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Friday, February 28, 2020

The Tale of the Tumbling Tumbleweeds

"And the wind blows, the dust clouds darken the desert blue, pale sand and red dust drift across the asphalt trails and tumbleweeds fill the arroyos. Good-bye, come again." ~Edward Abbey, American author and environmental essayist, 1927-1989

   It is 347 miles from Gresham, Oregon to Spokane, Washington. The route takes one along the Columbia River Gorge and then Northeast up onto the Columbia River plateau and across several hundred miles of arid bush land and high desert; mostly flat but punctuated with basalt mesas and canyons. It is the kind of topography that seems empty a lot of the time and vast, sending one's mind back into the far past when there were no Europeans or their offspring on this continent. This is sagebrush and Tumbleweed country.
   A young, confident driver can make the trip in just over five hours; I have driven it in five hours thirty years ago but not anymore; it takes me eight hours now with several toilet stops, a couple of rest stops to put my seat all the way back and close my eyes for thirty minutes, and a lunch hour detour. I tell myself this is fine. It is perfectly acceptable. I am no longer young and I have health issues that make travel more nightmare than vacation. I hear boater Alan Fincher over in the U.K., after Les' death, cautioning me not to be so driven. His warning echoes in my thoughts frequently. 
   I made a trip up to Spokane last Sunday to spend a couple of days with a dear friend--one of the Wednesday Women--who has received a cancer diagnosis. We got together for lunch and to bask in the warmth of deep friendship in the face of frightening news. The weather forecast for Sunday from the NOAA (National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration) weather page included a Hazardous weather warning for Eastern Oregon, Eastern and Central Washington. High winds of 50-60 MPH and rain with snow mixed in higher elevations. Sigh...there was nothing for it but to begin the trip and hope for the best.
The "always-green" of Western Oregon. This is a shot of the Columbia River from an overlook about thirty miles East of Gresham. 
   I Left Gresham under roiling, dark clouds and pissing down rain with wind gusts in the 40's. A large storm front rolled in off the Pacific Ocean, ninety eight miles West of Portland and funneled the weather towards us along the Columbia Gorge. The winds picked up as I traveled 102 miles to John Day Dam, crossing from the always-green rain forest topography of Western Oregon into the arid brush land of Eastern Oregon. I stopped once already to rest my eyes for thirty minutes and the winds worsened while I checked my eyelids for holes. At John Day Dam, the rain fell away as I ascended onto the Columbia Plateau, but the wind increased and the car began rocking and vibrating in the high winds.
   Tumbleweeds appeared and I experienced a very strange phenomena: the dried, skeletal shrubs appeared to have come alive! They trembled in the wind, at the side of the freeway like shaggy, frightened animals waiting for a gap between cars in order to spin across the blacktop of two lanes and make it in one piece to the other side. Most of the Tumbleweeds were small and easily shattered against the front of the car but traffic slowed from 70 MPH to about 65. Then I came around a large curve and the wind changed direction, coming from directly behind both lanes of traffic. As I came out of the curve I was astonished (as was the driver in the lane next to me whose mouth dropped into an astonished O), to see tumbleweeds filling both lanes in front of us, racing along as though to some invisible finish line far ahead. We could not drive through them; we could only pace ourselves and drive along behind the spinning herd. Several miles on, the road curved again and the tumbleweeds continued to roll off the freeway and catch on the fencing separating our traffic lanes from those heading in the opposite direction. Soon enough the fence wore a prickly sweater of various size and colored weeds, giant sweater pills stuck to the fence for hundreds of miles. 
   Approaching Biggs Junction (yes you read that right!) the sky darkened appreciably as a giant dust storm kicked off, spreading for 118 miles of driving with the headlights on and a slowed speed of 50 MPH. It was like driving at night only the dark was a swirling blanket of dirt kicked up by the winds. Tumbleweeds still careened across the road and drivers were swerving to try and miss the larger weed balls. I finally merged onto I-82 and then crossed into Washington and onto Highway 395 North. Two large semi trucks had flipped over on the opposite side of the freeway and it looked like the apocalypse outside: dozens of police cruisers with lights flashing, the dirt-dark sky closing in everywhere and tumbleweeds shooting across the landscape like round mortars shot from a rocket launcher. Traffic was backed up for twenty seven miles all the way back into Kennewick. People were milling around in the flying dirt with shirts and scarves pulled over their faces; a crazy zig-zag of  headlights on stopped cars strung along highway 395 from the scene of the second overturned rig all the way back over the Blue Bridge into town. I kept a steady pace of fifty MPH and finally made it into Kennewick where I planned to stop for lunch. It was 1:58 PM, dark as evening outside and my Subaru Outback shuddered and shook with the wind gusts. The metal signal light post hanging across the road ahead bounced up and down as if an invisible hand was moving it. 
As you can see, the signal light arms are not exactly flimsy things. It takes a big wind to make those steel poles bob up and down like a a child bobbing for apples. 
   After lunch I struck out again and didn't see blue skies and true daylight for another forty miles after finally passing the last of the giant commercial agro-farms and packing plants that are spread across the face of the high desert, existing only because of the Columbia Basin Reclamation project. Begun in 1943, it services 671,000 acres, allowing fruit and vegetable crops to be grown on high desert land with irrigation from the mighty Columbia River.
   Tumbleweeds still bounced, swirled, raced and spun across the road and would continue for another forty one miles until I merged on to Interstate 90 at Ritzville. Two and half hours later I was heading down Sunset Hill into Spokane--a site for very sore eyes. 
  The visit was bittersweet. I love my Rise Up Sisters as the Wednesday Women are also called. We lost two of our number last year to the vicissitudes of old age. We do not want to lose another one. Spending time in the company of Kialynn, Rhea, Gina, (Marian and Rosemarie are dead now) has always fed my intellect. They are women of great thought, good deeds, and deep creativity. Time with them nourishes my spirit. 
The Wednesday Women, Left to right: Kialynn, Marian (seated), Lisa, Rosemarie, Gina (seated), and Rhea, 2013.
Mt. Hood from I-84 driving West, just outside of The Dalles, Oregon.
   I am happy to report that for the most part the drive home was a lot less harrowing. The sun was out, the skies were blue, and the wind was calm. Mt. Hood, a partially active strato-volcano and one of the tallest peaks in the Continental USA, appeared suddenly just West of Arlington. It looked like a tall white shark's tooth jutting up in the far distance. As I continued on Westward towards Portland, the mountain popped in and out of view, growing larger as my car ate up the miles. I was astonished at how the tumbleweeds seemed to have vanished from the landscape! Perhaps they are lying in wait down in the canyons criss-crossing Washington's central basin. 


