The first in a series of occasional posts about tripping along U.S. Highway 395.
Highway 395. From the Canadian border to the Mojave Desert in California, it makes its way through thick green forests, flinty high desert country, and oceans of cheatgrass. It rolls past golden yellow wheat fields, blinding, bleached alkali lakes, the rugged, white capped eastern spine of the Sierra Nevada, and an ancient azure pool. It runs over a mighty river, beneath craggy bluffs, and in and out of metros, small towns and forgotten specks on the map. It travels past the old west, the real and celluloid versions, and within view of a nation’s shame. Long stretches of the highway are described as the loneliest in America.
What’s not to like about U.S. Route 395? Even that loneliest road part. Maybe that’s the best part; the part that calls out to anyone who wants to escape cities, suburbs, tourist traps and mobs of moms, dads and the kiddos cruising in the Winnebago.
I didn’t know U.S. 395 existed until some thirty years ago, though I’d briefly, and unknowingly, crossed its path while driving through Reno. It was just a dangling thread in the national web of highways.
I might still be oblivious to that wondrous ribbon if a rainstorm hadn’t interrupted a family camping trip to Lassen National Park, in Northern California.
My wife Cora likes the great outdoors. She enjoys a short hike under a canopy of redwood trees, the feel of a cool waterfall mist on a hot afternoon or marveling into a panoramic canyon.
There are strict limits though. Once the hiking is done and it’s time to relax, don’t ask her to sit on a rock, hunched over a campfire to eat dinner off a tin plate. Her idea of a good night’s rest isn’t wriggling into a sleeping bag with the prospect of wriggling out again at midnight to visit the pit toilet that’s two hundred feet down a dark, flashlight illuminated trail, and then return to wriggle back in a now chilly bag.
From the start, she wasn’t enthusiastic about camping at Lassen, and her enthusiasm was dampened beyond tolerance when the skies opened up and I was compelled to pull out the trowel and dig a small trench around the tent. When trench turned to canal, Cora pulled rank, made an abrupt change to the vacation plans and suggested, very strongly, a hotel room in Reno, where we could enjoy a pool, relaxation, bad buffet food, greasy breakfasts and gambling. The kids? We could front them enough coin to keep them occupied at the arcade in Circus-Circus.
The manly, outdoorsman in me protested, but just vigorously enough to maintain a veneer of good old red-blooded, American hardiness. In reality, I was ready to pack it in and trade a sleeping bag for a king bed, and replace beans and hotdogs for the make your own taco bar. Give up tepid, instant, freeze dried coffee in favor of a chilled martini delivered by a scantily clad cocktail waitress? Where do I sign up? I was more than willing to take my chances on a buffet pan of baked mystery fish filets wading in nameless white sauce, and baking for a second time under scorching heat lamps. What’s a little salmonella? I mean, Reno has hospitals. Right?
I grumbled just enough to maintain an air of virility as I packed the car, all the while dreaming of standing in front of a steam table, choosing between the mountain of soggy fried chicken, the bins of bacon, the mounds of sausage, and of course, the carving station. What the hell, have some of everything and then visit the ice cream sundae station. Oh, and did I mention the pastry station? You only live once – and then you die. Possibly from a case-hardened aorta.
From Lassen, eastbound California 44 runs into 395 at Janesville, and from there it’s just over an hour to Reno. I was enchanted by the short drive through the high desert and the brilliant show of a lightning storm off to the east.
We left 395 in Reno, but 395’s impression stayed with me.
Cora and I had a chance encounter with 395 in the spring of 2021, when the world was still dodging COVID. We drove a section from Spokane, Washington to Umatilla, Oregon, spending one night in the wheatfield country of Ritzville, Washington.
It didn’t dawn on me at the time that we were driving the very route that I’d for so many years longed to experience. We’d been on the road for nearly a month. We were tired and disgusted from having spent the previous night in a motel outside of Missoula, Montana, that had all the charm and appeal of a Baltimore tenement.
The desk clerk was a grouchy, bearded man. Maybe he was the owner, wondering why he couldn’t be Daniel Craig and his coworkers, supermodels. Maybe he was a flunky, covering a shift for a coworker who was doing something fun while he was tending to out of town assholes with money. Maybe it was just a case of two discouraging words from the wife that morning, “Forget it.”
The place smelled of mold and old cigarettes and the carpet wore stains that might have harkened back to the Eisenhower Administration.
When I checked in, the old sorehead had the temerity to tell me that our dog would have to pass through one of the side doors. She wasn’t allowed in the lobby. I could’ve suggested that a diarrhetic cow could stroll through that squalid vestibule and no one would be any the wiser. I could’ve, but with rooms in the area at a premium I didn’t want to further irritate a crank who’d parked his patience at the front door.
The next day, the highway was a blur that cleared up when we arrived at the pleasant little town of Ritzville.
It’s shortly after the American Civil War and a cattleman named George Lucas, has arrived in what would become Adams County in the future state of Washington. He’s probably the only man, native or white, within a day’s travel or more, of the area. He’ll be followed, shortly, by other would be cattlemen.
