Highway 20 through the North Cascades in northern Washington is one of the most beautiful roads I've ever traversed. Our drive went smoothly as we headed out into lush green forests along the sparkling Skagit River, and when Tootie needed a bathroom break we made a most serendipitous stop at Cascadian Farms.
We buy their products frequently but I couldn't have imagined a more picturesque homeplace for their farm. We enjoyed walking through the vibrant flower gardens and picking out a few goodies from the roadside stand, including fresh snap peas and a delicious homemade organic blueberry ice cream cone. We had been eating so many berries on this trip that we bought the book Jamberry as a souvenir; the girls adore it.
We were second to arrive at Newhalem Campground in North Cascades right after Joey and Em, and we got right out and rejoiced at our cozy rustic beautiful little home for the last three days of our trip. It breaks my heart that all these campgrounds and most of the road are closed now due to the Upper Skagit Complex Fire. The beautiful Visitor Center is closed and all these areas have been evacuated. I feel so lucky to have had the great honor to walk in these sacred places and I have a prayer on repeat in my heart at all times. All the little trails around the campground became familiar as they led us down to the glorious waters of the Skagit River. Now the old growth trees along the Trail of the Cedars are "burning from the inside out." My blood is ash, my tongue on fire. I feel like a ghost.
Setting out to write this post I planned to sing the praises of the Visitor Center at Newhalem. This was before I learned about the closures and evacuations and the fire's proximity to this special place and now I am feeling even more endeared and protective and utterly grateful that the hardworking crews have been able to save the buildings. It is a wonderful facility with the best stuff for kids. Like a giant banana slug!
Bright murals in the kids' corner.
So extra glad now that we settled in and played awhile. As a family we are big on Visitor Centers; Matt and I read all the information and take notes, many of us buy souvenirs like the vintage style travel postcards, or mugs. But nothing is better than a super kid-friendly Visitor Center with tons of educational games and toys neatly stacked into wooden shelves and a play area flooded with soft forest light. We colored pictures of fawns and bears, worked meticulously on two National Park puzzles and played an animal memory game. Big and little kids both were into it.
That night I made my lentils meal for the group and Polly was extra fussy while I was working, so Darin took her on a walk down to the river and that made her happy. Amy helped me so much and did dishes so I could tend to my clingy babe. We roasted marshmallows over Matt's newly acquired propane firepit, our legal compromise for a real campfire. I've never felt more understanding of the ban on campfires than right now.
Routine morning Bella visits. The little curb at our site made a good carousel pony.
Darin and I got the girls ready and headed over to the little general store. Newhalem is such an interesting little town centering around the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project that began in the 1920s. To this day the Gorge and Newhalem power plants provide a quarter of Seattle's energy. It's so strange: you can hear the electricity crackling through the lines over your head as you amble about town.The general store has a park with wooden swings and a metal merry-go-round, and an old steam train engine, Old Number Six, for climbing. You can ring that big brass bell and hear it clang out against the cliffsides.
and pretend to be stow-aways.
After playing awhile on the playground, we met up with the rest of our group at Diablo, a teeny tiny little village of homes, where we got to enter those amazing waters of the Skagit River for the first time. Cold, pure, full of jade green light.
Headed out along the Stetattle Creek Trail. It's like going deeper and deeper into a mystical world. The forest grows thick around you and rocks have slid down into the creek. It's quiet and there is no one around and you feel like the busy modern world has forgotten this place and maybe even the national park service. We clambered up and down a few big boulders and marveled at the sheer beauty of this creek, wishing we were fish.
Once we started up the switchbacks away from the creek we realized the trail was a bit longer than we bargained for pre-lunch. Mikie stayed right by dad's side to make sure he didn't slip when it got steep. We got to the top and then headed back. A little hobbity romp never hurt anyone.
Polly loved looking up and Lucy loved looking down. This was a trip of mushroom hunting and moss.
Oh, and sticks. Every stick becomes a dragon, a dinosaur, a friend.
We made sandwiches and set up camp by the river for a little while. Again the bravest took dips, and the rest of us did some perfectly refreshing wading. The boys took turns in a rock throwing competition trying to hit a certain spot across the river, an sport that amused them far longer than you might imagine.
We decided to head up the road a little bit further to the Colonial Creek Campground where we embarked on the Thunder Knob Trail, It was perfect for our family and Lucy hiked most of the way by herself, with a lot of attention from her loving entourage. (Thanks Marisa and Bella!) She even spotted a snake!