Mike on GARNET said...

Well done for finishing this trip, at least you had the right kind of vehicle for it.

Alison said...

I just love the way you write! Reading through I feel so immersed in the words and almost feel like I am there doing the drive myself.

Best wishes

Boatwif said...

Hi Jaq,
I thought this was absolutely fascinating. I can go some way towards visualising the distance and the terrain, but single-minded tumbleweed...Wow!

Your description and additional information makes this a thoroughly good read.

I do hope you are doing OK, despite the reason for your Spokane road trip.

With love as always,
Sue /Boatwif/ nb Cleddau

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Mike,
Thank you. Yes, my Subaru Outback is a good, reliable vehicle. I bought it because at one point I thought I might be living in my car and I needed to have enough room. It is the nicest automobile I've ever owned and I hope it lasts me a long, long time.

I count myself fortunate that I learned to drive in Alaska before freeways were installed up there! The best thing to do is to act with patience, drive defensively, and pull over when needed.

I hope you and Phyl are doing well. I am sure you are looking forward to the warmer weather and sunnier days.

Love Jaq xxx

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Alison,

Thank you very much for your kind words. AS a writer I feel I have accomplished my goal if someone feels immersed in my writing. This trip was best experienced vicariously!!

Kind regards,


Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Sue,

Lovely to hear from you, though I know I owe you an email. It has been hectic here, looking for a new place to rent and packing things up while caring for my daughters in between things.

Really you would have been astonished to see those fat, round weeds!! It was all very strange indeed and I am so glad you enjoyed reading it.

