Labor Day Weekend and it seems like the world is tilted as Idaho license plates roll past me, all headed west on Interstate 84. We fly past towns with solid names, like North Powder and Union on our journeys to find one last summer fling before the seasons change.
The freeway courses through farmland that is golden and stacked with bales and rolls of hay. Freight trucks pass me blowing chaff that flashes and dances across the asphalt. Eighteen-wheelers diesel along followed by 20-plus wheelers hauling onions and rigs with more than 30 wheels hauling towers for wind farms. Kenworth, Pererbilt, Volvo. Alongside the freeway freight trains pull cars laden with more goods, all headed into Oregon following in the path of wagon trains from another century. As I stop to photograph an engineer blasts a long whistle greeting and we exchange happy waves.
Passing Baker and La Grande the traffic thickens with motor homes, boats, bikers and cars advertising destinations like “Gorge or Bust”.
Ditches filled with yellow sunflowers soften the dust and brittleness of fall. Cattle and horses flick flies and overhead contrails dissipate into crosshatch patterns.
I stop to hike in the dry grass meadows in the Wallowa Whitman National Forest before passing Emigrant Hill and Poverty Flat. Stories ghost all around me. I remember some as I stop again at the viewpoint atop Cabbage Hill and look out onto the rich Columbia River Plain towards Pendleton. Today the story of Harlan Bretz is the one that slips into my mind. His is the unraveling of the great Missoula Floods that scoured this plain to its basalt underpinnings. It is those basalt cliffs, towers and mesas that will define the next leg of my journey as I look forward to the Columbia River; its canyons and waterfalls.
Below the traffic accelerates down the grade. Too soon I am pushed to join the rush, flying by trucks riding their jake brakes and eyeing emergency truck ramps. Brake lights flare through the turns. Beyond the Jersey Barrier, caught between the freeway and canyon wall, two bucks prance and turn. Beautiful, their racks catch the light. Cars slow and swerve for fear they will continue on a path into the four lanes. Treacherous diversions on a long journey west.