At the top, the view of Diablo Lake and surrounding peaks absolutely took our breath away. We could see glaciers and snowfields amongst the peaks to the south. We set up a rather haphazard group photo that turned out kind of funny; I love that Matt's on the move.
Re-do. It's really good to be together.
For awhile on the way back both my girls wanted me to hold them, so I did. It was kind of fun and challenging hiking with 54 extra pounds in my arms.
In front of Sourdough Mountain, Gary Snyder's hang out. His poem is appropriate here:
Mid August at Sourdough Lookout
Down valley a smoke haze.
Three days heat, after five days rain.
Pitch glows on the fir-cones.
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.
I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high, still air.
Bella shows Polly the bewitching opaque waters of Thunder Creek, full of "rock flour" ground by the glaciers of its headwaters.
Our last night all together at camp.
We went on the best adventure that night. All piled into the back of Pop's pick up and drove a mile up the road to the parking lot by the Gorge powerhouse for a little night hike to Ladder Falls.
Nighttime campground roads unwind behind us. We're singing and laughing in the dark. It's just a wee bit scary and totally exhilarating.
Somehow Matt ended up with the babydoll.
This place is crazy! You cross a pedestrian suspension bridge and the powerhouse is all lit up in the night, the dark waters of the Skagit River rushing all around you. You learn from informative signs that the light show is historic and has only recently been restored, originally designed during a time in history when nature was not valued just for being nature. The power and potentiality of nature was what flourished in the American imagination, what compelled tourists and propelled progress. Electricity in nature was riveting. A series of cascading waterfalls lit up with spectral colors in the night? Enchanting. A manicured exotic garden heated from the ground up by the power harnessed by the river? Inventive, marvelous. It strikes us as odd now, but as a strange relic of the past, to encounter it with my wild family in the night was memorable and surreal.
"Superintendent of lighting J.D Ross wanted his visitors to believe that 'anything was possible with electricity,' including heating the ground to accommodate tropical plants such as banana and palm trees. In the wilds of the North Cascades, exotic orchids were planted along the pathways, which in turn, were illuminated at dusk by colored lights.
What appears to be inappropriate by today's standards - light fixtures and wires hanging from live trees - was once a symbol of progress and the celebration of electricity in our lives."
The babies all stayed awake just long enough to go up the steep steps, to see the colored waters turning violet, turquoise, red, gold. Drowsy and enchanted tucked close to their parents warm, confident bodies. It must be wonderful to be a very small child awake in a world of adventures. Asleep by the time we crossed the suspension bridge again and through a demure truck-ride home to camp.
Our last morning all together, Matt did his big pancake breakfast. In fact, way beyond that, Amy used the opportunity to share all their leftover food since they'd be heading home that afternoon, and had a pot of oatmeal all ready for us, yogurt and granola, fruit, milk, grapefruit juice. I fried up slices of veggie sausage and we had quite a smorgasbord.
Ah, ten days of unwashed hair!
Polly is a morning person. So is Darin for that matter.
That day we drove the gorgeous length of Highway 20 that spans the Cascades basically from west to east. That was our first encounter with smoke. It was disappointing that on such an obviously scenic drive, our view and the crisp mountain air was totally obscured by smoke. I was out of the media loop this whole trip, not having a smart phone, so had not heard of the Wolverine Fire, but Amy told me the next day that is probably where the smoke was coming from. It was so smoky at Rainy Pass that we decided to forego the hike we had planned there and head down into funky little western town of Winthrop instead. It is so crazy to think that in a matter of days later, this adorable town was evacuated, and still is. I am so sorry Washington State. You are gorgeous and good and you don't deserve these rampant fires, the worst in your history.
Well, Winthrop! This place was hopping and charming. It was funny to come out of secluded, relatively quiet, peaceful mountains and straight into the heart of this bustling little rhinestone cowgirl tourist town. It was fun! I felt gritty and woodsy and happy to have worn calico.
Polly went pell-mell down those wooden sidewalks.
We really wanted to eat at the local brewery, which is kind of a tradition for us, but they were packed and it was going to be difficult to accommodate our large group. So the Mexican food place next door ended up receiving us graciously. Our server was so awesome. We had plenty of space to spread out (the building was huge and spacious, having historically been the old hotel in mining days) the food was really good, and we even had Mexican paletas for dessert.