You and Ken must be preparing for this year's cruising season to begin. I fervently pray the deluge of winter has passed and there will only be occasional gentle showers when needed partnered with lots of sunshine. I am there in my heart. Spring in England is one of my favorite seasons along with winter anywhere else there is snow!

Biggs big love and lots of hugs to you both,

Jaq xxx

Judith nb Serena said...

What a wonderful read Jaq. I too love the way you write, it makes one feel as if you're sat next to you. You're much braver than I am when it comes to long distance driving. Glad the journey back was much better. Seeing a familiar land mark pop up as the road twists and turns is reminiscent of the canals. Although a sad reason for your visit I bet you all enjoyed the catch up. Hope your move goes well. Looking forward to your next post. Love and hugs.
Judith nb Serena XXX

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Judith,
Thank you indeed. Lovely to have you along for the ride!! After learning to drive in Alaska at age 14 and driving in all weathers and up to 12 feet of snow and ice, for over thirty years, not much fazes me. I really did enjoy the visit. I feel blessed to have lovely friends on several continents.

Love Jaq xxx

Jennie said...

I too loved this post, Jaq. As others have said you are a great writer. I also learned a lot about tumbleweed. Yes of course I knew it existed, but had never given it much thought, so watching the two videos was educational and fascinating. I had no idea that they got as big as they did. I am glad you made the trip there and back safely, but was sorry to read of the reason why. Take care. xx

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Jennie,

Thank you. I'm so pleased you enjoyed it and I appreciate your opinion of my writing. Some tumbleweeds are as large as a cow!

I started a reply to your email of weeks ago. Hope to send it off before Monday.

Love Jaq xxx

Chrisi Kincaid said...

Hi Jaq,
What a trip! I had seen posts about the tumbleweeds bringing traffic to a complete stop in places. This must’ve been quite the site and I’m sure best seen in the rear view mirror ��

Kath said...

Nice to have a post from you Jaq, thoroughly enjoyed it. I must admit to thinking that tumbleweed was just an exaggeration by cowboy film directors 😂. But how wrong I was.
Hope your move, wherever it is, goes well.
Kath (nb Herbie)

Bron said...

Hello, when I checked your site as I do regularly and your new post was there I had to force myself to put the iPad down, make myself a drink and settle down in anticipation of a good read- as ever your post gave me so much pleasure, I love your skill at writing and the way you narrate an event. Thank you, I have followed you for so long, and Les before you became a special couple. Take care, May like be kind to you.

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

HI Chrisi,

It was certainly better considered form the rear view mirror!
Hope all is well with the Kincaids. Please give my love to your ever growing family,

Love Jaq xxx

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Kath!

The first time I ever experienced tumbleweeds was back in 1989 when I moved form Alaska to Washington State. My mother had lived on the plains and she knew what they were, but there are no tumbleweeds in Alaska. We were driving from Seattle which also has no tumbleweeds, it being an evergreen maritime climate like England, to Spokane, Washington on the far east side of the state. As we came down out of the mountains at Snowqualmie Pass and began crossing the high desert, the wind came up and I remember looking aghast and stating, "Mom! Trees are blowing across the road!" She laughed and replied, "Not trees, tumbleweeds!"

Thank you for your good wishes. I appreciate it. I am settling in to Oregon with my youngest daughter Shiery (aka Sparky), my daughter-in-law Kelli, and my foster daughter Mary.

Hugs to you and Neil,

Jaq xxx

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hello Bron,

Thank you so much for your lovely words which encourage me and thank you for continuing to follow along with me now that Les is gone and I no longer live on a boat.

Biggs big hugs,

Jaq xxx

Kath said...

Jaq, did you ever post a list of places that you planted Les’s daffodils? I can’t remember all of the places. We came through Fenny ‘tunnel’ this morning and saw two flowers blooming all on their own, none others anywhere around. I said hello, just in case.
Kath xx

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Kath,

How lovely of you to remember!! I did post and it is titled the Les Biggs Memorial Daffodil Trail. I posted it on April April 15th, 2019. The ones you aid hello to were not planted by me, but the sentiment is still deeply touching.

Love Jaq xxx

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs