage son spoke English, so I urged him to look through the borrowed glasses and he flashed his braces in a grin. In rapid Spanish, he pushed the glasses on to mama and, after a look, she handed them to papa. Papa had the ropy forearms of someone who works construction and the droopy eyes of one who’d been driving for hours. But he looked for a long time and he handed the glasses back, wordless but with a big smile.
It struck me hard. Facebook friends in Georgia and North Carolina said they were planning to take the afternoon off to look. Minnesota peeps talked about after lunch. This was all of us now across the time zones watching. Even though the map shows that arc across these United States, the sun and moon in their dance weren’t going to move in the arc. It was simultaneous. This was a synchronized event in the heavens, shared by humans across America. Our little park was cheering, and the cheering would be occurring across every rest stop, park, campground, block party, viewing circle, observatory, everywhere. That was almost more marvelous to contemplate. At least for about a week, everyone would remember where they were when they saw it. Oh! My! God!
We stopped a few more times, once getting lost on the back woods of an Oregon highway, climbing up into the hills as we searched for the freeway once more. As the sun recaptured its rightful reign again, the view was still cool — both through the glasses AND cereal box.
Mile after Mile
The not-watching the eclipse part was serene and surreal as a long stretch in the car can be. We spent half the time listening to Elmore Leonard and the other half finding songs to sing along with. I have American Pie. I have Adele and Anastacia. I have a lot of Queen.
And my traveling companion suddenly got the urge to write. My wife is a professional writer and I am … well… this blog is writing something. So it is passing on to Lee, who has been writing on and off since pirate tales from the first grade. Now, they write fan fiction in her spare time when inspired, often about the video games they’re immersed in during the off hours. While I can’t follow it all, I can sense they have an excellent sense of drama. The characters are set tropes — robot monks, warring brothers, cryogenically frozen scientists, and the like. But the plots of death and rebirth, companions across time and space, and body switching sound intricate and well-developed. I half want to encourage them to move from music education to writing except that writing pays less than their planned vocation of teaching. Also, if you are sufficiently inspired, there is no reason you can’t write. Lee spun their stories as we drove.
Meanwhile, I zoomed along the freeway, smug about the warnings of traffic. We didn’t hit any, other than the trucks of the normal weekday, all the way from Redding past Eugene. Traffic started getting thick coming the other way, but I was still whistling away at 80 mph. Until Salem. I had decided to try to hook up with my brother and his campground in the Path of totality somewhere, and we were on track to meet in the early afternoon until the freeway came to a halt. Not Stop and Go but Dead Stop.
OK, there was traffic after all. The traffic going north out of Salem was stopped, for miles. We took several elaborate detours through the back highways where we would zip along at 45, laughing at the cunning plan until we hit dead stop again, with everyone else who had that plan. Try another road, zip along, wham! I kept trying to call my brother to find a place to meet and we kept changing the meet place (he was also stopped in traffic), then cell phone batteries were giving out, service cut us off. After an eclipsful morning and riding 300 miles in 4.5 hours, it took us another 3 hours to go the last 15 miles.
I honestly thought we’d miss him as he wanted to head back to Seattle but was willing to stop for dinner somewhere near Wilsonville (outside Portland). Finally able to exit the freeway after a grueling 47 minute inch along a backroad 1.3 miles, onto a freeway ramp, and off at the very next exit — that’s all we needed to go was one bloody exit! — we pulled into the diner parking lot. I said, “I’m not even sure I know what his car looks–” and then I saw it. The Seahawks license plate, half ripped Hillary sticker, next to the newly placed “Non-Judgmental Day is Coming!” bumper sticker. That’s my bro! I parked my dusty Prius next to his dusty Honda and wandered into the diner to find him and his significant other eating pancakes. Ha! Take that traffic!
He had gorgeous pictures of the totality, and we were grinning at the ability to find each other, having both driven hours and hours to pick this spot in the middle of nowhere–er–Oregon.
Then, after mopping up the last of the syrup, we parted ways. Our Prius headed for our motel at last to Clackamas. The place was a little divey and a mixed bag. The hallway smelled alternately of garlic and bleach and, with construction underway, had no parking. But the breakfast had blueberry waffles and the bed was not just a slab. On the other hand, it was right next door to the largest adult video store I’ve ever seen, which had huge billboards advertising Fantasyland, of the wrong kind. Plenty of parking there, but no thanks.
Ah, but we got here! Time to go meet a friend and see the sites.
We didn’t have to do a lot in Portland to make the trip worth while. We picked up Lee’s friend who had free passes to several of the local gardens, which are among my favorites of all the gardens I’ve seen. On a hot day, after a long trip, I prefer a garden to a museum or a tourist bus. Especially a Japanese or Chinese garden which tend to be smaller than the vast English rolling hills that require a trek. We walked plenty, with hidden waterfalls and rock sculptures around every turn.
There was hand made pasta, paper wrapped chicken, and a long sojourn through Powell’s Book store. There may have been a game store. There may have been a movie. There was a lot of laughing.
Road trips don’t have to be elaborate. Sometimes you just get the itch to get in the car. We started back yesterday, stopping on the coast to have lunch with our coastbound friends who were in the Path and had the Totality Experience. (If I ever have a rock band, that’s what I would name it). Fresh seafood and good conversation; can’t beat it. Then we we were off back down into the border haze, back through Weed and Red Bluff. I think we’re going to listen to some of the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, read by Lisette Lecat, book 17 of the Alexander McCall Smith series.
Lee has been itching to get out their writing paraphernalia.
Time to go!