The kids helped Lucy as she tried out some educational games, what a thrill!
We had a passerby take our only full group shot of the whole trip, since Pops hadn't been with us at Thunder Knob the day before. Someday we will manage to get our group shot at the National Park welcome sign! But for now, a Mexican restaurant will suffice.
Prairie girl sisters. I missed them so much the minute they drove away. It's always like that, but seems worse now that I have little ones, like my heart kind of breaks for them too, and for the sensation of our whole group flittering away.
Heading back up into smoky skies for the drive back over the mountains, but the west side was still clear and gorgeous.
Polly was asleep when we got back to camp, so Lucy and I took a little walk down the "To Know a Tree" trail. It was lovely and informative with signs introducing us to Douglas fir, western hemlock, red alder, lodgepole pine, birch.
My funny little wandering partner.
We had fun examining the forest closely but things got difficult after Joey, Em and Scout turned back and Lucy kept wanting to cross big logs by herself and not let me pick her up and we got lost on the curving paths. By the time we got back toward Loop C, we saw Darin coming toward us, distraught, with a screaming Polly held to his chest. She came straight to me and calmed immediately, but he was all upset, heart racing, overwhelmed, wishing I had never left while Polly slept, sparking our big argument of the trip. There's got to be one, huh? I understood his frustration: it's so hard when your child is crying and you cannot comfort her and Polly is such a mama's girl that sometimes, especially after naps, I am the only one she wants. But it's not like I was tripping along in lala land. Being a parent is hard work, and being a wife and partner is hard work, and camping with a young family for many days on end is hard work. But it's also more beautiful and fun and invigorating than anything else on earth, and now looking back, even that argument adds to my nostalgic feeling about the trip, haha! After the girls were settled and playing quietly with Darin, I grabbed a bottle of wine and went to chat with Joey for awhile. The evening calmed. Mikie and Marisa were late getting back from their romp through Winthrop. Those few of us that were left hung out quietly and went to bed early under the sweet canopy of those gentle old wise trees who have seen it all again and again, and heard every baby cry.
Last morning at camp.
Good morning sun!
Our coffee of the Pacific Northwest. (purchased in Port Townsend)
Amy had bought us each a handmade kitchen linen as a keepsake in Winthrop. Each family got one with a meaningful totem: we got the owl because of our big-eyed baby girl. It's almost too pretty to use but I have to have my little glimpse of the North Cascades in my kitchen.
Farewell, camping mornings. It makes my heart pang to type those words. The trip is wrapping up. I'm almost finished with these long tangled posts that have become part of the experience for me, the way I process these trips and enfold them into the whole of my life and being.
Farewell, the last time I will sit with my 19 month old Polly in a campsite in Washington and watch her delight in her cocoa and have morning snacks.
Farewell the last time I will listen to newly 3 year old Lucy yawn and stir in the tent, in a slant of cool cedar tinted light, and walk with her up our little path to the bathroom, (careful not to point out the dead mouse I moved from the path the night before) skipping back down to see Scouty approaching with a joyous "Heb!" from their site below.
Lucy got sworn in as a junior ranger for her first time. She got the "treefrog" patch. I have the feeling it's the beginning of a long career.
The whole drive home is a long sigh, a breathing out.
We made it to Portland in the evening and stretched our legs with a nice visit to Powell Books and Whole Foods. The girls were pretty wild but that's to be expected after such a long time in the car. Freedom was sweet!
Darin was stoked to find some Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series from the late 60s, early 70s. He's kind of an addict.
We had momentum after that stop and made it all the way to Ashland. Once the girls fell asleep we knew they were out for the night and it made driving so much easier that we just kept going knowing that keeping the next day's drive shorter would be in our best interest. I drove the last leg from Eugene and we pulled into Ashland at 1:15 a.m. and got a motel room. In the morning we had baths all around and continental breakfast, woo hoo!
Lithia water in Ashland, fascinating but they wouldn't taste it.
Drove through smoky skies all afternoon to get home. It seems like the whole of northern California was on fire. We blasted our music and made it safely back across the gates of reality. The girls slept for hours; it was so nice. Even a foot on the face didn't budge Polly. A peaceful entrance back into the world of our daily lives.
And then we were back. The dust has settled.
It takes a while for me to come down and I'm already high again on the planning for next year's trip. The starry skies and open roads are always calling my soul.
Thank you to anyone who followed along our whole long rambly way.