It’s flat, semi-arid grassland fed by Cow Creek, a suitable location for raising cattle. It’s cattle country until later in the 1870’s, when wheat farmers from Canton, South Dakota, move in and begin clearing land within two miles of the future townsite.
Meanwhile, in 1878, homesteader Phillip Ritz has arrived and secured a contract from the Northern Pacific Railroad, to grade ten miles of nearby roadbed. By 1881, the trains have arrived and the railroad has built a station that would be christened Ritzville.
One of the immigrants from Canton, William McKay, has built a rooming house to accommodate the railroad workers. It’s the first building of the future town, soon followed by a general store, also built by McKay.
In 1883, encouraged by the railroad to settle in the area, seventeen Volga German families have arrived and established their own wheat farms. That same year Ritzville is established as the county seat of Adams County.
Ritzville’s original growth, like many American towns and cities, may have been spurred by the railroad, but by 1902, wheat had become king, as the railroad shipped nearly two million bushels from the Ritzville depot.
Ritzville, laid out in neat blocks of clean streets, lined with trees and vintage craftsman style homes displaying American flags, has the feel of the quintessential charming little American small town. A few essential businesses located on a main street and weeping into some adjacent streets. There’s the elementary school, the high school, a city park and the de rigueur collection of churches – Christian, of course. It’s the town where you expect to see couples on porch swings on warm evenings, Sunday church socials, and Saturday Little League Baseball. It’s a farm town that must enjoy the romantic and comforting constancy in the midnight horn of a locomotive and the rattle and whine of freight cars on the tracks at the edge of town. The wheat is still moving and the metropolis is still at bay.
The quintessential charming little American small town. How many times have I experienced that feeling driving slowly down a main street? Small town America is a rote storyline written over and over, tales sharing analogous prologues and plot lines, yet each yarn having its own unique twist. Some stories have come to an end and others keep adding chapters. The American romance.
Take a short drive from Ritzville, in any direction, and you find yourself surrounded by wheat fields.
We stayed at the Best Western Bronco Inn at the edge of town, just off the highway and within view of a Love’s Travel Center and a bright golden sea of wheat.
I picked up a pizza from a little nearby joint that’s since gone out of business. After an early dinner, Cora relaxed in the room and I went out with my camera as the sun was getting low.
From Love’s I took pictures of the sprawling brilliance of a wheatfield. Lines of rigs rumbling, rocking gently, their polished hoods and bright chrome trims picking up the last light of day. I thought about how lucky those drivers are to be able to see a different sunset and sunrise every day.
Below: Scenes of Ritzville, Washington
The next morning we traveled south on 395, leaving it behind, after crossing the Columbia River, which marks the border between Washington and Oregon. I’ve crossed and traveled lengths of the Columbia and the Mississippi, and each is powerful in its own way. The Mississippi’s strength is ponderous, plodding and steady, traveling with a current that can seem almost benign. The Columbia flexes its muscles. It’s current is at the same time alluring and intimidating.
We headed west along the Columbia towards the town of Hood River, while 395 bore south, waiting for the day when I would rejoin it.
Fast forward to 2022, a year that, for the first eight months, had seen a wretched succession of health issues, doctor visits, scans, probes and pokes. I’d received more emails from doctors than I’d received from the various charlatans who peddle everything from discounted internet to extended car warranties to the “opportunities” of owning shares of the vast fortunes of various exiled princes.
By September, I was done with it all, if not physically, then certainly emotionally. It was time to get away and 395 was calling.
Instead of doing the entire length, I settled for most of it; from Pendleton, Oregon, just south of the border with Washington State, to Lone Pine, California, just north of Death Valley. A total distance of just over 800 miles.
This was originally planned as a solo trip until I realized that my wife had been going through the same miserable nine months that I’d been through. She may not have been going through the physical and medical mess, but she had put up with canceled trips and events, and been the helpless and patient witness to my bouts of anger, frustration and depression. Her year had been little better than mine – maybe worse.
And so, the plan was for two trips; the first would be six days with Cora through the most tourist friendly section of 395, and the second would be my solo trip, starting in Pendleton, Oregon, just south of where we’d left the highway,19 months previously.
On October 1st, we left Lexi with our son. Leaving that dog is the hardest damn thing. At first, with the idea that she’s included, she jumps and twirls, and hurries around the house, excited with the idea that there’s an excursion in the offing. And then it sinks in – she’s staying. She sits in front of the door and just watches, with an expression that seems to say, “I’ll be waiting. Don’t be too long. Okay?”
In October of 2021, in the waning days of a Midwest road trip, I was in a bar and grill in El Paso, Illinois, telling Kim, the bartender, about the five weeks that I’d been on the road.
“I miss my dog and my wife,” I said.
“Who do you miss more? You’re dog, right,” she said, in a tone that discerns wife as second to dog in the pecking order.
“No. But I feel worse for my dog. She has no idea where I’ve gone, and when or if I’ll be back. It’s infinite for her. My wife is certain I’ll be back. Well, reasonably certain.”
Next stop, Tracy, and halo-halo.