“All night long I stand there and watch sheets of plywood go by. It is the most boring job I’ve ever had,” he said. I had just woken up. We were talking in the men’s washroom at Margie’s RV Park. He was in the shower. I never saw anything but the top of his head. “I had a welding job in Wenatchee and I thought I didn’t like that so I quit it, but I shouldn’t have,” he said. “Now I’m thinking about going down to the tri-cities, or maybe Eugene.”
“What will you do there?”
“I don’t know. Just get a job I guess.”
Why does the Western U.S. have the nation’s highest rates of suicide and divorce? You can glimpse the answer at Margie’s and other RV parks that have turned into semi-permanent lodging for low-paid workers. There are a lot of drifters in the West, and they aren’t nearly as sexy as Clint Eastwood. They are unloved and unfocused. Their lives are hard, and it’s easy for them to get liquor, drugs, and guns. We woke up at 4:30 am when a large truck parked next to a nearby trailer roared to life and its owner left for work. Several more residents had left by 6:45am, when we pulled out for the day’s ride. How fortunate I am to be doing this, I thought, instead of watching plywood all night.
We rode north up a slight incline in the Okanogan Valley called the Wagonroad Coulee. It was 15 miles to the town of Tonasket. Then we’d turn right and head east, into the Kettle River Range, with a 3,000-foot climb over 22 miles to Wauconda Pass. The trick was gong to be getting to the top before it got too hot, without pushing too hard. Then we’d lose 2,000 feet and end the ride in Republic, 60 miles further along.
We rode fast and easily on the coulee in the beautiful early light. The sun had just topped the large upthrust granite slabs at the eastern end of the valley. Dew was evaporating off the sagebrush, producing one of my all-time favorite smells, and every so often a meadowlark would cut loose from his perch on a fencepost. A “Coulee” is a small hill inside a valley, and every time we topped one of them we would see a new vista. My wife Tania, who is the best travel companion I’ve ever known, loves traveling through western scenery because, she says, each slowly revealed vista is like walking into a new room. I have already seen dozens of things I want to show her, and we haven’t even been riding for a week.
We hit Tonasket at 8:10 am and paused at a convenience store long enough to re-fuel ourselves, then headed up the pass. It was maybe 80 degrees. Bonaparte Creek was running just to the right of the road. It was small but noisy, and after a steep beginning things leveled out for a while. The western slope of the Kettle River Range is wide-open country and the trees don’t begin until around 3,000 feet. I saw lots of abandoned or questionable ranch buildings, their boards turning to fuzz in the heat. I saw a tin man and woman decorating someone’s gate. I remembered what some writer, maybe Nathaniel West or Raymond Carver, had said: that western hills covered with grass looked like the backside of a recumbent woman. Annie Mountain rose to the south. There are a lot of lonely guys in these parts, ma’am.
Two miles from the top, very hot and low on water, we reached the Wauconda Store and Café. If you look up the word “oasis” in the dictionary, there’s probably a picture of the Wauconda Store next to the definition. Although there wasn’t another building in sight, the store was obviously a community center. Wauconda started as a gold rush town in 1896 and proved enough ore to keep miners employed for several decades, by which time the ranchers had come in. “Yesterday we took in $1,100, which was fantastic,” said Brenda Wahner, who works at the café and lives alone in a trailer nearby while she’s building her house. “In the winter, the locals keep us going It’s cold here, but not like Duluth.”
Brenda and Jim talked about growing up in Minnesota. She poured me two huge glasses of iced tea and made Bill a grade-a chocolate milkshake. We signed the register they keep for cyclists, Several cross-country riders pass by every week during the season, and this summer the cyclists they had seen were raising money for cancer, animal rescue, and Jesus in addition to the Land Trust. Take your pick!
After struggling up the last two miles to Wauconda Pass, we had another flying descent through trees and back to the brown-grass hills, with the wind in out faces getting hotter as we continued down. At the end we were in Republic, the seat of Perry County, and we found another green shady spot in a public campground at the county fairgrounds. Republic is a big enough place to have a library with a wireless router, so we spent the afternoon online. After a shower and a fine steak dinner, dusk came and we went straight to bed. We’re facing another 3,000 foot climb tomorrow