Autobiography: Road Trip to Wenatchee

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer

“You’re free to go.” With those hackneyed words, the Goldendale police officer returned my license. They were the very same words I’d heard in my head just a few hours earlier. At one-thirty last Sunday, my older son Ted called: “If you can drop Will [(his brother) here by three, we can take him back with us to Portland for a few days.” Cabin fever was at 103. The ninety minute deadline to pick a destination and pack the xB was just the tonic I needed. Time to head for… (flings open the atlas)… Wenatchee!

That’s literally how long it took to pick the apple capital of Central Washington as the fruit of our road-trip desire. It’s a sparsely populated town in the high desert, with lots of canyons and two-lane highways leading to its unknown charms. Will groaned. “Why don’t you guys go somewhere cool, like Las Vegas?” Let me count the ways…

I guess we’re just kinda’ anti-social; I don’t know how else to explain it (especially to a sixteen year-old). But I find the idea of spending days inside windowless spaces packed with thousands of other folks completely unappealing.

I suppose I could only fall back on that other hackneyed expression “it’s not about the destination; it’s the journey.” If you’ve ever been to Wenatchee, you know that old chestnut still has meaning. But I’m getting ahead of myself here…

Anyway, Wenatchee was just a convenient point on the map some four hundred miles away. That is, if I had stayed on the main roads, which I rarely do. Sharing a road with other drivers is about as enjoyable to me as a shoulder-to-shoulder cocktail party at a dentists’ convention. Driving is strictly a recreational sport for me. It’s why I live in a small city, walk, ride a bike and don’t get on the freeway for weeks on end. I’m spoiled for deserted roads.

The trip started with country roads. I quickly fell into that preferred meditative state of restful alertness.

We took I-84 through the Columbia River Gorge. It’s one of the rare exceptions in the interstate system: it doesn’t detour away from the real scenery. One spectacular waterfall after another spills down the brooding, snow-tinged black basalt ridge overlooking the river. The xB’s popemobile picture windows offered unobstructed viewing pleasure.

By Hood River, I was ready for the solitude of the Washington side. As we crossed the vast waterway on an antique iron bridge, the flying toaster darted side-to-side on the narrow steel grating like a rabid squirrel. Was this some time-tested device to keep the drunks from crossing the state line? I was too busy trying to stay on my half of the empty bridge at fifty to notice the 25mph signs until we were almost across.

I sort-of passed this first sobriety test, but flunked the next, when I turned unto Hwy 141 instead of 142. Rather than shortcutting across open country towards Yakima, we now plunged headlong into the rapidly darkening wooded wilderness of Mt. Adams. I finally admitted the error of our— OK, my way some twenty miles later. But I really, really hate to retrace my steps.

Sure enough, the map showed an unmarked thread of a road arcing towards our intended general direction.

An hour passed. We hadn’t encountered another car. The narrow blacktop dove down into one deep twisty narrow canyon after another, coming up for air (the road and me too) to shoot across a high plateau, until the next canyon… and so on. Working the xB’s sharp steering, lusty little engine and tightly-spaced gears, an unformed memory from the distant past kept fluttering across my mind, like the owls in the headlights. Suddenly it took shape: an Alfa Gulia sedan from the late sixties.

The boxy and airy body with tall vertical windows, the bus-like rake to the tiller, the rasp in the exhaust, the firm and bouncy ride, the touch of torque steer… the brave little Toyota linked me to the Alfa. O.K, I have a healthy imagination. Anyway, on these remote back roads at night, I was happy enough that my steed originated in Toyota City rather than Milano.

After an hour of night-time Targa Florio driving (without a navigator to call out the distances to the next curve), I wasn’t totally sorry to approach the hamlet of Goldendale (pop. 3760). I coasted down to the general vicinity of the 25mph limit, and rolled half-way through the sleeping town. Again, we never encountered another soul.

Suddenly, flashing lights appeared out of nowhere in my mirror. What the…! Did someone see me hit triple-digits back on the last straight and call it in?

“Good evening sir. Do you know why I stopped you?”

Yes, yes. I was speeding. But deep inside, I hadn’t a clue.

Paul Niedermeyer
Paul Niedermeyer

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  • Wolven Wolven on Apr 01, 2008

    Since I'm a native son of Wenatchee, I gotta question the "high desert town" part. We live in a valley, right on the Columbia river and the foothills of the Cascade mountain range. It's called the Wenatchee Valley. Now, 20 miles east, and I agree, you're in the high, flat, boring, constantly windy desert known as the Columbia Basin... more appropriately known as "hell" by us Wenatcheeites. As for Washingtons fine police forces... yeah, we've got some of the most prickly you'd ever hate to run across. But you gotta understand, after CA, Washington is the biggest Communist state in the union, and striving mightily to be the biggest period. Traffic fines are just one of the less imaginative ways the government here steals our money.

  • Paul Niedermeyer Paul Niedermeyer on Apr 02, 2008

    Wolven: I stand corrected. I tend to think of "high desert" generically, anything east of the Cascades, where its dry and sunny instead of wet and soggy.

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